Colonel House meets with British foreign secretary in London

On June 27, 1914, Colonel Edward House, close adviser to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, meets with Foreign Secretary Edward Grey of Britain, over lunch in London.

The meeting, part of a diplomatic tour of Europe that House made during the early summer of 1914, took place several weeks after House’s arrival in London, the previous June 9, after visiting Berlin, Germany, and Paris, France. The purpose of House’s trip was to persuade Germany and Britain to join with the United States in a diplomatic alliance in order to preserve peace, not only in Europe but in the world. House had long believed that, due to the mass amount of military and naval might the great powers of Europe had accumulated, they, along with America, could work together to prevent major wars. On his trip to Europe, he sought an agreement between Britain and Germany to limit the size of their respective navies and cease the naval build-up that had been occurring over the past decade, in order to preserve the tenuous balance of power and avoid major conflict between the two great power blocs that had lined up in Europe by 1914: France, Russia and Great Britain on one side, and Germany, Austria-Hungary and a tentative Italy on the other.

In Berlin, House had achieved his primary goal of the visit, a private audience with Kaiser Wilhelm II, which he was granted on June 1. As House recorded in his diary, the two men discussed “the European situation as it affected the Anglo-Saxon race.” The kaiser was of the opinion that Britain, Germany and the U.S.—as the best representatives of Christian civilization—were natural allies against the semi-barbarous Latin and Slavic nations (including France and Russia), but that all the Europeans should ally in defense of Western civilization “as against the Oriental races.” House worked to persuade Wilhelm that Britain would not seek to ally itself with Russia if Germany would cease the challenge to its naval power. Both men agreed that American moderation—from House, for example, or from Wilson himself—might aid in bringing the great European powers together.

House left Germany after promising the kaiser to attempt to secure Britain’s agreement to an American initiative. From Paris on June 3, he wrote to President Wilson that “both England and Germany have one feeling in common and that is fear of one another.” If the two nations could get together and work to solve their misunderstandings, House believed, future war in Europe could be averted.

The meeting with Grey on June 27 was arranged by Walter Hines Page, the U.S. ambassador to Britain. House and Grey discussed at length the tense political situation in Europe: France’s desire to take revenge on Germany for taking their territories of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871; Britain’s need to maintain good relations with Russia; and Germany’s aggressive naval program. House in turn warned Grey of “the militant war spirit in Germany and of the high tension of the people” that he had witnessed during his recent visit, and expressed his opinion that “the kaiser himself and most of his immediate advisors did not want war because they wished Germany to expand commercially and grow in wealth, but the army was military and aggressive and ready for war at any time.” Nonetheless, the two men both agreed, by the end of the meeting, that “Neither England, Germany, Russia, nor France desire war.”

Less than 24 hours later, however, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were killed by bullets fired at point-blank range by a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, during an official visit to Sarajevo, Bosnia. Vienna, like the rest of the world, blamed their upstart nemesis in the Balkans, Serbia, for the crime, and entreated Germany to stand behind it in the case of war with Serbia and its powerful ally, Russia. A stunned and outraged Kaiser Wilhelm gave this assurance, and by the end of July, Europe was at war.

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