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The League of Nations

The League of Nations was an international association for the furtherance of cooperation among nations, the settlement of international disputes, and the preservation of the peace formed after the first World War.

The League was a direct result of the first World War, its Covenant or articles of organization being incorporated in the Treaty of Versailles, which went into effect in January, 1920. The idea of such an international organization had long been the dream of European philosophers and statesmen. Several plans were put forward, notably those of Grotius and Czar Alexander I of Russia. There had been no practical efforts at international cooperation prior to the 19th century when the Postal Union and The Hague Conferences were established. The outbreak of World War I led many statesmen to seek an method of settling international disputes without resort to bloodshed. The establishment of a league of peace was one of the war aims of Great Britain; similar organizations were advocated by such people as L.V.A Bourgeois of France, Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, and General Jan Smuts of South Africa. In 1918 Smuts published League of Nations: a Practical Suggestion; the plans he outlined in this work became part of the basis of the actual League.

Upon entry of the United States into the first World War, proposals for the establishment of an international organization to secure peace found powerful support in President Woodrow Wilson. On January 8, 1918, a provision for a “general association of nations….under specific covenants” was included in his famous “Fourteen Points”, which set forth as a peace program for the warring nations. In subsequent messages Wilson emphasized the necessity of erecting a definite tribunal of opinion to which all must submit. He also stated that there should be no special alliances within the central body of international regulation.

The Covenant of the League was drawn up by a special commission of the Peace Conference, appointed on January 20, 1919. Wilson was the chairman, and among the commission’s members were Bourgeois, Smuts, and Viscount Cecil. The first draft was based on the joint proposals of the British and American delegations; this was submitted to the Conference and then amended to satisfy criticisms made by the Conference, neutral nations, and other bodies. The final draft of the Covenant was approved by the Peace Conference on April 28, 1919. At Wilson’s insistence it was made Part I of the peace treaties between the Allied powers and Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria. When the Treaty of Versailles went into effect in January 1920, the League entered upon its formal existence, although some preliminary organization had been undertaken by the secretary general by the authorization of a committee of the nations at the Conference. Twenty nine of the Allied powers ratified the Peace Treaties and thus became original members of the League of Nations. Only the United States, Hejaz, and Ecuador failed to sign the Treaties. According to the Covenant, other powers were allowed to join, and in 1920, thirteen neutral nations became members of the League also. Its aims seemed to obtain general acceptance, and the League of Nations was the foundation of the new peace in the minds of many.

It received particularly strong support in some sections of English life. But it soon became evident that a certain group of United States Senators was opposed to the League, especially Senators Henry Cabot Lodge, William E. Borah, and Hiram Johnson. All American treaties, though promulgated by the President, must be ratified by the Senate of the United States by a two thirds majority. An able group of senators, led by the above opponents of the treaty, owing to the inclusion of the League within its structure, carried on a bitter fight against President Wilson and the League.

The great alarm felt by these senators was created by Article X of the Covenant which read as follows: “Article X. The Members of the League undertake to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League. In case of any such aggression or in case of any threat or danger of such aggression the Council shall advise upon the means by which this obligation shall be fulfilled.” This article, it was claimed, “threw away” the sovereignty of the United States, violated Washington’s last message to Congress to keep free from foreign entanglements, and would forever involve the US in foreign wars to protect the territories of other actions.

These arguments aroused the Americans, and many began to wonder to what extent the League might keep the US involved in international disputes and wars.

The signatory nations to the Treaty all ratified it, which meant acceptance of the League. Mr. Wilson, seeing a change of sentiment, began a speaking tour of the country to restore sentiment in favor of the League. He was successful in arousing the people of the Pacific Coast to his support. But the strain of the tour was too much for the President and he collapsed at Wichita, Kansas, on September 26, 1919.

There were some attempts at a compromise on Article X by President Wilson and his opponents, and certain reservations were voted on against President Wilson’s wishes. After two votes on November 13 and November 19, in which the Democrats, on Mr. Wilson’s advice, did not vote, the opponents of the League voted for ratification of the Treaty with reservations, but failed to carry the resolution. President Wilson was incompetent through illness to lead the Democratic part, and, as he had no lieutenant capable of taking his place, the championship for the League became weak. Finally, on March 20, 1920, a resolution of ratification was presented and again President Wilson advised the Democratic senators not to vote for it; consequently the resolution was lost by a vote of 57-37. In the general election of the following November, Wilson appealed to the people to support the League. The result of the election, which was fought chiefly on the League, was an overwhelming Republican victory. This was taken as the death knell of the League in America – and so it was.

It was said abroad that the failure of the US to enter the League weakened it from its very inception.

Article XIV provided for “A Permanent Court of International Justice,” which was set up at The Hague, Holland. The United States opposed the Court, but in 1926 voted to join it, with certain reservations. These were not accepted; the United States was therefore not a member, although there was an American judge on the Court. There was violent opposition in the US also to Article XVI of the League which provided for imposing financial, economic, and commercial restrictions on a covenant breaking member, and for the raising by ratios from League members of military, naval and air forces to be used against a covenant breaking member. This article, it was said, might take away the sovereignty of the US in the control of its armed forces.

Organized in 1919, with Geneva, Switzerland, as its headquarters, the League was composed of a Council and an Assembly. The Council consisted of five permanent members, the British Empire, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, and later, of Great Britain, France, Italy, the USSR, and ten non permanent members elected annually by the Assembly, which represented all members. Funds for support of the League and its secretariat, the administrative office, were contributed by member nations.

Many vexing problems were brought before the League. Some, such as the 1920-21 dispute between Sweden and Finland over the Aland Islands, and the problem of the invasion of Albania by Yugoslavia, were well handled. Other problems, such as the quarrel between Poland and Lithuania over the city of Vilna, and the Manchurian situation, which resulted in the establishment of the state of Manchuko, and eventually in the resignation of Japan in 1933, were not satisfactorily settled. In 1935 the Saar plebiscite, which was decided in favor of Germany, was conducted by the League.

A major aim of the League was to bring about gradual disarmament. Under the chairmanship of Arthur Henderson of Great Britain, a World Disarmament Conference was planned for 1932-33. He was a zealous worker for world peace. But after many delays and no accomplishments, Henderson and others became discouraged. He died in 1935 and the Conference faded out of the European picture. The armament race began again in earnest with the result that in 1936 and 1937 huge preparedness programs involving fabulous sums of money were launched.

The real testing of the League came in connection with the Italian-Ethiopian War. Italy and Ethiopia were both members of the League in 1935 when the war started without any reference to the League for final arbitration of the matters in dispute. Italy was adjudged the covenant breaking party, and Article XVI invoking sanctions was voted by 52 nations under the leadership of Great Britain and France. Italy carried on the war, conquered Ethiopia, and made it part of the new Italian Empire. Sanctions were abandoned in July.

The failure of the League to halt the war in Ethiopia led to a serious decline in the prestige, and eight nations withdrew in the next three years. The withdrawal of the Anti-Comintern bloc (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and its satellites left the League the organ of one group of powers only. Nations began to resort increasingly to agreements made outside the League, such as the non intervention pact during the Spanish Civil War. No appeals were made to the League during the Austrian and Czecho-Slovakian crises in 1938, and its only action was the passage of a resolution deprecating recourse to war. In 1939 the League was disregarded during the German absorption of Czechoslovakia, and in the crisis that led to war between the Axis powers and Great Britain and France. In December, however, the League expelled the USSR for failure to halt its invasion of Finland.

The spread of the second World War dealt a staggering blow to the already weakened League. During the rapid occupation of most of Europe by the German armies, the League’s documents were rushed first to Vichy, France, then back to Geneva, then to America (Princeton University) and Canada. Explaining to member states that the necessity of his office had been nullified by the “realities” of the war situation, Secretary General Joseph retired. Most of the staff also resigned.

In less spectacular, non political questions, the League had considerable influence, such as in its fight against the drug and white slave traffics, repatriation of prisoners of war, and the operation of the International Labor Office. It also made some important studies of technical, international, social, and economic problems. The preservation of these non political and humanitarian activities was undertaken by an American committee formed in the summer of 1940. In a broadcast that year Albert Einstein, the physicist, expressed the hopes of many prominent statesmen when he said, “Wilson’s work in my opinion will be recreated in a more powerful form… A federal organization of the nations of the world is not only possible, but even an absolute necessity, if the conditions on our planet are not to become unbearable for men.” Shortly after the end of World War II, the United Nations was formed.


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