Archives: War — or Something Else (1923)

The first meeting of the League of Nations | National Library of Norway/Wikimedia Commons

This editorial was printed in the September 1, 1923, issue of The Living Church.

By F.C. Morehouse

In Mr. Clinton Rogers Woodruff’s second article on International Relations, printed in The Living Church last week, there was contained a letter from Senator [George W.] Pepper to the editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger reaffirming certain views relating to the League of Nations which he had expressed in 1920. He had then criticized the “coercive principle” in the League, observing that if that were to be abandoned, “the way will immediately be opened for a reconstruction in which the United States will gladly join.” and that “if the coercive principle is still approved by the League members, they must consider whether or not a surrender of the principle is too high a price to pay for the cooperation of the United States.” He now, three years later, adds that “during the time which has elapsed since it was made, nations which are members of the League have clearly indicated their intention to develop the organization as a standing council of conciliation and not as a coercive alliance.”

We only wish that we could find evidence to bear out Senator Pepper’s view, expressed in 1920 and now reaffirmed, that if the coercive element should be eliminated from the League of Nations, “the United States will gladly join.” If the United States government, at any time since 1920, had been willing to state officially what modifications in the League covenant would render that instrument acceptable to it, it is well known that the nations of the world would have shown the utmost deference to it, and there is almost a certainty that such modifications would have been adopted.

There were three ways by which this could have been demonstrated. One was by re-submission of the Versailles Treaty to the senate by the late President with the recommendation that it be ratified with a reservation declining to accept, on the part of the United States, any part in, or responsibility for, coercive measures in the covenant of the League of Nations. One was by resolution of the senate, especially if it were at the recommendation of the administration, stating terms and conditions under which the United States would enter the League of Nations whether with or without ratifying the treaty. And one was by diplomatic representations by the government either to the League of Nations or to the governments associated in it, asking for such modifications in the covenant, and after they had been secured, asking the senate to cooperate with the administration in a treaty accepting membership.

The latter would have been the course more consonant with American procedure, but since it would have left the possibility — we might call it an overwhelming probability — that the senate would have repudiated the arrangement, as it had repudiated that submitted by President Wilson, the adoption of one of the other courses would have saved the administration from the embarrassment that had been caused to its predecessor. But since the government made no attempt to secure any of them, but rather refrained from submitting any recommendations as to changes in the League such as might secure the admission of the United States, it seems beyond question that Mr. Pepper’s belief that, under given circumstances, “the United States will gladly join,” has not been justified by subsequent events and may, perhaps, be an over-roseate view even now as to the immediate future.

For it seems beyond question that the onus for not cooperating with the rest of the civilized world in the earnest attempt made by the nations to create a substitute for war must be placed on the United States and not on the League of Nations. The difficult feat of securing agreement between nations on any plan at all had been accomplished, except for the United States. All others had been able to accept what, rightly or wrongly, Mr. Pepper terms “the coercive principle.” If, therefore, one nation out of them all found that, without abandonment of that principle, it could not join the rest of civilization in its plan to find a substitute for war, it was the duty of that one nation, and not of the rest of the world, to state the terms and conditions on which it would be willing to join, or to propose something better. This the United States government signally failed to do. It was even said that official communications from or relating to the League of Nations were not treated officially with courtesy. No, there has been nothing in the course of the American government during the last three years to justify Mr. Pepper’s belief that “the United States will gladly join” the League of Nations if the “coercive principle” should be disavowed by it.

But if the United States is ever to join the rest of the civilized world in creating a substitute for war, we must all avoid recriminations and seek to find, and to agree upon, unifying principles such as may be accepted in the future.

The rest of the world, at least, is war-sick. Perhaps in this country we did not suffer enough to make us realize that the prevention of war is the greatest issue that now confronts the world. The mother that gave her son — perhaps her only son — to be a sacrifice for the sin of a nation and for the honor of a nation, knows. The father whose son returned from France maimed or invalided, blind or shell-shocked, knows. To these the awfulness of war is a never-forgotten reality. These are in earnest in demanding that, once and for all, a substitute for war be found. But these are a small minority of the American people. Of the soldiers of 1917-18 themselves, the majority never saw an enemy, and “the horrors of war” is a mere phrase. All about us politicians are telling us that “American issues” are those on which the next presidential election shall be waged, and that we may safely forget the suffering world across the water, and the likelihood that another and still greater catastrophe will devastate America as well as Europe in the next generation if this generation does not find a way to prevent it. We find generally among public men nothing but apathy and playing politics and petty partisanship when it is urged that everything else be subordinated to that one overwhelming issue — that we take steps now to avert the “next war.”

The issue resolves itself into this: We shall have war or — something in place of war.

The nations of the world, in 1919, agreed to create a League of Nations as the something-in-place-of-war. After the covenant had been tentatively accepted by them all, and the question arose in every land upon ratification, there was then a clear-cut issue: War or something-concrete-in-place-of-war. In rejecting the alternative, the United States necessarily accepted the former as preferable. But it is to the glory of organized Christianity throughout the world, in all its disunited and dismembered parts, that unanimously the alternative of war was rejected in favor of the one and only substitute for war that the conscience and the enlightenment of the world had been able to propound. For in rejecting the League of Nations, the United States offered nothing in its place. That “the United States will gladly join” something different from the League was only a dream of Mr. Pepper’s, whose enlightened conscience is too keen to permit him simply to repudiate the “something-else-than-war” that was offered without realizing the enormity of choosing the alternative of war. The United States never gave the slightest intimation that there could be or might be devised anything concrete that she would “gladly join” — political platforms to the contrary notwithstanding.

Yet it does not follow that some other substitute for war may … not sometime be devised. Mr. Pepper believes that the League of Nations, without its “coercive principle,” is an acceptable substitute. Well, we, the minority of the American people, who are desperately in earnest in determining that a substitute for war be found in our generation, we shall all be willing to try out such a League, if Mr. Pepper can get, first, the time-serving politicians of this country to accept it, and then the rest of the world to recede from its position and accept Mr. Pepper’s instead. The simpler way would seem to us for America to accept the plan that has been accepted by the rest of the world, but if Mr. Pepper can get both America and the rest of the world to accept his substitute, well and good.

We do not forget the value of the proposed World Court. It is good; but it deals with only one phase of the prevention of war. It does not give the opportunity to the nations to confer and to formulate policies. The World Court is a detail of the League of Nations; not a substitute for it.

This we desire to put on record long before national political conventions meet or candidates are selected:

There are some people in this country, be they’ many or few, who are desperately in earnest in demanding that the United States government find a substitute for war that will be accepted both by the American people and the other nations of the world—and find it, and get it into operation, before the “next war” breaks. Those men who took the responsibility of repudiating the substitute that all the rest of the world accepted, assumed a terrible responsibility before God and the judgment of history. They rejected the united pleading of all Christendom. They have, thus far, shown not the slightest ability to find something better than the League of Nations and get it into operation. If the “next war” breaks before they have discovered the “something else,” and if they will then have succeeded in rendering the League of Nations impotent, it may be or it may not be that civilization itself will be wiped out, but it is absolutely certain that God and history will hold them responsible. We do not like Mr. Pepper to be among those who have deliberately assumed that risk.

But if Mr. Pepper can get his colleagues in the senate to accept the position that the United States will “gladly join” any conceivable movement of the nations to find a substitute for war, and then can get the rest of the world to accept it in place of the program that united Christendom offered and the United States rejected, good luck to him! He has something of a task before him.

In the meantime The Living Church is among those who are desperately in earnest, and we call upon the religious world to back us up in our demand: Accept the League of Nations or create something superior to it! To fail to do this is to vote ardently for the “next war.”

The League of Nations, established in 1920 by the Paris Peace Conference that ended World War I, was the first intergovernmental organization devoted to preserving world peace. The league was successful in settling a number of border disputes, severely limiting international traffic in opium and sex slaves, and passing protocols against the use of poison gas. However, it proved ineffective in responding to the rapid and aggressive militarization of what became the Axis powers in World War II.

Though the league had emerged from the vision of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the Republican-dominated U.S. Senate voted not to join in 1919. The lack of American participation is widely seen as a major factor in the league’s failure to prevent the Second World War.

George W. Pepper (1867-1961) was a prominent Philadelphia lawyer and Republican senator from Pennsylvania from 1922 to 1927, as well as one of the most significant Episcopal lay leaders of his time. He served on various national church boards and as a longtime deputy to General Convention, and wrote several books of devotion and church history. Pepper shared the isolationism of his Republican colleagues, and his proposals for a “non-coercive” league never gained serious traction.

Only one of the three candidates in the 1924 presidential election, John W. Davis of West Virginia, was a supporter of the league, and it did not emerge as a major campaign issue. Calvin Coolidge won the election in a landslide.

The League of Nations formally dissolved in 1946 to make way for a new, more vigorous organization with similar aims and the added benefit of full American endorsement—the United Nations.


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