11/03/2015 05:36 EST | Updated 11/03/2016 05:12 EDT

My Global Journey To Discover The League Of Nations

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Leon Blum performing a speech at the League of Nations (LN) in Geneva, July 1936. (Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

My new book is about a near-forgotten organization, the League of Nations. It tells the story of how the League tried to stabilize and reform the imperial order after the chaos of the First World War. The allies had occupied the Ottoman Empire's Middle East provinces and Germany's African and Pacific colonies during that war and wanted, unsurprisingly, to keep those conquests -- but Woodrow Wilson's promise of a peace without annexations and a wave of anti-colonial protest across the globe, stood in the way.

So, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 they agreed to hold these territories under "mandate" and to accept supervision from the League of Nations. The Guardians is about what happened next.


I loved working on this book. The League turned out to be full of colourful characters and dramatic confrontations. Everyone who was anyone in the interwar years, it seems, turned up at the League headquarters in Geneva. Imperial statesmen came to defend their rule; colonial nationalists showed up to claim independence or protest repression; humanitarians urged efforts to combat slavery, or the drink trade, or child labor; a hard-drinking, hard-talking press corps made sure few secrets were kept. All that "noise" hardly calmed the world down. That turned out, in fact, to be the book's main argument. The mandates system, set up to shore up the imperial order, instead helped to bring it down.

If researching the book was fun, though, it was also challenging -- especially for a middle-aged woman with two children and a job. The League left massive archives in Geneva, and those I could get to fairly easily thanks to some sabbatical leaves with my family in Berlin. I was determined, though, to recover the voices and perspectives not just of the men who set up and ran the system, but also of the men and women in New Guinea, Rwanda, Iraq and elsewhere who lived under and often challenged mandate rule. That wasn't so easy. The records of the rebellion against South Africa's dreadful administration of South West Africa are in Windhoek; those of the Samoan civil disobedience movement in Wellington; those of the Zionist movement in Jerusalem -- I could go on.

I did the best I could, the historian on the plane, landing again and again in some remote (to me) place for a week or two of intensive archival digging. As I dug, though, I found that I was tracing the footsteps of American academics 80 years earlier.

Today, the League's mandates regime might be forgotten, but back then it was the hottest of hot topics, a subject seized upon by ambitious young international lawyers and political scientists. Columbia's George Louis Beer, Chicago's Quincy Wright, Harvard's Raymond Leslie Buell -- they were all there before me, writing Wilson's blueprints, rummaging around the League library, traveling through Syria or Cameroon, and causing a stink when they caught imperial officials doing things (like bombing Damascus, or using forced labor) they ought not to be.

Well-connected, well-funded and (of course) white, these men became part of my story. They expected, after all, to be listened to; Buell even rang up the British Governor when he docked at Dar es Salaam, expecting to be put up at Government House. Liberal internationalists all, they believed that the League could improve imperial rule. They had more trouble imagining a world without empire altogether.

But Ralph Bunche could. Six years after Buell, Bunche went to Geneva and West Africa to research a Harvard dissertation on the mandates system; years later, at the United Nations, it would be his job to plan those countries' transition to independence. Bunche wasn't a major figure in my story: he would become important in the 1940s, when the League of Nations had faded into insignificance. But I put a vignette about his early travels into the book, sort of to remind the reader of the world to come.

Here is that passage:

Excerpt from "The Guardians"

What makes it possible to see a system whole - to see, that is, the play and flow of power, but also to recognize one's own position in its deployment? W.E.B. Du Bois, the brilliant African-American philosopher and an early radical critic of the mandates system, called this capacity 'double consciousness,' attributing it to those who live at once within and aslant a dominant culture, who have the training and capacity to speak in universal terms but bear some mark, some sign of particularity or difference, that also enables them to discern how other particularisms -- whiteness, for example -- flourish in a 'universalist' disguise. Our second traveller, Ralph Bunche, was one such man. As the architect of the United Nations' Trusteeship regime, Bunche would take over the regime he criticized. In the early 1930s, however, he was simply a young albeit supremely talented academic, completing a PhD at Harvard University while teaching political science at Howard University in Washington, D.C., the pre-eminent institution of African-American higher education. Having decided to compare French administration in mandated Togo with French administration in the colony of Dahomey, in the summer of 1932 Bunche set off Paris, Geneva and West Africa. He spent some two months in Senegal, Togo and Dahomey, traveling there on a ship along with French civil servants returning after a spell of home leave.

Bunche had had some trouble settling on a dissertation topic, and it still is not clear just why he chose the one he did. He may have been influenced by the philosopher Alain Locke and the historian Rayford Logan, two other members of the brilliant coterie of African-American intellectuals then on the faculty at Howard, both of whom had written general studies of the mandates regime in the late twenties. That most influential American scholar of contemporary Africa, Raymond Leslie Buell, whom we have met in chapter eight, also pushed Bunche in this direction, for Buell, who had left Harvard in 1927 to become research director of the Foreign Policy Association, was eager to interest 'American negroes' in the mandates regime. (He had, for example, arranged funding for Locke's research trip to Geneva.) Buell lent Bunche materials, helped him to clarify his research design, and especially impressed upon him the importance of fieldwork in Africa. And while Bunche could not travel, as Buell had, as a distinguished guest (indeed, as a mixed-race scholar, he took the precaution of gathering testimonials about his bona fides from French academics before setting off), the trip was decisive, providing him with a gut-level understanding, a kind of moral optic, through which to read the mandates regime.

Bunche's dissertation, French Administration in Togoland and Dahomey, which was submitted in 1934 and won the Toppan Prize for the best dissertation in on comparative politics in the Harvard Government Department that year, was a meticulous survey of French administrative practices in two differently-governed territories. On another level, however, it was an extended engagement with the 'civilizational' justification for empire and with arguments about African 'difference' articulated -- in very different ways -- by Smuts, Lugard, and even Buell. Indeed, as Pearl T. Robinson points out, Bunche clearly wrote his dissertation with Buell's The Native Problem in Africa at his elbow, and while he remained indebted to that work for his questions and method, he came to very different conclusions. Both Buell and Bunche attempted to specify what difference League oversight made, and both concluded that it had established progressive norms and even, to a degree, induced mandate administrations to follow them. Yet, Bunche was far more outspoken about the regime's limitations. It wasn't just that he found economic policies in colonies and mandated territories alike far too exploitative (Buell had too), nor that he caught official reports misrepresenting facts (Buell had too), nor even that he thought the Mandates Commission sorely in need of powers of on-the-spot investigation, for Buell had proposed that as well. It was, rather, that he found the regime's very ideals, which Buell considered progressive and commendable, mean-spirited, out-dated and, in a word, racist.

Susan Pedersen, winner of the 2015 $75K Cundill Prize,talks about her book and the League of Nations:


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