The interwar World Court (officially called the Permanent Court of International Justice) was the judicial arm of the League of Nations, just as the present-day International Court of Justice is the "judicial arm" of the United Nations. The earlier Court was expected both to adjudicate disputes between member-states of the League of Nations and to maintain the treaty system established at the Paris Peace Conference that concluded World War I. But for many Americans, no less than foreigners, the World Court became a symbolic battle-ground, with American membership to the Court seen as a possible point of entry into the League of Nations.
The triumph of Warren Harding in the presidential election of 1920 had apparently decidedWoodrow Wilson's "solemn referendum" against U.S. involvement with the League of Nations. Article XIV of the League Covenant had called for the "establishment of a Permanent Court of International Justice," a provision that escaped serious opposition even from those who bitterly opposed U.S. membership in the League during the campaign. Indeed, in 1920 a committee of jurists from ten countries had drafted the statute (or constitution) of this embryonic World Court, and one of the most influential participants was Elihu Root, who was prominent in the Republican Party leadership outside Congress.
The World Court was inaugurated in 1922 at The Hague, with the preeminent American international lawyer, John Bassett Moore, one of the fifteen judges. In the United States, activists divided into three groups: those (like Moore) who opposed American membership in the League of Nations but favored adherence to the World Court; those who sought adherence to the Court as the first stage to full League membership; and those who opposed the Court precisely because they saw it as a "back door" to the League. In December 1925 the Senate began full debate on adherence to the Court—the delay due more to the cautious pro-League supporters than to their opponents. Indeed it was the proponents in the Senate who followed the Harding and Calvin Coolidge administrations in framing the eight conditions governing senatorial consent to ratification and thus U.S. membership in the World Court. The affirmative vote of seventysix to seventeen in January 1926 reflected how uncontentious these conditions were: protection of the Monroe Doctrine, a senatorial veto over the president's submission of disputes to the Court; U.S. agreement to any changes in the court statute; and voting power equal to that of any of the major member-states (such as Britain, France, and Japan) in the League-based elections to the Court bench. Only one issue began contentiously but ended in unanimity: the requirement that the U.S. government have a veto over the Court's advisory jurisdiction. Such a technical matter of jurisdiction (or competence) to decide an international dispute was highly political, for only the League of Nations could request advisory opinions and thus insert itself quasi-judicially into interstate conflicts.
Although legal specialists appreciated the political importance of the Court's advisory jurisdiction, the arguments appeared abstract before the Senate vote and during the next three years when the League itself twice refused to accept this one American demand. Then in 1931, the League of Nations and World Court combined to justify the anxieties of those who supported U.S. adherence to the Court and vindicate the warnings of those who opposed membership in the League of Nations. In its advisory opinion on the "Austro-German Customs Union" the Court decided by a single vote that a proposed tariff agreement constituted the threat of an economic Anschluss (union) and was therefore subject to the veto of the League Council. With many predicting war in Europe before full-scale war broke out between Japan and China, on the eve of the 1932 presidential campaign, the Senate reaffirmed the 1926 conditions because of, rather than despite, the intervening double rejection by the League. Such was the international context in which Franklin Roosevelt famously repudiated his earlier support of U.S. membership in the League, mainly to appease the Hearst press.
Throughout the seventy-third Congress Roosevelt and his bipartisan supporters concentrated upon a New Deal whose orientation was unilateralist and nationalistic (isolationist) rather than multilateral (internationalist). Yet progressive Republicans, like Senators William Borah of Idaho and Hiram Johnson of California, on whose votes and influence Roosevelt relied, feared pro-League "Wilsonianism" in the State Department and hence dangerous foreign diversions from the domestic crisis. The midterm elections of 1934, a personal success for Roosevelt and an endorsement of the pro-New Deal ad hoc coalition, tempted Roosevelt to defer to the conservative Senate majority leader, Joseph Robinson of Arkansas, and cautiously back U.S. adherence to the Court.
Knowledgeable observers agreed that, at best, the Senate would repeat the terms of 1926; at worst, the recent Manchurian crisis and current Italian preparations for war with Ethiopia, both raising fears of League involvement, would deter the Senate altogether. Astonishingly, Roosevelt agreed with Robinson to alter the terms of adherence approved by the Senate a decade earlier, despite the objections of pro-Court Democrat Key Pittman, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. This combination of executive arrogance and foreign anxieties prevented, after three weeks of animated debate, the two-thirds majority needed for approval, despite the virtual rewriting of the resolution by the proponents to conform to the language of 1926. Commentators then, and historians later, emphasized the last-minute impact of the anti-League "propaganda barrage" from Father Charles Coughlin and the Hearst press. Rather, roll calls showed that the decisive alignments against the rewritten conditions coalesced days before the final vote on January 29, 1935. The "triumph of isolationism" registered by the defeat of the World Court owed as much to Roosevelt's misguided leadership and the reality of dangerous events abroad as to the power of home-grown American isolationism.
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