Did the League of Nations Fail Because of American Isolationism?

While the League of Nations was undermined from the outset by the absence of the United States – it was the supposed ‘keystone’ in the arch, according to Punch – this was not the proximate reason for its failure during the interwar period. Rather, it appears that the League was undermined by the selfish actions of Britain and France, as well as the problems of its own creation; it appears that the idea of a supra-national body on this scale was a unique product of the post-war climate, and was therefore misconceived and ill-suited to the rise of fascism in Italy, militarism in Japan and Nazism in Germany.

Richard Overy states that the ‘United States turned its back on Europe’ after the end of the First World War. This retreat into isolationism had profound consequences, and in his interpretation this ‘position carried the danger that [fascist states] would be encouraged to pursue adventurous foreign policy’. It is true that the United States did not join in with League sanctions over the Italian annexation of Abyssinia, and that she even offered to sell the Italians extra oil to make up for the shortfall in imports due to sanctions. In this it can be stated that the disengagement of the United States fundamentally weakened the League, creating a situation where powers who wished to expand territorially were able to do so free from censure and worldwide opposition.

This is a valid interpretation, but it omits certain important details; in Manchuria, for example, the US was keenly involved in opposing Japanese aggression; she sent an observer to sit in on League Assembly discussions on this matter, and contributed to the Lytton Commission, which was sent by the League to investigate matters. Further, the United States’ Secretary of State initiated his own Stimpson Doctrine, which suggested that the American authorities would act against an aggressive seizure of territory in the Far East. Far from being the reason for League failure in that instance, the US was more enthusiastic about indicting and repulsing Japan than many other League states – most notably Britain and France – who viewed confrontation with Japan with horror and therefore dragged their heels. This example serves to repudiate the notion both that the US turned its back on the outside world entirely and that this act doomed the League of Nations.

Similarly, the American authorities intervened freely in the affairs of Latin American nations (many of whom left the League or were uneasy about it in essence) during this time period, which demonstrates both that US isolationism was not total and that the League, which promised to protect small nations from domination, failed fundamentally, showcasing its idealistic inability to operate. That the League was too idealistic to work is certainly in evidence in its misunderstanding of sanctions – League officials simply thought that the world would refrain from trade with a nation under sanction –  and it is this rather than seeming American retreat which carries more weight when determining the causes for the League’s failure.

Similarly, as stated in A. J. P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War, there was a ‘deep, underlying divergence’ between Britain and France on the basis of the League, and this highlights two essential League failures: first, that the League was itself idealistic and unrealistic, unable to fit in to a world in which these powers operated; and that, second, the two powers themselves  were instrumental in the failure of the League. As Taylor’s interpretation holds, the divergence between Britain and France led to situations where the League was undermined – an example is provided in the case of the League’s own intention; Britain had long harboured worries about a resurgent and vengeful Germany, whereas France was more concerned with creating the situation whereby she could live in safety, and pursued this goal through the means of an international alliance with Britain and America – an enterprise doomed to failure, according to Adam Tooze’s The Deluge.

This fundamental mismatch, especially when combined with the selfish actions undertaken by both powers – such as French manipulation of the political process in Silesia and the mistakes of French policymakers in allowing Mussolini to invade Abyssinia in an attempt to preserve the Stresa Front, as well as British conniving in Mosul – undermined the League as a serious body, making it into the ‘Robbers’ League’ of Lenin’s description and preventing worldwide support from coalescing in its favour.  And even when those powers worked together – such as in the creation of the Hoare-Laval plan in 1935 – they did so without the League and in spite of its objectives. British and French interests prevented both from taking a strong line in Manchuria, too, which allowed the rapacious revisionist powers to enjoy relative freedom of action. This argument, as suggested in Taylor’s view, is a far more credible one when assessing the League’s eventual failure, and it is only increased by the recollection that the United States, far from being isolated and remote, was anxious for action to be taken in 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria.

The aforementioned suggestion that the League was simply misconceived is also prominent in the sources. Adam Roberts – writing in an article, “Towards a World Community? The League of Nations and International Law” – suggests that the mechanisms of the League ‘could not work’ in a climate where ‘there was no agreement among states’. This interpretation, which is given added validity when assessing the extent to which nations would not surrender their rights to declare war and make economic agreements to an international body – as, for example, one can observe US behaviour during the 1935 Abyssinia Crisis – states that the absence of the United States was not the primary reason for the League’s failure; rather, the League itself was fundamentally unworkable, and existed as it did merely as a product of a particular moment in time, as Sally Marks suggests in The Illusion of Peace. Roberts supplements this argument with the comment that the League ‘earnestly discussed’ matters of importance, such as the two militaristic challenges to global peace in 1931 and 1935, yet discussion did not, by and large, translate into action; indeed, its actions were ‘ineffective’. This already weak foundation was not helped by the reticence of Britain and France, and Taylor’s view that their inability to agree was built from the ‘nature of the League of Nations’ seems to add to an already strong case.

The European empires still controlled a large amount of the world’s surface and maintained its strongest armed forces; to attempt to restrain them and to have them act in accordance with the wishes of another authority was an enterprise doomed to failure. The actions of the Council of Ambassadors in Vilna in 1920 add to this perception; the powers simply got on with the creation of a settlement without League direction, a phenomenon which was not uncommon in the era, as the aforementioned Hoare-Laval plan demonstrates. Further, the mechanisms of the League were unsuited to its purpose, and were indeed ‘inherently flawed’ as Roberts writes. This – especially when taken with the knowledge that Britain and France ensured that the military sanctions article of the League Covenant was only advisory – effectively both suggests that the League was essentially unlikely to succeed from the outset and corroborates the interference of those two powers.

It seems that the League of Nations failed not because of US isolationism – which was in fact not nearly as isolationist as has been suggested by many – but due to the actions of the European powers – Britain and France – and the League’s overall inability to operate in essence. The former meant that the League was undermined at many times during its brief existence; and the latter made the fact that it was unable to take advantages of the few times in which it had some influence in world events – in identifying and combating Japanese and Italian aggression, for example – not only obvious but ultimately catastrophic, leading to its eventual and complete failure.

Though the US was popularly conceived as the keystone of the arch which made up the League, the actions of Britain and France suggest the truth of another argument: far from being certain that America would have given new life to the League, it is just as possible that, even if she did enter, she would have behaved as selfishly as the other two, thereby dooming the League in spite of being a member. It is a pessimistic note on which to end, but it stands ultimate testament to the uniqueness of the League of Nations, and how the entirely unprecedented circumstances which followed the end of World War One created one of the most unfortunately ineffective bodies in the history of international relations.


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  1. Pingback: Past and Present: Writing About the Collapse of International Order | James Snell

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