Highlights from the First Session of the League of Nations

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Highlights from the First Session of the League of Nations

Magazine article excerpt

By: Anonymous

Date: January 1921

Source: "Highlights from the First Session of the League of Nations." Current History. 13 (1921): 2, 1–14.

About the Author: Current History is the oldest periodical in the United States that deals with world political affairs. It is owned by the New York Times Company, and began publication in 1914 to analyze issues relating to World War I.


World War I (1914–1918), which killed as many as ten million people and wounded twenty-one million others, was seen by some as "the war to end all wars." Seeking an end to war as conflict resolution, the victorious Allied powers met outside Paris in the spring of 1919. The Treaty of Versailles, drafted largely by Great Britain's David Lloyd George, France's Georges Clemençeau, Italy's Vittorio Orlando, and United States President Woodrow Wilson, included the covenant of the League of Nations, intended to be a forum in which states could resolve disputes peacefully.

While the Europeans wanted a congress system, Wilson pushed for a standing international body, outlined in his Fourteen Points as a "general association of nations … for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike." The league promoted national self-determination to replace old monarchical structures, and urged the replacement of secret diplomacy and alliances with "open covenants of peace, openly arrived at."

On January 10, 1920, the League of Nations was established to promote international cooperation, peace, and security. By December 1920, forty-eight states had signed the covenant and by doing so agreed to the league's goals, which include rejecting war as a response to disputes, open relations between nations, the rule of international law, and respect for treaty obligations. League members were also expected to acknowledge that peace relied on the reduction of armaments.

The league was to reside in Geneva and use both French and English as its working languages. Its organization included an assembly, comprised of member representatives; a council, consisting of representatives from the Allies—the United States, Great Britain, and France, plus four members chosen from the assembly. The secretary general and his staff comprised the secretariat. The covenant also established a permanent Court of International Justice and the International Labor Organization.


The League Assembly

What the Delegates of Forty-one Nations Accomplished in the First Session at Geneva.

The beginning of a new epoch in history, as many believe, was marked by the first meeting of the Assembly of the League of Nations at Geneva, Switzerland, on Nov. 15, 1920, when representatives of forty-one nations came together to contrive new means and methods for the peaceful settlement of international disputes. In human history there exists no parallel to this assemblage of white, black, brown, and yellow men of almost every religion and tongue, all united by a common desire—to reduce the world's wars and promote the welfare of mankind.

Vast and bristling with difficulties was the task that confronted these men. Among the disconcerting factors were the failure of America's 100,000,000 people to join the League of Nations, and the uncertainty as to what the President-elect would do after his inauguration next March; the exclusion of Germany and Russia from present membership [Germany joined in 1926; Russia in 1934] the heritage of wars which the World War has left, especially in Turkey and Eastern Europe, and, last but not least, the maze of international jealousies, conflicting aims, and smoldering enmities represented on the floor of the Assembly itself. In the minds of the French delegates lurked the spectre of a fear that the Versailles Treaty would be revised to their injury; they went to Geneva resolved that no part of the treaty should be altered. The small nations feared the monopoly of power by the great. Burning questions of racial equality, notably in respect to the Japanese, lay all too near the outwardly calm surface. Yet the general mood was hopeful, and when the Assembly adjourned, after a month of earnest labor and debate, that feeling was justified by the results.

For days before the opening session a stream of delegates, visitors, and journalists poured into Geneva, overtaking the beautiful little city's resources, though not its spirit of hospitality. The streets looked like a vast fair where all the races of mankind had met. On every building fluttered the colors of many nations. The humblest dwelling, the stately tower of St. Peter's Cathedral, even the streamers on the placid blue waters of Lake Leman, were bedecked with flags and bunting. Dense throngs were in constant motion over the stately Bridge of Mont Blanc, by which the marching delegates, escorted by white-cloaked Swiss officials, crossed the Rhone to the Salle de Reformation, where the Assembly was to meet. This plain, prim building, reminiscent of Calvinism, was guarded by Swiss gendarmes in blue cloaks and cocked hats.

The Opening Ceremony

Dr. Motta, the Swiss President, who was to be honorary Chairman, led a procession of the Swiss Federal Council and the State Council of the Canton of Geneva to the place of meeting on the morning of the 15th. This procession, with its modest military display, was cheered as it passed through the crowded rue de Rhone and reached the Salle de Reformation at 11 o'clock. With Paul Hymans (Belgium), Acting President of the Assembly, Dr. Motta took the seat reserved for him on the dais.

M. Hymans rang his bell at 11:16 and opened the proceedings. He looked down upon a sea of faces—Caucasian, Indian, Mongolian—representing almost every racial type. On the left, toward the middle, sat the Japanese delegates; on the right, nearer the front, the Chinese sat, bespectacled and serious. All forty-one nations were there, except Honduras, whose delegates had not yet reached Geneva. There were 241 delegates in all, and the forty-one nations were these:














Great Britain,










New Zealand,











South Africa,






Impressively M. Hymans declared the first session of the Assembly of the League of Nations to be in session. The covenant, he explained, had provided that this meeting should be summoned by the President of the United States; accordingly, the League Council, on May 20, had asked President Wilson to issue the call, and on July 17 he had set this hour and place for the meeting.

Dr. Motta, speaking in French, next welcomed the delegates in the name of the Swiss people and Government. In acknowledging the honor that had been conferred upon Geneva he paid a graceful tribute to Belgium, declaring that if the choice had depended upon new-won glory and sacrifice, Brussels, instead of Geneva, would have been chosen. He then asked permission to send a message of gratitude to President Wilson, and expressed the earnest hope that the United States would soon take its rightful place in the League. The land of Washington and Lincoln, he declared, would not turn its face away from a plan to co-operate for the peace and prosperity of the world. The spirit of Dr. Motta's tribute to President Wilson was crystallized later into this special message, which M. Hymans sent:

The Assembly of the League of Nations has by unanimous vote instructed me to send you its warmest greetings and to express its earnest wishes that you may speedily be restored to complete health. The Assembly recognizes that you have done perhaps more than any other man to lay the foundations of the League. It feels confident that the present meetings will greatly advance those principles of cooperation between all nations which you have done so much to promote.

The reply of President Wilson was:

The greeting so graciously sent me by the Assembly of the League of Nations through you has gratified me very deeply indeed. I am indeed proud to be considered to have played any part in promoting the concord of nations with the establishment of such an instrumentality as the League, to whose increasing usefulness and success I look forward with perfect confidence. Permit me to extend my personal greetings to the Assembly, if they will be gracious enough to receive them, together with an expression of my hope and belief that their labors will be of immense value to the whole civilized world.

On motion of Dr. Motta, M. Hymans was made permanent President of the Assembly by a vote of 35 to 6, and took the chair amid applause.

Dispute over New Members

At the afternoon session the work of arranging rules of procedure was begun. It was decided to appoint six committees—or commissions, as the French say—each to report to the Assembly on an important subject. While these were getting under way a general debate began on certain points that were highly charged with electricity. One of these was the admission of new members. Albania, Austria, Azerbaijan, and Bulgaria had applied for membership, and when the President made technical objections to their admission a heated dispute, led by Signor Tittoni and Lord Robert Cecil, was precipitated. Lord Robert said a refusal would create a bad impression. Bourgeois and Viviani spring to their feet, demanding to know whether this implied the admission of Germany. The British delegate answered with an emphatic No. Tittoni then declared in a vigorous speech that public opinion would refuse to exclude any State on a mere technicality. The debate waxed stormy, and the President was compelled to make frequent use of his gavel. In the end the four applications were referred to the Commission on New Memberships, and the question was postponed to a later session. One important result of this preliminary tilt was that the way was left open for Germany to make her application at any future time she deemed propitious. As France had threatened to leave the Assembly if Germany were admitted, even by a two-thirds vote, the Berlin Government had no present intention of pushing the matter to an issue.

Later Sessions

The official language to be used was a problem that had to be solved a few days later. French and English developed almost equal claims to predominance, and it was finally decided that both languages should be used, all speeches and documents being translated from one into the other. On Nov. 20, however, various Spanish-speaking nations presented a motion that their language also be given an official status. Eighteen nations, including Belgium and Great Britain, supported this request, on the ground that Spanish countries represented at least 40 per cent of the League's membership. But, because even two languages were found to make the proceedings slow and cumbersome, the motion was rejected, much to the chagrin of the Spanish-speaking delegates. Already the smaller nations were beginning to feel that they were being dominated by the larger powers.

Rules intended to operate for the next five years were adopted on Nov. 30. They filled a document of seven pages and set up the whole machinery for future meetings of the Assembly. The first rule decreed that it should meet every year on the first Monday in September.…

Admission of New Members

Though the Assembly had set its face against the scheme of wholesale admission of all sovereign States, proposed by the departing delegation, and though, at its very first session, it had shown clearly that it had no present intention of admitting Germany, it was quite ready to consider proposals for the admission of other enemy nations that had made a sincere attempt to fulfill their treaty obligations. The admission of Austria, which made its application and appointed M. Mensdorff, former Austrian Ambassador to London, to speak on its behalf in the Assembly, was favorably considered on Dec. 15. Bulgaria was admitted to the League at the session of Dec. 9, despite the opposition of France, after the Membership Commission had reported in her favor. A factor which influenced this result was the receipt of a report from Marshal Foch declaring that Bulgaria had done more than any other of the Central Powers to fulfill the terms of the treaty.

Finland, Luxemburg, and Costa Rica were admitted on Dec. 16, and Albania was admitted on Dec. 17 after some debate, in which Delegate Inman of India dwelt upon the excellent impression which this act would have upon Mohammedans throughout the world. The six nations above named were all the new ones admitted; they brought the total membership to forty-seven. The application of Azerbaijan, Georgia, the Ukraine, Esthonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro and Lichtenstein were rejected for the present, most of them on the ground maintained by President Wilson that former Russian territory should not be disposed of until a responsible Russian government had given its consent.

Armenia almost won admission. Dr. Nansen of the sub-committee had handed in a favorable report, and the movement, led by M. Viviani, the "silver-tongued" orator of France, bade fair to be successful. The turn of the wheel of history, however, produced a volte-face [about-face] on the part of the Assembly. Delegate Fisher of England had received advance news that Armenia had abandoned her resistance to the Turks and gone Bolshevist; he therefore moved for postponement, and before the next meeting the whole story of Armenia's capitulation had been published in the papers. The Premiers decided against recognition, and on Nov. 25 the Assembly decided instead, to ask President Wilson to mediate between the Armenians and the Nationalist forces of Mustapha Kemal. Mr. Wilson accepted the task and appointed Henry W. Morgenthau, former United States Ambassador to Turkey, to act as his representative.…

Establishment of World Court

One positive action taken by the Assembly, considered to be of the greatest importance in its bearing on future international disputes, was the adoption of the project of an International Tribunal, drawn up at The Hague not long ago by eminent jurists, led by Elihu Root.

After an all-day debate, on Dec. 13, the plan was adopted, subject to its signing and ratification by a majority of the nations. Provision was made for ratification by the United States. The court is to sit at The Hague. It will have eleven judges, elected by the League. Debate arose over the much-disputed question of whether or not the new world tribunal should have compulsory jurisdiction. The smaller nations wished this, the large powers did not. Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan were strong in their opposition. The other thirty-six nations fought for it obstinately. The big nations stood fast in their decision that they would not engage themselves to submit all disputes to the court. Vigorous speeches marked the debate throughout, and one delegate, Senator Lafontaine of Belgium, made a powerful and moving appeal. It was repeatedly pointed out, however, by the opposers that Austria would never have agreed to submit the Serbian dispute to such a court, had it existed, before going to war. The debate assumed at times an aspect of considerable acrimony. Leon Bourgeois of France, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize of 1919, who had fought nearly all his life for the establishment of a world court with compulsory jurisdiction, and was now compelled, under orders from his Government, to oppose it, was, to many, a tragic figure.

The draft of the court plan provided for compulsory jurisdiction on the ground that if the court had power only when the parties agreed to it the world would see a repetition of the fiasco of The Hague tribunal. But the League Council, controlled by the large powers, refused to admit this proposal, and carried the day in committee. The world tribunal, however, was established as a great international body, empowered to arbitrate in all disputes threatening future war; the importance of this fact could not be gain-said [denied]. One dream of the workers for future peace had become a reality.


The League of Nations enjoyed several diplomatic successes before its demise. In 1921 the issue of the Åland Islands was brought to arbitration by Finland and Sweden. Historically the islands belonged to Finland. The Swedish-speaking residents, however, wanted Swedish control. The league determined that the island should remain under Finnish rule but that no weapons would be kept on the island. All parties agreed to the ruling. In 1922 the league settled a dispute between Germany and Poland over Upper Silesia, when a referendum on which country the region should join led to rioting. The league split the territory between the two nations. In 1923, the League decided the issue of the Lithuanian port of Memel. Initially under league jurisdiction, Lithuania sought its control. The league declared the port an international zone under Lithuanian direction. In 1925, after a Greek soldier was shot and killed by a Bulgarian sentry on the border between the two nations, Greece invaded Bulgaria. The League ordered both nations to stop fighting, and demanded that Greece withdraw its troops and pay a fine.

Despite these and other preliminary successes, the organization was disbanded by 1946. One factor leading to its demise was a lack of significant membership. Although Wilson had been instrumental in the league's creation, the Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which contained the league covenant. Other nations left the league, as Japan and Germany did in 1933. Many nations never joined at all. Perhaps most importantly, the league lacked any effective leverage or deterrent; the Allies in particular were often unwilling to enforce economic or military sanctions. The organization's lack of political will to denounce Japanese and German aggression in the 1930s helped pave the way for World War II.

Despite its limitations, the league's legacy lives on in the United Nations, which retains much of the original organizational structure and goals. As an outgrowth of the league, the new organization continued much of its predecessor's work, including the creation of an international world health body and work in developing nations.



Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. Princeton: Princeton University, 1995.

Web sites

Yale University. "The Covenant of the League of Nations." <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/leagcov.htm> (accessed May 10, 2006).

BBC. "The League of Nations and the United Nations." <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/state/nations/league_nations_01.shtml> (accessed May 10, 2006).

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