Parcelled Out

Ferdinand Mount

  • BuyThe Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire by Susan Pedersen
    Oxford, 571 pp, £22.99, June 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 957048 5

I have often thought of writing a history of own goals. It would try to identify the factors common to the great boomerangs of the past: the conceit that mistakes itself for cunning, the refusal to consider possible ricochets and reverberations, the baffled indignation when you see the ball hit the back of your own net. A delicious own goal was scored recently by the Labour MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the party leadership in the hope that he would draw off left-wing votes from the opponents of the candidate they actually wanted – which he did, and how!

The most epoch-making own goal I can think of was scored by the German high command when it conveyed Lenin back to Russia in that sealed train. In the Watergate affair, Richard Nixon scored not one but two own goals: first, by organising a burglary which could produce only minimal gain for the Republicans if it worked but would destroy him if it went wrong; then by secretly recording his conversations in the White House in the hope of storing up material to use against his opponents but in fact only providing evidence of his own malfeasance. Nixon belongs to a type well known in horse-racing, who would actually prefer to win a race by crooked means. He was, in that useful phrase, so sharp he cut himself.

The saddest of all the own goals that come to mind is that scored by the 23 US senators who voted against the League of Nations Treaty on 19 March 1920, when they were passionately in favour of its passing. To be fair to them, they voted No on the instructions of Woodrow Wilson, who could not bear that his beloved treaty should be sullied by any amendment, so the own goal must be credited to him. In popular memory, the defeat of the treaty has been blamed on the bloc of isolationist senators led by Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and William E. Borah of Idaho. But these Irreconcilables, as they were called, formed only a minority in the Senate, even one narrowly controlled by the Republicans. The final vote was 49 for the treaty as amended and 35 against. So Wilson could have had the two-thirds majority he needed, if his 23 supporters had switched sides or even abstained.

All Wilson’s wisest advisers urged him to support a Yes vote. Herbert Hoover told him that the reservations did not ‘imperil the great principles of the League of Nations to prevent war’. Bernard Baruch implored him to accept that ‘half a loaf is better than no bread.’ In any case, a future Democratic Congress could remove any irksome imperfections in the text.

Already in wretched health, Wilson had crossed the country in one of the most moving whistlestop tours in presidential history to drum up support for the treaty. His speeches promising not to betray the doughboys he had sent to France left his audience in tears. He spoke to enormous crowds across the American heartland – Columbus, St Louis, Kansas City, Des Moines, Omaha – then on to California, to San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, declaring memorably: ‘Sometimes people call me an idealist. Well, that is the way I know I am an American.’

On his fourth day back in the White House, he suffered a paralysing stroke. This was hushed up by his wife and doctors in much the same resourceful manner as Churchill’s strokes were to be hushed up thirty years later. The most disastrous consequence was not the physical disabling but the hardening of his stubbornness and his vanity. He refused to listen to anyone. The Senate would pass his treaty or it would pass no treaty at all. Senator Frank Brandegee of Connecticut declared: ‘The president has strangled his own child.’

The flood of idealism that Wilson had unleashed dried up overnight. The enormous hope of yoking the exceptional destiny of the United States to the cause of world peace and democracy was postponed for a generation. The League of Nations that Wilson left behind was a bit like Richard III: ‘deformed, unfinished, sent before my time/ Into this breathing world, scarce half made up’. No Russia, in the throes of revolution and civil war. No Germany, shattered and in disgrace, stripped of its colonies and groaning under the burden of reparations to the Allies. And now no America, the play without its lead character and driving moral force.

For the British elite, by contrast, the prospect did not seem so bad; it might be a fresh opportunity to remake the world rather than something to be dreaded. As Lord Milner, the epitome of the higher imperialism, put it in August 1919, ‘We must try to extend the Pax Britannica into a Pax Mundi.’ The British were not alone in feeling like this, for, as Susan Pedersen points out in her magnificent study, the absentees turned the League of Nations into ‘a League of Empires’, its proceedings dominated by Britain and France, but with a hefty input from other colonial powers – Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal. Not so secretly, some of these nations hoped that, contrary to the earlier prospectus, the League would in practice make the world safe for imperialism, the last thing Wilson himself would have wished.

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