Winged Warfare and the League of Nations

100 years ago this week, the the League of Nations was agreed to at the Paris Peace Conference. Formally launching a year later in January 1920, the League was tasked with setting laws and norms for the increasingly international post-WWI world order.

In 1919, former Assistant U.S. Attorney General Charles Warren discussed all the intricacies and nuances in deciding questions related to airplanes alone, a technology that had advanced by leaps and bounds during WWI:

Suppose that the nations shall agree to forbid attack by submarine on merchant ships; is such a rule to apply to attack by airplane? How can an airplane identify a merchant ship? How can it exercise the right of search? How can it provide for safety of passengers and crew? How is a sea blockade to be enforced against airplanes? What effect is the case and speed with which air attacks can be launched to have on the rules as to initiation and declaration of war? What actual protection can neutral territory have against aerial passage?

How is the law as to the bombardment of cities to be framed with reference to air attacks? Is a city containing munition works, barracks, camps, &c., or surrounded by forts, to be immune from such attacks? If not, what are to be the restrictions on the scope of such attacks? If such a city is to be immune, what is to be its right to refuse to surrender on demand of the attacking air force? Are the laws as to sea transportation of contraband by neutrals to apply to neutral airplanes transporting contraband in the air over land? What are the rights of enemy airplanes flying over the sea coast territorial waters of neutrals? These are only a few of the questions to be considered.

Thorny questions, all. But perhaps the real question, Warren surmised, was what would the war have looked like if the technology at its end had been available at its beginning?

Suppose that in August 1914, Germany had suddenly launched a fleet of 1,000 airplanes instead of an army of 1,000,000 men; what might have been the result to Paris, to the coast towns, to London? Suppose that France and Russia had possessed similar airplane forces, what might have been the result to the Rhine towns and Berlin? The attack could have been made in a few hours, instead of a few weeks. It could have been made on the English and French fleets, or upon the German fleet, as well as upon the land forces and the cities.

Is it not possible that the result of such initial attacks might have gone far toward settling the war before actual extensive movement of troops could be begun? Is it not possible that the speedy, tremendous destruction, the burning of cities, and the killing and gassing of civilians might give an initial impulse to one side or the other which no amount of subsequent victories on land or sea could repair?

The U.S. never actually officially joined the League of Nations, despite President Woodrow Wilson wanting to, because Congress was unable to muster the 2/3 approval necessary.

The League itself lasted until 1946, when it disbanded after proving unable to prevent the rise of the Axis Powers in World War II.

Winged Warfare and the League of Nations: World Federation Necessary to Enforce Regulations for Air Fleets, Neutral and Belligerent, in Time of War — “Freedom of the Seas” Involved (PDF)

Published: Sunday, January 26, 1919

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Written by Jesse

January 26th, 2019 at 2:34 pm

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