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Why the League of Nations Failed

As in most crises, so, too, in the case of Iraq, analogies to the 1930s and Munich are being drawn. Saddam is Hitler, the French and Germans the appeasers, Bush is Churchill. Fox News’ Brit Hume has dubbed French Foreign Minister De Villepin a Vichyite.

President Bush, too, sees close comparisons, warning that if the UN does not show more “backbone,” it risks going the way of the League of Nations, ending up as an international “debating society.”

But what really happened to the League? Why did it fail?

Created at the Paris Peace Conference, the League’s Covenant was embedded in the text of the Versailles Treaty at the insistence of its great patron Woodrow Wilson. But when the U.S. Senate proposed reservations to the Covenant, to protect U.S. sovereignty and freedom of action, the president rejected them all. The Senate then rejected the treaty, and the United States never joined the League.


Its first crisis came in 1931. Japan had watched with rising alarm a civil war in China between the Communist armies of Mao Tse-tung and the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek. With Stalin aiding Mao and encroaching in Mongolia and North China, Japan decided to move its army deep into Manchuria and establish a buffer state it called Manchukuo.

After an investigation and report, the League found Japan guilty of aggression. But its only two members with the power to intervene, Britain and France, had no interest in confronting Japan over North China. Nor did the United States. So, Tokyo was verbally thrashed. But, humiliated and enraged at the insult, the proud Japanese walked out of the League.

A second blow to the League came in 1933 when Hitler, having won power on a platform to restore German rights and lands taken away at Versailles, also walked out of the League, which had been established in part to enforce the terms of Versailles.

A third crisis came in 1935 when Mussolini, after a border incident between Italian Eritrea and Ethiopia, ordered his army to invade. Italy overran Ethiopia, whose emperor, Haile Selassie, made a dramatic personal appeal to the League.

The British public was in favor of League action, but British interests dictated against. Italy was a long-time friend. Mussolini had stood up to Hitler at the time of the attempted Nazi coup in Vienna in 1934 and had invited Britain and France to join his Stresa Front against the Reich.

Moreover, the British and French empires had dozens of African colonies. To confront Italy militarily over a land-locked colony in the heart of the continent seemed not to be worth it. Their real concern was Germany, not Italy.

Still, public pressure forced Britain and France to impose sanctions on Italy, though these did not include an embargo of oil, the one import that was critical to Mussolini. Italy’s prime supplier of oil, the United States, declined to join in the sanctions, thereby eviscerating them. FDR had no wish to antagonize millions of Italian-Americans expected to go to the polls in November 1936.

When Hitler, in flagrant violation of Versailles, moved troops into the Rhineland in March 1936, the League talked but failed to act. Nor was anything done to block his Anschluss with Austria in 1938, or annexation of the Sudetenland after Munich, or to interfere with the Nazi protectorate Hitler assumed over the remnant of the Czech state in 1939.

The League was finished. But in the final analysis, it was not the League that failed. It was the Allies that failed. Neither Britain nor France—nor the United States—was willing to risk war for high principle, if validating that principle imperiled vital interests.

None of the three had a vital interest in whether or not Japan (or Russia or China) controlled Manchuria. And if the United States refused to join the League, how could nations object if Germany walked out?

As for Ethiopia, was upholding the principle of non-aggression in Africa worth a war that might drive Italy into the arms of Nazi Germany? Indeed, the limited sanctions imposed on Italy helped to create the Rome-Berlin Pact of Steel, that first Axis of Evil.

As for Hitler’s military occupation of the Rhineland, this was a direct challenge to France. But if France, with its huge army, would not act militarily in its own vital interests, why should anyone else?

The lesson seemed clear then and does today. Great nations will not allow the claims or commands of multinational institutions to take precedence over vital interests. The crucial choice—of non-intervention, sanctions, or war—will ultimately be dictated by national interests alone.

Mr. Bush is doing the same thing, only he believes war is the right course. And whether the UN agrees or not is, in his word, “irrelevant.”

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Why the League of Nations Failed"

#1 Comment By FrancisA On January 20, 2014 @ 11:23 pm

To correct a misimpression that be had from the article, Emperor Haile Selassie did not address the League of Nations in 1935. In fact, it was on June 30, 1936 that he spoke to them. This was after Hitler moved into the Rhineland.

The Ethiopians had fought as well as possible against the Italian invasion, even launching a Christmas offensive in 1935 against them. But the Italians had superior weapons which eventually stopped the offensive. Added to this, the Italians used chemical weapons, e.g., mustard gas, to blunt the attack.

In the spring of 1936, the Emperor removed his government to England and came to the League of Nations. His speech had been written in French, the predominant language of the League. Haile Selassie had learned French and English as a child, though he was more proficient in French than English. When the time came, however, he was so overcome by emotion, that he delivered the speech in Abyssinian, and it had to be translated for the delegates, thus losing a lot of immediate impact. See John Spencer, Ethiopia at Bay.

Unbelievably the response of the League was to vote on July 4, 1936 to remove the sanctions imposed on Italy in November, 1935. This was the true end of the League of Nations. After this, it never opposed any act of aggression.

#2 Comment By Mittymo On January 19, 2015 @ 2:07 pm

Utopian minded politicians like Woodrow Wilson & FDR thought the U.N. would be the end to all our problems–the end of aggression & wars. How more wrong could they possibly be?

One of Stalin’s more successful agents of influence, Alger Hiss, was a primary proponent for the establishment of the U.N. Why would Stalin promote the U.N. unless he saw it as a vehicle for weakening & subverting nations like the United States?

Isn’t it time to recognize the U.N. didn’t pan out to be the thing we were told it would be?

Isn’t it time to say, “Our grand experiment didn’t turn out the way we thought, and the wise thing now would be to stop funding failure.”

#3 Comment By Pearl von Haven On January 22, 2015 @ 2:55 pm

The “proud Japanese” did not go into Manchuria because of civil war between the Communists and the Kuomintang. They went into Manchuria because they wanted it for its iron ore and industrial potential. They already took Korea in 1905. In WWI the League gave them German possessions in China. In fact, Mr Buchanan, if you look up the Japanese warlord’s Hideoyoshi invasion of Korea in the 1500’s you will see the blueprint for all of Asia under Japanese rule. First Korea. Then China. Then the world.

#4 Comment By Mittymo On January 20, 2016 @ 12:26 pm

Pearl von Haven,

Japan learned gun-boat diplomacy from its mentor, the United States. Three countries (the Soviets, China, & Japan) were vying for control of Korea (that China considered its colony).

Japan saw Korea as a spear pointed at its heart & was mortified by the prospect of foreign powers with strong militaries gaining control of it.

In the first Sino-Japanese War, Japan was awarded a large swath of China & China’s interests in Korea. In 1905, following the Russo-Japanese War, Russia ceded its interests in Korea to Japan. Further, as part of the Treaty of Versailles, Japan was awarded Germany’s colonies in China.




So, while everyone claims Japan was an all-out aggressor, it was merely doing what everyone else was doing. Recall that the British had colonies in China; the French & Dutch had colonies in Indochina; & the U.S. had laid claim to Hawaii, Guam, & the Philippines.

The sinking by the Japanese of an American gunboat, the Panay, which had been patrolling the Yangtze, precipitated an early crisis between America & Japan. Why did we have gunboats patrolling Chinese rivers? The Panay had been convoying oil tankers owned by the Standard Oil Company.

Based on what everyone else was doing, Japan felt it had legitimate claims on its Korean & Chinese territories & greater national security interests in Korea than the other colonialists. Moreover, Japan felt Asia should be ruled by Asians.

“Asia for Asians,” was a movement to liberate Asian countries from Western imperialist powers, and create economic co-prosperity for member nations of the Asian bloc.

Japan believed it was benefitting the regions under its control, which were far less advanced in culture, technology & development. Japan thought it was bringing backwards people into the modern world (in the same way Commodore Perry brought Japan into the modern world) by bringing them new technologies & modern conveniences. In other words, Japan was trying to alleviate some of the white man’s burden.