Felix Frankfurter: Joining the League
Should America join the League of Nations? The Harvard professor says the slogan "Join the League" offers too simple a solution for a complex question.
(Felix Frankfurter of the Harvard Law School answers his colleague, Manley Hudson, whose article, The Liberals and the League, was printed in The Nation of April 4.)
To THE EDITOR OF THE NATION:
SIR- The alluring simplicity of the slogan "Join the League" furnishes a deceptively simple answer to the profound yearning for a world without war. But, of course, "joining the League" is not like joining the Racquet Club. The simple formula of the proposal hides vastly complicated implications: Nothing less is involved than loosing incalculably new forces in Europe and incalculably new forces in the United States. Therefore, neither abhorrence of war, nor devotion to the impulses and ideas behind the League necessarily leads to support of America's adhesion to the League, with its present structure and its associations, emotional more than legal, with the war-fraught treaties of peace of 1919.
Mr. Philip Kerr stated one aspect of the problem in his reminder that the United States is part of the world, but not part of Europe. Therefore it is important not to talk at large about "America's participation in European reconstruction," but to be concerned about the precise conditions and form of our relationship to Europe. It is important not to minimize the implications of the existing League of Nations in the light of the Covenant, the interpretations placed upon that Covenant by its authors, the geographic, intellectual, and emotional factors of American life as compared with European life, and human political experience such as lies behind the policy of fait accompli. It will not do to give a factitious simplicity to the complexities behind adhesion to the League of Nations by summing up the case of the League as does my friend Professor Hudson: "I want to talk with them [the Powers] about their policies around a table instead of over the wire." If that were all there were to the League of Nations, then Professor Hudson would be content with a permanent, official round-table of discussion--a means for generating world opinion, with none of the elaborateness and rigidity of the Covenant, and none of its present emotional ties with the discredited treaties of peace.
In other words, the simplicity of the slogan "Join the League" to some of us calls for particularization. How shall we join? What are to be the conditions--legal, moral, intellectual, and emotional--under which we shall participate? What are the responsibilities we think we assume? What are the risks involved, not as a matter of law, but as a matter of human probability, in view of the circumstances in which political affairs are conducted? What is the equipment of wisdom and will which we bring to the solution of the terribly difficult European problems?
Behind all the propaganda for joining the League is a wholly untested assumption that America would contribute to the forces of appeasement. Whence do we derive our confidence in the possession of exportable men and measures for the solution of Europe's difficulties, when we are making such n dreadfully bad fist of most of our own national problems?
In addition to considering how we shall join, we ought to address ourselves to the question--What are we joining? And the answer to that is not to be had merely by putting the Covenant to the League under a legal microscope and arguing about the legal responsibilities which it does or does not create. The expectations of Europeans, both statesmen and people, are even more important in such matters than the most authoritative opinion of the most learned lawyer. We have had some experience in unduly arousing the expectations of European people, and we ought not jauntily to embark upon future European enterprises without making clear, not in the dead words of lawyers, but through unmistakable action of the government, what may and may not reasonably be looked forward to by activity on our part in Europe.
Since the problem is so difficult, it ought not be rendered more difficult by confusing what is clear. The achievements of the League, however great, are not controllingly relevant to America's attitude toward the League. Neither are the failures of the League controllingly relevant. But just as the achievements of the League should not be maximized, so its failures ought not to be explained away by irrelevancies. Professor Hudson claims for the credit of the League that "it has successfully handled four major international disputes, any one of which might have led to a disastrous war." It is a matter of literary taste whether one thus describes, for instance, the controversy about the Aaland Islands. But his explanation of the failure of the League to deal with the indisputable "major international disputes" since its existence, the Russo-Polish War, the Graeco-Turkish War, and the Ruhr, presents an issue of something more than style. I quote Professor Hudson:
Born on January 10, 1920, when most of the world was still in a state of war, the League was not burdened with the task of making or enforcing the peace. The former neutrals would not have been willing to collaborate in that work. So the Allies kept those functions in the hands of other agencies--the supreme Council of Allied Premiers, the Conference of Ambassadors at Paris, and the Reparation Commission--all distinct from the League, Hence the League did not deal with the Russo-Polish War in 1920, nor with the Graeco-Turkish War in 1922, nor with the attempts to collect reparations in the Ruhr. (Italics mine)
The explanation thus offered implies that it has been beyond the competence of the League to deal with the basic challenges to the peace of Europe since the League's organization. I submit that in this explanation advocacy has taken possession of accuracy. Professor Hudson is, of course, familiar with, but has evidently forgotten, Article 11 of the Covenant. By this article "any war or threat of war . . . is hereby declared a matter of concern to the whole League and the League shall take any action that may be deemed wise and effectual to safeguard the peace of nations." Further, it is declared "to be the friendly right of each member of the League to bring to the attention of the Assembly or of the Council any circumstance whatever affecting international relations which threaten to disturb international peace. . ."
There is no question, therefore, of the power or the propriety of bringing before the League a situation like the Ruhr. Why then has the League not intervened in the Ruhr? The true reason is given by Prime Minister Bonar Law, who recently said in the House of Commons:
Nothing can be done without the consent of France. The sole effect therefore would be to use the League of Nations as a means of mobilizing the public opinion of the world against France. Who would gain by that? It is true that if France were willing to accept that intervention it might be useful. If you attempted it when France were hostile, what would be the effect on the League of Nations--all that is left as the result of the war--as a means of settling disputes otherwise than by force?
In the course of a subsequent debate on the Ruhr, in the Commons, Sir John Simon replied that:
He recognized that a wise discretion must be allowed to the Government as to the right moment action should be taken by referring the question to the League of Nations. But to say that they must not appeal to the League of Nations until they know France would approve their doing so was to reduce the League to almost meaningless absurdity.
Lord Robert Cecil, in his speech in New York, now associates himself with those who believe that the League should deal with the Ruhr situation at the earliest moment. It is not the purpose of this letter to discuss the merits of this difficult issue. But surely it must,be clear that it does not help in the education of American opinion as to the scope and function of the League, and as to the nature of America's participation in European affairs, to explain the League's failure to deal with the most crucial issues of war and peace in Europe on technical grounds that bear no relation to actualities.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 5