George D. Herron to Woodrow Wilson




Famous minister writes to President Wilson about the pope's views on a League of Nations.


Library of Congress, Woodrow Wilson Papers


Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum



WWI1112, WWI1112A




Document scan was taken from Library of Congress microfilm reel of the Wilson Papers. WWPL volunteers transcribed the text.



Hugh R. Wilson, Esq.,
Secretary of the American legation,

Dear Mr. Wilson:

This memorandum has to do with a conversation which was not only unexpected, but, so far as I am concerned, profoundly undesirable.

I have hesitated, and still hesitate, to put before you, for such transmission as you deem proper, the question to which the conversation leads. As you will see, the question is: “If the Pope asks the President to establish the Society of Nations, will the President respond (a) favorably, (b) unfavorably, or (c) find the acceptable way of telling the Pope to keep out?” And have Catholic leaders or emissaries any right to ask for advance knowledge or intimation as to what the President would do, in the event of such Papal procedure?

But perhaps I should tell how the question came--giving, as nearly as I can recall, its evolution.

Of course my personal opinions, as expressed to the two gentlemen who sought the interview, can have no interest to the State Department. Yet I must report all that took place, in order to present the final and crucial question in its true setting.

On Thursday, June the 27th, I received a telegram from Professor Stephen Bauer, of the University of Bale, and also Secretary of the International Bureau for Labor Legislation, requesting me to meet him at Lausanne the next morning on “a matter of great importance.” I could not even guess what was wanted; but I knew Professor Bauer to be a careful as well as much-occupied man, so decided that there must be good reason for so imperative a summons.

If I had known beforehand what the nature of the meeting was to be, I should not have gone; and even now I would wish not to put the question that concludes this memorandum. The chief value accruing from the interview,--if my account of it has a value,--is in the fact that it is an incident of the present dangerous activity of the Catholic Hierarchy in the direction of peace.

When I arrived at the appointed place, I found Professor Bauer accompanied by Dr. Feigenwinter, Nationalrat, and political leader of the Catholic Church in Switzerland. The conversation began in so general a way,--Dr. Feigenwinter seeming to assume that it was I who desired the interview,--that I was puzzled, for a time, to know why I had been sent for. It came out, however, that he had lately come from the new Papal Nuncio to Switzerland, with whom he is in intimate contact, and for whom he appeared to be preparing the way for a future conversation with myself.

Dr. Feigenwinter began by producing a copy of “La Liberte,” the daily journal of Fribourg, where immense Catholic and Jesuit activities are now centered, and whence they are now reaching out through all Europe. He called my attention to a long article in criticism of my alleged hostility to the Pope,--or rather to the Pope’s attitude toward the war,--in my little book of a year ago, “The Menace of Peace.” He said that the view expressed in that book had produced a painful impression upon Catholics in general, and was a cause of sorrow at Rome. He wished to know if I had to any extent modified my views since then, and would I write a reply to the article in “La Liberte,” using some conciliatory expressions toward the Holy See.

Not knowing whither the conversation was leading, and becoming uneasy as to its antecedent motive, I felt that I must make clear beyond any question or doubt my purely personal capacity. I did not know, I stated, in what capacity Dr. Feigenwinter had come to me; but he must clearly understand that this conversation, so far as I was concerned, was merely an incidental exchange of individual views between two private gentlemen. I could neither speak nor listen to him with any thought in his mind that I represented anybody but myself, or that I was acting in any capacity that could be considered even officieux, much less official. There must be no misunderstanding, on his part, that any response I might make would be in the nature of sheer personal opinion, without any shadow of exterior authority behind it. I did not know the opinion of the American Government, nor of a single member of that government, nor of a single member of the American Legation in Bern, concerning the participation of the Pope or the Catholic Church in the problems of this war and the ensuing problems of peace.

Dr. Feigenwinter having agreed to this understanding, I proceeded to say that, so far as my observation of the course of the Pope’s political actions went, I personally saw no reason for holding any other view of them than the one he deplored. As clearly and courteously as I was able to do so, I explained to him how it came that every Papal participation in the war--as well as every non-participation--had appeared, in the eyes of the peoples of the Allied countries, to place the Vatican on the side of the Central Powers. Whether it were deservedly so or not, it was no less a fact that the influence of the Catholic Hierarchy had thereby steadily diminished in the Allied countries, since the beginning of the war, and had steadily increased in the Central Empires. The Vatican had not only lost, it was still loosing, the spiritual respect of the nations at war with the autocratic governments and the autocratic principle.

I gave him different instances of this decreasing influence. I quoted to him a very serious and able editorial in a recent number of the “London Times.” I told him of one of the best French bishops, and of many French priests, now favoring the establishment of a French National Church at the end of the war. I explained to him what a shock it was to the moral sense of mankind that, when the Allies had graciously acceded to the Pope’s request to suspend attack upon Cologne of the day of Corpus Christi, and when the German armies then proceeded to fire upon Paris upon the very day and hour of the unhindered Cologne procession, this unimaginable moral treachery and barbarity brought forth not one word of Papal rebuke to Germany.

I assured him that this decay of Papal influence was not due to any hostility to the Catholic Church in itself, but due to the political conduct of the Papacy since the war began. In the first place, the mere profession of neutrality on the part of the Holy Father had been an offense to French and Anglo-Saxon mankind, to say nothing of Belgium. The peoples could not regard the Pope as an international politician, balancing the interests of one nation against another: they looked to him as a spiritual authority--as a power joining issue with world-wrong in its assault upon world-right. When a great conflict like the present war upon the world; when it began with the most shameless and cynical violation of a sacred treaty, with the invasion of a small and unoffending nation by a great military empire; then for him who calls himself the Shepherd of the Peoples, who is officially named the Viceroy of God, to refuse to take sides, to be absolutely silent about incredible and universal wrong, and all for the sake of his political interest,--this seemed to the Allied peoples to be an abdication, on the part of the Pope, of his spiritual office, indeed of the Holy See’s reason for being. And, in the next place, even the profession of neutrality had not been real. Every exercise of the Papal power, since the beginning of the war, had been, as I had already declared, on behalf of the Central Empires nor once on behalf of the Allies.

I stated that I personally deplored the situation in which the Pope found himself. Not in the whole history of the Papacy had there been set before a Pope such an opportunity for a real shepherdship of the world. If, at the moment that the war began, the Pope had proclaimed the sacredness of treaties, and the wickedness of the destruction of weak nations by the powerful the whole world would have rejoiced in such a shepherdship; the church would have wielded an power which no conceivable political advantage could place in its hands. I, and thousands like me, who find no satisfactory churchly home and yet who above all else are believers in the final and literal establishment of the Kingdom of Christ, might have run as if upon wings into the fold of the Church if the Pope had taken this stand.

To all this I received only the most sophistical and indeed juggling of answers. One was the statement that the German Catholics had always been true internationalists, and had been always ready to obey the Holy Father, while the French had always been nationalists, had always been disobedient, even in ancient times but especially since the time of Lammenais. And the excuse for Cologne and Paris was, that the procession of Corpus Christi took place in Cologne on Friday--the Friday on which the Allies abstained from attack--but that it was other religious processions than Corpus Christi which took place in Paris, Corpus Christi coming later, on Sunday. Besides, the French had not asked the Pope to intervene on their behalf and the Germans had.

After advancing, for a considerable time, this quality of defence of the Pope as an internationalist, Dr. Feigenwinter came at last to the real point of the interview: Could I personally ascertain if the American Government either desired or would be willing to enter into diplomatic conversations with the Vatican concerning questions of peace? It would not do for the Pope to suffer the humiliation of making such advances, unless he had some assurance beforehand that they would be favorably met. I naturally stated that I possessed absolutely no information upon this subject, nor could even inform him if information could be obtained. It seemed to me that the way to such information would be for the Vatican to proceed through the American Embassy in Rome. But Dr. Feigenwinter replied that before any official inquiry could be made, the Vatican must have some personal assurance upon the subject but assurances that would be certain and authoritative. He then argued, for awhile, that the American Legation in Bern, or the American Embassy in Bern, should take steps to inquire if the Vatican was ready to enter into conversation with the American Government on the subject of peace. It was the American Government, not the Vatican, that should make the initial inquiry.

I then raised the question as to why the Pope, if he wished to set himself and the Church in a better light before the Allied peoples, did not declare to the world his indorsement of the Society of Nations according to the program of President Wilson. He could do this by addressing the President directly. As the Shepherd of the Peoples, he could ask the President to call for the immediate establishment of this Society. And here, I think, I came upon the core of the whole interview - not the Society of Nations per se, but the recognition in a political manner of Papal spiritual supremacy.

Dr. Feigenwinter wishes to know,--and I suppose he is making this inquiry on behalf of Rome,--indeed he stated distinctly that he would make further inquiry of Rome,--if there is any way of ascertaining what the President would do in case the Pope should appeal to him to call for the immediate or early establishment of the Society of Nations--the Pope also calling upon the nations to lay down their arms and unreservedly submit all questions regarding the war to the tribunal of that Society.

It is possible, indeed, that the question of how the Pope should intervene might have taken some other form if I had not anticipated the conclusion with my own question. But it would have been only as to form: the question of the attitude of the American President to Papal intervention for peace would have risen as the reason for and conclusion of the interview. But since the question has been raised, I do not feel like taking upon myself the responsibility of refusing to transmit it to you. If you think best to transmit it to the State Department, and if it should be that this question comes before the President, I should certainly accompany it with a prayer that his answer be negative, or that he make no answer at all.

On reflection, I think I should regard it as one of the greatest calamities of history if it should turn out that the Society of Nations were to receive its realising impulse from the Pope--that is, if the result of this were the presence of the Vatican at the Peace Table, and the restoration of a measure of Papal political power. If one could conceive of anything so miraculous as a disinterested appeal of the Pope to the President,--to the Pope acting purely in his capacity as “Pastor of the World,”--without official calculations or political demands,--then one might welcome his appeal as an impulse creative of the Society of Nations. But history warrants no expectation of such a miracle--especially the history of the last four years.

I would like to make three or four observations in closing.
I. It may be that both Dr. Feigenwinter and myself were being used for an end that either of us were quite aware of; and this notwithstanding the fact that he is the political leader of the Swiss Clericals, and that he is a stalwart and brainy man, apparently well able to take care of himself and to know what he is about. On the other hand, a far cleverer man than either the Catholic leader or myself is Professor Stephen Bauer--the one who brought about the interview. Ever since it took place, I have been puzzling myself over three or four phases of it which I could not then understand. And one of these is the apparent assumption of Dr. Feigenwinter that the appointment was at least partly due to some expressed desire of mine. I think, on reflection, that it is quite possible, even probable, that Professor Bauer made us each think the interview was of the other’s seeking. Professor Bauer is very much a man of the world: He has travelled the world over, has lectured in the principal American universities, and is a finished cosmopolitan gentleman, with a wide circle of acquaintance. But he is no less a Viennese, even after twenty-five year at the University of Bale; and no less a persistent Catholic, with Jesuit antecedents and training, even though his father was a Jew. He is in close relations with leading Catholic personalities, and showed me a somewhat lengthy letter from the present Pope to himself, written before his election to the Papacy in the Pope’s own handwriting, concerning questions of labor legislation. And I am convinced that Professor Bauer is an active (though honorable from the Papal point of view) principal of a veiled propaganda to procure the presence of the Pope or his representative at the Table of Peace. I think this is probably the motive behind his recent persistent and persuasive cultivation of my company.

II. The Catholic efforts to procure a peace that shall be favorable to Germany are now pervading Switzerland, and are marching through France and England as well. A large number of German priests have visited, and continue to visit, the French-Swiss priests of both the City and the Canton of Geneva, seeking to persuade French-Swiss Catholics to pacifist opinions and measures. Fribourg and Einsiedeln are each becoming a small Rome. Prince von Bulow visits Einsiedeln regularly, sometimes twice a week, and German Catholic activities go out from there in every direction. Fribourg has become the popular center of German and Jesuit activities which are designed for the Latin and Anglo-Saxon nations. The pacifist propaganda of Switzerland is passing largely into the hands of these Fribourg leaders, who are continuously in telegraphic communication with Chancellor Hertling.

III. The initiative of the Pope in the direction of the Society of Nations, if such initiative should be taken by him, would have only what would be an essentially false motive. It would not be the Society of Nations in itself the Pope would be caring about; it would not be for the creation of a democratic and righteous peace he would be laboring; it would not be the realisation of an actual kingdom of heaven among men that would concern him; his motive would be the rehabilitation of the influence and authority of the Catholic Papacy among the nations at war with the Central Powers.

IV. Finally, what to me is the most menacing and outstanding fact of the increasing international Catholic activity in Switzerland is this: The Vatican is watching and preparing for the psychological moment wherein to snatch the initiative of the Society of Nations from President Wilson, and to use this initiative for the glory of the Church, for Papal rehabilitation, and for the salvation of the Central Empires. I am persuaded, too, from remarks which passed between Dr. Feigenwinter and Professor Bauer, as well as from activities now proceeding from Fribourg, that there is some secret understanding about this initiative between Germany and the Vatican. If the Vatican can take the initiative in this great matter, Germany and Austria will instantly give an affirmative response, thereby placing the Allied governments in a position of extreme embarassement, and at the same time tending to create an uprising among the Allied peoples against their governments--against the continuation of the war. This is a subject that I intend to investigate further; but even as far as I have gone, I am convinced it is a possibility that ought to have the instant and urgent consideration of the President and our government.

Respectfully submitting the above, I remain,
Faithfully Yours,

George D. Herron

Original Format





Herron, George Davis, 1862-1925, “George D. Herron to Woodrow Wilson,” 1918 July 1, WWP25104, World War I Letters, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum, Staunton, Virginia.