Failure of the League of Nations

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"Failure of the League of Nations"

18 June 1936

Eamon de Valera

Eamon de Valera gave this speech in Dáil Éireann, shortly before he traveled to Geneva to attend the reconvened 16th Assembly of the League of Nations. Ireland had supported the league in its efforts to maintain international security, but de Valera had been very disillusioned at the league's failure to protect Abyssinia (a member) against Italian aggression. With the increasing threat of war in Europe, de Valera had become convinced that Ireland must rely on its own resources for national security.

SEE ALSO de Valera, Eamon; Politics: Independent Ireland since 1922

With regard to the League of Nations and to our policy in it, I do not know if the chair would agree if it would be appropriate at this stage to discuss the question as to whether or not we should withdraw from the League. At any rate, as far as I am concerned and as far as the government is concerned, our attitude in regard to this particular dispute is very clear. We are satisfied that this aggression occurred, and we see today that Italy has been successful in getting military supremacy in Ethiopia. I think it is equally clear that the sanctions policy of the League of Nations has failed to do what was expected of it by the founders of the League.

What we are to do in regard to the future, then, becomes a question of very great importance. As far as we are concerned, we are satisfied that the League, as it was, cannot any longer command the confidence of the ordinary people in the world. It does not command our confidence. Therefore the League of Nations, unless it is reformed, is not of advantage to us, and I do not think it would be, in its present form, of advantage to humanity in general. There were very serious obligations involved in membership of the League of Nations. If there was no doubt whatever that we would be put in positions of risk without the feeling that what we hoped to gain from the League would be secured, then I think it would be madness to continue to remain a member of it. But the probability is that the League will be changed. I think what I am saying is the feeling of most people, would be the feeling of most governments, that the League of Nations must be fundamentally changed.

The League in the past set itself an objective which clearly is not attainable in present circumstances. In my view, and it is the view I would urge upon the government as minister for external affairs if the matter had to be immediately settled, the League in future will have to set itself a humbler task, and the question of compelling other states to maintain their obligations will have to be abandoned. It is quite clear that economic sanctions alone are not sufficient and that if we are to have effective action, we must go beyond the range of mere economic sanctions and consider whether military sanctions are necessary. Anybody looking at the course of the conflict that has taken place in Ethiopia must be satisfied that, if the states really wanted to maintain the independence and integrity of Ethiopia, they should have been ready at certain stages to face the possibility of military action. It might not be military action in the first instance, but it would eventually involve military action.

Before I leave that point, perhaps I should say that I do not think nations are ready for that yet. War to prevent war is a peculiar position, and there is no doubt that, in order effectively to stop the last war, the states would have had to be ready to face even a more extended war than the war in question. You saw that there was hesitation with regard to the sanctions that would be most effective. You saw that, with regard to oil sanctions, for instance, the states were very chary about proceeding along these lines, because they were told that to do so would involve war. It is clear that if there were oil sanctions, it might have involved war, and if you are not going to meet a challenge of that sort, then you had better not make these threats or proceed along that line. It is obvious that, if the powers were really serious and were prepared to take definite measures, the closing of the Suez Canal would have been resorted to as one measure. Consequently it was obvious the League of Nations was taking half-measures which could not in the ultimate fail to be ineffective.

The question is: Are we prepared to say that the League should be reformed in the direction of imposing military sanctions if necessary? I do not think that our people would be prepared for that, and I do not think the people of any other country would be prepared either. Therefore the only practical line, it seems to me, to go upon, if the League is to be reformed, is the line of using the League in other directions, using it as a forum for the consideration of such questions as might otherwise lead to war, using it as a conciliatory machine, perhaps on occasion as an arbitration machine. But I certainly cannot see any government here that would come to the Dáil and say that we would, in our present circumstances, be prepared to enter into obligations which might necessitate our sending out expeditionary forces in order to prevent aggression somewhere else.

We are not in a position to do that, and I do not think the people in other countries are prepared to do it either. Certain countries with special interests abroad may be prepared for that because, in the main, their interests would best be served by it; but I do not think that the small nations are prepared for it or should be prepared for it; certainly our nation is not prepared for it. Consequently, if this manner comes up for consideration, our position will have to be made clear. If we are to remain members of the League, our position will have to be considered in the light of whether we feel it would be in the interests of our country to belong to the League.

The question of the present position in regard to sanctions naturally comes up for consideration. In that matter, too, I think the position is clear enough. It would be foolish not to take cognisance of the facts of the situation. If there was any possibility of sanctions being able to perform the task that remains, if they are to be continued, then there is no doubt they should have been able to perform the easier task which was set them before, and if nations were not prepared to run the risk of war in the situation that existed up to the present, I do not think there is any likelihood of their being prepared to run the same risk in regard to the situation we have to face now. We have to remember that we cannot deal with this question without meeting the other states that have agreed to a co-ordinating committee, but our attitude in any meeting of the sort would be that the League of Nations policy up to the present has failed and that the League must be reformed. As regards sanctions, it is quite clear they have failed and that the continuance of them would serve no good purpose. These, I take it, are the principal matters on which deputies wished for an expression of opinion from the government.

With regard to the position in Europe in general, deputies know as well as I do that that position is more tense and that there are greater possibilities of war in it than at any time since the conclusion of the World War. Naturally, when you see all the smaller states spending large sums of money providing for their defences, looking to their defences, it provides food for thought. Some of them in the past relied, as events have now shown, altogether too much on the strength of the League of Nations. Turning back once more to the position of Ethiopia, I have no doubt Ethiopia suffered severely through the fact that it was a member of the League, that it expected certain results and did not get them. . . .

With regard to the position generally, the small states in Europe have begun to provide for their own defences. In the case of Ethiopia there is no doubt that its association with the League of Nations, instead of helping, hindered it. In the early stages, when it became apparent that Ethiopia was about to be attacked, she had scarcely any defences to rely on and there was dangled before the faces of those responsible the hope that the League of Nations would assist. If her will not been paralysed by the idea that if she took action early the case against Italy might not be so clear and they might not get such help as they expected, I think Ethiopia at any rate would not have waited until the last moment to try to defend herself properly. So it is with the small states. The fate of Ethiopia has warned them of the danger in which they are, and most of them are doing their utmost to make good their defences.

That naturally brings us to the position at home. Any government at the present time would have seriously to consider the question of the defences of the country. Our position is particularly complicated. If we held the whole of our territory, there is no doubt whatever that our attitude would be that which is the attitude, I think of, practically every Irishman, and that is that we have no aggressive designs against any other people. We would strengthen ourselves so as to maintain our neutrality. We would strengthen ourselves so that we might resist any attempt to make use of our territory for attack upon any other nation. I think that the average person in this country wants to make war on nobody. We have no aggressive designs. We want to have our own country for ourselves, as I have said on more than one occasion, and that is the limit of our ambition. We have no imperial ambitions of any sort. But we are in this position, that some of our ports are occupied, and, although we cannot be actively committed in any way, the occupation of those ports will give, to any foreign country that may desire a pretext, an opportunity of ignoring our neutrality. Our population in the neighbourhood of those ports are in a position in which, through no fault of theirs and through no fault of the rest of the people, they may become sufferers through retaliation of this kind as a result of the occupation of those ports.

The first thing that any government here must try to secure is that no part of our territory will be occupied by any forces except the forces that are immediately responsible to the government here. I have tried to indicate on many occasions that that is our desire and that it would work out to the advantage of Britain as well as to our own advantage. I think Britain, or at any rate the average person in Britain, wants to feel that they are not going to be attacked through foreign states that might attempt to use this country as a base. We are prepared, and any government with which I have been associated has always been prepared, to give guarantees, so far as guarantees can be given, that that will not happen. We are prepared to meet the necessary expense and to make the necessary provision to see that the full strength of this nation will be used to resist any attempt by any foreign power to abuse our neutrality by using any portion of our territory as a base. If that situation were realised, then of course the government here would have a definite task. All the uncertain elements of the present situation would disappear. We would know what to expect; in the main, we would know what to provide against. But in the present uncertain position it is very difficult to have any adequate scheme of defence or to take any adequate measures which would safeguard us against the risks which we have got to face now that our territory is within reaching distance of aeroplanes from the continent and that we are liable, on account of the occupation of certain parts of our territory, to attack by any enemy of Great Britain.

As I have said, the whole position in Europe is one of uncertainty and one of menace. We want to be neutral. We are prepared to play a reasonable part in the maintenance of peace. Unfortunately, as I said on previous occasions here, we are not a great power. We have a certain amount of moral influence, and we try to exert that in favour of peace, but when we think of the Kellogg Pact and all the other indications of goodwill, if I might put it that way, that have been given in the past, we see how hopeless and how useless all those things become when one state is satisfied that it is to its advantage that those obligations and the policy embodied in them should be set aside.

DÁil Debates, vol. 62, cols. 2655–2661, available at Reprinted in Speeches and Statements by Eamon de Valera, 1917–73, edited by Maurice Moynihan (1980), pp. 273–277. Reproduced by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC, and Gill & Macmillan, Dublin.