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The League of Nations starts its “conciliation machinery”

The Japanese invasion was one of the immense challenges to the peacekeeping function and general reputation of the League of Nations during the 1930s. The main task of the League was, after all, to watch over international lawfulness and to maintain a system of collective security in order to settle disputes between member states in peaceful ways. Article 10 of the Covenant highlighted their “territorial integrity and existing political independence” (Covenant of the League of Nations, Art. 10, Yale Avalon Project in Law, History and Diplomacy). Matters were further aggravated by Japan’s role as a permanent member of the League Council, the executive body of the League of Nations, which rendered the conflict a very delicate matter for the League on both internal and external levels. The Council, after all, had a special role in the settlement of conflicts and in questions “affecting the peace of the world” (Covenant of the League of Nations, Art. 4, Yale Avalon Project in Law, History and Diplomacy). During the 1920s, Article 11 had been used as a method to start the League’s attention towards disputes, stating that

“Any war or threat of war, whether immediately affecting any of the Members of the League or not, is hereby declared a matter of concern to the whole League, and the League shall take any action that may be deemed wise and effectual to safeguard the peace of nations. In case any such emergency should arise the Secretary General shall on the request of any Member of the League forthwith summon a meeting of the Council.” (Covenant of the League of Nations, Art. 11, Yale Avalon Project in Law, History and Diplomacy).

Though the peaceful denouement of conflicts through conciliation, mediation, and arbitration was the main goal of the League, the Covenant did not exclude war in case the efforts of the League failed. Furthermore, Article 16 provided the innovative tool of non-military sanctions, which however brought along the problem of how their enforcement should be arranged and guaranteed (Steiner 2005: 350-353) and only came into use in 1935 against Italy. Until the late 1920s, most disputes with the involvement of the League were, though heatedly contested, more or less minor clashes. The League engaged, among others, with disputes about the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea, the status of Vilna, Memel, and Upper Silesia, the Italian grasp of Corfu, the conflict between Greece and Bulgaria, and the British-Turkish dispute over the Mosul area. But though many of these conflicts could perhaps have been solved without the involvement of Geneva, the League provided an arena which gave a new and more flexible dimension to traditional international diplomacy with its procedures of peace-keeping, the role of the Council, the establishment of special commissions, and the parallel diplomatic actions with augmented public pressure (Steiner, 355-359).

After the Manchurian Incident, on 21 September 1931, the Chinese government made an official appeal to the League of Nations against Japanese aggression on advice of the diplomat Wellington Koo. This made the conflict formally an international issue and a task for the League’s system of collective security. Making reference to Article 11, which did not automatically entail activities from the side of the League, the Chinese representation in Geneva called the Secretary-General to bring the matter before the League’s Council and appealed to the Council to “take immediate steps to prevent the further development of a situation endangering the peace of nations” (Lytton Report: Introduction, 5). After negotiations at the League Council, which included a representative of the United States, and an ineffective Council resolution calling for a withdrawal of Japanese troops, the situation became exacerbated through the bombings of Chinchow and Tsitsihar. In December 1931, the League started what The New York Times called its “conciliation machinery” (The New York Times, 23 September 1931, and 3 February 1932). The League Council appointed a group of diplomats and experts to investigate the situation in the “Far East”. In February 1932, the Commission of Enquiry, headed by Lord Victor Bulwer-Lytton, began its travels to Japan, China and Manchuria. With reference to Art. 11 of the Covenant, the task of the Commission was to produce a report supplying the League with information, not to elaborate a final settlement.

Despite the delicacy of the task, the work of this so-called Lytton Commission was no silent affair of diplomatic secrecy. The months of debates at Geneva had fostered diplomatic and propaganda campaigns, both conflicting parties making considerable international efforts to convince the world of their respective position. This became even more pronounced after the new state of Manchukuo was proclaimed in February 1932. Heated discussions, a flow of propagandist material and international press coverage accompanied the travels of the Commission of Enquiry. This website’s film can be counted among these efforts. In the end, the Lytton Commission could not prevent further dramatic blows for the League’s peacemaking machinery. Japan was the first major power to leave the League in 1933.