The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire 
by Susan Pedersen.
Oxford, 571 pp., £22.99, June 2015, 978 0 19 957048 5
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I have often thought​ of writing a history of own goals. It would try to identify the factors common to the great boomerangs of the past: the conceit that mistakes itself for cunning, the refusal to consider possible ricochets and reverberations, the baffled indignation when you see the ball hit the back of your own net. A delicious own goal was scored recently by the Labour MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the party leadership in the hope that he would draw off left-wing votes from the opponents of the candidate they actually wanted – which he did, and how!

The most epoch-making own goal I can think of was scored by the German high command when it conveyed Lenin back to Russia in that sealed train. In the Watergate affair, Richard Nixon scored not one but two own goals: first, by organising a burglary which could produce only minimal gain for the Republicans if it worked but would destroy him if it went wrong; then by secretly recording his conversations in the White House in the hope of storing up material to use against his opponents but in fact only providing evidence of his own malfeasance. Nixon belongs to a type well known in horse-racing, who would actually prefer to win a race by crooked means. He was, in that useful phrase, so sharp he cut himself.

The saddest of all the own goals that come to mind is that scored by the 23 US senators who voted against the League of Nations Treaty on 19 March 1920, when they were passionately in favour of its passing. To be fair to them, they voted No on the instructions of Woodrow Wilson, who could not bear that his beloved treaty should be sullied by any amendment, so the own goal must be credited to him. In popular memory, the defeat of the treaty has been blamed on the bloc of isolationist senators led by Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and William E. Borah of Idaho. But these Irreconcilables, as they were called, formed only a minority in the Senate, even one narrowly controlled by the Republicans. The final vote was 49 for the treaty as amended and 35 against. So Wilson could have had the two-thirds majority he needed, if his 23 supporters had switched sides or even abstained.

All Wilson’s wisest advisers urged him to support a Yes vote. Herbert Hoover told him that the reservations did not ‘imperil the great principles of the League of Nations to prevent war’. Bernard Baruch implored him to accept that ‘half a loaf is better than no bread.’ In any case, a future Democratic Congress could remove any irksome imperfections in the text.

Already in wretched health, Wilson had crossed the country in one of the most moving whistlestop tours in presidential history to drum up support for the treaty. His speeches promising not to betray the doughboys he had sent to France left his audience in tears. He spoke to enormous crowds across the American heartland – Columbus, St Louis, Kansas City, Des Moines, Omaha – then on to California, to San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, declaring memorably: ‘Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American.’

On his fourth day back in the White House, he suffered a paralysing stroke. This was hushed up by his wife and doctors in much the same resourceful manner as Churchill’s strokes were to be hushed up thirty years later. The most disastrous consequence was not the physical disabling but the hardening of his stubbornness and his vanity. He refused to listen to anyone. The Senate would pass his treaty or it would pass no treaty at all. Senator Frank Brandegee of Connecticut declared: ‘The president has strangled his own child.’

The flood of idealism that Wilson had unleashed dried up overnight. The enormous hope of yoking the exceptional destiny of the United States to the cause of world peace and democracy was postponed for a generation. The League of Nations that Wilson left behind was a bit like Richard III: ‘deformed, unfinished, sent before my time/ Into this breathing world, scarce half made up’. No Russia, in the throes of revolution and civil war. No Germany, shattered and in disgrace, stripped of its colonies and groaning under the burden of reparations to the Allies. And now no America, the play without its lead character and driving moral force.

For the British elite, by contrast, the prospect did not seem so bad; it might be a fresh opportunity to remake the world rather than something to be dreaded. As Lord Milner, the epitome of the higher imperialism, put it in August 1919, ‘We must try to extend the Pax Britannica into a Pax Mundi.’ The British were not alone in feeling like this, for, as Susan Pedersen points out in her magnificent study, the absentees turned the League of Nations into ‘a League of Empires’, its proceedings dominated by Britain and France, but with a hefty input from other colonial powers – Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal. Not so secretly, some of these nations hoped that, contrary to the earlier prospectus, the League would in practice make the world safe for imperialism, the last thing Wilson himself would have wished.

This was particularly true of the Permanent Mandates Commission, which is the focus of Pedersen’s book, and which came to occupy a key role in the business of the League. The PMC’s function under the covenant was to watch over those territories ‘inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world’, in the words of Article 22. These territories were mostly former German and Ottoman possessions, and their well-being and development was to be ‘a sacred trust of civilisation’. The powers that were given these mandates were mostly themselves colonial powers – Britain, France, Belgium – and in Geneva the men and women on the PMC were mostly former colonial servants, the most notable being the legendary Frederick Lugard, a former governor-general of Nigeria. In its early years by the shores of the lake, Pedersen tells us, ‘the Mandates Commission began to resemble a spa for retired African governors.’

This had its good side. In its judgment on the racist behaviour of the South Africans in South-West Africa, the PMC laid it down that ‘first in importance come the interests of the natives, secondly the interest of the whites. The interest of the whites should only be considered in relation to the direct or indirect exercise of protection over the natives.’ Greedy or brutal treatment by white settlers was to be stamped on wherever possible. Above all, the PMC upheld the principle that ‘sovereignty, in the traditional sense of the word, does not reside in the mandatory power.’ A mandated territory could not be treated as just another colony, nor could the mandatory power annex it to its own territory, although several tried: the Belgians in Rwanda-Burundi, the South Africans in what is now Namibia. In the end, South Africa preferred to set out on her long career as a pariah state rather than come to heel.

So there was something to be said for the view of Philip Baker, a bright young Foreign Office official seconded to the commission (later, as Philip Noel-Baker, to win the Nobel Peace Prize), that ‘the PMC is the most enlightened and most progressive body the council has yet created.’ And the League itself had its merits. By Lake Geneva, Sir Eric Drummond (later Lord Perth) had created the first genuine international bureaucracy, insisting that officials work in functional, not national sections, and for international not selfish national ends (although of course plenty of them surreptitiously did just that, the French usually being the prime suspects). On the PMC in particular, the lack of term limits created a stable membership and a genuine esprit de corps, prefiguring the UN. All this was lubricated by a genial lifestyle. ‘Voilà l’artillerie de la Société des Nations!’ one Spanish delegate exclaimed as he heard a champagne cork popping – a wisecrack fondly recalled by the imperialist Leo Amery, who loathed the League.

Yet if the commission’s ethos was one of ‘benevolent imperialism’, it was still imperialism. Pedersen points out that ‘at no point did the Mandates Commission unambiguously endorse plans to create independent states.’ In almost every case, most of its members were doubtful that the territory was ‘ready for self-government’. They didn’t demur at the language in which witnesses spoke of the natives being ‘childish’, ‘fickle’, ‘impressionable’, ‘incapable of sustained effort’. This was especially true of Category C territories, such as New Guinea, South-West Africa, Western Samoa, regarded as too backward for their independence ever to be contemplated. But the peoples of the Category B territories in Africa – Cameroon, Togo, Tanganyika, Rwanda-Burundi – were also spoken of with ill-disguised contempt. The Belgians blamed the terrible famine in Rwanda on the ‘fatalism’, ‘passivity’ and ‘inherent lack of foresight’ characteristic of the Hutu peasants. The Category A mandates – applying to the former Ottoman possessions of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine – did provisionally recognise their existence as independent nations and looked forward to ‘such time as they are able to stand alone’. But the commission remained sceptical that this moment would be reached ‘anytime soon’, a recurring phrase in Pedersen’s book.

After all, the wording of the covenant applied little forward pressure, certainly nothing in the nature of a timetable for self-government. Without the anti-colonial animus of the Americans, no such pressure developed as the years went by. Oddly enough, only Germany, when it was admitted to the League in 1926, pushed for real independence to be given to the Middle East mandate states, having now no colonies of its own to be preserved. This prodding ceased when Hitler took Germany out again in 1933.

Nor were such imperialist hangovers confined to ex-governors. Intellectuals such as Arnold Toynbee and Margery Perham found it equally hard to imagine that Samoa and Papua New Guinea would ever be able to govern themselves. Yet Samoa was one of the few countries where a working structure of chiefly government had survived the colonial encounter. As for Papua New Guinea, when a bunch of freebooting traders pressed into the untouched central highlands, they came across hundreds of thousands of people living in neat villages and tending delightful gardens, far from the control of the Australian administration.

Even Lugard, the most benign of these seasoned proconsuls, shared the old imperial mindset, shuddering with horror at the thought of the racial mixing in the French colonies. Contrariwise, Freire d’Andrade, the former governor-general of Mozambique, had nothing against mixed marriage (at least between native women and white men) and looked forward to the creation of the robust sort of creole race that already existed in Brazil. Far from moving minds on, the commission enabled them to stick in the old grooves.

In any case, whatever the personal views of the commissioners, they lacked the legal capacity under the covenant to correct the misbehaviour of the mandated powers. Patiently, vividly and sometimes acidly, Pedersen leads us to the bleak conclusion that mandated territories were not better governed than they had been as colonies; they were often treated noticeably worse. Something provisional or uncertain about the mandate seemed to license a more casual attitude to human rights and a lack of interest in winning hearts and minds.

Most shockingly, there was the bombing. The British carried out punitive bombing raids on Mesopotamia, mostly on the Kurdish areas, throughout the early 1920s. This was in response to Churchill’s request to Trenchard, the chief of the air staff, to find a cheaper alternative to ground troops. Trenchard was delighted with this opportunity to perfect his ideas about ‘air policing’. He believed that ‘in dealing with Arabs, it was necessary to take a firm line,’ a sentiment endorsed by Squadron Leader Arthur Harris, who commanded a squadron of Vickers Vernons in Mesopotamia. Faced with an even larger revolt in their mandated territory of Syria, the French bombed Damascus for several days, as well as burning villages and stringing up rebel corpses in the narrow streets. When there was an international outcry, Aristide Briand instructed his new high commissioner in Syria, Henry de Jouvenel (recently divorced from Colette and no doubt hoping for a quieter life), to carry out an inquiry that would refute the ‘exaggerated claims’ – in other words, he wanted a cover-up. Meanwhile, in South-West Africa, the South African authorities had been bombing the defenceless Bondelswarts tribesmen and burning their villages too. The idea that the League mandate might afford these vulnerable peoples some protection from the modern horror of aerial bombardment seems to have occurred to nobody much. On the contrary, bombing people back into the Stone Age (or keeping them there) appealed as a low-cost, low-risk option, just as it does to us in the day of the drone.

The moral seepage continued into the low, dishonest decade. In the summer of 1937, the commission itself urged the British administration in Palestine to take a tougher line:

the administration should have imposed martial law immediately; it should have replaced Arab policemen, imported more troops, and armed Jews; it should have exercised stricter censorship and shut down opposition newspapers; it should have arrested and tried the Arab officials who sent a petition critical of government policy; it should have imposed the death penalty more readily; it should have threatened to bomb villages that harboured rebels.

Bomber Harris, now at Middle East Command in Egypt, said of the Arab revolt that ‘one 250 lb or 500 lb bomb in each village that speaks out of turn’ would solve the problem.

Not everyone thought that way. Billy Ormsby-Gore, Britain’s colonial secretary, insisted that ‘for better or worse, the people of Great Britain were a liberal and democratic people,’ and would not ‘for long be persuaded to use military force to settle a conflict between right and right’. From the early 1920s, when he had been the youngest member of the PMC, Ormsby-Gore had always thought the same: ‘I feel that in the coming century Europeans will have to alter very substantially their fundamental attitude towards the coloured people.’ He was horrified when Chamberlain floated schemes to give Germany back some of her old colonies – Togo, Cameroon, perhaps parts of the Congo and Angola – in exchange for peace in Europe. ‘The whole of the coloured world,’ Ormsby-Gore protested, ‘would be greatly disturbed and would intensely resent the idea of our handing over native populations to another power.’ In any case, Anthony Eden at the Foreign Office was well aware that the Lebensraum Hitler wanted lay in Central Europe. For the Nazis, African colonies were only baubles peopled by Untermenschen.

The casual disposing of colonies had been given a ghastly resurrection by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 which parcelled out the Ottoman possessions in the Middle East between Britain and France. This too had shocked Ormsby-Gore when he was a young army officer seconded to the Arab bureau: ‘We make professions of defending small and oppressed nations,’ and then ‘we parcel out between our allies and ourselves vast tracts of countries which do not want us.’

Only a year later, Ormsby-Gore had himself been involved in drafting the Balfour Declaration with its irreconcilable undertakings to Arabs and Jews. As the plight of the Jews in Central Europe grew more terrible in the mid-1930s, the commission, in step with most enlightened opinion, became increasingly frantic to secure the national home for the Jews before Britain could grant representative government to the Arabs in Palestine, who being still the overwhelming majority of the population, would almost certainly bring Jewish immigration to a halt.

And not only enlightened opinion. All over Central Europe, anti-Semitic regimes determined to get rid of their Jews saw Palestine as the answer. Poland, Hungary and Romania all pleaded before the commission to help make it possible, as the Romanian representative put it, ‘to look forward to a final solution’ to Europe’s Jewish problem. With this in mind, Poland’s man at the League, Titus Komarnicki, not only applied for a seat on the commission but impudently suggested that Poland should take over the Palestine mandate. The evil was spread all over Europe like muck on a field, and it was impossible to tiptoe across it without getting your shoes filthy.

By now, the British government despaired of the mandate and seized on the recommendation of the Peel Report that Palestine should be partitioned, only to back down under Arab pressure. The humiliated Ormsby-Gore had had enough and resigned, having failed to square the circle he had helped to draw twenty years earlier. In May 1939, the British government changed its policy again and issued a White Paper setting out plans for the independence of an undivided Palestine, only to back down once more, this time giving way to the Zionists. Throughout this tortuous and fruitless process, the commission offered plenty of criticism but nothing in the way of a solution, no doubt because there wasn’t one.

Did any good come out of the League in general, or out of the Permanent Mandates Commission in particular? Pedersen argues, I think persuasively, that the League’s principal virtue was the very thing it was most derided for: talk. ‘League oversight could not force the mandatory powers to govern mandated territories differently; instead, it obliged them to say they were governing them differently.’ Imperial powers now had to defend their conduct in a global forum, in which their discontented subjects could vent their discontents. At first, the PMC tried to fend off petitioners and petitions, but in the end they had not only to receive them but to respond. The petitioners seldom got any redress. But they gulped in the oxygen of publicity and were fortified by the belief that they were shifting public opinion not only at home but inside the colonial powers. And this influence spread beyond the mandated territories to the colonies next door. The colonial question became globalised and colonialism began to totter towards its end. As Pedersen concludes, ‘the League helped make the end of empire imaginable, and normative statehood possible, not because the empires willed it so, or the covenant prescribed it, but because that dynamic of internationalisation changed everything.’ How much greater the impact of all this might have been if the sole anti-colonial superpower had been at Geneva. On the wider geopolitical front, the US might have persuaded its allies to show greater generosity towards Germany and so given the Weimar regime a better chance of survival. That hypothesis may be a counterfactual too far, but Wilson’s own goal still looks like a tragedy.

Pedersen could have extended her last chapter and drawn out the implications for the future. She does describe how the UN Trusteeship Council that succeeded the PMC explicitly set the goal of ‘progressive development towards self-government or independence as may be appropriate to the particular circumstances of each territory’ and in line with its people’s ‘freely expressed wishes’. It also included other principles, such as racial equality, which had not been part of the League’s language. Importantly, the Trusteeship Council was to report, not to the great powers on the Security Council but to the swarm of minnows in the General Assembly, many of whom had only recently secured their own independence and would have an anti-colonial bias. Unlike the PMC, too, the Trusteeship Council could go anywhere and ask any questions it liked.

It would have been interesting to make some wider comparisons between the League and the UN. One defect of the UN’s virtues has slowly dawned on us: by building up the inviolability of the nation state, the UN has left itself impotent to intervene against regimes which are gassing and murdering their own people. Article II.7 of the UN Charter forbids the UN ‘to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state’ or ‘to require the members to submit such matters to settlement under the present charter’.

This clear barrier has provoked the great powers to trump up international pretexts for intervention, Tony Blair’s dodgy dossiers being a prime example. ‘Dossiers’ in the plural, for it was not simply the sexing up of the scant intelligence available on whether Saddam Hussein possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that seemed dishonest; WMD always seemed a dodgy pretext in themselves, even though the UN swallowed it, since the possession of a large army with modern conventional weapons could be held to be an equally serious threat to international peace.

Blair was not alone in wishing that the UN Charter included a clause justifying intervention on humanitarian grounds, but it doesn’t. After the terrible invasions of the 1930s and 1940s, often on pretexts that essentially related to internal affairs (the treatment of the Sudeten Germans, for example), it was the heart of the postwar settlement that the nation state should be untouchable in its own house. It is worth noting that Article II.7 represents a tightening of the comparable clause 15(8) in the League covenant, which simply forbade the council to make a recommendation on ‘a matter which by international law is solely within the domestic jurisdiction of one of the parties’ – a rather more slippery phrase.

Some international lawyers now believe that Article II.7 is being gradually eroded under the pressure of humanitarian anguish. The new principle of the state’s ‘responsibility to protect’ its own citizens and the right to intervene if it fails to do so are said to be broadening into practice. I wonder. The new principle did not succeed in gaining UN approval for intervention in Kosovo or, so far, in Syria. The UN remains essentially an organisation designed to regulate relations between nation states; it is not yet an instrument of world government. Just as the League of Nations helped to prolong the life of empires beyond their natural term, so the UN has helped to prolong the inviolability of the nation state. In neither case was that the intention. But like almost everything else, international affairs have a habit of defying our best intentions.

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Vol. 37 No. 24 · 17 December 2015

Ferdinand Mount states that William Ormsby-Gore, the colonial secretary in Neville Chamberlain’s government, ‘resigned’ in May 1938 because he disagreed with the cabinet’s policy on Palestine (LRB, 22 October). Maurice Cowling, in his definitive book on British politics in the 1930s, The Impact of Hitler, said that Chamberlain pushed Ormsby-Gore out of the cabinet because of his close family ties with such opponents of Appeasement as Lord Salisbury (Ormsby-Gore’s father-in-law) and Lord Cranborne (his brother-in-law). Disagreements over Palestine hardly entered into the matter.

Charles Coutinho
New York

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