The League of Nations Collective Success (Or Lack Thereof): A Study of Lead Toys Filled with Gunpowder, Mustard Gas, and Military-Grade Plutonium

Children have the unfortunate habit of liking things that just aren’t very useful. They revel in colorful objects that look good, but don’t really have any purpose; specifically they’re attracted to toys. Not simply toys, but they most useless kind of toys: the three cent plastic wonders that come from a tiny plastic wrap in a colorful kids meal. These toys are exciting when the kids first see them gloriously wrapped in a mottled clear plastic with the golden arches stamped proudly on the front. Upon opening these toys, however, the children’s excited smiles slowly fade, as they find their doll or action figure is made from lead and hard rubber, stiff as a board, useless. In the same way, the idealistic American origin of the League of Nations was a façade of well-intent to cover the European thirst for revenge. The trivial successes of the League made no difference in the long run.

The League of Nations was founded as an ideological and impractical solution to pressing issues. While Europe needed to find a way to put the Great War behind them, the world slowly sank into an economic disaster. As Europe circled the drain, Woodrow Wilson proudly rode into the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles on his horse of gold [1], expecting his fourteen points not only to wow his peer audience, but to fix the world forever and always, the end. His fairytale mentality was due in part to America’s isolation from the bloodiest events of the war, but it was also due in part to his lack of understanding of European warfare. He believed that all of the world’s problems would be solved by the League, and he valued its creation over a solution to the animosity of the belligerent nations [2]. Wilson’s plan revolved around the concept of collective security, the idea that states put the need of the League before their own [3]. The problem with this idea was that Wilson’s European counterparts cared more about revenge than they cared about the good of the world.

Britain and France used the League of Nations as a method of punishing Germany after World War One. After the war, each super-power was reduced to shambles, both economically and militarily. Millions of people died during the years of the war, and because of this the victors still bore a grudge against Germany. This is seen most easily through the enormous war debts France and Britain placed on Germany. The Treaty of Versailles gave about five billion dollars of debt to her [4]. This was the reason that Britain and France neglected to admit Germany to the League of Nations until 1926. They didn’t trust the government, and it took them seven years to admit them to the League of Nations. This spiteful mentality strictly opposed the foundation on which the League was built: collective security. France and Britain cared more about punishing Germany than they cared about helping her.

Of the trivial successes of the League of Nations, none of them made any difference in the long run. Any success the League gained that was notable was dwarfed in comparison to their biggest mistakes. These successes included helping to diffuse a border dispute between Sweden and Finland [5], preventing Austria and Hungary from economic collapse [6], preventing the outbreak of a war in the Balkans, and successfully beginning the administration of the German Saar region [7]. While preventing a war in the Balkans seems likes an enormous success for collective security, the U.K. and France were well aware that the Great War had begun in the Balkans, and so it was in their individual country’s best interest to stop the war, and that is what motivated them. Even if those successes were for the sole purpose of collective security, it wouldn’t matter in the long run. The League of Nations can claim responsibilities for these triumphs in diplomacy, but collective security failed the world when it needed it most.

These minor successes are considered trivial in the long run. When Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria in 1931, the League of Nations did little more than condemn their actions [8]. The U.K. and United States [9] had fallen back to a policy of appeasement, and so collective security in the Far East failed [10]. The final collapse of the authority [11] of the League of Nations as well as the idea of collective security came began in 1935 when Italy began a crusade to conquer Abyssinia [12]. When the full scale invasion began in October 1935, the League imposed economic sanctions on Italy which did not include oil or steel [13]. These sanctions themselves were ineffective as powers such as the United States and Germany were free to trade with Italy without restriction [14]. After an impassioned plea by Haile Selassie [15], a failed treaty [16] and a tiny slap on the wrist, Italy was free to conquer Abyssinia completely. This colossal failure in collective security showed Italy and Germany that the other super-powers of Europe were unwilling to put the good of the world in front of their own domestic goals. Shortly afterward, World War Two began and the League of Nations all but ceased to exist [17].

The idealistic American origin of the League of Nations was a façade of well-intent to cover the European thirst for revenge. The trivial successes of the League made no difference in the long run. Woodrow Wilson’s dream of a perfect world was undermined slightly by the fact that his own country wouldn’t help him achieve it. Britain and France used the League of Nations to punish Germany instead of achieving collective security. And whatever trivial successes it attained were marred completely by its colossal failures in Manchuria and Abyssinia. Even though the League of Nations was completely useless at the time, looking back from a historical perspective the League is the initial experiment with the notion of collective security. Without the League and its flaws, the United Nations would not have been able to improve upon the construction and idea of collective security [18]. It also made the idea of collective security more popular [19], which aided FDR [20] in his plans to create a new global organization with the Atlantic Charter [21]. So while the League of Nations was a lot like a useless toy from McDonald’s, without those cheap plastic toys there would have been no way to develop new toys. And while the toys we have today are by no means perfect, they still make kids happy. And that’s what it’s all about.
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Footnotes:
[1] Cummings, E.E. “All in green went my love riding.” Collected Works.
[2]”The League of Nations.” In 20th Century World History: Course Companion. 52. Oxford U. Press Oxford, 2009.
[3] ibid.
[4] The Peace Treaties and the Successor States
[5] It should be noted that the border dispute between Finland and Sweden was hardly a crisis at all, and, in retrospect, would have solved itself in due time.
[6] The bill to financially reconstruct Austria was signed 10/22/1922. Hungary’s was signed 3/14/1924.
[7] The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers."League of Nations." Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, et. al. (Hyde Park, New York: Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, 2003) http://www.nps.gov/archive/elro/glossary/league-of-nations.htm
[8] 20th Century World History: Course Companion. 69.
[9] The United States was never even a member of the League of Nations, and would have very little influence over other members of the League even if they had intervened.
[10] 20th Century World History: Course Companion. 69.
[11] This research paper assumes that the League of Nations had a little bit of respectability and authority to begin with, which is a big assumption considering their size and lack of the United States.
[12] 20th Century World History: Course Companion. 72.
[13] ibid.
[14] ibid.
[15] Haile Selassie was the leader of Ethiopia (part of Abyssinia) at the time and made a speech to the League of Nations Security Council asking for intervention.
[16] The treaty in question was the Hoare-Laval Pact which gave Italy 2/3rds of Abyssinia. Italy broke this treaty soon after and continued invading and conquering the territory.
[17] The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers.
[18] ibid.
[19] ibid.
[20] Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, 1882-1945, 32nd president of the United States.
[21] The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers.