Back   LAST SESSION OF THE LEAGUE, 8-18 APRIL, 1946
SPEECHES BY VARIOUS DELEGATES ON THE FAILURE AND LEGACY OF THE LEAGUE

   

 

 

Paul-Boncour, France.

Mr. Lester's report is not merely a recital of events. In a short but significant introduction, he passes judgment on what has been done in the past by this League of Nations which we are to-day preparing to bury . . .

" it was not the League which failed. It was not its principles which were found wanting. It was the nations which neglected it. It was the Governments which abandoned it." I desire, in my turn, to develop the same theme. It is necessary to do so -- both as an act of justice towards what is passing and as an expression of hope in what is being born. For, let us not mince our words or conceal from ourselves the redoubtable complex -- I was going to say the inferiority complex -- which weighs upon the new Organisation. Those of us who were at San Francisco and in London did not find there the enthusiasm and faith which animated our work in the great days of the League of Nations. The setback experienced by this organisation helps to undermine faith in the destinies of the other. And public opinion, especially in countries like my own which have been downtrodden and crushed during four years of brutal occupation, is indifferent or distrustful.

That is not right. And it is not just.


Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, United Kingdom.

Why, then, did it fail ? I concur most fully with the Report saying that its failure was not due to any weakness in the terms of the Covenant. To my mind it is plain beyond the possibility of doubt that it failed solely because the Member States did not genuinely accept the obligation to use and support its provisions. That was due to several causes.
Speaking of my own country, I must admit that the general current of official opinion was either neutral or hostile. I suspect that was also true in other countries.


N. J. Paul-Boncour, France.

I quite realise that it did not fulfil its original purpose: the prevention of war...

Was it then a chimera? Was it out of touch with reality? Did it, so to speak, outstrip reality in striving after unobtainable objectives?

No, on the contrary! The chimera was to imagine that a country could protect itself against war by withdrawing within itself and paying regard only to its own frontiers. The chimera was to imagine that limited alliances would suffice to prevent war, whereas they always lead to counter-alliances and to the creation of rival coalitions, from the clash of which inevitably springs the spark of war. The chimera was to imagine that national armaments sufficed to guarantee security, whereas predatory nations had only to impose sacrifices on their enslaved peoples for such a competition in armaments to develop that one day or another, ineluctably, the peace-loving, free nations, preoccupied only with the well-being and prosperity of their peoples, were bound to succumb....

Our balance-sheet is not altogether unfavourable. I spoke to you just now about the positive achievements and successes of the League in matters of more or less incidental character; but even in the essential task of maintaining peace it succeeded during a number of years. It succeeded as long as Governments, and particularly the Governments of the Great Powers, put their faith in it and animated and fortified it by their own strength of purpose and as long as, in the background, there was the latent possibility that their force would be put at the service of its decisions.

During a number of years, in the period following the peace treaties, the League of Nations settled various grave disputes -- Memel, the Aaland Islands, Upper Silesia and the dispute between Greece and Bulgaria -- all of them involving areas which might have become battlefields if the League had not settled the disputes in their initial stages.

It is, indeed, the very success it achieved that caused the disputes to be minimised and that makes us forget what it accomplished.

For years it prevented the dispute between Poland and Lithuania from degenerating into war; for years it prevented Germany from seizing Danzig, which she always coveted but whose independence was essential to the free access of Poland to the sea; for years it prevented Balkan rivalries from degenerating into war over Albania, the Dobrudja and all those problems constantly surging up in countries where successive waves of migration have sometimes made frontiers uncertain.

No, no. Our balance-sheet is not altogether unfavourable. Deterioration set in on the day when, imperialism having again broken loose in the world, those precepts of the Covenant whose application would have afforded the only possible basis of a peace honourable for all were offered up as a first sacrifice to the myth of appeasement.

There was the case of Manchuria. The League did nothing but utter verbal protests against Japan's action in attacking an ancient country with a civilisation much older than any of ours which was groping its way towards democracy among the obstacles inherent in its geography and history. We forgot that, just as the revolver-shot of Sarajevo shook the whole world to its foundations, a gun-shot fired on the coast of the Pacific might have its repercussions in Europe. And the proof is that it was the resistance of China -- China, which had been at war since 1931, almost abandoned by the League -- that prevented Japan, the partner of the Axis, from interfering in the affairs of Europe and perhaps changing its face.

Manchuria was far off. Ethiopia, and still more Italy, was nearer. In that case, sanctions -- or at any rate economic sanctions -- were decided on, but (if I may employ a popular expression) they were slow-motion sanctions, imposed by driblets. We recoiled before the only two sanctions which would have been effective -- the cutting off of oil supplies and the closing of the Suez Canal. We did enough to irritate Italy and to embarrass her, but not enough to prevent her from accomplishing her conquest.

Then came the massive rearmament of Germany in 1935. Alas! the nations concerned did no more than refer the dispute to the League of Nations under the most lenient article of the Covenant, Article 11, which gave the friendly right to call attention to situations likely to engender international difficulties.

Then there was the reoccupation of the Rhineland. For weeks I struggled, we struggled, at the Council meeting in London in favour of giving the one response appropriate to the case, the response provided for in the Treaty of Locarno -- a treaty not imposed upon Germany but freely accepted, nay, proposed by her. Alas I instead of this, negotiations were started to induce Hitler to agree to a re-patching of Locarno.

Then there was Albania, seized by Fascist Italy one Easter morning, and then Austria, seized by Germany during a ministerial crisis in France. Not only did the League of Nations remain inert but, in September 1938, its First Committee took the decision to strike Austria off the list of nations members of the League.

The League's powerlessness to protect States victims of aggression became so evident that in the last two great acts of the drama -- of which one, the abandonment of Czechoslovakia at Munich paved the way for the catastrophe and the other, the invasion of Poland by Germany, unleashed it --there was no appeal to the League even on the part of the victims themselves. If I draw this sombre picture, it is not to engage in vain recriminations over the past, still less to make my mea culpa at the cost of others. I do not forget that certain French Governments had their share in these backslidings. It is, on the contrary, to emphasise my hope that the realisation of these errors and the determination to repair them which finds expression in the Charter of the United Nations will preserve us from similar mistakes in the future....

No, the League of Nations was not a deceit. It lived vividly in the heart and spirit of countless multitudes. It laboured. It leaves behind it lasting works. Some fully succeeded and the new Organisation will merely have to carry them on. This applies to its efforts in intellectual co-operation, public health, transit, social questions and rural life.
It was closely associated with Nansen's work for refugees. It played a leading part in the great migrations between Greece and Turkey and took a decisive share in the financial and monetary reconstruction of countries ravaged by the First World War.1 earnestly hope that the new Organisation will resume this task, which has become heavier in consequence of the much greater destruction wrought by the last war.

Other activities did not succeed. But the materials are there and the new Organisation will be able to use them for the constructive tasks which it will inevitably have to undertake. This is true of our work on disarmament.


Mr. P. J. Noel-Baker, United Kingdom.

The League leaves much behind it for the United Nations but above the rest I rank the existence, the traditions, the men of the first international civil service of the world. I remember how one night n the Hotel Crillon Hymans expressed his doubts and fears. 'I understand the Assembly', he said; I that is like the Conference at The Hague. I understand the Council; it is like the Concert of the Powers. But the Secretariat ! How can men and women of forty different nations work together beneath a single roof ? It will be not only a Tower of Babel, but a Bedlam too.'

Well, the Secretariat did it; and I want, if the Assembly will allow me, to write a paragraph in the testament that the Secretariat leaves behind it. I worked in it as a humble member in its earliest days. I also worked in four Government departments in London between the wars. I am as proud of our British Civil Service as any man could be, but I can say with truth that in none of our departments did I find a higher standard of technical efficiency, a higher level of personal and official probity, a greater industry and devotion to their cause, than I found in the Secretariat as I knew it then.
After some evil days, the members of that Secretariat have kept their qualities and their loyalty to the very end. Their work in this Assembly has shown us what efficiency and experience can mean.


Mr. H Hume Wrong, Canada.

I desire to mention one aspect which has been too frequently ignored, and that is the part played behind the scenes by the members of the Secretariat and by many who were until recently members of the Secretariat in assisting in the organisation of the United Nations. It was often in the most literal sense a thankless task that they undertook.
They fulfilled the biblical injunction and concealed their good works. Their counsel was frequently passed on through devious channels; yet they rendered the United Nations great service, and there is no reason why we here in this final Assembly should not recognise and applaud it.


The Secretary-General (Mr. Sean Lester).
On May 25th, 1937, before the Council of the League of Nations, took the following oath: 'I solemnly undertake to exercise in all loyalty, discretion and conscience the functions that have been entrusted to me as an official of the Secretariat of the League of Nations, to discharge my functions and to regulate my conduct with the interests of the League alone in view and not to seek or receive instructions from any Government or other authority external to the Secretariat I have tried to live up to this declaration during the past nine years. I shall try in the same spirit to serve you, and your representatives on the Board of Liquidation, during the coming months. I am grateful to the Assembly for the decision that has just been take. I want particularly to thank the delegations for the generous references that have been made to my Report and to myself during the general discussion at the beginning of our meeting. May I add, however, that if I have been able to fulfil my duties to the satisfaction of the Assembly, it is in the first place due to my colleagues of the Secretariat ? Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, United Kingdom We may well ask: I What, then, is left of the great adventure on which we then embarked?' It is common nowadays to speak of the failure of the League. Is it true that all our efforts for those twenty years have been thrown away ? I had a letter from our present Foreign Minister, Mr. Bevin, the other day in which he said he could not accept that view, and I am sure he is right. Some of the reasons for that opinion are well set out in the introduction to the Report and I need not repeat them. The work of the League is unmistakably printed on the social, economic and humanitarian life of the world. But above all that, a great advance was made in the international organisation of peace . . . By the Covenant, a definite scheme was set up. It was not, indeed, a full-fledged federation of the world -- far from it -- but it was more than the pious aspiration for peace embodied in the partial alliances which had closed many great struggles. For the first time an organisation was constructed, in essence universal, not to protect the national interests of this or that country -- do let us remember that -- but to abolish war. We saw a new world centre imperfect materially, but enshrining great hopes. An Assembly representing some fifty peace-loving nations, a Council, an international civil service, a world Court of International justice, so often before planned but never created, an International Labour Office to promote better conditions for the workers. And very soon there followed that great apparatus of committees and conferences, striving for an improved civilisation, better international co-operation, a larger redress of grievances and the protection of the helpless and oppressed.

Truly this was a splendid programme, the very conception of which was worth all the efforts which it cost.
For ten years the League advanced, and I remember very well a French representative, M. Hanotaux, saying to me that in his opinion the League was bien enracin‚e, but, as we know, it failed in the essential condition of its existence -- namely, the preservation of peace. And so, rightly or wrongly, it has been decided to bury it and start afresh. That does not mean that the work of twenty years goes for nothing; far from it. All the main ideas I have briefly sketched, and which are so well summarised in the report before us, remain. True, there is a new organisation founded on a Charter and not on a Covenant. The Charter in one respect is certainly an improvement. It recognises more clearly than did the Covenant that in the last resort peace must be enforced. That was no doubt implicit in the League, as anyone who reads the provisions of the Covenant will agree. However, in the condition of public opinion when the League was founded, this was necessarily kept in the background. It is only right to recognise that the French representatives from the earliest times never ceased to more clearly than did the Covenant that in the last resort peace must be enforced.

That was no doubt implicit in the League, as anyone who reads the provisions of the Covenant will agree. However, in the condition of public opinion when the League was founded, this was necessarily kept in the background. It is only right to recognise that the French representatives from the earliest times never ceased to urge greater clearness and definiteness in this. And now their opinions have prevailed and the negotiators of San Francisco used much ingenuity to provide for greater force to resist and crush aggression. They have given to the Five Great Powers special rights and, more important, special responsibilities in this respect . . . But I have no wish to discuss the detailed provisions of the Charter or the Covenant. It is enough for my purpose to insist that, but for the great experiment of the League, the United Nations could never have come into existence. The fundamental principles of the Charter and the Covenant are the same and it is gratifying to some of us that, after the violent controversies that have raged for the last quarter of a century, it is now generally accepted that peace can only be secured by international co-operation, broadly on the lines agreed to in 1920....

Believe me, there is no safety except in peace, and peace cannot be maintained merely and solely by national armaments, however necessary they may be, by each nation seeking safety for itself. Let us, then, boldly state that aggression, wherever it occurs and however it may be defended, is an international crime, that it is the duty of every peace-loving State to resist it, and to employ whatever force maybe necessary to crush it, that the machinery of the Charter, no less than of the Covenant, is sufficient for this purpose if it is properly used, and that every well-disposed citizen of every State should be ready to undergo any sacrifice in order to maintain peace. . .

In the end, it is public opinion that counts. Governments Maybe feeble or sometimes dishonest even, circumstances may put into the hands of a few men the power to use or misuse the forces of their country, but in the end the last word will be spoken by the great mass of the people, and I am sure myself that they will decide aright if only they are given proper materials on which to form their opinion, especially by full publicity for all international discussions.
Education in the largest sense is necessary. Everywhere organisations should exist for that purpose, whether supported by the State or drawing their strength from the conviction and enthusiasms of individuals. 1 venture very respectfully to press upon my hearers that here is a great work for peace in which all can participate, resting not only on the narrow interests of our own nations but even more on those great principles of right and wrong on which nations, like individuals, depend.
 

Mr. P. J. Noel-Baker, United Kingdom.
Some of us have spoken as though our resolution were the end of some great enterprise in which for a season we have been privileged to take part. An end ! An end of what ? Is it more an end than what is happening in many countries at the present time ? By our resolution one written constitution will be no more; one set of institutions will cease to be; but already a new constitution, new institutions in the same society for the same end have taken their place. A new Assembly has already held a meeting and it has since dealt successfully with most difficult and even dangerous post-war international disputes. The old Court of Justice, as our Polish colleague said the other day, became a beacon light to all international lawyers; to them to them it became the juristic conscience of the world. We all resolved that n the new Court a wider obligatory jurisdiction shall play a greater part than ever before. Already it is meeting; already there are cases waiting to be heard.

The Economic and Social Commission recommended by the Bruce Committee in 1939 will hold its second meeting at the end of May. The International Labour Organisation is more vigorous than ever it was before; health, refugees, human rights -- we call it that instead of minorities -- in every field of the League's action the work has started once again, and in every case the work has started where the League left off, but with a new drive and a new impulsion, a new resolve to use the experience and to avoid the errors of the past. To-day no honest man denies that Lord Cecil is right, that it is because the League existed that the United Nations still exists, and that the United Nations starts with a far brighter prospect than anyone could have hoped for a quarter of a century ago....

When the true history of our generation has been written half -a-century from now, the tale will not be told in the terms of the tawdry and conflicting interests about which politicians quarreled in the periods between the wars or of the small ambitions and the small achievements of which they thought. It will be written in terms of great world movements and the movement from international anarchy to order, from meaningless chaos and division to conscious and intelligent cooperation. It will be written in terms of the growth of those permanent international, political institutions through which that new order and new co-operation will be evolved, and across the pages of that story the names of the League of Nations and its leaders with their successes and failures will be written large.

Our work is not ended. It has only just begun.