Woodrow Wilson Papers

The Secretary of State to President Wilson 13

My Dear Mr. President: The plan of guaranty proposed for the League of Nations, which has been the subject of discussion, will find considerable objection from other Governments because, even when the principle is agreed to, there will be a wide divergence of views as to the terms of the obligation. This difference of opinion will be [Page 516] seized upon by those who are openly or secretly opposed to the League to create controversy and discord.

In addition to this there will be opposition in Congress to assuming obligations to take affirmative action along either military or economic lines. On constitutional grounds, on its effect upon the Monroe Doctrine, on jealousy as to congressional powers, &c., there will be severe criticism which will materially weaken our position with other nations and may, in view of senatorial hostility, defeat a treaty as to the League of Nations or at least render it impotent.

With these thoughts in mind and with an opposition known to exist among certain European statesmen and already manifest in Washington I take the liberty of laying before you a tentative draft of articles of guaranty which I do not believe can be successfully opposed either at home or abroad.

I do not see how any nation can refuse to subscribe to them. I do not see how any question of constitutionality can be raised as they are based essentially on powers which are confided to the Executive. They in no way raise a question as to the Monroe Doctrine. At the same time I believe that the result would be as efficacious as if there was an undertaking to take positive action against an offending nation, which is the present cause of controversy.

I am so earnestly in favor of the guaranty, which is the heart of the League of Nations, that I have endeavored to find a way to accomplish this and to remove the objections raised, which seem to me today to jeopardize the whole plan.

I shall be glad, if you desire it, to confer with you in regard to the enclosed paper14 or to receive your opinion as to the suggestions made. In any event it is my hope that you will give the paper consideration.

Faithfully yours,

Robert Lansing
[Enclosure 1]

The Constitutional Power To Provide for Coercion in a Treaty

In the institution of a League of Nations we must bear in mind the limitations imposed by the Constitution of the United States upon the Executive and the Legislative Branches of the Government in defining their respective powers.

The Constitution confers upon Congress the right to declare war. This right, I do not believe, can be delegated and it certainly cannot [Page 517] be taken away by treaty. The question arises, therefore, as to how far a provision in an agreement as to a League of Nations, which imposes on the United States the obligation to employ its military or naval forces in enforcing the terms of the agreement, would be constitutional.

It would seem that the utilization of forces, whether independent or in conjunction with other nations, would in fact by being an act of war create a state of war, which constitutionally can only be done by a declaration of Congress. To contract by treaty, to create a state of war upon certain contingencies arising would be equally tainted with unconstitutionality, and would be null and inoperative.

I do not think, therefore, that even if it was advisable, any treaty can provide for the independent or joint use of the military or naval forces of the United States to compel compliance with a treaty or to make good a guaranty made in a treaty.

The other method of international coercion is non-intercourse, especially commercial non-intercourse. Would a treaty provision to employ this method be constitutional?

As to this my mind is less clear. The Constitution in delegating powers to Congress includes the regulation of commerce. Does non-intercourse fall within the idea of regulation? Could an embargo be imposed without an act of Congress? My impression is that it can not be done without legislation and that a treaty provision agreeing in a certain event to impose an embargo against another nation would be void.

Even if Congress was willing to delegate to the Executive for a certain purpose its powers as to making war and regulating commerce, I do not think that it can constitutionally do so. It is only in the event of war that powers conferred by the Constitution on Congress can be so delegated and then only for war purposes. As a state of war would not exist at the time action was required, I do not believe that it could be done, and any provision contracting to take measures of this nature would be contrary to the Constitution and as a consequence void.

But, assuming that Congress possessed the power of delegation, I am convinced that it would not only refuse to do so but would resent such a suggestion because of the fact that both Houses have been and are extremely jealous of their rights and authority.

Viewed from the standpoints of legality and expediency it would seem necessary to find some other method than coercion in enforcing an international guaranty, or else to find some substitute for a guaranty, which would be valueless without affirmative action to support it.

I believe that such a substitute can be found.

[Page 518]
[Enclosure 2]

Suggested Draft of Articles for Discussion

The parties to this convention, for the purpose of maintaining international peace and preventing future wars between one another, hereby constitute themselves into a League of Nations and solemnly undertake jointly and severally to fulfill the obligations imposed upon them in the following articles:


Each power signatory or adherent hereto severally covenants and guarantees that it will not violate the territorial integrity or impair the political independence of any other power signatory or adherent to this convention except when authorized so to do by the decree of the arbitral tribunal hereinafter referred to or by a three-fourths vote of the International Council of the League of Nations created by this convention.


In the event that any power, signatory or adherent hereto, shall fail to observe the covenant and guaranty set forth in the preceding article, such breach of covenant and guaranty shall ipso facto operate as an abrogation of this convention in so far as it applies to the offending power and furthermore as an abrogation of all treaties, conventions and agreements heretofore or hereafter entered into between the offending power and all other powers signatory and adherent to this convention.


A breach of the covenant and guaranty declared in Article A shall constitute an act unfriendly to all other powers signatory and adherent hereto, and they shall forthwith sever all diplomatic, consular and official relations with the offending power, and shall through the International Council, hereinafter provided for, exchange views as to the measures necessary to restore the power, whose sovereignty has been invaded, to the rights and liberties which it possessed prior to such invasion, and to prevent further violation thereof.


Any interference with a vessel on the high seas or with aircraft proceeding over the high seas, which interference is not affirmatively sanctioned by the law of nations shall be for the purposes of this convention considered an impairment of political independence.

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[Enclosure 3]

Suggestions As to an International Council, for Discussion

An International Council of the League of Nations is hereby constituted, which shall be the channel for communication between the members of the League, and the agent for common action.

The International Council shall consist of the diplomatic representative of each party signatory or adherent to this convention at . . . . .

Meetings of the International Council shall be held at . . . . . , or in the event that the subject to be considered involves the interests of . . . . . or its nationals, then at such other place outside the territory of a power whose interests are involved as the Supervisory Committee of the Council shall designate.

The officer charged with the conduct of the foreign affairs of the power where a meeting is held shall be the presiding officer thereof.

At the first meeting of the International Council a Supervisory Committee shall be chosen by a majority vote of the members present, which shall consist of five members and shall remain in office for two years or until their successors are elected.

The Supervisory Committee shall name a Secretariat which shall have charge of the archives of the Council and receive all communications addressed to the Council or Committee and send all communications issued by the Council or Committee.

The Supervisory Committee may draft such rules of procedure as it deems necessary for conducting business coming before the Council or before the Committee.

The Supervisory Committee may call a meeting of the Council at its discretion and must call a meeting at the request of any member of the Council provided the request contains a written statement of the subject to be discussed.

The archives of the Council shall be open at any time to any member of the Council, who may make and retain copies thereof.

All expenses of the Supervisory Committee and Secretariat shall be borne equally by all powers signatory or adherent to this convention.

  1. Of the three enclosures printed with this letter only enclosure 2 accompanies it in Woodrow Wilson’s papers. Enclosures 1 and 3 are printed from Hunter Miller’s papers.
  2. In The Peace Negotiations (Boston and New York, 1921), p. 50, Mr. Lansing indicates that the “enclosed paper” consisted of the three memoranda here printed as enclosures.