League of Nations

  September 22, 2021   Read time 3 min
League of Nations
For centuries peace advocates had proposed the creation of a congress of nations as an indispensable means of preventing war. The earliest political philosophers recognized that the anarchy of nation states created constant strife and competition for power.

The absence of an accepted supreme authority to regulate the interactions among states leaves each nation alone, forced to resort to “self-help” (i.e. war) to defend its sovereign rights. Enlightenment thinkers argued that trends toward cooperation among nations were also evident, and that states could better protect their security and solve common problems by strengthening multilateral mechanisms. By subordinating some of their individual sovereignty for the sake of mutual benefit, states could mitigate the consequences of anarchy and reduce the threat of war.

One of the earliest proposals for international organization came from the French monk, Émeric Crucé, in Le Nouveau Cynée in 1623. Similar proposals were offered by William Penn, Essay Toward the Present and Future Peace of Europe, 1693, and the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, Project of Perpetual Peace, 1712. Many of the early proposals for international organization focused on the states of Europe, but Crucé’s proposal was universal. Crucé envisioned a federation not only of European states but of Turkey, Persia, India, China, and the kingdoms in Africa, along with the Vatican and representatives of the Jews. The early proposals for international organization had common features: (1) a central council of government representatives whose decisions would be binding on all members; (2) procedures for negotiation and the arbitration of disputes among member nations; and (3) an international court of adjudication to resolve differences. Many of the internationalist plans also included enforcement provisions based on the principle of collective security. The members of an international organization would pledge to use collective military force if necessary to compel aggressors or reluctant states to comply with common decisions. Even the Quaker William Penn proposed a plan for collective security. In the event of a nation resorting to arms unilaterally or refusing to accept arbitration, Penn wrote, “all other Soveraignties, united as one strength, shall compel the submission” of the recalcitrant state.

In 1914 many peace advocates saw the lack of effective machinery for resolving interstate disputes as a major cause of the world war. In Britain the Union of Democratic Control, which formed immediately after the outbreak of hostilities, linked its demand for greater democratic control of foreign policy with a call for the creation of an international peace organization and an international council to settle disputes among nations. In both Britain and the United States major campaigns developed to advocate the creation of an international organization that would keep the peace. In March 1915a group of eminent British leaders formed the League of Nations Society, calling for a league with the authority and enforcement machinery to settle international disputes and impose sanctions against aggressors.

In the United States a similar prestigious group formed under the leadership of former president William Howard Taft. In June 1915 some 120 prominent leaders in business, education, law, and politics gathered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to found the League to Enforce Peace (LEP). The LEP platform called for a postwar assembly of nations in which disputes between countries would be submitted to an international tribunal that would arbitrate disputes and render binding decisions. A nation waging war without first submitting its grievances to the tribunal would be subject to economic and military sanctions. The LEP plan called for a world organization that could “prevent war by forcing its members to try peaceable settlement first.” The LEP had 4,000 branches in forty-seven states and exerted considerable influence on public opinion. It benefited from substantial financial support and had a staff of twenty-three full-time workers, making it, in DeBenedetti’s words, “the most powerful wartime pressure group on behalf of the ideal of a postwar league of nations.” The LEP succeeded in building substantial political support for a postwar League of Nations prior to the US entry into the war. Once the USA entered the fray the LEP launched a major campaign to persuade the public that the war was being waged for the sake of an international organization that would preserve peace in the future.