League of Nations and Racial Equality

An interesting chapter in the book “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World” is related to Japan. Japan was on the Allied side in World War I, though it hadn’t done much fighting. The Japanese had three goals for the Paris Peace Conference after the war:

  • to get a clause on racial equality written into the covenant of the League of Nations,
  • to control the north Pacific islands (the Marshalls, the Marianas and the Carolines), and
  • to keep the German concessions in Shantung, China.

In the end, they got 2 out of their 3 aims. It says something about the major powers of the time that they didn’t get the most legitimate of their goals.

The racial equality clause was born out of the discrimination and humiliation that the Japanese faced in the West. When the Japanese made their intentions known about introducing this clause, the most vehement opposition came form Australia, which was part of the British empire delegation. Here is the British Foregin Secretary Lord Balfour about the clause:

The notion that all men were created equal was an interesting one, he found, but he did not believe it. You could scarcely say that a man in Central Africa was equal to a European.

The Japanese delegation in the Commission on the League of Nations introduced the clause as an amendment to the “religious liberty” clause. Their original version read:

The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord, as soon as possible, to all alien nationals of States members of the League equal and just treatment in every respect, making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.

This went nowhere in the Commission. However, the Japanese pressed on.

It was an issue that was very popular in Japan and very unpopular in some other places, for example, the western states of the US. Also, President Wilson wasn’t exactly an enlightened person when it came to race. An example of US conduct is that African American troops were put under French command for the Great War.

The greatest opposition, however, was from Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes who was mortified about the future of “White Australia” if the clause was accepted. He refused all compromise attempts by the US delegate Edward House. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, William Massey, agreed with Hughes. After British efforts to reach a compromise, Hughes put a condition that he might accept the racial equality clause if it had a proviso exempting national immigration policies. The Japanese balked at that.

Finally, the Japanese delegation introduced a watered-down version which simply asked for “the principle of equality of nations and just treatment of their nationals.”

Delegates from Greece, Italy, China, France and Czechoslovakia spoke in favor of the Japanese amendment to the League Covenent. The British delegation opposed it. US President Woodrow Wilson was worried that the League of Nations Covenent might not get the support of US senators from the western states if it included the racial equality provision. (Remember that the western states had put in a lot of restrictions on Japanese immigrants at the time.) He asked the Japanese to withdraw their amendment, but the Japanese insisted on a vote.

What do you think happened next? Well, the majority of the delegates voted for the Japanese amendment. But Wilson announced that the amendment could not carry because there were strong objections to it.

As a result, the Japanese threatened to not sign the peace treaty. That threat played some part in getting Japan the Shantung area that it had captured from Germany.

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


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