The League of Nations and the United States
- Charlie LadermanCharlie LadermanFaculty of History, Peterhouse College, University of Cambridge
Although the League of Nations was the first permanent organization established with the purpose of maintaining international peace, it built on the work of a series of 19th-century intergovernmental institutions. The destructiveness of World War I led American and British statesmen to champion a league as a means of maintaining postwar global order. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson followed his predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, in advocating American membership of an international peace league, although Wilson’s vision for reforming global affairs was more radical. In Britain, public opinion had begun to coalesce in favor of a league from the outset of the war, though David Lloyd George and many of his Cabinet colleagues were initially skeptical of its benefits. However, Lloyd George was determined to establish an alliance with the United States and warmed to the league idea when Jan Christian Smuts presented a blueprint for an organization that served that end.
The creation of the League was a predominantly British and American affair. Yet Wilson was unable to convince Americans to commit themselves to membership in the new organization. The Franco-British-dominated League enjoyed some early successes. Its high point was reached when Europe was infused with the “Spirit of Locarno” in the mid-1920s and the United States played an economically crucial, if politically constrained, role in advancing Continental peace. This tenuous basis for international order collapsed as a result of the economic chaos of the early 1930s, as the League proved incapable of containing the ambitions of revisionist powers in Europe and Asia. Despite its ultimate limitations as a peacekeeping body, recent scholarship has emphasized the League’s relative successes in stabilizing new states, safeguarding minorities, managing the evolution of colonies into notionally sovereign states, and policing transnational trafficking; in doing so, it paved the way for the creation of the United Nations.