League of Nations

The League of Nations was an international organization created after the First World War. The Covenant establishing the League was part of the Treaty of Versailles. The aims of the League were to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security. The League of Nations was an association of states which had pledged themselves, through signing the Covenant not to go to war before submitting their disputes with each other, or states not members of the League, to arbitration or enquiry. The League of Nations formally came into existence on January 10, 1920. The two official languages of the League were English and French. The headquarters of the League was Geneva, Switzerland. The organization of the League of Nations included the Council, the Assembly and the Secretariat. Separate but connected to the League of Nations were the Permanent Court of International Justice and the International Labour Organization. The League also established subsidiary bodies to promote co-operation on economic, social, health, and intellectual matters
The founding of the League of Nations in 1919 marked a radical departure from previous methods of diplomacy. Prior to August 1914, traditional diplomacy, or, as it was often called after the First World War, “Old Diplomacy,” was a system of intercourse between the governments of sovereign states. This system relied exclusively on the exchange of ambassadors or ministers charged by their respective governments with the twin tasks of acting as both informants and intermediaries. As an informant, the ambassador or minister acted as the “man on the spot,” keeping his government apprised of the internal conditions of the country in which he was stationed. As an intermediary, the ambassador or minister acted to present the views and interests of his own government to that of his hosts, as well as to encourage amicable relations between the host government and his own. A good ambassador or minister was one who, aided by his embassy staff, discharged both of these tasks with a high degree of success.
The old diplomatic system had both its merits and its failings. For each state, it was clearly advantageous to have diplomatic representatives in as many foreign capitals as possible in order to have as broad an understanding of the countries with which one interacted.
The failings of the old system were manifestations of its conservative nature. In the prewar period, governments still drew diplomats from the aristocratic elite, despite the rather dramatic changes in the form of many governments over the course of the nineteenth century, i.e., the development of modern democracy. If the task at hand was to foster understanding between different peoples, then the continued reliance on diplomats selected not on the basis of merit, but rather on status at birth, tended to skew that understanding and produce undesirable results. Even as the issues confronting diplomats became increasingly complex and specialized, their training, either formal, or, as was more often the case, informal, did not keep pace. Most diplomats were probably well-read, but they were probably also unlikely to have a firm understanding of the complexities of international economics or other global issues of a multifarious character. Another drawback of traditional diplomacy’s conservative nature was that it made the pursuit of a country’s short-term national interests paramount over global interests, even when concern for the global community could be of demonstrable benefit for the individual nation, but perhaps only in the long-term. Finally, two other elements of traditional diplomacy made its conduct hazardous: its secrecy, which often left countries not privy to those secrets dangerously unclear as to the intentions of their neighbors, and the use of war as a form of persuasion, an option realistically available only to the most powerful countries, i.e., the great powers.1
The horror of the Great War led some to reevaluate, and, indeed, openly criticize, the conduct of the Old Diplomacy, especially its secrecy, the threat and use of war for national gain, and its ineffectiveness in dealing with issues of more than a bilateral nature. The First World War became, in essence, the matrix of a “New Diplomacy.” As a system, the New Diplomacy promoted arbitration and collective security as the surest means of avoiding future armed conflict. It emphasized open cooperation between nations to resolve global political, economic, social, humanitarian, and technical problems. Above all, the foundation of the New Diplomacy rested upon the need for greater international organization, a need epitomized by the creation of the League of Nations.2
Despite their perceived novelty, the concepts which underpinned the New Diplomacy were not new. The element of collective security, for example, can be seen in the Quadruple Alliance, or “Concert of Europe,” formed by Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia after the final defeat of France in 1815. Although it later collapsed, the Alliance was intended to preserve the peace and status quo in Europe through the collective action of its members, and did initiate the use of conferences convened to deal with important international political issues.
Although smaller powers often attended these conferences, they soon found that they had little capacity to persuade their more powerful neighbors; the conference system was dominated by the great powers of Europe. In 1899 and 1907, however, two international conferences were held at the Hague which dramatically changed the course of international diplomacy. Critics charged that the Hague conferences were a failure because they did not accomplish all that was promised. These criticisms, while valid, nevertheless overlooked the fact that the conferences did achieve a level of universality hitherto unknown (representatives of forty-four countries attended the 1907 conference, including most of the Latin American republics), and paved the way not only for increased international cooperation to maintain peace and security, but for a general reorganization of the international state system.4 Implementation of the “Hague System” was prevented by the war, but some of its elements can be seen in the League of Nations.
After the outbreak of war in 1914, there was some public support in many countries, but particularly in the United States and in Great Britain, for the creation of some type of international machinery that would prevent future wars. In the United States, a group of prominent public leaders, including William Howard Taft, founded the League to Enforce Peace in 1915. The League to Enforce Peace pressed for the submission of future international disputes to arbitration, and for sanctions to be applied against those countries who refused to submit their disputes for settlement.5 Concerned citizens established similar organizations in Great Britain, like the League of Nations Society, and the League interest group of the Fabians. With the notable exception of the Fabians, most pro-League groups did not propose a large, formal, and continuously-functioning international organization as the League of Nations would later become, but rather only sufficient institutional machinery to settle international crises before the parties in conflict resorted to war. For these groups, arbitration was the most important function of any League scheme, and its implementation, they argued, should be based on the models proposed during the Hague Conferences.
The Fabians, on the other hand, proposed an entirely different kind of institution. What they advocated was a new world order. While much of what they advanced proved unworkable, two elements of the Fabian scheme were of lasting significance. First, the Fabians argued that “non-justiciable” disputes should be settled by a “Council” of states, which, because of their inherent influence, would be dominated by the great powers. They, in turn, would share the greatest responsibility for maintaining the peace. Second, Fabians advocated the establishment of a permanent international secretariat, modeled on that of the International Postal Union, which would be charged with coordinating international activities.6
7 In early 1918, Lord Balfour, the British foreign secretary, acting on the earlier advice of Lord Robert Cecil8, appointed a “Committee on the League of Nations” to study the feasibility of creating such an institution and to make appropriate recommendations. Better known as the Phillimore Commission, after its chairman, Sir (later, Lord) Walter Phillimore, a distinguished jurist, its members issued a report in March 1918. The Phillimore Plan suggested the establishment of a “Conference of Allied States” whose members agreed not to go to war with one another without first submitting the dispute in question to arbitration. Once the arbiter, either the Conference or some other body, agreed on a recommended settlement, the party or parties to the dispute were to agree not to attack any state which complied with those recommendations. Any state which resorted to war, seeking further satisfaction beyond that provided in the final recommendation, would automatically be at war with the other Conference members. They, in turn, would respond by imposing sanctionseconomic or militaryon the offending state to compel compliance.9
Although much of the Phillimore Plan was later incorporated into Articles 12-17 of the League of Nations Covenant, the Plan contained two major defects. One defect lay in the fact that it did not provide for a means of resolving a dispute where the arbiter or Conference came to no agreement on recommendations. The other defect was that the Plan did not contain provisions for collectively punishing a state which, if found to be the party at fault, refused to abide by a settlement recommendation.
In early June 1918, the French government submitted a draft proposal on the League of Nations. The French advocated the establishment of an “International Council” consisting of representatives from member states. The Council was to meet annually and settle non-justiciable disputes, aided in its tasks by a permanent administrative committee. Justiciable disputes were to be heard by an “International Tribunal.” Enforcement of settlements, if required, was to be the responsibility of an international army directed by the League. Clearly, the French championed a much stronger League of Nations than that proposed earlier by the British.
After Woodrow Wilson received the draft Phillimore Plan, he instructed his close advisor and friend, Col. Edward House13, to draft a U.S. plan which incorporated Wilson’s views on the subject of the League as well as those expressed by the Phillimore Commission
Wilson’s first draft borrowed heavily from House’s draft, although he proposed much more explicit use of force than did House to compel states to abide by the League’s decisions. This compulsion included “blockading and closing the frontiers of that power to commerce or intercourse with any part of the world and to use any force that may be necessary…”15
The constitution of the League of Nations was adopted by the Paris Peace Conference in April, 1919. The League’s headquarters were in Geneva and its first secretary-general was Sir Eric Drummond. The Covenant (Constitution) of the League of Nations called for collective security and the peaceful settlement of disputes by arbitration. It was decided that any country that resorted to war would be subjected to economic sanctions.


The main organs of the League of Nations were the General Assembly, the Council and the Secretariat. The General Assembly, which met once a year, consisted of representatives of all the member states and decided on the organization’s policy. The Council included four permanent members (Britain, France, Italy and Japan) and four (later nine) others elected by the General Assembly every three years. The Secretariat prepared the agenda and published reports of meetings.


As a result of the decision by the US Congress not to ratify the Versailles Treaty, the United States never joined the League of Nations. Others joined but later left the organization: Brazil (1926), Japan (1933), Italy (1937). Germany was only a member from 1926 to 1933, and the Soviet Union from 1934 to 1940.
The League of Nations had no armed forces and had to rely on boycotts (sanctions) to control the behaviour of member states. In January 1923 France occupied the Ruhr. Six months later Italy bombed the Greek island of Corfu. When the League of Nations discussed these events, the governments of France and Italy threatened to withdraw from the organization. As a result, the League of Nations decided not to take any action.


The League of Nations faced a fresh crisis in September 1931 when the Japanese Army occupied large areas of Manchuria, a province of China. The Chinese government appealed to the League of Nations under Article 11 of the Covenant.
In March 1932 Japan renamed Manchuria as Manchukuo (“land of the Manchus”). Only Germany and Italy recognised the new state. The Lytton Report was published six months later. The report acknowledged that Japan had legitimate grievances against the Chinese Government. However, the report condemned the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and refused to recognise Manchukuo as an independent state. When the League adopted the report Japan resigned from the organization.


In October 1935 Benito Mussolini sent in General Pietro Badoglio and the Italian Army into Ethiopia. The League of Nations condemned Italy’s aggression and in November imposed sanctions. This included an attempt to ban countries from selling arms, rubber and some metals to Italy. Some political leaders in France and Britain opposed sanctions arguing that it might persuade Mussolini to form an alliance with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.


In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, met Adolf Hitler at his home in Berchtesgaden. Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia unless Britain supported Germany’s plans to takeover the Sudetenland. After discussing the issue with the Edouard Daladier (France) and Eduard Benes (Czechoslovakia), Chamberlain informed Hitler that his proposals were unacceptable.
Benito Mussolini suggested to Adolf Hitler that one way of solving this issue was to hold a four-power conference of Germany, Britain, France and Italy. This would exclude both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, and therefore increasing the possibility of reaching an agreement and undermine the solidarity that was developing against Germany.
The meeting took place in Munich on 29th September, 1938. Desperate to avoid war, and anxious to avoid an alliance with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier agreed that Germany could have the Sudetenland. In return, Hitler promised not to make any further territorial demands in Europe. Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini now signed the Munich Agreement which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany. The League of Nations remained silent on the invasion.
Joseph Stalin now became concerned about the Soviet Union being invaded from the West. Stalin argued that Leningrad was only thirty-two kilometres from the Finnish border and its 3.5 million population, were vulnerable to artillery fire from Nazi Germany. After attempts to negotiate the stationing of Soviet troops in Finland failed, Stalin ordered the Red Army to invade on 30th November 1939. This time the League of Nations decided to take action and expelled the Soviet Union.
The League of Nations did not meet during the Second World War. In 1946 the responsibilities of the League of Nations was handed over to the United Nations.