The Roosevelt Administration and the United Nations: Re-Creation or Rejection of the League Experience?

Article excerpt

I had . . . read carefully all of Woodrow Wilson's writings and speeches on the League of Nations. I followed closely the debates in the Senate on the Versailles treaty and saw how a small group of what Woodrow Wilson called "willful men" . . . had managed to prevent American participation in the League of Nations.(1)

This statement from the 1955 memoirs of President Harry S. Truman captures one of the problems American policy planners of the 1940s focused on in their analyses of the successes and failures of the League of Nations after World War I. Truman went on to say:

Roosevelt had shared with me his determination to avoid the experience of Woodrow Wilson by getting in advance the participation and consent of the leaders of both parties. . . . We did not want to run the risk of another League of Nations tragedy, with the United States standing in isolation on the side lines.

Those comments reveal two views policy planners of the 1940s had about Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations: On the positive side, President Wilson's idea of establishing an international collective security organization was on the minds of politicians of the 1940s and was considered sound in principle. Throughout World War II, the Roosevelt administration developed and revised plans for a successor organization to the League that would come into being after the war. However, the way in which Wilson proceeded with his treaty fight in 1919 and 1920 was believed to be flawed. The president had failed to achieve a broad domestic consensus about an internationalist foreign policy and about American commitments abroad. As a result, he failed to marshal the two-thirds majority in the United States Senate necessary to approve the Treaty of Versailles and U.S. membership in the League.

There were additional, more complex problems than ensuring domestic support for an international security organization. Central to a discussion about the transition from the League to the United Nations are the retrospective views politicians of the 1940s had about the League and its shortcomings.

Truman's statements about the League's activities of the 1920s and 1930s are much less specific than his discussions about Wilson's domestic mistakes. In his memoirs, he writes merely that he had great respect for Henry Stimson, who "as Secretary of State had once tried to keep Japan out of Manchuria with the machinery then at hand. The machinery - the League of Nations - had been ineffective."(2) To Truman and to his contemporaries, the activities of the League of Nations in the 1930s appeared to be a string of failures. The organization was unable to prevent aggressions in China and Ethiopia and allowed Nazi Germany to rearm and to conquer. Why did collective security fail in the 1930s, and what had to be done to allow a more determined reaction to international aggressions? Could a League-like institution ever provide security or should a successor organization be established under different rules? This article highlights some of the discussions in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s concerning a new postwar international security organization.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's thoughts about the League - about the decision of the United States Senate in 1920 not to join the organization, about the League's failure to maintain peace in the 1930s, and his own views on collective security - were extraordinarily complex and are still subject to a controversial historical debate. In his book, Roosevelt and World War II, historian Robert A. Divine rejects the notion of Roosevelt as a Wilsonian. While it was true that both presidents "believed in collective security as the ultimate guarantee of national safety," Roosevelt's security concept, Divine wrote, "differed radically and deliberately" from Wilsonian collective security. Other historians disagree and stress the elements of continuity between Wilson and Roosevelt. In his study on Roosevelt and the Isolationists, historian Wayne S. …