Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
League of Nations
The League of Nations was an international organization founded after the First World War at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The League's goals included disarmament; preventing war through collective security; settling disputes between countries through negotiation and diplomacy; and improving global welfare.
The diplomatic philosophy behind the League represented a fundamental shift in thought from the preceding hundred years. The old philosophy, growing out of the Congress of Vienna (1815), saw Europe as a shifting map of alliances among nation-states, creating an equilibrium of power maintained by strong armies and secret agreements. Under the new philosophy, the League was a government of governments, with the role of settling disputes between individual nations in an open and legalist forum. The impetus for the founding of the League came from Democratic U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, but, along with many other countries, the United States never joined the League of Nations.
The League lacked an armed force of its own and so depended on the Great Powers to enforce its resolutions, which they were often very reluctant to do. After a number of notable successes and some early failures, the League ultimately proved incapable of preventing aggression by the fascist powers in the 1930s. The onset of the Second World War made it clear that the League had failed in its primary purpose—to avoid any future world war. The United Nations effectively replaced it after World War II and inherited a number of agencies and organizations founded by the League.
The concept of a peaceful community of nations had previously been described in Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace. The idea of the actual League of Nations appears to have originated with British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, and it was enthusiastically adopted by the Democratic U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and his advisor Colonel Edward M. House as a means of avoiding bloodshed like that of World War I. The creation of the League was a centrepiece of Wilson's Fourteen Points for Peace, specifically the final point: "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." Wilson was a strong advocate of including the League in the Treaty of Versailles.
The Paris Peace Conference accepted the proposal to create the League of Nations (French: SociÚtÚ des Nations, German: V÷lkerbund) on January 25, 1919. The Covenant of the League of Nations was drafted by a special commission, and the League was established by Part I of the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed on 28 June 1919. Initially, the Charter was signed by 44 states, including 31 states which had taken part in the war on the side of the Triple Entente or joined it during the conflict. Despite Wilson's efforts to establish and promote the League, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919, the United States neither ratified the Charter nor joined the League due to opposition by isolationists in the U.S. Senate, especially from influential Republican leader Henry Cabot Lodge.
The League held its first meeting in London on January 10, 1920. Its first action was to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, officially ending World War I. The headquarters of the League soon moved to Geneva, where the first general assembly of the League was held on November 15, 1920.
The League of Nations did not have an official flag or logo. Proposals for adopting an official symbol were made during the League's beginning in 1920, but the member states never reached agreement. However, League of Nations organisations used varying logos and flags (or none at all) in their own operations. An international contest was held in 1929 to find a design, which again failed to produce a symbol. One of the reasons for this failure may have been the fear by the member states that the power of the supranational organisation might supersede them.
Finally, in 1939, a semi-official emblem emerged: two five-pointed stars within a blue pentagon. The pentagon and the five-pointed stars were supposed to symbolise the five continents and the five races of mankind. In a bow on top and at the bottom, the flag had the names in English (League of Nations) and French (SociÚtÚ des Nations). This flag was used on the building of the New York World's Fair in 1939 and 1940.
The League had three principal organs: a secretariat (headed by the General Secretary and based in Geneva), a Council and an Assembly, and many Agencies and Commissions. Authorisation for any action required both a unanimous vote by the Council and a majority vote in the Assembly.
The staff of the League's secretariat was responsible for preparing the agenda for the Council and Assembly and publishing reports of the meetings and other routine matters, effectively acting as the civil service for the League.
- Sir James Eric Drummond (U.K.) (1920–1933)
- Joseph Avenol (France) (1933–1940)
- Seßn Lester (Ireland) (1940–1946)
The General Secretary wrote annual reports on the work of the League.
The League Council had the authority to deal with any matter affecting world peace. The Council began with four permanent members (the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Japan), and four non-permanent members elected by the Assembly every three years. Subsequently, the composition and the number of members of the Council were changed as Germany was added as a permanent member and the number of non-permanent members was increased to nine for a total of fifteen members. The United States was originally to be the fifth permanent member; however, it never joined the League, as a result of the Republican Party's election gains in 1920.
The Council met in ordinary sessions four times a year, and in extraordinary sessions when required. In total, 107 public sessions were held between 1920 and 1939.
Eamon de Valera was the President of the Council of the League of Nations at its 68th and Special Sessions in September and October 1932, and President of the Assembly of the League of Nations in 1938. C.J. Hambro was President in 1939 and 1946.
The League oversaw the Permanent Court of International Justice and several other agencies and commissions created to deal with pressing international problems. These were the Disarmament Commission, the Health Organisation, the International Labour Organization, the Mandates Commission, the Permanent Central Opium Board, the Commission for Refugees, and the Slavery Commission. While the League itself is generally branded a failure, several of its Agencies and Commissions had successes within their respective mandates.
- Disarmament Commission
- The Commission obtained initial agreement by France, Britain, Japan and Italy to limit the size of their navies. However, Britain refused to sign a 1923 disarmament treaty, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, facilitated by the commission in 1928, failed in its objective of outlawing war. Ultimately, the Commission failed to halt the military buildup during the 1930s by Italy, Germany and Japan.
- Health Organisation
- This body focused on ending leprosy and malaria, the latter by starting an international campaign to exterminate mosquitoes. The Health Organisation also succeeded in preventing an epidemic of typhus from spreading throughout Europe due to its early intervention in the Soviet Union.
- Mandates Commission
- The Commission supervised League of Nations Mandates, and also organised plebiscites in disputed territories so that residents could decide which country they would join, most notably the plebiscite in Saarland in 1935.
- International Labour Organization
- This body was led by Albert Thomas . It successfully banned the addition of lead to paint, and convinced several countries to adopt an eight-hour work day and forty-eight-hour working week. It also worked to end child labour, increase the rights of women in the workplace, and make shipowners liabile for accidents involving seamen.
- Permanent Central Opium Board
- The Board was established to supervise the statistical control system introduced by the second International Opium Convention that mediated the production, manufacture, trade and retail of opium and its by-products. The Board also established a system of import certificates and export authorizations for the legal international trade in narcotics.
- Commission for Refugees
- Led by Fridtjof Nansen, the Commission oversaw the repatriation and, when necessary the resettlement, of 400,000 refugees and ex-prisoners of war, most of whom were stranded in Russia at the end of World War I. It established camps in Turkey in 1922 to deal with a refugee crisis in that country and to help prevent disease and hunger. It also established the Nansen passport as a means of identification for stateless peoples.
- Slavery Commission
- The Commission sought to eradicate slavery from the world, and fought forced prostitution and drug trafficking, particularly in opium. It succeeded in gaining the emancipation of 200,000 slaves in Sierra Leone and organised raids against slave traders in its efforts to stop the practice of forced labour in Africa. It also succeeded in reducing the death rate of workers in Tanganyika from 55% to 4%. In other parts of the world, the Commission kept records on slavery, prostitution and drug trafficking in an attempt to monitor those issues.
Several of these institutions were transferred to the United Nations after the war. In addition to the International Labour Organisation, the Permanent Court of International Justice became a UN institution as the International Court of Justice, and the Health Organisation was restructured as the World Health Organisation.
League of Nations Mandates were established under Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. These territories were former colonies of the German Empire and the Ottoman Empire that were placed under the supervision of the League following World War I. There were three Mandate classifications:
- An "A" Mandate
- This was a territory which "had reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognised, subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a "Mandatory" until such time as they are able to stand alone." These were mainly parts of the old Ottoman Empire.
- A "B" Mandate
- This was a territory which "was at such a stage that the Mandatory must be responsible for the administration of the territory under conditions which will guarantee:
- Freedom of conscience and religion
- The maintenance of public order and morals
- Prohibition of abuses such as the slave trade, the arms traffic and the liquor traffic
- The prevention of the establishment of fortifications or military and naval bases and of military training of the natives for other than political purposes and the defence of territory
- Equal opportunities for the trade and commerce of other Members of the League."
- A "C" Mandate
- This was a territory "which, owing to the sparseness of their population, or their small size, or their remoteness from the centres of civilisation, or their geographical contiguity to the territory of the Mandatory, and other circumstances, can be best administered under the laws of the Mandatory."
The territories were governed by "Mandatory Powers", such as the UK in the case of the Mandate of Palestine and the Union of South Africa in the case of South-West Africa, until the territories were deemed capable of self-government. There were fourteen mandate territories divided up among the six Mandatory Powers of the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, New Zealand, Australia and Japan. In practice, the Mandatory Territories were treated as colonies and were regarded by critics as spoils of war. With the exception of Iraq, not until World War II did the territories began to gain their independence, a process that did not end until 1990. Following the demise of the League, most of the remaining mandates became United Nations Trust Territories.
In addition to the Mandates, the League itself governed the Saarland for 15 years, before it was returned to Germany following a plebiscite, and the free city of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) from 15 November 1920 to 1 September 1939.
The League is generally considered to have failed in its mission to achieve disarmament, prevent war and settle disputes through diplomacy, and improve global welfare. However, it achieved significant successes in a number of areas.
Main article: History of ┼land
┼land is a collection of around 6,500 islands mid-way between Sweden and Finland. The islands are exclusively Swedish-speaking, but Finland had sovereignty in the early 1900s. During the period from 1917 onwards, most residents wished the islands to become part of Sweden; Finland, however, did not wish to cede the islands. The Swedish government raised the issue with the League in 1921. After close consideration, the League determined that the islands should remain a part of Finland, but be governed autonomously, averting a potential war.
The border between Albania and Yugoslavia remained in dispute after the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and Yugoslavian forces occupied some Albanian territory. After clashes with Albanian tribesmen, the Yugoslavian forces invaded further. The League sent a commission of representatives from various powers to the region. The commission found in favour of Albania, and the Yugoslavian forces withdrew in 1921, albeit under protest. War was again prevented.
The Treaty of Versailles had ordered a plebiscite in Upper Silesia to determine whether the territory should be part of Germany or Poland. In the background, strongarm tactics and discrimination against Poles led to rioting and eventually to the first two Silesian Uprisings (1919 and 1920). In the plebiscite, roughly 59.6% (around 500,000) of the votes were cast for joining Germany, and this result led to the Third Silesian Uprising in 1921. The League was asked to settle the matter. In 1922, a six-week investigation found that the land should be split; the decision was accepted by both countries and by the majority of Upper Silesians.
The port city of Memel and the surrounding area was placed under League control after the end of the World War I and was governed by a French general for three years. However, the population was mostly Lithuanian, and the Lithuanian government placed a claim to the territory, with Lithuanian forces invading in 1923. The League chose to cede the land around Memel to Lithuania, but declared the port should remain an international zone; Lithuania agreed. While the decision could be seen as a failure (in that the League reacted passively to the use of force), the settlement of the issue without significant bloodshed was a point in the League's favour.
Greece and Bulgaria
Main article: War of the Stray Dog
After an incident between sentries on the border between Greece and Bulgaria in 1925, Greek troops invaded their neighbour. Bulgaria ordered its troops to provide only token resistance, trusting the League to settle the dispute. The League did indeed condemn the Greek invasion, and called for both Greek withdrawal and compensation to Bulgaria. Greece complied, but complained about the disparity between their treatment and that of Italy (see Corfu, below).
Saar was a province formed from parts of Prussia and the Rhenish Palatinate that was established and placed under League control after the Treaty of Versailles. A plebiscite was to be held after fifteen years of League rule, to determine whether the region should belong to Germany or France. 90.3% of votes cast were in favour of becoming part of Germany in that 1935 referendum, and it became part of Germany again.
The League also worked to combat the international trade in opium and sexual slavery and helped alleviate the plight of refugees, particularly in Turkey in the period to 1926. One of its innovations in this area was its 1922 introduction of the Nansen passport, an internationally recognised identity card for stateless refugees. Many of the League's successes were accomplished by its various Agencies and Commissions.
The League did not, in the long term, succeed. The outbreak of World War II was the immediate cause of the League's demise, but there was also a variety of other, more fundamental, flaws.
The League, like the modern United Nations, lacked an armed force of its own and depended on the Great Powers to enforce its resolutions, which they were very reluctant to do. Economic sanctions, which were the most severe measure the League could implement short of military action, were difficult to enforce and had no great impact on the target country, because they could simply trade with those outside the League. The problem is exemplified in the following passage, taken from The Essential Facts About the League of Nations, a handbook published in Geneva in 1939:
- "As regards the military sanctions provided for in paragraph 2 of Article 16, there is no legal obligation to apply them… there may be a political and moral duty incumbent on states… but, once again, there is no obligation on them."
The League's two most important members, the United Kingdom and France, were reluctant to use sanctions and even more reluctant to resort to military action on behalf of the League. So soon after World War I, the populations and governments of the two countries were pacifist. The British Conservatives were especially tepid on the League and preferred, when in government, to negotiate treaties without the involvement of the organisation. Ultimately, the UK and France both abandoned the concept of collective security in favour of appeasement in the face of growing German militarism under Adolf Hitler.
Representation at the League was often a problem. Though it was intended to encompass all nations, many never joined, or their time as part of the League was short. One key weakness of the League was that the United States never joined, which took away much of the League's potential power. Even though President Woodrow Wilson had been a driving force behind the League's formation, the United States Senate voted on January 19, 1919 not to join the League. Wilson's stroke and protracted convalescence prevented him from pursuing the issue.
The League also further weakened when the fascist powers left in the 1930s. Japan began as a permanent member of the Council, but saw the League as Euro-centric and withdrew in 1932. Italy also began as a permanent member of the Council but withdrew in 1937. The League had accepted Germany as a member in 1926, deeming it a "peace-loving country", but Adolf Hitler pulled Germany out when he came to power in 1933. Another major power, the Bolshevik Soviet Union, was only a member from 1934, when it joined to antagonise Germany (which had left the year before), to December 14, 1939, when it was expelled for aggression against Finland.
The League's neutrality tended to manifest itself as indecision. The League required a unanimous vote of its nine (later fifteen) member Council to enact a resolution, so conclusive and effective action was difficult, if not impossible. It was also slow in coming to its decisions. Some decisions also required unanimous consent of the Assembly; that is, agreement by every member of the League.
Another important weakness of the League was that it tried to represent all nations, but most members protected their own national interests and were not committed to the League or its goals. The reluctance of all League members to use the option of military action showed this to the full. If the League had shown more resolve initially, countries, governments and dictators may have been more wary of risking its wrath in later years. These failings were, in part, among the reasons for the outbreak of World War II.
The general weaknesses of the League are illustrated by its specific failures.
Cieszyn (German Teschen, Czech Tesin) is a small town between Poland and Czechoslovakia, important for its coal mines. Polish and Czech troops fought in Cieszyn in 1919 over control of the town. The League intervened, deciding that Poland should take control of most of the town, but that Czechoslovakia should take one of the town's suburbs, which contained the most valuable coal mines. The city was divided into Polish Cieszyn and Czech Cesky Tesin. Poland refused to accept this decision; although there was no further violence, the diplomatic dispute continued for another 20 years.
Main article: Polish-Lithuanian War
After World War I, Poland and Lithuania both regained the independence that they had lost during the partitions of Poland in 1795. Though both countries shared centuries of common history in the Polish-Lithuanian Union and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, rising Lithuanian nationalism prevented the recreation of the former federated state. The city of Vilna (Lithuanian Vilnius, Polish Wilno) was made the capital of Lithuania, despite being mainly Polish in ethnicity.
During the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, a Polish army took control of the city. Despite the Poles' claim to the city, the League chose to ask Poland to withdraw; the Poles did not. The city and its surroundings were proclaimed a separate state of Central Lithuania and on February 20, 1922 the local parliament passed the Unification Act and the city was incorporated into Poland as the capital of the Wilno Voivodship. Theoretically, British and French troops could have been asked to enforce the League's decision; however, France did not wish to antagonise Poland, which was seen as a possible ally in a future war against Germany, while Britain was not prepared to act alone. Both Britain and France also wished to have Poland as a 'buffer zone' between Europe and the possible threat from Communist Russia. Eventually, the League accepted Wilno as Polish town on March 15 1923. Thus the Poles were able to keep it until soviet invasion in 1939.
Lithuanian authorities declined to accept the Polish authority over Wilno and treated it as a constitutional capital. It wasn't until the 1938 ultimatum , when the Lithuania resolved diplomatic relations with Poland and thus de facto accepted the borders of its neighbour.
Main article: Occupation of the Ruhr
Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had to pay reparations. They could pay in money or in goods at a set value; however, in 1922 Germany was not able to make its payment. The next year, France and Belgium chose to act upon this, and invaded the industrial heartland of Germany, the Ruhr, despite this being in direct contravention of the League's rules. With France being a major League member, and the United Kingdom hesitant to oppose its close ally, nothing was done in the League despite the clear breach of League rules. This set a significant precedent – the League rarely acted against major powers, and occasionally broke its own rules.
One major boundary settlement that remained to be made after World War I was that between Greece and Albania. The Conference of Ambassadors , a de facto body of the League, was asked to settle the issue. The Council appointed Italian general Enrico Tellini to oversee this. While examining the Greek side of the border, Tellini and his staff were murdered. Italian leader Benito Mussolini was incensed, and demanded the Greeks pay reparations and execute the murderers. The Greeks, however, did not actually know who the murderers were.
On August 31, 1923, Italian forces occupied the island of Corfu, part of Greece, with fifteen people being killed. Initially, the League condemned Mussolini's invasion, but also recommended Greece pay compensation, to be held by the League until Tellini's killers were found. Mussolini, though he initially agreed to the League's terms, set about trying to change them. By working on the Conference of Ambassadors, he managed to make the League change its decision. Greece was forced to apologise and compensation was to be paid directly and immediately. Mussolini was able to leave Corfu in triumph. By bowing to the pressure of a large country, the League again set a dangerous and damaging precedent.
Main article: Manchuria Crisis
The Manchuria Crisis was one of the League's major setbacks and acted as the catalyst for Japan's withdrawal from the organisation. In 1931, the Japanese held control of the South Manchurian Railway in the Chinese region of Manchuria. They claimed that Chinese soldiers had sabotaged the railway, which was a major trade route between the two countries in September 1931. In retaliation, the Japanese army, acting contrary to the civilian government's orders, occupied the entire province of Manchuria, which they named Manchukuo. In 1932, Japanese air and sea forces bombarded the Chinese city of Shanghai.
The Chinese government asked the League for help, but the long voyage around the world for League officials to investigate the matter themselves delayed matters. When they arrived, the officials were confronted with Chinese assertions that the Japanese had invaded unlawfully, while the Japanese claimed they were acting to keep peace in the area. Despite Japan's high standing in the League, the Lytton Report declared Japan to be in the wrong and demanded Manchuria be returned to the Chinese. However, before the report was voted upon by the Assembly, Japan announced intentions to invade more of China. When the report passed 42-1 in the Assembly (only Japan voted against), Japan left the League. Economic sanctions were powerless, since Japan's major trading partner was the U.S., which was not a member of the League, and Britain seemed keen to keep good relations with Japan. Once again, the League bowed to the more powerful, and showed its weakness.
Main article: Chaco War
The League failed to prevent the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay in 1932 over the arid Chaco Boreal region of South America. Although the region was sparsely populated, it gave control of the Paraguay River which would have given one of the two landlocked countries access to the Atlantic Ocean, and there was also speculation, later proved incorrect, that the Chaco would be a rich source of petroleum. Border skirmishes throughout the late 1920s culminated in an all-out war in 1932, when the Bolivian army, following the orders of President Daniel Salamanca Urey, attacked a Paraguayan garrison at Vanguardia . Paraguay appealed to the League of Nations, but the League did not take action when the Pan-American conference offered to mediate instead.
The war was a disaster for both sides, causing 100,000 casualties and bringing both countries to the brink of economic disaster. By the time a ceasefire was negotiated on 12 June 1935, Paraguay had seized control over most of the region. This was recognized in a 1938 truce by which Paraguay was awarded three-quarters of the Chaco Boreal.
Spanish Civil War
Main article: Spanish Civil War
Armed conflict broke out between Republicans and Nationalists in Spain in 1936. Alvarez del Vayo , the Spanish Republican minister of foreign affairs, appealed to the League in September 1936 for arms to defend its territorial integrity and political independence. However, the League could not itself intervene in the Spanish Civil War nor prevent foreign intervention in the conflict. Hitler continued to aid General Franco’s fascists, and the Soviet Union aided the Spanish loyalists.
Italian invasion of Abyssinia
Main article: Abyssinia crisis
Perhaps most famously, in October 1935, Benito Mussolini sent General Pietro Badoglio and 400,000 troops to invade Abyssinia. The modern Italian Army easily defeated the poorly-armed Abyssinians, and captured Addis Ababa in May 1936, forcing Emperor Haile Selassie to flee. The Italians used chemical weapons (mustard gas) against the Abyssinians.
The League was powerless and mostly silent in the face of major events leading to World War II such as Hitler's re-militarisation of the Rhineland, occupation of the Sudetenland and annexation of Austria. As with Japan, both Germany in 1933 – using the failure of the World Disarmament Conference to agree to arms parity between France and Germany as a pretext – and Italy in 1937 simply withdrew from the League rather than submit to its judgement. The League commissioner in Danzig was unable to deal with German claims on the city, a significant contributing factor in the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The final significant act of the League was to expel the Soviet Union in December 1939 after it invaded Finland.
With the onset of World War II, it was clear that the League had failed in its purpose – to avoid any future world war. During the war, neither the League's Assembly nor Council was able or willing to meet, and its secretariat in Geneva was reduced to a skeleton staff, with many offices moving to North America.
After its failure to prevent one war, it was decided to create a new body to fulfil the League's role, but to take it further. This body was to be the United Nations. Many League bodies, for instance the International Labour Organisation, continued to function and eventually became affiliated with the UN. At a meeting of the Assembly in 1946, the League dissolved itself and its services, mandates, and property were transferred to the UN.
The structure of the United Nations was intended to make it more effective than the League. The principal Allies in World War II (UK, USSR, France, US, and China) became permanent members of the UN Security Council, giving the new "Great Powers" significant international influence, mirroring the League Council. Decisions of the UN Security Council are binding on all members of the UN; however, unanimous decisions are not required, unlike the League Council. Permanent members of the UN Security Council were given a veto to protect their vital interests, which has prevented the UN acting decisively in many cases. Similarly, the UN does not have its own standing armed forces, but the UN has been more successful than the League in calling for its members to contribute to armed interventions, such as the Korean War, and peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia. However, the UN has in some cases been forced to rely on economic sanctions. The UN has also been more successful than the League in attracting members from the nations of the world, making it more representative. The US was a prime instigator of the creation of the UN, as it was for the League, but the US did not remain aloof from the UN, becoming a central member.
- League of Nations members
- Henry Cabot Lodge, U.S. Republican Senator who led the opposition to the U.S. joining the League
- Palais des Nations, built as the League's headquarters
- Walsh, Ben (1997). Modern World History. John Murray (Publishers) Ltd.. ISBN 0-7195-7231-2.
- The Essential Facts About the League of Nations, published in Geneva, with ten editions between 1933 and 1940
- George Gill (1996) The League of Nations from 1929 to 1946: From 1929 to 1946 (Partners for Peace Series). Avery Publishing Group. ISBN 0-895-29637-3
- Covenant of the League of Nations
- League of Nations Photo archive
- League of Nations Article from Factmonster/Information Please
- Proposed flags for the League
- League of Nations article at Spartacus
- Background of the League of Nations
- Map of League of Nations members
- League of Nations timeline
- Table of Assemblies Dates of each annual assembly, links to list of members of each country's delegation
- Woodrow Wilson's Appeal for Support of the League of Nations 1919 speech
- Wilson's Final Address in Support of the League of Nations Speech made September 25, 1919
- Senator Henry Cabot Lodge speaks out against the League of Nations August 1919 speech
- Jonathan Pagel's League of Nations rap MP3 (4.66 Mb)
- leagueofnations (History Learning Site)
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