League of Nations Legacy

April 19, 1992

Seventy-five years ago this month, the United States entered "the Great War" and thereby entered the world. Until that moment, the nation had assiduously followed George Washington's advice in avoiding "entangling alliances," especially with the nations of Europe. But no longer. The die was cast. America's destiny as a world power, first signaled in its war with Spain a generation earlier, was not to be denied.

President Woodrow Wilson decided on U.S. involvement, after many German provocations, on the supposition that an Allied victory would make the world "safe for democracy." Naive though it seemed at the time and in all too many instances later, it was not an idle dream. Out of the Great War came the League of Nations, crippled by the U.S. non-participation that was Wilson's ultimate defeat, doomed by the vindictive armistice terms forced on Germany, finished off by the rise of Hitler. Nonetheless, the League was to be reborn, as the United Nations, only after the bitter lessons of an even more devastating conflict.

Today, democracy is indeed the government of choice throughout the globe. It has prevailed over fascism, communism and other variations of authoritarian rule on every continent. Democracy's mighty instrument, the once-mocked United Nations, is doing the work Wilson intended for the League in Iraq, Libya, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Lebanon and a host of other trouble spots.

At this moment, three-quarters of a century ago, the American people were rallying behind the decision for war in a way that was to remake their society. Doughboys singing "Over There" and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" went off to die on the fields of France. Tens of thousands of people moved from farm to factory, there to provide the sinews for a war machine that in remarkably short time turned the tide of battle.

Only the Civil War, up to that time, had wrought such changes. Not until there was a World War II, which led to the designation of the 1914-1918 conflict as World War I, was society to be remade again. Not until World War II was the United States intellectually prepared to assume the global burdens made explicit today in descriptions of this country as "the last great superpower."

Americans would be mistaken to take that phrase literally. The basic goal of the League and the United Nations has always been collective action. Economic reality, if nothing else, should make this country more willing than ever to embrace that concept. There could be no world security after the U.S. opted out of the League. There was no world security so long as the U.S. and the Soviet Union were foes in the Security Council.

If the world is really more safe for democracy than before, it is because the great nations are finally united behind the doctrine of collective action. Wilson would be pleased. The legacy of America's first foreign entanglement is with us today and will be with us for many times 75 years.

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