Sunday, January 10, 2010

TDIH: League of Nations

On this day ninety years ago, with the enthusiastic support of President Woodrow Wilson, the League of Nations was established as a byproduct of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. At its peak, the League of Nations served as an international organization for the brokering of peace between nations. It was in many ways a precursor to the United Nations, despite the many failings and complete dismantling of it prior to the first U.N. General Assembly meeting held also historically on this day in London in 1946.

Woodrow Wilson's idealism, his blatant liberalism is something modern Americans have a hard time grasping. He was a commander-in-chief who led a country into the Great War while entertaining in his own mind the notion of a broad inter-governmental, international organization that spoke to principles almost foreign to a world at war.

As World War I was winding down and the Paris Peace Conference had concluded, President Wilson returned from Europe and set out on a tour of sorts. He visited cities and towns across the country in support of both the treaty that ended WWI and the League of Nations. One of Wilson's final speeches in support of the League of Nations was given in Pueblo, Colorado on September 25, 1919. A snippet:
"It is a people's treaty, that accomplishes by a great sweep of practical justice the liberation of men who never could have liberated themselves, and the power of the most powerful nations has been devoted not to their aggrandizement but to the liberation of people whom they could have put under their control if they had chosen to do so...

"...[W]e must see that all the questions which have disturbed the world, all the questions which have eaten into the confidence of men toward their governments, all the questions which have disturbed the processes of industry, shall be brought out where men of all points of view, men of all attitudes of mind, men of all kinds of experience, may contribute their part of the settlement of the great questions which we must settle and cannot ignore."
As Woodrow Wilson toured this country promoting the treaty agreed to in Paris and the Covenant of the League of Nations, he faced a great deal of scrutiny and dissatisfaction among the American people. The tour, which compares to the series of town hall gatherings George W. Bush convened to discuss reforming Social Security, was an eye-opener for President Wilson. Wilson went so far as to call the backlash among the American people "an organized propaganda against the League of Nations and against the treaty." The "falsehoods" he knew were being spread became ultimately damaging. Many historians refer to this period of disconnect between Wilson (and the delegation that attended the meetings in Paris with him) and the American public as the point in which momentum for a successful League of Nations changed course. For an array of reasons, the American people never fully got on board with the idea and Wilson's death in February of 1924 sealed the fate of the League.

At its height, the League of Nations had 58 members banding together in a global attempt at collective security. Unlike international organizations that followed (i.e. the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations), the League of Nations did not have a standing army which severely limited its ability to maintain peace between nations as well as protect its member nations from attack.

A great source of information on the League of Nations, including materials created by the League, is the League of Nations Photo Collection at the Indiana University Center for the Study of Global Change. January 16, 2010 will mark the 90th anniversary of the first council meeting of the League of Nations, eight days after President Wilson first addressed Congress regarding the League and six days after the Treaty of Versailles went into effect.

Despite President Wilson's great enthusiasm for the League of Nations and his adamant support, the United States never joined the League or ratified the Covenant, due largely in part to the isolationism of Senators Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Massachusetts) and William E. Borah (R-Idaho). Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

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