Modern history


The League of Nations

ON JANUARY 25, the peace conference formally approved the setting up of a commission on the League of Nations. A couple of the younger members of the American delegation thought it would make a wonderful inspirational film. They would show, they thought, the old diplomacy doing its evil work. Animated maps would illustrate how the seeds of war had been sown in the past: the secret alliances, the unjust wars, the conferences at which the old, selfish European powers drew arbitrary lines on the maps. The Paris Peace Conference and the League would shine out in “bold contrast.” The film would also, they were sure, make lots of money.1

It is hard today to imagine that such a project could have been taken seriously. Only a handful of eccentric historians still bother to study the League of Nations. Its archives, with their wealth of materials, are largely unvisited. Its very name evokes images of earnest bureaucrats, fuzzy liberal supporters, futile resolutions, unproductive fact-finding missions and, above all, failure: Manchuria in 1931, Ethiopia in 1935 and, most catastrophic of all, the outbreak of the Second World War a mere twenty years after the first one had ended. The dynamic leaders of the interwar years— Mussolini, Hitler, the Japanese militarists—sneered at the League and ultimately turned their backs on it. Its chief supporters—Britain, France and the smaller democracies—were lukewarm and flaccid. The Soviet Union joined only because Stalin could not, at the time, think of a better alternative. The United States never managed to join at all. So great was the taint of failure that when the powers contemplated a permanent association of nations during the Second World War, they decided to set up a completely new United Nations. The League was officially pronounced dead in 1946. It had ceased to count at all in 1939.

At its last assembly, Lord Robert Cecil, who had been there at its creation, asked, “Is it true that all our efforts for those twenty years have been thrown away?” He answered his own question bravely: “For the first time an organisation was constructed, in essence universal, not to protect the national interest of this or that country . . . but to abolish war.” The League had been, he concluded, “a great experiment.” It had put into concrete form the dreams and hopes of all those who had worked for peace through the centuries. It had left its legacy in the widespread acceptance of the idea that the nations of the world could and must work together for the collective security of them all. “The League is dead: Long live the United Nations!”2

Cecil was right. The League did represent something very important: both a recognition of the changes that had already taken place in international relations and a bet placed on the future. Just as steam engines had changed the way people moved about the surface of the earth, just as nationalism and democracy had given them a different relationship to one another and to their governments, so the way states behaved toward one another had undergone a transformation in the century before the Peace Conference met. Of course power still counted, and of course governments looked out for their countries, but what that meant had changed. If the eighteenth century had made and unmade alliances, and fought and ended wars, for dynastic advantage, even matters of honor, if it was perfectly all right to take pieces of land without any regard for their inhabitants, the nineteenth century had moved toward a different view. War increasingly was seen as an aberration, and an expensive one at that. In the eighteenth century someone’s gain was always someone’s loss; the overall ledger remained balanced. Now war was a cost to all players, as the Great War proved. National interests were furthered better by peace, which allowed trade and industry to flourish. And the nation itself was something different, no longer embodied by the monarch or a small élite but increasingly constituted by the people themselves.

In diplomacy, the forms remained the same: ambassadors presented credentials, treaties were signed and sealed. The rules, however, had changed. In the game of nations it was no longer fashionable, or even acceptable, for one nation to seize territory that was full of people of a different nationality. (Colonies did not count, because those peoples were assumed to be at a lower stage of political development.) When Bismarck created Germany, he did so in the name of German unity, not conquest for his master’s Prussia. When his creation took Alsace-Lorraine from France in 1871, the German government did its best to persuade itself and the world that this was not for the sake of old-fashioned spoils of war but because the peoples of those provinces were really German at heart.

Another factor also now entered into the equation: public opinion. The spread of democracy, the growth of nationalism, the web of railway lines and telegraphs, the busy journalists and the rotary presses churning out the mass circulation newspapers, all this had summoned up a creature that governments did not much like but which they dared not ignore. At Paris, it was assumed that negotiations would be conducted under public scrutiny.

For idealists this was a good thing. The people would bring a much needed common sense to international relations. They did not want war or expensive arms races. (This faith had not been shaken by the fact that many Europeans seemed enthusiastic about war in the decades before 1914, and positively passionate in 1914 itself.) The prosperity and progress of the nineteenth century encouraged the belief that the world was becoming more civilized. A growing middle class provided a natural constituency for a peace movement preaching the virtues of compulsory arbitration of disputes, international courts, disarmament, perhaps even pledges to abstain from violence as ways to prevent wars. The opponents of war took as models their own societies, especially those in Western Europe, where governments had become more responsive to the will of their citizens, where public police forces had replaced private guards and where the rule of law was widely accepted. Surely it was possible to imagine a similar society of nations providing collective security for its members?3

In Paris, Wilson insisted on chairing the League commission, because for him the League of Nations was the centerpiece of the peace settlements. If it could be brought into being, then everything else would sooner or later fall into place. If the peace terms were imperfect, there would be plenty of time later for the League to correct them. Many new borders had to be drawn; if they were not quite right, the League would sort them out. Germany’s colonies were going to be taken away; the League would make sure that they were run properly. The Ottoman empire was defunct; the League would act as liquidator and trustee for the peoples who were not yet ready to rule themselves. And for future generations the League would oversee general prosperity and peace, encouraging the weak, chiding the wicked and, where necessary, punishing the recalcitrant. It was a pledge that humanity was making to itself, a covenant.

The picture sometimes painted of Wilson sailing across the Atlantic bearing the gift of the League of Nations from the new world to the old is compelling but, alas, false. Many Europeans had long wanted a better way of managing international relations. The war they had just survived made sense only if it produced a better world and an end to war. That was what their own governments had promised in the dark days, and that was what had kept them going. In 1919, as Europeans contemplated those catastrophic years, with the scarcely imaginable outpouring of blood, as they realized that European society had been horribly damaged, perhaps fatally, the League struck many, and not only liberals and left-wingers, as their last chance. Harold Nicolson spoke for many of his generation when he said: “We were journeying to Paris, not merely to liquidate the war, but to found a new order in Europe. We were preparing not Peace only, but Eternal Peace. There was about us the halo of some divine mission. We must be alert, stern, righteous and ascetic. For we were bent on doing great, permanent and noble things.” 4

Lloyd George went along with Wilson’s insistence that the League should be the first task of the Peace Conference, not merely out of a cynical desire to keep the Americans happy. He was, after all, a Liberal, the leader of a party with a strong history of opposition to war. A consummate politician, he also knew the British public. “They regard with absolute horror,” he told his colleagues on Christmas Eve 1918, “the continuance of a state of affairs which might again degenerate into such a tragedy.” It would be political disaster to come back from the Peace Conference without a League of Nations. But the League never caught his imagination, perhaps because he doubted whether it could ever truly be effective. He rarely referred to it in speeches and never visited its headquarters while he was prime minister. 5

In France, where memories of past German aggression and apprehension about the future were painfully alive, there was deep pessimism about international cooperation to end war. Yet there was a willingness, especially among liberals and the left, to give the League a try. Clemenceau would have preferred to deal with the German peace first, but he was determined that it would not be said that France had blocked the League. He himself remained ambivalent, not, as is sometimes said, hostile. As he famously remarked, “I like the League, but I do not believe in it.”6

Public opinion provided general support for the League but no clear guidance as to its shape. Should it be policeman or clergyman? Should it use force or moral suasion? The French, for obvious reasons, leaned toward a League with the power to stop aggressors by force. Lawyers, especially in the English-speaking world, put their faith in international law and tribunals. For pacifists, there was still another remedy for international violence: general disarmament and a promise from all members of the League to abstain from war. And what was the League going to be like? Some sort of superstate? A club for heads of state? A conference summoned whenever there was an emergency? Whatever shape it took, it would need qualifications for membership, rules, procedures and some sort of secretariat.

The man who had put the League at the heart of the Allied peace program kept an enigmatic silence on such details during the war. Wilson spoke only in generalities, albeit inspiring ones. His League would be powerful because it would represent the organized opinion of humanity. Its members would guarantee, he said in his Fourteen Points, each other’s independence and borders. It might use force to protect these, but would probably not need to. The war had shown that ordinary people longed for such an organization; it was what they had fought for. “The counsels of plain men,” he told a huge audience in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York just before the war ended, “have become on all hands more simple and straightforward and more unified than the counsels of sophisticated men of affairs, who still retain the impression that they are playing a game of power and playing for high stakes.”7

Wilson thought it was a mistake to get down to specifics while the war was still on. That would only cause dissension among the Allies and it might give the enemy countries the impression that the League was somehow directed against them. To him it was so eminently a rational idea, the need for it so widely accepted, that it would grow on its own into a healthy organism. Even in Paris, while the League’s covenant was being drafted, he resisted what he saw as excessive detail. “Gentlemen,” he told his colleagues on the League commission, “I have no doubt that the next generation will be made up of men as intelligent as you or I, and I think we can trust the League to manage its own affairs.”8

Wilson’s casual attitude alarmed even his supporters. Fortunately, perhaps, there were several detailed plans floating about. As the war had dragged on, it had inevitably provoked much discussion about ways to forestall conflict. In the United States, the League to Enforce Peace brought Democrats and Republicans together. In Britain, a League of Nations Society drew a respectable middle-class, liberal membership. To their left, the Fabians sponsored a full-scale study of the matter by Leonard Woolf. At the beginning of 1918, the French and British governments decided that they had better get in on the act since, thanks to Wilson, a League of Nations was now an explicit Allied war aim. In France a commission under the prominent liberal statesman Léon Bourgeois drew up an elaborate scheme for an international organization with its own army. In Britain a special committee under a distinguished lawyer, Sir Walter Phillimore, produced a detailed set of recommendations that incorporated many of the prewar ideas on, for example, compulsory arbitration of disputes. Its approach was cautious, rejecting both utopian ideas of a world federation and the pragmatic suggestion that a league should be merely a continuation of the wartime alliance. When the British government sent him a copy of the Phillimore report, Wilson said unhelpfully that he found it disappointing and that he was working on his own scheme, which he would unveil in due course. His main principles, he allowed the British to learn, were two: “There must be a League of Nations and this must be virile, a reality, not a paper League.” The war ended with no more definite word than that from Washington.9

It was at this point that one of the luminaries of the British empire decided to try his hand at drafting a scheme. Thin, with hard blue eyes, General Jan Smuts, the South African foreign minister, was not particularly imposing at first glance. (In London, Borden’s secretary thought he had come to fix the electric light and curtly told him to wait outside.) He had, however, precisely the sort of personal qualities to appeal to Wilson, because they were so much like his own: a fondness for dealing with the great questions, deep religious and ethical convictions, and a desire to make the world a better place. Both men had grown up in stable, happy families in small communities, Wilson in the American South, Smuts in the settled Boer farming community of the Cape. Both had fond memories of happy black servants (although both doubted that blacks would ever be the equals of whites) and unhappy memories of war, civil in Wilson’s case and Boers against the British in Smuts’s. Both were sober and restrained on the surface, passionate and sensitive underneath. Both combined vast self-righteousness with huge ambition. Both were quick to see the inconsistencies in others while remaining blind to their own. 10

Smuts sailed through school and Stellenbosch University and then, like many bright young men from the colonies, headed off to England. At Cambridge he worked assiduously, collecting prizes and a double first in law. In London, where he prepared for the bar, he never, as far as is known, visited a play or a concert or an art gallery. In his limited spare time he read poetry: Shelley, Shakespeare, but above all Walt Whitman, whose deep love of nature he shared. If Wilson could inspire his audience with his sober prose, if Lloyd George could lift them up with his golden speeches, Smuts could, above all the other peacemakers, sing to them.11 Smuts had advised on the great issues of the war; it was natural that he would also advise on the peace.

Smuts had greeted Wilson’s appearance on the world stage with enthusiasm. “It is this moral idealism and this vision of a better world which has up-borne us through the dark night of this war,” he told a group of American newspapermen. The world was shattered but there now lay before it a gigantic opportunity. “It is for us to labour in the remaking of that world to better ends, to plan its international reorganization on lines of universal freedom and justice, and to re-establish among the classes and nations that good-will which is the only sure foundation for any enduring international system.” The words, and the exhortations, poured out. “Let us not underrate our opportunity,” he cried to a weary world. “The age of miracles is never past.” Perhaps they had come to the moment when they could end war itself forever.12

What Smuts said less loudly was that the League of Nations could also be useful to the British empire. In December 1918 he prepared one of his dazzling analyses of the world for his British colleagues. With Austria-Hungary gone, Russia in turmoil and Germany defeated, there were only three major powers left in the world: the British empire, the United States and France. The French could not be trusted. They were rivals to the British in Africa and in the Middle East. (The French returned Smuts’s antipathy, especially after he inadvertently left some of his confidential papers behind at a meeting in Paris.) It made perfect sense, Smuts argued, for the British to look to the United States for friendship and cooperation. “Language, interest, and ideals alike” had marked out their common path. The best way to get the Americans to realize this was to support the League. Wilson, everyone knew, thought the League his most important task; if he got British support, he would probably drop awkward issues such as his insistence on freedom of the seas.13

Smuts set himself to put what he described as Wilson’s “rather nebulous ideas” into coherent form. Working at great speed, he wrote what he modestly called “A Practical Suggestion.” A general assembly of all member nations, a smaller executive council, a permanent secretariat, steps to settle international disputes, mandates for peoples not yet ready to rule themselves: much of what later went into the League covenant was in his draft. But there was also much more: the horrors of the recent war, a Europe reduced to its atoms, ordinary people clinging to the hope of a better world, and the great opportunity lying before the peacemakers. “The very foundations have been shakened and loosened, and things are again fluid. The tents have been struck, and the great caravan of humanity is once more on the march.” Smuts wrote proudly to a friend: “My paper has made an enormous impression in high circles. I see from the Cabinet Minutes that the Prime Minister called it ‘one of the ablest state papers he had ever read.’ ” It was immediately published as a pamphlet.14

It was, commented an American legal expert, “very beautifully written” but rather vague in places. Smuts had carefully avoided, for example, discussing mandates for Germany’s former colonies in Africa. (This was deliberate; he was determined that his own country should hang on to German Southwest Africa.) Wilson, to whom Lloyd George gave a copy, liked it, not least because Smuts insisted that the making of the League must be the first business of the Peace Conference. Back in Paris after his tour of Europe, Wilson set himself to the task he had so long postponed, of getting his own ideas down on paper. The result, which he showed the British on January 19, borrowed many of Smuts’s ideas. He did not mind, Smuts told a friend: “I think there is a special satisfaction in knowing that your will is quietly finding out the current of the Great Will, so that in the end God will do what you ineffectively set out to do.” Wilson pronounced Smuts “a brick.”15

Wilson also came to approve of Robert Cecil, the other British expert on the League. Thin, stern, reserved, Cecil often reminded people of a monk. He rarely smiled, and when he did, said Clemenceau, it was like “a Chinese dragon.” He was a devout Anglican by conviction, a lawyer by training, a politician by profession and an English aristocrat by birth. His family, the Cecils, had served the country since the sixteenth century. Balfour was a cousin and his father was the great Lord Salisbury, Conservative prime minister for much of the 1880s and 1890s. The young Robert met Disraeli and Gladstone, visited Windsor Castle and was taken to call on the crown prince of Prussia. His upbringing, at once privileged and austere, created in him a strong sense of right and wrong and an equally strong sense of public duty. When the war broke out, he was fifty, too old to fight, so he volunteered to work for the Red Cross in France. By 1916 he was in charge of the blockade against Germany.16

By this point he had come to the firm conviction that the world must establish an organization to prevent war, and he welcomed Wilson’s pronouncements enthusiastically. His first encounter with the president, in December 1918, was sadly disappointing. The two men were able only to exchange a few remarks at a large reception. When they finally had a proper conversation, in Paris on January 19, Cecil found Wilson’s ideas on the League largely borrowed from the British. Wilson himself, Cecil wrote in his diary, “is a trifle of a bully, and must be dealt with firmly though with the utmost courtesy and respect—not a very easy combination to hit off.” Wilson assigned David Hunter Miller to meet Cecil and come up with a common draft, a sign of the growing cooperation between the Americans and the British.17

On January 25, when the Peace Conference created the Commission on the League of Nations, the room resounded with noble sentiments. The mood was somewhat spoiled when representatives of the smaller nations, already restive about their role in Paris, grumbled that the commission was made up only of representatives, two apiece, from the Big Five—the British empire, France, Italy, Japan and the United States. They too, said the prime minister of Belgium, had suffered. Clemenceau, in the chair, was having none of this. The Five had paid for their seats at the Peace Conference with their millions of dead and wounded. The smaller powers were fortunate to have been invited at all. As a concession, they would be allowed to nominate five representatives for the League commission. The flurry of revolt subsided, but the resentment did not. When the British and Americans unveiled their plan for a League with an executive council of the Five, the small powers made such a fuss that they were eventually given the right to vote four additional members.18

Cecil thought Wilson was mad when he talked of writing the League covenant in two weeks, but in fact the work went extraordinarily quickly, thanks partly to the fact that the British and the Americans had come to substantial agreement beforehand. The first meeting was held on February 3, and by February 14 a comprehensive draft was ready. The commission’s nineteen members met almost daily, in House’s rooms at the Crillon, seated around a large table covered with a red cloth. Behind them sat their interpreters murmuring quietly in their ears. The British and the Americans were beside each other, consulting each other continually. The French were separated from them by the Italians. The Portuguese and the Belgians were inexhaustible; the Japanese rarely uttered. Wilson, in the chair, was brisk, discouraging speeches and discussions of details and pushing the League in the direction he wanted. “I am coming to the conclusion,” Cecil wrote, “that I do not personally like him. I do not know quite what it is that repels me: a certain hardness, coupled with vanity and an eye for effect.” House, the other American representative, was always there at the president’s elbow, although he rarely spoke. Behind the scenes he was, as usual, busy: “I try to find out in advance where trouble lies and to smooth it out before it goes too far.”19

Neither Lloyd George nor Clemenceau put himself on the commission. Baker saw this as more proof, if any were needed, that the Europeans did not take the League seriously. They were happy, he said darkly, to see Wilson occupied while they shared out the spoils of war in their customary fashion. But Wilson continued to attend the Supreme Council and shared in all its major decisions. Lloyd George, as he had done throughout his political career, chose men he trusted—in this case Smuts and Cecil— gave them full authority and generally left them to it. Clemenceau appointed two leading experts, whom he equally typically treated badly, Professor Ferdinand Larnaude, dean of the faculty of law at the University of Paris, and Léon Bourgeois. 20

A man of great learning and cultivation, Bourgeois was an expert in the law, a student of Sanskrit and a connoisseur of music, as well as a passable sculptor and caricaturist. After entering politics as a liberal, he had risen rapidly to the top: minister of the interior, of education, of justice, foreign minister, prime minister. His interest in international order dated back long before the war; he had represented France at the Hague peace conferences, which tried, without success, to put limits on war. When Wilson outlined his hopes for the League, Bourgeois wept for joy. In 1919, however, he was old and tired. His eyesight was failing and he suffered terribly from the cold.21

He labored, moreover, under considerable handicaps. Many French officials persisted in seeing the League as a continuation of the wartime alliance, still directed against Germany. Clemenceau made no secret that he thought Bourgeois a fool. When House asked why Bourgeois had ever been prime minister, Clemenceau replied, “When I was unmaking Cabinets, the material ran out, and they took Bourgeois.” The British and the Americans regarded him as something of a joke with his prolix speeches in mellifluous French which, on occasion, put them to sleep. Wilson took a positive dislike to him, in part because he had heard that Clemenceau had given him instructions to delay proceedings as much as possible. This was probably true. Bourgeois did very little without consulting Clemenceau, who was hoping to squeeze concessions out of Wilson over the German peace terms. “Let yourselves be beaten,” he told Bourgeois and Larnaude. “It doesn’t matter. Your setbacks will help me to demand extra guarantees on the Rhine.” Bourgeois was bitter but resigned. “In other words,” he told Poincaré, “he asks me simply to get myself killed in the trenches, while he fights elsewhere.” 22

In the League commission meetings, the French representatives fought against both the British and the Americans to give the League teeth, something, after all, Wilson had once said he wanted. Bourgeois argued that the League should operate like the justice system in any modern democratic state, with the power to intervene where there were breaches of the peace and forcibly restore order. In other words, if there were disputes among League members, these would automatically be submitted to compulsory arbitration. If a state refused to accept the League’s decision, then the next step would be sanctions, economic, even military. He advocated strict disarmament under a League body with sweeping powers of inspection and an international force drawn from League members.23The British and the Americans suspected that such proposals were merely another French device to build a permanent armed coalition against Germany. In any case, they were quite out of the question politically. The U.S. Congress, which had enough trouble sharing the control of foreign policy with the president, was certainly not going to let other nations decide when and where the United States would fight. The Conservatives in Lloyd George’s government, the army and the navy and much of the Foreign Office preferred to put their faith in the old, sure ways of defending Britain. The League, said Churchill, is “no substitute for the British fleet.” It was all “rubbish” and “futile nonsense,” said Henry Wilson, chief of the Imperial General Staff. Britain could be dragged into conflicts on the Continent or farther afield in which it had no interest.24

British reservations were echoed by several of the dominion delegates in Paris, something Lloyd George and his colleagues could not easily ignore. Alight with malice like a small imp, Billy Hughes was predictably vehement. He liked the French and hated the Americans, not least because Wilson had snubbed him during a visit to Washington. The League, he said, was Wilson’s toy: “he would not be happy till he got it.” Speaking for Australia and himself, he did not want to see the British empire dragged behind Wilson’s triumphal chariot. Borden added his more sober and tactful criticisms. He liked the idea of a League, but he would have preferred one without too many Europeans. His real dream was always a partnership between the United States and the British empire. The Canadians, who had just won from Britain a measure of control over their own foreign policy, did not intend to turn around and hand it back to another superior body.25

French attempts to sharpen the League’s teeth irritated the other Allies and threatened to hold up the Peace Conference. As the commission on the League rushed to get the first draft finished before Wilson went back to the United States for his brief visit, enough leaked out of its secret meetings to cause alarm. “Dark clouds are gathering in conference quarters,” wrote the American correspondent of the Associated Press, “and there is a general atmosphere of distrust and bitterness prevailing, with the fate of the League Covenant still very much in doubt.” It did not help that the French press was starting to attack Wilson or that Clemenceau gave an interview in which he warned that France must not be sacrificed in the name of noble but vague ideals. Rumors circulated that in retaliation Wilson was going to move the whole Peace Conference from Paris or perhaps give up the attempt to get a League altogether.

On February 11, three days before Wilson was due to sail, the League commission met for most of the day. The French brought up amendments to create a League army. “Unconstitutional and also impossible,” said Wilson. The meeting adjourned without a decision. The next day, David Hunter Miller recorded in his diary, Cecil coldly pointed out their predicament to the French: “In his view they were saying to America, and to a lesser extent to Great Britain, that because more was not offered they would not take the gift that was at hand, and he warned them very frankly that the alternative offer which we have made, if the League of Nations was not successful, was an alliance between Great Britain and the United States.” Bourgeois backed down, but he did make one last, futile attempt a month later, when he suggested that the League should have its own general staff. This, he said mildly, could give the League council information and prepare plans so that it would not be caught flat-footed when wars came. Wilson was enraged. “The French delegates seem absolutely impossible,” he told Grayson, his physician. “They talk and talk and talk and desire constantly to reiterate points that have already been thoroughly thrashed out and completely disposed of.” Bourgeois returned the antipathy. He told Poincaré that Wilson was both authoritarian and deeply untrustworthy: “He conducted everything with the goal of personal exaltation in mind.”26

By February 13, the first draft was ready. Wilson was delighted, both with the auspicious date and with the fact that the articles numbered twenty-six, twice thirteen. The main outlines of the League were in place: a general assembly for all members, a secretariat and an executive council where the Big Five would have a bare majority (the failure of the United States to become a member of the League vitiated that clause). There would be no League army and no compulsory arbitration or disarmament. On the other hand, all League members pledged themselves to respect one another’s independence and territorial boundaries. Because the Great Powers worried that the smaller powers might get together and outvote them, there was also a provision that most League decisions had to be unanimous. This was later blamed for the League’s ineffectiveness. 27

Germany was not allowed to join right away. The French were adamant on this, and their allies were prepared to give way. Indeed, Wilson was all for treating Germany like a convict in need of rehabilitation: “The world had a moral right to disarm Germany and to subject her to a generation of thoughtfulness.” And so Germany was to be in the curious position of agreeing in the Treaty of Versailles to a club that it could not join. Both the British and Americans came to think this rather unfair.28

The covenant also reflected several other causes dear to internationalists and humanitarians. It contained an undertaking that the League would look into setting up a permanent international court of justice, provisions against arms trafficking and slavery and support for the spread of the international Red Cross. It also established the International Labour Organization to work for international standards on working conditions.

This was something middle-class reformers, left-wing parties and unions had long wanted. (The eight-hour day was their great rallying cry.) The most they had been able to achieve before the war, however, had been limits on women working at night and a ban on phosphorus in match-making. The Bolshevik revolution helped to work a miraculous change of attitude among the Western ruling classes. The workers, even in the victorious democracies, were restless. Who knew how far they would go down the path toward revolution? European labor representatives were threatening to hold a conference in Paris at the same time as the Peace Conference, with delegates from the defeated nations as well as the victors. While the Allies managed to deflect this to Berne in Switzerland, Lloyd George and Clemenceau both thought that a clause on labor in the covenant of the League would be very helpful in calming their workers down. In any case, their own political leanings, like Wilson’s, made them sympathetic to the labor movement, at least when it steered clear of revolution.29

The day the League of Nations commission was appointed, another was set up on international labor. Under the chairmanship first of the fierce little head of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, and then of the British labor leader George Barnes, it worked away quietly. Barnes complained to Lloyd George that the peacemakers took only a “languid interest” in its work.30 This was probably a good thing: the International Labour Organization came into existence with a minimum of fuss and held its first conference before the end of 1919. Unlike the League of Nations, to which it was attached, it included German representatives from the very beginning. And unlike the League, it has survived to the present day.

On February 14, Wilson presented the draft of the League covenant to a plenary session of the Peace Conference. The members of the commission had produced a document, at once practical and inspirational, of which they were all proud. “Many terrible things have come out of this war,” he concluded, “but some very beautiful things have come out of it.” That night he left Paris for the United States, confident that he had accomplished his main purpose in attending the conference.31

The covenant was not quite finished, though. The French still hoped to get in something about military force; the Japanese had warned that they intended to introduce a controversial provision on racial equality; and the mandates over the former German colonies and the Ottoman empire still had to be awarded. There was also the tricky matter of the Monroe Doctrine, underpinning U.S. policy toward the Americas. Would the League have the power, as many of Wilson’s conservative opponents feared, to override the doctrine? If so, they would oppose the League, which might well lead to its rejection by Congress. Although Wilson hated to make concessions, especially to men he loathed, he agreed on his return to Paris to negotiate a special reservation saying that nothing in the League covenant invalidated the Monroe Doctrine.32

He found himself embroiled, this time with the British, in the sort of diplomatic game that he had always regarded with contempt. Although Cecil and Smuts sympathized with his predicament and were prepared to support him, Lloyd George had scented an opportunity. He had been trying without success to get an agreement with the United States to prevent a naval race; he now hinted that he might oppose any reservation on the Monroe Doctrine. There was also a difficulty with the Japanese, who, it was feared, might ask for recognition of an equivalent doctrine for Japan warning other nations off the Far East. That in turn would upset the Chinese, already highly nervous about Japanese intentions.33

On April 10, with the naval issue thrashed out and the British back on-side, Wilson introduced a carefully worded amendment to the effect that nothing in the League covenant would affect the validity of international agreements such as the Monroe Doctrine, designed to preserve the peace. The French, resentful over their failure to get a League with teeth, attacked with impeccable logic. There was already a provision in the covenant saying that all members would make sure that their international agreements were in accordance with the League and its principles. Was the Monroe Doctrine not in conformity? Of course it was, said Wilson; indeed, it was the model for the League. Then, said Bourgeois and Larnaude, why did the Monroe Doctrine need to be mentioned at all? Cecil tried to come to Wilson’s rescue: the reference to the Monroe Doctrine was really a sort of illustration. Wilson sat by silently, his lower lip quivering. Toward midnight he burst out in a spirited defense of the United States, the guardian of freedom against absolutism in its own hemisphere and here, much more recently, in the Great War. “Is there to be withheld from her the small gift of a few words which only state the fact that her policy for the past century has been devoted to principles of liberty and independence which are to be consecrated in this document as a perpetual charter for all the world?” The Americans who heard him were deeply moved; the French were not.34

On April 28, as a freak snowfall covered Paris, a plenary session of the conference approved the covenant. A delegate from Panama made a very long and learned speech, which started with Aristotle and ended with Woodrow Wilson, about peace. The delegate from Honduras spoke in Spanish about the Monroe Doctrine clause but, since few people understood him, his objections were ignored. Clemenceau, as chairman, moved matters along with his usual dispatch, limiting discussion of hostile amendments, even when they came from his own delegates, with a sharp bang of his gavel and a curt “Adopté.” 35

Wilson had every reason to be pleased. He had steered the covenant in the direction he wanted; he had blocked demands for a military force; and he had inserted a reservation on the Monroe Doctrine that should ensure its passage in the United States. The League, he felt confident, would grow and change over the years. In time, it would embrace the enemy nations and help them to stay on the paths of peace and democracy. Where the peace settlements needed fixing, as he told his wife, “one by one the mistakes can be brought to the League for readjustment, and the League will act as a permanent clearinghouse where every nation can come, the small as well as the great.” 36 In concentrating on the League, Wilson allowed much else to go by at the Peace Conference. He did not fight decisions that, by his lights, were wrong: the award of the German-speaking Tyrol to Italy, or the placing of millions of Germans under Czechoslovak or Polish rule. Such settlements once made were surprisingly durable, at least until the start of the next war. It would have been difficult in any case for the League to act, because its rules insisted on unanimity in virtually all decisions.

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