Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series.
The guns of the Great War had finally fallen silent on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, but the shape of the peace was still in question. Texans had fought bravely during World War I, including leading officers and Medal of Honor recipients on the blood-stained fields of Europe. With the war at a close, Texans would again play a major role, this time in crafting the peace. Two noted Texas figures, Edward House and Sidney Mezes, would serve on the peace delegation in France to craft the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the war now one hundred years ago.
Edward M. House, an Austin resident affectionately called “colonel” though he had no military experience, came from a wealthy Texas family. He was born in 1858. His father was a banker and sugar baron from Houston. The family spent many days at their beach home in Galveston and took extended vacations to Europe. House became a political power broker and helped direct the gubernatorial campaign of Jim Hogg in 1892, for which the grateful Hogg made House an honorary lieutenant colonel in the state militia. In Wilson’s 1912 campaign for the presidency, House became a trusted advisor and close friend.
Sidney Edward Mezes, born in California in 1863, was the son of immigrants, with a mother from Italy and a father from Spain. He had learned about European history and culture firsthand from his family and extensive travel in Europe as a young man. He held a doctorate from Harvard. Mezes came to Austin to teach philosophy at the University of Texas in 1894. A respected figure on campus, from 1908 until 1914, Mezes served as president of the university, helping the young university to grow in enrollments and academic reputation. Mezes already knew House well – he had married House’s sister-in-law in 1896.
Almost from the beginning of World War I in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson sought to broker a peace in Europe. House had traveled from government to government to attempt to open peace talks. And almost up until the point the United States entered the war in 1917, Wilson kept trying to end the fighting. When war broke out, Wilson set up a special commission to help shape the peace at the end.
By the time that war broke out, Mezes was serving as president of the City College of New York. In September 1917, House and Mezes directed a group of 150 scholars to study the possible conditions for postwar peace and negotiations, a group known simply as “The Inquiry.” The group would meet periodically until early 1919 at the offices of the American Geographic Society and the New York Public Library. Wilson chose economists, law professors, and historians – experts in international trade, military affairs, colonial history, the Middle East, West Asia, and Europe — to pinpoint the historic developments of the warring states and provide the necessary information needed to construct a lasting peace.
House had represented America at the Inter-Allied War Council in Paris in late 1917. With Wilson’s support, House pushed for a unified statement that the Allies were not fighting for reparations or revenge but was rebuffed. In January 1918, House helped Wilson compose what became the Fourteen Points, which he unveiled to the nation in a speech later that month. The Fourteen Points became a controversial symbol of Wilson’s global peace. The document called for self-determination for the conquered peoples of the Central Powers the Allies were fighting, lower international tariffs, global reductions of armaments, an independent Poland, break-up of the colonial system, the creation of the League of Nations, and freedom of the seas for all nations.
After the November 1918 armistice, the Allies chose the old French royal palace of Versailles, just outside Paris, to conduct the negotiations. Wilson chose 21 members of this group to accompany him to Paris in January 1919 to negotiate the terms of the peace, including Mezes and House. Mezes would play a quieter role in Paris, but his power of analysis was a great aid to Wilson. House once again became one of Wilson’s most important point men in relaying ideas and proposals between the different delegations. More than 110,000 Americans died during the war, and Mezes and House agreed with Wilson that building a new spirit of cooperation among the world’s nations was their best chance to avoid another such war. In spite of their initial optimism, however, their efforts would fall apart.
Special Note: Happy Birthday, Toby! Love, Dad.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.