Most people know the League of Nations for being that one international organization after World War I that failed; sort of like a global Articles of Confederation. And yet, the nuances of the organization – the how and why of its beginning and its end – are often lost. This blog post will get more into those nuances and give you some questions at the end to help you solidify the information that you have learned for the APUSH exam.
The proposal for a League of Nations was the fourteenth of President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, which were the terms he took to the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I. The League was designed to handle global diplomatic problems before they turned into wars and was the most controversial part of the final treaty. Critics in the United States Senate feared that it would require America to be involved in international conflicts. Source: The Ohio State University.
Where should we begin the overview of the League of Nations?
There are a couple of places we could begin:
1. The ending of WWI, and the anger many European nations had for Germany for starting what they saw as a war of aggression and needless bloodshed (remember the MAIN causes of WWI? Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism, and Nationalism).
2. The defeated and humiliated Germans, which would lead nicely into an understanding of the foundation of the next World War.
However, since this is U.S. history, I will begin with Woodrow Wilson and his Fourteen Points.
What were Wilson’s 14 points?
Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points were the United States’s official position for a post-WWI world. Remember that many believed that World War i would be the war to end all all wars. The visions of a post-WWI world were sweeping and echoed visions of Utopias; after all, many believed that the carnage of WWI would be meaningless if the world continued in the same way. Wilson’s 14 points were in line with these beliefs.
Furthermore, Wilson knew that Russia in 1917 was entertaining other ideas of the world – ideas that made capitalism obsolete. In his 14 points, Wilson would offer up another idea for how nations could interact with each other peacefully.
In the fourteenth point, Wilson stated, “A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” This point was the foundation of the League of Nations.
What was the League of Nations?
In a response to the disastrous system of alliances that are often credited with beginning WWI, the League of Nations would be primarily a global peace-keeping organization. Member nations would vote on how to deal with problems, first diplomatically, then, economically. There would be no League of Nations army set to enforce the policies. Instead, the member nations would be primarily responsible for carrying out the League’s wishes.
There were, of course, many weaknesses in this structure. First and foremost, the League failed in its ultimate mission: prevent another world war. There are likely many reasons for this, including:
1. The League was made up primarily of Allied nations in WWI, giving it the nickname “the League of Victors.”
2. Although the League was designed to be a global organization, many nations never joined, joined for a brief period of time, or never followed through on the recommendations of the League.
3. The biggest nation at the time – the nation that proposed the League – never joined the organization. Can you guess which nation that was? Yup. The United States.
Why didn’t the United States join the League of Nations?
Let’s look at two documents to help us make sense of that question.
The first excerpt comes from Woodrow Wilson giving a speech in Pueblo, Colorado in September 1919. Wilson was touring the nation trying to build support for the League.
“My fellow citizens, as I have crossed the continent, I have perceived more and more that men have been busy creating an absolutely false impression of the treaty of peace and the Covenant of the League of Nations. Reflect, my fellow citizens that the membership of this great League is going to include all the great fighting nations of the world, as well as the weak ones. And what do they unite for? They enter into a solemn promise to one another that they will never use their power against one another for aggression; that they never will violate the territorial integrity of a neighbor; that they never will interfere with the political independence of a neighbor…I wish that those who oppose this settlement could feel the moral obligation that rests upon us not to turn our backs on the boys who died, but to see the thing through, to see it through to the end and
make good their redemption of the world. For nothing less depends upon this decision, nothing less than liberation and salvation of the world.”
Source: Stanford History Education Group.
Here, Wilson is arguing that entering the League of Nations is a moral duty for the United States, or else the war would have been fought in vain.
But Wilson wasn’t the only one who had something to say about the League.
The Republican Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge, had some strong words for Wilson and his proposed League:
“Mr. President: I can never be anything else but an American, and I must think of the United States first. I have never had but one allegiance – I cannot divide it now. I have loved but one flag and I cannot share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for a league. Internationalism is to me repulsive.
The United States is the world’s best hope, but if you fetter her in the interests and quarrels of other nations, if you tangle her in the intrigues of Europe, you will destroy her power for good and endanger her very existence. Leave her to march freely through the centuries to come as in the years that have gone. No doubt many excellent and patriotic people see a coming fulfillment of noble ideals in the words ‘league for peace.’
We all respect and share these aspirations and desires, but some of us see no hope, but rather defeat, for them in this murky plan. For we, too, have our ideals, even if we differ from those who have tried to establish a monopoly of idealism. Our first ideal is our country. Our ideal is to make her ever stronger and better and finer, because in that way alone can she be of the greatest service to the world’s peace and to the welfare of mankind.”
Source: Stanford History Education Group.
Lodge was not arguing for isolationism here – recall that he believes the United States has a place in the world. Rather, he is arguing against what he calls internationalism, the idea that a nation would give up its sovereignty to international actors. Ultimately, Lodge’s point of view won the day and the United States did not join the League of Nations.
This video gives a bit more of the context regarding the fight between Wilson and the Senate regarding entrance into the League of Nations.
What kinds of questions will I be asked on the APUSH exam about the League of Nations?
From the APUSH practice exam.
“[H]istory and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of
republican government. . . . Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike
of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side and serve to veil
and even second the arts of influence on the other. . . . The great rule of conduct for us,
in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations to have with them
as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements,
let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary
interests which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in
frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.”
George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796
1. The ideas expressed in Washington’s address most strongly influenced which United States foreign policy decision in the twentieth century?
A. The establishment of the United Nations in 1945
B. The formation of the NATO alliance between the United States and Western Europe in 1949
C. The refusal to join the League of Nations in 1919
D. The oil embargo against Japan in 1941
C; the refusal to join the League of Nations was heavily based on the idea that the United States should not be wrapped up in the entanglements of other countries and should maintain its own sovereignty.