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Wilson presents draft covenant for League of Nations

In a plenary session of the Versailles peace conference on this day in 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson presents the draft of the covenant for the League of Nations prepared by a League commission that had been established two weeks earlier.

The commission, which was set up on January 25 and had its first meeting on February 4, had tackled the formidable task of laying down the specific tenets of Wilson’s ambitious but nebulous vision—expressed in his famous Fourteen Points—of an international organization that would regulate future conflicts between nations and preserve world peace. At its start, the commission included two representatives from each of the Big Five nations (Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the United States); nine more representatives were eventually added from the other countries present at the peace conference.

Tensions flared during the commission’s deliberations, particularly over the issues of general disarmament and the establishment of an international military force to give the League the power to enforce its principles. The French argued strongly in favor of both; the U.S. and Britain disagreed, suspicious of continued French aggression against Germany and unwilling to cede control of their own military operations to the League.

Despite these difficulties, Wilson was able to present the commission’s draft in less than two weeks. In it, the commission had outlined all aspects of the League, including its administration: a general assembly, a secretariat and an executive council. There would be no League army and no mandate for disarmament—France had lost on these points. The French had held fast, however, in their insistence that Germany not be invited to join the League right away; this would later force a frustrated Germany to agree, in the Treaty of Versailles, to the formation of an organization that it could not join. (Germany joined the League in 1926; in 1933, after the rise to power of the National Socialist or Nazi Party, it withdrew.)

With a few modifications, the covenant was approved in another plenary session of the conference on April 28. Many terrible things have come out of this war, Wilson had said as he presented the draft of the League covenant, but some very beautiful things have come out of it. In Wilson’s idealistic vision, the League of Nations was intended to be the most beautiful of these things, but in practice it failed to live up to expectations. For one thing, the Treaty of Versailles was never ratified by the U.S. Senate, largely because of opposition to the League covenant’s Article X, which required that all League members preserve the territorial independence of all other members and commit to joint military action, when necessary, in order to do this.

The absence of the U.S. in the League of Nations, as well as the covenant’s requirement that all League decisions be unanimous, greatly detracted from the organization’s efficacy, and within two decades, the world would again be at war. Ultimately, the League’s greatest legacy would not be its ability to keep the peace, but the groundwork it laid for another international organization: the United Nations, which would borrow some of the League’s organizational principles and, perhaps more importantly, learn from its mistakes.

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