The Times' leading article on the 11th of December, 1939.


The Assembly of the League of Nations meets to-day in circumstances of unprecedented gravity, violence, and confusion. Two great nations are indulging in an orgy of predatory aggression. One of them did at least resign its membership of the League before it embarked on its career of treaty-breaking. The other, by a strange paradox, provided a President for the Council on the last occasion when it met; and, the normal procedure of the League would make its representative preside over the opening session of the Assembly which is called to-day to judge his own country's unprovoked invasion of Finland. In the meantime the largest measure of practical help so far dispatched to the victim of aggression comes from a country which has, like Germany, also given notice of its withdrawal from the League, and, which incidentally was the first to receive the full measure of international sanctions, as a result of its own aggressive excursion into Ethiopia; and the Italian aeroplanes are said to have refuelled in Germany on their way to Finland. With Japan also out of the League, Great Britain, France, and Russia are the only three Great Powers within it; and one of the few definite proposals before the present meeting is to expel Russia. If, however, only two Great Powers are to be left in the League, it means at any rate that the two States which genuinely have at heart the interests of the smaller countries are left with them to face the latest challenge to the League's authority. The delegate of Finland is expected to make the appeal of his country to the Assembly to-day; but it has already been succinctly stated by his Prime Minister when he said last week, "If Finland should perish it would be because there is not, between the civilized nations, the necessary solidarity which would protect the weak from violence."

The question of applying economic sanctions to Russia is certain to be brought up in one way or another if not as a formal proposal, at least for informal discussion. It is not expected to find very general support, for the sound reason that the worst policy the League could adopt would be to embark on measures which in its attenuated state it is not capable of making effective. The geographical extent of the Soviet Union and the variety of its resources make it less vulnerable than most countries to the effects of an economic blockade; and, in so far as impediments were created, the effect would probably be a diversion of raw materials to Germany—which, by its own acts of aggression, by example and by compact, has encouraged and facilitated the predatory tendencies of the Soviet. Moreover, two of the countries whose severance of trade relations with Russia would impose the greatest privations—the United States and Japan are outside the League. Economic sanctions as ordained by Article XVI do not therefore seem to be suited to this particular case. Nor is their imposition any longer regarded as obligatory by the vast majority of the members of the League—who still, let it be remembered, number nearly fifty. At the last Assembly (in 1936) one country after another formally declared that it no longer regarded the obligatory character of Article XVI as binding upon itself—and it is another paradox to recall that one of the three or four States which protested most vigorously against this weakening of the punitive character of Article XVI was Soviet Russia. The British Government in any case made its own position abundantly clear. It declared that it accepted no unconditional obligation to take measure under the Sanctions Article, because the circumstances in which the question might arise could not possibly be determined in advance. Each case would have to be considered on its merits. No member of the League, however—so the British delegate maintained—is entitled to adopt an attitude of indifference towards an arbitrary resort to war, which remains a matter of concern to the whole League. There is therefore a general obligation to consider in consultation with other members whether, and, if so, how far, it is possible in any given case to apply the measures contemplated by Article XVI. Each member State would be its own judge to what extent its own position would allow it to participate in any measures which might be proposed, and in doing so would no doubt be influenced by the extent to which other members were prepared to take action.

This last stipulation was of course formulated at a time when members of the League were at peace, and on the supposition that the measures which might he taken would be economic and would fall short of war. The present position is unprecedented in that two of the leading countries taking part in the discussion are already in a state of war. They are therefore clearly in a different position from the other Government representatives with whom they are deliberating. They are not conditioned, as they would be in time of peace, by the degree of readiness shown by the other States to formulate and take part in a common policy. The only step upon which the members now assembled at Geneva are likely to agree—and even here there are likely to be dissenters—is that of expelling the Soviet Union from membership of the League. A motion to this effect is understood to be in the mind of the Latin American States, whose detachment must add force to the moral judgment involved. But a resolution to this effect, which would no doubt have the support of the British delegation, would be received with derision in Moscow and would of course add neither to the difficulties of the Soviet nor to the security of Finland. It would clearly be the ideal course if every member remaining in the League were to decide unanimously and simultaneously to take up arms together if any one of their number were attacked by either Germany or Russia or by any other State. The present war would come swiftly to an end and the right of small nations to live their own lives would be abundantly and finally vindicated.

That, however, is an ideal of League action which is most unlikely to be reached. There are small countries whose position is so remote that they have no incentive of self-interest; there are others who are so close that the first blast of retaliatory fury would burst upon their heads; there are others again who have grievances against those with whom they would be expected to be comrades in arms. But a special responsibility rests upon the two States who are most powerful, who are within striking distance of the aggressors, who are deeply concerned for the survival of the small nations, who have proclaimed themselves the champions of their independence, and who are already in a state of war. Great Britain and France have undertaken so large a task in fighting aggression already that it would clearly be unwise for them to dissipate their efforts to such an extent as to interfere with their main strategic plan.

It would be folly to go to war now with a country which—though mere size is not strength—stretches from the Baltic to the Bering Sea. But Russia has not declared war upon Finland—is not, by her own account, at war with her at all. There is much therefore, short of declaring war, that can and must be done by other countries to help Finland in her need. So magnificently are the Finns fighting that only a small diversion of British and French resources should ensure their triumph in the air, and consequently their triumph in defence. If Finland is to be saved, she must be saved now.

The report and resolution adopted by the Assembly of the League of Nations, Dec. 14, 1939.

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