A League of Nations

By Viscount Grey of Falloden

[The Living Age, November 23, 1918]

[A speech delivered at a meeting at the Central Hall, Westminster, on October 10, 1918.]

I would first of all remind you of the object with which this meeting was originally summoned. It arose out of a very remarkable speech of the President of the United States made on September 27 last. It was in many respects a very remarkable speech, and among other things it was remarkable for this, that it made a most pointed appeal to the Allies to say whether in any degree President 'Wilson was mistaken in his expressed interpretation of the issues of the war, or in his purpose with regard to the means by which a settlement could be arrived at. Our object this afternoon was to make it clear that we all agreed that that statement of the issues of this war was our statement too, and that we "believed in that method of obtaining a settlement of those issues which President Wilson so earnestly advocated. Unity of purpose among the Allies was what President Wilson asked for, and that unity of purpose I am sure the other Allied Governments will provide.

But since the meeting was fixed many things have happened—many things most favorable to a successful end of the war—and one cannot pass them over without expressing some feeling with regard to them. I suppose we have all lately carried our minds back to the position of the war, the military situation, a few months earlier, and compared what it is now with what it was then, and surely our feeling is one of unbounded gratitude to and admiration for the navy, the army, and the merchant service which have carried us through those dark days, and brought us to the present apparently most favorable situation. I would like to express in a word my own feelings as to what that situation is. It is this, that peace is within sight, but it is not yet within reach, and therefore the moral of it is that the country should put aside now, as much as ever, all controversial issues, and be united in supporting the Government in the conduct of the war till peace is brought, not only within sight, but within reach. Any disunion between the Allies, any want of support, anything which at this moment gives hope to Germany of a stalemate, or even of reversing the military situation in Germany's favor, and peace would recede, and we should again be face to face with a prolongation of the war, which I trust the united efforts of the Allies may now be able to avert. That is, I think, the moral of the present situation.

Germany has made her overture to President Wilson. President Wilson has given a reply which seems to me both firm and wise, and, as far as I am concerned with regard to that particular overture, I am quite content to await the further developments which I suppose will follow upon President Wilson's reply, and see what they are. I feel at this moment that the country is united, but that if any large section of the country came to feel that a real chance of a really good and secure peace was being missed or neglected, that union would be imperiled. That I feel is the danger on one side. On the other side I think what a nightmare it would be if, after we got to a peace conference, believing that the end of the war was then reached, we found at that peace conference that the military rulers of Germany were still the people of real authority, that the German people had relapsed into docile subservience to the aims of its military rulers, and that the whole time peace was being discussed at the peace conference it was being undermined by the men who made the war, and whose policy with regard to war would never change. That must be avoided at all costs, and that is why again I say that President Wilson's reply seems to me to be a firm and wise reply.

It is true that the overture from Germany is a vast advance upon anything that has been before. We all approved President Wilson's various declarations as regards what the terms of peace should be. If a sincere acceptance of those terms was forthcoming it was one that could not be turned down, and that even an approach should have been made towards these terms in public is an advance. But we want to know, before we are on firm ground, where really is the seat of power in Germany. German Chancellors have crossed the stage like transient and embarrassed phantoms, to use an old phrase, for the last few months, and we do not know where we are with regard to the particular authority that is behind any particular Chancellor. And, then, we have this to bear in mind. There was the Reichstag resolution of July last year purporting to advocate a peace with no annexations and no indemnities. The military situation changed in Germany's favor, and the result was the Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest treaties, and an open scouting and deriding of the Reichstag resolution all over Germany as something that had served its purpose. Within the last year that has happened, and, as far as I am concerned, I feel that the reply which has been made so far to the German overture displays a clearness and a caution which are absolutely essential.

I would pass from that to the special subject with which we are to deal this afternoon—a League of Nations. And I should like to clear the ground, to begin with, of one or two difficulties which I think are preventing the progress of the discussion in this country. There are two suspicions which, I think, people should get out of their minds. One is that there are those who are advocating a League of Nations among us who desire it not to be a League of Nations to secure the peace of the world with fair terms and a fair chance and fair play for everybody, but a League of Allies for the purpose of maintaining the power or supremacy of a particular group of nations rather than a world peace on equal terms, I believe that suspicion to be unfounded with regard to either of the two societies who are advocating a League of Nations. The other suspicion is that there are people advocating a League of Nations who desire the League of Nations propaganda to be used in order to secure a peace without too close inquiry as to whether it is really a satisfactory and sincere peace—in other words, who desire the League of Nations project to be used as a substitute for a successful termination of the war. Now, that is not in our minds either.

A League of Nations cannot be a substitute for a successful termination of this war. It must arise out of the successful termination of this war. And so I come to President Wilson's point the other day. He said: 'A League of Nations cannot be formed now.' Personally, I should have been delighted to see a working model formed whenever it could be formed, at the earliest possible moment, and I should not have been much afraid of any such working model degenerating into a League entirely different from the League which President Wilson is advocating. I believe if the United States once became a party to a League of Nations, it would not remain a party to that League of Nations if it was being used except to carry out the ideals of the United States with regard to it. Therefore I am not much afraid of that I have never seen how you could form a League of Nations before the peace, for this reason. The Governments of the Allies must be parties to that League of Nations. They may get the work prepared by others, they may get a scheme drawn up, but the War Cabinet here, the Cabinet in France, the Cabinet in the United States, the other Cabinets of the Allies, they have got to put their hand to that treaty, to that scheme, before the League can be formed. How could they possibly, when all their energies and attention were concentrated upon the prosecution of the war, when they had all the anxieties which are inseparable from those responsible for the conduct of the war, when they were overworked by the sheer effort of the war itself—how could they possibly give the time and attention necessary to elaborate and approve a great scheme of that kind? It was not possible. But then, the moment the time comes when the war has reached a stage, such a happy stage, that the actual conduct of it is no longer a source of absorbing anxiety, so that the governments who are at the head of the Allied nations will have time and energy to devote to this great subject of the League of Nations—the moment you get to that stage, peace will be close upon you, and the result is this, that I accept President Wilson's formula, because I believe that, the moment the time has come when the Allied governments can take up the consideration of a definite scheme for the League of Nations, peace will be so near that there will be no time to be lost. The League of Nations must be formed at the peace. If it is delayed beyond that its chance of ever being formed is prejudiced. The elaboration and consideration of a scheme will take weeks, and it may take months, and as it must be formed at the peace there is no time to be lost now. Public opinion must ripen on the subject. Those who have ideas are working on the subject. The Government should prepare whatever scheme they can through the best minds at their disposal, in order that things may be ready. I think that formula ought to be good enough for anyone who cares about and desires a League of Nations. A League of Nations must be formed at the peace, and therefore there is no time to be lost in giving consideration to it as soon as possible.

Let me go on to another point. One of the next objections I find to a League of Nations is this—that people say, 'You have had these schemes before. They have never come to anything. Why should they come to anything now?' Well, the League of Nations is machinery, and machinery is of no use unless there is power to drive it. You might, long before the discovery had been made how to apply the power of steam, have had the locomotive, with its wheels, pistons, and everything else complete, but without motive power it would have been useless, and the wheels would not have gone round. That is what the machinery of a League of Nations has been in previous years. The whole point in relation to a League of Nations is that after this war there may be in mankind and in the world a motive power sufficient to work that machinery.

There has been no war like this in recorded history. Never before have you had whole nations put through the mill of war. The suffering has been on a scale unprecedented. Are we to suppose that human nature is so rigid, so unteachable, so unalterable after all that tremendous experience that this generation is going through, as to have no permanent or lasting change, not only in men's minds but of their feelings? This war has been unprecedented in another way than that. It has shown the world and the present generation not merely what war means to-day, but, with all the inventions of science, what war will mean twenty years hence, if it takes place—something more horrible than this war has been. Our whole case is that the world, after this experience and the revelation before it of what future wars will be, will be convinced at the end of this war that another world war will be a crime and a disaster to be avoided at all costs. That is what you must rely upon to make the machinery of the League of Nations work, and one of the things upon which I rely is that in our time, at any rate, the men who survive this war and come back from the fighting to their own country, these are the men who are going to be most earnest in keeping the peace of the future. We all of us see some of them from time to time. I know the feelings of those I do see. I am thinking of men from the ranks who are coming home. They say, if this war is to be brought to a successful conclusion it will make peace secure, but they are determined that after it is secured, as far as it lies within their power there shall be no more fighting in their lifetime. Your League of Nations, therefore, is machinery, for it will carry out the determination on the part of the world that it will stop future war. If that determination does not exist, the machinery will be of no use; but if the determination does exist, then I believe the world at large will insist on the machinery being brought into use. That is why I believe that a League of Nations—the formation of a League of Nations—is not only possible, but is a test of whether the experience of this war has altered the whole point of view of the nations in regard to war in general.

Let me take one or two points which we ought to have definitely settled in our minds in regard to the working of the League of Nations. How is it going to affect the fiscal question, for instance? There, again, I take what I understand to be President Wilson's attitude the other day. He says, 'No economic boycott within the League of Nations,' but he leaves, or I understand he contemplates leaving, each individual member of the League of Nations—each Empire, each State, each Republic, whatever it may be—free within the League to settle its own fiscal question for itself. We may have our own, and we probably shall have our own, fights here on the fiscal question; it will be very surprising if there is not some discussion and some controversy; but with regard to the League of Nations you may keep that outside the question of the league, and settle it for yourselves in your own way; but having settled your fiscal system, you must recognize that in a League of Nations you will be bound to apply that fiscal system, whatever it may be, equally to all the other members of the league. You won't be, able to differentiate among them. That I understand to be the principle laid down by President Wilson, and that is the principle which certainly commends itself to me. That, I think, is a principle which- must be accepted if the League of Nations is to be a league that will guarantee the peace of the world. There is another important point in connection with the fiscal side of the League of Nations. During this war there has been brought into existence an economic boycott of the enemy countries. I am told it has been very effective. The machinery for it is in existence. In my opinion, the Allies who have brought that machinery into existence should keep that machinery ready as part of the League of Nations, and if in future years an individual member of the League of Nations breaks the covenant of that league, that economic weapon is going to be a most powerful weapon in the hands of the league as a whole. I think that economic weapon is most valuable as a future influence in keeping the peace and in deterring nations who have come into the League of Nations from breaking any covenant in the league. It will be a most valuable influence for that purpose; but then, if it is to be a valuable influence for that purpose you must not bring it into existence before the purpose has arisen, or before there has been some breach of the covenant.

Well, now I come to another thorny and difficult subject connected with the League of Nations, the question of what is called disarmament. I have tried as far as I can to get the fiscal difficulties put as clearly as possible so that they will not stand in the way of a League of Nations. You have got to handle also this question of disarmament very carefully. You will have many apprehensions in this country that somehow or other a League of Nations is going to put us in a disadvantageous us position, where we maybe, by bad faith or otherwise, put in a position in which we are not sufficiently capable of defending ourselves. I think you have got to go very carefully in your League of Nations with regard to definite proposals that may be suggested or adopted with regard to what is called disarmament. One thing I do not mind saying. Before this war the expenditure on armaments, naval and military, had been going up by leaps and bounds. Germany had been forcing the pace in both. She has led the way up the hill in increasing expenditure on armaments. She must lead the way down the hill. That that is a first condition from our point of view goes without saying—there can be no talk of disarmament until Germany, the great armer, has disarmed.

But then I think we must go farther than that. I think the League of Nations might insist upon each government which is a member of the League of Nations becoming itself responsible for the amount of armaments made in its own country. Your difficulty now is that in a given country there may be a vast number of ships of war, guns, and munitions of war being made, and the government may say, 'Oh, these are being made by private firms for other countries, and we have nothing to do with them.' I do not see why it should be impossible for governments to agree that they will keep that matter in their own hands, that they will give the fullest public information and the fullest opportunities for acquiring information as to the actual amount of what are called armaments being constructed, or available in each country at any given time. I do not see why that should not be done in the future. And if that were done, and you found some governments beginning to force the pace in armaments, I rather think that you would find the matter being brought before the League of Nations, and a discussion would arise as to whether it was time to bring the economic weapon into use before things went further. The League of Nations may have considerable power, provided the governments admit responsibility with regard to the amount of armaments being constructed.

But remember, even so, you will never, by any regulations you may make about armaments, dispose completely of the question. Supposing tomorrow, or after the war is over, the financial pressure were so great, and the feeling that another war was remote was so strong, that ships of war, munitions of war, ceased to be constructed in the world at large, and those now in existence were allowed to lapse or become obsolete until armaments had disappeared in the form in which we know them. Supposing all that happened, you would not have settled the question, because then the potential weapons of war would be your merchant ships and commercial aeroplanes. All those things will be developed after the war, and in the construction of those things you can have no limitation—they must go on being built by private firms. You cannot limit the merchant ships or the amount of commercial aeroplanes to be built; and the fewer the armaments, fighting aeroplanes, and ships of war in the ordinarily accepted sense, the more important potentially as weapons of war become the things you use in commerce, your ships, aeroplanes, and chemicals of all kinds. Well, then, is not the moral of it all this, that the one thing which is going to produce disarmament in the world is a sense of security? And it is because I believe that a League of Nations may produce, and will produce, that sense of security in the world at large which will make disarmament—disarmament in the sense of the reduction of armaments—a reality and not a sham, that is one reason for advocating a League of Nations in order that we may have that sense of security.

Now I come to one other point. We must with a League of Nations be sure that in all these ideals which have been put forward—that in putting forward these ideals we have been saying what we mean and meaning what we said. When the time comes, and the war has been brought to a successful conclusion, we must make it clear that the object of the League of Nations movement has been to get a League of Nations formed—and that is clear in every speech President Wilson has made about it—into which you can get Germany, and not formed in order that you may find a pretext for keeping Germany out. On the other hand, your League of Nations must not be a sham, and you must have no nation in it which is not sincere. That means that you must have every government in the League of Nations representing a free people, a free people which is as thoroughly convinced as are the countries who now desire the League of Nations, of the objects of the league, and are thoroughly determined to carry out those objects in all sincerity. That you must do. When you come to define democracy—real democracy, and not sham democracy—I would call to mind that it is not a question of defining special conditions. We here, under the form of constitutional monarchy, are as democratic as any republic in the world; and I trust the people of this country to do what Mr. John Morley, as he then was, once said with regard to a Jingo. He said, 'I cannot define a Jingo, but I know one when I see him.' I believe the people of this country are perfectly capable, though they may not wish to define what constitutes a democracy, of knowing a democracy when they see it. As President Wilson has repeatedly said, you can trust no government which does not come to you with the credentials that it exists with the confidence of the people behind it, and is responsible to that people, and to no one else.

But there are one or two things more which I think may be done by a League of Nations, and which are very important. Supposing the league once formed, the treaty signed, the treaty binding the nations composing the league to settle any disputes that may arise between them by some method other than that of war, and each of them undertaking an obligation that, if any nation does break that covenant, they will use all the forces at their disposal against that nation which has so broken it. Supposing that done, I think more use can be made of the League of Nations than that. There is work for it to do from day to day which may be very valuable. I do not see why the League of Nations, once formed, should necessarily be idle. I do not see why it should not arrange for an authority and an international force at its disposal which should act as police act in individual countries. It sometimes happens, for instance, when a wrong is done for which some backward country, very often a small backward country, will not give redress. Its government perhaps lacks authority, and you have seen from time to time that in such circumstance a stronger nation has resorted to force and seized a port or brought some other pressure of that kind to bear. And then you had the jealousy of other nations existing, thinking that the stronger nation, in seeking redress, is in some way pursuing its own interests. I think these cases might be settled, if force be necessary, by a League of Nations if it had an international force at its disposal without giving rise to the suspicions and jealousies of certain political aims being pursued.

Another thing it may do. It may possibly do a great deal with regard to labor. I think labor is undoubtedly going to take a larger and more prominent share in the governments than it has clone before. It may be that here, as elsewhere, we shall have labor governments. Well, now, I put this forward only tentatively. Labor now has its international conferences, but they are unofficial. Is it not possible that as labor takes a larger and more prominent share in government it may find a League of Nations useful as a means of giving a more official character to these international consultations in the interest of labor which independent labor has already encouraged and taken so much part in?

Then I would give you another suggestion, and it is the last on this point. There are countries of the world, independent nations, but more loosely organized, or for one reason or another incapable through their governments, of managing their own affairs effectively from the point of view of those other more highly organized countries which wish to trade with them, and they want assistance in the shape of officials from the more highly organized countries. A great example of that is the Maritime Customs Service in China, formed, by the Chinese Government under Sir Robert Hart, and working as an international force, I believe, with the approval of the whole world in the interest of China and of the world generally. Well, that was done—I give it as an illustration—for the Chinese Government, but there are other countries in the world where that sort of thing is even more needed, and it is very seldom done because the weaker country which needs it is afraid of admitting foreign officials, for fear they may have some political design and interest. It is discouraged because individual countries are each jealous of one another getting a footing in some of these more backward countries, through officials. But, if you had your League of Nations, what was done for China in the form of an International Customs Service, to the benefit of China and the whole world, might be done in other countries which need that sort of assistance. What has prevented it being done is the jealousy the stronger States have of one another and the fear of the weaker nations that it is going to admit political influence and sacrifice independence. But if this were done on the authority of a League of Nations there would be much less chance of these jealousies, and much less chance of weaker nations being afraid of ulterior designs, and the trade of the world and that of individual States might benefit enormously by the confidence with which that assistance could be given if given under a League of Nations and not by one individual country or group of countries.

I have said why I think that a League of Nations, though impossible before, may be possible after this war. It is true that in future years troubles may arise. You cannot get absolute security by any human machinery you may invent, lout the League of Nations will improve your chance of security. Now surely, after this war, when it is successfully concluded, surely the only compensation, the only approach to compensation, you can have for the suffering which has been endured is that something should be possible after it which was not possible before. What will our feelings be at the conclusion of war? Joy, no doubt, on the successful conclusion of the war. Joy, no doubt, but also other feelings. In the homes throughout this country where there have been men of military age, there must be a feeling of irreparable loss. Deep and abiding our satisfaction will be when the war is brought to a successful conclusion, but there will not and cannot be that lightness of heart which has often characterized previous victories. Joy there must be, but inseparable from grief. But there is a third feeling, too. The thought of those who have given their lives in this war is not one of grief only. It is one of pride. I believe that in this war, as in no war previously, the young men have given their lives in a finer spirit than ever before. In previous wars you have had a comparatively small part of the population engaged, and that generally composed in this country of that particular part of the population which by temperament or physical aptitude chose the profession of arms; but in this war, in the beginning before we had conscription, young men who disliked fighting as much as anybody, who hated the idea of war, who had no turn, they thought, for soldiering, came forward by thousands. They attained heights of physical courage which have never been surpassed, and they showed, whatever their previous predilections might have been, all the finest qualities of the best soldiers. Well, they have died, many of them, fighting for their country. Yes, that is true, but feeling also that they were fighting in the cause of right against wrong, that they were fighting in a time, not only of national peril, but of world peril. They rose to heights not only of physical courage, but of exaltation of spirit, and by thousands on those heights they have given their lives.

Now, surely, if the peace is to be worthy of the spirit in which those lives have been given, it must not merely secure national and material interests; it must give something wider and bigger and better and higher than the world has ever had before. Well, what good can we do, those of us who have not been in the fighting? We have been stirred, I suppose all of us, by individual cases which we have known at first hand of the spirit in which those whom we loved and admired have fallen. We must do our best to live up to the spirit in which they gave their lives, and it is because I believe, not merely in the actual use of the machinery of the League of Nations, but because I believe the advocacy of it—the spirit which it requires—is one which will take international relations on to a higher and better plane than ever before; because I believe that the peace will give an opportunity such as the world has never had before of getting international relations on that plane, that I trust that in this country the advocacy of the League of Nations, laid down as I believe it has been on the soundest lines by President Wilson, will receive that measure of popular opinion and support which will enable the governments concerned, who can do nothing without popular opinion behind them, to carry something of that sort into effect, and place the international relations of the world, as far as we are concerned, on a higher plane than they have ever reached before, or was ever possible before.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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