World War I: A New World Order – Woodrow Wilson’s First Draft of the League of Nations Covenant

(The following was written by Sahr Conway-Lanz, historian in the Library’s Manuscript Division.)

Woodrow Wilson. Between 1900 and 1920. Prints and Photographs Division.

Woodrow Wilson. Between 1900 and 1920. Prints and Photographs Division.

Like many individuals around the globe, Woodrow Wilson was shocked by the outbreak of a devastating world war among European empires in 1914. As President of the United States, however, he had a unique opportunity to shape the outcome of this catastrophic conflict. He was a leading advocate for a new approach to international relations and the problem of war in which the first global political organization, the League of Nations, was to be the key mechanism for ensuring a peaceful and orderly world. Among the papers of Woodrow Wilson maintained by the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division, one can find Wilson’s first draft of the covenant of the League of Nations, the founding document of the international organization that tried but failed to tame interstate warfare.

President Wilson viewed World War I as the folly of an old style of failed diplomacy. This timeworn diplomacy had sought to balance the power of the great European states and alliances against each other while they competed for selfish imperial interests. Unable to avoid American entry into the war in April 1917, Wilson committed himself to creating a new international order with a League of Nations at its center that would peacefully manage conflicts between states, great and small and put an end to senseless warfare. The League of Nations was not his vision alone – ideas about a society or league of nations to facilitate or even enforce the peace had been discussed among Americans, Europeans and others. Nevertheless, Wilson became a driving force to establish the league as the guarantor of the post-war peace.

President Woodrow Wilson’s first written draft of the League of Nations covenant, the founding document of the new and ill-fated international organization created by the peace settlement at the conclusion of World War I. Manuscript Division.

President Woodrow Wilson’s first written draft of the League of Nations covenant, the founding document of the new and ill-fated international organization created by the peace settlement at the conclusion of World War I. Manuscript Division.

Written in the summer of 1918, this first attempt by Wilson to define the league laid out his thinking on the new world order he sought to foster. The covenant draft set as the league’s goals to ensure the political independence and territorial integrity of member states, reduce armaments and resolve interstate disputes through arbitration and mediation. To enforce these goals, the document stipulated collection action by member states to blockade, impose trade boycotts and use military means to punish transgressors. Wilson based his version on an earlier draft by his close foreign policy advisor Edward House and marked with an “H” sections of the document from House. Corrections to Wilson’s typed draft in his own hand reveal aspects of the president’s thought process as he labored on this far-reaching project.

The League of Nations is today commonly viewed as a failure. The United States never even became a member of the organization that President Wilson had worked so hard to create. The Library’s Nation’s Forum collection of recordings features a selection of audio clips from American leaders both for and against the League of Nations. In addition, the Library’s historical newspaper collections document the evolution of the covenant.

However, the league was the first international organization that was global in scope, representing an extraordinarily hopeful vision of a peaceful global community, and was an important predecessor to the United Nations and current internationally shared ideas of collective security and limits on war.

The Woodrow Wilson papers at the Library of Congress are the most extensive and significant collection of Wilson documentation found anywhere and include his White House files as well as personal and professional materials from the rest of his life.

World War I Centennial, 2017-2018: With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library of Congress is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.

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