It’s March 1920 it seemed President Woodrow Wilson had secured his legacy with the creation of the League of Nations to preserve global peace. The US Senate, however, had other ideas.
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Hi, I’m Jesse Alexander and welcome to the Great War. As 1920 began, it seemed to many that despite the horror and suffering of the First World War, the conflict had ended the old era of imperial competition and war. Now, a new age was about to begin, represented by the political vision of US President Woodrow Wilson and his dream of a new world order based on peaceful relations between states. Central to this new order was the League of Nations, an international organisation he hoped would ensure peace and justice for all. But not everyone shared Wilson’s vision, including many of his own countrymen, and this crisis would come to a head in early 1920. So, let’s look at the League of Nations and the important decision America made in March 1920, exactly 100 years ago.
The 14 POINTS
Wilson first laid out his vision for post-war society in his 14 points in January 1918. At that time, the Great Powers of Europe were stuck in an exhausting and destructive struggle, and Russia was shattered by revolution. The United States, which was fighting on the Allied side, was seen by many as untainted by the old imperial ways, and, supported by its immense wealth, in a position to assume the moral leadership the old powers could not. Wilson was a deeply religious man, and felt America could become the embodiment of ‘Christian charity’ and good governance for the world - the proverbial ‘City on the Hill’. The 14 points were to be the inspiration for a new set of international principles which could preserve peace for future generations.
When Wilson announced the 14 points, he was careful to set the US and its war goals apart from other states. He reiterated that the US had entered the conflict for seemingly altruistic reasons:
“We entered this war because violations of right had occurred which touched us to the quick and made the life of our own people impossible unless they were corrected and the world secured once for all against their recurrence. What we demand in this war, therefore, is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in [...]” (Wilson’s 14 Points)
It would be his last point, however, that would perhaps become his defining legacy as an international statesman - for better and for worse:
“A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” (Link, 536)
So when the armistice was signed in November 1918, Wilson’s system of international governance based on the League of Nations would take centre stage. The League, Wilson claimed, would end the scourge of war and replace it with mutual defence, respect, and rule of law between states.
BIRTH OF LEAGUE
There had been international organization before, but the League of Nations would be different. It would not be controlled or influenced by one state, but would instead function as a collective of all states, both big and small. The League would also create an international court to make and enforce decisions - something the Hague Conventions had failed to do.
Wilson’s ideas seemed to be well received, especially in war weary Europe, where his proposals were interpreted in many ways. In February 1919, Wilson delivered his draft of the Covenant of the League of Nations at the Paris Peace Conference.
The Covenant, a word with religious connotations, laid out the role and expectations of the League and its members. War was not outlawed, but it had to be the last resort. The idea was that states in a dispute would come to the League Council or Permanent Court of International Justice for arbitration and a ruling. Also, the League would oversee reductions in armaments to help create the conditions for lasting peace. New states were created from areas formerly under the control of the in Central and Eastern Europe, while German colonies in Africa and parts of the Ottoman Empire would fall under the League’s mandate system.
On June 28th 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, which included the Covenant of the League of Nations. 32 states, the so-called original members - signed the Covenant, while an additional 13 joined within two months. British civil servant Sir James Eric Drummond became the League’s First Secretary General. Although the original members included most of the world's great powers, Germany and Russia were not part of the League.
And so, the League of Nations would become a reality when the treaty came into force in January 1920. But to effectively manage global interstate relations, the League would have to become an administrative and bureaucratic powerhouse.
The League of Nations was organized into three main constitutional organs: The Permanent Secretariat, the Assembly, and the Council. All three would be based in Geneva, in neutral Switzerland.
The Secretariat was made up of experts and acted as a sort of civil service to run the administration of the League.
The Assembly was the focal point of the League, and consisted of up to three delegates from each state. All states were equal and could cast a single vote on Assembly matters. The League of Nations operated by a system of consent and not majority rule, and all votes had to be unanimous to pass. There were some exceptions to this rule, like the admission of new members, and the consent of disputing parties was not required for an Assembly vote to pass.
The Council was the executive body and met four times a year, when it would discuss inter-state disputes. Originally, Britain wanted a Council consisting only of the victorious Great Powers from the war, but resistance from smaller states led to a compromise in which the great powers would be joined by four non-permanent members on a three year rotation. Like the Assembly, votes had to be unanimous, although each permanent member also had a veto. Once a decision was made in a dispute, the Council could hand out punishments, from moral condemnation, to economic sanctions, and ultimately to military action.
In addition to these three bodies, the League also included the Permanent Court of International Justice and the International Labor Organization. The Court ruled on legal decisions and gave legal advice. The Labor Organization was an independent organization of employers and worker associations from member states, but not state governments themselves.
The League’s mandates were an important part of its work in 1920. Mandates were former imperial possessions, mostly of Germany and the Ottoman Empire, which would now fall under the administration of the League. There were three classes of mandate. Class A, the most advanced, was reserved for former Ottoman Provinces. Class B was for so-called more developed German African colonies in Africa, while class C was for what the League considered less developed colonies in Africa and the Pacific. From the beginning, there was confusion how exactly mandates would work, and what degree of freedom those territories would enjoy. The heavy-handed involvement of Britain and France British and French involvement in their creation raised suspicion that mandates would essentially become colonies by another name.
So the League of Nations was in being, but its success would depend on the political will of its member states. Because of Wilson’s role in creating the League, the US would be the most important member – but the US Senate was opposed to membership.
After the Treaty of Versailles had been signed, the governments of the signatory countries still had to ratify the treaty before it could, and the League of Nations, could come into force. This would prove to be a major problem in the US. To ratify the treaty, Congress needed to give a two thirds majority, which meant that it would be relatively easy to take the country out of its own President’s creation.
US opposition to the Treaty and the League came from two groups: the “Reservationists” and the “Irreconcilables”. The Reservationists were led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a Republican and fierce critic of Wilson. They included senators from both parties, and supported the idea of a League of Nations, but with major modifications. Their list of 14 reservations was aimed at increasing US autonomy within the League, and to remove some key obligations, especially article 10 of the Covenant:
To the Reservationists, this article meant the League might force the US to declare war against another country, even if Congress opposed it, which Lodge felt was unacceptable. The Reservationists had similar issues with other articles dealing with foreign and economic policy.
The Irreconcilables were a smaller group, which included Senators from both parties and was led by Republican William Borah. They opposed the Treaty and the League in any form.
The combined strength of the Reservationists and Irreconcilables had the potential to stop the ratification of the treaty. Even so, Wilson was loath to make any changes to the League charter – instead, he toured the country to before the first vote to drum up public support:
“For, I tell you, my fellow citizens, I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.” (Baker 35)
And the public was broadly in favor of Wilson’s idea: according to newspaper surveys, most Americans, except Irish Catholics and German Americans, supported the League of Nations and Treaty of Versailles. But Lodge continued to attack the President in the senate:
“We hear much of visions [...] But visions are one thing and visionaries are another, and the mechanical appliances of the rhetorician [...] are as unreal and short lived as the steam or canvas clouds, the angels suspended on wires and the artificial lights of the stage. They pass with the moment of effect and are shabby and tawdry in the daylight.” (Dorsey 115)
So the public was mostly in favor of the League, but there was serious opposition in the senate. The strength of Wilson’s case was also weakened after he suffered a serious stroke in October 1919 - and this gave his opponents the chance to take action.
Now at first, Lodge had purposely delayed the vote to buy time to get more senators on his side. However, frustrated by delay and inaction, senators voted - for the first time in history - to invoke ‘cloture’ on November 15th, 1919 - a process designed to end deadlocked debate and proceed to a quick vote.
Four days later, Senator Lodge presented his Reservationist resolution, which consented to joining the League of Nations but only if it was adjusted in accordance with his demands. Supporters of an unchanged League joined with the Irreconcilables, who didn’t want the League at all, to defeat the Reservations motion. The senate then voted again, this time on Wilson’s proposal to join the League as it was, with no changes. Now the Reservationists and Irreconcilables voted together to defeat the motion.
So Wilson had been defeated, and with his health continuing to decline there appeared to be little he could do to turn things around by the time of the final vote on the ratification of a revised treaty in March 1920. Some of Wilson’s supporters joined the Reservationists, but the resolution was seven votes shy of the two thirds majority. The United States would not ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League of Nations. The New York Times reported:
“After the session ended senators of both parties united in declaring that in their opinion the treaty was now dead to stay dead.” (New York Times)
Wilson’s defeat and the failure to ratify his charter has often been seen as a victory for US isolationism. But did the US really want to close itself off from the rest of the world?
Isolationism certainly did play a part in the debate, and some senators strongly favored it. But there weren’t that many of them, only a third of the Irreconcilables. Even amongst isolationists, there were differences of opinion. Some wanted US involvement in international affairs, but only in the form of a British/French alliance, while others wanted a kind of League of Nations, just not Wilson’s version – often because of political rivalries.
The same is true for the Reservationists. Many still felt America should play a role in the post-war world, but only on its own terms. Lodge, in particular, was not adverse to alliances, as long as they didn’t become “entangling”. He was not against League obligations, but was concerned that no nation would submit to the judgement of others:
“I know the difficulties which arise when we speak of anything which seems to involve an alliance, but I do not believe that when Washington warned us against entangling alliances he meant for one moment that we should not join with the other civilized nations of the world if a method could be found to diminish war and encourage peace.” (Cox p. 249)
So, generally speaking, even most senators opposed to the League of Nations were not strong isolationists. They felt America should play an international role, but only insofar as it benefited America and only at times of its own choosing. This attitude was reinforced by America’s exploding wealth, which meant it could stand alone more than others, and a growing sense of American exceptionalism.
In fact, American diplomats and politicians - including the isolationist Borah - would be heavily involved in post-war international agreements, like the Washington Naval Conference and financial deals with European governments to pay back war debts. In this sense, America still played a major role in international affairs, but mostly through the use of diplomatic and economic ‘soft power’, as opposed to military ‘hard power’.
So American foreign policy was more complex than simple isolationism, but it nonetheless rejected the League. But let’s take a look at how the other Powers looked at the League.
Like the US, the British Government appeared to view the League of Nations with a degree of cynicism, and the American vote against the League was viewed sympathetically by some British politicians. A Round Table article in 1920 discussed this similarity:
“The public opinion which has made itself manifest in the United States in this connection is not very different in reality from ours… First, we wish to do our utmost to guarantee peace, liberty, and law throughout the world without committing ourselves to quixotic obligations to foreign states. Second, we wish to assist and develop the simpler mechanism… of the League without mortgaging our freedom of action and judgement…” (Advocate of Peace)
Some Brits were concerned about their empire. The recognition of the British Dominions as member states, for example, might mean that young nations like Canada and Australia might take on responsibilities in excess of their abilities. And they worried that Wilson’s idea of self-determination might one day be applied to British colonies.
Generally, however, the British public was tired of the war, and appeared to support the League, which meant the League was a hot topic in Lloyd George’s reelection campaign in 1918. But although Lloyd George would later celebrate the League in his memoirs - and take credit for its creation – all might not have been as it seemed. Some historians have argued that he and Clemenceau joined together at the Peace Conference to reign in Wilson’s ambitions, and take control of the League mandates discussions. Eventually, Lloyd George would be quit critical:
“The League, I am sorry to say, is a humbug and a sham.” (Riddell 289)
Clemenceau held similar reservations, although he was supportive of self-determination in Europe if it was at the expense of Germany. He was also concerned about the League’s role in determining Germany’s future - he felt France should have the final say.
Outside of Europe, Japan was eager to join the League. Becoming a permanent member of the council was seen as a means to achieve Great Power status, especially if it formalized Japanese control of former German possessions in China. However, Japan played a limited role in creating the League at the Peace Conference, which earned them the nickname “silent partners of peace”. (Burkman 45)
Smaller states like Belgium were also cautious about the League. The Belgians had their demands for Dutch territory rejected by Britain and France, and now suspected that the League would simply be dominated by Great Powers that did not respect smaller countries. All states were supposed to equal members of the League, and this did apply for the Assembly. But countries like Argentina, Brazil and Spain, who had joined the League to punch above their weight, became critical of the lack of voice for smaller states – in particular in the Council, which held the executive power.
So even though the League of Nations benefitted from general optimism when it was created, it was not universally popular, even outside the US. The failure of the US to ratify the League has traditionally been seen as dooming the League before it had even begun. In hindsight, it is clear the League did not achieve its ultimate goal of ending interstate war – but it did achieve some success. In its first 10 years, thirty disputes were brought before the League, eight of which resulted in war. It has also been argued that the League prevented some wars, most notably between Greece and Bulgaria in 1925.
Furthermore, later criticism of the League has centered on its failure to end war, but it had other goals. It also introduced protocols and organizations to oversee a wide range of issues, including the treatment of minorities, women and children, overseeing global health, policing the international opium trade and establishing intellectual cooperation and communications. In these areas, the League established the basis of many modern international organizations. It also became increasingly inclusive, with Germany and the Soviet Union eventually joining, for a short period.
The League did not do well in other areas. Disarmament was a failure, and successes like the Washington Naval agreement occurred outside of the League. The inability of the League to reach consensus, or even enforce its own articles, led to it becoming increasingly compromised as the decade continued. By the end of the 1930s, membership plummeted, and multilateral agreements signed outside of the League eclipsed Wilson’s vision.
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Bibliography and Source
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