Why the League Limps, January 19, 1922


Why the League Limps

By Jane Addams

A MEETING to consider the desperate emergency created by the Russian famine was called in Geneva, August 15, 1921, under the joint auspices of the International Red Cross and the League of Red Cross Societies to which our Woman's International League was able to send a representative almost directly from our Congress in Vienna.

There was every possibility for using the dire situation in Russia for political ends, both by the Soviet Government and by those offering relief. On the other hand, there was a chance that these millions of starving people, simply because their need was so colossal that any other agency would be [pitifully] inadequate, would receive help directly from many governments united in an international mission of [goodwill]. It was a situation which might turn men's minds from war and from a disastrous peace to great and simple human issues; in such an enterprise the governments would "realize the failure of national coercive power for indispensable ends like food for the people," and would come to a cooperation born of the failure of force.

Dr. Fridjof Nansen, appointed high commissioner at the Red Cross meeting in August, after a survey of the Russian famine regions, returned to Geneva for the opening of the assembly on September 5, in which he represented Norway, with a preliminary report of Russian conditions. He made a noble plea, which I was privileged to hear, that the delegates in the assembly should urge upon their governments national loans which should be adequate to furnish the gigantic sums necessary to relieve twenty-five million starving people.


As I listened to this touching appeal on behalf of the helpless I was stirred to a new hope for the League. I believed that, although it may take years to popularize the principles of international cooperation, it is fair to remember that citizens of all the nations have already received much instruction in world-religions. To feed the hungry on an international scale might result not only in saving the League, but in that world-wide religious revival which, in spite of many predictions during and since the war, had as yet failed to come. It was evident in the meeting of the Assembly that Dr. Nansen had the powerful backing of the British delegates as well as others, and it was, therefore, a matter for unexpected as well as for bitter disappointment when his plea was finally denied. This denial was made at the very moment when the Russian peasants, in the center of the famine district, piously abstained from eating the seed grain and said to each other as they scattered it over the ground for their crop of "winter wheat," "We must sow the grain although we shall not live to see it sprout."

Did the delegates in the Assembly still retain the national grievances and animosities so paramount when the League of Nations was organized in Paris or were they dominated by a fear and hatred of Bolshevism and a panic lest the feeding of Russian peasants should in some wise aid the purposes of [Lenin's] government? Again I reflected that these men of the Assembly, as other men, were still held apart by hatred and fear, which could only be quenched by motives lying deeper than those responsible for nationalistic estrangements.

When the food challenge, put up so fairly and squarely to the Assembly of the League of Nations, received a negative vote the action revived the qualms and doubts many of us had unwillingly entertained during the first year of the League's existence. We had felt at times as if the governments must develop a new set of motives and of habits, certainly a new personnel, before they would be able to create a genuine international body. It was as if the governmental representatives were fumbling awkwardly at a new task for which their previous training in international relations had absolutely unfitted them.


In a book entitled "International Government," put out by the Fabian Society, its author, Leonard Woolf, demonstrates the super-caution governments traditionally exhibit in regard to all foreign relationships, even when under the pressure of great human needs. The illustrations I remember most distinctly were the "International Diplomatic Conferences: following epidemics of cholera in Europe between 1851 and 1892. Five times these conferences, convened in haste and dread, adjourned without action, largely because each nation was afraid to delegate any power to another, lest national sovereignty be impaired. The last European epidemic of cholera broke out in 1892. Even then national prestige and other abstractions dear to the heart of the diplomat confined the quarantine regulations, signed by thirteen states, to ships passing through the Suez Canal, the governments hoping thus to provide a barrier against disease at the point where the streams of Pilgrim traffic and Asiatic trading crossed each other.

Mr. Woolf points out that if the state had any connection with the people, it was certainly of vital interest that cholera should not be allowed to spread into Europe; but that these genuine human interests were sacrificed to a so-called foreign policy, to "a reputation for finesse and diplomatic adroitness, confined to a tiny circle of government diplomats." In the meantime the pragmatic old world had gone on its way, and because there was developing a new sense of responsibility for public health, scientists and doctors from many nations had become organized into International Associations. In fact, there were so many of these that a "Permanent International Commission of the International Congresses of Medicine" was finally established. Such organizations were doing all sorts of things about cholera, while the governments under which they lived were afraid to act together because each so highly prized its national sovereignty.


Does something of this spirit, still surviving, inevitably tend to inhibit action among the representatives of the nations first collected under the auspices of the League of Nations, and will the League ever be able to depend upon [page 2] nationalism even multiplied by forty-eight or sixty? Must not the League evoke a human motive transcending and yet embracing all particularist nationalisms, before it can function with validity?

To evoke these universal motives should have been all the easier in that first year after the war, because during the world war, literally millions of people had stumbled into a situation where "those great cloud banks of ancestral blindness weighing down upon human nature" seemed to have lifted for a moment and they became conscious of an unexpected sense of relief, as if they had returned to a state of primitive well-being. The old tribal sense of solidarity, of belonging to the whole, was enormously revived by the war when the strain of a common danger brought the members, not only of one nation, but of many nations, into a new realization of solidarity and of a primitive interdependence. In the various armies and later among the civilian populations, two of men's earliest instincts which had existed in age-long companionship became widely operative; the first might be called security from attack, the second security from starvation. Both of them originated in tribal habits and the two motives are still present in some form in all governments.


Throughout the war the first instinct was utilized to its fullest possibility by every device of propaganda when one nation after another was mobilizing for "purely defensive war." The second, which might be called security from starvation became the foundation of the great organizations for feeding the armies and for conserving and distributing food supplies among civilian populations. The suggestion was inevitable that if the first could so dominate the world that ten million young men were ready to spend their lives in its assertion, surely something might be done with the second, also on an international scale, to remake destroyed civilization.

Throughout their period of service in the army, a multitude of young men experienced a primitive relief and healing because they had lost that sense of separateness, which many of them must have cordially detested, the consciousness that they were living differently from the mass of their fellows. As he came home, one returned soldier after another trying to explain why he found it hard to settle back into his previous life, expressed more or less coherently that he missed the sense of comradeship, of belonging to a mass of men. Doubtless the moment of attack, of danger shared in such wish that the life of each man was absolutely dependent upon his comrade's courage and steadfastness, were the moments of his highest consciousness of solidarity, but on the other hand he must have caught an expression of it at other times.

The soldier knew that as a mere incident to his great cause he was being fed and billeted, and the sharing of such fare as the army afforded in simple comradeship, doubtless also gave him a sense of unity. Although the returned men did not talk very freely of their experiences, one gradually confirmed what the newspapers and magazines were then reporting, that the returned soldiers were restless and unhappy. I remember one Sunday afternoon when Hull-House gave a reception to the members of the Hull-House Band, who, with their leader, had been the nucleus of the 149th Field Artillery Band, serving in France and later in [Koblenz], that the young men, obviously glad to be at home, were yet curiously ill-adjusted to the old conditions. They doubtless missed the enthusiasm of mass action, the unquestioning comradeship of identical aims which the war experiences had brought them.


Throughout the war something of the same enthusiasm had come to be developed in regard to feeding the world. It also became unnatural for an individual to stand outside of the [widespread] effort to avert starvation. He was overwhelmed with a sense of [maladjustment], of positive wrongdoing if he stressed at that moment the slowly acquired and substitute virtue of self support, and he even found it difficult to urge the familiar excuse of family obligations, which had so long a time been considered adequate.

This combination of [subconscious] memories and a keen realization of present day needs overwhelmed many civilians when the grim necessity of feeding millions of soldiers and of relieving the bitter hunger of entire populations in remote countries, was constantly with them. The necessity for rationing stirred that comradeship which is expressed by a common table, and also healed a galling consciousness on the part of many people that they were consuming too much while fellow creatures were starving.

Did soldiers and civilians alike roll off a burden of conscious difference endured from ancestral days, even from simian groups which preceded the human tribes? In their earlier days men so lived that each member of the tribe shared such safety and food as were possible to the whole. Does the sense of burden endured since imply that in the break-up of the tribe and of the patriarchal family, human nature has lost something essential to its happiness? The great religious teachers may have attempted to restore it when they have preached the doctrine of sharing the life of the meanest and of renouncing all until the man at the bottom is fed.


For the moment, at least, two of the old tribal virtues were in the ascendancy and the fascination of exercising them was expressed equally by the Red Cross worker who felt as if she "had never really lived before" and actually dreaded to resume her [prewar] existence, and the returned soldier who had discovered such a genuine comradeship that he pronounced the old college esprit de corps tame by contrast.

Human nature, in spite of its marvelous adaptability, has never quite fitted its back to the moral strain involved in the knowledge that fellow creatures are starving. In one generation this strain subsides to an uneasy sense of moral discomfort, in another rises to a consciousness of moral obliquity; it has lain at the basis of many religious communities and social experiments, and in our own generation is finding extreme expression in governmental communism. In the face of the widespread famine, following the devastation of war, it was inevitable that those political and social institutions which prevented the adequate production and distribution of food should be sharply challenged. [page 3] Hungry men asked themselves why such a situation should exist, when the world was capable of producing a sufficient food supply. We forgot not only that the world itself had been profoundly modified by the war, but that the minds which appraise it had also been repolarized as they were forced to look at life from the point of view of primitive human needs.


To different groups of men all over the world, therefore, the time had apparently now come to make certain that all human creatures should be insured against death by starvation. They did not so much follow the religious command as a primitive instinct to feed the hungry, although in a sense these economic experiments of our time are but the counterpart of the religious experiments of another age.

During the first months of so-called peace when everywhere in Europe the advantage shifted from the industrial town to the food-producing country, it seemed reasonable to believe that the existing governments, from their war experiences in the increased production and distribution of foods, might use the training of war to meet the great underlying demand reasonably and quickly. In point of fact, during the first year after the war, five European cabinets fell, due largely to the grinding poverty resulting from the prolonged war. Two of these governments fell avowedly over the sudden rise in the price of bread which had been subsidized and sold at a fraction of its cost.

The demand for food was recognized and acknowledged as in a great measure valid, but it was being met inadequately and in [piecemeal] fashion while a much needed change in the world's affairs threatened to occur, not under the direction of long established governments, but under the leadership of men driven desperate by hunger. As the war had demonstrated how much stronger is the instinct of self-defense than any motives for a purely private good, so one dreamed that the period of commercial depression following the war might make clear the necessity for an appeal to the much wider and profounder instinct responsible for conserving human life.

It is obvious that these demands could only be met adequately if the situation were treated on an international basis, the nations working together whole-heartedly to [fulfill] a world obligation.