184: Versailles Pt. 3 - The League of Nations


One of the major topics for discussion at the Paris Peace Conference was the League of Nations.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 184: The League of Nations. Before we get started this week I would like to thank Curtis, Liam, James, Soren for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon where they now get access to ad-free versions of all of the mainline podcast episodes as well as special Patreon only episodes, like the one that was released this week that discusses the impact of global communications on the war and how the countries around the world interacted with the reasonably new ability to communicate with each other via undersea telegraph cable and intercontinental radio signals. I would also like to thank everybody who has left a review for the podcast on iTunes or anywhere else on the Internet. Those reviews really help the podcast find new listeners. With those thank yous out of the way, it is time to get down to business. This is our third episode covering the Paris Peace Conference, and also the last one before we start really digging into all of the various regional topics from around the world that the Conference would feel the need to pass judgement on. This episode will be split into two sections, during the first section we will talk a bit about some of the economic consequences of the war and some of the things that were discussed and enacted by the conference to try and deal with those consequences. I feel like the economic topics, outside of reparations which we will only touch on very briefly, are not covered well in most histories but in the mids of those at the Conference they were very important, even if they would eventually be eclipsed by the discussion of reparations. The second half of this episode will cover the League of Nations. The League was a concept created by President Wilson, and its creation would be his primary goal at the Conference. He already had a pretty good idea what he wanted the League to look like, but he needed the help of other countries to nail down the specifics, then get everybody to agree to join it, and then make sure it made its way into the treaty. This will certainly not be the last time we talk about the League, but I wanted to make sure we discussed it at least briefly here up front due to one very important reason. Wilson would not always get what he thought was best at the Conference, many times he would go along with what he considered to be the wrong decisions because he believed that the League could fix these decisions later. This belief would cause many decisions to be made that he hoped would later be changed or completely undone. Unfortunately this would never really happen, at least for most of the decisions, we will discuss some of the reasons why that was the case. We will end our discussion of the League by looking at some of the compromises that had to be made to get it into the treaty. We will stop our story before digging into what actually happened within the League after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, that will be the topic for a later episode.

The war had created economic disruption the likes of which the world had never seen, it also greatly changed the economic landscape of the world in ways other than just pure destruction. For example it created a massive trade imbalance as material of all kinds flooded into Europe to fuel the Entente war machine. Germany, a major player in international trade was also cut off by the British blockade. Then there were the problems created by the destruction of the war like millions of people being dislocated from their homes and places of work, the destruction of economic facilities like factories and farms not just in Western Europe but all over Europe and the Middle East, railway lines all over Europe were in very bad shape not only in areas that were touched by the war but all over the continent because they had been pushed far beyond what they were created for and maintenance had not been done on them in years, and then of course a lot of people died, that did not help. While many of these problems were somewhat easy to quantify, population dislocation was something that was more difficult to get a handle on and fix. Vast swaths of countries suddenly became depopulated due to the war sweeping back and forth over the countryside. This was often hurt the agricultural economies of Europe the most as farmers were forced off their land. Because of all of these problems economic discussions would be high on the list of topics that would be discussed at the Conference. There would be two different primary objectives for these discussions. The first, as always, was how to punish the losers, and primarily Germany. The second was how to try and make sure that the economies of Europe recovered. These two objectives were often at odds, and there was not a quick and easy way to accomplish both. In the background of all of these talks was also the very real and very present problems on the ground. All over Europe people were unemployed, people were literally starving to death in central and eastern Europe, and so things had to develop very quickly. There was food available, but who should pay for it, the victorious countries could ill afford to foot the bill after a long and expensive war. Germany could be made to pay for it either in direct payments or by adding it to the reparations bill, but France was determined not to let this happen. They wanted as much German money to come to them, insteda of being spent feeding people a thousand miles away. The Americans could easily pay for things, but already they were having second thoughts about pouring more resources into Europe as a whole. These constraints would make it a real challenge to fix the economic problems, but they still had to try.

The question of the economic situation had been completely sidestepped during the negotiations on the armistice. In that document about the only thing pertaining to economic matters that was clearly stated was that the British would be continuing their blockade of Europe while the final peace treaty was negotiated, and there was therefore no exact end date given on the blockade. This situation also left the British still fully in control of trade for most of Europe, a position of power that they would not willingly give away. All of these considerations were balanced during negotiations. The favored position of Britain and the Allies, which they did not want to relinquish either in the form of trade or control over the German economy. The desperate situation of many people in Europe, many of which were not in the victorious countries and therefore were often not high on the priorities list of those crafting the treaty. And finally the position of the United States, where pwerful grups wanted the Europeans to be more forgiving and helpful to the defeated countries while at the same time just wanting the global economy to recover as fast as possible so that money from trade would begin flowing again. What we know now, but what the negotiators could not know in 1919 was that many of the economic clauses that would be created by the Economic Commission, created to find answers to all of the hard problems we have been discussing, would be greatly reduced in the final treaty or at the very least absorbed into the topic of reparations. But they did not know this when they started, and so they carried on with trying to find solutions, and a big piece of the solutions for the long term health of the European economy lay in the German economy. While Germany had just been defated, everything country in Europe still wanted to make sure that their economy in some way recovered because the German market was incredibly important to many countries. The French were especially adamant that no barriers should be placed between the German economy and the other countries in Europe, in the hope that French goods, and German money would be exchanged in the process. This resulted in many decisions being made about German import duties and tariffs. they would be unable to implement any tarrifs for 10 years and they would not be able to discriminate against using Allied shipping during this time. There was also language that protected the new economies of Poland and Czechoslovakia from German competition in the hopes that this would help make their economies strong. All of this would eventually become Articles 264 and 312 of the Treaty of Versailles, which we will discuss in detail once we discuss German reparations in later episodes. But for now it is enough to say that the gaol of the economic commission, and the Treaty as a whole, was to try and weaken Germany enough that it could not quickly become the economic powerhouse that it had been before the war, but also not weaken Germany so much that they would not or could not buy goods from the Allies. This would prove to be very challenging.

When Wilson came to Paris there were a lot of things that he wanted to accomplish, but at the very top of that list was the League of Nations. In the very first days of the conference in late January 1919 Wilson would make it a priority to start discussing his ideas for the League with the Supreme Council. On the 25th of January a Commission would be created with the task of determining what the proposal for the League would be and then it would be responsible for presenting that proposal to the Conference at large, and finally it would make any required revisions. Wilson wanted to lead this commission, and he got very little push back from the British and French about this desire. Wilson’s prestige and idealism would never be higher than they were in these early days, and so Lloyd George and Clemenceau were still trying to make sure their countries were on Wilson’s good side. They saw this League Commision as the perfect way to stay in Wilson’s good graces. With Wilson’s desire to lad the commission it met all of their objectives, it gave Wilson a project to work on, it made him feel all warm and fuzzy inside because it was his idea, it gave them a chance to make Wilson think they fully supported the idea, and finally it just kept Wilson out of the way while they got on with what they were trying to do. Wilson would be joined on the Commission by representatives from all of the major powers and then, after some protest from some of the smaller countries, other representatives from smaller nations both in Europe and from around the world.

After the commission was created things began to move quite quickly. Part of the reason for this was that the British and Americans had already taken the time to discuss many of the ideas that Wilson had and would be proposing to the Commission, and this allowed them to already be on the same page. Much of the detailed work had actually been done by Jan Christian Smuts of South Africa, he had spent some time taking what he would refer to as Wilson’s “rather nebulous ideas” and trying to figure out what they actually meant and how they could be implemented. Many of the main features that would appear in the Treaty were already present in these early drafts. There would be a General Assembly, an executive council, steps to settle international disputes, the concept of mandates for countries that were believed to not be ready to rule themselves, all of these were key pieces in the final League proposal. When these details were presented to Wilson before the conference started he was very pleased. Smuts had given some form to Wilson’s ideas without drastically changing them, and this allowed the British and Americans to present a unified front in the Commission. During the meetings of the commission Wilson and the British representative, Robert Cecil would side beside each other and discuss things constantly. Wilson originally wanted to get the first draft of the League covenant done in just two weeks, which many people thought was highly optimistic. But with so many discussions having already occurred, and with many smaller nations just sort of going along on things in the beginning the first draft of the covenant would be done in just 11 days, one of the few items at the conference that would meet its deadline.

While things were moving very quickly, and seemingly very well, not everything was perfect. One of the ways that Wilson got the draft done so quickly is because he avoided discussions of many details that would eventually have to be ironed out. And even without the specific details several European powers had some reservations about what was being created, even if they kept these reservations to themselves early on. Publically the British and French were in full support of anything that could possibly prevent another war from happening, pubically supporting anything that would handle international agreements without war was a public relations necessity. For example Lloyd George would tell his ministers about the British public that “They regard with absolute horror, the continuance of the state of affairs which might again degenerate into such a tragedy.” With this state of mind prevalent in many countries in Europe coming back from the Conference with something that might help reduce the likelihood of another war, even if it was a paper tiger, would be a big win for the governments. Clemenceau had not been a huge fan of the idea from the start, but he wanted to make sure that it could not be said that France was the problem in the discussions, he saw this as another way to keep good relations with the allies and if everything went well, a way to create a more permanent alliance with them. These mindsets from the leaders of the countries trickled down into the commission, even though neither Lloyd George or Clemenceau would be present on the Commission. Both of the laders put peoople that they knew they could trust on the commmisison, with Cecil and Smuts leading the British contingent and then Professor Ferdinand Larnaude and Leon Bourgeois leader the French representation. The French would have many concerns about what was being discussed, the biggest concern that they had was that the Americans and British were creating something that, while full of lofty and important goals, did not have the power to actually do what was hoped. They were creating something without any actual teeth. The French specifically wanted a system for the League that would allow it to forcibly enforce its power, which meant there would have to be some kind of military force guarantees from member nations. The Americans and British specifically wanted to avoid these kinds of committments, concerned that the French were just trying to turn the League into a permanent coalition against Germany, which yeah, was pretty much correct. Wilson would say that “The French delegates seem absolutely impossible. They talk and talk and talk and desire constantly to reiterate points that have been already thoroughly thrashed out and completely disposed of.” The Frenchman Bourgeois would also not be a huge fan of Wilson telling Poincare of Wilson that “he conducted everything with the goal of personal exaltation in mind.” One somewhat unexpected area of opposition to the League came from the Australians and Canadians. This would be one instance where they would not just fall in behind London and follow their lead. The biggest concern for thse countries was that, now that they were finally getting some freedom from London, they would then suddenly find their freedom of action taken away from them by this new organization of countries. Borden, the Canadian representative, would say that while he liked the concept of the League its big problem was that there would be too many Europeans in it. The Australian Billy Hughes would say that he did not want the Australians tied up in what he would refer to as Wilson’s toy.

The covenant which had been drafted so quickly contained many of the clauses that Smuts had originally outlined for Wilson before the conference even began, however there were some key differences that had been introduced by the Commission due to the concerns that some countries had. One addition was that it specifically stated that there would not be a League of Nations Army, an important topic that still continues to play a large role in the current discourse about international organizations like the European Union. The league would also not force countries to submit their disagreements to arbitration or to participate in any form of disarmament. This meant that the League would have very little real power, and most of its ability to prevent any future conflicts was based around the pledge that would be made by its members not to invade other countries, which is pretty flimsy if you ask me. Another huge issue for the League that would enter into the covenant during these initial drafting phases would be around voting. In most modern day voting institutions the winning vote needs a majority of over 50% of the votes, or maybe a slightly higher percentage, there may be special cases where a larger percentage of votes is needed, but never a unanimous decision. Forces all votes to be unanimous causes terrible gridlock because it is incredibly hard to get everybody to agree on anything, and especially anything important. You may be wondering what the voting percentage was required for the League of Nations, well it was unanimous of course. This was done because the larger countries, which would be given a very small majoirty of the votes in the Assembly were still terrified that the smaller countries would band together and find a way to outvote them. Just five countries would be given enough votes in the Assembly to gain a majority, Italy, Japan, France, Britain, and the United States, yet they were still concerned about the power of smaller countries. This concern would be made manifest when the United States, which would have been one of those large countries di dnot end up joining the League, which did give those small countries a majority of votes. The problem of smaller countries, of which there are many even if they are small, is a problem that the Allies would never solve, even in sort of the League of Nations v2, which we today call the United Nations the Security Council, and its five permanent seats represents the concern of the powerful countries that they might be robbed of their power. Even with all of these compromises Wilson was still very happy, he would say that while “Many terrible things have come out of this war, but some very beautiful things have come out of it.” With the beautiful things very clearly references the League.

Even with the draft covenant completed, conversations about the League were not even close to being over. Many believed that it would be better to get the Conference finished and the treaty signed before there was any discussion about the League, it would just muddy the waters. But Wilson was adamant that they be handled together because he wanted to make sure that the League was created, and he would never have a better opportunity to throw American weight around and to hold European Leaders to the fire. However, this drive to get the League done at the Conference would come at a cost, even if Wilson did not recognize it. Throughout the conference Wilson had this dea in the back of his head that not matter what happened during the conference, not matter what decisions were made, or what made it into the Treaty the League would always be there to backstop it and make the right decision in the future. This would be true in the conversations had about Eastern Europe, and what to do with the large German populations presen there. It would also play a role in Wilson’s decisions about the border of Italy and the situation in the Middle East. He would write to his wife about these decisions, that he already saw as mistakes, by saying “One by one the mistakes can be brought to the League for readjustment, and the League will act as a permanent clearinghouse where every nation can come, the small as well as the great.” By letting the League play such a role in his decision making, Wilson was causing serious future problems just in the hope that they would fixed later by a body that did not exist and which would never exist in the form that he wanted. The specific decisions that he made will be referenced many times in the coming months, and it is one of the most prevelant themes for Wilson during the conference.

One of the reasons that Wilson wanted the draft of the League covenant to be completed so quickly is because he was planning on heading back to the United States shortly after his two week deadline. He would only be in the country for 9 days but the big topic that he would be discussing with the political leaders in the States was the League and the draft that existed at the time. In these conversations Wilson would encounter a lot of resistance, more than he expected. There were two main components to this resistance, its threat to the Monroe Doctrine and its threat to entangle the United States in overseas affairs. The Monroe Doctrine had first been adopted by the United Sates in the early 1800s, and by the end of the First World War it had been in place for 100 yeras. In its most basic form the Monroe Doctrine stated that the United States should control the Western Hemisphere and any intrusion by European nations should be seen as a threat. If the United States joined the League, would it still have this freedom to do what it wanted in the Western Hemisphere? Would this freedom of action be curtailed? Almost more importantly, would European powers suddenly have power to enact change in Central and South America?If any of these were true then Wilson would have a hard time finding support for the League in the United States. The other problem was just a geeral sense that joining the League would tie the United Staes to Europe in ways that many people simply did not want to happen. Isolationism, or at least total freedom of international action, or inaction, was still an important pillar of belief in the United States, and even though the country was just coming out of a war in Europe those views were already coming back very strong, and would be overwhelming in the 1920s. Wilson would not do a good job of answering these question in conversations with people who brought them forth, and so many political leaders did not get on board. One of these would be Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the leader of the Republican members of the Senate, he would go as far as to make a speech on the very last day that Wilson was in the Uinted States saying that the League was a topic that hsould be left until after the treaty was signed, and that it should be considered separately and on its own merits. He then brought forth a document stating this belief that was signed by 39 senators. Just having that number of Senators so strongly against the league at this early stage was a problem, and really this was the height of popularity for the League in the United States.

While the reception for the League was not what Wilson hoped, when he arrived back in Europe he continued forward with his plan. The next step was to make edits and changes to the original draft to try and encompass not just the concerns of his own country but also tthose of others that were starting to question some of the pieces of the original draft. One example of this was the Japanese who were indicating that they planned on introducing an amendment on racial equality. Another was the British who wanted to try and find a way to include a prohibition on a naval arms race after the war, this time with the United States, an idea that would eventually become the Washingon Naval Treaty. Wilson was also now very concerned about getting something in the draft that would account for the Monroe Doctrine. Lloyd George made it clear that without an agreement on the nval problem, he would oppose anything even slightly relating to the Monroe Doctrine. Eventually Wilson and Lloyd George would come to an agreement that would allow Wilson to try and handle the Monroe Doctrine through an amendment which stated that the League would not affect the validity of existing international agreements, including the Monroe Doctrine. The French then had their chance to chime in by simply pointing out that there was already a provision that all of the countries that joined the league would make sure that all of their international agreements were all square with the League provisions. Therefore this additional amendment was unecessary, unless Wilson was saying that the Monroe Doctrine did not fit into the other League provisions, and if it didn’t then surely he could explain why it was special. These challgenges then led to more amendements, which robbed the league of some of its remaining power. Some of these last amendments during this intitial drafting phase were critical. They made it clearly stated that the League had no power over domestic affairs, and that countries could leave the League at any time, and that they could refuse its mandates. Whatever actual prossibility for future good the League had in its initial draft was robbed from it during these last two weeks of April as Wilson tried to get it into a form that would suit the needs of all of the countries, including his own. Of course, the cherry on top is that the United States would not enter the League anyway, but that is a story for another day.