Monday, January 26, 2009

The League of Nations

Yesterday, ninety years ago, a second "plenary" session was held (again, big states and small, but only the victors). This time, there was more than rhetoric, though there was a good deal of that. The Four announced that Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations would be a part of each peace treaty. Further, a number of committees were named to deal with various sets of boundary issues and economic/financial issues. This was on a Saturday, so today ninety years ago, the peacemakers rested.

The League was a part of Wilson's plan for reconstructing Europe, a plan which he had first announced over a year before, in a speech to a joint session of Congress on January 8, 1918. To these he later developed several addenda and corollaries.

Several agendas are reflected in the Points. On the surface is a kind of "openness"—glasnost, we might say. Wilson gave a mood to his plan with the opening point: "I.--Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind, but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view." Many of the remaining points are quite specific: a revived Poland, the region of Transylvania to be taken from Hungary and given to Romania, and the like. But the final point is both general and specific: "XIV. 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."

This was the League of Nations. The idea of some kind of European association is not new at all. Napoleon, Charles V, Charlemagne had all imagined they presided over willing subjects in some kind of near-total European assembly. The Holy Roman Empire, which lasted for nearly a thousand years, actually DID represent a confederal league with interlocking sovereignties, and various kinds of mediating balances designed to cut down on conflict. That confederacy was ended in 1806 by Napoleon. Indeed, in the wake of Napoleon's defeat, the Great Powers of Europe (France included) ushered in a new regime of close consultation, which they quite purposefully called "the Concert of Europe."

So the idea of a European organization was hardly new. And in the immediate sense, it may be that the specific idea came to Wilson and his alter ego House from the British. But in the end, the American President championed the idea and indeed insisted on it. France and Britain both assumed that it would be an instrument they could use when needed. So it was that the first real decision of the Conference was to decide that Europe would be run by a League of Nations.

A few comments follow.

As it would develop, there were problems. The League was envisioned to have real responsibilities, such as enforcing decent treatment to ethnic minorities within the new boundaries the peacemakers would create. Yet it had no real means of enforcement. Hence, Poland or Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia would find it easy to treat minorities blatantly unfairly (expropriation, legal disadvantages of various kinds, etc.).

At the same time, the League was set up without reference to the losing Powers or to Russia. So, again, the basic problem of a European-wide, in some ways global, peace being laid out by the representatives of only about sixty percent of the whole populations directly involved. True, the governments of the losing powers would be called on "accept" the individual treaties, but only under the extreme duress of looming starvation and renewed hostilities. And there was Russia in any case—on the winning side but wholly left out of the peacemaking by virtue of the Bolshevik Revolution.

One way or the other, the announcement of the League ninety years ago forces us to come to terms with the aggressive personality of Woodrow Wilson, who seemed so peaceful and forgiving to his contemporaries and indeed to many subsequent historians (especially the highly skilled, and extremely sympathetic, fellow scholars who accompanied him to Paris and beatified him later). Yet in the years before the United States had gone to war with Germany, Wilson had authorized American invasions of Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. His supporters have argued that that he only engaged in these invasions to "help" the countries involved, but this is precisely the same argument forwarded by every aggressing power in modern times. The fact that Wilson talked of "our nation" "serving" other nations by invading and subsequently organizing them did not make the thousands of "enemy" KIA or the dead civilians of the invaded countries any less dead.

Now in Europe, with the adulation of near-hysterical crowds in Rome and Paris and even London fresh on his mind, Wilson, the zealot of progressive "improvement," the apostle of organization, the Presbyterian minister's son whose immediately response to a problem was to set up a committee—this Woodrow Wilson seems very much like the interesting psychological specimen described by Alexander L. George and Juliette L. George in their psychobiographical studies of Wilson: an angry, controlling man who had an ultimate sense of "saving" others through his own rightness, but for whom flexibility was abhorrent. He was a man, he said on more than one occasion, who carried a "volcano about with me."

More on this later. In any case, ninety years ago, where peacemakers have classically gotten past anguish and disappointment by dealing in incremental points of agreement to balance off necessary disagreements, the Conference carried out its first significant act in the form of the announcement of the odd, stilted, mechanistic League of Nations.

Not very auspicious.

Available on Google Books: Alexander L. George and Juliette L. George, Presidential Personality and Performance (Westview Press, 1998).

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