A collective effort for peace

Strength in unity or a paper tiger?

The League of Nations, also known as the Société des Nations in French, was the first global intergovernmental organisation whose main goal was to uphold international peace.

On January 10, 1920, the Paris Peace Conference, which marked the official end of World War One, brought about its creation.

Scottish troops shelter in a trench during the First World War. The League of Nations was set up with the hope that it would help prevent a repeat of the horrors of this conflict.

New colourised images give a glimpse of the camaraderie during some of WWI's ... (mogaznews.com)

The U.S. President, the idealistic president Woodrow Wilson who supported the aims of the League of Nations. In the cartoon, the League is represented as a bubble. A beautiful creation but also a fragile one.

...Woodrow Wilson of the United States was the League's leading supporter...

The Peace Conference at Versailles, just outside of Paris, had the establishment of the League as one of its main goals from the beginning in January 1919.

President Woodrow Wilson of the United States was the League's leading supporter. The formation of such a group and the location of the League's headquarters were debated from the beginning of the month of January.

A unanimous vote was made on April 28 to establish the League of Nations, and Geneva was selected as the organization's seat at the same time.

The Covenant of the League of Nations.


Allied leaders walk through the streets after signing the Treaty of Versailles, June 28, 1919. 

Photo12 / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Europe Reacts to the Treaty of Versailles, in Photos | History | Smithsonian Magazine

As part I of the Treaty of Versailles, the Covenant of the League of Nations was signed on June 28, 1919, and it went into force on January 10, 1920, along with the rest of the Treaty.

The League's Assembly and Council both held their inaugural meetings on November 15, 1920, and January 16, 1920, respectively.

President of the United States Woodrow Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his work as the League's chief architect.

Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA and the driving force behind the creation of the League of Nations.


...the United States never joined....

The majority of Southeast Asia, Europe, and South America were among the countries that made up the League of Nations' membership.

Nearly the whole continent of Africa was made up of colonies of Western nations at the time of the League of Nations.

Because the Senate, which was generally isolationist, refused to adopt the League of Nations' charter, the United States never joined. Spanish, French, and English were the League's three official languages.


The Permanent Secretariat, the Assembly, and the Council were the three primary constitutional organs of the League of Nations. They would all have bases in Geneva, a neutral city in Switzerland.

The Secretariat, which was made up of experts, served as the League's administrative civil service.

The Assembly The Council
Up to three delegates from each state were present at the Assembly, which served as the League's focal point. Each state had a single vote that counted equally in the Assembly. All votes had to be unanimous to pass in the League of Nations, which operated on the principle of consensus rather than majority rule. There were occasional exceptions to this rule, such as the admission of new members, and an Assembly vote did not always need the agreement of the disputing parties. The Council, which served as the executive body, met four times a year to discuss interstate conflicts. Britain initially desired a Council made up entirely of the war's victorious Great Powers, but resistance from smaller governments resulted in a compromise wherein the Great Powers would be joined by four non-permanent members who would rotate every three years. Votes had to be unanimous, just like in the Assembly, but each permanent member also had a veto power. The Council may impose sanctions after a judgement had been reached in a dispute, ranging from moral censure to economic sanctions to, eventually, military action.

10th January 1920 - The League of Nations holds its first meeting.

576 League Of Nations Held Its First Meeting Stock Photos, High-Res Pictures, and Images - Getty Images

League of Nations organizational chart 1930. White = Secretariat; Gray = Advisory bodies; Dark Gray = Third-party organizations.

Martin Grandjean

The International Labor Organization and the Permanent Court of International Justice were also members of the League in addition to these three organisations.

The Court rendered judgments and provided legal counsel. The Labor Organization was a private, non-governmental organisation made up of worker and employer associations from its member states.


The Covenant of the League set forth the League's main objectives.

They included the averting of wars by means of disarmament and collective security as well as the resolving of international conflicts through negotiation and arbitration.  

Other issues it was concerned about included working conditions, fair treatment of indigenous people, drug and human trafficking, the arms trade, world health, detainees, and the safety of minorities in Europe.

The first meeting of the Assembly took place on 15 November 1920 at the Salle de la Réformation in Geneva.

 National Library of Norway

...Mandates were formerly owned by imperial powers...

In 1920, the League's mandates played a significant role in its operations. Mandates were formerly owned by imperial powers, namely Germany and the Ottoman Empire, and would now be governed by the League. There were three different mandate classifications.

The most developed class, Class A, was only available to the former Ottoman provinces. German colonies in Africa that the League deemed to be more advanced were placed in class B, while colonies in the Pacific that the League deemed to be less advanced were placed in class C.

The specific nature of mandates and the kind of freedom such territories would experience were unclear from the start. The overbearing British and French involvement in their inception aroused concerns that mandates would basically turn into colonies under a different name.

Map of the League of Nations in 1927.


A humanitarian success

Considered one of the first international humanitarian groups, the League of Nations established and oversaw a number of organisations with the goal of enhancing global citizens' quality of life. The League:

  • aided refugees
  • tried to end slavery and the drug trade
  • set standards on working conditions
  • constructed better transportation and communications networks
  • gave financial assistance and advice to some member countries
  • administered the Permanent Court of International Justice (precursor to today's International Court of Justice)
  • tried to prevent malnutrition and diseases such as leprosy and malaria (precursor to today's World Health Organization)
  • promoted culture preservation and scientific advancement (precursor to today's UNESCO).

"Breaker boys" - Child labourers in a coal mine, Hughestown Borough Coal Co. Pittston, Pa, United States, c. 1912. The smallest boy is Angelo Ross. The League of Nations oversaw the International Labour Organization (ILO) which campaigned to end child labour.

Lewis Hine U.S. National Archives and Records Administration


The League of Nations introduced a novel approach to diplomacy, contrasting sharply with traditional methods employed over the previous century.

Unlike its predecessors, the League operated without its own military forces, relying instead on the support of the Allied powers of the First World War, notably Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, who served as permanent members of the Executive Council.

These powers were tasked with upholding the League's decisions, implementing economic sanctions, and providing military assistance if necessary.

Italian leader ('Duce') Benito Mussolini


However, the effectiveness of the League's diplomatic efforts was often hindered by the reluctance of its member states, particularly the Great Powers, to fully commit to its mandates.

This reluctance stemmed from concerns that sanctions imposed by the League could potentially harm their own national interests, leading to a lack of adherence and enforcement.

Members of the Italian Camicie Nere (Blackshirts) taking possession of the railway station at Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, in May 1936 during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Italian leader, Benito Mussolini adopted a defiant stance against the League during this conflict, exposing its limitations. 

Dire Dawa Station Blackshirts 1936 - Second Italo-Ethiopian War - Wikipedia

..."The League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out."..

One notable example highlighting the League's limitations occurred during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War when the League accused Italian forces of attacking medical tents operated by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

In response, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini criticized the League's efficacy, stating, "The League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out."

This remark underscored the League's perceived ineffectiveness in handling conflicts involving major powers, revealing its dependence on collective action and the challenges it faced in enforcing its decisions without a centralized military force.

Failure in the 1930s

During its peak from September 28, 1934, to February 23, 1935, the League of Nations boasted the highest number of members in its history, totaling 58 nations.

Despite initial successes and setbacks throughout the 1920s, the League faced significant failures in the 1930s, notably in its efforts to curb Axis aggression:

...Japan's refusal to comply with League...

Japan's Invasion of Manchuria (1931): Japan's invasion of Manchuria, a northeastern province of China, exposed the League's weaknesses in addressing aggressive militarism.

Despite condemnation from the League and calls for Japan to withdraw its forces, the organization lacked the means to enforce its decisions. Japan's refusal to comply with League resolutions highlighted the organization's inability to enforce international law and maintain peace effectively.

The failure to resolve the Manchurian Crisis undermined the League's credibility and emboldened other aggressor nations to pursue their expansionist agendas with impunity, ultimately contributing to the organization's decline.

Japanese soldiers during the Invasion of Manchuria. Protests from the League of Nations were ignored by the Japanese, highlighting its impotence in dealing with aggressive governments.

...effectively undermined its credibility...

Italy's Invasion of Ethiopia (1935): Italy's aggression against Ethiopia tested the League's authority and its ability to uphold international peace. Despite Ethiopia's appeal to the League for assistance, the organization failed to prevent Italy's invasion.

The League's lack of a unified response and its inability to enforce sanctions effectively undermined its credibility. Italy's actions signaled to other aggressive powers that the League was incapable of halting territorial expansion through military force, dealing a severe blow to its reputation.

Austrians cheer Adolf Hitler during his 1938 campaign to unite Austria and Germany - the Anschluss. The League proved unable to prevent Hitler's expansionist plans coming to fruition.

Hugo Jaeger—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images


...the League's inability to enforce its decisions...

Germany's Annexation of the Sudetenland and Austria (1938): Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia with a significant ethnic German population, and its subsequent annexation of Austria (Anschluss) demonstrated the League's failure to prevent aggressive territorial expansion.

Despite diplomatic efforts to resolve the Sudetenland crisis through negotiations, the League's inability to enforce its decisions allowed Germany to proceed with its expansionist policies unchecked.

These events highlighted the League's ineffectiveness in deterring powerful nations from pursuing aggressive actions, undermining its credibility as a guarantor of international peace and security.

Chinese delegate addressing the League of Nations concerning the Manchurian Crisis in 1932.

Bibliothèque nationale de France / Robert Sennecke

...the League's primary objective of maintaining peace and security proved unsuccessful...

The League's credibility suffered further due to the absence of key global powers such as the United States and the delayed admission of the Soviet Union, which was later expelled following its invasion of Finland.

Subsequently, several nations including Germany, Japan, Italy, and Spain withdrew from the League, diminishing its influence and effectiveness on the international stage.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the League's primary objective of maintaining peace and security proved unsuccessful, leading to its eventual demise.

The League remained dormant until its dissolution, which occurred in 1946 when it was succeeded by the United Nations (UN).

A cartoon depicting the League of Nations with its hands tied - reflecting its lack of effectivness in dealing with global issues.

Why Did the League of Nations Fail? Here Are Some Answers - History (historyonthenet.com)

The UN inherited many of the League's foundational institutions and organizations, aiming to build upon its legacy while addressing the shortcomings that led to its downfall.


Therefore, despite the optimism that prevailed at the time of the League of Nations' founding, it was not widely accepted, not even outside of the US. It has long been believed that the League would have been doomed from the start if the US had not ratified it.

In retrospect, it is obvious that the League did not succeed in putting an end to interstate war, although it did have some success.

Thirty conflicts were brought before the League in its first ten years, and eight of them led to war.

Also asserted is the fact that the League averted some conflicts, most notably the conflict between Greece and Bulgaria in 1925.

September 1923: League of Nations Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

The League's inability to put an end to war has been the focus of later criticism, but it had other objectives.

It also provided guidelines and institutions to regulate a variety of matters, such as how minorities, women, and children are treated, how the world's health is monitored, how the international opium traffic is controlled, and how intellectual cooperation and communication are established.

...the League became more and more compromised...

The League laid the groundwork for numerous contemporary international organisations in these fields. Additionally, it became more inclusive, eventually welcoming the Soviet Union and Germany for a brief time.

The League struggled in other respects. Disarmament failed, and outside of the League, achievements like the Washington Naval Agreement were made. As the decade went on, the League became more and more compromised as a result of its failure to come to an agreement or even uphold its own articles.

By the 1930s' conclusion, the League's membership had dropped, and Wilson's original plan had been replaced by multilateral agreements negotiated elsewhere.

Ultimately, the League lacked the ability or means to prevent further conflicts.

...bringing attention to issues like epidemics, slavery, child labour, colonial tyranny...

However, the views among some scholars today is that, despite the League's failure to bring about world peace, it did manage to pave new paths for the expansion of the rule of law worldwide; it strengthened the idea of collective security by giving voice to smaller nations; it assisted in bringing attention to issues like epidemics, slavery, child labour, colonial tyranny, refugee crises, and general working conditions through its numerous commissions and committees; and it strengthened the idea of international cooperation.

Further reading

In "The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire" by Susan Pederson, the author meticulously examines the League of Nations' engagement with imperial issues in the early 20th century. Pederson's insightful analysis delves into the League's complex relationship with colonial matters, shedding light on its attempts to reconcile national interests and global governance. This scholarly work enriches our understanding of the League's role in shaping the destiny of empires during a transformative era.

In "The Gathering Storm" by Winston Churchill, the author eloquently dissects the shortcomings of the League of Nations, underscoring its failure to prevent the looming menace of totalitarian regimes. Churchill's narrative skillfully navigates the League's inadequacies in addressing global threats, offering a prescient analysis of the tumultuous period leading to World War II and emphasizing the critical need for robust international institutions in maintaining peace and stability.

"Paris 1919" by Margaret MacMillan vividly explores the post-First World War Paris Peace Conference and the League of Nations' inception. Meticulously researched and engagingly written, MacMillan delves into the League's creation, emphasizing its idealistic aspirations and inherent challenges. The book illuminates the League's early dynamics, revealing the seeds of its future struggles, providing a compelling narrative that deepens understanding of the League's formative years and its complex role in shaping global politics.

"Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations" meticulously explores Woodrow Wilson's passionate pursuit of the League, unraveling the complexities of his diplomatic battles at the Paris Peace Conference. Author John Milton Cooper provides a nuanced portrayal of Wilson's unwavering commitment to the League, shedding light on the intense political struggles and personal sacrifices that shaped a pivotal chapter in the League of Nations' formation.

"The Peace That Never Was" by Ruth Henig is a comprehensive exploration of the League of Nations' intricate history. Delving into the League's inception, achievements, and ultimate demise, Henig provides a nuanced analysis of its role in shaping post-First World War diplomacy. By unraveling the political intricacies and global challenges faced by the League, Henig offers a rich narrative that enhances our understanding of its aspirations and limitations in the quest for lasting peace.

In "The League of Nations and the Organisation of Peace" by Martyn Housden, the author offers a meticulous examination of the League's formation and its endeavors in fostering international cooperation. Housden's insightful analysis delves into the League's mechanisms, challenges, and its aspirations for maintaining global peace. The book provides a valuable perspective on the League's role during a transformative period, shedding light on both its achievements and limitations in shaping the post- First World War world order.



Rene Wadlow





Bibliothèque nationale de France / Robert Sennecke


Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

Lewis Hine - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration


"The League of Nations was an attempt to prevent the repetition of a great catastrophe." - Winston Churchill, "The Second World War: The Gathering Storm," (1948)

Susan Pedersen, "The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire" (2015)

Margaret MacMillan, "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World" (2001)

Eric Foner, "Give Me Liberty!: An American History" (2017)


Erin Blakemore


1917: Woodrow Wilson’s call to war pulled America onto a global stage | USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

Dire Dawa Station Blackshirts 1936 - Second Italo-Ethiopian War - Wikipedia

Maria-Anita Ronchini


Hugo Jaeger—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images


Luke Tomes

Why Did the League of Nations Fail? Here Are Some Answers - History (historyonthenet.com)

Germany rejects disarmament and international cooperation | Holocaust Encyclopedia (ushmm.org)