A Personal View by Karl J Schmidt
This article by Karl J Schmidt appeared on the web until 2007, but seems to have gone down.
A living thing is born.
The founding of the League of Nations in 1919 marked a radical departure from previous methods of diplomacy. Prior to August 1914, traditional diplomacy, or, as it was often called after the First World War, "Old Diplomacy," was a system of intercourse between the governments of sovereign states. This system relied exclusively on the exchange of ambassadors or ministers charged by their respective governments with the twin tasks of acting as both informants and intermediaries. As an informant, the ambassador or minister acted as the "man on the spot," keeping his government apprised of the internal conditions of the country in which he was stationed. As an intermediary, the ambassador or minister acted to present the views and interests of his own government to that of his hosts, as well as to encourage amicable relations between the host government and his own. A good ambassador or minister was one who, aided by his embassy staff, discharged both of these tasks with a high degree of success.
The old diplomatic system had both its merits and its failings. For each state, it was clearly advantageous to have diplomatic representatives in as many foreign capitals as possible in order to have as broad an understanding of the countries with which one interacted. The old system, because it was based, in part, on decentralization, fostered that broad understanding. Diplomats of the traditional school were also well springs of useful information, borne of first-hand experience and a mastery of the subtle art of negotiation.
The failings of the old system were manifestations of its conservative nature. In the prewar period, governments still drew diplomats from the aristocratic elite, despite the rather dramatic changes in the form of many governments over the course of the nineteenth century, i.e., the development of modern democracy. If the task at hand was to foster understanding between different peoples, then the continued reliance on diplomats selected not on the basis of merit, but rather on status at birth, tended to skew that understanding and produce undesirable results. Even as the issues confronting diplomats became increasingly complex and specialized, their training, either formal, or, as was more often the case, informal, did not keep pace. Most diplomats were probably well-read, but they were probably also unlikely to have a firm understanding of the complexities of international economics or other global issues of a multifarious character. Another drawback of traditional diplomacy's conservative nature was that it made the pursuit of a country's short-term national interests paramount over global interests, even when concern for the global community could be of demonstrable benefit for the individual nation, but perhaps only in the long-term. Finally, two other elements of traditional diplomacy made its conduct hazardous: its secrecy, which often left countries not privy to those secrets dangerously unclear as to the intentions of their neighbors, and the use of war as a form of Clausewitzian persuasion, an option realistically available only to the most powerful countries, i.e., the great powers.
The horror of the Great War led some to reevaluate, and, indeed, openly criticize, the conduct of the Old Diplomacy, especially its secrecy, the threat and use of war for national gain, and its ineffectiveness in dealing with issues of more than a bilateral nature. The First World War became, in essence, the matrix of a "New Diplomacy." As a system, the New Diplomacy promoted arbitration and collective security as the surest means of avoiding future armed conflict. It emphasized open cooperation between nations to resolve global political, economic, social, humanitarian, and technical problems. Above all, the foundation of the New Diplomacy rested upon the need for greater international organization, a need epitomized by the creation of the League of Nations.
Despite their perceived novelty, the concepts which underpinned the New Diplomacy were not new. The element of collective security, for example, can be seen in the Quadruple Alliance, or "Concert of Europe," formed by Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia after the final defeat of France in 1815. Although it later collapsed, the Alliance was intended to preserve the peace and status quo in Europe through the collective action of its members, and did initiate the use of conferences convened to deal with important international political issues. These conferences met periodically throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth.
Although smaller powers often attended these conferences, they soon found that they had little capacity to persuade their more powerful neighbors; the conference system was dominated by the great powers of Europe. In 1899 and 1907, however, two international conferences were held at the Hague which dramatically changed the course of international diplomacy. Critics charged that the Hague conferences were a failure because they did not accomplish all that was promised. These criticisms, while valid, nevertheless overlooked the fact that the conferences did achieve a level of universality hitherto unknown (representatives of forty-four countries attended the 1907 conference, including most of the Latin American republics), and paved the way not only for increased international cooperation to maintain peace and security, but for a general reorganization of the international state system. Implementation of the "Hague System" was prevented by the war, but some of its elements can be seen in the League of Nations.
After the outbreak of war in 1914, there was some public support in many countries, but particularly in the United States and in Great Britain, for the creation of some type of international machinery that would prevent future wars. In the United States, a group of prominent public leaders, including William Howard Taft, founded the League to Enforce Peace in 1915. The League to Enforce Peace pressed for the submission of future international disputes to arbitration, and for sanctions to be applied against those countries who refused to submit their disputes to pacific settlement. Concerned citizens established similar organizations in Great Britain, like the League of Nations Society, and the League interest group of the Fabians. With the notable exception of the Fabians, most pro-League groups did not propose a large, formal, and continuously-functioning international organization as the League of Nations would later become, but rather only sufficient institutional machinery to settle international crises before the parties in conflict resorted to war. For these groups, arbitration was the most important function of any League scheme, and its implementation, they argued, should be based on the models proposed during the Hague Conferences. Their approach was almost wholly legalistic and focused on "justiciable," i.e., court-triable, issues, patently overlooking—or perhaps simply ignoring—the fact that many disputes between countries did not lend themselves to a courtroom settlement.
The Fabians, on the other hand, proposed an entirely different kind of institution. What they advocated was a new world order. While much of what they advanced proved unworkable, two elements of the Fabian scheme were of lasting significance. First, the Fabians argued that "non-justiciable" disputes should be settled by a "Council" of states, which, because of their inherent influence, would be dominated by the great powers. They, in turn, would share the greatest responsibility for maintaining the peace. Second, Fabians advocated the establishment of a permanent international secretariat, modeled on that of the International Postal Union, which would be charged with coordinating international activities.
While the various pro-League groups debated their unofficial schemes, the British government took it upon itself to inject into the debate the first official scheme for a League of Nations. In early 1918, Lord Balfour, the British foreign secretary, acting on the earlier advice of Lord Robert Cecil, appointed a "Committee on the League of Nations" to study the feasibility of creating such an institution and to make appropriate recommendations. Better known as the Phillimore Commission, after its chairman, Sir (later, Lord) Walter Phillimore, a distinguished jurist, its members issued a report in March 1918. The Phillimore Plan suggested the establishment of a "Conference of Allied States" whose members agreed not to go to war with one another without first submitting the dispute in question to arbitration. Once the arbiter, either the Conference or some other body, agreed on a recommended settlement, the party or parties to the dispute were to agree not to attack any state which complied with those recommendations. Any state which resorted to war, seeking further satisfaction beyond that provided in the final recommendation, would automatically be at war with the other Conference members. They, in turn, would respond by imposing sanctions—economic or military—on the offending state to compel compliance.
Although much of the Phillimore Plan was later incorporated into Articles 12-17 of the League of Nations Covenant (see Appendix 1), the Plan contained two major defects. One defect lay in the fact that it did not provide for a means of resolving a dispute where the arbiter or Conference came to no agreement on recommendations. The other defect was that the Plan did not contain provisions for collectively punishing a state which, if found to be the party at fault, refused to abide by a settlement recommendation. In the latter case, the Commission "felt a doubt whether States would contract to do this, and still greater doubt whether, when the time came, they would fulfill their contract." The British cabinet approved the Phillimore Report, but at Wilson's request, declined to formally endorse it.
In early June 1918, the French government submitted a draft proposal on the League of Nations. The French advocated the establishment of an "International Council" consisting of representatives from member states. The Council was to meet annually and settle non-justiciable disputes, aided in its tasks by a permanent administrative committee. Justiciable disputes were to be heard by an "International Tribunal." Enforcement of settlements, if required, was to be the responsibility of an international army directed by the League. Clearly, the French championed a much stronger League of Nations than that proposed earlier by the British. In a note to Lord Balfour, dated 9 August 1918, the Phillimore Commission, in reviewing the French proposals, commented that they went "beyond what we have been prepared to recommend."
After Woodrow Wilson received the draft Phillimore Plan, he instructed his close advisor and friend, Col. Edward House, to draft a U.S. plan which incorporated Wilson's views on the subject of the League as well as those expressed by the Phillimore Commission. Some portions of House's draft even today seem idealistic. He suggested, for example, that relations between states be strictly on honorable terms: dishonesty, espionage, and other forms of unethical behavior were all to be shunned.
Wilson's first draft borrowed heavily from House's draft, although he proposed much more explicit use of force than did House to compel states to abide by the League's decisions. This compulsion included "blockading and closing the frontiers of that power to commerce or intercourse with any part of the world and to use any force that may be necessary..."
Meanwhile, Jan Smuts and Lord Robert Cecil had both made several formal, yet practical, suggestions regarding the structure of the League. Smuts, for example, proposed that the League's Council should consist of the great powers (the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and, later, Germany) as permanent members, while other powers and minor states would be represented on a non-permanent basis. Smuts also elaborated on the disposition of Mandates—former territories of the Central Powers administered under the League's auspices. For his part, Lord Cecil's proposals were concerned primarily with the organization of the League. He proposed that the Council meet annually, while the other members would meet only quadrennially. He argued that a permanent secretariat was necessary for the efficient functioning of the League and that the new organization should have a permanent meeting place.
After his arrival in Paris in January 1919, Woodrow Wilson prepared a second draft plan for the League of Nations. Lord Cecil also prepared a revised version of his earlier draft. By the time the Paris Peace Conference officially convened on 18 January, therefore, the proposals for the League of Nations had undergone several significant revisions from those originally put forth by the Phillimore Commission. The necessary task of integrating the various League proposals had yet to be completed. U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing, assigned that responsibility to David Hunter Miller, a legal adviser attached to the U.S. peace delegation. Miller carried on lengthy discussions with the many parties involved, most especially with Lord Cecil, in anticipation of the first meeting of the League of Nations Commission at the peace conference. After several additional drafts and alterations, Miller, in collaboration with Cecil Hurst, his counterpart on the British delegation, produced a version of the Covenant of the League of Nations known as Hurst-Miller Draft. This draft formed the basis of discussion at the first meeting of the League Commission, held on 3 February.
The League of Nations Commission's first draft of the Covenant of the League of Nations took only ten days to complete, but those ten days bore witness to much spirited discussion among the Commission's members—discussion which occasionally flared into acrimonious debate. The final Covenant, which the Peace Conference adopted on 28 April 1919, reflected the compromises made between the Commission's members. Many of those compromises crippled the organization from the very beginning. Chief among those was the discrepancy between Articles 5 and 10 of the Covenant. Article 10 provided the pledge—at Wilson's insistence—that the League would collectively preserve "the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members" and that the Council would make recommendations on how that pledge would be fulfilled. Article 5, which dealt with voting procedure, provided that decisions by the Council required unanimity among the members in attendance. While under ordinary circumstances it seemed appropriate that Council members should unanimously agree on punitive action against aggressors, what the Commission members failed to foresee in 1919 was that if one of the Council members themselves committed an aggression, it could successfully veto any League action against it. This issue became all the more important not only because this particular flaw in the Covenant prevented change in territorial boundaries from occurring peacefully, but also because some members of the League, e.g., France and Poland, who had benefitted from the new status quo imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, were determined to prevent any subsequent changes to it.
&On 10 January 1920, the Treaty of Versailles became a legally-binding international settlement and the League Covenant began operating. Sir Eric Drummond, a former official with the British Foreign Office, became the League's first secretary-general as provided for in the Covenant. In addition to his own position, the Secretariat consisted of two deputy secretaries-general, three under secretaries-general—each a national of a different country. Below the under secretaries in rank was the legal advisor, and thirteen section directors, each of whom headed up an office responsible for one of the many different tasks as outlined by the Covenant. What Drummond established and cultivated over his fourteen years as secretary-general (1919-1933), was an efficient international civil service of some 675 men and women, designed to serve the needs of the League's two other main organs, the Council and the Assembly.
The Council, which was obligated to meet at least once a year, but always met more frequently, consisted originally of nine members: the five great powers, who held permanent seats, and four temporary members, Belgium, Brazil, Greece, and Spain. After the United States abandoned the League (see p. 16), the Council consisted of only eight members, the four remaining great powers and the four small powers. In 1922, the Assembly voted to add two additional small powers to the Council, increasing its size to ten. In 1926, the Assembly again voted to increase to the Council, this time to fourteen members, primarily because of the controversy surrounding Germany's admission. After 1922, the small powers always enjoyed a majority on the Council.
The Council, in many ways the executive body of the League, was broadly empowered by the Covenant to "deal at its meetings with any matter within the sphere of action of the League or affecting the peace of the world" (Article 4). In practice, its main function was to oversee the work of the League, especially as that work related to international peace and security, although as the League grew and took on more tasks, so, too, did the Council. Since it met more frequently than did the Assembly, the Council also supervised the work of the various functional institutions of the League, among them the Economic and Financial organizations, the Health Organization, the Permanent Mandates Commission, the Advisory Committee on Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs, and the Advisory Committee of Experts on Slavery (see Figure 1.1). The League established these institutions within its first three years in fulfillment of Article 23 of the Covenant. The work they performed represented the League's unheralded successes.
Of the three main organs of the League, the Assembly was by far the most important. Every member of the League was represented in the Assembly, which met each year for a month beginning on the first Monday in September (except for the first session, which met in November 1920). Member countries were each allowed to send three full representatives or delegates. As the work of the League grew in complexity, the Assembly voted to allow each member to send additional personnel to Geneva to serve as substitute delegates. These individuals helped lighten the workload of the full delegates, thus contributing to greater efficiency among the many delegations. At the opening of each session, the Assembly elected a president and six vice-presidents, and then distributed that year's work among its six committees according to subject. The First Committee dealt with legal and constitutional questions, the Second with the technical organizations of the League, the Third with the reduction of armaments, the Fourth with budget and financial questions, the Fifth with social and general questions, and, lastly, the Sixth Committee dealt with political questions. Each of the six committees was chaired by one of the Assembly's vice-presidents, and each delegation was allowed representation. Although the plenary Assembly received a great deal of attention from the press and the public, the real work of the Assembly was undertaken in the committees, and its attendant subcommittees. At the end of each year's session, the Assembly passed resolutions on the work that it desired to be done in the coming year, and the Council—aided by the Secretariat—was then given the responsibility of seeing the work to fruition.
Even before its first meeting, the League of Nations suffered what some historians have characterized as a death blow: the U.S. rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and with it, the League of Nations. A variety of factors led to the U.S. Senate's rejection of the treaty, among them Woodrow Wilson's personal antagonism with the Senate's leading Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee; the fact that Wilson largely ignored the Senate—under the U.S. Constitution that body responsible for the ratification of any treaty—in the treaty negotiation process; Wilson's intransigent rejection of any amendments or "reservations" to the treaty or the Covenant proposed by the Senate, most especially Lodge's desire to eviscerate Article 10; and, finally, the baneful effects of political partisanship (Wilson, a Democrat, faced Republicans who controlled both houses of the 66th Congress in 1919). In the end, faced with the choice of ratification with Lodge's "reservations," or outright rejection of the treaty, Wilson instructed Senate Democrats to vote against the treaty; it was finally defeated on 19 March 1920. The United States never became a member of the League of Nations.
Without the United States as a member, the chief powers in the League before 1926 were Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. The way in which each of them viewed the new international organization is of paramount importance in understanding the future demise of the League. The majority of the British public supported the ideals of the League, but the British government viewed the League largely with indifference. This indifference began early on. While Woodrow Wilson had represented the United States on the League of Nations Commission, Great Britain was represented not by David Lloyd George, its prime minister, but by Lord Cecil, an important personage to be sure, but one who held no office within the government in early 1919. Lloyd George preferred what his cabinet secretary Maurice Hankey called "Diplomacy by Conference"—where the great powers would meet in a less formal setting to discuss problems—to any system such as the League. Near the end of his tenure as Prime Minister in 1922, Lloyd George apparently had a change of heart, but by then it was too late; the League's power had already been undermined.
After 1922, successive British governments saw the League as a useful tool for pursuing some foreign policy objectives, but failed to embrace the "League idea" in its totality. This policy was in part due to the fact that except for the years 1924 and 1929-31, when Labour governments were in power, Conservatives and traditionalists, men like Stanley Baldwin and Lord Curzon who opposed collectivist notions of foreign policy, dominated the government and the Foreign Office. They were staunch advocates of the Old Diplomacy. British indifference toward the League was also a result of the change in circumstances after the U.S. defection. The British, who anticipated that the United States would help shoulder the burden of securing France and the European peace, now found themselves in the position of having to defend that peace alone. It was a position they declined to take.
The French shared the attitude of the British toward the League of Nations, but for different reasons. French representatives at Paris had had very little to do with the framing of the Covenant, and they did not share much of the document's idealism. The French therefore saw the League primarily as a tool which could help protect France from any future German attack—une agression de l'Allemagne—and not as an instrument of international goodwill. The French approach was realistic—perhaps brutally so—and contrasted markedly with that of Wilson and some of the conservative, but pro-League Britons like Lord Cecil. The French also did not suffer from the division of domestic opinion as did the British, for both Rightists and Leftists in France supported the League in the same way. Both groups favored a strong national defense, and saw no difference between pursuit of that policy, and support for the League's collective security elements.
Prior to the fascist takeover in 1922, Italy's attitude toward the League was one of skepticism. At the Paris Peace Conference, the Italian government had sought territorial gains along the Adriatic Sea, but due to Woodrow Wilson's opposition, was unable to obtain them. Because Italy was resource-poor, the Italians also hoped that the new League of Nations would establish an agency to ensure the equitable distribution of raw materials among member countries. The British Commonwealth countries, particularly Canada, opposed such a move, arguing rather disingenuously that the League was not competent in that area. Facing increasing economic misery at home, and the frustration of their ambitions abroad, many Italians turned to fascism and Benito Mussolini. Mussolini disliked the League because it represented the status quo, but remained generally conciliatory toward the organization until the mid-1930s.
Like the Italians, the Japanese were somewhat disappointed by the Covenant. Japan's delegate on the League Commission at the Paris Peace Conference, Baron Makino, proposed a sentence be added to the Covenant's preamble stating that the members of the League accepted the principles of the equality of nations and races, and the just and equal treatment for nationals of all countries. While most of the members of the Commission supported the principle, Woodrow Wilson, William Hughes, prime minister of Australia, and William Massey, prime minister of New Zealand, all opposed its inclusion. Each of their countries had imposed restrictions on Japanese immigration and wanted to avoid including anything in the Covenant that might affect those restrictions. Despite this initial setback, the Japanese fully supported the League of Nations in its early years. In the words of F. P. Walter, a prominent League official, "Japan appreciated the fact that at Geneva she stood on an equal footing with the leading States of Europe and could watch and, if she chose, share in, the management of international affairs." Once the militarists assumed power in Japan in 1930, the attitude of the Japanese toward the League quickly became one of veiled hostility until the advent of the Manchurian Crisis.
Although the League ultimately collapsed due to its inability to maintain a viable system of collective security and arbitration, its early years did witness some successes in that area. Even before the first Assembly met in 1920, the League Council worked to resolve the Aaland Islands dispute between Sweden and Finland without the parties escalating to violence. The Council settled a similar dispute between Germany and Poland over Upper Silesia in 1921. A border conflict between Greece and Bulgaria in 1925 led also to successful Council intervention.
From the very beginning of the League, however, an insidious pattern emerged with regard to Council intervention in international disputes. Dominated as it was by the great powers, the Council seemed more willing to settle disputes involving small powers than those which involved one or more great powers, or which involved the interests of any great power. This double-standard ultimately proved disastrous for the long-term success of the League and helped undermine confidence in the organization. Extra-League security arrangements, like the "Little Entente" (1920) and the Locarno Pacts (1925), emerged not only as manifestations of eroding confidence in the League's ability to maintain peace and security, but also had the effect of further sabotaging the League by indicating a regression into the Old Diplomacy. Attempts to strengthen the League by increasing its powers of coercion in the event of a rupture of the peace, like the Protocol for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes (1924), or the "Geneva Protocol" for short, which called for compulsory arbitration, met with resistance and failure, primarily from Great Britain. League-sponsored disarmament met a similar fate. The talks started and stalled throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, until Hitler withdrew Germany from the talks and from the League itself in October 1933. The Disarmament Conference limped along for a few more months, but when it became clear that Germany would not return, it finally collapsed and rearmament in Europe began anew.
Despite earlier provocations, the first real test of the League's ability to maintain global peace and security came in 1931. On 19 September, while the Assembly met in Geneva, it received word that a clash between Japanese and Chinese troops had taken place the previous day at Mukden, a small railway town in Manchuria. Advancing Japanese troops, despite vigorous Chinese resistance, continued to press ever-deeper into southern Manchuria. By Monday, 21 September, additional information had reached Geneva: the situation in Manchuria was rapidly deteriorating. The Chinese representative at Geneva appealed to the League Council, invoking Article 11 of the Covenant, under which the League maintained the right to "take any action that may be deemed wise and effectual to safeguard the peace of nations."
Because of conflicting reports from the Chinese and the Japanese as to the actual situation in Manchuria and its causes, the Council asked both sides to try to work together to resolve the crisis on their own. Contrary to its representative's good faith utterances on the Council, however, Japan was not withdrawing from previously-held positions in Manchuria. Instead, Japanese forces continued to advance in an attempt to undermine the Manchurian regime of Marshal Chang Hsueh-liang and to replace it with one more to their liking.
By mid-November, the worsening crisis in Manchuria was punctuated by the Council's inability to act decisively. Rather than confess its inability, or run the risk of war with Japan by invoking Articles 15 and 16 of the Covenant, the Council agreed to a third, and less problematic, alternative. Kenkichi Yoshizawa, Japan's representative on the Council, proposed that the League send a commission of inquiry to Manchuria to discover for itself what were the facts of the dispute. The Council agreed. Nearly three and one half months after the crisis began, the Council despatched to Manchuria the "Commission of Inquiry to the Far East," better known after its chairman, Lord Lytton. The Lytton Commission, its members drawn from the great powers, finally arrived in Manchuria in April 1932. The Japanese Army, meanwhile, had occupied three of Manchuria's five provinces and installed Henry Pu-Yi, the last of the Ch'ing emperors of China, as ruler of the new state of "Manchukuo," the foundation of which the Japanese proclaimed on 1 March.
Throughout the summer of 1932, the Lytton Commission labored to discover the causes of the "Manchurian Incident" and to render an impartial verdict. On 4 September 1932, the commission members signed their 100,000-word report and despatched it to Geneva. While giving some credence to Japanese claims regarding Chinese maladministration in Manchuria, the Lytton Commission clearly cited Japan's violation of the Covenant. After several months of reviewing the report, the Assembly, to which the responsibility for handling the dispute had been transferred, voted to adopt it. The Japanese delegation walked out of the Assembly; one month later, in March 1933, Japan announced its withdrawal from the League. While condemning an act of aggression by one League member against another, the members of the League nevertheless failed to restrain the aggressor. Once the Assembly adopted the Lytton Commission's report, it took no further action against Japan.
The lesson of the League's failure to deal effectively with the Manchurian Incident was not lost on the two revisionist powers in Europe: Germany and Italy. Beginning in 1935, German rearmament under Hitler brought only empty condemnatory resolutions from the Council, as its key members, Great Britain and France, now preferred to deal with political problems outside the machinery of the League. For his part, Mussolini quickly realized that the governments of Britain and France were willing to appease him in order to avoid great power conflict and to keep him from siding with Hitler. Il Duce turned that knowledge into leverage after his troops clashed with those of Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) on 5 December 1934 near the Abyssinian desert town of Wal Wal (Ual Ual).
On 13 December, the Abyssinia government notified the League Council of the problem and asked for arbitration. The Council was then not in session; it was due back in session in January. On 3 January 1935, after three weeks of apprehensively watching Italian troops mass along the frontier, Haile Selassie instructed his ministers at Geneva to appeal to the League by invoking Article 11 of the Covenant.
The growing Abyssinian crisis had all the earmarks of another major test for the League. The small powers on the Council looked to Britain and France for leadership, but the British and French governments saw the crisis not simply as a League matter. They, too, had interests in the region, had had differences with Abyssinia in the past, and were faced with choosing either Haile Selassie or Benito Mussolini. In the calculus of realpolitik, Mussolini was the preferred choice. The British and French governments feared Nazi Germany's growing power and sought to use Italy as a counterbalance to it. Mussolini had not yet aligned himself with Hitler, and that fact held out the hope that he could be persuaded not to. This hope informed the British and French decision to pursue a dual policy with regard to the crisis. Within the League, they would allow discussion of the crisis, but try to forestall any attempts to take action against Italy. Outside of the League, where Mussolini preferred to deal with the crisis, the British and the French sought to appease the Italian dictator—at the expense of Abyssinia.
On 7 January 1935, French foreign minister, Pierre Laval, met with Mussolini in Rome and signed a series of agreements which led to French concessions to Italy in Africa in exchange for promises of support for French policy against Germany. Laval also promised that France would ignore future Italian action against Abyssinia. After the Italian government informed London of the bargain, the British Foreign Office appointed a commission to study the problem and make recommendations. In mid-June 1935, the commission recommended that the British government should not oppose Italian action against Abyssinia, but should use the opportunity presented by the crisis to rectify British colonial boundaries in East Africa.
While Pierre Laval and Sir Samuel Hoare, the new British foreign minister, were busy obstructing Abyssinia's efforts at Geneva to gain the League's support, Italy's armed forces were equally busy preparing for their impending attack on Abyssinia. They were aided indirectly by the British government, which allowed the Italians to ship war material through the Suez Canal. Throughout the rest of the summer, Mussolini made preparations for war. Fearful that public opinion might force them to take action against Italy if Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, the British and French governments tried to offer him virtual control of that country without resorting to war. Mussolini, however, remained elusive.
At the September meeting of the Assembly, the Italian delegation began to build its "case" against Abyssinia by presenting a long and scathing memorandum condemning Abyssinia's "backwardness" and alleging that Haile Selassie was unfaithful to his country's international obligations. The memorandum was untrue in almost all respects, but served its purpose well: it deflected attention away from the motives of the Italian government and toward the supposed failings of Abyssinia's.
On 11 September, Sir Samuel Hoare delivered a speech at the Assembly in which he expressed the British government's continuing support for the League and the principles of the Covenant, including "collective resistance to all acts of unprovoked aggression." A subsequent—and reluctant—speech by Laval affirmed France's public commitment to the League and the Covenant. Some of the other League members openly supported the British and French statements. Most, however, remained silent, fearful of antagonizing Italy.
The Council, in the interim, attempted to come to a peaceful solution to the crisis. A Council committee worked out a scheme whereby Abyssinia would agree to accept a panel of advisors, appointed by the League, who would aid the emperor in modernizing his country's civil administration and help resolve some of its internal troubles. Haile Selassie accepted the committee's proposals as the basis for discussions with Italy, but Mussolini was uninterested in concessions and rejected the overture. But Mussolini's rejection exposed the real purpose of the earlier Italian memorandum; he was clearly not interested in reforming Abyssinia, but in conquering it.
Having failed in its task of conciliation, the Council turned to judgment of the dispute. On 5 October 1935, a thirteen-member committee, appointed by the Council to study the dispute, issued its report. In studiously measured terms, it concluded that the fault for the crisis lay with Italy. The report, though important, was too late. Two days before, on 3 October, Mussolini had ordered the invasion of Abyssinia.
Mussolini's actions quickly brought a vote for economic sanctions against Italy, with all League members save Italy and its satellites, Albania, Austria, and Hungary, voting for their imposition. By 18 November, the sanctions, which included an embargo on arms, loans, and much trade, took effect. Despite their public support for sanctions, behind the scenes Laval and Hoare still sought to appease Mussolini, whatever the cost to Abyssinia. In early December, Laval worked out a plan whereby Italy would be given roughly two-thirds of Abyssinia in exchange for peace. Needing the support of his British counterpart, Laval pressured Hoare into accepting the plan, which subsequently became known as the Hoare-Laval Pact. Laval presented the agreement to the Council of the League, asking it to suspend judgment until word on the plan arrived from Addis Ababa and Rome. Mussolini's indifference quickly killed the idea, but public outcry at the blatant betrayal of Abyssinia forced Hoare from office and caused the British cabinet to disavow the plan.
As the Council continued its hand-wringing throughout the months of the spring of 1936, Italian airplanes dropped bombs and poison gas on Abyssinian villages and towns. League sanctions were having a definite impact on the Italian economy, but soon proved insufficient to derail Mussolini from his course of action against Abyssinia, mainly because they did not include precisely those vital raw materials—oil, coal, and rubber—that he needed to continue the war. By May, Addis Ababa had fallen to the invading army and Emperor Haile Selassie had fled the country. The Italian conquest of Abyssinia was complete.
Within a month, the British government argued that the sanctions against Italy should be lifted, stating that since Italy had presented the world with a fait accompli, i.e., the conquest of Abyssinia, no purpose would be served in continuing them. In their view, the sanctions were intended to restrain Italy and to deter it from conquering Abyssinia. The sanctions had, therefore, obviously failed. As a counterpoint, the government's opposition in Britain argued that the sanctions had produced a tremendous strain on Italy's already overtaxed economy, and that continuation of the sanctions would soon compel Mussolini to let Abyssinia go. But it was precisely the possibility of war with Italy, or worse yet, the destruction of the Italian economy and the fall of Mussolini which the British government most feared. The collapse of Italy would mean the loss of a potential counter weight to an expansionist Nazi Germany. For London's practitioners of realpolitik, this was a possibility to be rigorously avoided. Britain took the lead in announcing its readiness to lift the sanctions against Italy. Other League members—most reluctantly—followed suit. The League Assembly officially ended the sanctions on 15 July 1936. Before the end of the year, and with blatant disregard not only for the League's Covenant, but the Stimson Doctrine as well, all but four of the League's members—Bolivia, China, New Zealand, and the USSR—voted to recognize Italy's annexation of Abyssinia. Despite having received all that it wanted, in December 1937, the Italian government announced its withdrawal from the League.
Although the League of Nations continued to hold annual sessions for the next three years, and despite talk among its members of reforming the organization, after the Abyssinian affair the League was clearly ruined as an instrument of collective security. A victim of the Old Diplomacy, it never recovered. After the Second World War erupted in September 1939, the League suspended its operations in Geneva, transferring a few of its technical activities to the United States and Canada. Although some of its supporters, among them Lord Cecil, remained hopeful for its reconstitution, their hopes were soon dashed. By war's end a new international organization, the United Nations, had been born. Accepting the inevitable, in April 1946, the members of the League met one final time and voted the organization out of existence.