Skip to main content

The League of Nations and the Menace of War

ISSUE:  Summer 1925


Except for a few hysterical newspapers, one or two hyper-patriotic societies, and two or three superannuated Admirals, very few people in the United States believe in war or want to see it continued as an agency for the settlement of international disputes. The overwhelming preponderance of public opinion is undoubtedly arrayed not only against war as a system but in favor of some method by which it can be stricken from the list of the customs and habits of mankind. Certainly if a gigantic referendum were held on the simple question, “Shall the human race abolish war?” any negative votes that might be cast in America would be buried by an avalanche of “Ayes.” The difficulty arises when we try to create a method by which our objective can be reached. We are agreed as to the goal, but we are by no means agreed as to the best way of getting there. Like those who built the Tower of Babel in the Land of Shinar the advocates of peace speak with many tongues. Some want a league; some want only a court; some want both; some want neither. These honest differences of opinion give rise to debate and occasionally to heat, and the cause of peace suffers in the confusion.

And yet out of all this noisy discussion certain sharp principles are slowly emerging. The first of these, I should say, is that peace is a matter not only of spirit but of organization, not only of propaganda but of machinery. It is not enough to build up a sentiment for peace. The sentiment must be harnessed so that it can affect specific situations; it must be guided to definite ends. Otherwise, it will dissipate itself; it will become merely a pious wish, subjectively satisfying but objectively futile.

The development of organization, indeed, is what we call civilization. Spreading from the family to the village, from the village to the state, from the state to the nation, the machinery of social contact has been elaborated and widened over countless centuries. The time has come for further ex-tention—not on an informal basis, for informal understandings in this field are no more applicable to our present situation than informal understandings between villages would be in the larger unit of the state. The nations of the world need a systematized basis of contact, definite machinery for adjusting their relationships to each other.


It is in connection with this point, it seems to me, that many of us are tempted into a short-cut to peace. Machinery is difficult to create and by no means fool-proof in operation. Therefore, we would dispense with all its complications. If what we are trying to accomplish is the elimination of war, why not pass a law against it? Why bother with all the mussy details of organization when a far simpler and easier method lies in our hands? Thus we become advocates of what has grown to be called, in a narrow and technical sense, the outlawry of war.

Behind this kind of approach lies a typical American fallacy. Law to us is a short-cut to all sorts of desirable ends. Our theory seems to be that the function of law is to register the protest of society against wrong. We habitually resort to law to supply the deficiencies of other agencies of social control. Whether it can be enforced or not, whether it represents community opinion or not, law to the average American has become a royal road to a desired end. “Nothing is more attractive to the benevolent vanity of men,” said James Coolidge Carter, “than the notion that they can effect great improvements in society by the simple process o” forbidding all wrong conduct by law, and of enjoining all good conduct by the same means.”

With this mental attitude those who are today advocating the so-called outlawry of war find themselves completely at home. The type of thinking that makes illegal the sale of cigarettes within the boundaries of Tennessee, or places card-playing under the ban on trains in Texas, or fixes the maximum length of hatpins in Kansas, requires no stimulus and no new technique to pass a law against war. It is all so simple and easy. One gets a result immediately —on paper. One does not have to bother with the details of enforcement or worry over such questions as sanctions and penalties. This device is put forward as America’s unique contribution to the solution of international difficulties. This is the old Yankee get-rich-quick scheme applied to peace.

We are speaking, of course, of the outlawry of war as a special label worn by a small but determined group. In the larger interpretation of the words, we are all of us in favor of outlawing war. The idea of attempting to make war a crime belongs to men of all shades of opinion. But merely to go through the motions of putting a law against war on the statute books is a tragic futility. Even when such a law is backed up by a code and a court, as Senator Borah proposes, the result is largely meaningless. For a court is limited in its functions to the settlement of justiciable questions, and questions of this type constitute but a small percentage of the causes of war. If one were to make an analysis of the wars of the last three centuries, the result would undoubtedly show that scarcely one in four developed from causes that could possibly have been reconciled by Mr. Borah’s court. Rather these wars grew out of disputes and misunderstandings that would have required diplomatic methods for their settlement: conference, conciliation, bargaining, persuasion, compromise—indeed, the whole familiar technique that is employed when the disputants in any kind of difficulty are brought face to face around a table.

No one has described more effectively than Mr. Root the limitations of a court and the necessity of machinery for conference in the settlement of international disputes. To quote him briefly: “The diplomatic method is the necessary method of dealing with immediate exigencies and dangerous crises in affairs. Under such circumstances there is no other way to prevent disaster. Argument and persuasion and explanation, the removal of misapprehensions, the suggestion of obstacles and advantages, conciliation, concession, stipulations for the future, and the still more serious considerations to which diplomacy may finally resort—all these are employed to deal with immediate and acute situations. The slow processes of judicial procedure are not adapted to deal with such exigencies.”

Out of all the discussion on international relationships that is taking place in America this point is slowly but clearly emerging: we need definite machinery to promote peace—not merely a law, not merely a code or a court, valuable as a court undoubtedly will be. We need primarily an organization for conference, an established method of cooperation, a definitized practice not only for the settlement of misunderstanding, but for handling those questions of common interest which overflow national boundary lines.


Another idea that is developing in America from the public discussion of this question is that this new international machinery of which we have been speaking must be permanent. It must not be hastily improvised in the face of some threatening disaster. Sir Edward Grey attempted this expedient in 1914 and its failure resulted in the greatest tragedy ever visited upon the human race. The world must be prepared for peace as hitherto it has been prepared for war. The organization to promote peace must be in constant operation. Day and night it must work without ceasing, digging new channels of thought, establishing new methods of approach, developing a new technique. For peace will be a habit as war has been a habit. It cannot be learned all at once. It will come by building a tradition of conference, by discovering the value of common counsel, by joint exploration of those difficulties which make for misunderstanding.

All this cannot be the result of spasmodic effort. It cannot be achieved by disconnected ad hoc conferences. Permanent machinery is as necessary to the stabilization of international order and the preservation of peace as it is to the maintenance of good relationships between the states of our union. The solution which our fathers found for their difficulties in 1787 is needed today in a bigger field. The same vision of cooperation on a wide scale which Hamilton and Madison brought to the Philadelphia Convention, the same belief in the ability of conflicting interests to get together on the basis of their common needs, the same insistence upon permanent machinery to carry out the purposes of the new order—this whole point of view is urgently required now as our generation faces a world that is overflowing with insistent and menacing problems.


On these two points, therefore—first, that the world needs definite machinery to maintain peace and handle the common business of mankind, and second, that this machinery must be built on a permanent foundation—public opinion in America is gradually coming to substantial agreement. When people are willing to go together thus far in their thinking, it seems like a curiously inverted logical process that prevents some of them from realizing that the League of Nations and the Court of International Justice answer concretely the identical needs which are admitted in theory. Some of us talk about a parliament of nations, a confederation of mankind, as if it were all in the future—a dream to which the race vaguely aspired. Some of us even talk about a Court of International Justice as if it were yet to be created—something for which the nations of the world, and particularly the United States, had thus far worked un-availingly.

It is a strange blindness that prevents us from seeing this experiment at Geneva for what it really is. Fifty-five nations—all the nations of the world now except Russia, Germany, Turkey, Mexico, the United States, and one or two minor countries—are meeting together around a table in common conference. For five years, in the midst of gigantic political and economic upheaval, the experiment has been pursued. In that short space, the technique of international relationship has been revolutionized. The tradition and habit of periodic international conference have been definitely established. In each of the five years a meeting has assembled at Geneva with more nations represented than were gathered together at either of The Hague Conferences of 1899 or 1907, and topics have been discussed and settlements reached in regard to every conceivable type of international difficulty. In five years thirty-three meetings have been held of a smaller conference known as a council. In this same brief semi-decade, too, a steady succession of international bodies and committees has met under the auspices of the League, dealing with many kinds of human problems. A passport conference, attended by twenty-two nations, was called by the League in 1920 to promote the expedition of international travel. Forty-three nations met in Barcelona in 1921 to discuss problems relating to communications and transit, and to clear the channels of international business. Thirty-five nations came together in Brussels in 1920 to consider the international financial situation. In Geneva in 1921 thirty nations conferred on methods of suppressing the international traffic in women and girls. In Warsaw in 1922, twenty-seven nations considered ways and means of dealing with the international menace of the typhus epidemic. In 1923, thirty-two nations took part in a conference in Geneva to simplify the formalities of customs procedure. In the same year, forty-one nations met in Geneva to discuss the complex problems of international communications and transit, with particular reference to railways, maritime ports, the transmission of electric power, and the utilization of hydraulic power in frontier water courses. In February, 1924, sixteen powers participated in a conference called by the League at Rome to discuss the extension of the principles of the Washington disarmament treaty to states not signatory to that treaty, whether members of the League or not.

In addition to these more formal gatherings the League has promoted a steady succession of international conferences and committee meetings to deal with a great variety of problems, such as the standardization of international statistics, the suppression of the international traffic in opium, the unification of standards of anti-toxic sera, the feeding of Russian refugees, the return of prisoners of war, the reduction of armaments, the private manufacture of arms, the deportation of women and children in Asia Minor, the abuses of double taxation, and a score of other topics which represent the legitimate concern not of one nation, but of the family of nations.

In brief, the spasmodic employment before 1914 of the conference method of handling international interests has given way to a general acceptance of this new technique. What we did in 1787 in broadening and regularizing the scope of social contact in our own country has now been done on a far wider scale.

This same testimony in regard to the work of the League of Nations can also be given for the Court of International Justice. It is not a vision for the future; it is a going concern. For three years the world has had just such a court as was advocated by Secretary Root when he instructed the American delegation to the second Hague Conference to work for the development of the Permanent Court of Arbitration “into a permanent tribunal composed of judges who are judicial officers and nothing else, who are paid adequate salaries, who have no other occupation, and who will devote their entire time to the trial and decision of international cases by judicial methods and under a sense of judicial responsibility.”

That is an exact description of the present Court of International Justice. In the three years of its existence it has handed down twelve opinions, each of which has contributed to the settlement of some international difficulty, and all of which, taken together, constitute, as Professor Hudson has pointed out, a significant contribution to international case law.


“But the League has failed,” say its critics. “It doesn’t really handle any of the larger issues. The big powers have no respect for it and the little powers are helpless to assist it. What about Egypt? What about the opium conference?”

What these critics do not take into consideration is that the League and its Court are still in the experimental stage. Of course, the machinery creaks, and there are occasional break-downs. But this is true of all new machinery, whether in the mechanical or social field. Certainly, no great social experiment ever sprang full-armed into a welcoming world.

It takes time to make the adjustments; old processes cannot be instantly forgotten and new processes installed over night. Even the United States Government—that new experiment in federal coordination—was not immediately successful after 1789. For a dozen years the machinery rattled and jarred, and sometimes almost stopped. Even as late as 1832 Chief Justice Marshall declared it to be a failure; it could not work, he said.

What was true then of our federal government is true now of the League of Nations. Its warmest friends make no claim of perfection for it. It cannot bring the Millennium. Its weaknesses are apparent. It is powerless to solve some of the most menacing problems that confront us. But here is a cooperative world-movement, the first of its kind in history, constituting a central rallying point around which the forces of law and peace may gather, and slowly developing new approaches to common dangers and new methods of common action. During its first five years, in a period of unparalleled difficulty, its positive achievement has been beyond what was dreamed of when it was created. In spite of all cynicism, all gibes, all remorseless criticism, it has won for itself a place in the government of the world from which it cannot be dislodged. It took a cataclysm to bring it into being. Only another cataclysm can destroy it.

In response to a letter which the writer recently sent, outlining some of the criticisms of the League advanced here in the United States, an American in Europe, whose opportunities for observation are exceptionally wide, cabled as follows:

“The League situation was never stronger in its history than it is today. Its work was never so important, so varied, so far-reaching. The character of its government representatives was never of so high an order. Germany is now applying for membership and success is coming along many lines. Regarding the opium question and whatever may be the temporary results of the present conference, America should be eternally grateful to the League for providing a platform for the promulgation of her views that is utterly unprecedented. For God’s sake please tell our friends in New York to cease burying the League. Opportunities for supporting and helping were never so big and so encouraging as now.”


And what is the attitude of the United States Government toward this new experiment at Geneva? The answer can be briefly given: for four years our attitude has been one not merely of indifference, but of open hostility. We have used the tremendous influence of our position and power to discourage progress. With the world struggling along a new pathway toward peace, we have allowed partisan politics to place us in an obstructive role. We have had no alternative to propose; no other route to suggest. We have contented ourselves with mere opposition, with no hint of a permanent, constructive program. With new dangers all about us, with new weapons of war constantly in the making, we have played a small and unworthy part in an undertaking designed to end a system of international chaos which only recently sent five million of our men into army camps and ten billion of our dollars into the scrap heap.

The record of our hostility to the League is open to any one who cares to read it. We tried to block the formation of its health section; we nearly crippled its work in suppressing the traffic in arms; we delayed and embarrassed its establishment of the new mandates; we arbitrarily interposed a veto on its plan to organize the opium section; we capriciously refused to answer its letters and communications. In brief, we have gone out of our way openly to humiliate it and secretly to hamstring it. Every failure or misstep on the part of this new experiment has been hailed with rejoicing in Washington. With nothing to put in its place except platitudes on our love of peace, we have swaggered through five discreditable years, trusting that time would somehow vindicate our betrayal of the cause for which we fought the war.

Mr. Newton D. Baker recently said that the refusal of the United States to join the League of Nations was the greatest disaster that had come upon the human race since the Peloponnesian War destroyed the civilization of Greece. That statement would be true if our refusal were permanent and if because of our refusal the principle of international cooperation which the League represents should perish from the earth. But our present status in regard to the League is not a settled status. Nothing is ever settled in this world until it is settled right. The League of Nations is the greatest moral issue that has confronted the conscience of the American people in three generations. It will never be settled until it is settled right. The voice of Woodrow Wilson cries through the land like the voice of Isaiah of old: “My people have gone into captivity for lack of knowledge.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading