Lessons from the League of Nations


By FELIX MORLEY, President, Haverford College, Haverford, Pa.

Delivered at the Institute for Religious Studies, sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York City,February 16, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 370-374.

IN "The Decline of the West," that profoundly disturbing study in which Oswald Spengler so accurately predicted the advent of totalitarianism, this great German philosopher gives epigrammatic summation to the alleged antithesis between idealism and actuality. This antithesis he regarded as one factor forcing political dictatorship on our demoralized civilization.

"No faith yet has altered the world," asserts Spengler; but conversely, "no fact can ever rebut a faith."

I preface my remarks with this quotation not to provide a text for my observations and still less to indicate that I personally subscribe to all of Spengler's frequently dogmatic reasoning.

But from my now distant three-year experience at Geneva, and from my reflections in the twelve years since I left that city, I am profoundly convinced that Spengler is helpful in warning us not to concentrate all our attention on mere mechanisms of international order. And so, while I shall today make a number of criticisms which I believe would be indorsed by most close and objective students of League structure, I want at the outset to emphasize that in the task of building a post-war system, mere architectural perfection is not enough.

The Covenant of the League of Nations had serious defects. They greatly contributed to the failure of that noble experiment and they should be carefully considered and so far as possible eliminated in the establishment of the more effective world organization which I trust is a major objective of this war.

We must always remember, however, that the League of Nations did not fail wholly or even primarily because of its structural and constitutional defects. The League as constituted could have worked successfully if there had been the will, especially in the United States, to make it work. Theremight well have been no breakdown, and the world would very probably be at peace today, if in 1919 we Americans had shown a fraction of the interest in political success at Geneva that we show today in military success in Tunisia and the Solomon Islands.

Faith alone, to paraphrase Spengler, will not build a viable international order. But neither will the enormous difficulties involved rebut our conviction that this essential step forward can be successfully taken.

If faith and facts are actually irreconcilable then indeed the outlook is as black as Spengler prophesied and the only refuge for the idealist is to endeavor to withdraw, as during the Dark Ages, from a mundane world of sound and fury, signifying nothing. There is, however, at least equal reason for asserting that faith can alter facts, provided the recalcitrance of the latter is given due consideration. Our joint participation in this survey course on "Religion and the World Order" is itself evidence that we agree on the premise that faith can move mountains, Spengler to the contrary notwithstanding.

With realization that faith is both imperative and inadequate, alike for the successful waging of war and the more difficult establishment of peace, we may profitably turn to the specific lessons inherent in the failure of the League of Nations. I do so only after emphasizing that the overriding lesson was our lack of faith in the goal of a balanced and equitable international order.

I hope that now we have that faith which was the Missing Ingredient in 1919. I hope that Americans, to be specific, are now as anxious to see the Four Freedoms apply to Puerto Rico and India as we are to establish them in Slovakia and Poland. Otherwise we are only abandoning isolationism to indorse the opposite and more vicious excess of imperialism. History shows that people less volatile and emotional thanourselves have found it extraordinarily easy to jump from the frying pan into the fire without even being conscious, until too late, of the futility of this transition.

The Covenant of the League of Nations contained four major faults, both implicit and explicit, which cumulatively were certainly in large part responsible for the collapse. It does not follow, as I think I have already adequately suggested, that elimination of these faults would automatically insure a workable international organization. Experience does indicate, however, that attention to the demonstrable defects of the League would greatly improve the chances of success for whatever new structure is reared upon its ruins.

The first of these faults, all of which were general and permeating rather than specific and limited to one or more Articles in the organic act, was psychological. From the beginning the prestige and universal influence of the League was hampered by the fact that the Covenant was made an integral part of a punitive Treaty inflicted by a group of victorious powers on a group of vanquished.

I am not asserting here that the Treaty of Versailles and the satellite settlements imposed upon Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey were either undesirably or unjustly rigorous. Indeed, as matters stand today, there is some reason for argument that Germany was let off too easily in 1918. But that does not alter the unquestionable fact that the Versailles Diktat, as it was known in Germany, was precisely that—a dictated peace in which a single nation was forcibly compelled to acknowledge all the blame and responsibility for the war.

Whether or not justifiable, it was a tragic psychological blunder thus to associate the League of Nations, designed to consolidate all nations in building for a brighter future, with the war guilt clause. It meant, unfortunately, that no German citizen could ever work wholeheartedly for the League without thereby opening himself to the charge, which other Germans did not hesitate to make, that he personally repudiated everything for which he and his fellow-countrymen had made heroic sacrifice during more than four years of war. Under the circumstances it is really a tribute to German tolerance that so many of that nation's post-war leaders worked consistently in behalf of an international institution which was legally integrated with a proclamation of their national degradation.

The first lesson to be drawn from League experience, therefore, is that the terms of the post-war settlement and the provisions of the post-war organization for the future preservation of peace should this time be kept wholly distinct and separate. And that will mean that the United States must maintain its present somewhat fervid interest in international cooperation not merely during the emotionalized wartime period, but continuously thereafter, when the inevitable reaction sets in. Then the cry will arise to bring back from distant countries the hundreds of thousands of young Americans whom it is planned to continue in policing tasks during the long Armistice period which must be anticipated. It will be an urgent cry and it will be politically very influential.

As a corollary of this first lesson, of divorce between postwar settlement and post-war reorganization, it should be pointed out that the less punitive the Treaty of Peace the shorter the necessary waiting period before establishment of a promising international organization.

When the war is won the United Nations, assuming that they remain united, will have to make a difficult choice between punishment of the vanquished and establishment of peace. The more the former is emphasized the longer the latter will have to be postponed. For if we arc realistic weshall have to admit that there can be no peace worthy of the name unless the vanquished accept its terms as loyally as the victors. And this acceptance, as we should realize from our common human nature, no people will give sincerely while undergoing a castigation which at least inferentially brands them as inferior. In other words, we can choose between retribution and peace, but we cannot have both simultaneously.

The second general fault inherent in the Covenant of the League of Nations was its emphasis upon the protection and safeguarding of National Sovereignty.

Here again, as in the case of the inclusion of the Covenant in the punitive Treaty of Versailles, it is important to guard against unfair retrospective criticism. The Covenant was included in the Treaty not further to humiliate Germany but primarily because that seemed to President Wilson, Lord Robert Cecil and other League architects the quickest and surest way to get its machinery into actual operation. Similarly the doctrine of National Sovereignty was emphasized throughout the League's Constitution primarily because in 1919 any drastic limitation of that doctrine would not have been practical politics.

In spite of the Covenant's complete safeguarding of national authority, as many in this room beside myself are old enough to remember, the League was denounced in this country on the fantastic charge that it was a "Superstate." As such, the critics shouted, it would have power to send American boys to fight in distant places like Armenia. Well our soldiers are fighting in places more distant than Armenia now. But it was not the authority of the League of Nations—it was rather the lack of any reliable international authority—that sent them there.

Under the League Covenant it was necessary to have the unanimous approval of all member-states as a precedent to almost every action of any consequence. In the words of the first section of Article 5:—

Except where otherwise expressly provided in this Covenant, or by the terms of the present treaty, decisions of any meeting of the Assembly or of the Council shall require the agreement of all the members of the League represented at the meeting.

The vitiating effect of this unanimity rule stands out like a sore thumb in the record of the League of Nations. Its most baneful influence, however, was exerted at the time of the Manchurian crisis, the first step in the unbroken chain of aggression which has led in logical but fatal sequence to the situation in which we find ourselves today. As a permanent member of the Council of the League the Japanese representatives were able to block any action at Geneva under Articles 10 and 11 of the Covenant, both of which required unanimity including the vote of the nation accused of aggression. There would be a parallel for such unanimity if the vote of a jury were forced to include that of the accused whose guilt or innocence is under consideration.

Paragraph 4 of Article 15 of the Covenant does permit a report and recommendations on a dispute by majority vote of the Council. But even here exhaustive preliminaries were necessary and by the time Japan, in the Winter of 1931-32, had skillfully invoked all the delays possible, the occupation of Manchuria was a fait accompli. Thus the powerlessness of the League to check aggression on the part of a Great Power was demonstrated—and clearly noted eleven years ago in Rome and Berlin.

Instead of demanding unanimity in all but exceptional cases, the executive organ of post-war government should be authorized to act in behalf of peace by a majority, simpleor weighted, in all except clearly specified instances. Only by contracting that area of unrestrained sovereignty which the unanimity rule exemplifies can there be established an international authority worthy of that name.

The second major lesson to be drawn from League experience, therefore, is the necessity of relatively drastic limitations on the doctrine of national sovereignty. Indeed, unless there can be some definite advance over the provisions of the League Covenant in this respect all talk of post-war international organization of a political character is so much wasted breath.

Organization of any kind, from a sand-lot baseball club up, requires some subordination of the will of the individual member to accepted rules. Even my ten-year old son realizes that after three strikes he is out—not five strikes for him as against one for the boy to whom he pitches. But nations are in this respect more childish than children. National honor, or unilateral definitions of self-defense, or other pompous shibboleths of sovereignty, simply mean that there shall be no rules of the game except those which the powerful, alone or in alliances, decree shall be established in their own selfish interest.

The point should be labored a little because it takes no prophet to see that this issue of unrestricted sovereignty will be the most difficult of all the problems with which the peacemakers will be confronted.

The paradoxical situation is that we can only fight a modern war, can only support the terrible physical, social and mental strain which it involves, by steadily fanning the flames of patriotism to fever heat. Yet as soon as the war is over, assuming lasting peace to be our objective, this nationalistic psychology must immediately be thrown into reverse.

We must then forthwith emphasize not our own prodigious excellence but the necessity of subordinating ourselves to the welfare of the Community of Nations. And that will mean sacrifice by powerful vested interests and vainglorious politicians as well as by the average citizen of "God's Country." Frankly, I wonder if we can do it. I wonder if, having flexed our muscles and learned our strength we shall be willing to let the three-strike rule apply to us as well as to Wops and Polacks and Chinks and other "lesser breeds without the law"—our law.

In any event, the lesson from the League is clear. All nations, and that includes the U. S. A., must subject themselves to international law. The sovereignty of the United States—let's emphasize that—must be subject to such limitations as international law imposes.

The third major fault of the League of Nations, as I see it, was structural rather than Constitutional. It lay in a centralization of policy—a Europeanization of policy one might also say—the more unfortunate because there as no parallel concentration of authority to make concentration of policy rational or effective.

I would sit sometimes in the Council Room at Geneva, listening to that august body discussing the claims of the Hungarian optants, and feel much the same way as I have felt in the press gallery of our Senate when, on District Day, a bill for licensing chiropractors in the city of Washington is reached on the calendar. Why should there not be at least an effort to dispose of local issues through local governmental organs?

It is obvious, however, that no doubts as to the wisdom of making the Council a court of first instance for local issues would assail the representatives of Peru or other non-European nations on the Council. When the Hungarian optants—I shall not stop to tell you who they were—wouldraise their pathetic voices, all non-European Council members would invariably settle down for a quiet snooze. And all the newspaper men would follow that good example.

The structure of internationalism requires, by definition, a society in the main composed of national units for its basis. And since the mere facts of geography tend to impose a regional layer between the national and the international level of organization it would, I think, be healthy to encourage regional groupings within the universal structure. The chief obstacle to this pattern, in the past, has been the British, and to a somewhat lesser extent the French, Empire, the overseas possessions of which have in both cases been so widely scattered as to make regional organization seem inimical to their far-flung political instincts. Actually there is no conflict, for an empire is itself a special form of regionalism.

It was very apparent at Geneva, in ways other than M. Briand's abortive scheme for European Union, that regionalism is both a natural and a healthy tendency. The Latin-American Nations; the Scandinavian States; the Balkan Countries and the British Dominions all automatically tended to form blocs in order to present a common front on issues coming before the League. Without those preliminary considerations it is doubtful that the Assembly and its committees could have accomplished anything like as much as was actually achieved at Geneva.

There is a tendency now to picture regionalists and universalists, as the two schools of thought are known, as opposing camps, indorsing rival concepts of eventual world organization. This is unfortunate, for a regional organization like the Pan-American Union and its well-established conferences would assist rather than hamper the work of an overall international organization.

The only stipulation is that the activities of the regional organization should be coordinated with, and should never be hostile or rival to, that of the general association. If that is kept continuously in mind there is no reason why regional associations, including such scattered political groupings as the British Commonwealth of Nations, should be anything but helpful to a restored League. Under such a system many local disputes of an international character could probably be more easily and efficaciously settled by the regional organization, with appeal or reference to the Central Body only when no regional solution can be found.

The third major lesson from League experience is, therefore, that Regionalism should be actively encouraged, rather than discouraged, in any new international organization. For the sake of discussion I would personally suggest not one Geneva but five—Geneva itself for a federation of Continental Europe; London for the British Commonwealth of Nations; Moscow for the Soviet Union; Shanghai for an Asiatic Federation; Havana for a Pan-American Union.

The headquarters of the overall organization I would be inclined to place at Ottawa. It should certainly be both outside of Western Europe and away from the Capital of any of the most powerful nations. I favor Canada partly because its racial composition makes it a natural catalytic agent for three great peoples—American, British and French; partly because, though quasi-independent it will never, as a British Dominion, have imperialistic interests of its own; and partly because Canada's geographical location, especially for air travel, makes this American nation a closer neighbor of both Europe and Asia than any other country in the New World.

Aside from the excessive centralization which hampered the functioning of the League of Nations there is another important reason for emphasizing the regional approach inpost-war international planning. That approach takes account of political realities. It harmonizes the ideal and the factual considerations in a manner which at least holds hope that we may refute Spengler's gloomy suggestion that faith and facts are irreconcilable.

Two very difficult preliminaries must be accomplished to make an effective world organization even theoretically possible. In the first place, and this is the easier of the two prerequisites, the Axis must be defeated and its own not wholly irrational plans for regional organization, in Europe and Asia, brought to naught. In the second place the Big Three of the United Nations—Great Britain, Russia and the United States—must after victory be willing to subdue their own imperialistic ambitions and their individual concepts of sovereignty in the interest of a collective world order.

Some weeks ago Winston Churchill announced that "we plan to hold our own" and that as long as he is in control no alteration of the structure of the British Empire will be contemplated. More recently, just last week in fact, Secretary Knox advocated that the Japanese-mandated islands in the Western Pacific should come not under international but under United States control. Last week, also, the Russian government made it quite clear that Moscow plans to incorporate Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, still recognized by this country as independent States, into the Soviet Union.

These are only straws in the wind, but they are straws the direction of which Utopians would be well advised to note. Speaking bluntly, I do not myself anticipate that either Great Britain, or Russia, or the United States is likely, in the event of United Nation's victory, to argue strongly for real international control of politically strategic areas. And if that unwilling surmise turns out to be correct it means that regionalism, frankly recognizing the hegemony of a few Great Powers in the areas of their vital interest, is the only approach whereby the universalism attempted at Geneva can eventually be achieved. After all, the problem of securing world order is enormous and any who think it will be attained merely by the wave of an idealistic wand is doomed to bitter disappointment.

There remains one more important lesson from the Geneva breakdown. The new international society, whether or not achieved through regional organization, must make adequate allowances for change and growth. This the League of Nations did not do. It assumed that the political arrangements of the Treaty of Versailles could be maintained unchanged and inviolate, and it assumed this at a time when the stirring of revolutionary forces of tremendous explosive power was already visible beneath the political surface.

A similar mistake must next time be avoided. The new international order must make liberal allowance for the revision of treaties and no unanimity rule, giving blocking power to a single intransigent nation, can be permitted to prevent constant treaty revision in accordance with the judgments of equity and farsighted statesmanship.

Unless the policy of "unconditional surrender," to which we are now committed, the initial terms of post-war settlement are almost certain to be in many respects unfair, unwiseand impractical. But this need not be fatal if the eventual world organization, representing vanquished as well as victors, is given the authority to revise the immediate settlements and if it is clearly understood that the initial punitive arrangements can be altered by procedures other than those of force.

I have noted four major faults—roughly classifiable as psychological, political, structural and organic—which to my mind simply explain why the League of Nations failed. They must be eliminated in whatever new international structure is established after this war. But in closing I want to reiterate what I said at the outset—that the League could have succeeded despite its faults if there had been a universal will to make it work. Conversely, every architectural defect could be remedied and a theoretically perfect international order would similarly fail if the strength of the spirit is again lacking.

Faith and hope in the fraternity of mankind, as opposed to fear and hate between its many racial and religious divisions, must be emphasized simultaneously with the technical planning for a workable international order. Admittedly that will require great tolerance, great forgiveness, great charity, in view of the many incentives to visit upon the aggressors some portion of the suffering they have themselves inflicted.

I do not know whether mankind is big enough for the task, but 1 do know that unless we mingle the ingredient of Faith in the mortar of reconstruction no edifice that we may rear will prove enduring. I do not believe that the exigencies of rhyming alone explain why the poet Tennyson, in "Locksley Hall," unerringly placed the "Parliament of Man"—the meeting of minds in the great human family—ahead of the attainment of World Federation. You know them well, but because they are so opposite I venture to recall a few astonishingly prophetic verses:—

Men, my brothers, men the workers, ever reaping something new:
That which they have done but earnest of the things that they shall do:
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Hear the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew
From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro' the thunder-storm;
Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.