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The League of Nations: Force of Justice or Failure?

Updated on October 18, 2013

Following the USA’s entry into the First World War in 1917 and the eventual victory of the Entente in 1918, it became clear that the United States of America was a rising power, a true force to fear. In the hope of preventing future wars involving great loss of life, the League of Nations was created during the Treaty of Versailles. This League was supposed to set an example, it was supposed to unite the world, and should have possessed a leader who could set an example. That leader could and arguably should well have been the USA, but the US congress refused to join the League in 1919. The reasons for this omission rest in the USA’s previous interests and forever changing policies.

It is important to highlight the general feeling that the US population had, the general thoughts that they possessed about the First World War. We must take note that there was a mutual agreement within the USA that the war did not have any single positive consequence, and that nothing was gained. People thought that their nation had sacrificed a lot, without receiving anything in return. This is highly considerable, as even though the USA was on the winning side of the war, the Treaty of Versailles did not benefit especially them. Their economy was damaged due to the war, and Germany could not repay all the nations. Not that the USA was especially looking to target the Germans for repayments; they wanted to safeguard future peace of Germany. However, there was nevertheless a feeling of unpaid sacrifice within the USA; they had sent aid to Europe only to receive thousands of cripples and debt. Therefore, Europe seemed to be pulling down the USA rather than pushing it upwards; meddling with Europe was seen as foreign entanglement, and that it would be better to leave Europe alone rather than get caught up in its mess. This feeling that the people of America possessed was epitomised by the US congress, who chose to not sign the treaty partly due to fear of foreign entanglements. There was already fear of another war in Europe and seeing the outcome of the First War, the USA would not want to participate in another.

Moreover, this fear of foreign entanglement is linked to the USA’s foreign policy. During America’s ascendancy from jellyfish to eagle, their foreign policy was in constant shift, changing between isolationism and internationalism. At first, the USA mostly kept to itself and enforced the policy of isolationism. For instance, they had a policy of keeping to themselves and ensuring a stable economy until the end of the 19th century, when Cuba appeared in America’s interest, and when they decided to be internationally involved in the war with Spain in 1898. However until this point, there were no international links. Also, by 1910, trade appeared forever more tempting, and internationalism came with it. Declaring war on Germany can be seen as a decisive internationalist policy, that ended up with the citizens of America questioning internationalism due to the consequences of the war. Following the war, and the supposed failure of adopting an internationalist foreign policy, the US Congress would have logically opted for an isolationist policy where they would not be entangled. Within this clash of policies, it is possible to relate to the clash between the Democrats and the Republicans inside the USA; they did not manage to make an agreement on the subject on the Treaty of Versailles, and therefore couldn’t join the League of Nations. Following the rejection of the Treaty in 1919, many isolationist policies appeared in the 1920s and the 1930s like the Johnson Act which stopped lends to foreign countries, and the action taken by President Hoover, who halted war repayments.

Also, the Republican opposition meant that there was a failure for the US to make a compromise for the Treaty, and the fact that Wilson didn’t even take a Republican representative to Europe did not help the matter. There was a deep sense of political rivalry that opposed Wilson and Congress, forcing Congress to not support him in signing the Treaty of Versailles and therefore cancelling out the possibility of the USA joining the League of Nations.

After the First World War, the USA had indeed started to look more like a powerful, implicated eagle rather than a passive jellyfish. However, the fact that the USA assumed its power and therefore its role as an international leader is highly arguable. The First World War showed America’s industrial power both to itself and the entire world, but by refusing to sign the Treaty of Versailles and consequently join the League of Nations, it would seem that the USA refused to uphold its status as a world superpower. Nonetheless, it would be possible to highlight that during the interwar years, US foreign policy was inconsistent in the way that it switched between isolationism and internationalism; whether it was truly inconsistent in its aims and fundamentals is arguable but it is certain that there was this perpetual sense of change. With internationalism, the USA seemed to adopt a more leader-like role whereas in isolationism, it appeared that the USA was neglecting the responsibilities of her status as a world power.

It would be necessary to highlight that the USA made several attempts at being internationalist, and America tried to establish some form of cooperation in the hope of assuring world peace. For instance, despite its wanted exclusion from the League of Nations, the USA was concerned with the international arms race and from 1921-1922, they held the Washington Conferences which allowed the agreement of three treaties: the Five Power Treaty, the Four Power Treaty and the Nine Power Treaty, each taking a further step in assuring the limitation of arms and tension. Not only do these treaties show a willingness to cooperate, they show that the USA was at the heart of these treaties as it was on her home soil that these treaties were agreed. Furthermore, one of the most significant treaties, the Five Power Treaty which greatly limited the size of participating countries’ navies, was proposed by Charles E. Hughes, an American Republican politician. Not only was the USA holding this conference, it was the USA who was manipulating it and assuring the creation of peace enforced treaties. Therefore, we may say that in this aspect, the USA was not rejecting its responsibilities of her status as a world power as she was attempting to assure the peace of the world in the future, she was attempting to prevent another world war and was therefore involved on an international scale.

Furthermore, besides trying to reconcile with the European powers, it may be argued that the USA was upholding its status as a world power by becoming involved in the American continent, by precisely being a “good neighbour” in Latin America. The USA’s presence in Latin America was great, both in an economic manner, cultural and political manner. Their economic investment, for instance, equalled almost $3.5 billion, and they continued to support neighbouring countries so that they would become less dependant of Europe. This help may have been seen as giving Latin America “a share” of the wealth and power of the American continent, but we may clearly see that the USA was empowering Latin America. Whether it was for its own good or not is not important, what is important is that it was paying attention to the development of the world, and it was ensuring the development of neighbouring nations, using its own wealth and power to fortify countries like Mexico and Cuba. Without pushing forward the neighbours by herself, the USA guided countries like Mexico by using her influence of being a world power. No other country in America could hold such a role, as there were no world powers; the USA was the only world power and it ensured the development of its neighbours, thereby fortifying its own continent and justifying its responsibilities as a world power.

However, although the USA did make some steps towards internationalism and cooperation with other nations, it is nevertheless necessary to show how the USA neglected its role as a world power. Her wanted exclusion from the League of Nations is an obvious preliminary factor which shows the USA’s fear of foreign entanglement, thereby neglecting her duty of being a leading force and setting an example. By refusing to join the League of Nations, the USA refuses to assume itself as a world power; even if she did indeed allow the declaration of three major treaties at the Washington conference, the USA neglected its role as a world power by failing to set a real example. Even her influence in Latin America was not enough as she was not being active on a global scale, the USA did not impose itself as a leader of the world, as a nation who sought to fight for freedom and democracy as she did after the Second World War. Furthermore, it would be possible to consider that the USA made a general retreat to isolationism in the 1930s, after the spell of partial internationalism in the 1920s. For instance, the Depression that started after the 1929 Wall Street Crash in the USA forced President Hoover to set his priorities on his own country rather than foreign events and foreign policy. The action that he took eventually had the consequence of the establishment of the Johnson Act which prohibited loans from going out to foreign governments who were already in debt. Although such action may well have been for the prosperity of America, we may still consider that the USA was neglecting her responsibilities as a world power as she acted rather selfishly. Even though such action was needed for the good of her own citizens, the USA did not seek to offer an alternative to the European countries who were in dire need of American money. Instead of attempting to negotiate or help the European countries in any way, US Congress passed the Neutrality Acts in 1935, 1936 and 1937 that further distanced the USA from countries who would be participating in a war, but more generally, the world itself. Therefore, even though her own needs should indeed come first, the USA would not have neglected her responsibilities as a world power if she would have encouraged internationalism even in times of despair and depression, instead of hiding beneath isolationism.

Moreover, there was the major issue of Asia. Japan’s invasion of Manchuria raised many questions and many issues. The attack was condemned by the League of Nations and even by the USA but we see that no action was taken. The USA did not confirm its responsibilities as a world power as it did not keep the situation under control; the USA attempted to see what happened and acted in a reactionary way. After the Second World War, we often imagine the USA as a superpower who exerts her influence around the world. During the interwar years however, the USA was often reactionary, and let events happen without imposing any control. The threats made by Stimson in the hope of controlling Japan were rather weak; they could not be considered as a real precaution or course of action taken against Japan. In the way that the USA didn't deal with Japan, we may note that she did indeed reject her responsibilities of being a world power; the USA was not taking into account what this invasion was meaning to the world and she did not act against it.

In conclusion, assessing the view that the USA rejected her responsibilities as a world power is much like assessing her foreign policy, which many historians today count as being a “mixed legacy”. There are many reasons to believe that the USA did try to be involved on an international scale, and it did try to improve certain aspects of world affairs. However we must also remember how US Congress deliberately rejected to sign the Treaty of Versailles, therefore refusing to join the League of Nations and live up to its role as a world power.


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    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent historical Hob, Gauldur. The European allies were bent on revenge and the Republicans in Congress wanted political gain. Therefore President Wilson's dreams of peace went down in flames setting the stage for World War II. Wilson's stroke was the final straw destroying the League.+

    • Gauldur profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      I tend to see what you mean. The League of Nations was a sort of precursor to the UN but it didn't manage to get much done during the interwar years. I mean, it almost like it lacked any authority but now, even with the nations that you mention, it doesn't fully work. The idea isn't bad in itself but the end product has problems.

    • someonewhoknows profile image


      5 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      Unfortunately the U.N. is little more than a minority club controlled by a few countries trying to get some clout over those same countries like Russia ,China ,and the United States etc...


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