No. 347 NAI DFA 26/94
Speech by Eamon de Valera at the League of Nations Assembly
Geneva, 2 July 1936
However it may be disguised, it can only be with a feeling of bitter humiliation that each successive speaker has during these days come to this Tribune.
Over fifty nations pledged themselves to one another in the most solemn manner each to respect the independence and to preserve the integrity of the territories of the others. One of these nations turned its back on its pledges freely given, and was adjudged almost unanimously by the remainder to have been an aggressor, and now, one by one, we have come here to confess that we can do nothing effective about it.
Over fifty nations we banded ourselves together for collective security. Over fifty nations we have now to confess publicly that we must abandon the victim to his fate.
It is a sad confession, as well as a bitter one. It is the fulfilment of the worst predictions of all who decried the League and said it could not succeed.
As has been said already, we are all of us in some measure responsible for this pitiable position, some much more responsible than others. Read the speech delivered here by the Emperor of Ethiopia. Does any delegate deny that, so far as it relates to what has happened here, there is to his knowledge truth in every line of it?
Perhaps as the representative of a small nation that has itself experience of aggression and dismemberment, the members of the Irish Delegation may be more sensitive than others to the plight of Ethiopia. But is there any small nation represented here which does not feel the truth of the warning that what is Ethiopia’s fate today may well be its own fate tomorrow, should the greed or the ambition of some powerful neighbour prompt its destruction.
MR. PRESIDENT you had indeed very good reason to warn us, at the opening of these proceedings, against the pitfalls of bitterness, scepticism, and discouragement which the present situation has spread around us. Nothing surely would be more disastrous than to abandon ourselves to despair, but is it not equally the height of folly to think that we can go on just as if nothing had happened?
Many delegates have stated the circumstances of the present position and given us an analysis of its development. The representative of Russia has stated in precise terms the kind of League we would all like to see established as a guarantor of peace, but except to say that the masses must be educated he has not shown how such a League can be built up. He has not shown how in the present conditions the masses can be led to feel any confidence that obligations, no matter how explicitly they may be undertaken on paper, will in fact be carried out when the testing time comes. How can the plain man be convinced that obligations entered into will not in the future at the prompting of selfish interest be ignored as the existing obligations have been ignored. Unless the League can inspire confidence it clearly cannot stand. Subscribing to what has been proved to be a delusion is not the way to secure confidence. If confidence is to be restored to the masses it can only be by rigidly restricting commitments to those we know can be loyally carried out which the average man can believe will be carried out. By all means let us keep before us the ultimate ideal which we desire to reach, and work as far and as fast towards it as we can, but let us contract only for that which we can in the time of test certainly perform. Let us face the fact that economic and financial sanctions can be made effective only if we are prepared to back them up by military measures. Let us face the fact that every nation may when the test comes have many good reasons for shirking the terrible responsibility of entering upon a war. Let us face the fact that not one of the fifty nations represented here is prepared to face war to preserve the principles of the League in the present dispute. For the sake of a nation in Africa, apparently no one is ready to risk now a war that would be transferred to Europe.
That is the position today, and does anyone doubt that some similar position can occur tomorrow.
Europe is obviously the danger point. If we want to be realists we will concentrate upon Europe without delay, and once our common commitments under the League are explicitly defined (and clearly these commitments do not include and cannot at this time be amended to include an obligation to go to war to maintain the principles of the League) let us, if we are thinking only of the future, set about the urgent task of preserving peace in Europe and leave aside for the moment such questions as how the Covenant should be altered to make it as a world organisation effective and universal.
The peace of Europe depends, as everybody knows, on the will of the great Powers. If the great Powers of Europe would only meet now in that Peace conference which will have to be held after Europe has once more been drenched in blood; if they would be prepared to make now in advance only a tithe of the sacrifice each of them will have to make should the war be begun, the terrible menace which threatens us all today could be warded off.
The problems that distract Europe should not be left to the soldiers to decide. They should be tackled now by the statesmen. If these problems cannot be settled by conciliation, let them be submitted to arbitration. I will be told that there are difficulties. Of course there are difficulties. There are difficulties in every direction that lies open to us, but in which direction are there the least difficulties. Are there more difficulties along the way of peaceful adjustment by conciliation or arbitration than along its alternative way of a modern war?
In 1925, when advocating in Geneva the acceptance of the Protocol for the Pacific Settlement of Disputes, a French statesman, whom I am glad to see still with us, deplored that no great conflict for which mankind had bled, and not one of the vital causes, or what were believed to be vital causes, which led to these conflicts had ever been brought before a Court of Arbitration. Is it too much to recall that statement now and to urge that the machinery provided in the Covenant should be utilised forthwith to remove obvious injustices and make the territorial and other adjustments which present conditions demand. In other words, to remove obvious causes of the war that is now threatening. It would be worth great sacrifices to bring about understanding and friendship between the great peoples of Europe. No losses could be greater than those which preparation for war and war itself entail. 'Not an inch' is out of place in a situation where war will vanquish everybody.
It has always been urged that if there had been a League of Nations in 1914 – if there had been a Council or an Assembly – where the problems and the dangers that then threatened could be discussed the Great War could not have happened. It was argued that in the absence of a League the military machines were set in motion before the statesmen could get together. The statesmen can now get together, but what are they doing? Millions are being squandered on armaments, but are the root causes of the trouble being sought out and effective steps taken to remove them? Ten years ago a Norwegian representative reminded you that you must deal in time with situations that might one day become acute. Two miles above Niagara, he said, it is possible to land, but wait until you are 100 feet from the falls and you are lost. How much more necessary is this advice now than then. How much nearer is Europe to the Falls. Will it be said, when the array of tombs which stretch from end to end of Europe have been multiplied, that there had been plenty of time to land, but that the statesmen waited too long and the soldiers took control.
If the major problems of Europe can be settled, all can be settled. If the problems of Europe are not settled, it is vain to talk in the wider terms of a world League.
The French Prime Minister has spoken of disarmament. If Europe can be persuaded to settle its present problems peacefully, the policy of a rapid reduction of armaments will for the first time get a chance, and the wealth that is being wasted in preparing instruments of destruction can be made available for improving the conditions of life of many millions of people.
Despite our judicial equality here, in matters such as European peace, the small States are powerless. As I have already said, peace is dependent upon the will of the great States. All the small States can do, if the statesmen of the greater States fail in their duty, is resolutely to determine that they will not become the tools of any great Power and that they will resist with whatever strength they may possess every attempt to force them into a war against their will.