You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Shall We Join the League?

THE French adventure in the Ruhr checked the rising propaganda for the entrance of the United States into the League of Nations, but it has not entirely arrested it. The case as the pro-Leaguers present it is very simple: Isolation means the continuance of war, cooperation the cessation of war. The League of Nations represents the method of cooperation; it represents the only existing attempt in that direction. The syllogism completes itself. Probably the reasoning is too simple to impose even upon those who indulge in it; they are merely capitalizing the opposition to war which is still so general among the people, after the fashion well known to propagandists. Stir up an emotion and at the same time offer an object and the emotion will seize upon the object no matter how great the logical and practical irrelevance.

Had it not been for the coincidence of Lausanne and the Ruhr, the appeal would have had a certain timeliness. Bankers who know what they want and idealists who feel strongly that they want something different from what exists make common cause. The imagination of the administration seems to have been exhausted by the effort of thinking up the Washington Conference. In contrast with the least imaginative administration of recent political history, the florid imagination of Mr. Wilson shines like a beacon in the dark. Influential persons and newspapers that favored the League and whose pride of opinion is involved, seize every fresh European disturbance as an opportunity for saying “We told you so.” They have no lack of texts.

The propaganda appeals to what is our weakest, although not our worst, national trait as well as to what is best in our sentiment. We want to be busy, to be in things, to be virile and red-blooded. It irks our boastful self-esteem to be out of things, quiescent, when things are happening, and it appeals to our conceit to be told that everything would be all right if we only said the word, if we only “assumed our proper responsibilities.” Duty has often served as a mask for blind energy. We are like a youth who isn't quite sure in spite of his braggings whether he is really grown up and who wants to do something to prove it. Having been informed from Europe after the war was ended that we came too late and that our effort was negligible in effecting the outcome, it restores our conceit to be told that as we saved Europe once so we must now come to Its rescue again. Saving the world is the part we most like to enact in the drama of history.

But our better side is also stirred by the identification of international cooperation with joining the League. There is pity ard horror and a sincere desire to be of use. We are comfortable and prosperous, at least relatively so. Are we not selfish to the point of cruelty when we maintain isolation? Are we not in effect saying that the world may go to smash as long as we can enjoy our pleasures? Since we helped to make the Versailles Treaty and the League was our own pet notion, we have an unfulfilled responsibility. Not all the guilt for the present state of Europe lies on the shoulders of Europe. Then at the last there comes in the prevalent abhorrence of war and the blind feeling that the League of Nations, however imperfect, represents a step taken in that international cooperation which may at last substitute peaceful adjustment for war. . At least the League stands as an outward symbol that binds nations together. It is a shameful crime, so it is argued, that the United States after having proposed the idea, should at the first sign of inconvenience to ourselves, have cowardly deserted the attempt to realize it. A friend says it is the Great Refusal of history, fit to go on record by the side of that of the rich young man of the New Testament. 

I have never seen that argument accomplished much in answer to such considerations. They express a desire, a hope and a fear, and emotions are not readily amenable to argument. It does little good to point out that none of the important postwar questions are in the hands of the League of Nations; that they are in the hands of various commissions which are oflicially committed to enforcing the Treaty of Versailles; and that in any case the League of Nations is not a League of Nations but of governments, and of the governments whose policies played a part in bringing on the war and that have no wish to change their policies. It is almost useless to point out that as long as Russia and Germany are kept outside of the League its international character is a farce, and that it must be in effect a combination or conspiracy of a few great powers against these countries. Facts are of little avail against feeling.

But those who oppose our joining the League and those who are still doubtful have a right to demand that the propagandists shall make a great deal clearer than they have yet what they mean by international cooperation. No intelligent person, apart from party politics or the exigencies of consistency with some position taken in the past, favors isolation for its own sake, or is cold to the idea of cooperation. But cooperation with whom and for what? Even those whose natural bias is toward the League are interested in having light shed on this subject. International cooperation is hardly possible unless there is something international with which to cooperate. What is it and where is it? Are we to cooperate with France and her satellites upon the continent? Or are we to side with Great Britain in her differences of opinion, her fundamental conflicts of policy with Fi-ance? What is to be our attitude on the subject of reductions of reparations? If responsible French statesmen openly charge the English with a desire to break the Treaty of Versailles because the English propose certain modifications in the reparation clauses, will similar proposals from us which might go further promote international goodwill or international bitterness? What is the American people prepared to offer from its side?

Such questions might be multiplied almost indefinitely. Until they have been carefully thought out and some definite guarantees secured in connection with some definite plan, any specific move toward international cooperation on our part will be but a repetition of what happened when we plunged into the war without having first come to an understanding with our associates, only to find In the end opr hands tied in the execution of our own policies by conflicting European policies in general, and secret agreements in particular. And somehow “honor,” the honor that demands that gambling debts take precedence of everything else, required that the secret understandings should be carried out in violation of our public utterances and promises publicly accepted by our European associates. Why repeat the experiment without even the excuse of wartime excitement, v/ithout the warning of an experience of which we were then innocent?

The question of cooperation is not only a question with whom in Europe we are to cooperate and what for, but also of unity and division of opinion at home. Irrespective of conflict and confusion in Europe, there is equally great confusion and conflict in our own opinion as to what should be done in Europe and how it should be done. It is perhaps for this reason that current pro-League propaganda ignores all details, and appeals to the sentiment against war and assures us that as soon as we join the League, Turkish atrocities will be impossible and the sword will be broken. Who can say with assurance what the prevailing sentiment is with respect to the French invasion of the industrial regions of Germany? There are many influential newspapers which defend it; there are others which are noncommittal and ready to approve or condemn as events turn out. The anti- German hatred aroused by the war is still active; perhaps the mass does not care to think beyond the alleged fact that France suffered so much that Germany still deserves whatever it gets. The moment we are entangled in European affairs this difference of sentiment among us ceases to be a sentimental affair and becomes a matter of public policy and of domestic politics. We shall either be doing something which, no matter in what direction, arouses bitter strife among ourselves, or our representatives abroad will commit us to something for which Congress and the people will not stand. and the history of President Wilson at Versailles will be repeated.

Again, the neglect of Russia is incredible. Russia is still the most populous nation of Europe and potentially the most powerful. Whether ten or forty years pass before the position of Russia is restored makes little difference. Before we talk much more about international cooperation with the world at large and offer ourselves as both Moses and Messiah, might it not be well to find out just what our attitude is with respect to Russia and her part in the world's affairs? We might make Russia an objective test of our willingness and our ability to engage in international cooperation. 

Whether we look at the situation in Europe or at home, it is hard to find any evidence of readiness to cooperate in any definite and systematic way, much less to tie ourselves up with that League of governments which embodies all the forces which have brought the world to its present pass. Europe does not want and will not tolerate our cooperation except on its own terms, and it is divided against itself as to those terms. The notion that we have only to offer ourselves as universal arbiter—and paymaster—and all will be well is childish in the extreme. But even if it came anywhere near the actual condition in Europe, who are we that we may serve in such a capacity? Every contending group in Europe is found here: pro-English, pro-French, pro-German, pro-Serbian, pro-Greek and pro-Bulgarian—almost everything pro except pro-Turkish, with all the antis involved in these various partisanships. And in addition we are ignorant, inexperienced, governed by emotion rather than by information and insight. The fact that only appeal to emotion can possibly be successful in engaging us to enter the League of Nations is the most conclusive reason possible for our staying out of it.