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Did the League of Nations matter in the 1920s?

Source 4

Extract from a report to Cabinet by Lord Cecil, reporting on a visit to the United States, and describing views on the League of Nations in the USA in 1925


➜ CHAR 22/28

Simplified Transcript


I did not really talk to the Secretary of State or other US senior officials about the League because they had already decided what they thought about it. I found that the supporters of the League were in good spirits and that they believe that the League was making progress in the USA. They were anxious to tell me that we should not make comments that the League needs the USA. This alarms Americans.

The President himself is happy to do everything he can to co-operate with the League apart from joining it. Mr Hughes is a more dangerous opponent because he was originally a supporter of the League and he has now changed his mind and has to justify that. Senator Borah is more open minded and could be convinced. The trouble with Senator Borah is that he has never been out of the USA and knows nothing about foreign countries. I think overall that the US Administration is friendly towards the League and they are sending an official team to the conference on disarmament. Mr Hughes thinks we should be able to reach an agreement.

Original Transcript


I had practically no conversation with either the Secretary of State or the members of the Administration about the League, because I felt that their attitude had been definitely taken up and there was no purpose in discussing it with them. I found the adherents of the League in very good spirits, believing in spite of the Election that the League was making way in America. They all said that there was much less opposition and greater support – particularly among the churches and the women. They were most anxious that we should do nothing, and say nothing that would indicate any anxiety for the United States to come in. With remarkable unanimity they pressed upon me that every time it was said in England that the League could not get on without the United States, or even that the presence of the United states in the League was very desirable, it put back the cause of the League in America. It was interpreted there as indicating that the League was a failure, and the help of the United States was necessary in order to try and set it on its legs, and that that was precisely the thing that the American public was most afraid of.

The President himself is not thought to be fundamentally hostile to the League, and very ready to co-operate with it in every way short of joining it. Mr. Hughes is regarded as a more dangerous opponent because he was once a supporter, and has to find reasons for his change of opinion. Senator Borah, who has become Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, is also very hostile though he is regarded as somewhat more open to conviction than Mr. Hughes. The difficulty about Senator Borah is that he has never left the United States and is consequently profoundly ignorant of foreign countries. I think there is no doubt that the Administration generally is anxious to be on good terms with the League. They are going to attend officially the Conference on Traffic in Arms, and Mr. Hughes told me he thought there would be no great difficulty in arriving at an agreement on the subject, as long as our purpose did not extend beyond the control of export and publicity.

What is this source?

This is part of a report to the Cabinet written by Lord Robert Cecil in 1925. Cecil was a senior member of the British government. At the end of the First World War, he had served as the adviser on League of Nations issues to Britain's delegation at the Paris peace conference. He was also a strong supporter of the League of Nations and a member of the League of Nations Union. His report contains his observations made during a visit to the United States.

Background to this source

The League of Nations was one of Fourteen Points which were put forward by the US President Woodrow Wilson in 1918. Unfortunately for him he was unable to persuade the US Congress to join the League.

Additional information

The traditional view of US politics in the years after the First World War is one of isolationism. However, historians are now beginning to re-interpret this view because there is much evidence that the USA was engaged in world affairs even though it did not belong to the League.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember we are hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating how far the work of the League of Nations mattered in the 1920s:

Surface level: details, facts and figures

1 How is the League viewed in the USA?
2 What do the supporters of the League warn about?
3 What is the President’s attitude to the League?
4 How serious is the opposition to the League in the USA?

Deeper level: inferences and using the source as evidence

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
The League is highly regarded in the USA

The USA is isolated and not interested in world affairs

The fact that the USA is sending a delegation to the Disarmament Conference is not important

This is a valuable source for studying attitudes in the USA towards the League

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Need some help interpreting the source?

  • One of the common criticisms of the League of Nations is that the USA was not a member. As a result, many historians have dismissed the League as irrelevant. However, other historians are now questioning this view.
  • This source is the type of material being used by historians to re-interpret the role of the League. Although the USA was not in the League it is clear that the USA interacted with the League in many areas, including disarmament.
  • On the other hand, we have to be careful about reading too much from the source. The author, Robert Cecil, was a passionate supporter of the League. But in reality the detailed records of League meetings, agreements and other activities do show that the US government worked closely with the League in many areas. Lord Robert Cecil was a member of the British Cabinet but in a slightly unusual role. His position was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and that made him officially a member of the Government representing the Crown. But as the position is the only Cabinet position without a department, it is arguably a position of status but with little power.

 Source 5

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