28 April 1919 can be considered as the birth of the League of Nations. The creation of the League had been on the agenda of the Peace Conference at Versailles, just outside of Paris, from its start in January 1919. The U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was the chief champion of the League. The creation of such an organization was discussed from the start in January, along with discussions as to where the headquarters of the League would be set. On 28 April, there was a unanimous decision to create a League of Nations and at the same time Geneva was chosen for its headquarters.
Some of the later failings of the League were visible from the start. Defeated Germany and revolutionary USSR were not invited to join, and the U.S. Senate turned down the invitation. Nevertheless, the first decade of the League’s life saw a good deal in international cooperation, especially in the fields of labor conditions, health, social welfare, intellectual cooperation, and agriculture – all areas that would later be continued and developed within the U.N. system.
The first decade saw the settlement of a number of conflicts that could have led to war. There was a wide-spread feeling that a new era in international relations had been born. However, the 1930s began with the conflicts which led to the end of the League.
On 18 September 1931 Japan accused China of blowing up a Manchurian railway line over which Japan had treaty rights. This “Mukden Incident” as it became known was followed by the Japanese seizure of the city of Mukden and the invasion of Manchuria. Military occupation of the region followed, and on 18 February 1932 Japan established the puppet state of Manchukin.
Further hostilities between Japan and China were a real possibility. The League tried to mediate the conflict under the leadership of Salvador De Madariaga, the Ambassador of Republican Spain to the League. In practice, none of the Western governments wanted to get involved in Asian conflicts, especially not at a time when they were facing an economic depression.
Non-govermental organization cooperation with the Leaague of Nations was not as structured as it would be by the U.N. Charter. There were a few peace groups in Geneva which did interact informally with the League delegations – the Women’s International League for Peace and Fredom, the International Peace Bureau, and the British Quakers were active but were unable to speak directly in League meetings. They could only send written appeals to the League secretariat and contact informally certain delegations.
In reaction to the Japan-China tensions, Dr Maude Revden, a former suffragist, one of England’s first women pastors, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi whom she had visited in India proposed “shock troops of peace” who would volunteer to place themselves between the Japanese and Chinese combatants. The proposal for the interposition of an unarmed body of civilians of both sexes between the opposing armies was proposed to the Secretary General of the League of Nations, Sir Eric Drummond. Drummond replied that it was not in his constitutional power to bring the proposal before the League’s Assembly. Only government could bring agenda items to the Assembly. Nevertheless, he released the letter to the many journalists then in Geneva as the Assembly was in session. The letter was widely reported.
An unarmed shock troop of the League never developed, and China and much of Asia became the scene of a Japanese-led war.
The idea of an unarmed interposition force was again presented this time to the United Nations by world citizens shortly after the U.N.’s creation at the time of the 1947-48 creation of the State of Israel and the resulting armed conflict. The proposal was presented by Henry Usborn a British MP, active in the world federalist and world citizen movement. Usborn was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha (a soul force) and proposed that a volunteer corps of some 10,000 unarmed people hold a two kilometre-wide demilitarized zone between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Somewhat later, in 1960, Salvador De Madariaga, who had ceased being the Spanish Ambassador to the League when General Franco came to power, created in 1938 the World Citizens Association from his exile in England. He developed a proposal with the Gandhian Indian Socialist Party leader Jayapeakash Narayan for a U.N. Peace Guards, an unarmed international peace force that would be an alternative to the armed U.N. forces. (1) De Maderiaga and Narayan held that a body of regular Peace Guards intervening with no weapons whatever, between two forces in combat or about to fight might have considerable effect. The Peace Guards would be authorized by the U.N. Member States to intervene in any conflict of any nature when asked by one of the parties or by the Secretary General.
Dag Hammarskjold who was having enough problems with armed U.N. troops in the former Belgium Congo and understanding the realpolitik of the U.N. did not act on the proposal. Thus for the moment, there are only armed U.N. troops drawn from national armies and able to act only on a resolution of the Security Council.
1) A good portrait of Jayaprakash Narayan, a world citizen, is set out in Bimal Prasad. Gandhi, Nehru and J.P. Studies in Leadership (Delhi, Chamakya Publications, 1985)
Narayan was also one of the Indian leaders met by the student world federalist leaders in their 1949 stay in India. See Clare and Harris Wofford, Jr.
India Afire (New York: John Day Company, 1951)
Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens