The new League of Nations held its first General Assembly in Geneva in November, 1920. My great uncle Loring Christie was there as part of the Canadian delegation, and wrote about it in letters to his parents. Below are some excerpts, written in December, 1920.
Loring mentions the absence of the Americans; but it’s interesting to note that the concept of the League of Nations was championed by the US President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson tried to convince his country of the value of joining the League, but was voted down in the Senate.
I am writing this in the Assembly Hall & I hope you will forgive the pencil. The speeches are not very inspiring this morning and I seize the moment to send love & Christmas greetings …
The Assembly has now been going since Nov. 15; people are getting fed up & tired of each other; there is a general determination to bring the thing to an end, and I think it certain that we shall be through by the end of next week i.e. the 17th or 18th. I shall be heartily glad.
It is an interesting meeting in many ways though it has no outstanding figures like the Peace Conference had. There are many good men but none of the very first rank. Still the way in which the session has worked gives fairly good ground for hope. Simply as a machine it is going, and that is a significant fact, for public institutions, once they get going, have an inertia that carries them a long way in itself. What is produced by the machine is another matter and depends upon what people want it to produce.
Canada has taken a prominent place through Sir George Foster, Mr. Doherty & Mr. Rowell. The United States not being here we have had to carry the burden of representing the North American view point. I do not think any delegation whatever has contributed more to the best work of the Assembly than the Canadian. Our men by training and experience show up with the best and far outrank the great majority.
I am so sorry I did not get off more letters from Geneva. It was not that the work was so hard; it was simply continuously confining - an unending succession of Assembly & committee meetings. I shall not attempt to prophesy about the League. It has a terribly hard task to justify itself; there is so much bad will between nations, and without good will on the part of the peoples no machinery or governmental organization can do much. The results of this meeting give some small ground for hope, but it will be a long slow growth before the League takes a really effective place, if it ever does, in the governance of mankind.
Loring observes that without “good will on the part of the peoples”, the machinery of a governing institution is ineffective. We can certainly apply this observation to our current contentious Canadian political culture, in which parties would rather oppose one another than co-operate. This problem is even worse in the US at the moment. As in the case of the League of Nations, we can have excellent democratic institutions in place, but they aren’t enough. We still all have to be willing to get along.