Friday, January 25, 2019

The League is the solution

‘Today may be epoch marking in the history of the World. The Peace Conference opened its sessions in Paris with the representatives of the civilized world assembled around the board. It is announced there that the League of Nations will be one of the first - the first - number in the order of business.’ So wrote Breckinridge Long, an American civil servant, on 18 January 1919. A week later - exactly a century ago today - the Conference formally agreed to set up the new international organisation.

A history of the League of Nations can be found at the website of United Nations Office at Geneva. It says the League was ‘born with the will of the victors of the First World War to avoid a repeat of a devastating war’, and that its objective was ‘to maintain universal peace within the framework of the fundamental principles of the Pact accepted by its Members - to develop cooperation among nations and to guarantee them peace and security’.

Wikipedia, of course, also has an article on the League. It explains that even while the First World War was still underway a number of governments and groups had already started developing plans to change the way international relations were carried out. The idea for the League itself appears to have originated with the British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, but was taken up by US President Woodrow Wilson. The Paris Peace Conference, convened to build a lasting peace, approved a proposal for the creation of a League of Nations on 25 January 1919; and it came into formal existence a year later on 10 January 1920 (holding its first assembly - see photo - the same month).

In 1919, Breckinridge Long, an American civil servant, was working for the US state department, though he would soon leave it to campaign (unsuccessfully) to become a senator.  Later, in 1933, he would be appointed ambassador to Italy by his friend Franklin Delano Roosevelt). He is largely remembered, Wikipedia says, for obstructing - not always legitimately - the inflow of refugees during the Second World War, a policy for which he was subsequently criticised and demoted. A PBS profile on the man says this: ‘Ultimately, the effect of the immigration policies set by Long’s department was that, during American involvement in the war, 90 percent of the quota places available to immigrants from countries under German and Italian control were never filled. If they had been, an additional 190,000 people could have escaped the atrocities being committed by the Nazis.’

In 1966 University of Nebraska Press published a selection of his diary entries from 1939-1944 - The War Diary of Breckinridge Long. Long’s papers are archived at the Library of Congress, and a further unpublished selection of his diary entries, from much earlier, about the Paris Peace Conference, have been made available online thanks to Charles T. Evans, Professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College. Here are a couple of them.

18 January 1919
‘Today may be epoch marking in the history of the World. The Peace Conference opened its sessions in Paris with the representatives of the civilized world assembled around the board. It is announced there that the League of Nations will be one of the first - the first - number in the order of business. President Wilson has won the first of his fights, and will no doubt prevail in establishing a League. It is necessary to the successful work of the Congress that the Nations represented should be in accord. How then could they be bound except by a League? Reverting to the Democratic platform of 1916 it is evident the President had in mind early in 1916 the general terms of peace and the evolution of a League of Nations. He has worked skillfully toward that object ever since.’

26 January 1919
‘The League of Nations. I think I see so clearly the President’s purpose in trying to establish it. The allied and associated governments have been held together by the danger of the common enemy. Now that has ceased to be a binding force. The centripedal forces are exchanged for centrifugal ones. Each nation, except us, has special and in many cases conflicting claims. They are impossible of settlement in detail by the present Conference because it will take too long. It must soon (in 2 or 3 months) adjourn. People are tired of war. They all want peace proclaimed. That means public opinion will soon force it to sign a peace and adjourn. That peace can in the nature of things be only a settlement of 1) The guilt of Germany, including the official persons; 2) The indemnities Germany & Austria must pay and the reparation they shall make; 3) General principles each nation can and will subscribe to as fundamental doctrines, the specific applications of which to certain cases will be determined by sub-committees which will report their findings and recommendations to the next succeeding body, the World Congress, which will receive them and determine the rights, and which will be the League of Nations in Congress assembled. It will be the authoritative body which will work out the details of the matters now before the Peace Conference. He sees the necessity of committing each nation to the general principles but first of having their agreement to the League and their concurrent acceptance of the condition that they shall submit all their differences to the court of last resort. Once the League is subscribed to, they are bound. Without that obligation they might not be able to agree to terms of Peace; one would be trading its desires and claims for the support of another; combinations, of which special interests of each of the combining parties would be the cement, would jeopardize the successful conclusion of all rights on a just basis. The League, once created, is the solution - & is the prime consideration. He sees it. His critics, who demand ‘peace first & then let’s consider the League’ do not see there can be no peace without it - at least no reasonable prospect of an immediate and proper peace without it.’

For another story connecting diaries and the League of Nations, but this time its latter days, see Sean Lester and the League.

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 25 January 2009.

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