Monday, October 19, 2020
October 19, 2020: UN Histories: The League of Nations
[October 24th will mark the 75th anniversary of the official establishment of the United Nations. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories connected to the UN, leading up to a weekend post on global interconnectedness in 2020.]
On how and why the UN’s predecessor failed at its central mission, and how it succeeded nonetheless.
The League of Nations, created as part of the January 1919 Paris Peace Conference that formally concluded the Great War (later known of course as World War I), was designed specifically to prevent future wars. The 26 articles of the League’s Covenant went far beyond that and into many other arenas and topics, of course, but the document’s opening phrases—“In order to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security”—make clear the primacy of global peace as the organization’s founding objective. And even before the Second World War put the final nail in that objective and thus in the League itself (which ceased performing any meaningful actions as of 1939 and was formally replaced by the 1943 vote I’ll discuss tomorrow), a number of other conflicts (including the Chaco War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the Spanish Civil War) had demonstrated the League’s inability to achieve international peace in any consistent way.
There were many factors that contributed to the League’s failure, including perhaps fundamental, unchangeable realities of human nature and society that make war such a persistent, enduring element. Yet there’s no doubt that one prominent factor which weakened the League from the outset of its existence was the United States’s decision not to join the organization. President Woodrow Wilson, whose January 1918 Fourteen Points speech had served as a launching point for the concept of the League, spent much of 1919 working to convince Congress and the American people of its significance and of the necessity of joining its efforts. But he did not succeed, at least not with Congress, which, led by isolationist figures such as Senator and longtime Wilson adversary Henry Cabot Lodge, ultimately voted not to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League of Nations, a choice that greatly weakened the international organization and made its chances for success far smaller.
Yet even if the League was unable to maintain or foster international peace—and again, it’s quite possible that no organization could ever come close to achieving those goals—that does not mean that this groundbreaking entity did not produce meaningful successes. Many of them came in response to specific territorial disputes and conflicts, such as Germany and Poland’s hostilities over the Upper Silesia region in which the League successfully intervened in 1921-22; this dispute might well have turned to war without the League. And on a truly international level, perhaps the League’s most enduring success lay in the creation of the Nansen Passport, the first internationally recognized refugee identification and travel document. Brainchild of the League’s High Commissioner for Refugees Fridtjof Nansen, who along with his Nansen International Office for Refugees received the 1938 Nobel Peace Prize, the Nansen Passport represented a vital step in recognizing, engaging with, and ameliorating the plight of global refugees and migrants. Throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, long after the League of Nations ceased to exist, the UN’s own strategies for aiding this vulnerable international community remain indebted to the Nansen Passport, reminding us that the League’s legacy is not quite as one-sided as it seems.
Next UN history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?