The First World War (Part 6: The League Of Nations)


The Origins Of League

The League is often spoken of as being the brainchild of the American President Woodrow Wilson.  Although  Wilson  was  certainly  a  great supporter of the  idea  of  an international organization for  peace,  the  League  was  the  result  of a coming together  of similar sugges­tions  made  during  the  First  World  War,  by  a  number  of  world  statesmen. Lord Robert Cecil  of  Britain,  Jan  Smuts  of  South  Africa  and  Leon  Bourgeois  of  France  put forward detailed  schemes  showing  how  such  an  organization  might  be  set  up.  Lloyd George referred  to  it  as  one  of  Britain’s  war  aims,  and  Wilson  included  it  as  the  last of his  14 Points.

Wilson’s  great  contribution  was  to  insist  that the League Covenant (the list of rules by which the  League was to operate), which had been drawn up by  an  international committee  including  Cecil,  Smuts,  Bourgeois  and Paul Hymans  (of Belgium)  as  well  as Wilson  himself,  should  be  included  in  each  of  the separate  peace treaties.  This ensured  that  the  League  actually  came  into  existence  instead  of  merely remaining  a topic  for  discussion.

The League had two main aims

  1. To  maintain  peace  through  collective  security:  if  one  state  attacked  another,  the member states of the League would act together, collectively, to restrain the aggressor,  either  by  economic or by military sanctions.
  2. To  encourage  international  co-operation,  in  order  to  solve  economic  and  social problems.

Organization of the League

There were 42 member states at the beginning and 55 by 1926 when Germany was admitted.  It had five main organs.

(a) The General Assembly

This met annually  and  contained  representatives  of all  the  member  states,  each  of which had  one  vote.

Its function was to decide general policy; it could, for example, propose  a revision of peace  treaties, and it handled the finances of the League. Any decisions taken had to be  unanimous.

One of the advantages  of  the  League  Assembly  was  that  it  gave small and medium-sized states a chance to raise issues that concerned them and  have their say  on world developments.

(b) The Council

This  was  a  much  smaller  body,  which  met  more  often,  at  least  three  times  a  year, and contained  four  permanent members  – Britain, France,  Italy  and  Japan. The  USA was  to have been a permanent member but decided not to  join  the  League.

There were four other members, elected by the Assembly for  periods of three  years.  The number of  non-perma­nent members had increased  to nine by  1926.

It  was the Council’s task to deal with specific political disputes as  they  arose;  again, decisions had to  be  unanimous.

(c) The Permanent Court of International Justice

This  was based at the  Hague in Holland and  consisted of  15  judges  of different nationalities;  it  dealt  with  legal  disputes  between states,  as  opposed  to  political  ones.

It  started  to function  in  1922  and by  1939 it had dealt successfully  with  66  cases,  winning  respect  for the  idea  that  there  was  a  place  for  a  generally  accepted  code  of  legal  practice in interna­tional  politics.

(d) The Secretariat

This  looked  after  all  the  paperwork,  preparing  agendas,  and  writing  resolutions  and reports  so  that  the  decisions  of  the  League  could  be  carried  out.  This  acted  as  a sort of international  civil service whose members  came from over 30 different countries.

Like the Court  of  Justice,  the  Secretariat  won respect for  the  high quality of  its organisation  and administration.

(e) Commissions and committees

A number of these were formed to deal with specific problems, some of which had arisen from  the First World War. The main commissions  were those  which handled  the mandates, military  affairs,  minority  groups  and  disarmament. There  were  committees  for  interna­tional  labour,  health,  economic  and  financial organization,  child  welfare,  drug  problems and women’s rights.

The  main  function  of  the  League

The  main  function  of  the  League  was  meant  to  be  peacekeeping.  It  was  intended that it  would  operate  in  the  following  way:  all  disputes  threatening  war  would  be submitted  to  the  League,  and  any  member which  resorted  to  war, thus  breaking  the Covenant,  would  face  collective  action by the rest.  The  Council  would  recommend ‘what effective military, naval or air force the members should contribute to the armed forces’.

Success Of The League

(a) It  would be  unfair  to dismiss the  League  as a  total  failure. Many of  the  committees and  commissions  achieved  valuable  results  and  much was  done to foster international co-operation.

One of most successful  was the  International  Labour Organization (/LO) under its  French socialist director,  Albert Thomas.  Its  purpose was to improve conditions of labour all over the world by persuading governments to:

  • fix  a maximum working day and week;
  • specify adequate minimum wages;
  • introduce sickness  and unemployment benefit;
  • introduce old-age pensions.

It  collected  and  published  a  vast  amount  of  information,  and  many  governments were prevailed upon to take  action.

The  Refugee  Organization,  led  by  Fridtjof  Nansen,  a Norwegian  explorer,  solved  the problem  of thousands  of former prisoners of war marooned in Russia at the end of the war; about half a million were returned home. After  1933,  valuable help was given to thousands of people  fleeing  from the  Nazi persecution in Germany.

The Health  Organization did  good work in  investigating  the  causes  of  epidemics,  and it  was especially successful in  combating a typhus epidemic in  Russia, which at one time seemed likely to  spread across Europe.

The  Mandates  Commission  supervised  the  government  of  the  territories  taken  from Germany and Turkey, while yet another commission was responsible for administering the Saar.  It did this very efficiently, and concluded by organizing the  1935  plebiscite in which a large majority voted for  the  Saar to  be returned  to  Germany.

Not all  were successful,  however;  the  Disarmament  Commission  made no progress  in the  near-impossible  task  of  persuading  member states  to  reduce  armaments,  even  though they  had all  promised  to do so when they agreed to the  Covenant.

(b) Political disputes resolved

Several  political  disputes  were  referred  to  the  League  in  the  early  1920s.  In  all  but  two cases,  the  League’s decisions  were accepted.

  • In  the  quarrel  between  Finland  and  Sweden  over  the  Aaland  Islands,  the  verdict
    went in favour  of  Finland  (1920).
  • Over  the  rival claims of Germany  and  Poland to the important industrial  area  of Upper Silesia, the  League decided that it should  be  partitioned between the two  (1921).
  • When  the  Greeks invaded  Bulgaria,  after  some  shooting  incidents  on  the frontier,
    the  League  swiftly  intervened: Greek troops were withdrawn and  damages  were paid to  Bulgaria.
  • When Turkey  claimed  the  province of Mosul, part  of  the  British mandated territory of  Iraq,  the  League decided in favour  of  Iraq.
  • In  South  America, squabbles were settled between Peru and Colombia  and  between Bolivia and  Paraguay.

It is  significant, however, that none of these disputes seriously threatened world peace, and none of  the decisions  went against a major state that might have challenged the League’s verdict. In fact, during this same period, the  League  found  itself  twice overruled by  the Conference of Ambassadors,  based in  Paris, which had been set up to deal with problems arising  out  of  the  Versailles  Treaties.  There  were  first  the  rival claims  of Poland  and Lithuania  to  Vilna  (1920),  followed  by  the  Corfu  Incident  (1923); this  was a quarrel between Mussolini’s Italy and  Greece. The League made no response to these acts of  defi­ance,  and this  was not  a promising sign.

Why Did The League Fail To Preserve Peace?

(a) It was too closely linked with the Versailles Treaties

This initial  disadvantage  made the League seem  like an  organization created especially for the benefit of the victorious powers. In  addition  it had to defend a peace settlement which was  far  from perfect.  It  was inevitable  that  some  of its  provisions  would cause trouble -for example, the disappointing territorial gains of the  Italians  and the  inclusion  of Germans in  Czechoslovakia and  Poland.

(b) It was rejected by the USA

The  League was dealt a serious blow in  March 1920 when the  US Senate rejected both the Versailles  settlement  and  the  League. The  absence  of the  USA meant that  the  League was deprived of a powerful member whose presence would have been of great psychological and financial benefit.

(c) Other important powers were not involved

Germany was not allowed to  join until  1926 and the  USSR only became a member in  1934 (when  Germany left).  So  for  the  first  few  years  of  its  existence  the  League  was deprived of three of the world’s most important  powers.

(d) The Conference of Ambassadors in  Paris was an embarrassment

This gathering of leading ambassadors was only intended to function until the League machinery was up and running, but it  lingered on, and on several occasions it took precedence over  the  League.

  • In  1920  the  League supported  Lithuania in her claim to  Vilna, which had just  been seized  from her by the  Poles; but when the  Conference of Ambassadors insisted on awarding  Vilna to  Poland,  the  League  allowed it  to  go  ahead.
  • A later  example was the  Corfu Incident  (1923):  this arose from a boundary dispute between Greece and Albania, in  which three  Italian officials working on the bound­ary commission were killed. Mussolini blamed the Greeks, demanded huge compensation and  bombarded  and  occupied  the  Greek  island  of  Corfu.  Greece appealed  to  the League,  but  Mussolini refused  to  recognize  its competence  to  deal with the problem. He threatened to withdraw Italy from the League, whereupon the Ambassadors ordered  Greece to  pay  the  full  amount  demanded.

At this  early  stage,  however,  supporters  of  the  League  dismissed  these  incidents  as
teething  troubles.

(e) There were serious weaknesses in the Covenant

These made  it difficult  to  ensure  that  decisive  action  was  taken  against  any aggressor.  It was difficult to get unanimous decisions; the  League had no military force  of its own, and though  Article  16  expected member states  to  supply  troops  if necessary, a resolution  was passed in  1923 that each member would decide for itself whether or not to fight in  a crisis. This clearly made nonsense of the  idea of collective security.

Several attempts were made to  strengthen  the  Covenant,  but  these  failed  because  a unanimous vote  was  needed  to change it, and this was never achieved.  The most notable attempt was made in  1924 by the British  Labour  prime  minister,  Ramsay MacDonald,  a great  supporter  of  the  League.  He introduced  a  resolution known  as  the  Geneva Protocol. This pledged members to accept arbitration and  help  any  victim  of  unprovoked aggression.  With  supreme  irony,  the Conservative  government  which  followed MacDonald  informed  the  League  that  they could  not  agree  to  the  Protocol;  they  were reluctant  to  commit Britain  and  the  Empire  to the defence of all  the  1919 frontiers.

Reasons  for  this  apparently  strange  British  attitude  include  the  fact  that  British public opinion  was  strongly  pacifist,  and  there  was  a  feeling  that  Britain  was now  so militarily weak that  armed interventions of any sort  should be avoided.  Many other League members felt the same as  Britain; and so,  perversely, they  were all basing  their security on a system whose success  relied on their  support and commitment,  but which they were not prepared to uphold. The attitude seemed to be:  leave  it to  the  others.

(f) It was very much a French/British affair

The  continued  absence  of  the  USA  and  the  USSR,  plus  the  hostility  of  Italy,  made the League  very  much  a  French/British  affair.  But  as  their  rejection  of  the  Geneva Protocol showed,  the  British  Conservatives  were  never  very  enthusiastic  about  the League.  They preferred  to  sign  the  Locarno  Treaties  (1925),  outside  the  League, instead of  conducting negotiations within it.

None of  these weaknesses necessarily doomed the League to  failure, however,  provided all  the  members  were  prepared  to  refrain  from  aggression  and  accept  League decisions; between 1925 and 1930  events ran fairly  smoothly.

(g) The world economic crisis began in  1929

The  situation  really  began to  drift out of  control with the  onset of  the  economic crisis, or the  Great  Depression.  It brought  unemployment  and  falling living standards to most countries, and caused extreme  right-wing governments to  come to power  in  Japan  and Germany;  together  with  Mussolini,  they  refused  to  keep  to  the  rules and  took  a  series  of  actions  which  revealed  the  League’s  weaknesses.

(h) The Japanese invasion of Manchuria (1931)

In  1931  Japanese  troops  invaded  the  Chinese  territory  of  Manchuria; China appealed to the  League,  which condemned Japan and ordered her troops to be with­ drawn. When Japan refused,  the  League  appointed  a  commission  under  Lord  Lytton, which decided  (1932) that  there  were  faults  on  both  sides  and  suggested  that  Manchuria should  be governed  by  the  League. However,  Japan  rejected  this  and  withdrew  from  the League (March  1933).

The  question  of  economic  sanctions,  let  alone  military  ones,  was never even raised,  because Britain and  France had serious economic problems.  They were reluctant  to  apply  a  trade  boycott  of  Japan  in  case  it  led  to  war,  which  they  were  ill­ equipped  to  win, especially  without  American  help.  Japan  had  successfully  defied the League, whose prestige was damaged,  though  not yet fatally.

(i) The failure of the World Disarmament Conference (1932-3)

This met under the auspices of the  League, and its failure was a grave disappointment. The Germans asked for equality  of  armaments  with  France,  but  when  the  French  demanded that this should be postponed for at least eight years,  Hitler was able to use the  French atti­tude as an excuse to withdraw Germany from the conference and later  from the  League.

(j) The Italian invasion of Abyssinia (October  1935)

This  was  the  most  serious  blow  to  the  League’s  prestige  and  credibility.  The League condemned  Italy and introduced economic  sanctions;  however, these were not  applied to exports  of  oil,  coal  and  steel  to  Italy.  So half-hearted  were  the  sanc­tions  that  Italy was  able  to  complete  the  conquest  of  Abyssinia  without  too  much incon­venience. A few  weeks  later  sanctions  were  abandoned,  and  Mussolini  had successfully  flouted the League.

Again  Britain  and  France  must  share  the  blame  for  the League’s failure.  Their motive was the  desire not to antagonize Mussolini too  much, so as to keep him  as an  ally against the  real danger  – Germany.  But the  results  were disastrous:

  • Mussolini  was  annoyed  by  the  sanctions  anyway,  and  began  to  draw  closer  to
  • small  states lost all faith  in the  League;
  • Hitler  was  encouraged  to  break  the  Versailles  Treaty  by  introducing  conscription (March  1935)  and  sending  German  troops  into  the  demilitarized zone of the Rhineland  (March  1936).  Neither matter was raised at the  League Council, mainly because  France  and  Britain  were  afraid  that  Hitler  would  reject  any  decision  that went  against  Germany,  and  they  were  reluctant  to  be  forced  into  military  action against the  Germans.

After  1935,  therefore,  the  League  was  never  taken  seriously  again.  The real explanation for  the  failure  of  the  League was simple:  when  aggressive  states  such  as Japan,  Italy  and Germany defied it,  the  League members,  especially  France and Britain,  were not prepared to support it,  either by decisive economic measures or by military action.  The League  was only  as  strong  as  the  determination  of its  leading  members  to  stand  up to  aggression; unfortunately,  determination of  that  sort was sadly  lacking  during the 1930s.

However,  some  historians  believe  that  the  League  should  not  be  dismissed  as  a complete  failure  and  a  total  irrelevance  in  world history.  Ruth  Henig,  for  example, feels that  ‘it  is high time that these verdicts are challenged and that  the  League is  seen for what it  was,  a  bold  step  towards  international cooperation which failed  in some  of its  aims  but succeeded comprehensively in others’. She published a book, The  League  of  Nations  (2010) in which she gave the following arguments:

  • The League’s creation  ‘marked  an important  step  on the road to  our contemporary global system  of international organisation, coordinated  through  the  United Nations,  which  was built  on  the foundations  of  the  League’s  experience’.
  • Expectations  of  what  the  League might achieve  were  far  too  high  and  completely  unrealistic.  How  could  it  possibly  have been expected to  deal with aggressors when it had no army of its own and no mechanism to compel member states to  provide  their  troops?
  • The League’s  great contribution  was that  it provided  the  first  experimental  phase,  the  blueprint  for  a  second,  more  effective  and longer-lasting  form  of  international  co-operation  – the  United  Nations  (UN).  The Assembly,  the  Council  and  the  Secretariat  were  adopted  as  a  basis  by  the  UN.  The UN International  Court  of  Justice  reproduced  almost  identica11y  the  League’s Permanent Court.  The  International  Labour  Organization  is  still  operating  today.  Many other  UN bodies,  such  as  the  Economic  and  Social  Council  and  World Health Organization,  were built on the  foundations of the pioneering work carried out  by the League agencies before 1939.
  • Ruth Henig concludes that  ‘the  creation  of an international  body in  1920 promoted international  collaboration  and  compromise,  and  was  a dynamic  step  forward  in interna­tional  diplomacy  …  Rather  than  dwell  on  its weaknesses  or  condemn  its failings,  we should  applaud  the  League’s successes,  while continuing  to  learn important  lessons  from its  history.’


  1. How  successful  was  the  League  of  Nations  in  resolving  international  disputes  in  the 1920s?
  2. Assess the reasons  why there  were no major international  conflicts during the  1920s.
  3. Explain why  the  League of Nations was hailed as a success  during the  1920s  but  was considered a failure  by  1936.
  4. How far would you agree that the League of Nations was  ‘a  complete  failure,  a total irrelevance in world history’?
  5. “Thus the League sought to achieve to profoundest of all psychological revolutions to transform the war mentality of man into a peace mentality.” Comment. [1992, 20 Marks]
  6. “The Manchurian crisis decided the fate of the league of Nations.” Comment. [1993, 20 Marks]
  7. “The Communist international and the League of Nations both announced the end of the Balance of Power.” Comment. [1996, 20 Marks]
  8. “The UNO was created in the light of the experience of the ‘League of Nations’, but in spite of the mandate  contained  in  the  UNO  constitution,  its  effective  role  in maintaining world peace had lacked cohesiveness and collective approach.” Examine.[2015, 20 Marks]

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