Isolation Policies and The League of Nations


By WENDELL WILLKIE, Presidential Candidate in 1940

Delivered at the 147th Commencement of Union College, May 11, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 485-486.

YOU young men are about to enter into the affairs of a world torn by a hideous war. Large portions of it are dominated by intolerance and hate. An adventurer still rules the greater part of Europe as a military overlord, and the octopus of Japan, grown more menacing by feeding in fresh waters, extends its tentacles over the rich resources of the Far East.

Yet it was only a short time ago—less than a quarter of a century—that the democratic nations, including our own, gained an outstanding victory over the forces of conquest and aggression then led by Imperial Germany. We believed that we had attained peace for our time, at least. We believed that for a long period to come the world would not again be plunged into one of those appalling, devastating, all-embracing conflicts.

Somewhere along the line—and certainly we cannot escape our share of the responsibility—there has been a shocking failure to uphold and secure the world peace that had been won at such great cost and sacrifice. You as young men must analyze that failure if this present war is to be anything more than just another season of blood-letting; if a prostrate civilization is to be lifted up and given purpose and meaning, beyond merely the restoration of its vigor for renewed combat. That is all we did in the twenty-one-year period between 1918 and 1939. You must not repeat our mistakes.

Both Parties Criticized

Our own history furnishes, I believe, the clue to our failure. One of its most obvious weaknesses in the light of what is going on today is the lack of any continuity in our foreign policy. Neither major party can claim to have pursued a stable or consistent program of international cooperation even during the relatively brief period of the last forty-five years. Each has had its season of world outlook— sometimes an imperialistic one—and each its season of strict isolationism, the Congressional leadership of the party out of power usually blindly opposing the program of the party in power, whatever it might be.

For years the intellectual leadership in both parties has recognized that if peace, economic prosperity and liberty itself were to continue in this world, the nations of the world must find a method of economic stabilization and cooperative effort.

These aspirations at the end of the first World War, under the leadership of Woodrow Wilson, produced a concrete program of international cooperation intended to safeguard all nations against military aggression, to protect racial minorities and to give the oncoming generation some confidence that it could go about its affairs without a return of the disrupting and blighting scourge of war.

Whatever we may think about the details of that program, it was definite affirmative action for world peace. We cannot state positively just how effective it might have proved, had the United States extended to it support, influence and active participation.

Isolation Called Failure

But we do know that we tried the opposite course and found it altogether futile. We entered into an era of strictest detachment from world affairs. Many of our public leaders, Democratic and Republican, went about the country proclaiming that we had been tricked into the last war, that our ideals had been betrayed, that never again should we allow ourselves to become entangled in world politics which would inevitably bring about another armed outbreak.

We were blessed with natural barriers, they maintained, and need not concern ourselves with the complicated and unsavory affairs of an old world beyond our borders. As a result, along with all the other democratic nations, we did nothing when Japan invaded Manchuria, though our own Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson, expressed his outrage; we with the other democracies sat by while Italy wantonly invaded Ethiopia and we let Hitler enter the Rhineland without even a protest.

We shut ourselves away from world trade by excessive tariff barriers. We washed our hands of the continent of Europe and displayed no interest in its fate while Germany re-armed. We torpedoed the London Economic Conference when the European democracies, with France lagging in the rear, were just beginning to recover from the economic depression that had sapped their vitality, and when the instability of foreign exchange remained the principal obstacle to full revival. And in so doing, we sacrificed a magnificent opportunity for leadership in strengthening and rehabilitating the democratic nations, in fortifying them against assault by the forces of aggression which at that very moment were beginning to gather.

Even as late as 1938, we concentrated on domestic reform.

Points to League Defeat

All of this happened when you were too young to be concerned with the nature of our leadership. The responsibility for it does not attach solely to any political party. For neither major party stood consistently and conclusively before the American public as either the party of world outlook or the party of isolation. If we were to say that Republican leadership destroyed the League of Nations in 1920, we must add that it was Democratic leadership that broke up the London Economic Conference in 1933.

I was a believer in the League. Without, at this time, however, arguing either for or against the provisions of the League plans, I should like to point out to you the stepsleading to its defeat here in the United States. For that fight furnishes a perfect example of the type of leadership we must avoid in this country if we are ever going to fulfill our responsibilities as a nation that believes in a free world, a just world, a world at peace.

President Wilson negotiated the peace proposals at Versailles including the covenant of the League. Upon his return the treaty and the covenant were submitted to the United States Senate for ratification. And there arose one of the most dramatic episodes in American history. I cannot here trace the detail of that fight which resulted in rejection on the part of the United States of world leadership. Let me, however, try to give you the broad outlines of the picture.

First, as to the Senate group, the so-called "battalion of death," the "irreconcilables," or the "bitter-enders." Here was a faction that had no party complexion. In its leadership the name of the Democratic orator, James A. Reed, occupies as conspicuous a position as that of the Republican, Borah. At the other extreme was the uncompromising war President, Woodrow Wilson, who insisted on the treaty with every "i" dotted and every "t" crossed. Between them were the reservationists, of various complexions and opinions, and of both Republican and Democratic affiliation.

We do not know today, and perhaps we never shall know, whether the Republican leader of the Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge, whose name we now associate with the defeat of the League, truly wanted the League adopted with safeguarding reservations, or whether he employed the reservations to kill the League. Many may have convictions on this point, but I doubt that any one has conclusive knowledge. Even his close friends and members of his family have reported contrary opinions on the subject.

But we do know that when this question passed from the Senate to the two great political conventions of 1920, neither of them stood altogether for or altogether against the treaty as it had been brought home by the President. The Democratic Convention in its platform did not oppose reservations. The Republican platform adopted a compromise plank which was broad enough to accommodate those of any viewpoint respecting the particular Woodrow Wilson covenant. There were many firm supporters of the League in the Republican ranks. They found the platform altogether ample to give them standing room, while the anti-League delegates found safe footing there too.

Says People Were Confused

Forgive me if I rehearse this old story in too great detail. The point I want to make for you young men today is that the American people were altogether confused about the treaty issue and about the position of the respective parties on it. Many of their leaders talked two ways.

The platforms were ambiguous; the parties had no consistent historical position about the cooperation of the United States with other nations. The confusion was doubled by the attitude of the Republican candidate, Warren Harding. There was no doubt that Cox's position on the Democratic ticket was a fairly definite support of the Wilson treaty, though his party platform left open the possibility of reservations and many of the Democratic leaders were openly in opposition.

But no one was certain whether Harding was merely pulling his punches against the League or whether he intended to support it aggressively upon election in a modified form. In private conversation he gave each man the answer he wanted, and of his speeches the Republican National Committeeman from California, Chester H. Rowell, said:

"One-half of the speeches were for the League of Nations if you read them hastily, but if you read them with care every word of them could have been read critically as against the League of Nations. The other half were violent speeches against the League of Nations if you read them carelessly, but if you read them critically every one of them could be interpreted as in favor of the League of Nations."

It was not until after the election returns were in that Harding spoke frankly of the League as "now deceased."

Doubts People Opposed Objective

I am satisfied that the American people never deliberately and intentionally turned their backs on a program for international cooperation in an organization for maintaining world peace. Possibly they would have preferred changes in the precise Versailles covenant, but not complete aloofness from the efforts of other nations. They were betrayed by leaders without convictions who were thinking in terms of group vote catching.

I do not want to see that same thing happen again. If our isolation after the last war was a contributing factor to the present war and to the economic instability of the past twenty years—and it seems plain that it was—a withdrawal from the problems and responsibilities of the world after this war would be sheer disaster. Even our relative geographical isolation no longer exists.

At the end of the last war not a single plane had flown across the Atlantic. Today that ocean is a mere ribbon, with airplanes making regular scheduled flights. The Pacific is only a slightly wider ribbon in the ocean of the air, and Europe and Asia are at our very doorstep.

You are citizens now and it will be your responsibility to defend your country not only with your guns but by your votes. The men elected to public office in the next year or two may well be holding their offices during the making of the peace. As after the last war, those in Congress will determine the legislation affecting that peace. Those in other high offices will profoundly affect the attitude of their respective parties toward it.

Pleads for Strong Leaders

As citizens who may be called on to give your very lives to preserve your country's freedom, for God's sake elect to important office men who will not make a mockery of that sacrifice. Make sure that you choose leaders who have principles and the courage to state them plainly. Not men who examine each shift of sentiment and watch the polls of public opinion to learn where they stand. I beg of you, vote for straight-out men—not wobblers. This is no time for ambiguity.

I am confident, as I stand here now, that the sentiment in every city and every town and in almost every homestead of this entire land is that when we have won this war— and by that I mean when we have completely subdued those whose will and practice would be to enslave the world— when we have thus freed ourselves from threat of slavery and many millions from its very bonds—we have only cleared the way for our real task.

We must then use the full force of our influence and enlightenment as a nation to plan and establish continuing agencies under which a new world may develop—a world worth the fight and the sacrifice we have made for it.

For America must choose one of three courses after this war: Narrow isolationism, which inevitably means the loss of our own liberty; international imperialism, which means the sacrifice of some other nation's liberty; or the creation of a world in which there shall be an equality of opportunity for every race and every nation.