Although the British at Stresa had given Mussolini no assurances that they would acquiesce in his conquest of Ethiopia, their reticences had been so interpreted by him, and he was strengthened in this view when, in June 1935, Anthony Eden, minister for League of Nations affairs, came to Rome to suggest that Britain might cede to Ethiopia part of British Somaliland so that Ethiopia might in turn appease Italy by ceding to it some land adjacent to Italian Somaliland. Eden even suggested that a way might be found to make Ethiopia a virtual economic protectorate of Italy. Mussolini soon learned that these gestures did not necessarily mean what he thought. When he rejected Eden’s proposals and continued preparations for war, the British government moved warships into the Mediterranean Sea as if in preparation for a League vote of sanctions against Italy. On September 11, after Foreign Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare addressed the League Assembly and declared firmly that Britain would be “second to none” in fulfilling her obligations under the Covenant, Mussolini was faced with the very contingency that he thought his diplomacy had prevented: the possibility of League intervention in behalf of Ethiopia. He nevertheless moved forward. When Emperor Haile Selassie ordered Ethiopian mobilization on September 29, he responded by proclaiming national mobilization in Italy. On October 3, his armies attacked from Eritrea and thus opened war.
In Geneva the League Council immediately heard the protests of Haile Selassie’s representative. On October 7, with Italy alone abstaining, it voted to condemn Mussolini’s aggression as a resort to war in defiance of Article 12 of the Covenant. Referred to the Assembly, this resolution on October 11 won the support of 50 of the 54 members, only Italy and her client states, Albania, Austria, and Hungary, opposing it. It remained for a Coordination Committee of the League to determine . what sanctions should be imposed. Here practical rather than moral issues arose, for, as a totalitarian state that had endeavored for more than a decade to achieve national self-sufficiency, Fascist Italy could withstand almost all forms of moral and economic pressure. The only sanctions that would do it serious injury would be closure of the Suez Canal, which would block the sending of reinforcements and supplies, and stoppage of the one vital commodity that Italy had to import in quantity, oil.
Fearing that closure of the canal would lead to war with Italy, the British government, which controlled the waterway, had little inclination to take that step. As for oil, it was doubtful whether a League decree could be effective in view of the fact that the leading producer, the United States, was not bound by the Covenant. Although Congress had enacted a so-called Neutrality Act (signed on Aug. 31, 1935), which required embargoes to be laid on exports of munitions to nations at war, it did not apply to petroleum products. While President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared on November 15 that oil and other commodities were “essential war materials” and ought to be included, there was no assurance that American exporters would adopt such a “moral embargo,” or that if they did not, Congress would amend the law to cover these items. The American government encouraged the League powers to expect cooperation but could not guarantee it.
When the Coordination Committee brought in its report on October 19, it made only five relatively mild recommendations for sanctions against Italy: embargoes on shipments of arms to her; bans on loans and credits; bans on imports from her; embargoes on exports to her of transport animals, rubber, and a variety of metals; and joint aid to nations that suffered economically as a result of taking these steps. Voted on separately in the Assembly, they were approved by majorities respectively of 50, 49, 48, 48, and 39. Since their practical effect would be slight, the chief hope was that the display of unity in world opinion would impress Mussolini and cause him to change his course. It did not.