Saturday, February 14, 2009

The League Covenant

Woodrow Wilson had been in Europe since December 1918. The fact that the American President was both head of state and head of government put him in a special position to begin with. Also, Wilson was in no way certain of political necessities at home. Hence, he intended to take a break from the conference for a few weeks beginning February 15.

In the days before this, his struggle for an uncompromised League of Nations came to a head.

To many members of the American delegation, including his Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, Wilson's interest in his League of Nations project had become an obsession. Commenting on this, Lansing wrote: "The consequence was that the general scheme of the treaty and many important articles were prepared and worked out by the British and French delegations." While Wilson insisted in the Councils of Ten and of Four on a "pure" version of the League, he left the American delegation without instructions.

And the negotiations over the League were bumpy in the extreme. We have to examine some of Wilson's phrases, such as "self-determination," later in connection with the disputed border areas. But the almost unique forms of platitude that Wilson employed in his Fourteen points and his phraseology connected with most "principles" occasioned many disputes with his pragmatic negotiating partners and others.

But in connection with the League, Wilson could be quite specific. He insisted, for example, that the assembly of the League would be roughly democratic, but that the business of the League would be dominated by an "executive council" and of course a secretariat to carry out real business (corresponding to positivist and Progressive ideas of socio-technocratic leadership by the way). Lansing called this Wilson's "oligarchic" organization of the League.

In Wilson's mind, the League would be agreed on quickly by the Allies, and it would then within a few months embark on a general disarmament worldwide and an application of the Fourteen Points. Indeed, Wilson wished to have the whole form approved and packaged up so that he could take it with him when he departed for the United States on February 15.

Clemenceau and the French agreed, more or less, on the organizational points but insisted on adding a standing League army—one which could strike fear into an already well-chastised Germany. And one which, incidentally, would have violated the United States Constitution. Wilson refused. Clemenceau struck back in the French press. Wilson threatened to have the conference removed from Paris to Geneva.

Meanwhile, Colonel House, former kingmaker of Wilson to begin with, and more recently Wilson's alter ego in European circles, began to negotiate in his cosmopolitan way behind the scenes, speaking with both the French and the British as the February 15 departure of Wilson loomed. These negotiations paid off. On February 13 the Ten voted against a standing League army.

Wilson read the League Covenant to a "plenary" session on Valentine's Day, 1919. His comments painted vividly the Progressive credo analyzed by Murray N. Rothbard in his classic essay "World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals." In that essay, Rothbard pointed out many years ago that a kind of internal Progressive motor caused the Progressives—Wilson, Dewey, and many others—to welcome and encourage the participation of the United States in the war, since it would lead to so much progress of various kinds—would hence be worthwhile.

On February 14, Wilson thus told the peacemakers, "Many terrible things have come out of this war, gentlemen, but some very beautiful things have come out of it. Wrong has been defeated, but the rest of the world has been more conscious than ever of the majesty of right." Men were looking each other in the eye, Wilson said, and asserting that this covenant was a "covenant of fraternity and friendship."

The next day, Wilson left Paris by train for Brest and boarded the George Washington, and headed for home.

Did Wilson really win big? Time would tell. Behind the scenes, House had promised much to the French and the British. Both Clemenceau and Lloyd George had their own intricate agendas, which they worked for under the cover of the tempest over the League. Wilson would find this out when he returned, but for the moment, he looked forward to triumph at home.

(For a colorful and coherent account of these events, see the excellent book The End of Order, by Charles L. Mee, Jr., written from primary accounts, especially memoirs.)

The drawing above comes from C. LeRoy Baldridge, "I Was There": With the Yanks on the Western Front 1917-1919 (NY, 1919). (online at Gutenberg.org)

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