On January 25, 1919, the delegates at the Paris Peace Conference—the lengthy and rather sordid affair that closed out the Great War—approved the creation of the League of Nations. By January 25, 1940, the world was at war again. Within twenty-one years of the League’s creation, Germany rearmed and began to dominate all of Europe, Italy was booted from the League for using chemical weapons, and Japan invaded Manchuria and later all of China.
The League was a revolutionary idea, the first international assembly convened with the express purpose of maintaining peace. It was the brainchild of Tory imperialists, namely Robert Cecil, later Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, and Jan Smuts, a South African who had led the British forces in Africa during the War. Cecil focused on establishing free trade; Smuts, ever a stalwart Afrikaner, sought to use the League to maintain global white supremacy.
The League was a revolutionary idea, the first international assembly convened with the express purpose of maintaining peace.
Woodrow Wilson, who had already cast off the long-standing American policy of isolation to enter the war, became an enthusiastic proponent of the League of Nations. He even included it as one of his ill-fated “Fourteen Points,” his framework for American negotiations at Paris. His overambitious and idealistic spirit of internationalism made him the pawn of vengeful statesmen like Georges Clemenceau, who was bent on using the League to disempower Germany.
Upon the League’s creation, Wilson boldly declared, “A living thing is born.”
The organization that Ezra Pound dismissed as “the League at Geneva” did not get off to an auspicious start. Against Wilson’s wishes, the United States famously declined to join, due in no small part to the efforts of the Republican Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge. From the start, the League was handicapped by the American absence, especially since the war made the United States the world’s largest creditor and a bona fide great power.
The negotiations in Paris around the winding down of the war led to cracks in the relations of the Entente Powers. Racial disputes surrounding the League of Nations charter alienated the delegation from Japan, a less-appreciated but significant wartime ally. Japan’s influence in Paris waned, and the nation retreated from international diplomacy. When Japan seized Manchuria in 1933, the League’s subsequent condemnation hastened Japan’s formal withdrawal from the organization.
Italy, like Japan another future Axis member, had been a loyal ally of the United Kingdom and France during the war (after its initial alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany). A diplomatic conflict in Paris surrounding Italy’s imperial ambitions in the Balkans ostracized the Italian delegation as well. Italy eventually withdrew in 1937 following the League’s opposition to its conquest of Abyssinia.
Around the same time, the then-Premier of Italy, Benito Mussolini, reportedly remarked, “The League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out.”
In Geneva, the Abyssinian Emperor Haile Selassie pleaded, “If a strong government finds that it can, with impunity, destroy a weak people, then the hour has struck for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give its judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment.”
The ineffectiveness of the League was evident as massive and devastating conflicts occurred around the world with little more than perfunctory condemnations and occasional sanctions. Even in its earliest days, the League could not reasonably resolve even minor territorial disputes, such as that between Germany and Poland regarding Upper Silesia in 1921–22.
Despite its historic faults, the League should not be viewed as a totally failed institution.
Despite its historic faults, the League should not be viewed as a totally failed institution. Directives enacted under the League still form the basis of international law enforcement, especially as they pertain to the trafficking of both drugs and humans. In the 1920s, the League helped hundreds of thousands of ex-POWs return home from prisons far afield in the wreckage of the Russian Empire. It also facilitated the transit of the large number of persons rendered stateless by the political rearrangement of Europe.
The League shaped European culture as well as politics in the interwar period. In the Roaring Twenties, the organization facilitated the so-called “spirit of Locarno”—named for the 1925 treaties that welcomed Germany into the League. It was an evanescent era of good feelings, when perpetual peace seemed to have been achieved through diplomacy and international cooperation. A transatlantic intelligentsia relished their swelling ranks, as Charles Lindbergh’s iconic 1927 flight from New York to Paris captivated millions. International exchange—as well as profitable trade—was becoming the norm of a peaceful world.
“Culture follows money,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said at the time. “We will be Romans in the next generation.”
Unfortunately, the money stopped flowing in 1929. The Great Depression spread from America after the stock market crash and the Tariff Act of 1930, and Europe felt it acutely. Nations whose economic growth was dependent on American loans saw their economic growth evaporate. Germany had relied on the America-led Dawes Plan to avoid total economic collapse in the early twenties, and now it faced ruin once again. The German depression empowered fringe “national socialists”—the Nazi Party and its leader Adolf Hitler.
In his drive to lead the German nation, Hitler rejected the diplomatic status quo, proclaiming, “It must be thoroughly understood that the lost land will never be won back by solemn appeals to God, nor by hopes in any League of Nations, but only by the force of arms.”
A century later, it is right and proper to reflect on the League of Nations’ failures and rare successes, as Americans and our English-speaking cousins ponder the value of international organizations. They have had some merit in resolving disputes, as the recent decline in the quantity of international conflicts shows, but there ought to be no illusions about the League or its successor, the United Nations. International cooperation, at least during peacetime, is about money. Just as the League could do nothing as the post–Great War financial order crumbled into dust, the United Nations could do little to mitigate the effects of the 2008 recession.
In discussions of (especially, recent) history, there is much said by historians about hindsight and counterfactual scenarios. What if the United States had lent its strength to the League’s success? What if the League had levied more effective sanctions and even executed military countermeasures? But in the end, these hypotheticals cannot change the past.
All that matters is that which occurred. Within thirty years from the League’s creation, tens of millions, both soldiers and civilians, were dead in a second great war.