Kent Bueche 7
December 10th, 2009
League of Nations Paper [Q13] / Hinze
Doomed to Fail: The League of Nations
[13] To what extent is it true to say that the League of Nations failed (a) because of its idealistic origins; (b) in spite of its idealistic origins?
The League of Nations was formed by the Versailles Treaty in January of 1919 to help resolve disputes among states in order to have a more peaceful world and avoid another World War I. The Versailles Treaty would be based off of President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, in which Wilson hoped to create a more just world. President Wilson “was not the first, nor that last American to believe it was his mission to straighten out the wayward Europeans. Wilson was an idealist and he had a vision, a noble vision, of how man should live and his code for international standards of behavior was no less exacting that that for individual”[[#_edn1|[i]]]. The cornerstone of Wilson’s ideas was The League of Nations. The nations would be protected by a process called collective security, in which all the nations would come to the aid of an attacked country. As hopeful as they looked on paper, these views were unrealistic and impractical, and the League failed. Though it failed mainly due to external forces, it is true, to an extent, that the idealistic ideas of collective security helped bring about the demise of the League of Nations.
Wilson and the League implemented the idea of collective security, which calls upon all League members to “assist in resistance to aggression without reference to whether the incident was vital to their interests or not”[[#_edn2|[ii]]]. Collective security was written into Article X of the Covenant, so that the old alliance systems would be scrapped in favor of collective security; however the League had “little chance of success, as … the concept of collective security was too abstract and idealistic for countries raised in a tradition of self interest and traditional diplomacy”[[#_edn3|[iii]]]. The Realpolitik minded Europe did not and could not commit to collective security, and ultimately the League’s most idealistic goal failed. Collective security requires a “certain level of altruism… and because it asked nations to surrender their freedom of action, their sovereignty and enforce policies with which they disagreed or to intervene against countries with which they were friends or had profitable relationships or who might do them harm”[[#_edn4|[iv]]].
In spite of idealistic goals like collective security, the League’s failure is due manly to the many external forces surrounding the League. In order to fulfill an idealistic goal, a state must come down very harshly to enforce it, and without an army or any power whatsoever, it is unrealistic to think a goal as large as world peace could be achieved. The League’s goals had good intentions, but without means to enforce them the great League only held as much power as the nations in it were willing to give them. Because of the Realpolitik mindset in Europe, it is unwise to believe that states will act unless it is to better themselves. This is the main reason the League had no power; it would have been extremely expensive to pay for a standing army to join the League army, especially because “money and manpower would have [had] to be sacrificed in defense of a principal and not of vital interests as had been the case in the past”[[#_edn5|[v]]]. The weakness of collective security is personified with the denial by the Council of the Draft Treaty of Mutual Assistance, which would have “required all members to come to the aid of a victim of aggression to an extent determined by the League Council”[[#_edn6|[vi]]]. It was rejected by those to wished to retain their freedom of actions, and with it signed the League off as nothing more than a student teacher without any real authority over her students. She can yell and scream all she wants, but all the students know she doesn’t have the power to hand out detentions. This is seen in several cases throughout the 1920’s, most notably the Manchuria incident of 1931, where the League was faced by aggressive action by a major Power for the first time. Japanese forces had occupied key Manchurian towns on the “pretexts that their commerce was threatened by explosions on railway lines”[[#_edn7|[vii]]] and landed 70,000 troops to take over Manchuria. This is what the League was for; “one member country had attacked another member country and used its superior military strength to get its way”[[#_edn8|[viii]]]. The League held an inquiry and submitted a commission against Japan stating that the Japanese military action “had not been undertaken for purposes of self- defense, nor had the establishment of Manchukuo (Japanese Manchuria) been in response to local desire for independence”[[#_edn9|[ix]]]. However, the Japanese simply rejected the report and withdrew from the League. No further action by the League was taken because it had no forces of it’s own to command, and Japanese troops continued to move troops into Manchuria. With its high ideals, “the League could not act immediately after the invasion took place- the facts of the case had to be investigated and blame apportioned before any action could, morally, be taken”[[#_edn10|[x]]]. In addition, the Western Powers “would have found it hard to justify, especially to their electorates, the need to send their armies thousands of miles to ‘punish’ the Japanese for what they had done almost two years earlier”[[#_edn11|[xi]]]. The League could not act as it wished because it contained many nations, and not one large nationality. The idea that 51 nations could act as one is unrealistic, and was proved as such by the Manchuria Incident. In order to achieve an idealistic goal, a state must enforce it harshly. And without any real power, the League could not come down at all, and its buoyant goals sank.
Other external forces besides the lack of power contributed to the League’s failure. For example, the rise of fascism in Europe and Japan challenged the League in a way it had never had before, and revealed the weaknesses of the League. Because the League had no power, it could not intervene, and states that had the power to intervene were “far more concerned with preserving… friendship”[[#_edn12|[xii]]]. Add in the fact that no democratic nations of the League desired war, the policy of appeasement was born. Aggressive action by fascist powers was not entirely ignored, but hardly anything was done about it and certainly nothing militarily. For example, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935. The League reacted quicker than Manchuria and declared Italy the aggressor and sanctions were applied to Italy, the only power the League had. However, “steel and oil… could still be sold to Italy… partly because of the threats that Mussolini had made if these were barred”[[#_edn13|[xiii]]]. In order to appease an angered Italy, Britain and France founded the Hoare-Laval Pact in which they gave Italy most of north and south Abyssina. This weakened the League’s position as it “broke the unity and confidence of the League action, was for the Nazis a signal that the line was clear for further advance. It marked the weakness and division of France and Britain; it was a promise of survival to the Fascist regime, which Hitler rightly considered as his natural partner and support”[[#_edn14|[xiv]]]. Since it was likely that any further action against Italy would result in war, nothing else was done. This was also partly because Hitler mobilized German forces to invade the Rhineland in 1936 and the “European powers were far more concerned with Hitler’s troops in the Rhineland, and the Italians were left to complete their conquest of Abyssinia, which was achieved by May”[[#_edn15|[xv]]].
Another external force contributing to the demise of the League was the Great Depression and the poor economy that followed. Though not a direct cause of the failure of the League, it did exacerbate all its problems. When it had money, states were more likely to help other countries, like the Dawes Plan. The United States was lending money, but it was also profiting from German investors. After the depression, the “uncertain economic situation … discouraged nations from actions which would have cost money, incurred debt or undermined trading relationships”[[#_edn16|[xvi]]]. Other events happening outside the League’s control that lead to its fall included the absence of the United States, which was the “wealthiest nation in the world and had the greatest potential to intervene in the interest of maintaining peace”[[#_edn17|[xvii]]]. This was catastrophic to the League, not only diplomatically but psychologically as well,[[#_edn18|[xviii]]] as it undermined the League’s credibility.
If an idealist is someone who presents things as they might be or should be rather than they are, Woodrow Wilson was certainly an idealist. A League where nations would come together, cease war and solve problems by compromising certainly was hopeful, but unfortunately also unrealistic. External forces like the rise of fascism, lack of power, a poor economy and absence of major Powers showed the weaknesses of the League, and most importantly showed Hitler that the League was weak, and that the rest of Europe would continue to appease him. In this light the failure of the League can be seen as a main cause of World War II. A weary, war-sick world had “given birth to the League – an organization whose inflexible idealism prevented it from becoming the world forum envisioned by its founders”[[#_edn19|[xix]]]. Though it failed mainly due to external forces, it remains true, to an extent, to say that the idealistic ideas of collective security helped bring about the demise of the League of Nations.

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[[#_ednref1|[i]]] Scott, George. The Rise and Fall of the League of Nations. New York: Macmillan, 1973. pg 12
[[#_ednref2|[ii]]] Cannon, Martin et al. 20th Century World History: Course Companion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp 53
[[#_ednref3|[iii]]] Ibid pp. 52
[[#_ednref4|[iv]]] Ibid pp 56
[[#_ednref5|[v]]] Ibid pp 53
[[#_ednref6|[vi]]] Ibid pp 56
[[#_ednref7|[vii]]] Wolfson, Robert, and John Laver. Years of Change: European History 1890-1990. N.p.: Trans-Atlantic , 2001. pp 292
[[#_ednref8|[viii]]] Ibid pp 292
[[#_ednref9|[ix]]] Ibid
[[#_ednref10|[x]]] Ibid pp 293
[[#_ednref11|[xi]]] Ibid
[[#_ednref12|[xii]]] Ibid
[[#_ednref13|[xiii]]] Ibid pp. 294
[[#_ednref14|[xiv]]] Walters, Francis Paul. A History of the League of Nations. London: Oxford University Press, 1967. Print. pp. 692
[[#_ednref15|[xv]]] Wolfson pp. 294
[[#_ednref16|[xvi]]] Cannon pp. 57
[[#_ednref17|[xvii]]] Ibid pp 53
[[#_ednref18|[xviii]]] Ibid
[[#_ednref19|[xix]]] Scott pp. back cover
Works Cited
Cannon, Martin et al. 20th Century World History: Course Companion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Scott, George. The Rise and Fall of the League of Nations. New York: Macmillan, 1973. pg 12
Walters, Francis Paul. A History of the League of Nations. London: Oxford University Press, 1967. Print.
Wolfson, Robert, and John Laver. Years of Change: European History 1890-1990. N.p.: Trans-Atlantic , 2001. Print.