This Day In History: January 25

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On January 25, 1919, in Paris, delegates to the peace conference formally approve the establishment of a commission on the League of Nations.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson insisted on chairing the commission—for him, the establishment of the League lay squarely at the center of the peace negotiations. He was supported by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Though France’s Georges Clemenceau was more skeptical, believing the peace with Germany to be the more important goal, he went along with his American and British colleagues, refusing to let France be seen as an obstacle to the League’s formation. The commission was originally made up of two representatives from each of the Big Five nations—France, the British empire, Italy, Japan and the United States. Later, after smaller nations such as Belgium protested, they were granted the right to nominate additional representatives, first five and eventually nine.

The first meeting of the commission was held on February 3. Tensions arose almost immediately over French attempts to make the League more capable of strong enforcement of its principles. They pushed for the strict disarmament of all nations, with broad powers of inspection given to the League, and the establishment of an international military force comprised of League members. The British and the American delegations suspected this was just another way for the French to achieve their goal of a permanent armed coalition against their most hated enemy, Germany. Politically, as well, the French program was an impossible alternative, as neither the British Parliament nor the U.S. Congress was prepared to give up the authority to decide when and where their country’s armed forced would be deployed. At one point, rumors flew that Wilson was set to abandon negotiations altogether. Still, the commission persevered, and a comprehensive draft was ready by February 14.

This draft outlined all aspects of the League, including its administration: a general assembly, a secretariat and an executive council. There would be, contrary to French demands, no League army and no mandate for disarmament. To prevent the smaller nations from banding together to outvote the bigger ones, there was a provision that the majority of League decisions had to be unanimous, a requirement that was later pointed to as an important cause of the organization’s ineffectiveness.

Finally, Germany would not be invited to join the League right away; France was strict on this point and its allies gave way without much of a struggle. This would put Germany in the frustrating position, later on, of agreeing in the Treaty of Versailles to the formation of an organization that it could not join.