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.

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

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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.

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...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.


Organisation

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.

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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.


Objectives

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.

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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


Challenges

The League's approach to diplomacy was a significant departure from the previous 100 years. The League lacked its own armed forces and was dependent on the First World War Allies (Britain, France, Italy, and Japan were the Executive Council's permanent members) to uphold its decisions, adhere to its economic sanctions, and when necessary, furnish an army.

The Great Powers frequently resisted doing this. Members of the League were reluctant to follow sanctions since they could harm them.

When the League claimed that Italian soldiers had attacked medical tents run by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, Benito Mussolini retorted, "The League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out."

Italian leader ('Duce') Benito Mussolini

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Failure in the 1930s

From September 28, 1934, until February 23, 1935, it had the most members at 58.

After some important victories and early setbacks in the 1920s, the League ultimately failed in its attempts to stop Axis aggression in the 1930s.

  • the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia by Italy
  • the annexation of the Sudetenland and Austria by Germany
  • the invasion of Manchuria (the northeastern Chinese province) by Japan in 1932

The League's credibility was damaged by the absence of the United States and the Soviet Union's tardy admission and subsequent expulsion following their invasion of Finland.

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

Bibliothèque nationale de France / Robert Sennecke

...the League's fundamental goal had been unsuccessful...

Along with Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, and other nations left the League. The start of the Second World War in 1939 demonstrated that the League's fundamental goal had been unsuccessful; it remained dormant until its extinction.

The League existed for 26 years before being succeeded by the United Nations (UN) in 1946, which also took over a number of the League's founding institutions and organisations.


Assessment

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.


Wikipedia

https://globalsolutions.org/the-league-of-nations-and-its-unused-peace-army/

Rene Wadlow

https://realtimehistory.net/blogs/news/the-league-of-nations-may-1920

https://bostonraremaps.com/inventory/laura-martin-league-of-nations-1927/

https://www.thedailybeast.com/erasing-woodrow-wilson-evading-history

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:SlvrKy

Bibliothèque nationale de France / Robert Sennecke

https://unitednationsorganisation.blogspot.com/2017/11/the-league-of-nations.html

Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

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

https://www.thoughtco.com/the-league-of-nations-1435400

"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)

https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/photos/league-of-nations-held-its-first-meeting

Erin Blakemore

www.nationalgeographic.co.uk