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The League of Nations is Alive
by Raymond B. Fosdick


I

IN spite of the failure of the United States to ratify the compact, the League of Nations is alive. It is a going concern. Its machinery is being completed, and its influence is spreading. All the countries that were neutral during the war have joined, including Spain, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland. Every country in South America, except Ecuador, is now a member of the League. Even the two countries which have been more or less under our particular care -- Liberia and Panama -- have not waited for the United States, but have joined with the others. Outside of Russia and the Central Empires of Europe, Portugal and Roumania are the only important countries that have not yet come in, and their accession is now merely a matter of weeks. China's accession is included in the Austrian treaty which will shortly be signed. It is probable that Germany and Austria will be admitted as soon as their internal conditions permit; and if ever a stable government is adopted in Russia, that country, too, will undoubtedly be invited to accede.

Meanwhile the League is rapidly assuming its duties. Through commissioners it has taken over the control of Danzig and the Saar Valley Basin, in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles; it has started the organization of the Court of International Justice; it has assumed its responsibilities for the minority peoples of Poland under the terms of the Polish treaty; it is advising and supporting the International Labor Office which has been constituted under its aegis. Its finances, guaranteed by its constituent members, are now on a satisfactory budget basis. Already the Council of the League, which is its executive committee, has held meetings in London and Paris, while the Assembly, representative of all the member nations, will hold its first conference at a comparatively early date. The permanent Secretariat of the League, with temporary headquarters in London, has been at work for nearly a year on the machinery of organization, and the buildings which it occupies are centres of international business in which the representatives of many nations are participating. The head of the treaty registry is a Uruguayan; the director of the political section is a Frenchman, and of the economic section, an Englishman; a Norwegian is in charge of the administrative commissions under the League, and a Japanese heads the division of international bureaus; the director of financial administration is a Canadian; the head of the section on transit and communications is an Italian; a Dutchman is chief of the legal division. In addition there are Belgians, Greeks, Spaniards, Swedes, Swiss, Australians, Yugo-Slavs, Danes, and other nationalities -- all at work on the common problem of harmonizing international relations in the interests of the human family.
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A visitor at the League's headquarters in London is struck, not only by the variety of work that is being undertaken, but by its practical applicability to matters of vital concern. In one department, treaties and agreements are being registered and published, marking the end of the evil days of hidden diplomacy. In another section, studies are being made of the movement of raw materials and coal, and plans are being formulated for more equitable distribution. Still another section is at work on problems and conventions relating to international communications, such as wireless and cable despatches. Here is a group preparing the terms under which colonies will be given by mandate, and the provisions by which trade and commerce will be secured to other members of the League besides the mandatory power. Here is a group working on plans for international cooperation in the elimination of the opium traffic. Here is another section that is in touch with the political events of the world, so that a tribal movement in Beluchistan, a strike in Roumania, or an election in Japan or South Africa is immediately registered with the Secretariat. Henceforth the world can be wise before the event rather than after it, and a cloud on the horizon no bigger than a man's hand can be given a true interpretation.

II

One who examines the minutes of the meetings of the League Council and the proposed programme of the first meeting of the Assembly is impressed by the fact that political questions, such as constituted the bulk of the work of the Paris Conference, are here subordinated to larger considerations of human welfare. It is not boundaries or indemnities, but food and coal and health, which concern the League authorities. Theirs is the task, not of determining the privileges and rights of victorious allies, but of discovering and applying the remedial measures necessary to keep a shattered world alive. Where the Paris Conference sat down with a map and a ruler to make a new heaven and a new earth, the League officials are taking first steps to protect vast populations from starvation and disease, and to reestablish the economic life of the world. 'The ravages inflicted by disease upon the underfed populations of Central Europe have reached appalling proportions,' said the acting President of the League Council, in a letter of appeal to the Red Cross societies in Geneva. 'Men, women and children are dying by thousands, and over vast areas there are neither medical appliances nor medical skill sufficient to cope with the horrors by which we are faced. To your great body I make appeal. Surely there has never been an occasion calling more insistently for action.'

Similarly, the devastating spread of typhus in Poland was the subject of Council action at a recent meeting. 'The matter is one of such magnitude,' said the resolution adopted by the Council, 'and bears on the welfare of so many countries, that it seems eminently a subject with which the League of Nations should deal.' A health conference, made up of representatives of the several members of the League, was therefore asked to handle the emergency temporarily and to submit plans for united official action.

The International Health Office of the League of Nations will indeed be one of its most important sub-divisions, and already the plans of its organization and function are practically completed. For health is not a local or even a national concern. Influenza knows no boundaries, and the germs of polyomylitis laugh at geographical frontiers. Disease is the common enemy of mankind, and only through joint counsel and action can it be successfully fought. Just as the Allies needed a united command to ensure victory, so the human family needs leadership to cope with world-wide sources of disease and death.

It was with this in mind that Article XXIII was written into the Covenant, imposing upon the members of the League the obligation 'to take steps in matters of international concern for the prevention and control of disease'; and it is around this article that the new Health Office has been built. Operating through an international committee of public health experts, and representative of world-wide medical opinion, it will maintain its permanent staff at the seat of the League. Its purpose, as defined in the carefully matured plans of the League's committee which has been working on it, is to bring the administrative health authorities of different countries into closer relationship with each other; to organize means of more rapid interchange of information and swifter action in matters where immediate precautions against disease are required; and, finally, to provide machinery for securing or revising international agreements for administrative action in matters of health. Thus it will act as a clearing-house for regulations, orders, and official reports, and will issue bulletins and statistics on questions of public health; it will collect and distribute information as to the existence and prevalence of such diseases as cholera, plague, yellow fever, typhus, small-pox, and influenza, and will call special conferences of the health authorities of neighboring countries to determine the official action to be taken; it will promote international arrangements for the prevention of the spread of epidemics in undeveloped or more primitive countries and colonies, in cases where joint action by more than one power is necessary; and, finally, it will work for the revision of international sanitary conventions, so that they may be brought up to date on questions of epidemiology, and adjusted to post-bellum political geography.

It is this kind of work -- in the interests of the human family -- that the League was created to perform. Its primary purpose is to lead in the fight against common enemies of mankind, such as disease and hunger.

III

No one who has not been in Europe within the last few months can understand the extent of its social and industrial collapse. As the British Minister of Education recently stated, civilization has literally fallen to pieces in many parts of Europe. Authenticated reports of cannibalism from Armenia are matched by similar reports from Austria; and in other districts where food conditions are not so immediately appalling, the populations have reached a depth of misery and despair that is no less terrible than Euripides's description of the passing of Troy. In practically every country in Europe except Great Britain food-production has sharply declined, and it is estimated that the population of Europe is now 100,000,000 greater than can be supported without imports. Land has fallen out of cultivation and has been starved of fertilizers for five years. Ten to twenty millions of male workers in the prime of life have been lost, and a larger proportion of children, of the aged, and of women, who produce less than they consume, has been left. The production of coal has fallen off to such an extent that Europe now has less than 65 per cent of her actual requirements, with the result that over wide areas, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, factories are shut down and unemployment is common.

Though a year and a half has elapsed since the Armistice, manufacturers in Central Europe are still without raw materials. Cotton, wool, and rubber -- to mention only three of the principal commodities required by Germany, Austria, and Poland -- are practically unobtainable there, with the consequence that, even if there were coal to run the factories, there would be nothing for them to work on. The dislocation in the rates of exchange has disorganized the markets and destroyed the basis of international trade Rotterdam is choked with cotton, and the Port of London is full of wool for which there are no buyers, because, although Europe is desperate for these materials, the unbalanced exchange makes it impossible for her to pay for them. Nor because of her political and economic insecurity, can she borrow enough for her needs, for industrial instability and social unrest destroy the very foundations of credit.

The situation is therefore running in a vicious circle: political chaos can be averted only by restarting the industrial machine; industrial processes cannot be resumed without the import of raw materials; raw materials cannot be bought except upon credit: credit cannot be extended except upon conditions of political security. Meanwhile, with transportation systems disorganized, with railroad lines, locomotives and cars damaged and destroyed with no working capital, with currency debased in some areas almost to the point of worthlessness, with productivity everywhere demoralized as a result of war psychosis, with all countries staggering under a weight of indebtedness practically beyond calculation, Europe is utterly crushed, and the situation is growing worse rather than better so that we are face to face with appalling disaster, which, unless averted, will interpret itself, as Mr. Hoover has repeatedly warned, in loss of life on a scale hitherto undreamed of.

What salvation has the League of Nations for this situation? What hand can it take in the solution of the problem? That a remedy must he found if civilization is to be saved from shipwreck is obvious. Equally obvious is the fact that the impending disaster is one which concerns, not Europe alone, but the whole world. For the time is long since past when any country can isolate itself from the economic security or chaos of the rest of the world nations are joined together in an intricate network of intercourse and commerce which involves the possibility of existence for more than half the people on the globe; and with every year that passes the developments of science bring the human family into increasingly closer relationships. North and South America are as intimately bound to the fate of Europe in everything that relates to industrial prosperity or demoralization as New York is bound to New England. No Chinese wall can guard the Western Hemisphere from the consequences of economic disintegration or social collapse in the Eastern Hemisphere. A movement in India or Lapland reverberates in America and New Zealand, just as under-production in England and France, or financial disorganization in Germany and Austria, has its repercussions in every state of our union.

The matter therefore concerns the family of nations sitting in common council, and it is perhaps providential that in this supreme crisis in human history the organization of the League of Nations should be ready at hand. That its leaders are conscious of their responsibility is obvious to anyone who knows the work of the Secretariat or follows the meetings of the Council. The economic section of the League has for many months been engaged in a world-wide study of such questions as coal, production, markets, and food and, the movement of raw materials. At the first meeting of the Assembly, representing the people of the world, a full report will be ready, showing where the human family that occupies the earth finds itself as regards solvency or bankruptcy in this year of our Lord nineteen hundred and twenty -- a balance sheet, if you please, of industrial and social assets and liabilities, as a basis of discussion for the sons of men! Will anything practical come of the discussion? No one can tell. But surely it is the common-sense approach to solution; and in an open exchange of opinion by the world's leaders an atmosphere of solidarity may be created,  -- a spirit of human kinship in the face of common peril, -- which may serve to dissolve many of the obstacles which now seem insuperable.

But the League has not waited for the results of the Assembly conference. The situation is too pressing to brook delay, and immediate measures are necessary. The first proposition, therefore, to which the League has addressed itself, as a practical step toward solution, is the opening up of Russia. Russia is the granary of Europe, its greatest source of cereals, and one of its largest reservoirs of essential raw materials. With Russia isolated from the normal industrial system there is no hope of recovery for Europe. The blockade of Russia and the policy of the cordon sanitaire have proved far more disastrous to the rest of Europe than to Russia herself. Somehow or other Russia must be reinstated in the processes of international trade and commerce, a means must be found of stimulating her production and making available to the rest of Europe her exportable surplus of food and raw materials.

Up to this time the policy of the Allies in handling the Russian problems has been shaped largely by a fear of Bolshevism. There has been but little attempt to learn the real facts of the situation; certainly no official, systematic study has been made of the plans and results of the Soviet government. We have been trying to solve the problem in the dark, without accurate information or analysis.

It is this defect that the League of Nations has proposed to correct. A recent meeting of the League's Council made provision for sending to Russia a commission of investigation, consisting of ten members and a staff of advisers and experts, 'to obtain impartial and authoritative information regarding the conditions now prevailing in that country.' 'It is hoped,' said the telegram of invitation to the members of the commissions 'that special attention will be paid to administrative, economic, financial, and transport problems, and that general labor questions will not be neglected.'

At the present writing (April 24), no answer has been received from the Soviet government as to whether such a commission of inquiry will be admitted to Russia: but the proposal constitutes the first business-like approach to the Russian question. With the facts ascertained, a positive policy of adjustment can take the place of a policy of ignorance, and the government of Russia can be recognized on some basis that will make possible the restarting of the processes of trade at the earliest possible moment.

IV

The League has taken another step which is even more directly related to the problem of economic rehabilitation. At a meeting of the Council held late in February it was decided to summon at an early date an international financial conference of the governments chiefly concerned, 'to study the financial crisis, and to look for the means of remedying it and of mitigating the dangerous consequences arising from it.' The conference, which is called to meet at Brussels, will be attended by three delegates from each government, one of them representing the Ministry of Finance directly, and the other two being bankers or financiers. At the present writing, the plans for the conference, which will occur early in June are well advanced, and an enormous amount of study and research has been given to its preparation. Each government participating has supplied full information on such subjects as its budget figures, financial policy, domestic and foreign debt, foreign loans outstanding, gold and silver holdings, circulation of currency issues, proposed methods of bringing current expenditures within the compass of receipts, production and trade statistics, and the like. In fact, the conference will sit down with a complete analysis before it of the financial and industrial condition of each of the leading nations, and of the policies which these nations have in mind for the future.

The nature of the conference cannot of course be accurately forecast, but if the carefully laid plans of its supporters do not miscarry, it will have far-reaching results. These results fall roughly under three heads, and are so important to the future stability of the world as to merit at least a brief discussion in this paper.

In the first place, it is hoped that the conference will make clear and vivid to every nation of the world the inescapable fact that there can be no social or industrial future for any country which adopts a permanent policy of meeting its current expenditure by a continuous inflation of its circulation, or by increasing its interest-bearing debts. In too many European countries the printing press as a means of creating wealth has literally taken the place of taxation, with results interpretable in soaring prices and disorganized trade relations. Evil practices, begun of necessity, perhaps, during the war, are to-day continued through weakness and timidity and the fear of governments to face their people with the truth. 'No country can be considered solvent,' said a recent conference of bankers in Amsterdam, 'that will not or cannot bring its current expenditure within the compass of its receipts from taxation and other regular income. This principle must clearly be brought home to the peoples of all countries; for it will be impossible otherwise to arouse them from a dream of false hopes and illusions to the recognition of hard facts.'

To accomplish this end is one of the chief purposes of the League's financial conference; and it is the intention of its leaders to have it unmistakably understood that a recalcitrant country which refuses immediately to mend its ways is outside the pale so far as credits or other remedial measures are concerned.

The second purpose which the conference hopes to accomplish, or at least to influence, is the fixation of the amount of the German indemnity. The undermined character of this item is one of the great disturbing factors in Europe's industrial equilibrium. The vague and fantastic ideas as to the paying power of Germany which are contained in the reparations section of the Treaty of Versailles not only destroy her productive capacity by robbing her of an industrial incentive, but, by fostering false hopes, and keeping as live assets on the national balance sheets items which can never be collected, they postpone the day of financial reorganization in the creditor countries. It is therefore no more than prudent policy and wise statesmanship for each nation to submit the assets on its balance-sheet to careful scrutiny, and to write off those that are based on impossible hypotheses. In drawing up a financial forecast that will stand the test of the next few years, it is important that there be no concealment of the facts and no illusions as to the paying power of debtors. The grave difficulties of the future can be minimized, if not avoided, by greater daring to face the truth to-day.

So far as the German situation is concerned, the argument is equally sound. Whatever we may think of Germany, her industrial solvency is essential to the salvation of Europe. One cannot place a rotten apple in a bowl of apples and keep the decay from spreading. As the Secretary of the Treasury at Washington recently said, there is no more logical or practical step toward solving their own reconstruction problems than for the Allies to give value to their indemnity claims against Germany by reducing them to a determinate amount which Germany may reasonably be expected to pay, 'and then for Germany to issue obligations for such amount ane be set free to work it out. This would increase Germany's capacity to pay, restore confidence, and improve the trade and commerce of the world.'

The third object which the League's financial conference hopes to achieve is the creation of some machinery for the extension of credit to the impoverished countries of Europe. A considerable body of opinion in America seems to be inclined to dismiss this project with the reflection that if Europe 'got down to work' and 'balanced its production and consumption,' credits would not be necessary. Even so well informed a man as Mr. Carter Glass has not resisted the temptation to generalize upon the necessity of the governments of Europe 'increasing their production as much as possible.' In a recent letter, widely quoted in Europe and containing much sound advice, he speaks of 'the resumption of industrial life and activity' as being one of the factors of 'relief.' The statement is, of course, true; but how is Europe to resume? It is like telling a starving man that he will feel better as soon as he begins to eat. The information is well meant, but its only effect is to irritate the sufferer The cotton mills of Czecho-Slovakia are closed and one third of its working population is idle because, although, as we have seen, there is plenty of cotton in European ports, Czecho-Slovakia, because of the depreciation of her currency, has no way of paying for it. Similarly, the industries of Austria and Poland are absolutely paralyzed -- with resulting unemployment and suffering on an unprecedented scale -- because these countries are unable to pay for the initial import of such commodities as hides, oil-seeds, tin, copper, and jute. Until these commodities are received, the mills cannot turn out their finished products; and until the export of these products begins, the industrial life of these stricken nations cannot be reestablished.

Something must be done to prime the pump, -- to start the machinery,  -- and the League's financial conference has no more important task before it than to devise such a plan. Whether these credits shall be governmental or commercial, on what security they shall be based, the length of their term, how they shall be apportioned -- to these and other critical and contentious questions an answer must be found. The absence from the conference of the United States in any official capacity makes the solution all the more difficult; indeed, some believe that it makes it impossible; but there can be no further delay, for the crisis is real, and catastrophe looms ahead unless remedial measures can be put in motion.

These then are the three principal points to which the League's conference will devote itself: the deflation of currency, the definition of Germany's obligations, and the establishment of a credit system. How far the conference will succeed in reaching sane conclusions along these lines cannot, of course, be foretold. On the second point, hostile opposition may be expected from France, whose long sufferings make it impossible for her as yet to see events otherwise than through bloodshot eyes. Objection on this point, too, may be encountered from the Reparations Commission, which is the final authority in its determination. But the economic forces of the world are working on the side of the League, and against their irresistible influence even hate and national pride must give way.

V

It is impossible to leave the subject of the League's work without mention of disarmament. The word disarmament has become the symbol of a new hope in the world, the promise of a better fortune for mankind. In spite of increased army and navy estimates, it is the dream of common peoples everywhere in Europe. Mr. Winston Churchill and Admiral Jellicoe no more represent the ambitions and opinions of the mass of men and women in England than Millerand and Foch represent them in France. The people of Europe are sick to death of armaments and wars, and release from their crushing burden, under the direction of the League of Nations, is eagerly awaited. Even as regards Europe's leaders, the signs of the times are not wanting. Only recently the Danish Minister of Defense, in a strong plea for immediate disarmament, advocated the abolition of conscription and the dismantling of the fortifications of Copenhagen; and even Mr. Lloyd George has referred to the reduction of armed forces as an essential measure if the League of Nations is to be anything else than 'a sham and a scrap of paper.'

Meanwhile the first practical step toward armament reduction has been taken by the new Saint-Germain Convention, signed by the Allied and Associated powers, in which it is agreed that no arms or ammunition of any kind are to be exported, except under license, into certain specified areas of the world's surface -- most of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Transcaucasia, Persia, Gwadar, and such continental parts of Asia as were included in the old Turkish Empire. For the control of the arms-traffic in these territories, as well as in the mandatory areas, the Secretariat of the League of Nations has established a central office where adequate supervision can be maintained.

But this is, of course, only a beginning, and affects but slightly the problem of world reduction of armed forces. The heart of the situation, so far as League is concerned, lies in Articles VIII and IS of the Covenant, which provide for a permanent commission to advise the Council on military and naval matters, including disarmament. To the creation and constitution of this commission the Secretariat of the League has already given much time and study, and the plans for its launching are to be presented to the Council for approval at an early date.

The approach to a reduction in armaments is therefore practically established. How is the fact actually to be accomplished? It is here that we run into difficulties. If there were in the world some great, disinterested, democratic power, with no warlike traditions to maintain, with no far flung empire to protect, with no territorial ambitions to be satisfied, such a power, by sheer force of leadership and the contagion of ideas, could compel the universal adoption of a policy of progressive disarmment. No other government could withstand the irresistible persuasion of its example. With the common opinion of peoples as a fulcrum, and the machinery of the League of Nations as a lever, it could lift the old order from its foundations. But where is there such a nation? Surely not France or England under their present regimes. And America? But America has gone over to the other side. She has repudiated the League of Nations, and by a coincidence almost sinister announces her plans for 'the world's biggest navy.' There is no present hope of such leadership here. 'Relief would be found in disarmament,' wrote the Secretary of our Treasury in a letter of advice to Europe on the rehabilitation of her industrial life. The grim irony of this pious counsel has not been overlooked in Europe. How much more effective would such admonition be if the nation which Mr. Glass represented were not itself raising the stakes in the gamble of armaments, and jeopardizing the peace of the world br rejecting the League!

In a recently published book by the Chief General Staff Officer of the Tank Corps of the British army, occurs this enthusiastic description of the use of tanks in the next war: 'Fleets of fast-moving tanks, equipped with tons of liquid gas, against which the enemy will probably have no means of protection, will cross frontiers and obliterate every living thing in the fields and farms, villages and cities of the enemy's country.'

It is for humanity to choose now which road it wants to take. Will it follow the flag of the old order or the standard of the League of Nations? Under one, the complete breakdown of civilization and the self-extermination of mankind are only a matter of time: the other leads to unexplored fields of human cooperation and creative labor.


Copyright © The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June, 1920; The League of Nations is Alive; Volume 125, No. 6; pages 845-853

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