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Ethiopia: Lesson in War

This is a bad season for those who still believe that international agreements, among nations constituted as at present, can prevent war. Let us look for a moment at the Italian-Ethiopian situation as an example.

Italy and Ethiopia are both members in good standing of the League of Nations. As such they have made a solemn covenant to settle their disputes peaceably and to join in sanctions against any nation that declines to submit to such peaceable adjustment. Disputes have recently arisen between them—relatively minor disputes concerning border raids and the execution of commercial concessions. Conciliation of these disputes is now progressing through the regular League machinery. Yet nobody doubts that Italy intends to make war on Ethiopia and, if she can, establish a protectorate over it by force, no matter what happens around the council table. Il Duce is waiting only for September and the end of the rainy season, to begin his campaign. He repeatedly announces to the Italian people that conquest is his intention. More than 100,000 men have left Italy for the scene of action; by September 225,000 will be there, equipped with the most modern war machinery and devices, including an acid to spread on the ground and burn the unshod feet of their enemies.

Great Britain, having interests in Ethiopia that she wants to protect—the sources of the Nile, which waters Sudanese cotton, are there—has been eager to settle the dispute short of the Italian demands. British statesmen did not rely on the League machinery and the processes of justice. That would be too simple-minded. Instead they offered abargain. Ethiopia, they suggested, would grant concessions to Italy for cotton and coffee plantations and for a railway across her territory linking the separated Italian colonies in East Africa. In return, they would cede to Ethiopia a strip of British Somaliland to give her access to Zeila, on the Gulf of Aden. Mussolini haughtily rejected this bargain, thus giving further proof of his intent to fight and conquer. And, when the news came out in London, indignant M.P.’s asked by what right the diplomats offered to give away British territory to anybody.

The question then arose: what would Great Britain do when Italy violated her solemn covenant? Mussolini had threatened to withdraw from the League if it tried to thwart him, just as Japan did after her rape of Manchuria. But that would not absolve the League members of their obligation to apply sanctions. Public sentiment in favor of the League and its means of compelling peace had just been overwhelmingly demonstrated by a popular ballot in England. The League could stop this war easily—as it could not stop Japan in Asia—by refusing to sell to Italy and cutting off her communications with East Africa. In fact, the British navy could do it. But this, like any application of sanctions, would amount to war against Italy. It would throw Mussolini into the arms of Hitler. And the Western Powers are depending—rather precariously, it would seem—upon Il Duce to protect Austria against the penetration of the Nazis.

So Great Britain could not decide her future course of action on the basis of simple duty as a member of the League. She had first to find out whether France would keep her promise. If the two nations presented a solid front, Mussolini might yield before it was too late. But France apparently cast her lot with Italy in this matter. She had been counting on firm British help against further arming by Hitlerized Germany. She had so interpreted Britain’s promise at Stresa. Meanwhile the British statesmen had gone off alone and made an agreement with Hitler allowing him to increase his navy, once again in violation of the Versailles Treaty. The French believed that this meant Great Britain was an unreliable ally, that, in fact, she might be preparing to throw over the League altogether and remain neutral in case Hitler carried out his well known plan to conquer territory on his Eastern frontier. France consequently preferred to strengthen her ties with Italy. She will apparently let Italy violate her promise to the League in return for Italy’s promise to help her in the event of trouble in Europe. She will do this because Germany violated her promise to the League and to the victorious allies, with the consent of Great Britain, granted in violation of her promise at Stresa. If France does this, however, she will incur a heavy moral loss. The League, broken down by its failure to stop Japan, and virtually killed by the defection of Germany, will need only to be buried if it fails in this new and clearest of cases. And France has been firm in her support of the League and its logic as a protection of the Versailles status in Europe.

Italy, like Japan, is morally bound not only by the League Covenant but by her signature on the Kellogg-Briand Pact, by which she promised never to make aggressive war on anybody. That great achievement in the cause of perpetual peace has always been considered little more than a polite gesture by practical statesmen, because nobody knew what, if anything, would happen if it were violated. Ethiopia, however, grasping at straws in her extremity, sent an appeal to Washington and invoked the pact. Secretary Hull lived up to the amenities by expressing confidence that Italy would keep her promise, and that the League would settle the dispute. Almost at the same time, the Department of State warned American citizens to leave Ethiopia.

One explanation of this failure of peace machinery is good, so far as it goes. The nations that are satisfied with the territory they have conquered in the past, nations like France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States, will honestly try to keep the peace—on the basis of the status quo. The nations that are still unsatisfied with the dimensions of their empires, nations like Germany, Japan and Italy, will press forward to gain territory, and will fight for it if they cannot get it peaceably, promises or no promises. The satisfied nations are likely to fight to prevent this outcome, promises or no promises, when the unsatisfied nations step on their toes. Japan and Germany have already cynically repudiated the comity of nations, and Italy is about to do so. The complications arising from this situation continually threaten a general conflict, from one source or another.

If one stopped with this analysis, the remedy would seem clear. It is to devise a way of satisfying the unsatisfied without involving the world in war. Let Japan have China. Let Italy have Ethiopia. Rearrange the map of Central Europe in the interest of Germany. When all nations are placated— except the weaker victims of such a process—a League of Nations would work. This seems to be the formula on the basis of which British realists are now proceeding. Mr. Brailsford’s article in this issue of The New Republic indicates that they are applying it particularly in the case of Germany. They hope for reconciliation by sanctioning renewed German strength and a revision of the admittedly unsound and impermanent settlement of 1919.

The trouble is, however, that in a world of imperialist and capitalist nations it is impossible to satisfy everybody at once. Britain’s plan cannot be carried out without a collision between Germany and France, or between Germany and Russia, to mention only two of the major possibilities. As long as the United States’ policy is oriented towards capitalist exploitation of China, we are in continual danger of a collision with Japan, as Japan pushes forward.

A capitalist nation cannot indefinitely keep its machinery going without new markets and new opportunities for investment of capital. It cannot arrange a self-compensating economy at home, after it has fully developed its own resources. This is the primary impulse towards conquest. It is naïve to place the blame on the personal wickedness of fascist dictators in Germany and Italy or a fascist militarism in Japan. For fascism is only one of thelate disguises of capitalism, in its hunger to fight and to devour.

This article originally ran in the July 17, 1935, issue of the magazine.