The Rise of World Federalism

  January 21, 2024   Read time 5 min
The Rise of World Federalism
The worldwide shock at the dropping of atomic bombs compounded the concern many peace advocates felt at the inadequacies of the United Nations and gave impetus to a significant movement for world federalism.

The destructive power unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki fundamentally altered the nature of international security. In an age of atomic energy, wrote Norman Cousins,“ the foundations of the old sovereignties have been shattered.” For better or worse, all nations stand virtually unarmed in the presence of the bomb. We are all “at the mercy of one another, and shall have to devise a common security or suffer a common cataclysm.” The UN Charter, wrote Cousins, is “a feeble and antiquated instrument for dealing with the problems of an Atomic Age.” The need for world government existed long before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it became unmistakably clear “in the glare brighter than sunlight produced by the assault on the atom.” The old notions of sovereignty became “vestigial obstructions in the circulatory system of the world.”

The concept of world government was always implicit in the theory of international cooperation and was a subject of debate among philosophers over the centuries. A tension existed between those like Kant who envisioned sovereign nations coming together in a loose voluntary association and others like Einstein who believed that nations must transcend sovereignty to create a genuine world government. The former aimed toward a system of collective security, in which nations pool their separate military capabilities to enforce collective judgments, while the latter implied the creation of a single world authority with a monopoly over all uses of force in the external relations of nations.

In practice internationalism came to embody the former meaning, but for many peace advocates, especially in the years immediately after World War II, the latter concept of a federal union of nations was seen as vital to peace and human survival. H. G. Wells was a pioneer in popularizing the federalist argument. His 1914 novel The World Set Free envisioned a battle fought with “atomic bombs,” in which the survivors formed a world government that brought an end to war. In 1928 he wrote The Open Conspiracy to outline his thinking about world government. In 1933 he elaborated these ideas in The Shape of Things to Come. “The directive idea of my life,” he recalled, “was the creative WorldState.”

The world federalism movement began to garner public support during the1940s and especially after the war. Einstein played a significant role in its promotion. He was a supporter of the United Nations but hoped that it could be transformed into a genuine world government. He advocated “a supranational, not international, organization, resting on law and vested with adequate military power to enforce the law.” In a 1946 radio address he said, our only hope for survival lies in the creation of the world government capable of resolving conflicts among nations by judicial verdict . . . No person or nation can be regarded as pacifist unless they agree that all military power should be concentrated in the hands of a supranational authority, and unless they renounce force as a means of safeguarding their interests against other nations.

The key to peace, he argued in February 1950, is to do away with mutual fear and distrust. Solemn renunciation of the policy of violence, not only with respect to weapons of mass destruction, is without doubt necessary. Such renunciation, however, will be effective only if a supranational judicial and executive agency is established at the same time, with power to settle questions of immediate concern to the security of nations. The organized campaign for federalism was launched immediately after the atomic bombings in Japan. In the United States several federalist organizations emerged.

Future US Senator Harris Wofford, Jr. helped to create a student federalist movement. Another future senator, Alan Cranston of California, was an energetic and active supporter of the federalist movement. In August 1947 a Gallup poll reported 56 percent of respondents in favor of transforming the United Nations into a world government, with just 30 percent opposed. In April 1947 several federalist organizations merged to form the United World Federalists. Its motto was “world peace through world law.” By 1949 United World Federalists had more than 46,000 members and 720 chapters. It had the endorsement of forty-five national organizations, including farm, veterans, labor, and religious groups.

In Britain the federalist movement was led by Henry Usborne, whose Crusade for World Government sponsored meetings and educational fora in communities throughout the country. The Crusade eventually gained some 15,000 registered supporters. Usborne was a Labour Member of Parliament, and he introduced a motion affirming Britain’s readiness to federate with other nations. The resolution had the support of nearly a hundred Members of Parliament by the end of the year but never came to a vote. In Japan the famed writer and social reformer Kagawa Toyohiko joined with other prominent public figures to endorse federalism. A Parliamentary Committee for World Federation claimed 180 members of the Diet, including Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru.

The world federalism movement peaked in 1949, when federalist societies existed in eighteen nations, with an international headquarters in Paris. In the United States more than twenty state legislatures approved petitions urging Congress to initiate plans for transforming the United Nations into a world government. In two states where such referenda appeared on the ballot, Massachusetts and Connecticut, voters overwhelmingly approved the proposal. A resolution in Congress declaring world federation “a fundamental objective” of US foreign policy attracted 111cosponsors in the House and 21 in the Senate.

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