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The League of Nations

The creation of the League of Nations

The Role of the League of Nations

The Structure of the League of Nations

Incidents that the League of Nations dealt with

Successes and strengths of the League of Nations

Weaknesses and failures of the League of Nations


The creation of the League of Nations

The Treaty of Versailles included a clause that called for the creation of a multi-national body designed to ensure peace in the future. This idea was based largely upon the ideas of the US President, Woodrow Wilson, who had in his 14 points speech stated: "A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike." At the Paris Peace Conference a special commision, chaired by Wilson, wrote a draft Covenant for this 'League of Nations'. After some minor changes this Covenant was incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles. The League's council met for the first time in Paris on January 16th, 1920. Shortly afterwards a headquarters building was opened in Geneva where the first General Assembly meeting was held on November 15th, 1920. 41 countries were represented at this first meeting.

It is important to remember that Wilson wasn't the only person calling for an international body to deal with conflict resolution. Prior to the First World War there had been an Inter-Parliamentary Union with 22 countries represented. There had also been two Geneva Conventions, in 1899 and 1907, that established rules about the way that war could be waged. The South African Prime Minister, Smuts, had also called for the creation of a League of Nations.

Not everybody was enthusiastic about the idea. The US Senate, despite the protestations of President Wilson, failed to ratify the Covenant and therefore did not become a member of the League. In Britain a senior figure in Government, Cabinet Secretary, Maurice Hankey, commented that, "Generally it appears to me that any such scheme is dangerous to us, because it will create a sense of security which is wholly fictitious."

The Role of the League of Nations

The primary role of the League of Nations was to prevent another world war. Whilst drawing up the draft covenant of the League of Nations a range of potential causes of conflict were identified: arms races; border disputes; secret diplomacy; aggression. The League was intended to deal with each of these through communication, compromise and the application of sanctions. The League also was intended to promote international co-operation in relation to dealing with cross border drug and people trafficking, humanitarian aid and health.

The Structure of the League of Nations

The main bodies of the League of nations were the Assembly, the Council and the Secretariat.

The Assembly: Each member nation had 3 representatives in the Assembly and one vote. The Assembly met once a year, in Geneva. It could also meet at other times in the case of emergencies. The primary functions of the Assembly were the control of the budget for the organisation; control over membership of the League of Nations and the appointing of the Council of the League of Nations.

Assembley of the League of Nations

Assembley of the League of Nations

The Council: The Council was the executive body of the League of Nations. This means that it was the decision making part of the organisation. The Council met on average 5 times a year. It initially had 4 permanent member nations (Britain, Italy, France and Japan) and four non permanent member nations who were on the council for 3 years. When Germany was admitted to the League of Nations they were given a permanent place on the Council. The number of non permanent members rose to 6 and later to 11 members.

The Secretariat: The Secretariat ran the various bodies that the League of Nations established. These included a Mandates unit to oversee the running of former German colonies that were now Mandated to League of Nations member states; a Health department tasked with tackling the spread of disease; a Social unit that organised humanitarian aid, collective approaches to people trafficking along with offices dealing with legal, financial and administrative tasks.

How the League worked:

Where there was an international dispute a member country was able to refer the issue to the League of Nations. Take the example of a border dispute, which were common as a result of the number of boundary chages following the Peace Treaties. When an issue was referred to the League, the Council would create a commission to investigate. The Commissioners were from neutral countries and they would discuss the issue with the nations involved in the dispute and gather the views of people who lived in the affected area. They would consider all of these views and then make a suggestion to the countries involved and the Council. The suggestions tended to be accepted by all parties, though not always to everyones liking, and prevented an escalation of issues in many cases.

Incidents that the League of Nations dealt with

Disputed territories:

Upper Silesia, 1920-1922.

Albania, 1921-1923.

Aland Islands, 1920-1921.

Hatay, 1938-1939

Memel, 1923-1924.

Mosul, 1926.

Vilnius, 1921-1923.

Saar, 1935.


1925. Greece and Bulgaria

1930. Liberia

1932-1933. Manchuria

1932. Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay

1935. Abyssinia

1936. Spanish Civil War

1937. Sino (Chinese) - Japanese War

Successes and strengths of the League of Nations

The League of Nations successfully dealt with most of the territory disputes that it was asked to mediate over. In most cases all parties accepted the proposals of the League's Commission. The exception was the dispute over Vilnius which fixed a border but was not formally accepted by Lithuania for a number of years. The dispute between Greece and Bulgaria was tackled by the League. The biggest successes of the League of Nations were perhaps the social work that they implemented. They orchestrated international cooperation to reduce sexual slavery; the trade in Opium and did a great deal of work to help refugees. The League also established a Health Organisation which worked towards eradicating diseases.

Weaknesses and failures of the League of Nations

The main weakness of the League of Nations was its membership, or rather the low level of membership. Only 44 nations signed the Covenant of the League of Nations - and of them some, including the United States, never ratified this in their own governments. At its strongest there were only 58 member countries. The absence of major nations meant that the League was significantly weakened. It resulted in a relative lack of military and economic 'clout' which reduced its ability to enforce decisions. When the Leagues decisions were ignored, such as by the Japenese in Manchuria or the Italians in Abyssinia, the League produced no show of strength or unity. Member states were either unwilling or unable to form a unifified military response and were reluctant to enforce sanctions as it hurt not only the agressor but their trading nations. Benito Mussolini summed up his thoughts about the strength of the League by saying, "the League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out."

Stanley Baldwin, British Prime Minister, speaking about the League of Nations failure to deal with the Abyssinian Crisis:

"failed ultimately because of the reluctance of nearly all the nations in Europe to proceed to what I might call military sanctions ... The real reason, or the main reason, was that we discovered in the process of weeks that there was no country except the aggressor country which was ready for war ... [I]f collective action is to be a reality and not merely a thing to be talked about, it means not only that every country is to be ready for war; but must be ready to go to war at once. That is a terrible thing, but it is an essential part of collective security." S Baldwin, 1936.




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