THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS
A BRITISH CONSERVATIVE PERSPECTIVE
Why A League
By the end of World War I, the great powers, Britain in particular, would have liked to resume business as usual, and diplomacy as usual. The times, however, were not usual times. A new regime had been installed in Russia and was challenging the established regimes in all countries of the world. The people in Europe, appalled by the extent of the war sacrifices, disturbed by revelations of secret treaties dividing the expected spoils of war, remembering the social problems existing prior to the war, and exacerbated by the war, were looking for radical changes. The people would certainly be vulnerable to leftist ideologies unless they could be convinced that, henceforward, business, diplomacy, and government policies would be geared to cope innovatively with the social problems. In particular, they expected their leaders to make sure that war would not only be outlawed in principle but that its unleashing would be made functionally impossible. The World War could then be remembered as ‘the war to end all wars’. On September 9, 1919, President Wilson said in a speech delivered in Minneapolis :
There is unrest all over the world.. There is not now a country in the world where the great mass of mankind is not aware of its rights and determined to have them at any cost, and the present universal unrest in the world, which renders return to normal conditions impossible so long as it continues, will not stop until men are assured by some arrangement they can believe in that their rights will be protected and that they can go about the normal production of the necessities of life and begin to enjoy the extraordinary pleasures and privileges of life without the constant shadow of some cloud of terror over them, some threat of injustice, some tyranny of control..
The people will not stand for a restoration of the old system of balance of power which led them to catastrophe and bloodshed. They will not let it happen again and if their governments cannot work out something better, they will destroy their governments.
The League Of Nations, the League in short, came to life for multiple reasons. It was, for instance, the Western answer to the communist international. Whereas the latter was supposed to unite the workers of all countries regardless of their different nationalities, the League would unite nations, each with all its classes, and protect their national existence.
The Bolsheviks were saying that unless a world revolution, setting up the rule of socialism all over the world, were to succeed, the rule of peace would be impossible to establish. The western democracies had a different answer . The League would be the means and the apparatus to ensure that, henceforward, all quarrels between nations would be resolved peacefully. In case of aggression, the League would ensure that all the members would come to the assistance of the victim.
What Kind Of League?
World War I had started with events in Serbia. It did not take long to spread from there to the world. The world could therefore not remain indifferent to a conflict ‘in a far away country’ in the hope that it would remain circumscribed. The popular description of World War I ‘the war to end all wars’, was taken to mean just that: ‘all wars’, small or great, close-by or far-away.
Any local war had the potential of engulfing other countries and no country could be sure of remaining unaffected. The security of any country had been proved to depend on the security of every other country. Any country, big or small, should therefore be protected against aggression. This could be ensured by compulsory decisions obligating all countries to assist a victim of aggression against the country committing the act of aggression. No aggressor, however powerful, could measure up to the collective strength of the League members. Having to confront the united will of the League members, the would-be aggressor would not even dare to start the fight.
Alliances and defence treaties often involve commitments and obligations. However, those commitments are taken with respect to definite countries and are to become operative in circumstances well defined in advance, and against countries which, though perhaps not mentioned by name, are well specified in the minds and intentions of the signatories. Now, great powers were asked to sign a ‘blank check’ to assist whatever country against whatever aggression in whatever circumstances. The League was supposed to be strong and able to impose its collective will in defence of collective security. Smuts, before even the drafting of the League Covenant, wrote about the League in a pamphlet :
..It must become an ever visible, living, working organ of the policy of civilization. It must function so strongly in the ordinary peaceful intercourse of States that it becomes irresistible in their disputes; its peace activity must be the foundation and guarantee of its war power...
..I do not think that the League is likely to prove a success unless in the last resort the maintenance of the moratorium is guaranteed by force. The obligation of the members of the League to use force for this purpose should therefore be absolute..
The times were such that they induced a number of political leaders to think like Smuts and to express similar opinions. The concepts of ‘limited commitments’, ‘localised conflicts’, and non-coercive League decisions’, if publicly expressed, would have then sounded as profanities.
Peace, it was felt, could not last unless it was based on justice. Such was Curzon’s expressed opinion which got the immediate agreement of Lloyd George .
Self-determination would be the criterion for adopting a solution based on justice. It was however recognised that this principle had limitations. Whenever it would not be applied, countries would happen to contain minorities within their borders. It was important to ensure that these minorities would be treated fairly.
Limitations on self-determination were later approved by the League of Nations. In dealing with a difference between Sweden and Finland with respect to the sovereignty over the Aaland islands. the League sent a commission to the Baltic and, as reported by F.P. Walters :
..the Commissioners returned with their report; but when it came, the advice was clear and definite. They admitted that the desire of the Aalanders for union with Sweden was sincere and universal. But they accepted Finland’s claim to the possession of sovereignty over the Islands; and they urged that this must be the decisive consideration. A minority had the right to fair and just treatment within the State: but it could not be permitted to separate itself from the country of which it was a part, and incorporate itself within some other State simply because it desired to do so. Such a doctrine would lead to international anarchy. Territorial separation was an extreme measure which could only be justified by grave and permanent denial of justice to the minority concerned.
In all the Western countries press campaigns were launched to impress on the people that, with the existence of the League, humanity had vanquished the spirit of war. If social peace were to be kept, it was important to create a popular feeling that the immense war sacrifices had not been made in vain. On July 29, 1919, Samuel Hoare told the House of Commons :
To me the League of Nations is not some visionary assembly of a new Jerusalem, but a practical body, sitting continuously, working upon concrete problems, and in direct touch not only with the Foreign Offices, but with public opinion in each country which is represented..
To me the League of Nations, both in its conception and its constitution, is an Anglo-Saxon creation and an Anglo-Saxon ideal
On January 16, 1920, Lord Curzon stated :
The League Of Nations.. is not a mere expression in platonic language of the necessity for international friendship and a good understanding. It provides the machinery by which practical effect may be given to these principles..
Should disputes unhappily arise, the disputants will find themselves in an assembly of impartial and unbiased Councillors, whose sole aim will be to remove misunderstandings
It is hard to believe that as experienced a politician as Lord Curzon could have expressed his trust in ‘the impartial and unbiased Councillors’ of the League. Could a representative at the League avoid being biased for his own country or for his country’s allies? Curzon was obviously guilty of the wishful thinking that was then common. On May 19, 1919, Nicolson wrote to his wife :
If the League is to be of any value it must start from a new conception, and involve among its promoters and leaders a new habit of thought. Otherwise it will be no more than the continuation of the Conference — where each delegation subscribes its own point of view, and where unanimity can be secured only by a mutual surrender of the complete scheme. We, WE must lose all that, and think only of the League point of view, where Right is the ultimate sanction, and where compromise is a crime. So we must become anti-English where necessary, and, when necessary, pro-Italian. Thus when you find me becoming impatient of the Latins, you must snub me. It is rather a wrench for me — as I like the sturdy, unenlightened, unintellectual, muzzy, British way of looking at things. I fear the ‘Geneva temperament’ will be rather Hampstead Garden Suburb — but the thing may be tremendous..
Disarmament, Peace and Justice were three aims which would reinforce each other. In a world ruled by Peace and Justice there would be little need for extensive armaments. Reciprocally, the absence of armaments would reduce the temptation for aggression, were a particular country to be indifferent to Peace and Justice.
This simplistic outlook was soon shattered by a reality which refused to comply with the hopes of hundreds of millions of people in Europe and billions all over the world. It looked as if a sequence of misjudgements and mistakes lead to a situation in which the role of the League was gradually reduced to be replaced by traditional diplomacy concerned with the balance of power. This understanding of the failure of the League is as simplistic as the hopeful outlook that accompanied the creation of the League.
The League As A Reality
Britain herself would later prove how little trust she had in the impartiality of the League Councillors when she would, for instance, argue that the League had no right to deal with a difference between Britain and Egypt. Already before the time of Balfour’s quoted statement, some politicians were, in private, expressing their doubts. On November 29, 1919, Lord Esher wrote in a letter :
A war to end all wars! Open diplomacy! No secret treaties! A League of Nations! Self-determination! What has happened to all those fine phrases that not one of them has been translated into the faintest semblance of actuality..
He then added cynically:
But why gibe or complain? We have — that is to say the comfortable survivors — absorbed every German colony, we have annexed northern Africa, we have realized Rhode’s mighty dream, we have created or are able to create a subject Arab Empire, we may yet become the overlords of the Holy (!) City.. The Archbishops and Bishops give Glory to God; and Lord Robert Cecil is only as one crying in the wilderness.
The League was doomed from its very start. Ostensibly based on the ideals of Peace and Justice it could only succeed if these ideals were shared by the great powers. W.M. Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia did not mince words at a meeting of the Imperial War Cabinet on November 26, 1918 :
..I will take the case which affects Australia with regards to this League of Nations. You have Japan and China, which are desirous that their people should be allowed to settle in Australia, which is a continent capable of holding 100 million people. There are at present only five million. We have no moral right at all to refuse any more than you have in regard to India. We have got Australia and we are going to hold it, and we say to the world in respect to this 100 million of people, “You shall not come in here,” but we have no moral right to say anything of the sort. This is all right now, Great Britain’s navy and the power of the Empire keep out the Japanese and the Chinese, but the League of Nations, as I interpret what is meant, would absolve these things, and moral right would become the only touchstone by which every claim would have to be met.. But whilst Australia had a leg to stand on she would fight..
The right of Great Britain to India might come up. What sort of right is it? It comes up before the League of Nations, and 200 million make their voice heard. They say, “What right have you now in India, since we have had this war for Liberty? We want to govern ourselves, not by the methods of Montagu, which is to come by degrees, but by a decision of the Council of Nations.” You cannot agree to any League of Nations which might do anything of the sort
Hughes need not have worried. Indeed, Japan forwarded a proposal for adding a sentence to the draft of the Covenant. It stated :
..that the Members of the League endorse the principle of the equality of nations and the just treatment of their nationals
The drafters of the Covenant, on the insistence of Britain and the United States, rejected the Japanese proposal. They knew that the United States, Australia and New Zealand had enacted laws restricting immigration from East Asia. They suspected that Japan intended to rely on the added sentence to raise the matter at the League of Nations. Justice is important, as long as it does not conflict with the ‘vital interests’ of a great power.
Each power was motivated by its national interest as perceived by its ruling circles. In normal conditions, people believe peace and justice to be in the national interest. When the ruling circles reflect directly the popular interest, they implement policies compatible with the preservation of peace. When the ruling circles reflect the interest of narrower sections of the population, they implement policies at the service of these narrow interests. These policies may disregard the popular interest for peace. Campaigns of disinformation may succeed in convincing the general public that these narrow interests are also those of the general public.
It is not difficult to realise that the general public in Germany had a strong interest for peace. It is also easy to trace the narrower groups associated with dreams of expansion, and whose interests would be served by such an expansion, even at the price of war.
What is less common is to realise that such groups existed in Britain and in France and dominated the ruling circles in these two countries. How could it have been otherwise? The two countries were ruling vast colonial empires where self-determination was all but ignored, were justice was colonial justice, a particular blend biased in favour of the imperial country, and where peace was, on occasion, maintained by warlike measures such as air bombing. In fact one of the factors that prevented an agreement on the ban on bombers was Britain’s opposition justified by her expressed need for bombers to police her empire .
The dedication of an imperialistic country to the principle of self-determination is at best hypocritical. According to the political situation of the day and the concomitant strategic situation, Britain, for example, would be for or against a totally independent Poland. That is why when Britain and France chose to defend the right of the Sudeten people for self-determination, the historian has the right to doubt that this political stand was really motivated by a dedication to idealist principles.
From the point of view of the narrow interests of the British ruling circles, peace meant the absence of British involvement in war. Within this perspective, a German expansion to the East could be ‘peaceful’ if it was done in such a way as not to create too much of an outcry, if it therefore did not result in a strong demand by the public for British involvement .
League And Security
The Leaders of the great powers knew they had a moral mandate to prevent the occurrence of a second World War. They knew from where the war clouds could be coming. Just one day after the signature of the Peace Treaty, Austen Chamberlain, on June 29, 1919, wrote to his sister :
So Peace is signed at last..
Will the world have rest?..
Even the old Germany would not, I think, rashly challenge a new war in the West, but the chaos on their Eastern frontier, and their hatred and contempt of the Poles, must be a dangerous temptation..
But if Germany remains or becomes really democratic, they cannot repeat the folly of Frederick the Great and Bismarck and his latter followers. No democracy can or will make aggressive war its year-long study and business, though it may easily enough flare up in sudden passion. But think of Germany with its 60 or 70 millions of people and France with its dwindling 40! I shudder!
These passages are full of contradictions. Austen Chamberlain, while doubting that Germany would move in the western direction, is shuddering at the thought of the disproportion in population between France and Germany, an implicit recognition of potential trouble in the West. While considering the peaceful effect of democracy in Germany, he recognises that war could still, ‘easily enough’, flare up, in spite of democracy.
Such doubts concerning the future could not have been expressed in public. The allies, at the end of World War I, were omnipotent. They could have done what they wanted. They were expected to do whatever was necessary to ensure that there would never again be a world war capable of destroying the lives of tens of millions. They had the power, if this was their utmost and primordial concern, to make the world safe from war.
They were prepared to hang the German Kaiser , if such a warning to would-be warmongers should be necessary. What was needed to prevent a second World War was well known. First, the roots of war should be destroyed. Mussolini, before becoming the hateful Italian dictator, wrote on April 6, 1915 what was common knowledge, and which pointed in a correct direction :
For the last hundred years, the German have been poisoned by a constant apology of the blond-haired race, the only one capable of creating and propagating Kultur in a decaying Europe.. Germany must be crushed.. The giant has created a monstrous machine — militarism — to insure its domination over all people. This machine must be smashed. What an historical day it will be when the factories of the pederast Krupp go up in flames that will illuminate all of Europe and purify Germany. In the name of the Belgian towns and cities which have been martyred.., Essen, city of guns and cannons, must be razed to the ground. Only then will the pillaging and murderous German re-acquire the right of citizenship in humanity
Krupp may not have been a pederast but he was part of an industrial caste, which together with the military caste, were committed to policies of aggression and expansion. To prevent a repeat of the World War, it would have been necessary to destroy the power of these two castes, and not the city of Essen. However, one could not deny that such castes existed in other countries, were there very powerful, and would oppose the precedent of depriving such castes of their power.
Such drastic measures were not advocated by the Allied leaders. Instead, as we have seen, they expressed their trust in the Collective Security afforded by the League of Nations
Germany had been vanquished. She nevertheless had the potential for a tremendous military power. It was known that many influential groups in Germany were not only dreaming of revenge but also of expanding Germany’s borders beyond just the return to the status quo ante of 1914. This was the reason why the Peace Treaty of Versailles was made an integral part of the League so as to ensure that all members would have a stake in the respect of those articles of the Treaty which severely restricted German armaments, and which forbid Germany to fortify or, in any way, to remilitarise the Rhineland.
This last provision was of an essential nature. As long as it would be respected, the French army would have no difficulty reaching the heart of Germany, were the latter to contravene the stipulations of the treaties forbidding Germany to rearm beyond a given low limit. Otherwise, with a remilitarised Rhineland, any French intervention would be a major, costly and problematic operation. In addition, a fortified Rhineland would be an obstacle Germany could rely upon to stop France, while Germany would execute speedy military aggressions against France’s eastern allies.
With time, a number of regional pacts and other kinds of treaties were made to ensure the security of its participants. It is thus that ‘the Little Entente’ came into being, followed by the Locarno treaty and by treaties between Czechoslovakia, France and the Soviet Union.
This raised the question as to the necessity of such measures paralleling the security role that the League was supposed to play. Indeed, were the League to send the unmistakable signal that wherever and whenever a grave difference would occur she would be there to mediate without delay; were she to let it be known, by unambiguous words and deeds, that, whenever and wherever an act of aggression would occur she would be there to take swift action against the aggressor, and in defence of the victim; were she to let it be known that, when it comes to security, no group of nations would get a first class treatment and no other group would find its security less of a concern to the League, then, all those security pacts, be they bilateral, multilateral or regional, would be redundant. They would reflect an outdated mentality in which the security of any one country is the concern of only some other countries.
Business And Diplomacy As Usual
However, it soon became obvious that the signals sent by the League were not very encouraging. Even before the first League Assembly started its work, the Council of the league could not take too much pride in its results during the year 1920. F.P.Walter wrote :
The record of the Council’s work seemed to its Members respectable both in quantity and quality. But to many other Members, and also to a wide section of public opinion within the Council States themselves, it appeared sadly inadequate. The Council had made no attempt to impose itself as the supreme guardian of peace and promoter of reconciliation. It had allowed the Polish-Russian war to take its course. It was no more than a spectator of the fighting in Armenia and of the still more dangerous situation which was developing in Anatolia. It had done little to relieve the bitter hatreds which still divided the victors and the vanquished of the world war. It had been entrusted by the Covenant with making plans for disarmament and with setting on foot the system of mandates; and on each of these great questions it had made no progress whatever. The principal powers had for their own reasons preferred that nothing should be done: and the Council had acquiesced without a struggle.
In the following years it became more and more evident that Britain, in particular, was not willing to accept the concept of a League as a tool against aggression, wherever it came from, whatever country it be directed against. The League, then, could not be the main protection for the security of nations. In this respect things went from bad to worse until nations, small ones in particular, were given to know that the League would provide them with no security at all.
This could have been predicted in 1921 when the League left to a Conference of Ambassadors the task of delineating the boundaries of Albania. In spite of numerous complaints against the exercise of pressure by the Yugoslavs, the League Assembly disinterested itself from the problem and waited for the Ambassadors to reach conclusions at a very leisurely pace :
Not only during the war but, far less excusably, during the peace negotiations, the treatment of Albania was a picture of diplomacy in its worst and most cynical form
The Ambassadors, after deciding that Albania’s frontiers would essentially be those of 1913, made an uncalled for statement :
which in effect granted to Italy the right to make herself responsible for protecting the territorial and economic independence of Albania. This act was clearly contrary to the obligations of their countries as Members of the League. Its value to Albania can be judged from the fact that from 1926 onward the Italian gradually acquired a complete control over her economic resources, until in 1939 they annexed the country by typical Fascist methods of treachery and violence .
The same powers who through their Ambassadors made shady deals concerning Albania could have had their will at the Assembly. A conference of Ambassadors was however a less public and less conspicuous place, and therefore a more convenient one. At no time were the Albanians consulted whether to fix the boundaries or concerning the final statement on Italian protection and responsibilities.
Worthy of notice is the fact that Lloyd George, on November 8, 1921 sent a telegram to the Secretary-General of the League demanding that the Council should be summoned to decide that, were Yugoslavia not to carry out her obligations under the Covenant, economic sanctions should be applied against her . As a result Yougoslavia accepted the Ambassadors’ decisions and withdrew her troops from Albania. When dealing with a small nation, Britain, without prior negotiations, did not hesitate to brandish the threat of collective sanctions.
In 1923, a military commission was sent by the Conference of Ambassadors to fix the boundaries between Greece and Albania. Its five members, all Italians, were murdered on Greek territory. Mussolini reacted by presenting an ultimatum to the Greek Government with seven demands. Next day he sent an Italian fleet to bombard Corfu. This was followed by an Italian occupation of the Island. Salvameni wrote on this subject :
The consternation everywhere was great. The harsh language and the short time limit of the ultimatum, the bombardment of an ancient undefended castle, the killing of innocent persons, and the occupation of the Island, appeared to be out of all proportion to Italy’s grievance over the murder. There was no evidence that the Greek Government was connected with the crime. Last but not least, Article 15 of the Covenant.. stipulated: “Should any member of the League resort to war in disregard of the Covenant.. it shall ipso facto be deemed to have committed an act of war against all other members of the League.”
After recourse to behind the screen diplomacy, a request by Greece for the League’s intervention was diverted to the Conference of Ambassadors. It took decisions which, while not exactly approving the terms of the Italian ultimatum were paralleling it. In particular it approved the Italian request for an indemnity.
In spite of the fact that the Italian actions were deliberate and reprehensible and that they caused more victims than was the case in the murder of the military commission, in spite of the fact that Italy had just committed a flagrant act of military aggression, Greece was condemned while no official blame was laid on Italy.
We already saw that Mussolini and his Fascist regime were admired by the British Establishment, admiration expressed by the Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain himself. Just three months before these events took place, the King of England, on an official visit to Rome, conferred the order of the Bath on Mussolini :
congratulating the Italian people on having overcome its recent crisis “under the wise guidance of a strong statesman”
Principles and justice did not count. Helping fascism and Mussolini was more important than increasing the authority of the League.
The old methods of diplomacy were never relinquished by the great European powers. Even while matters would be discussed at Geneva, ostensibly in accordance with the principles of the Covenant, they would also be the object of private, and mostly secret, negotiations between the great powers with no regards to these principles.
To Each His Own
The League meant a different thing to different countries at different times. Small nations like Czechoslovakia and Romania would have liked to see in the League an effective and principled instrument for the defence of peace and the protection of any nation against aggression.
Britain and France perceived differently their need for the League. The British leaders, in the belief that a rearmed Germany would march to the East, choose to allow its rearmament; the League then became an obstacle. It was an obstacle to the rearmament itself and it was barring to Germany the way Eastward. Similarly, Britain had no objections to a Japanese expansion in the North of China. The expectation was that in the course of its expansion the Japanese would collide with the Soviet Union. Here also the League could be an obstacle.
The British leaders felt the need to clip the League’s claws. They wanted to take away from the League the means of coercion against the aggressor. In view of the popularity of the League, this had to be done while paying lip service to its importance.
The French leaders had a different perception of the League. On the one hand they wanted it to be strong so as to afford the collective security needed to prevent Germany from taking an aggressive course. On the other hand, however, France did not mind weakening the League’s effectiveness if this could help reduce the number of France’s enemies and increase the number of her friends.
The effectiveness of the League would depend on its prestige which itself would depend on the precedents she would have established. A League standing without hesitation against aggression and for effective sanctions against the aggressor could become a factor to be reckoned with.
The unwillingness of the United States to join the League was a blow to its effectiveness and its prestige. Economic sanctions against an aggressor would not be feared as long as the U.S. markets were to remain open to him. To leave the League would be perfectly respectable in view of the U.S. precedent.
The League, nonetheless, was enthusiastically and unanimously supported by the general public in the West and by their allies in Western and Eastern Europe. It responded too well to the public’s aspirations to make it possible for its opponents to be vocal. In spite of the U.S. stand it was universally believed that the League could play the role assigned to it, that of preventing, stopping or making war dangerous for any aggressor.
Preventing The League From Flying
A key role in that respect was played by Article 16 of the League’s Covenant. It stipulated:
Should any Member of the League resort to war in disregard of its covenants under Articles 12, 13 or 15, it shall ipso facto be deemed to have committed an act of war against all other members of the League, which hereby, undertake immediately to subject it to the severance of all trade or financial relations, the prohibition of all intercourse between the nationals of the covenant-breaking State and the nationals of any other State, whether a member of the League or not...
The aggressor would be that state which would reject an unanimous recommendation of the League for the settlement of a dispute. If, however, the recommendation was not unanimous, a member of the League would be allowed, after a period of three months, to declare war against another member without incurring the wrath of Article 16. This state of affairs was a gap in the collective security provided by the Covenant.
It was enough for a member unwilling to be committed to action by article 16, to vote against the recommendations of the League, preventing them from unanimity, and thus paralysing the League. An effort by the members to amend the League so as to close the gap failed through the opposition of the British government.
Article 16 warns ‘any Member of the League’ against resorting to war but does not afford protection against an aggression committed by a non-member. However, some hope remained in Article 10. It said:
The Members of the League undertake to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League. In case of any such aggression or in case of any threat or danger of such aggression the Council shall advise upon the means by which this obligation shall be fulfilled.
Article 10 does not provide immediate and effective assistance to the victim of aggression. This was the declared reason why some countries, mainly France, were reluctant to agree to a program of disarmament. To overcome this difficulty the League Assembly adopted the ‘fourteenth resolution’ which is thus outlined by F.P. Walter :
..the whole Assembly, including the British delegation, accepted the general principles.. declaring in brief: first, that no scheme of armaments reduction could be successful unless it were general; secondly, that many governments could not seriously reduce their existing armaments unless the safety of their country were guaranteed; thirdly, that such a guarantee could be provided by a defensive Treaty of Mutual Guarantee, open to all, and ensuring that any signatory State should, if attacked, receive immediate and effective assistance from all other signatories in the same part of the world; fourthly, that since the object of the Treaty would be a general reduction of armaments, its guarantee should only come into play after such reduction had been carried out according to a general plan.
Many objections were raised against this resolution. It was reproached of lacking a definition of aggression. A victim of aggression might succumb before the League had time to decide if an aggression had been committed. The resolution was sent in 1923 to the various governments members of the League for consideration. The British reply, from Ramsay Macdonald, was devastating. F. P. Walker had this to say :
It was said with truth that the very government which had proclaimed that its whole foreign policy would consist of strengthening the League, had now not only destroyed by a single gesture the result of all the efforts of three Assemblies and the Temporary Mixed Commission, but had done so in a tone which reflected the dislike of the older generation of officials for the institutions of Geneva and by arguments which seemed intended to undermine the foundations of the Covenant itself.
This did not prevent Mcdonald from saying later :
The League is the way to safety, we shall do all in our power to develop and strengthen it and to bring other governments to share our convictions
Mcdonald appointed Lord Parmoor as Minister in charge of League affairs. This, says F.P. Walter, was an unfortunate step :
He was over seventy; he possessed no authority in Parliament or in the country; he was not even a member of the Labour party. Such an appointment was altogether inconsistent with the proclaimed intention of the new administration to make the League the main instrument of its foreign policy. And the officials of the Foreign Office, with few exceptions, continued to treat the work of the League as having no essential connection with the practical business of their profession.
Discussions on Disarmament clarified its relation with Arbitration and Security. There were therefore three elements to be considered together. Finally a document was produced, ‘The Protocol of Geneva’, which seemed to give its due to these three aspects. It provided for compulsory arbitration and obviated the ‘gap’ which allowed a country to go to war in the case of a non-unanimous decision of the Council. A divided Council would appoint arbitrators. The conflicting parties were bound to submit their case to the arbitrators and to accept their decision.
Concerning aggression, a simple definition was adopted. The aggressor would be that state which refused to accept the unanimous decision of the Council or, if there were no unanimity, refused to accept arbitration or refused to implement the decisions of arbitration. “The Council was authorised to receive special undertakings from Members of the League stating exactly what military, naval and air forces they would hold ready to bring into action immediately in support of the Covenant or the Protocol .” The protocol also contained provisions concerning disarmament.
The protocol was the result of lengthy studies, discussions and considerations. A resolution was presented to the Assembly suggesting that the Protocol be considered by the different governments for signature. The resolution was adopted by an unanimous vote of forty-eight delegations.
France declared to be prepared to sign the Protocol. Nine other countries joined France. The British representative expressed their regret at not being able to affix their signature. F.P. Walters wrote :
That Government [Mcdonald’s] was not expected to be long lived; and there were many signs of dislike for the Protocol among the Conservative Party. Throughout the Assembly the most moderate Conservative organs had abandoned their usual tone of cautious encouragement of the League. They had joined in spreading a story that the Protocol would transfer control of the navy from the British government to the Council of the League. For a week or more this invention filled the columns of the press, without any steps being taken by the Foreign Office to deny it: and though it was eventually shown to be totally unfounded, it had created for the time being a definite condition of antagonism between London and Geneva.
Elections in Britain brought to power the Baldwin Government. This sealed the fate of the Protocol. The Protocol was rejected and a different route was followed instead, that of Locarno. F.P. Walters remarked :
In 1925 the British Government shrank from any risk of having to fight for the security of Eastern Europe under conditions which ensured that, if fight it must, it would do so with all the League on its side and with the sentence of the Court or of the Council to prove that it was defending a just cause. In 1939, that same government pledged itself to fight, with only one ally, on no other condition than that Poland should consider it necessary to take arms. If it had been ready, in early years, to honour fully the obligations of League membership, would it have been driven to accept, too late, commitments more onerous and dangerous than were ever contemplated under the Covenant?
When facing the choice between power politics and support for the League, the League did not stand a chance. F.P. Walters wrote :
Chamberlain [Austen] unchallenged representative of a power still rich, united, orderly, peace-loving, and impartial [?], could, in the Council and Assembly of the League, speak with unequalled authority..
Chamberlain was throughout on the side of restriction. The League to him was a part of the diplomatic system, to be used or not according as convenience may dictate.. Even the pledges of Locarno seemed to him a heavy and dangerous burden.. and he was reluctant even to admit discussion of any question in the Council or Assembly if he saw the slightest risk of any legal or moral obligation arising for Britain. He refused to accept the compulsory arbitration of the Permanent Court.. He could think of naval disarmament as a matter interesting the great naval powers, totally unconnected with the general question of world peace. He rejected the idea that the League could be called upon to intervene in differences such as those between China and the Treaty powers. Even in Europe he discouraged attempts to bring disputes before the Council.. and .. preferred to deal with them through joint diplomatic action by Britain, France, Germany and Italy.
The significance of the Locarno pact has been discussed in a previous chapter. Its impact on the work of the League of Nations is clarified by F.P. Walters :
If the meetings of the Locarno powers.. had been limited.. to the consideration of questions which concerned the participants alone, they would have been open to no objection. But in fact they were not so limited. They were used to discuss matters of general interest to the whole League, such as that of the relations between the Western powers and Russia. They were used for preliminary negotiations on questions which were on the agenda of the Council. They were even used, on occasion, for preventing the submission to the League of affairs which might embarrass one or another member of the group. The critics were not fully aware of these facts.. they would have been amazed to Hear Chamberlain assuring Streseman that the unity of the Locarno powers was more important to him than all the resolutions of the League
Such a behaviour was not designed to reinforce the feeling of unity and trust in the League. In 1927, the Netherlands proposed that the Assembly should consider anew the rejected Protocol to find out if an amended version could be acceptable. Britain and Italy objected, and the Assembly did not insist.
In the absence of the reliable protection the Protocol would have provided, thoughts were directed to other Locarno-like regional pacts to cover the security of Eastern Europe. These efforts “were met by the uncompromising negative of Britain, Germany and Italy.”
Germany proposed a ‘General Convention to improve the Means of Preventing War’. It would bind the League members to implement whatever recommendations, such as troops withdrawal etc.., the Council would make to reduce the danger of war. France approved the proposal. Britain, after resisting for some time, approved it too. The Assembly approved the treaty unanimously and recommended it to the League members for adoption. It was ‘killed by procrastination’ .
Being Nice To The Great Powers
The League did energetically settle a difference between Greece and Bulgaria. It did, through the International Court of Justice, invalidate a custom unification between Germany and Austria in 1931. The crucial test, however, would be the League’s position with respect to aggression by a strong power. In this respect, the first test occurred in 1931 with Japan’s aggression against Manchuria.
At the time, all the eyes were turned towards the United States. While she could pretend having no interests in the European quarrels, she had traditionally expressed an interest in Asian affairs and, particularly in those of China. She vigorously requested the respect of the Open Door policy in relation to China and it was natural to expect her to set the trend of action in this region. It was also evident that no policy could be implemented in this region in opposition to the will of the United States.
At first the United States gave the impression that she was willing to co-operate with the League in the implementation of a policy to stop the Japanese aggression. It was even hoped that a success in the collaboration between the United States and the League could have resulted in the United States finally joining the League and strengthening it by her membership. Later Hull would claim that it was Britain’s negative stand that prevented the adoption of a decisive action on the part of the League and discouraged the United States from co-operating any more with the League. There are good reasons to doubt the accuracy of Hull’s version. The long following quotation of a memorandum sent by President Hoover to the Cabinet defined his policy with respect to Japan and China :
The whole transaction is immoral. The offence against the comity of nations and the affront to the United States is outrageous
There is no doubts in Hoover’s mind as to Japan’s guilt. He continues:
But the Nine-Power Treaty and the Kellog Pact are solely moral instruments.. We are not parties to the League of Nations, the covenant of which has been violated.
First, this is primarily a controversy between China and Japan. The U.S. has never set out to preserve peace among the other nations by force and so far as this part is concerned we shall confine ourselves to friendly counsel
It is doubtful that Hoover himself trusted that ‘friendly counsel’ would be of any consequence. It was expected that the severity with which he described the Japanese aggression and the fact that it was an ‘outrageous affront’ to the United States would result in some practical stand to stop the aggressor. There were, however, particular considerations that made Hoover decide otherwise. He went on writing:
..There is something on the side of Japan. Ours has been a long and deep-seated friendship with her and we should in friendship consider her side also. Suppose Japan had come out boldly and said:
“we can no longer endure these treaties and we must give notice that China has failed to establish the internal order these treaties contemplated. Half her area is Bolshevist and cooperating with Russia, the government of Manchuria is in the hands of a military adventurer who ignores the Chinese government, and China makes no effort to assert her will. That territory is in a state of anarchy that is intolerable. The whole living of our peoples depend upon expanding the sales of our manufactures in China and security of our raw materials from her. We are today almost economically prostrate because there is no order in China. Beyond this with Bolshevist Russia to the North and a possible Bolshevist China on our flank, our independence is in jeopardy. Either the signatories of the Nine-Power Pact must join with us to restore order in China or we must do it as an act of self-preservation. If you do not join we consider we cannot hold to an obligation around which the whole environment has changed.”
America certainly would not join in such a proposal and we could not raise much objection..
Japan’s action was seen by Hoover as a way to re-establish order in a country infected by Bolshevism. He would have no objection against that. He spoke about the friendship between United States and Japan forgetting that, not long before, when the Covenant of the League was being discussed, an amendment by Japan asking for the equality between nations had been repelled in order not to offend the United States.
Hoover ends up saying:
..we have a moral obligation to use every influence short of war to have the treaties upheld or terminated by mutual agreement. We should cooperate with the rest of the world, we should do so long as that cooperation remains in the field of moral pressures. As the League of Nations has already taken up the subject we should cooperate with them in every field of negotiation and conciliation. But that is the limit. We will not go along on any of the sanctions, either economic or military, for these are roads to war.
Hoover recognises that moral obligations are involved. He will therefore use influence and cooperate.. and do nothing much. The eyes of the world were turned towards the United States for a lead. Not only was she the greatest power in the region, but no economic sanctions could be effective without the U.S. participation. Once the U.S. decided not to use coercion, it was ruled out by every other nation.
State Secretary Stimson gave indications that he had been ready to take a more firm attitude against Japan. He seemed to have had views different from those of Hoover. His blaming Britain for having prevented the adoption of practical measures against Japan lacks credibility. Stimson could not ignore Hoover and implement policies so much at odds with those expounded by the president.
Britain was sympathetic to the Japanese position . Sir John Simon, the British Foreign Secretary, speaking at the League’s Assembly, put such a defence of the Japanese case that the Japanese representative declared that his British friend :
had said in half an hour, in a few well-chosen phrases, what he — the Japanese delegate — had been trying to say in his bad English for the last ten days.
We already saw that Neville Chamberlain and John Simon were prepared to give a free hand to Japan in the far-east, with the knowledge that it would encourage a Japanese aggression against the Soviet Union. We then saw that they realised how injurious to the League had been Japan’s attitude. They paid lip service to the League; however, the policies they advocated were precisely the kind that would render the League incapable of playing its role in preventing aggressions by presenting a united resolve of countries determined to secure peace. On March 22, 1932, Austin Chamberlain stated in the House of Commons :
I am no believer in the development of the League of Nations by force. The less we hear of the sanctions of the League the stronger its moral authority will be, and unless its moral authority be strong, whatever the sanctions are they will not prevent war.. Patience, consideration, conciliation, time, those are the weapons of the League, and its sanction is the moral condemnation of the world
Such a statement was of a nature to please Japan. Those weapons alluded to by Austen Chamberlain would not stop a would-be aggressor. Churchill himself was blinded by ideological considerations. On February 17, 1933, he said :
Now I must say something to you which is very unfashionable. I am going to say one word of sympathy for Japan, not necessarily for her policy, but for her position and her national difficulties. I do not think the League of Nations would be well advised to quarrel with Japan. The League has a great work to do in Europe...
I hope we in England will try to understand a little the position of Japan, an ancient State, with the highest sense of national honour and patriotism, and with a teeming population and a remarkable energy. On the one side they see the dark menace of Soviet Russia. On the other the Chaos of China..
For Churchill, the ‘teeming population’ seems to justify Japan’s need for ‘Lebensraum’. As to ‘highest sense of honour and patriotism’ and ‘ancient state’, just like ‘teeming population’ those are some of the most important elements of Nazi demagogy to justify Germany’s aggressive policy.
Japan, and not the Soviet Union, stood accused of having committed an act of aggression. One would not have guessed it by listening to Churchill. He had words of sympathy for Japan and arguments to justify her. The condemning language is reserved for ‘the dark menace of Russia’ and China’s chaos. Churchill hoped that Japan would restrict her aggression to the Northern part of China, those parts which border the Soviet Union. This was not to be and Churchill had to recant himself. On February 20, 1938, commenting on Eden’s resignation from the Cabinet, Churchill said :
The Prime Minister and his colleagues have entered upon another and a new policy. The old policy was an effort to establish the rule of law in Europe, and build up through the League of Nations effective deterrents against the aggressor. It is the new policy to come to terms with the totalitarian Powers in the hope that by great and far-reaching acts of submission, not merely in sentiment and pride, but in material factors, peace may be preserved?
The other day Lord Halifax said that Europe was confused. The part of Europe which is confused is that part ruled by Parliamentary Governments. I know of no confusion on the side of the great Dictators. They know what they want, and no one can deny that up to the present at every step they are getting what they want. The grave and largely irreparable injury to world security took place in the years 1932 to 1935
On March first 1932, Japan, in defiance of the League and of the world’s public opinion, created the puppet state of Manchukuo on the Chinese territory of Manchuria. Three weeks later, Austen Chamberlain, as we saw, spoke against the power of the League of Nations to impose sanctions. This is the year which, according to Churchill, marked the start of the period 1932-1935 of grave and irreparable injury to world security, which still according to Churchill, is to be based on collective security. It is this very injury that Churchill was approving in his quoted statement of 1933 .
N. Chamberlain, on July 26, 1934, wrote :
I can find no polite words to express my opinion of the League of Nations Union .. the kind of person which is really enthusiastic about the League is almost invariably a crank and a Liberal, and as such will always pursue the impracticable and obstruct all practical means of attaining the object in view. But fortunately the majority of the nation does not agree with them..
Chamberlain knew that public opinion was for a strong League support. He did not dare say in public what he committed to a private letter. A year later, according to Leo Amery, he would still advocate a ‘cynical’ policy with respect to the League :
His whole view, like Sam’s, was that we were bound to try out the League of Nations (in which he does not himself believe very much) for political reasons at home, and there was no question of our going beyond the mildest of economic sanctions such as an embargo on the purchase of Italian goods or the sale of munitions to Italy. When I pointed out that this, unless Mussolini was stopped, meant open failure in the eyes of the world, he tried to ride off with the hope that Mussolini might find these measures embarrassing and was getting into hopeless financial difficulties anyway. If things became too serious the French would run out first, and we could show that we had done our best
Chamberlain was so aware of the public support to the League that, in the electoral campaign of 1935, he strongly paid lip service to the League :
..the choice before us is whether we shall make one last effort at Geneva for peace and security or whether by a cowardly surrender we shall break our promise and hold ourselves up to the shame of our children and their children’s children
After the frank cynicism of his talk to me only a few days before I thought the unctuous rectitude of this effort a bit thick
Just before the British general elections Hoare, on September 12, 1935, made a speech at the League Assembly. In order to appreciate the effect of that speech and its contrast with the British policy, as revealed by leaks to the press and by further developments, it is necessary to quote Hoare at length :
British public opinion was solidly behind the League when it was founded.. They had seen the old system of alliances unable to prevent a world war.. After four years of devastation they were determined to do their utmost to prevent another such calamity falling not only on themselves, but upon the whole world. They were determined to throw the whole weight of their strength into the scales of international peace and international order..
It is, however, necessary when the League is in a time of real difficulty for the representative of the United Kingdom to state his view to make it as clear as he can, firstly, that His Majesty’s Government and the British people maintain their support of the League and its ideals as the most effective way of ensuring peace, and, secondly, that this belief in the necessity for preserving the League is our sole interest in the present controversy.
The League is what its member states make it. If it succeeds, it is because its members have, in combination with each other, the will and the power to apply the principles of the Covenant. If it fails it is because its members lack either the will or the power to fulfil their obligations..
Collective security, by which is meant the organization of peace and the prevention of war by collective means.. means much more than what are commonly called sanctions. It means not merely article 16, but the whole Covenant. It assumes a scrupulous respect of all treaty obligations .. Finally, to complete the system, there is the obligation to take collective action to bring war to an end in the event of any resort to war in disregard of the Covenant obligations.
..on behalf of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, I can say that.. they will be second to none in their intention to fulfil, within the measure of its capacity, the obligations which the Covenant lays upon them..
And we believe that backward nations are, without prejudice to their independence and integrity, entitled to expect that assistance will be afforded them by more advanced people..
But such changes will have to be made when they are really necessary and when the time is ripe and not before; they will have to come about by consent and not by dictation, by agreement and not by unilateral action, by peaceful means and not by war or threat of war..
It has been not only suggested that British national opinion, as well as the attitude of the United Kingdom Government, is animated by some lower motive than fidelity to the League, but also that even this fidelity to the League cannot be relied upon. It is unjust and misleading to hold and encourage such illusions. The attitude of His Majesty’s Government has always been one of unswerving fidelity to the League and all that it stands for, and the case now before us is no exception, but, on the contrary, the continuance of that rule. The recent response of public opinion shows how completely the nation supports the Government in the full acceptance of the obligations of League membership, which is the off-proclaimed keynote of British policy.. In conformity with its precise and explicit obligations, the League stands, and my country stands with it, for collective maintenance of the Covenant in its entirety and in particular for steady and collective resistance to all acts of unprovoked aggression..
It is hard to believe that just the day before, Hoare had reached an agreement with Laval to avoid, if possible, provoking Mussolini into open hostility, and to apply ‘cautiously and in stages’ any collectively decided economic pressure against Italy. This secret agreement was based on the fact that according to a telegram received by Hoare from Perth “in their present mood both Mussolini and the Italian people are capable of committing suicide if this seems the only alternative to climbing down.” Consequently Laval and Hoare decided to follow a policy that would not put too much pressure on Italy . This decision was not reflected at all in his speech to the League’s Assembly. Hoare had to take the coming British elections into account.
In convoluted arguments to justify this duplicity — at a one day interval — Hoare wrote :
The general feeling, inside as well as outside the Foreign Office, was at the time painfully defeatist over the League and its future. “it is practically dead, and it is no good trying to revive it,” was the verdict of many of my most influential advisers. Whilst I clearly realised that I might be forced to accept this view, I wished to resist it until the last possible moment. There might still, I thought, be a chance of putting new life into its crippled body. I accordingly determined to make a revivalist appeal to the Assembly. At best, it might start a new chapter of the League recovery, at worst, it might deter Mussolini by a display of League fervour. If there was any element of bluff in it, it was a moment when bluff was not only legitimate but inescapable
Eden disputes Hoare’s explanation :
..Hoare had shown Cranborne and myself the draft of his speech.. he was not prepared to consider any major changes arguing that the speech had been approved by his senior colleagues. Neville Chamberlain in particular had been through the text with him paragraph by paragraph. The Prime Minister had also read and endorsed it. I remained puzzled that Ministers should have supported such firm language, particularly in view of their refusal to allow me to give warning to Laval earlier of our intention to fulfil the Covenant. I could only suppose that, while Cranborne and I had been at Geneva, they had been brought up against the character of the obstacle which faced them and had decided to make a clean leap over it.. Never for an instant was a hint dropped that the speech was intended to bluff Mussolini into surrender.
Eden adds in next page:
A characteristic reaction was that of M. Hymans.. He summed up the judgement of the men of international experience who heard the speech: ‘The British have decided to stop Mussolini, even if that means using force.’ To this day I consider that this was the only possible interpretation of the speech, if the words meant what they said. The effect of the pledge given was immediate and world-wide.
Far from reviving the League, the British hypocrisy, as revealed by the contrast between Hoare’s speech and the leaked Hoare-Laval agreements, played a determinant role in destroying whatever trust there had been in the League at the time. As a result, the League could not but prove itself impotent.
Having contributed so much to the ‘killing’ of the League, the British leaders took the impotence they had caused as a justification to so modify the League that this impotence, instead of reflecting the lack of goodwill of some of its most powerful members, would become an integral part of the League’s structure.
They would argue for a League which would not be qualified to impose sanctions on an aggressor. They wanted a League the decisions of which would not be compulsory on its members. They were saying that, otherwise, there would be risks of war, if not war itself. On June 10, 1936, N. Chamberlain told the 1900 Club :
There are some people who do not desire to draw any conclusions at all. I see.. the President of the League of Nations Union.. urged.. to commence a campaign of pressure.. with the idea that, if we were to pursue the policy of sanctions, and even to intensify it, it is still possible to preserve the independence of Abyssinia. That seems to me the very midsummer of madness.. Is it not apparent that the policy of sanctions involves, I do not say war, but a risk of war?.. is it not also apparent from what had happened that, in the presence of such risk, nations cannot be relied upon to proceed to the last extremity unless their vital interests are threatened? That being so, does it not suggest that it might be wise to explore the possibilities of localising the danger spots of the world.. by means of regional arrangements, which could be approved by the League, but which should be guaranteed only by those nations whose interests were vitally connected with those danger zones?
The timing of Chamberlain’s speech is important. On June 4, 1936, elections in France brought to power Leon Blum at the head of the French Popular Front. The new government was made of French Leaders who opposed the Laval policy of understanding with Fascist Italy. France would now have supported a British firm policy in support of the League decisions. The Scandinavian States and many other European states were at that time opposed to the lifting of sanctions. Chamberlain chose to ‘torpedo’ the sanctions just when the circumstances were favouring the chances of an increase in its scope, just when it was likely that an oil embargo would not have been opposed by France. One may suspect that the success of a Popular Front in France motivated Chamberlain to re-establish an anti-socialist balance by helping Fascist Italy.
Chamberlain does not explain how his suggestion of regional arrangements would have helped Abyssinia resist the Italian invasion. It is certainly true that nations ‘would proceed to the last extremity’ only if what they perceive to be their vital interests is threatened. But then, perceptions may differ. Just after the end of World War I, it was universally perceived that war anywhere was a threat to all nations everywhere. It was perceived that in order to prevent a repeat of World War I it was necessary to establish the strictest collective security affording collective assistance to a victim of aggression.
The change of perception was not universal. According to Eden :
The Assembly met on October 9th  under the presidency of Benes. He called upon those delegates who did not wish to accept the conclusions of the Council. There were only two, the representative of Austria and Hungary.. When the debate ended the next day, fifty states had agreed with the conclusions of the Committee of Six to apply sanctions.. The embargo on arms destined for Abyssinia was raised at last and imposed on Mussolini, to whom, however, it mattered little.
Eden adds two pages later:
To the Government at home.. it seemed that I was over-enthusiastic. A telephone message arrived from Hoare saying that we ought not to be the sole active influence and initiator at Geneva. Was it true that we were? I replied at once that we were not wearing the whole burden and called in evidence the unequivocal attitude of almost all of Europe and the Dominions, Holland, Belgium, the Little Entente, the Balkan Entente, the Iberian peninsula and Soviet Russia were all in line.
And two pages later:
At this stage it appeared that economic sanctions, if honestly applied by all the members of the League, would seriously affect Mussolini’s ability to carry on his war. The attitude of the United States, which took 12 per cent. of Italy’s exports, was also encouraging.. Only war material had been included in the American embargo, but the President hinted that he might consider a wider definition of munitions of war, if and when the League did so.
During the thirties, the British government always took the lead in the policies of common concern to Britain and France. They concluded a naval agreement with Germany in which, without asking France, they fixed the ratios between the French and the German Navy. Simon’s visit to Germany had been made without France’s approval. France had often stated to Britain that her Foreign policy could be more in line with that of Britain if only the latter would agree to commit herself unequivocally to assist France in case of her involvement in a war with Germany. Eden mentions that :
On March 3,  Flandin presented me with a document asking the British Government for an undertaking that they would fulfil their engagements under the Locarno Treaty, if necessary alone. He made the additional point that he could not now agree to an oil sanction until this assurance was received.
This was a reasonable demand. Under Locarno, were any of the signatories to commit an aggression against any of the Locarno countries, the remaining signatories were bound to assist the victim against the aggressor. Italy and Britain were therefore guarantors of France in case of a German attack. France now wanted to know what would occur in the case in which Italy, frustrated by the oil sanction would renege on her Locarno obligations. Would not Britain then say that, in such changed circumstances, her own obligations were no longer in existence?
Britain refused to give the requested assurance. While requesting the application of oil sanctions against Italy she was not prepared, especially if the Germans would remilitarise the Rhineland, to apply economic sanctions on Germany. France faced the choice of risking to loose the guaranty of two countries Britain and Italy, were she to support the oil sanctions, or to keep Italy in the Locarno Treaty, and thereby keep Britain too.
Britain had proved more than once that she rejected France’s lead. She also knew that, by pressure or by caring more for France’s security, she could easily secure that France would follow Britain’s lead. In the case of the Abyssinian conflict, however, Britain decided to follow France’s policy. Britain would exercise pressure upon Italy, only in the measure in which France would do it herself, and without responding to a legitimate French request concerning her security.
It was very inconvenient to let the public know that the British Government did not want the League to be the winning party in the confrontation with Italy. It was much easier to pretend that Britain could not possibly exercise pressure on France and could not do for the League more than France would do.
There are two aspects of British policy which throws a glaring light on its motivations: the Maffey Report, and the British embargo on arms. The Maffey Report was issued on June 18, 1935, by an Inter-Departmental Committee on British interests in Ethiopia. It ends with a nine points summary of which points 2 and 3 are of special relevance:
(2) No such vital British interests is concerned in and round Ethiopia as would make it essential for His Majesty’s Government to resist an Italian conquest of Ethiopia. While effective Italian control of Ethiopia would be of advantage in some ways.. Generally speaking, however, so far as local British interests are concerned, there is no balance of advantage in either direction i.e., if Ethiopia remains independent or if it is absorbed by Italy
(3) From the standpoint of Imperial defence, an independent Ethiopia would be preferable to an Italian Ethiopia, but the threat to British interests is a remote one, and depends on the unlikely event of a war with Italy.
What is the point of the creation of the Inter Departmental Committee and of its report? Either Italy can be prevented from ‘absorbing’ Ethiopia or she cannot. If she can be prevented, and if Britain, as she would claim at Geneva, is dedicated to the Covenant and to collective security, then Italy has to be prevented. It was a loss of time to study the consequences on British vital interests of an Italian conquest of Ethiopia, which would not occur if Italy is prevented. If Italy cannot be prevented, then no study would alter the situation.
The formation of the Committee only makes sense if Britain is not truly committed to the Covenant and to collective security. In that case all the options are open to her. If the British interest lies in Italy’s failure to conquer Ethiopia, then Britain will support the League under the guise of a devotion to the League principles. On the other hand if Britain would like to save Italy from such humiliation, and if no local British interest is threatened by an Italian conquest of Ethiopia, Britain would find a way to prevent the League from being effective.
It is to be noted that the formation of the Committee predates by months the agreements between Hoare and Laval and has no relation whatsoever to a French reluctance in implementing sanctions against Italy.
The second very revealing aspect of the British policy concerns her embargo on arms against both Italy and Ethiopia. In his memoirs, Eden clarifies the matter :
I find it very difficult to continue to refuse export licences to Abyssinia for the following reasons:
(i) We are pledged by treaty in the contrary sense. Our refusal is a clean breach of treaty obligations, assumed to meet precisely such an occasion as this.
(ii) We have already supplied arms to Italy.
(iii) It is surely difficult to justify — even were there no treaty — the refusal of arms to the victim of aggression
In a Foreign Office memorandum dated August 9. 1935, Cambells wrote :
Even a simple raising of the embargo in favour of both countries would perhaps suffice to redress the balance to some extent in favour of Abyssinia.
Italy was producing her own arms and was little affected by the embargo. That measure, therefore, was discriminatory against the victim in favour of the aggressor. If Britain was so much in favour of peace and of deterrence to aggression, the least she could have done was to respect her treaty with Ethiopia which obligated Britain to sell arms to Ethiopia for her defence against aggression
This risk of war, they were saying , was more than what Britain had the right to take. At the time, it was said, the British navy was unprepared and unable to face the Italian navy. This was not the opinion of Admiral Lord Cunningham. He wrote in his autobiography :
..we were watching and attempting to assess the situation that was arising in Europe because of Mussolini obvious designs on Abyssinia and the completely futile contortions of the League of Nations in trying to persuade him to abandon the venture. To us in the Mediterranean Fleet it seemed a very simple task to stop him. The mere closing of the Suez Canal to his transports which were then streaming through with troops and stores would effectually have cut off his armies concentrating in Eritrea and elsewhere.
It is true that such a drastic measure might have led to war with Italy; but the Mediterranean Fleet was in a state of high morale and efficiency, and had no fear whatever of the result of an encounter with the Italian Navy. The Regia Aeronautica was of course an unknown quantity; but we were not at all disposed to attach too much weight to its ability to affect the issue. As the war was to prove we were right.
While in public, over the years, the fear of war, and the love for peace was being stressed, in private, the story was different. The worry was not war per se but war on the same side as the Soviet Union. In his diary , on July 27 1936, Tom Jones reports Baldwin saying to him:
I told Eden yesterday that on no account, French or other, must he bring us in to fight on the side of the Russians.
Apparently, Baldwin, did not mind war on the opposite side of Russia. Baldwin was alluding to the Spanish civil war. What mattered to him was the overwhelming consideration: not to have Britain fighting on the same side as Russia — on no account, that is to say, whatever, otherwise, may have been the rights and wrongs of the involved parties, whatever may have been the expressed will of the Spanish people.
This criterion, ‘on no account’ to end up in war on the same side as Russia, had nothing that restricts its meaning to Spanish case. It cannot but be taken as characterising Baldwin’s view — and that of most conservatives — and Baldwin’s political wisdom in other situations too. Baldwin expressed this criterion as if it was a matter of principle. Similarly, it was not war per se that was the trouble in 1935-1936; the trouble was war with the wrong enemy.
As we saw, Mussolini was reported as being in a desperate situation. He was much admired in Conservative circles and Britain would not want him to fall from power. This could not be avowed publicly. It was easier to speak of peace, fear of war and the weak state of the navy. People in contact with the Leaders would be able to understand ‘the atmosphere’ in which these leaders were making their moves. F.P. Walters, being a British citizen and Deputy Secretary-General of the League of Nations, had the opportunity of sensing this atmosphere. He wrote :
Throughout the Italo-Ethiopian conflict there was a certain lack of realism in their [League Members] attitude. It was true that, with a few exceptions, they had no malevolent feelings towards the Italian government; but it was also true that they were opposing its cherished ambition and that either they as League Members or Italy as the Covenant-breaking State were bound sooner or later to admit a disastrous defeat. This fact they preferred not to face. They hoped to stop Mussolini from getting what he wanted; but they did not wish to annoy him, to hurt him, to humiliate him, and above all they did not wish to bring about his fall.
The choice was made; the defeated party would be the League. In his speech of June 10, 1936 already quoted, Chamberlain also said :
..Surely it is time that the nations who compose the League should review the situation and should decide so to limit the functions of the League in future that they may accord with its real powers
On June 18 1936, Simon stated :
..I am not prepared to see a single ship sunk even in a successful naval battle in the cause of Abyssinian independence.
This is a far cry from Hoare’s speech at Geneva and his passionate defence of the League and collective security. On June 20, Baldwin went farther :
We think it right to drop sanctions because we do not believe their continuance, even if all nations desire it, would serve a useful or effective purpose.. We have been abused by our political opponents; we have been mocked by them and by Mr. Lloyd George too. For what? Because we have scuttled? Because we have run away?.. Do these words mean anything unless they mean that we ran away from the Italian navy? Can they have any other meaning? In other words, that we have run away from war?.. If that fire is ever lighted again on the Continent, no man can tell where the heather will cease burning; and it is not a risk that I for one am going to take for my country so long as I have control in the Government.
Baldwin was ready to disregard the will of ‘all nations’ i.e. the will of the League. He recognised that Britain ‘ran away’ from war. He was not prepared to run the risk of war ‘on the continent’. War in Africa was obviously a different matter. If such was the case, was he declaring open season for aggression against small nations? He was declaring that the League having lost Britain’s support, was in no position to provide collective security to them.
One wonders at the kind of policy that could be conducted under the avowed terror of war and the absolute determination to avoid it. There was the danger that once terrorised by the fear of war, the people might not be ready for it when there would be no way to avoid it.
On June 27, 1936, three months after Germany’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland in defiance of her Locarno undertakings, Chamberlain stated:
There is only one sanction which today could have any effect at all on the course of things in Abyssinia, and that is force, and force means war. Mr Lloyd George himself told us in the House of Commons that, in his opinion, this country would never march to war in an Austrian quarrel. Does he suggest that we should do for Abyssinia what we would not do for Austria? Does he suggest that we should enter upon a war the end of which no man could see; that we should expose our people to the risk of those horrors which so shocked us when they were applied to Abyssinia?
This was a dangerous statement.
w The Austrian problem is not comparable to the Ethiopian one. In the case of Ethiopia, the world was witnessing a war of aggression. In the case of Austria, it was a matter of an imposed restriction by the victors to prevent the Anschluss even if this corresponded to the will of the Austrians. There was of course the possibility of an Anschluss imposed against the will of the Austrian people. Lloyd George was not considering the case of a war between Germany and Austria.
w Lloyd George not being a member of the Government, his opinion had no official status. However, when Chamberlain appears to rely on Lloyd George’s opinion about Austria to justify a reluctance to assist Abyssinia, he is giving some official recognition to Lloyd George’s opinion. Germany can deduce that the British Government would not use force to prevent the Anschluss.
w Finally, in the last quoted sentence, Chamberlain is referring to the use of gases against the Ethiopian population. If this was considered an argument against risking war, it meant that the more barbaric the dictators be in their means of aggression, the more assured they could be of British reluctance to use force against them.
The death diagnostic was given by Chamberlain on February 22, 1938 :
..If I am right, as I am confident I am, in saying that the League as constituted today is unable to provide collective security for anybody, then I say we must try not to delude small weak nations into thinking that they will be protected by the League against aggression — and acting accordingly when we know nothing of the kind can be expected.
The League was dead.