Why did the USA stay out of the League of Nations?

Why did the USA stay out of the League of Nations?

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Woodrow Wilson, who was President of the USA at the time of the League's creation, was the person who pushed for the inclusion of the League in the Treaty of Versailles in the first place. Why is it that he never managed to convince the American people, and the Senate, to have the USA join the League?

There were quite a few reasons:

  • US Congress didn't want its War Powers taken by Article X, giving the LoN power to wage war without consent of Congress
  • Political infighting among Republicans and Woodrow Wilson
  • Many Irish and Germans, a significant immigrant population by this time, thought it favored the British and were against it
  • Wilson's stance of no amendments to the treaty, which some wanted, especially to limit the powers of Article X

With no way to form a significant voting bloc the Treaty of Versailles was rejected by the Senate, and any participation in the League of Nations. Isolationism probably played a part in this as well, considering that America entered a protectionist phase soon after, and really did not want to get involved in WWI in the first place.


Wilson was unusual for his time. In an era when Republicans dominated the U.S. government, he was one of only two Democratic Presidents between James Buchanan (1857) and FDR (1933). (Grover Cleveland was the other.) Wilson was elected in 1912 only because of the "split" between Republicans (Teddy) Roosevelt and Taft, and Wilson barely won re-election in 1916 (277 electoral votes to 254) even as a "sitting" President, running on the slogan, "He kept us out of war."

Americans of the time reveled in their "splendid isolation," and didn't want to take part in "foreign affairs." In his Farewell Address, George Washington had warned "America" against "entangling alliances." Americans of Wilson's time (particularly Republicans) still clung to this idea.

The American President, Woodrow Wilson, was involved in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 at the conclusion of World War I. At this conference, Wilson played a key role along with other powers in fashioning the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. His ideas surrounding a postwar world order were earlier expressed in his Fourteen Points, and these were discussed in the series of discussions held. One of the key features of the agreement that Wilson campaigned for was the establishment of an international body which would work to maintain the political freedom and independence of nations all around the world. [1] This organisation developed into the League of Nations, however, the American nation ultimately decided against becoming a formal member. [2]

Despite Woodrow Wilson chairing the committee which drafted the Treaty of Versailles Covenant, America voted against becoming official members of the League of Nations in 1919. [3] Historians have explored a variety of reasons as to why exactly the Senate refused to approve the Treaty of Versailles, naming the hostility between President Wilson and Republican senator, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Wilson's declining health as key explanations. [4] Jacobsen states that "the rejection also should be seen in the context of the long-standing American ambivalence about involvement in international politics." [3] Furthermore, the United States would never become a member of the League of Nations, as a two-thirds majority was never granted in the Senate. [4] As a result, the dynamic between members of the League, and between the US and these nations was influenced. Henig explains this by suggesting that the absence of the United States as an official member of the League "widened the gulf between Britain and France." [5]

Despite the United States' lack of formal membership, non-state actors from America were involved in League related projects and organisations. They were involved in various sectors -

"American citizens were employed at the secretariat American academics contributed to League-sponsored research projects American philanthropies financially supported these same economic projects, and American representatives from the banking and financial communities sat on its economic and financial committees." [6]

A notable American organisation involved with the League of Nations was the Rockefeller Foundation, as many of its goals and aspirations were similar to those of the League. It was involved in the international economic section of the League and made considerable contributions to it during the 1930s. [7]

Debates surrounding the United States' policy of isolationism in international affairs during the 1920s and 1930s have been held since contemporary politicians were making these decisions. However, according to Thompson, it was the Manchurian Crisis of 1931-1932 that made Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson support the position that isolationism was no longer an option for the United States. [8] Despite the American emphasize on their individuality from the League of Nations, a commission of inquiry sent to Japan in February 1932 was representative of the great powers, including the United States. [9] They had agreed to work collaboratively with the League to bring an end to the situation, however, they would "only operate under the Washington agreements of 1922 and the Kellogg-Briand Pact." [10]

The American absence in the League of Nations did not prevent the nation from becoming an official member of the United Nations, formed at the conclusion of the Second World War. The United States was one of five permanent members of the Supreme Council, with the other four countries the USSR, France, Nationalist China, and Britain. [11] The proposed task of this body was "to work together to secure the maintenance of international peace and security." [11]

The membership of the United States and the USSR in the United Nations is a key difference between the post-World War II international organization and the League of Nations. According to Henig, the official involvement of the United States "gave the United Nations a global reach which the League lacked, symbolised by the fact that its headquarters was established in New York." [12]

Robert Walpole, Britain's first Whig Prime Minister, proclaimed in 1723: "My politics are to keep free from all engagements as long as we possibly can." He emphasized economic advantage and rejected the idea of intervening in European affairs to maintain a balance of power. [1] Walpole's position was known to Americans. However, during the American Revolution, the Second Continental Congress debated about forming an alliance with France. It rejected non-interventionism when it was apparent that the American Revolutionary War could be won in no other manner than a military alliance with France, which Benjamin Franklin successfully negotiated in 1778. [2]

After Britain and France went to war in 1792, George Washington declared neutrality, with unanimous support of his cabinet, after deciding that the treaty with France of 1778 did not apply. [3] Washington's Farewell Address of 1796 explicitly announced the policy of American non-interventionism:

The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities. [4]

President Thomas Jefferson extended Washington's ideas about foreign policy in his March 4, 1801 inaugural address. Jefferson said that one of the "essential principles of our government" is that of "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." [5] He also stated that "Commerce with all nations, alliance with none", should be the motto of the United States. [6]

In 1823, President James Monroe articulated what would come to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, which some have interpreted as non-interventionist in intent: "In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded, or seriously menaced that we resent injuries, or make preparations for our defense." It was applied to Hawaii in 1842 in support of eventual annexation there, and to support U.S. expansion on the North American continent.

After Tsar Alexander II put down the 1863 January Uprising in Poland, French Emperor Napoleon III asked the United States to "join in a protest to the Tsar." [7] Secretary of State William H. Seward declined, "defending 'our policy of non-intervention—straight, absolute, and peculiar as it may seem to other nations,'" and insisted that "[t]he American people must be content to recommend the cause of human progress by the wisdom with which they should exercise the powers of self-government, forbearing at all times, and in every way, from foreign alliances, intervention, and interference." [7]

President Ulysses S. Grant attempted to annex the Dominican Republic in 1870, but failed to get the support of the Radical Republicans in the Senate. [8] The United States' policy of non-intervention was wholly abandoned with the Spanish–American War, followed by the Philippine–American War from 1899–1902.

President Theodore Roosevelt's administration is credited with inciting the Panamanian Revolt against Colombia, completed November 1903, in order to secure construction rights for the Panama Canal (begun in 1904).

President Woodrow Wilson was able to navigate neutrality in World War I for about three years, and to win 1916 reelection with the slogan "He kept us out of war." The neutrality policy was supported by the tradition of shunning foreign entanglements, and by the large population of immigrants from Europe with divided loyalties in the conflict. America did enter the war in April 1917, however. Congress voted to declare war on Germany, 373 to 50 in the House of Representatives and 82 to 6 in the Senate. [9] Technically the US joined the side of the Triple Entente only as an "associated power" fighting the same enemy, not as officially allied with the Entente. [10]

A few months after the declaration of war, Wilson gave a speech to Congress outlining his aims for conclusion of the conflict, labeled the Fourteen Points. That American proclamation was less triumphalist than the stated aims of some other belligerents, and its final point proposed that 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." After the war, Wilson traveled to Europe and remained there for months to labor on the post-war treaty, longer than any previous Presidential sojourn outside the country. In that Treaty of Versailles, Wilson's "general association of nations" was formulated as the League of Nations.

Isolationism between the World Wars Edit

In the wake of the First World War, the non-interventionist tendencies gained ascendancy. The Treaty of Versailles, and thus, United States' participation in the League of Nations, even with reservations, was rejected by the Senate in the final months of Wilson's presidency. Republican Senate leader Henry Cabot Lodge supported the Treaty with reservations to be sure Congress had final authority on sending the U.S. into war. Wilson and his Democratic supporters rejected the Lodge Reservations,

The strongest opposition to American entry into the League of Nations came from the Senate where a tight-knit faction known as the Irreconcilables, led by William Borah and George Norris, had great objections regarding the clauses of the treaty which compelled America to come to the defense of other nations. Senator William Borah, of Idaho, declared that it would "purchase peace at the cost of any part of our [American] independence." [11] Senator Hiram Johnson, of California, denounced the League of Nations as a "gigantic war trust." [12] While some of the sentiment was grounded in adherence to Constitutional principles, most of the sentiment bore a reassertion of nativist and inward-looking policy. [13]

The United States acted independently to become a major player in the 1920s in international negotiations and treaties. The Harding Administration achieved naval disarmament among the major powers through the Washington Naval Conference in 1921–22. The Dawes Plan refinanced war debts and helped restore prosperity to Germany, In August 1928, fifteen nations signed the Kellogg–Briand Pact, brainchild of American Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand. [14] This pact that was said to have outlawed war and showed the United States commitment to international peace had its semantic flaws. [15] For example, it did not hold the United States to the conditions of any existing treaties, it still allowed European nations the right to self-defense, and it stated that if one nation broke the Pact, it would be up to the other signatories to enforce it. [16] The Kellogg–Briand Pact was more of a sign of good intentions on the part of the US, rather than a legitimate step towards the sustenance of world peace.

The economic depression that ensued after the Crash of 1929, also continued to abet non-intervention. The attention of the country focused mostly on addressing the problems of the national economy. The rise of aggressive imperialist policies by Fascist Italy and the Empire of Japan led to conflicts such as the Italian conquest of Ethiopia and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. These events led to ineffectual condemnations by the League of Nations. Official American response was muted. America also did not take sides in the brutal Spanish Civil War and withdrew its troops from Haiti with the inauguration of the Good Neighbor Policy in 1934.

Non-interventionism before entering World War II Edit

As Europe moved closer to war in the late 1930s, the United States Congress continued to demand American neutrality. Between 1936 and 1937, much to the dismay of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Congress passed the Neutrality Acts. For example, in the final Neutrality Act, Americans could not sail on ships flying the flag of a belligerent nation or trade arms with warring nations. Such activities had played a role in American entrance into World War I.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland Britain and France subsequently declared war on Germany, marking the start of World War II. In an address to the American People two days later, President Roosevelt assured the nation that he would do all he could to keep them out of war. [17] However, his words showed his true goals. "When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger," Roosevelt said. [17] Even though he was intent on neutrality as the official policy of the United States, he still echoed the dangers of staying out of this war. He also cautioned the American people to not let their wish to avoid war at all costs supersede the security of the nation. [17]

The war in Europe split the American people into two camps: non-interventionists and interventionists. The two sides argued over America's involvement in this World War II. The basic principle of the interventionist argument was fear of German invasion. By the summer of 1940, France suffered a stunning defeat by Germans, and Britain was the only democratic enemy of Germany. [18] [19] In a 1940 speech, Roosevelt argued, "Some, indeed, still hold to the now somewhat obvious delusion that we … can safely permit the United States to become a lone island … in a world dominated by the philosophy of force." [20] A Life survey published in July found that in the summer of 1940, 67% of Americans believed that a German-Italian victory would endanger the United States, that if such an event occurred 88% supported "arm[ing] to the teeth at any expense to be prepared for any trouble", and that 71% favored "the immediate adoption of compulsory military training for all young men". The magazine wrote that the survey showed "the emergence of a majority attitude very different from that of six or even three months ago". [21]

Ultimately, the ideological rift between the ideals of the United States and the goals of the fascist powers empowered the interventionist argument. Writer Archibald MacLeish asked, "How could we sit back as spectators of a war against ourselves?" [22] In an address to the American people on December 29, 1940, President Roosevelt said, "the Axis not merely admits but proclaims that there can be no ultimate peace between their philosophy of government and our philosophy of government." [23]

However, there were still many who held on to non-interventionism. Although a minority, they were well organized, and had a powerful presence in Congress. [24] Pro-German or anti-British opinion contributed to non-interventionism. Roosevelt's national share of the 1940 presidential vote declined by seven percentage points from 1936. Of the 20 counties in which his share declined by 35 points or more, 19 were largely German-speaking. Of the 35 counties in which his share declined by 25 to 34 points, German was the largest or second-largest original nationality in 31. [25] Non-interventionists rooted a significant portion of their arguments in historical precedent, citing events such as Washington's farewell address and the failure of World War I. [26] "If we have strong defenses and understand and believe in what we are defending, we need fear nobody in this world," Robert Maynard Hutchins, President of the University of Chicago, wrote in a 1940 essay. [27] Isolationists believed that the safety of the nation was more important than any foreign war. [28]

As 1940 became 1941, the actions of the Roosevelt administration made it more and more clear that the United States was on a course to war. This policy shift, driven by the President, came in two phases. The first came in 1939 with the passage of the Fourth Neutrality Act, which permitted the United States to trade arms with belligerent nations, as long as these nations came to America to retrieve the arms, and pay for them in cash. [24] This policy was quickly dubbed, 'Cash and Carry.' [29] The second phase was the Lend-Lease Act of early 1941. This act allowed the President "to lend, lease, sell, or barter arms, ammunition, food, or any 'defense article' or any 'defense information' to 'the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.'" [30] American public opinion supported Roosevelt's actions. As United States involvement in the Battle of the Atlantic grew with incidents such as the sinking of the USS Reuben James (DD-245) , by late 1941 72% of Americans agreed that "the biggest job facing this country today is to help defeat the Nazi Government", and 70% thought that defeating Germany was more important than staying out of the war. [31]

After the attack on Pearl Harbor caused America to enter the war in December 1941, isolationists such as Charles Lindbergh's America First Committee and Herbert Hoover announced their support of the war effort. [32] Isolationist families' sons fought in the war as much as others. [25]

Non-interventionism after World War II Edit

Ohio Senator Robert A Taft was a leading opponent of interventionism after 1945, although it always played a secondary role to his deep interest in domestic affairs. Historian George Fujii, citing the Taft papers, argues:

Taft fought a mostly losing battle to reduce government expenditures and to curtail or prevent foreign aid measures such as the British loan of 1945 and the Marshall Plan. He feared that these measures would "destroy the freedom of the individual, freedom of States and local communities, freedom of the farmer to run his own farm and the workman to do his own job" (p. 375), thereby threatening the foundations of American prosperity and leading to a "totalitarian state" (p. 377). [33]

In 1951, in the midst of bitter partisan debate over the Korean War, Taft increasingly spoke out on foreign policy issues. According to his biographer James T. Patterson:

Two basic beliefs continued to form a fairly consistent core of Taft's thinking on foreign policy. First, he insisted on limiting America's overseas commitments. [Taft said] "Nobody today can be an isolationist. The only question is the degree to which we shall take action throughout the entire world." America had obligations that it had to honor – such as NATO – and it could not turn a blind eye to such countries as Formosa or Israel. But the United States had limited funds and problems at home and must therefore curb its commitments. This fear of overcommitment was rooted in Taft's even deeper faith in liberty, which made him shrink from a foreign policy that would cost large sums of money, increase the power of the military, and transform American society into what he called a garrison state. [34]

Differences over collective security in the G.O.P. were real in 1952, but Taft tried during his pre-convention campaign to moderate his image as a "go-it-aloner" in foreign policy. His whole effort proved unsuccessful, largely because by spring the internationalist camp had a formidable candidate of its own in Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the personification of post-1945 American commitment to collective security, particularly in Europe, General Eisenhower had decided to run because he feared, apparently, that Taft's election would lead to repudiation of the whole collective security effort, including NATO. [35]

Eisenhower won the nomination and secured Taft's support by promising Taft a dominant voice in domestic policies, while Eisenhower's internationalism would set the foreign-policy agenda. [36] Graebner argues that Eisenhower succeeded in moving the conservative Republicans away from their traditional attacks on foreign aid and reciprocal trade policies, and collective security arrangements, to support for those policies. [37] By 1964 the Republican conservatives rallied behind Barry Goldwater who was an aggressive advocate of an anti-communist internationalist foreign policy. Goldwater wanted to roll back Communism and win the Cold War, asking "Why Not Victory?" [38]

During the presidency of Barack Obama, some members of the United States federal government, including President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, considered intervening militarily in the Syrian Civil War. [39] [40] A poll from late April 2013 found that 62% of Americans thought that the "United States has no responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria between government forces and antigovernment groups," with only twenty-five percent disagreeing with that statement. [41] A writer for The New York Times referred to this as "an isolationist streak," a characterization international relations scholar Stephen Walt strongly objected to, calling the description "sloppy journalism." [41] [42] According to Walt, "the overwhelming majority of people who have doubts about the wisdom of deeper involvement in Syria—including yours truly—are not 'isolationist.' They are merely sensible people who recognize that we may not have vital interests there, that deeper involvement may not lead to a better outcome and could make things worse, and who believe that the last thing the United States needs to do is to get dragged into yet another nasty sectarian fight in the Arab/Islamic world." [42]

In December 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that their newest poll, "American's Place in the World 2013," had revealed that 52 percent of respondents in the national poll said that the United States "should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." [43] This was the most people to answer that question this way in the history of the question, one which pollsters began asking in 1964. [44] Only about a third of respondents felt this way a decade ago. [44]

A July 2014 poll of "battleground voters" across the United States found "77 percent in favor of full withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 only 15 percent and 17 percent interested in more involvement in Syria and Ukraine, respectively and 67 percent agreeing with the statement that, 'U.S. military actions should be limited to direct threats to our national security.'" [45]

Rathbun (2008) compares three separate themes in conservative policies since the 1980s: conservatism, neoconservatism, and isolationism. These approaches are similar in that they all invoked the mantle of "realism" and pursued foreign policy goals designed to promote national interests. Conservatives, however, were the only group that was "realist" in the academic sense in that they defined the national interest narrowly, strove for balances of power internationally, viewed international relations as amoral, and especially valued sovereignty. By contrast, neoconservatives based their foreign policy on nationalism, and isolationists sought to minimize any involvement in foreign affairs and raise new barriers to immigration. [46] Former Republican Congressman Ron Paul favored a return to the non-interventionist policies of Thomas Jefferson and frequently opposed military intervention in countries like Iran and Iraq.

Politicians Edit

    – former U.S. Representative from Michigan, [47][48][49]2020 Libertarian presidential candidate – former U.S. State Senator from Maine, 2018 Republican U.S. Senate candidate [50] – 30th U.S. President, 29th U.S. Vice President, 48th U.S. Governor of Massachusetts, 46th U.S. Lt. Governor of Massachusetts[51] – U.S. Representative from Kentucky [52][49] – former U.S. Representative from Texas, 1988, 2008, & 2012 Republican presidential candidate [53] Paul's stance on foreign policy is one of consistent non-intervention, [54][55] opposing wars of aggression and entangling alliances with other nations. [56] – U.S. Senator from Kentucky, 2016 Republican presidential candidate, the son of Ron Paul [57][49][58][59] - former U.S. Representative from Hawaii, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate[60]

Government officials Edit

Public figures Edit

    – retired Lt. Col. of the United States Air Force, 2012 Republican U.S. Representative candidate from Virginia, whistleblower from the Pentagon[62]
  • Eric A. Nordlinger – former Professor of political science at Brown University, author of Isolationism Reconfigured[63]

In his World Policy Journal review of Bill Kauffman's 1995 book America First! Its History, Culture, and Politics, Benjamin Schwartz described America's history of isolationism as a "tragedy" and being rooted in Puritan thinking. [64]

The League of Nations

In 1916, Wilson first articulated his vision for the League of Nations as an international organization designed to facilitate cooperation, and it was backed by many Americans eager to see the end to the devastating war. The League of Nations was intended to help ensure a global &ldquopermanent peace&rdquo in which nations, small and large, would be protected and could take any actions necessary to safeguard said peace. The League of Nations would also provide mechanisms for promoting negotiation and mediating disputes. While the idea of the League of Nations was popular at the time, and the consequences of war showcased the necessity for such an organization, some members of Congress&mdashsuch as Henry Cabot Lodge&mdashopposed it and thought it would be an expensive distraction from the United States&rsquo own interests.

As more Americans lamented the consequences of war and voiced their desire to avoid future intervention in foreign affairs at all costs, public opposition to the League of Nations grew. It was perhaps isolationist Warren Harding&rsquos election to the office of President that offered the greatest repudiation of the League of Nations and Wilson&rsquos interventionism. While Wilson had participated in the creation of the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Harding never allowed the United States to become a member. Many historians and political theorists attribute the relative inability of the League of Nations to prevent World War II to U.S. isolationism and the country&rsquos lack of participation and leadership in the organization.

45d. The Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations

As the war drew to a close, Woodrow Wilson set forth his plan for a " just peace ." Wilson believed that fundamental flaws in international relations created an unhealthy climate that led inexorably to the World War. His Fourteen Points outlined his vision for a safer world. Wilson called for an end to secret diplomacy, a reduction of armaments, and freedom of the seas. He claimed that reductions to trade barriers, fair adjustment of colonies, and respect for national self-determination would reduce economic and nationalist sentiments that lead to war. Finally, Wilson proposed an international organization comprising representatives of all the world's nations that would serve as a forum against allowing any conflict to escalate. Unfortunately, Wilson could not impose his world view on the victorious Allied Powers. When they met in Paris to hammer out the terms of the peace, the European leaders had other ideas.

The Paris Peace Conference

Most of the decisions made at the Paris Peace Conference were made by the Big Four , consisting of President Wilson, David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Vittorio Orlando of Italy. The European leaders were not interested in a just peace. They were interested in retribution. Over Wilson's protests, they ignored the Fourteen Points one by one. Germany was to admit guilt for the war and pay unlimited reparations. The German military was reduced to a domestic police force and its territory was truncated to benefit the new nations of Eastern Europe. The territories of Alsace and Lorraine were restored to France. German colonies were handed in trusteeship to the victorious Allies. No provisions were made to end secret diplomacy or preserve freedom of the seas. Wilson did gain approval for his proposal for a League of Nations . Dismayed by the overall results, but hopeful that a strong League could prevent future wars, he returned to present the Treaty of Versailles to the Senate.

Defeating the League of Nations

Unfortunately for Wilson, he was met with stiff opposition. The Republican leader of the Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge , was very suspicious of Wilson and his treaty. Article X of the League of Nations required the United States to respect the territorial integrity of member states. Although there was no requirement compelling an American declaration of war, the United States might be bound to impose an economic embargo or to sever diplomatic relations. Lodge viewed the League as a supranational government that would limit the power of the American government from determining its own affairs. Others believed the League was the sort of entangling alliance the United States had avoided since George Washington's Farewell Address . Lodge sabotaged the League covenant by declaring the United States exempt from Article X. He attached reservations, or amendments, to the treaty to this effect. Wilson, bedridden from a debilitating stroke, was unable to accept these changes. He asked Senate Democrats to vote against the Treaty of Versailles unless the Lodge reservations were dropped. Neither side budged, and the treaty went down to defeat.

Why did the United States fail to ratify the Versailles Treaty and join the League of Nations? Personal enmity between Wilson and Lodge played a part. Wilson might have prudently invited a prominent Republican to accompany him to Paris to help ensure its later passage. Wilson's fading health eliminated the possibility of making a strong personal appeal on behalf of the treaty. Ethnic groups in the United States helped its defeat. German Americans felt their fatherland was being treated too harshly. Italian Americans felt more territory should have been awarded to Italy. Irish Americans criticized the treaty for failing to address the issue of Irish independence. Diehard American isolationists worried about a permanent global involvement. The stubborness of President Wilson led him to ask his own party to scuttle the treaty. The final results of all these factors had mammoth longterm consequences. Without the involvement of the world's newest superpower, the League of Nations was doomed to failure. Over the next two decades, the United States would sit on the sidelines as the unjust Treaty of Versailles and the ineffective League of Nations would set the stage for an even bloodier, more devastating clash.

Why did the United States stay neutral in 1914 but decide to enter the First World War in 1917?

After maintaining neutrality for the first three years of the war, the United States decided to formally enter the First World War on 6 th April 1917. Beginning their position with predictable, traditional neutrality when the war broke out in 1914, the United States evaded war in accordance with their long-running central theme in foreign policy, avoiding ‘entangling alliances’. The complex set of circumstances that eventually led to the involvement of America in the First World War, results in there being no singular culprit or simple explanation for their original non-involvement transforming into a fairly unprecedented attack on the German forces. However, as a result of a long battle of Woodrow Wilson’s conscience concerning peace ideals, developing sympathies with Britain and a growing intolerance for increasingly belligerent German military tactics as the war progressed, an association with the Allied forces became ever more likely. On 2 nd April 1917, President Wilson finally made an address to a joint session of Congress requesting a declaration of war against Germany, and that the United States should shed their neutrality and enter world war.

In terms of American idealism, it was inevitable that the United States should see the war from the perspective of a neutral base ever since Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address in March 1801, American foreign policy has enjoyed ‘entangling alliances with none’ as a key feature.[1] Historian Ronald Powaski asserted that in avoiding such alliances, it was paramount that the United States should not concern itself with issues of countries afar, especially European wars – an issue President Wilson recognised swiftly upon the outbreak of war.[2] Wilson was a dedicated progressive internationalist at the outbreak of war, resulting in his assertion of isolationist policies in the beginning in order to preserve these ideals of opposition to war through asserting and maintaining peace his ultimate goal for war time was to become an external mediator between the two sides.[3] This being a position that required complete objectivity, Wilson ensured the country’s neutrality upon the war’s commencement. The President’s handling of the war in his first term in office won him the admiration of popular progressive internationalist groups, such as the Woman’s Peace party, who believed that Wilson was at least in part avoiding war in recognition and respect of the sacredness of human life.[4]

Regardless of American ideals of an association of peaceful nations by way of disarmament and international friendship, the war in Europe raged on. In accordance with Thomas Knock’s description of the impact of internationalism on Wilson’s perspective on war, with the increasing loss of life and the determined belligerence of the German forces, all progressive internationalists accepted that eventual United States involvement in the First World War was inevitable, and that the best way for Wilson to move forward would be to intervene in an attempted arrangement of peaceful agreement, thus Wilson proposed the ending of war without a victor.[5] However, Knock continues, with Germany’s violent rejection of ‘peace without victory’ being illustrated by the sinking of a further three American ships, Wilson had no choice but to meet the German forces with strength in an attempt to prevent further unjustified killing though Wilson’s goal of ensuring the world was a safe and peaceful place for the development of democracy and internationalism did not change, by April 1917 Wilson realised that he now had to join the war to end it. [6]

On the other hand, Wilson’s personal perspective of the value of war and his goals for world democracy are, understandably, not the sole reason for Congress to agree to wage war on another country. One of the main points to consider when studying why the United States entered the war in 1917 as opposed to 1914, has to be the economic implications of such a conflict being such a significant economic power, the financial and industrial effects of any political judgement – particularly going to war – would have certainly had a huge impact. George Herring emphasises the fact that ‘trade was so important to Europe and the United States itself that whatever Americans did or did not do would have an important impact of the war and the domestic economy’ the reality was that it was almost implausible that the United States could remain unaffected by the war as it progressed. [7] The United States aimed to protect shipping and trading rights by remaining neutral, in an attempt to retain the ability to trade to both sides of the war effort since it was assumed that their own economy would suffer if cut off from either the German or British markets, as it was permitted to do under the Hague Convention of 1907. By maintaining their neutrality from the onset of the war, they hoped to profit from all belligerents by manufacturing munitions, hence promoting their own economic growth and industrial prosperity.

However, German-American trading was blockaded by the British with an ever-growing list of contraband items this meant that despite theoretical neutrality, the United States were, in practice, supporting the Allies by only supplying and arming their forces. [8] Upon the dramatic increase of the purchasing of war materials by the Allies from the United States between 1914 and 1916, with total exports swelling from $40,000,000 to $1,290,000,000, the economic interests of the United States were now focussed on industrial growth through trading with the Allies as opposed to fighting for free trade with German forces. [9] This also developed an interdependency between the Allied forces and the United States – a dependency for war materials from the British and French especially and an economic reliance on the part of the Americans. Such an interdependency furthered the emerging political alliances between the two, which H.C. Engelbrecht and F.C. Hanighen suggest explains in part the late entrance of the United States into the First World War.[10]

Alongside acceptance of the British blockade binding the United States and British forces, JP Morgan’s subsidising the Allies’ financial issues by assuming the role of an Allied purchasing agent in the United States as well as government-approved credit was a step towards losing objectivity in the war, which ultimately took the United States a step closer to joining the war effort. [11] With the distinction between a loan and credit being so clearly determined, the United States was finally allowed to extend credit to the Allies – an allowance which they took advantage of to the sum of $80,000,000 over the next six months. [12] It is clear that as the war progressed America became more deeply entwined in ‘entangling alliances’ that drew them ever closer to the precipice of war.

Also influencing the timing of the United States’ entrance into the First World War, was their turbulent relationship with Britain. The United States took issue with the increasing belligerence of Allied forces, particularly the British. In part, it was the imposition of strict contraband lists which offended American ideals of free trade that alienated the United States from joining arms with the Allies. Since the British held such tremendous sea power, they had the resources and standing to use sheer force and aggressive tactics. However, this soon proved to be profitable to the United States as the British fell short of resources and desperately needed to tap into American industrial power, providing a suddenly less offensive strategy. Another significant friction between Britain and the United States was the disagreement caused by Britain’s ruthless suppression of the 1916 Irish rebellion and the violent condemnation of its leaders. [13] Though, as the war progressed, Wilson became increasingly sympathetic with Britain, proclaiming in May 1915 that despite their disagreements over blockades and freedom of the seas ‘England is fighting our fight’. [14] Wilson and the whole of the United States began to realise that at this point it was inevitable that they would join the war on the side of the Allies. Michael Lind elaborates on Walter Lippmann’s assertion that the United States would have to fight with Britain now or face a separate war against an expansionist German empire in the near future in declaring that England was fighting the fight of the United States, Lind argues, Wilson was coming to recognise the power of Germany and its very real threat to global democracy.[15] If Germany were to win the war, the United States would have to quickly develop its military and naval resources to prepare for the new state of political instability that would be aroused by a successful German imperialist conquest.[16] By 1917, it was simply a case of questioning the United States’ preparedness in terms of national security. [17] The progressively aggressive German forces required a marriage of both the powers of the United States and the Allies to finally bring to an end the First World War.

Whilst President Wilson embraced German ideals of authoritarianism and expansionism, with some historians, such as Jonah Goldberg, going as far as to say he was fascist by nature, the way in which the Central Powers sought to gain victory in the First World War offended both Wilson and his country. [18] Almost certainly, it was the actions of the German forces growing intolerable that caused the United States to enter war when they did. Wilson was enraged when the British Isles were declared a war zone by Germany in February 1915, effectively justifying any loss of life that should occur in the area, neutral or not. Herring offers that upon the death of an American citizen one month later in the sinking of the Falaba, we see a ‘hint of future crises’ since Wilson swore to hold Germany fully accountable for its movements. [19] Continuing, Herring illuminates the bombardment of attacks that take the lives of theoretically neutral United States citizens over the next few years, including the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 taking 128 American lives. [20] Additionally, the sinking of the Sussex in March 1916, the sinking of the Laconia in February 1917 and the attack on three American merchant ships in March 1917 all represent Germany’s relentlessly violent offense strategies. Having attempted to remain a neutral party in order to promote Wilson’s ideals of progressive internationalism and peaceful international unity, it became clear that the crisis in Europe had to be countered from an offensive standpoint – Wilson could no longer play his desired role of an external mediator.

Though the US-British relationship was under immense strain following blockade strategies and the brutal suppression of the Easter Rebellion of 1916, aggressive German war tactics and the loss of American lives eventually proved to be too severe. It is certain that the United States’ timing with regards to entering the war effort was affected significantly by economic profitability H.C. Engelbrecht and F.C. Hanighen prompt that ‘when the armistice was signed in 1918, there were 21,000 new American millionaires’ that had been created by the United States taking advantage of the need of both sides of the war effort to purchase war materials. [21] In effect, the United States used the First World War to first and foremost stabilise and grow their own economy before allowing themselves to become entangled in an alliance with a single side. Additionally, Wilson’s peace ideals and the United States’ penchant for neutrality also played a part in the delayed war entry. It is evident that despite Wilson’s attempts to keep the United States out of war in the opening years, his decision to request entry was a reaction to increasingly difficult circumstances in Europe that required his address.

[1] ‘Thomas Jefferson First Inaugural Address’, The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, <http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jefinau1.asp&gt [accessed 11 October 2014].

[2] R. Powaski, Toward an Entangling Alliance: American Isolationism, Internationalism and Europe, 1901 – 1950 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1991), p.7.

[4] T. Knock, ‘Wilson’s Battle for the League: Progressive Internationalists Confront the Forces of Reaction’, in D. Merrill and T. Paterson (eds.), Major Problems in American Foreign Relations: Documents and Essays, Volume 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pp. 523-525.

[5] Knock, ‘Wilson’s Battle for the League: Progressive Internationalists Confront the Forces of Reaction’, pp.525-528.

[7] G. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp.400-401.

[8] H.C. Engelbrecht and F.C. Hanighen, The Merchants of Death (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1934), pp.173-175.

[11] Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776, pp.400-401.

[13] Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776, p.404.

[14] A. Rice Pierce, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman: Mission and Power in American Foreign Policy (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003), p.25.

[15] M. Lind, The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p.94.

[17] Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776, p.405.

[18] J. Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (New York: Doubleday, 2007), pp.78-87.

Destroyers for Bases

On May 15, 1940, five days after becoming Great Britain’s prime minister, Winston Churchill cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt to explain that the British military was in serious trouble. Churchill asked the United States to support Great Britain with all aid short of declaring war, including providing older naval destroyers, new aircraft, and anti-aircraft equipment. After several months of negotiations, Roosevelt announced the “destroyers for bases” deal on September 2, 1940, exchanging 50 old destroyers for a 99-year lease to place American military bases on British-controlled territory in Canada and the Caribbean. This deal was one in a series of important measures that helped tilt the United States from a policy of isolation from world affairs to intervention in the war against the Axis powers.

The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies produced and distributed flyers proclaiming that “Destroyers Today or Destruction Tomorrow.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch , published by non-interventionist Joseph Pulitzer, called Roosevelt a dictator committing a war crime: “If this secret deal goes through. we all may as well get ready for a full-dress participation in the European war.”

Find out more

The United Nations: Sacred Drama by Conor Cruise O'Brien and Feliks Topolski (Simon & Schuster, 1968)

The Rise of the International Organisation. A Short History by David Armstrong (Palgrave Macmillan, 1982)

Peacekeeping in International Politics by Alan James (Palgrave, 1990)

'The Evolution of United Nations Peacekeeping' by Marrack Goulding, in International Affairs vol.69 (1993)

The Evolution of UN Peacekeeping: Case Studies and Comparative Analysis edited by William J Durch (Palgrave Macmillan, 1993)

'Democracies and UN Peacekeeping Operations 1990-1996' by Andreas Andersson, in International Peacekeeping vol.7 (2000)

Why the League Failed: 13 Crippling Shortcomings

The much-maligned League of Nations experienced difficulties and shortcomings, which are visible in the functioning of the modern UN – and to a lesser extent, the International Criminal Court. George Stewart provides no less than thirteen reasons for the League’s failure, foremost among them the United States’ refusal to join, despite President Wilson’s labors as the prime architect. Stewart’s criticism of the League’s weaknesses, its simultaneous impotence and incompetence, serves as a reminder of the need for robust, yet practical, international structures. He notes that without the participation of great powers, such robustness must always be qualified. Reticent states – particularly powerful ones – are more amenable to membership in an organization where the preeminent superpower makes itself as accountable as the humblest microstate. To read the original article, published in Christianity and Crisis on February 22nd, 1943, in PDF format, click here.

Many liberals of the Western world, Christians, Jews, and other men of good will, looked upon the League with an almost Messianic hope. We in America revered it as a memorial to Woodrow Wilson, spokesman for American ideas. We saw in it a step toward a desperately needed organization of mankind to make and to keep the peace. Some of us refused to doubt its efficacy even when we saw it by-passed in one major crisis after another. We shut our eyes and held our faith in it, in the face of discouragement. The League seemed the corner­stone in the political expression of our faith. It was surrounded with an almost religious aura. We could not forsake it. We could hardly bear to hear it criticized.

Now, friends of the League, friends of peace, must diagnose its demise with the cool-headed judgment of a scientific post-mortem. For the life and death of the League affects all mankind.

We are faced with facts so grim that we dare not deceive ourselves. We must see reality “bare and to the buff.” If we are worthy of victory again, it is imperative to see why the League failed, and to take a few resolute steps in world political organization which will hold together the diverse fabric of inter­national life, until, through a mutual trust engendered by working together, we can elaborate and perfect that structure. It would be disastrous to attempt either too little, or too much.

No such assemblage of statesmen had ever before occurred as that at Paris. Most of us believed that the Congress of Vienna, the only comparable gather­ing, had been a cynical meeting of professional diplo­mats playing a game of international chess with peoples and states as pawns. We were promised an immense gesture of honest statesmanship. But iron­ically, Talleyrand, Metternich, and their colleagues, using the yardstick of legitimacy, were able to give mankind a century of comparative peace, a century which contrasts sharply with the explosive events of the last three decades.

Why did the League fail when so many intelligent men and women of good will placed their faith in it?

First, the plan was too American. It was foreign to the thought and experience of most of the world. It came out of our American history, channelled through the brain of Woodrow Wilson. True, men of other nations contributed to its basic ideas, notably some British thinkers. The Covenant is as typically Anglo-Saxon as our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution or the Statute of Westminster.

Second, it was accepted by the allied and associ­ated powers for two reasons, both of which augured ill for the future.

One of these reasons was that Wilson’s high idealism and the prestige of America almost com­pelled the victors to accept it. Wilson, representing America, had almost too much power and esteem. He was hailed as a savior by the populace of Euro­pean cities. For a few months he stood as no man had ever stood, as the embodiment of the hopes of mankind. Any promise we held out for the saving of the world stood a good chance of acceptance. Public opinion in a stricken Europe was in an apoca­lyptic mood, looking for an almost divine deliverer. Woodrow Wilson seemed to meet that need for a fleeting half year. No statesman could have success­fully opposed Wilson on the League issue. The weak League which came of his efforts led to an equally great disillusionment and gave aid and comfort to the most sinister political circles and to the forces of reaction.

The other reason for acceptance of the League related to the seamy side of the peace conference. Wilson would have none of the Treaty unless the Covenant were included. Clemenceau and Lloyd George took the Covenant in order to secure the rest of the Treaty. The League was never whole­heartedly accepted by France or by the rest of the Continent. Smaller states gladly came in, as it gave them for the first time a place in the sun along side the big powers. Germany, which was expected to hail the Covenant as an antidote to this severe section of the Treaty, naturally doubted its efficacy, as she was expressly excluded from membership at the beginning.

Third, too much was asked and expected of the League. It was too weak to bear the load placed upon it. This was not the fault of the League. The idea of a victory to make the world safe for democ­racy, and a war to end war, attached to the League itself. All over the earth it was promoted as a means of preventing war. But given Europe as it was, given the League as it was created—the prevention of war was impossible. Its members and the United States at the moment of their greatest power after an overwhelming victory refused to pledge themselves in advance of the crisis for collective security. There was a vague hope that when the crisis came, some moral compulsion or enlightened self-interest would suddenly bring them together. Cecil and Wilson supported the Covenant on the postulate that moral forces would prevail in any crisis. They manifested an almost naive belief that public opinion would be precise and determined on the side of the common weal. They gave scant attention to French demands for an International Police Force and a General Staff. But no clear, aroused, morally informed public opinion arose anywhere in the last two decades, save at fleeting moments, never in time to prevent Hitler rearming to raid the world.

Political and Moral Foundation Undermined

Fourth, much of the political and moral foundation was cut from under the League. Democracy began to disintegrate beneath the whole democratic struc­ture of the new organization. Democracy as we had known it in Europe was already sadly in disrepair. Forces which were released in the post-war era were furthering this process. Liberal democracy was in disrepute. Fascism was beginning to raise its head militant, materialistic communism was astride the Muscovite lands and was conducting underground campaigns to further the world or continuing revo­lution. Germany, Russia, Italy and many of the Balkans had never known democracy. They were new to its ways. In Germany and in other lands, Moderates, unaided by strong and resolute support from the great democracies of the West, were im­potent to handle various internal enemies, and their prestige and power rapidly declined.

A democratic League composed largely of undemo­cratic members could not be expected to keep the world safe for democracy or to prevent war.

Fifth, Article XIX was never resolutely put into force. This article read:

“The Assembly may from time to time advise the reconsideration by Members of the League of treaties which have become inapplicable and the consideration of international conditions whose continuance might endanger the peace of the world.”

True, a number of provisions regarding reparations and indemnities, military establishments and other matters were altered, but not in so rapid and forth­right a manner as to aid the Moderates in Germany who were running a losing race with the die-hard reactionaries.

Sixth, the principle of self-determination of peoples, as fair as it seems on paper, was highly destructive when unharnessed to the equally valid principle of federation among the smaller states of Mittel-Europa, the Danube Basin, and the Balkans. We fought the Civil War to preserve the Union and against states rights carried to the extreme of seces­sion. Self-determination did bring the fulfillment of political aspiration for independence to several peoples for a few brief years, but the result, freed as these new states were from mutual obligations for collective security with neighboring weak states, was an inflamed nationalism. Unsupported by one another in some pledged, prearranged, resolute bond of mutual aid, these states which had lately realized their hope of independence, were overrun one after another. Grave crises were bound to arise under rampant nationalism which the new world organiza­tion was unprepared to handle.

Seventh, the proponents of the League held too low an opinion of European institutions as they ex­isted before 1914. Some of the major constructive elements in the political and legal set up of European states should have been incorporated in the Covenant rather than making it so exclusively an Anglo-American statement in its final form. The Covenant was inserted in the various conventions ancillary to Ver­sailles, the Treaties of St. Germain, Trianon and Neuilly. This was a psychological mistake. Wilson thought it would give moral vindication to the rest of the Treaty, much of which he did not like. Article XIX, providing for revision of treaties, often com­forted statesmen in these hurried early months of 1919 in Paris—men who were laboring under pres­sure from the press of the world to get the job done. They hoped vainly that a good Covenant made with their left hands would wash clean all they were doing with their right hands.

Too small attention was given to differences in culture and education, to the desire, or the lack of desire for democracy, and to the political maturity or immaturity of the different peoples involved. Although the fall of the Dual Monarchy was highly probable in a few years, it had not a few qualities which were commendable. An ethnographic map of that terrain looks like a Persian carpet. It is not easy to govern such a mixture. Nor did the break up of Austria-Hungary solve the problems in that area.

Lack of Clear-cut Political Principles

Eighth, there was a lack of clear-cut political prin­ciples resolutely pursued by its most powerful mem­bers and by the United States. The Western demo­cratic world, as strong and as energetic as it is, employing the philosophy of the eighteenth century and the economic ideal which sprang up after the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth, drifted in a moral vacuum or slept in false security, while mili­tant creeds of new secular faiths, fanatically preached and ruthlessly prosecuted, rose to power. The empty house, only half swept and indifferently garnished, was broken into by seven other spirits worse than the first. Economic and social injustice existed not only in lands with measurable political equality, but in even sharper tension elsewhere.

A basic need existed as it does today for an en­largement of economic frontiers and the preservation of the smaller cultural, ethnic and spiritual entities. Lacking the ideals and the stern tenacity to achieve this by negotiation, or even to relieve severe situa­tions by the ordered use of force under decent inter­national auspices, we were forced to watch Hitler enlarge the economic frontiers of Germany and rip to shreds the smaller cultural, ethnic and spiritual entities involved.

Ninth, there was no military power either to arrest aggressors or to enforce its decrees.

One need not give up one’s confession to being a liberal, a democrat, a Christian or a devout Jew, to see that men of ill will must be stopped forcibly from oppressing the weak or robbing and enslaving their neighbors. No one should be allowed to brutal­ize follow men and women, even if it be in his own house. It is our concern if a man beats the life out of a child in Java, or a gang of Storm Troopers drive great scientists from Heidelberg, or a mob of Amer­icans hang a Negro in a lynching bee. There are brutes, retrogressives, spiritual throwbacks in every nation and in almost every family. These people must be kept in control by the only restraint they recognize, overwhelming force. Gentleness is a pro­vocation to their aggressive instincts the willingness to reason, discuss and to compromise they take to be a sign of weakness. The most dynamic political leaders of the last decade have been plain criminals. Whatever shape our new international set-up to make and to keep the peace shall take, it must have adequate military strength to enforce its decisions.

Tenth, the League failed because millions in the Anglo-Saxon world mixed their categories. We surrounded the whole discussion with an emotional atmosphere which did discredit to both our religious and our political acumen. We fell again for the old heresy of identifying socio-political hopes and devices with the Kingdom of God. We equated religion and democracy, and felt with understandable but mis­taken ardor that the League was the best expression of both. In a limited sense it was. But we pictured it as more powerful and adequate than it could pos­sibly be under the existing Covenant. A more his­torically critical view would have told us that it was a feeble instrument. It would have been far better to have pictured the League to the peoples of the world as weak, tentative and experimental, but a device from which might grow a better organization in the future.

Within the powers given them, the servants of the League accomplished a magnificent record. The failure of the League to prevent major crises was due to its own inherent structural weaknesses and to the hesitating and downright deceitful action of its own members. To say that it failed due to events beyond its control is to beg the whole question. Any organization given to the common people of the world as a device to relieve injustice and to keep the peace must be powerful enough to meet and to resolve major crises. We expected the resilience and strength of an oak. We planted a tree of lesser valor.

Eleventh, the League never met its highest possi­bilities because England and France were either un­ willing or unable to give unified backing at critical junctures. Manchuria, Ethiopia and Spain are three examples. Dr. T. V. Soong, Minister for Foreign Affairs for China, in an address at Carnegie Hall on October 10, 1942, remarked in part:

“But we know that the League failed for a very con­crete reason—because the two great powers which controlled it and could prevent action by it did not believe it was necessary for their own security.

“That is not the situation today.

“Today those powers which did not feel the League useful to safeguard their own security, and you who felt it even less necessary for your own security, have to recognize that international order and collective security have become essential for the survival of strong states as, well as the preservation of weaker ones. Today an aggressor left alone in his prepara­tions can get a death jump on a strong state as well as a weak one.

“A second difference from the League—is that this time we can form our international society while we are still fighting the war.

“Undoubtedly much of the trouble with the League was that it was formed after and not during the first World War when Allied Nations no longer had to find answers to the thousand and one reasons why men do not want to cooperate. . . .”

Twelfth, the League failed because the Covenant did not provide for instantaneous and automatic ap­plication of full sanctions toward aggressors.

The first two paragraphs of Article XVI read:

“Should any Member of the League resort to war in disregard of its covenants under Articles 12, 13 or 15, it shall ipso facto be deemed to have committed an act of war against all other Members of the League, which hereby undertake immediately to subject it to the severance of all trade or financial relations, the prohibition of all intercourse between their nationals and the nationals of the covenant-breaking State, and the prevention of all financial, commercial or personal intercourse between the nationals of the covenant-breaking State and the nationals of any other State, whether a Member of the League or not.

“It shall be the duty of the Council in such case to recommend to the several Governments concerned what effective military, naval or air force the Mem­bers of the League shall severally contribute to the armed forces to be used to protect the covenants of the League.”

The first part of this is explicit, but the Council’s duty only to recommend to the Governments effec­tive military, naval and air contributions to protect the members of the League was the fatal weakness. Also oil was not included in exports which were to be shut off. Military action was left to the dis­cretion, good will or ill will of the individual mem­bers. Thus the latter part of Article XVI effectively wiped out the earlier definite language. The only sanctions which will work are those which all mem­bers are bound to obey automatically and instantaneously, and which include the provision that if any country foils to come into the enterprise of mutual aid at once that such a betrayal will be equal to aggression.

Thirteenth, the chief reason the League failed was because the United States refused to participate as a member. It is hard for Americans to realize the shock which our refusal to join gave to such peoples as the Czechs who hailed Woodrow Wilson almost as a superhuman personality, to the British, to all the Continent and nations in every part of the world. At its birth, the League was fatally handicapped through American repudiation, repudiation by the people out of whose life and thought it grew, the most powerful single unit in the world and in spite of all blemishes, the most liberal. Millions overseas could not understand our sharp reversal of opinion from the enthusiasm for world service of 1917 and 1918 to the reaction of 1919 and 1920, and they can­not understand it now. The truth is there was no great reversal of public opinion while the League is­sue was being debated during the peace negotiations and for months thereafter. Harding decided to inter­pret the vote of 1920 as anti-League. As a matter of fact a majority of the Senate voted for the League, but a two-thirds vote was required. By that time the campaign of Hiram Johnson, Henry Cabot Lodge and William E. Borah against Wilson and all his works had won away enough votes to make a two-thirds majority impossible.

The single greatest fear of non-American states­men regarding a structure for world peace after this war is that history will repeat itself.

America’s refusal to come in effectively stopped any genuine application of sanctions, thereby losing to the League its major means of controlling aggres­sors. Sanctions were bound to fail. If they were applied rigidly and the United States were not in­cluded, we would have insisted on trading with the offending nation. There was always the danger of sinking our ships and bringing us into the war. No nation, especially England and France, wanted to take this risk. Our refusal to join, thus fundamen­tally weakened the League at one of the few points where it could exercise effective pressure on preda­tory nations.

Our rejection gave the League a bad start, created cynicism and doubt, and held us aloof from the great­est experiment, so far, in attempting an organization to make and to preserve peace. We impoverished ourselves politically and spiritually for selfish reasons, and we impoverished and endangered others by re­fusing to take our share of whatever praise or blame, whatever disgrace or glory, might attach to the League.

In the face of world needs for two decades we have been spiritually and politically stopped. When our representatives from all walks of life have raised their voices, and they have done so magnificently at times, our critics abroad have spoken of fulsome American preaching, or have thought with sorrow on what might have been. We had the small foreign policy of a state the size of Costa Rica instead of one suitable to the largest nation in the world.

But no person emotionally and politically mature need be cynical about the League. It accomplished much. The seed of a supra-national order has been sown and it will never die. As Irving Fisher has pointed out, the League period in international life is comparable to what John Fiske called the “critical period” in American history, when our thirteen colo­nies were loosely federated under our Articles of Confederation. It was a painful period of poorly co­ordinated effort and state rivalries. It was launched with a promise it could not fulfill. Fortunately for us during these years no major divisive controversy became a burning issue, as slavery later became. And, most fortunately, we were blessed at the moment by statesmen who saw the value of New Hampshire, Vermont and other small and poor states as well as the worth and power of Massachusetts, New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. We were blessed with statesmanship which could make the grand compro­mise, which is politics at their best, and achieve re­sults which benefited all and harmed none. There will come a day when all nations will give up some sovereignty that they may have peace and enjoyment of moderate benefits. No one gave up much sov­ereignty under the Covenant.

We shall have various choices when the arms of the United Nations are crowned with victory. We can (1) do what we did after the last war, sulk in our tent, drift into isolation (2) enter a military alliance similar to the Axis. Both of these choices would lead to war. (3) We could accept Clarence Streit’s Union Now, an immediate federation of all democratic powers, which is unlikely. Nations are not yet at the point where they will so dilute their sovereignty. (4) We could revive the League. (5) We can erect an Executive Council of the United Nations which can take the most effective parts of the League and employ them.

We should not attempt too little nor too much. An Executive Council of the United Nations should do a few things well and with iron resolution. Weak­ness, vacillation or divided counsels will lead us to another war. Whereas the staffs of the chief mili­tary powers engaged on our side, Russia, China, the British Commonwealth and the United States, must be primarily charged with fighting the war, the Ex­ecutive Council should be primarily charged with stating the aims of both the war and the peace, in framing and announcing before the guns cease firing, both the immediate and the long-term measures which will be taken to make and to keep the peace. A few resolute steps, with no fanfare, steps we are ready to pledge ourselves to, now, will test out whether association together can lead us to a more elaborate and enduring structure which may include all mankind.

Not a moment should be lost giving effect to pre-announced plans when the war ends, plans to occupy, to help feed, if necessary, to administer, to protect, and to reeducate the Axis. No armistice and no peace conference is needed. Either would imperil the quick working of the material and spiritual forces of recovery. The Axis nations will be physically and spiritually bankrupt. Their peoples will respond to any clear-cut measures, definitely dated in extent of operation. They will respond to plans carried through with iron resolution. There must be no hesitation, no waste of time. Each Axis nation should be handled by only one Allied power as trus­tee for all the rest. Unless prearranged, clear-cut action is taken the moment the war ceases, the great moment will be lost, and we shall be compelled to fight another war.

In major tests the League failed. This was no fault of the tool which was made to bear only cer­tain strains. The faults of the Covenant were few given wholehearted cooperation by the United States, it probably would have worked well. The great dereliction was in the behavior of individuals and of nations. Some day enlightened minds—after this war or the next, or the next—will build an instrument which will command respect and loyalty and be pow­erful enough to save mankind from the international immorality in which we flounder today. If we do not, through an Executive Council of the United Na­tions or by some other method, form an even more adequate device than the League, and if by chance we refrain from joining again, a third World War is inevitable.

Photo Credit: Malaria Commission of the League of Nations, Geneva. Photograph by Poesch photographic agency, 1928, via Wikimedia Commons.

The League of Nations and the United States

Although the League of Nations was the first permanent organization established with the purpose of maintaining international peace, it built on the work of a series of 19th-century intergovernmental institutions. The destructiveness of World War I led American and British statesmen to champion a league as a means of maintaining postwar global order. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson followed his predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, in advocating American membership of an international peace league, although Wilson’s vision for reforming global affairs was more radical. In Britain, public opinion had begun to coalesce in favor of a league from the outset of the war, though David Lloyd George and many of his Cabinet colleagues were initially skeptical of its benefits. However, Lloyd George was determined to establish an alliance with the United States and warmed to the league idea when Jan Christian Smuts presented a blueprint for an organization that served that end.

The creation of the League was a predominantly British and American affair. Yet Wilson was unable to convince Americans to commit themselves to membership in the new organization. The Franco-British-dominated League enjoyed some early successes. Its high point was reached when Europe was infused with the “Spirit of Locarno” in the mid-1920s and the United States played an economically crucial, if politically constrained, role in advancing Continental peace. This tenuous basis for international order collapsed as a result of the economic chaos of the early 1930s, as the League proved incapable of containing the ambitions of revisionist powers in Europe and Asia. Despite its ultimate limitations as a peacekeeping body, recent scholarship has emphasized the League’s relative successes in stabilizing new states, safeguarding minorities, managing the evolution of colonies into notionally sovereign states, and policing transnational trafficking in doing so, it paved the way for the creation of the United Nations.



  • Late 19th-Century History
  • 20th Century: Pre-1945
  • Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy

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