A League Picture


WERE Aristotle to visit again this earth which he so earnestly tried to tell us how to govern, it is safe to say that he would have been at Geneva last September. For there he would have seen the ablest men, and a few of the women, of our twentieth-century world, at grips with the problem which has baffled us from Aristotle’s time to now: the problem of how to enable sovereign States — some three score there are now — to live together in the world in peace. To the student of politics there can be no more fascinating occupation than to watch at Geneva the effort to banish the old diplomacy, with its basis of partisanship and emotion, and to put in its place a wholly new technique, which shall turn politics into a science.

Geneva in September means blue lake between purple hills, and Mont Blanc snowcapped and radiant through the autumn haze: a noble setting for the greatest of adventures in the political laboratory, the four weeks’ session of the League Assembly. The little provincial city is transformed for the month into the world’s capital. For days before the opening of the Assembly, the trains from Paris, Milan, and the East pour the delegations into the city, and with them an ever-increasing army of tourists, chiefly Americans come to act in our national rôle of observers. There are fifty-four States in the League, each entitled to send three delegates, and as many alternates, experts, attachés, and secretaries as it may choose: counting their families, some of the delegations have over fifty individuals attached to them. If anyone still seriously wonders whether the League is alive, let him ask the hotelkeepers of Geneva.

It was thus that the world was gathering together at Geneva on the first day of last September, preparing to spend the month on discussion of the reduction of armaments, the protection of minorities, mandates, an amendment to Article X of the Covenant, and the effort to put an end to the white-slave traffic and the abuse of opium, when, like a thunderbolt, came Mussolini’s addition to the agenda, the bombardment of Corfu. The delegates gathering at the headquarters of the League, which are in the offices of the Permanent Secretariat, a large building, formerly the Hotel National, on the shore of the lake to the north of the city, found the Council already in session, considering what should be its action in answer to the appeal from Greece, received that morning. In the Council room and in the hall outside there was a cosmopolitan gathering of people — the German President of the Free City of Danzig, who must be quite the tallest man in Europe, the Polish Commissioner for Danzig, the League High Commissioner for Danzig, and the League Commissioner for the Saar plebiscite preliminaries, were standing about, waiting for their questions to be taken up in turn by the Council. Mingling with these was a great crowd of spectators from many countries, among them so many Americans that one could scarcely count them. Add to these over two hundred journalists from all over the world — several score of these also from America — and one has some idea of the audience before which the Council and the Assembly meet and work.

I have seen the opening of three of the League Assemblies, but no familiarity can ever blunt the sense of wonder and exaltation with which I look down from the balcony on those men and women, ambassadors, prime ministers, secretaries for foreign affairs, members of parliaments, professors of international law, and specialists in social welfare, from the four quarters of the globe, gathered behind rows of plain wooden desks, prepared to give their attention for a month to dealing with the world’s business. Persian fez and Hindu turban; tall, clean-shaven men from Britain; bearded Frenchmen; solidly built Hollanders; fair-haired Lithuanians; olive-skinned Latin Americans;swarthy Greeks; Vikings from the north — the hall is alive with the color of history and the flavor of paradox. Rumania, escaped from Turkish rule only in the eighteen-fifties, always sends a woman as member of her delegation; Poland, alive again after a century of death, is here, and hoping for a seat on the League Council; Lithuania, where pagan priests kept alive their sacred fires until the end of the fourteenth century when Christianity at last drove out the ancient gods, after centuries of servitude, is here also, alive and lusty with a new nationalism.

Nothing could be plainer than the hall itself, a modern concert hall for all it is named the Salle de la Reformation. Little has been done to transform it into an assembly hall, except to remove the chairs and to put in temporary desks. The Assembly hall is long and narrow, and there is only one door; yet there is no bothering over precedence. The modern diplomat no longer cares who goes before him, a delegate of a great power or a small one, ally or former enemy, marquis, or peasant premier, or stenographer. As for seating, common sense long ago found that the alphabet provided an excellent way of solving the difficulty, and the delegations are arranged in the order of the French version of the names of their countries.

Time has brought another change, and one of even greater significance: around the hall run two balconies, from which the press and the public can watch the proceedings. Looking down from the balcony on the delegations below, one saw many who were already veterans in League work. Here again were Lord Robert Cecil, guardian spirit of the League, and Professor Gilbert Murray, and Dr. Nansen, and M. Branting, twice Prime Minister of Sweden and now her representative on the League Council; M. Motta, formerly President of Switzerland, one of the great orators of former Assemblies, and Señor Edwards of Chile, last year’s president of the Assembly. Here too were Beneš, Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia, and Loudon, Minister of Holland at Paris, who combines an acute mind with a fine spirit and a most gracious presence. In the French seats were again Gabriel Hanotaux and Henri de Jouvenel. Of the great figures of the last Assembly one missed the courtly presence of Lord Balfour, and of Léon Bourgeois, full of years and honors, the father of the League in France.

As one looked down from the balcony on all these well-known faces, one could forecast from former Assemblies the rôle that each would play. The conservative leaders, anxious to keep the mind of the Assembly on the world-asit-is, would be Hanotaux and Jouvenel. The liberal leaders, pressing always for the world-as-it-ought-to-be, would be Nansen, Branting, Murray, and Motta, with Lord Robert at their head. But Lord Robert was there no longer as a free lance: he was now in Balfour’s chair as head of the delegation of the British Empire, and the permanent British representative on the League Council. With this greater responsibility would he be as free as before to break a lance in the cause of publicity of debate and the competence of the League? He was to give a noble answer to this question.


On the first day of the Assembly come the speech of welcome by the President of the Council and the election of the President of the Assembly. It is an impressive moment, this of the first roll-call of the nations, when the interpreter thunders out, ‘ Afrique du Sud — Albanie — Belgique — Empire Britannique — Bulgarie — Canada — Chili — Chine’— and so through the long list of fifty-two, while the chief delegate of each country walks up the aisle, climbs the stairs to the platform, and drops his ballot into the box, which, as it happens, is presided over by an American, a member of the Secretariat. It is a dramatic moment also because the election gives some slight indication, supposedly, of the strength of certain interests in the Assembly. It may, however, be only a negative indication, as it was this year. That Motta, the second candidate, was defeated was due to the determination of the French not to have as president a man who has many times urged the admission of Germany into the League; but that Torriente was elected was due to the strategy of the second Cuban delegate, Señor Aguero, whose skill in making slates at past Assemblies had earned for him the title of ‘The Great Elector.’

The full meetings of the Assembly are the place for set speeches and formal votes. At Geneva, as in other assemblies, the real work is done in committees, and there the important discussions take place. In the League Assembly, however, each of the six regular committees, among which the agenda is divided, is a committee of the whole, for each State has a member on each committee. The choice of the chairmen of these committees is a matter of considerable excitement, especially to those delegates, chiefly from our own hemisphere, who take an absorbing interest in the prestige of office-holding. Ordinarily the rest of the world, which, after all, gets quite its share of the places, looks on with interest.

This year all such minor issues were blotted out by the intense preoccupation over the Græco-Italian affair and the Council’s probable course. The elections were held and the committees constituted. Then the Assembly adjourned its plenary sessions to give the Council time to work out its problem without comment from the Assembly platform.

Yet the Assembly, though silent as a body, had quickly become the chief actor in the drama. By the presence of the delegates in Geneva, in three days public opinion had been focused and become a living thing. The world found at Geneva that it was united against both the Italian action and the Italian arguments. The latter the delegates dismissed with the explanation that Mussolini’s chief legal adviser was on his vacation, — as I believe he actually was, — and that Mussolini had never read the Covenant. It was the small States which felt most bitterly, for each saw itself in the place of Greece. Hitherto unorganized, they were learning solidarity through the common danger. They were already showing at Geneva an unexpected attachment to the Covenant and a determination to assert its power.

It was against this background that the scenes of the Corfu drama so swiftly unfolded. The story has been already told of the now famous Council meeting when Italy’s challenge was met by Lord Robert with the simple reading of the Covenant, and of the later meeting when, through the Conference of Ambassadors, came the pledge of Italy to leave Corfu, and Politis uttered his words of heartfelt gratitude to the League for what it had accomplished.

Corfu had been saved and war averted; but there remained the most intense anxiety that the Council should make a formal answer to the Italian denial of the competence of the League over a great Power in a question of its national honor. We knew that in the Council the struggle was incessant to induce Italy at least to let the question of competence go to the World Court. From the Council meetings, now private, came rumors of battle, of Lord Robert and Branting indefatigable in their efforts to get an agreement that should accord with the prestige of the League, and of Salandra, turning this way and that under the argument, but always obdurate. Ten days of this suspense the Assembly had to endure, while the Council was struggling with the issue.

Meanwhile, however, the Assembly delegates were busily at work in the committees, each of which sat for a full half-day at least three times a week and sometimes oftener. To visitors and journalists it is always a puzzle to choose each day which committee to watch, for there is always some interesting or amusing debate on in every one. This year in the Committee on Legal Questions, they were considering the Canadian proposal to amend Article X of the Covenant; in the Committee on Technical Questions, the League’s High Commissioner in Vienna was reporting on the restoration of Austrian finances, which is so far the League’s greatest achievement; in the Committee on Disarmament, the draft Treaty for Mutual Guaranty was being debated; in the Committee on Budget and Finances, there were most revealing differences of opinion; in the Committee on Political Questions, there were the admission of Ireland, the protection of minorities, the report of the Mandates Commission, and other matters; and in the Committee on Social and General Questions, there were the debates on the measures to check white slavery and the abuse of opium, and to promote intellectual coöperation between the universities and other learned bodies of the world. It is to this committee that the women delegates sent by Great Britain, Australia, Rumania, and the Scandinavian countries are always assigned, on the ground, no doubt, that women are supposed to be more keenly interested than men in social welfare. Gilbert Murray presided with Attic humor over the committee, which contained some most interesting personalities, among them Lord Hardinge, once Viceroy of India, and Marquis MacSwiney, formerly chamberlain to the Pope, and now, as one of the Irish delegates, doing his duty by always voting against England, and, moreover, not even voting in English, but in French. And here for three days Congressman Porter, sent to Geneva by the State Department to consult with the Assembly Committee upon the subject of opium, sat with the fifty-two members of the League, and paid an unexpected tribute to the ‘prestige of the League of Nations.'


By far the most important of the committees this year was the Committee on Disarmament, for here was being earnestly debated the fundamental problem before the world — how to reduce the land armaments which are rapidly driving Europe and the rest of the world to bankruptcy.

Article VIII of the Covenant calls for ‘the reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety, and the enforcement by common action of international obligations’; and provides that the Council, ‘taking account of the geographical situation and circumstances of each State, shall formulate plans for such reduction for the consideration and action of the several governments.’ For four years the Permanent Military Naval and Air Commission of the League had been at work on the question. Three years ago a temporary mixed commission, with an equal number of representatives of capital, labor, and the public, had been appointed to help it. Even with this assistance, little progress had been made until the Third Assembly. There Lord Robert Cecil, pressing hard for some definite plan for a reduction of armament, had been met by the French insistence on the need of preliminary guaranties. The phrase, ‘No disarmament without guaranties, no guaranties without disarmament,’ was adopted by the Third Assembly as a fundamental principle. Lord Robert was then added to the Temporary Mixed Commission, and there, in collaboration with Colonel Requin, the chief French military expert on both the commissions, worked out a treaty of Mutual Guaranty, which, in outline at least, was satisfactory to the French as a preliminary to the reduction of armaments. It was this treaty, of which Lord Robert is the ‘spiritual father,’ which was up for discussion, article by article.

Of all the debates at this Assembly this was the most revealing of the national fears and policies of the different States of the world. On the first article, which declares aggressive war a crime, they were all agreed, but they differed on every other one. It was a useful lesson to anyone who thinks the problem of land-disarmament a simple one.

The general plan of the treaty was that all the countries of one continent should guarantee each other against aggression. In the debate in the Mixed Commission, however, it had become evident at once that the Powers with the greatest armies, France, Poland, and the Little Entente, would not consider any general guaranty, dependent as it would be on a vote of the Council for its application, a sufficient protection to warrant any reduction of armament. They had insisted that there should be included in the treaty a recognition of the right to enter into partial treaties of defense as well. To this, Lord Robert, realist in his idealism, and seeing it as the price of securing even the first step in disarmament, had agreed, but only on the condition that the partial treaties were not to be valid until they had been approved by the Council as in harmony with the Covenant, and had been published to the world.

But the very recognition of partial treaties had raised up other opponents. Italy, no doubt with the Little Entente in mind, was strongly opposed to any recognition whatever of partial treaties. So too was Japan, who needs no defense in the Pacific; so too were Norway and Sweden, who, safe in their northern peninsula, fear nothing except a return to the old system of partial alliances. These latter were worried also lest, to meet their obligations under the general Treaty of Guaranty, they might have to increase their small armaments rather than diminish them; while the South American States were anxious to have it understood that their armaments were already reduced to the lowest possible amount.

Many, of course, among both delegates and audience were fearful that the partial treaties would mean a return to the old world-order. Action under them was not to be dependent on any discussion in the Council. An act of aggression was to bring them automatically into force, for the French military advisers had insisted that the delay of waiting on any discussion whatever would make action too late and the treaties of no military value. Again Lord Robert had compromised with reality. It was a bewildering situation for the liberal group who had been accustomed to look to him implicitly for guidance. Confident as ever of his integrity of purpose, could they be sure that in his desire for its accomplishment he had not surrendered too much to the philosophy of militarism?

The debates took place in the great glass room, the scene of so much of the League’s history. In committee the fifty-two delegates sit always about three long tables, placed end to end in a hollow square, with the interpreters and the other members of the Secretariat at the end, behind the Chairman. The Chairman of this committee was the Polish Ambassador to London, M. Skirmunt. On his right, at one side of the hollow square sat the two sponsors of the treaty, Lord Robert Cecil and Senator Lebrun of France. Behind them were grouped their advisers, civil and military, among them Colonel Requin, who was sketching the delegates in a manner which seemed to indicate more detachment than proved to be the case when some point affecting French policy came up. At the opposite table sat the chief of the other supporters of the treaty, Beneš, the slender, supple little man whose brilliant mind has placed him, after only four years of experience in government, at the forefront of European statesmanship. Near by were grouped the critics of the treaty — Lange of Norway and Loudon of Holland and Branting of Sweden and Tosti of Italy and Matsuda of Japan.

In the first debate on the clauses of the treaty the various national policies stood out as clear as do the characters in a well-written play. From the group of opponents Lange of Norway emerged as the chief spokesman, with the delegates of Sweden and Holland and Denmark and Lithuania always behind him. The attacks were answered by Lord Robert and Lebrun. Lange feared that the treaty emphasized guaranties far more than it did reduction of armaments. It was pointed out by Lord Robert that the treaty was based on reduction. Branting suggested that there be included a clause making arbitration compulsory. Lord Robert replied that one must be practical, not academic, and that at least some of the great Powers would refuse to enter such a treaty. The delegate of Lithuania summed up the situation by pointing out that the great Powers thought material disarmament the more important, while the small Powers believed that moral disarmament should be emphasized. Then Lebrun made an eloquent defense of the treaty plan, and Jugoslavia added her support. The Hungarian delegate asked that specific mention should be made of guaranties for States already disarmed by the Paris treaties. The South Americans made clear that what they wished was limitation rather than reduction. Then the Polish delegates suggested, as a change in drafting, the deletion of the words solemnly declaring that ‘aggressive war is an international crime,’ and the substitution of a declaration that the signatory State would not indulge in it; but he withdrew at once on Lord Robert’s emphatic statement that the phrase was important, ‘as public opinion on the other side of the Atlantic will welcome it.’

Vital as were the issues, the tone of the debate was always one of good-will and sincerity. Humor and ingenuity both were displayed in meeting the puzzle of how to refer to an aggressor State without casting a doubt on one’s neighbor. The Italian delegate had brought up a hypothetical problem in which states A, B, C, and D were allied, and D became an aggressor. After that Gilbert Murray always referred to the ‘sinister state of D,’ and Lange spoke of it as the ‘mystical letter D.’ Lord Robert preferred to use Mauretania and Aquitania.

One felt that, whether they were for or against the treaty, the greater number of the speakers, and perhaps all, were striving most eagerly for some solution of the puzzle. That they had a real desire to come to a reasonable agreement was shown by the response of Lange and some of the other opponents to the short speech of Jouhaux, head of the Confédération Générale du Travail of France. From the point of view of the French delegates, Jouhaux must have seemed something of an enfant terrible. He had come to Geneva fresh from the convention at Amsterdam of the International Federation of Trade-Unions, of which he is vice president, bringing with him the memorial signed there, asking the Assembly to settle the problem of Reparations. As a representative of labor on the Temporary Mixed Commission, he took part in several of the debates of the Disarmament Committee. When the partial treaties were attacked by Lange, it was not the arguments of Lebrun or of Requin, but those of Jouhaux which silenced the opposition of Norway and Holland to the essential part of the French policy. Jouhaux’s argument was a simple one. We shall, he said, have partial treaties anyway; better to have them above-board, subject to supervision by the Council and publication to the world. So Jouhaux won the case for Requin; but at a later session, when Requin made a wholly unexpected effort to have the Temporary Mixed Commission abolished, Jouhaux made the simple statement that public opinion had looked on the appointment of the Commission as the first step of the League toward the purpose for which it was founded. Thereby he killed any chance the French might have had to give over the work on the plan for disarmament into the exclusive hands of the military experts of the Permanent Military Naval and Air Commission.

One of the most valuable debates was that on the report made by the Temporary Mixed Commission as to what constitutes actual aggression.

It is not surprising and, I think, not to be regretted, that the Assembly postponed any final decision on the treaty, and contented itself with asking the Council to submit it to the Governments, members of the League, for their opinions. This means that the treaty will be discussed again by the Assembly next September. After that, if it is adopted by the Assembly, it will still have to be ratified by certain States of each continent, in order to be generally binding. Whether the treaty, now called the Treaty of Mutual Assistance, will ever get so far is very doubtful; but it has already served a most useful purpose in bringing to light fundamental problems of land disarmament.


With the completion of the work of the committees, the Assembly meets in plenary session for several days to hear the reports and vote on the resolutions proposed. Already several plenary sessions had been held, among them one of intense interest to Americans; for on one and the same day the Assembly had elected a judge to the Permanent Court of International Justice, and had admitted Ireland into the League. Ten minutes it took, all told, the Assembly balloting in the Salle de la Reformation and the Council in the Secretariat across the lake. It was interesting, too, to see that the judge who was chosen—a Brazilian— had been proposed by our four United States representatives on The Hague Court list, as well as by twenty-one of the other states.

The admission of Ireland was one of the great moments of the Assembly. A storm of applause greeted the three Irish delegates, all members of their cabinet, as they were led to their seats; and another came when the President of the Assembly called on President Cosgrave to address the Assembly. Even the most eloquent of them could hardly have found finer or more moving words than that little red-haired shopkeeper turned statesman, who so often, in prison and out, had shown his courage in the fight for Irish freedom. Earnestly he leaned far forward and, raising his arm in the air, began to speak. Bewilderment spread over the faces of the vast audience. It was not English, though the Latins at first thought that it must be; it was not French. A smile of appreciation spread through the audience when it finally dawned on them that it was Gaelic. The Gaelic was only for a moment, however, and President Cosgrave continued in English of a fine simplicity. It will be a historic speech, that first one of Ireland to her sister nations.

Meanwhile the twenty-seventh was approaching, the date when the Italians had promised to evacuate Corfu. Reassured by the news that the evacuation had begun, the blow of the premature award to Italy of the fifty million lira by the Conference of Ambassadors was all the greater. It was true that the Greek Government had pledged itself to abide by the decision of the Conference of Ambassadors, on the very day that it had applied to the League for aid. But no supporter of the League could be content with this argument. Indignation in Geneva was intense. Meanwhile the Council was still in a deadlock on the question of competence. The Assembly was about to close. The Council must report some decision, if only that it could come to none. Through the morning of the 28th the Council was debating in private session, and again in the afternoon. At last, word flew through the Secretariat that some agreement had been reached, and that it would be announced at once in the Assembly. In a few minutes the half-empty Assembly hall across the lake was crowded.

The agreement was a compromise, as was inevitable. Lord Robert and Branting had got from Salandra his consent to a statement which meant the end of the most sinister of all the Italian arguments, the one, namely, that questions involving national honor were beyond the competence of the League; but the other questions raised by Italy — the right of ‘peaceful’ reprisal under the Covenant, and the right of the Council to take over a dispute already under the consideration of the Conference of Ambassadors — were to be reported on in December by a Committee of Jurists appointed by the Council itself. If they did not agree, then there would obviously be another struggle to bring the questions to the World Court, where of course they should have gone in the first place, had Italy not been immovable.

It was the signal for the greatest scene of the Assembly. That body could not vote on the report, but it could speak; and its spokesmen were the great Liberal leaders. When the translator had rendered Ishii’s speech into English, Torriente announced ‘La parole est à M. Branting, delégué de Suède.’ As Branting mounted the steps, and faced the Assembly and the Italian delegates in the front row, such applause burst from the floor and the galleries as had never before been heard in the Assembly hall. In a simple statement he gave his reasons for consenting to the Council’s decision as the only one possible, but stated plainly his dislike of any opinion of jurists appointed by their Governments.

Next came Lord Robert, who, by the moving manner of his speech, showed how great was his disappointment with the compromise, but how impossible had been agreement on any other.

Then Nansen came, who spoke bitterly of the killing of little children.

Then Gilbert Murray, who, in a voice trembling with indignation, said, ‘As to the decision of the Conference of Ambassadors, I have only to say that I thank God that this League bears no shred of responsibility for that decision.

I only wish that I could add that no shred of the responsibility lay on the shoulders of the British Empire.’

Then came the representatives of Persia, of Ireland, of Denmark, of Colombia, of Finland, of Holland, and of India. Through these eleven men four continents had spoken.

With the election of the six temporary members of the Council, the Assembly was over for another year. Opening as it did in the shadow of the Italian-Greek crisis, its really fine record of achievement in the other questions entrusted to it has been obscured by the greater issue. Ireland has been admitted, and Ethopia — which removes a rich and dangerous temptation from the great Powers, her neighbors in Africa. The system for the protection of minorities has been advanced, the mandates have been examined and criticism given where it was deserved; really important progress has been made in the war on white slavery and opium, and, most important of all, the problem of reduction of land armaments has been brought down from the plane of academic idealism and exhaustively discussed as a practical problem.

The world has made a beginning of coöperative thinking. For four years men have sat side by side, discussing the world’s business; they are already at work preparing for the Fifth Assembly. Gradually the feeling of solidarity, still faint, is growing. To this feeling the Corfu incident, oddly enough, has done an incalculable service, for it has shown the member States how great is their need of such a political body, and how essential is solidarity in its defense.

As the years go on, it becomes clearer that the League is neither a government nor a judge; it is a method. It is a method which, in the smaller as well as the larger issues, has shown itself wonderfully suited to its purpose. One can fancy that the thought of Aristotle, were he to visit Geneva, might run something like this: ‘The mind of man has at last shown itself equal to working out the political methods by which sovereign States may live together as good citizens. But the spirit of man is weak. He has set up the machinery. Now let him use it.’