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“The Worst of all Worlds:” Oil Sanctions and Italy's Invasion of Abyssinia, 1935-1936

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Italy's invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 caused a crisis for the League of Nations. League members imposed limited sanctions against Italy and debated at length the imposition of an embargo on oil shipments to Italy, which came to stand as a symbol of the League's determination to punish the Italian aggressor. The British government conducted a detailed investigation to determine whether or not an oil sanction could compel Italy to abandon its invasion. Although Italy imported the vast majority of its oil, British and League experts concluded that an oil embargo would not succeed. Even if the League instituted a comprehensive embargo amongst its members, Italy could still have secured sufficient supplies from non-members, particularly the United States, which could not legally prevent American companies from trading with Italy. Italy could also have secured additional supplies through third-party transshipments. An additional ban preventing Italy from using League tankers to carry its purchases would not have succeeded either, although the various sanctions together would have increased Italy's costs to import oil and the amount of pressure on its gold reserves. In spite of the technical difficulties involved in implementing an embargo, the British Cabinet continued to support the idea for domestic political reasons; it needed to placate the British public that considered it vitally important to put into practice the League's collective security rhetoric. The League's unwillingness to impose an oil sanction and its evident failure to prevent Italy's conquest of Abyssinia discredited the League and its collective security provisions.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2008

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