League of Nations

views updated May 21 2018

League of Nations


The League of Nations, inaugurated in 1920, was the first major international organization to attempt to tie individual nation-state security to international security. Envisioned as a collective securityrather than a collective defenseorganization, the League of Nations attempted to replace individual nation-state self-interest with an altruistic vision of international justice and cooperation. In a first for international law, the Covenant of the League committed every signatory to settle disputes through arbitration before going to war. The centerpiece of the League Covenant was Article 10, which bound the League to collectively preserve the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members.

Despite its all-encompassing mandate to preserve peace and security of the international community though mutual action, the League was not the first international organization to espouse such goals. The Concert of Europe (18151900) and the two Hague Conferences (1899 and 1907) had each in their way advanced the issue of international cooperation on the world stage, but both had serious limitations. The Concert of Europe was limited by the fact that only the Great Powers of Europe took part, and its means of conflict resolution (arbitration) only worked as long as each power agreed to submit. For their part, the two Hague Conferences were more inclusive (twenty-six and forty-four states, respectively) and accomplished more with respect to codifying into international law the peaceful settlement of disputes. The three Hague Conventions that arose from these conferences, along with the Permanent Count of Arbitration, presaged the Covenant of the League of Nations.

The League was born out of the experience of World War I. Many politicians believed the war had occurred in large part due to the brutal nature of realpolitik and the secretive diplomacy and shifting alliances between the Great Powers. For Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States from 1912 to 1920, the League of Nations represented a capstone of a morally based foreign policy; one designed to replace the dangerous balance of power politics with a more transparent and cooperative system between sovereign, democratic states governed by the principle of national self-determination. Wilson articulated his vision several times during his presidency, but his most famous statement on the League concluded his famous Fourteen Points speech presented before the U.S. Congress on January 8, 1918: 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.

The League was an integral part of the Treaty of Versailles, negotiated in early 1919 and enacted on January 10, 1920. The League began operations in Geneva, Switzerland, with Sir Eric Drummond its first secretary general. Structurally, the League consisted of a council, an assembly, and a secretariata structure that would subsequently serve as the model for the United Nations. The Council was originally designed to have nine members: the five great powers (Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States with permanent seats, as well as four temporary rotating members (the first four were Belgium, Brazil, Greece, and Spain). However, despite an ardent cross-country campaign by Wilson, which eventually contributed to his debilitating stroke, the isolationist Senate failed to ratify the treaty and the United States never officially joined the League. Thus, the Council consisted of eight members until 1922, when two additional small states were added. In 1926 the Council was further increased to fifteen members, including Germany.

The foremost goal of the League was the prevention of another world war, and the League Covenant included calls for disarmament and dispute resolution through arbitration in the International Court or inquiry before the League Council. The central focus of the Covenant was the set of articles outlining the principles and responsibilities of collective security. Article 16 declared that any state that went to war without first vetting disputes through the League processes would be deemed to have committed an act of war against all other member states of the League. Building upon the idea of deterrence through the threat of all against one, the collective members were then expected to sever all trade and financial relations with the aggressor state. Notably member states were not legally obliged to apply military sanctions, although Article 16 claims that military sanction may be a political and moral duty incumbent to states. The Leagues architects, including Wilson, believed that this collective security system would ultimately preempt the precarious alliance behavior and arms races that had caused war repeatedly in the past.

The League did enjoy numerous successes, particularly in settling territorial disputes such as those between Albania and Yugoslavia (1921), Germany and Poland over Upper Silesia (1922), and Greece and Bulgaria (1925). Yet it is largely the Leagues spectacular failures that stand out when accounting for its fate. Conventional wisdom holds that the refusal of the U.S. Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles crippled the League from the outset. Other reasons for failure are both structural and operational. Reflecting its origins as an international organization with members of varying power and interests, the League Covenant contained structural compromises needed to ensure member state ratification and participation. The biggest of these concessions was the discrepancy between Articles 5 and 10. Article 10 promised collective preservation of territorial integrity and political independence of all member states, whereas Article 5 required all decisions taken by the League Council be made on the basis of unanimity of the members in attendance. Article 5 thus ensured a veto for any member of the Council who undertook aggressive action against another member.

Operationally the League was hampered throughout its existence by the reluctance of its member states to intervene in international disputes and apply collective security mechanisms. One of the most egregious cases was the Leagues weak response to Japans invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Instead of sanctioning Japan, the League failed to take decisive action for more than seven monthspartly due to the structural flaw of the League Council, which enabled Japan (as a permanent member) to delay League action. The League finally sent observers, but only after Japan formally withdrew from the League. By 1934 the Leagues lack of teeth would become readily evident again in the case of Italys invasion of Ethiopia (which solicited only a weak set of economic sanctions on the part of the League) and Adolf Hitlers obvious rearming of Germany. Ultimately, the declaration of World War IIwhich the League was designed to preventspelled the demise of the institution. Although the League lingered on through the war, it finally faded into irrelevance and it functions were formally turned over to the newly created United Nations in 1945.

SEE ALSO Alliances; Confederations


Knock, Thomas J. 1992. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. New York: Oxford University Press.

Link, Arthur S., ed. 19661994. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. 69 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Northedge, F. S. 1986. The League of Nations: Its Life and Times, 19201946. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers.

Scott, George. 1973. The Rise and Fall of the League of Nations. London: Hutchison & Co.

Catherine Weaver

League of Nations

views updated May 29 2018


LEAGUE OF NATIONS , international organization functioning between the two World Wars, for the establishment of world peace and the promotion of cooperation among states. Founded in January 1920, it formally ceased to exist in April 1946, although in fact it was active only until the beginning of World War ii. During the 19 years of its effective existence, among its preoccupations were questions connected with the situation of the Jewish people in Palestine and the Diaspora.

The Mandate for Palestine

According to article 22 of the Covenant of the League, the basis for the establishment of the system of international mandates, the authority to define the terms of mandates and the supervision of their execution was entrusted to the Council of the League. On July 24, 1922, the council confirmed the *Mandate for Palestine, which included the *Balfour Declaration, and the British government was thereby committed "to place the country under such political, administrative, and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home." In its supervisory capacity, the Council of the League was assisted by a special commission – the Permanent Mandates Commission – and from 1924 until the end of 1939, this commission held annual debates on the administration of the Palestine mandate. In the years 1930 and 1937, two extraordinary sessions were dedicated to it: the first after the riots in Palestine of August 1929; the second after the British Royal Commission, with Lord Peel as chairman, suggested the partition of western (cis-Jordan) Palestine into two states: one Jewish and one Arab.

In observations made by the Mandates Commission at its session of 1930, the British government was severely criticized for not having stationed sufficient troops in Palestine to ensure the immediate suppression of the anti-Jewish riots; it had thus proved itself powerless to protect Jewish life – the essential condition for the development of the Jewish National Home. In the opinion of the commission, the adoption of "a more active policy… a firmer and more constant and unanimous determination… would have diminished the antagonism from which the country suffers." The establishment of the Jewish National Home and the foundation of self-governing institutions were defined as the two objects of the Palestine mandate; the commission emphasized that there was no time limit for the attainment of these objects and that the immediate and daily obligations which stemmed from the provisions of the mandate should be carried out by the mandatory authorities independent of the ultimate aims. The mandatory authorities were called upon to show a firm hand: "to all the sections of the population which are rebelling against the mandate… the mandatory power must obviously return a definite and categorical refusal; as long as the leaders of a community persist in repudiating what is the fundamental charter of the country… the negotiations would only unduly enhance their prestige…." The commission's observations aroused the anger of the British government; however, thanks to the efforts of the reporter on mandatory affairs, a split was averted and the Council of the League approved the observations of the commission.

In 1937, the commission was requested to submit a preliminary opinion on the partition proposal; it observed, not without an undertone of criticism, that "the present mandate became almost unworkable once it was publicly declared to be so by a British Royal Commission… and by the government of the mandatory power itself." With little evident enthusiasm, the commission declared itself favorable in principle to an examination of a solution involving the partition of Palestine. At the same time, however, it expressed its opposition to the immediate creation of two new independent states, Jewish and Arab, and preferred the prolongation of the mandatory regime in the form of provisional "cantonization" or by the existence of two separate mandates for such a determined period as may prove necessary. In 1939, the *White Paper published by the British government was submitted to the commission. With the object of appeasing the Arabs, the White Paper misinterpreted the mandate's provisions concerning the establishment of a Jewish National Home, and by imposing minority status on the Jews rendered these provisions meaningless. The commission reached the unanimous conclusion "that the policy set out in the White Paper was not in accordance with the interpretation which, in agreement with the mandatory power and the Council [of the League], the commission had always placed upon the Palestine mandate." By a majority of one, the commission also declared that it was unable to state that the policy of the White Paper was in conformity with the mandate, "any contrary conclusion appearing to them to be ruled out by the very terms of the mandate and by the fundamental intentions of its authors." Since World War ii broke out in the meantime, the White Paper never came before the Council of the League.

Although the Permanent Mandates Commission had been granted the status of an advisory body only, its prestige was enhanced by the fact that its members were men independent of their governments and because it conceived of its supervisory role as a quasi-judicial one. Even before their approval by the Council of the League, its conclusions and observations were regarded as being of considerable importance and weight. In the Jewish Agency's struggle for the correct interpretation of the provisions of the Palestine mandate regarding the National Home, the debates of the commission and its conclusions became a factor of no small significance in the attempt to prevent deviation and distortion by the mandatory power.

Minorities Rights

The League of Nations also played a part in the protection of Jewish minorities in the Diaspora. According to the minorities treaties signed by a number of Eastern and Southeastern European states at the close of World War i, and also to the declarations later made by several states to the Council of the League, supervision over the obligations undertaken by these states was entrusted to the Council of the League. In view of the difficult and often precarious situation of the Jewish minorities in various countries (particularly Poland and Romania), there was reason to suppose that complaints concerning denial of rights and discrimination would be numerous and that the League of Nations would be called upon to deal with them. However, during all the years of its existence, only two such petitions were debated by the council. The reason for this was that the procedure for handling petitions was complicated and the chances of reaching a satisfactory arrangement were slight. Moreover, as the very appeal to the League aroused the anger of the government whose actions were criticized, the Jews preferred to refrain from seeking the League's intervention.

In December 1925, the Council of the League considered petitions submitted to it by the Joint Foreign Committee (of the *Board of Deputies of British Jews and the *Anglo-Jewish Association) and the *Alliance Israélite Universelle against the introduction of the *numerus clausus in institutions of higher education in Hungary. The Jewish organizations called upon the League of Nations to condemn the numerus clausus as incompatible with the principle of equality of rights. However, the Council of the League was not prepared to go into this legal question and took no action in the matter, contenting itself with recording the declaration of the Hungarian representative that the law was merely an exceptional and temporary one and that it would be repealed when a favorable change occurred in the abnormal situation resulting from the Trianon Treaty. The Hungarian government did indeed make some changes in this law in 1928 and 1929, but in practice the discrimination persisted. However, another petition, which came before the League a few months after Hitler's rise to power, achieved far greater success. Submitted by Franz *Bernheim, a former resident of Upper Silesia, it protested against the anti-Jewish discriminatory laws of the Third Reich, as they affected the Jews of Upper Silesia and thus violated the German-Polish convention of 1922 on this region (see *Bernheim petition). As a result of the debates held in the Council of the League in May and June 1933, Germany was compelled to honor the convention, and for another four years – until its termination on May 15, 1937 – the Jews of Upper Silesia enjoyed the rights which had been guaranteed by this minorities agreement.

In 1921 the question of the expulsion of 80,000 Jewish refugees from Vienna was placed on the agenda of the Council of the League – not, on this occasion, as a result of a petition submitted by Jewish organizations but on the intervention of the Polish government, which came to the defense of its citizens. Although the council reached the conclusion that legally there was no objection to the expulsion of foreign citizens, it appealed to the Austrian government not to ignore the moral and humanitarian implications, and an arrangement was concluded which prevented the expulsion of the majority of those Jews. In addition, a number of other petitions were submitted to the League of Nations, among them appeals against the denial of the rights of Austrian Jews after the country's annexation by Nazi Germany and against the oppression of the Jews of Romania, which were submitted by the *World Jewish Congress. These, however, were not placed on the council's agenda. Memoranda on other questions, too, were brought from time to time before the League by Jewish organizations. These included appeals against pogroms in Eastern Europe, particularly the postwar massacres in the Ukraine; demands concerning the right to nationality and to reasonable naturalization requirements; and the status of the Jews in the free city of Danzig where the Nazis won a majority in the senate in 1933 and the Jews at once became victims of persecution and oppression. In December 1934, on the eve of the plebiscite in the Saar territory, the German government was forced to make a commitment to the Council of the League that if the region were handed over to the Reich, it would permit persons domiciled there who wished to leave to emigrate and take their belongings with them.

In the deliberations held annually in the Sixth (political) Commission of the General Assembly, a great deal of attention was regularly focused on problems connected with the establishment of the Jewish National Home, as well as the tightening of the procedure for dealing with minorities' petitions, thereby offering more efficient protection – a matter which was of particular interest to the Jews. In 1933 the commission's debates were marked by the tragedy of German Jewry; in an attempt to improve that community's legal status, the General Assembly once more reaffirmed the 1922 recommendations that "the states which are not bound by legal obligations to the League with respect to minorities will nevertheless observe in the treatment of their own… minorities at least as high a standard of justice and toleration as is required by any of the treaties…."

Other Activities

The League's activities on behalf of refugees and stateless persons were of special importance because a large number of Jews had lost their nationality after World War i. The "Nansen Passport," which was recognized by 51 states, became the identity card of former Russian subjects and granted them a certain legal status enabling them to travel from one country to another and obtain employment. In 1933 the General Assembly of the League appointed a high commissioner for *refugees (Jewish and others) coming from Germany. However, as a result of Germany's objections to the establishment of this office within the framework of the League, it was set up as an autonomous institution. At the end of 1938 it was amalgamated with the Nansen International Office for Refugees and all the League's activities on behalf of refugees were concentrated in the hands of the high commissioner for refugees. Since during this period almost all states were closed to immigration, the means of assisting the refugees were extremely limited.

Occasionally, a general topic of special interest to the Jews was placed on the agenda of the League, as in the case of the question of the reform of the Gregorian calendar. After six years of preliminary studies, the matter was brought up for debate in October 1931. From almost 200 propositions submitted, considerable support was given to one suggesting that the year be divided into 13 equal months of 28 days and that the last day (or the last two days in a leap year) should be trimmed off and deemed an extra day, or "blank day." By the terms of this proposal, the regular sequence of seven-day weeks would have been interrupted by the introduction of the "blank day" and the Sabbath would have moved to a different weekday each year. As this would have seriously prejudiced Sabbath observance, the Jewish spokesmen led by the chief rabbis of France and Britain fought the reform project. In the face of the combined opposition of many governments, the Jews, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and other bodies, the conference concluded almost unanimously that the time was not ripe for modifying the Gregorian calendar.

Since the League of Nations was an organization of states and not of nations, the Jews as such were naturally unable to participate in its activities. However, where the participation of nongovernmental, international, or national organizations was considered desirable on certain commissions or at conferences convened under the aegis of the League, Jewish organizations were also invited to nominate permanent representatives or send observers. Thus, for example, Jewish observers were invited to attend the conference on calendar reform and were authorized to voice their opinions. The Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women participated in the activities of the Traffic in Women and Children Committee. Jewish organizations were represented on the Advisory Committee affiliated to the League's Nansen institutions for refugees, and in the Advisory Council (later known as the Liaison Committee) affiliated to the high commission for the care of the German refugees. Among the 22 members of the advisory committee formed on the appointment of the high commissioner in 1933, there were 12 delegates from Jewish public bodies representing the Jewish communities of the United States, Britain, France, Poland, Belgium, and Holland, as well as the Jewish Agency, ica (*Jewish Colonization Association), the *American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the *Comité des Délégations Juives, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, and *Agudat Israel. In 1924, the Jewish Agency, a public body recognized by international law in the Palestine mandate, set up a permanent office in Geneva in order to assure constant communication with the secretariat of the League and with members of the Mandate Commission when in session. The Jewish organizations concerned with protecting the rights of the Jewish minorities sent delegates to the general assemblies of the League in Geneva, while the Comité des Délégations Juives (and later the World Jewish Congress) was permanently represented in Geneva.

The establishment of the League of Nations kindled the hope that a new world would be built from the ruins of the old. The Jews also placed much faith in it. These hopes did not materialize, especially after 1930 when the League's prestige was on the wane; by 1937 its lack of power had become all too obvious. Despite this, however, the Jews did derive some benefits from the League's activities. Insofar as its means permitted, the League sought to ensure the observance of the provisions of the Palestine mandate, and on a few occasions succeeded in preventing attacks on the rights of the Jews in the Diaspora and alleviating their suffering.


Comité des Délégations Juives, Bulletins, 1–27 (1919–25); Joint Foreign Committee, Reports… on Questions of Jewish Interest at the Assemblies of the League of Nations (1920–26); League of Nations, Permanent Mandates Commission, Minutes (1921–39); N. Feinberg, La question des minorités à la Conférence de la Paix de 19191920 et la protection des minorités (1929); idem, Ereẓ Yisrael bi-Tekufat ha-Mandat u-Medinat Yisrael, Be'ayot ba-Mishpat ha-Bein-Le'ummi (1963); Palestine, a Study of Jewish, Arab and British Policies (Esco Foundation, 1947); Institute of Jewish Affairs, Were the Minorities Treaties a Failure? (1947); World Jewish Congress, Unityin Dispersion (1948).

[Nathan Feinberg]

League of Nations

views updated May 08 2018


LEAGUE OF NATIONS. The name of this organization is generally traced to the 1908 book La Société des Nations by the influential French peace negotiator Leon Bourgeois. During World War I a growing number of political leaders, including Lord Robert Cecil in Britain, Jan Christian Smuts in South Africa, and the former U.S. president William Howard Taft, pointed to the need for an international organization that would facilitate greater security and cooperation among nations. The U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, whose name would become most closely associated with the League of Nations, had also repeatedly proposed such an organization. Wilson's concern to set up an international organization to secure and maintain peace between nation-states was laid out in a number of speeches and public addresses before and after the United States entered World War I in April 1917. On 8 January 1918, in a major address to the U.S. Congress, he outlined his proposal to end the war and provide a framework for a new postwar international order. Wilson's address centered on his so-called Fourteen Points, which, with some revision, provided the overall framework for the negotiation of an armistice in Europe by 11 November 1918. Of particular importance was his fourteenth point, which called for the establishment of an organization that would protect the independence and sovereignty of all nations. Wilson certainly played an important role in the establishment of the League of Nations, even if the notion that he was its veritable "father" is exaggerated.


In a more general way the League of Nations was grounded in the rise and fall of the practice of consultation among the European powers, which was increasingly formalized as the Concert of Europe after 1815. By the late nineteenth century the Concert of Europe was breaking down in the context of the rise of imperial Germany. The emergence of the United States as an increasingly important player also weakened the balance of power on which the Concert of Europe rested, as did the wider social and political changes in Europe itself. However, the central idea of the Concert of Europe—that the Great Powers had particular rights and duties in international relations—underpinned the creation of the Council of the League of Nations. This was the organization's supreme decision-making body and included only the major powers.

Despite the influence of the Concert of Europe, a more immediate and equally important catalyst for the League of Nations was World War I. The war stimulated a general dissatisfaction with the management of inter-state relations and encouraged growing interest in a new international system of collective security. In May 1916 Woodrow Wilson publicly spoke of the need to reform the international order. This gave the whole idea greater legitimacy and encouraged European political leaders to examine the idea. This interest was further strengthened when the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought pressure to bear on the old international system. A number of draft versions of the constitution for the League of Nations were produced by the United States and by the European governments. The actual peace conference in 1919 focused on a draft produced jointly by the United States and Britain.

Establishment and Organization

By 1918 there was general agreement that a League of Nations should be established. The key articles of the actual covenant (constitution) spelled out the role of the league in identifying and addressing threats to peace, the settlement of disputes, and the imposition of sanctions against states violating international agreements. These articles occasioned limited disagreement. Participating nations also generally agreed that the league should be made up of an executive council, a deliberative assembly, and an administrative secretariat, but they disagreed over the exact function and makeup of these bodies. In an early draft of the covenant, membership of the council was restricted to the Great Powers and any smaller nation-states that the Great Powers chose to invite. However, the formulation that eventually prevailed designated the Great Powers as permanent members of the council while small powers had nonpermanent membership. The operation and membership of the assembly, which was the model for the General Assembly of the United Nations after 1945, was also a subject of some debate. In fact its overall operation and significance was really only worked out in subsequent years.

The administrative secretariat, set up as a coordinating and administrative body, was a less divisive issue. Its power was grounded entirely in the council and the assembly. The headquarters of the league were in Geneva, Switzerland, where the secretariat prepared reports and agendas. The assembly, which was made up of representatives of all the member governments, set policy and met on an annual basis. Britain, France, Italy, and Japan held permanent membership in the council, which met more regularly than the assembly. It had been expected that the United States would be the fifth permanent member of the council. At the same time, the assembly elected another four (eventually nine) temporary members to the council to serve three-year terms. All decisions taken by the council and the assembly had to be unanimous if they were to be binding. The league also included a number of subsidiary organizations. One of these, the International Labor Organization (ILO) was a specific response to the Russian Revolution. It was hoped that the ILO would appease some of the more radical tendencies within the trade union movement in various parts of the world and curtail the attractions of international communism. A Permanent Court of International Justice was also set up, as well as a range of commissions that dealt with issues such as refugees, health, drugs, and child welfare. At the time of its foundation in 1919 the league had forty-two member governments. This increased to fifty-five by 1926; however, the failure of the United States to become a member contributed significantly to the decline of the organization by the 1930s. Meanwhile, Germany only became a member in 1926 and withdrew in 1933, while the Soviet Union was only a member from 1934 to 1939. The Japanese government departed in 1933, and the Italian government ended its association with the league in 1937.

Operations and Activities

The prevention and settlement of disputes between nation-states in order to avoid another conflagration like World War I was central to the operations and activities of the league. Although it did not have a military force of its own, the league prevented or settled a number of conflicts and disputes in the 1920s. In fact, it was the activities of the league in the 1920s that made it appear to many people that it had some long-term prospects for success. The league played a major role in the resolution of a dispute over the Aaland Islands between the governments of Finland and Sweden. In 1925 it got the Greek government to withdraw from Bulgaria and resolved a border dispute between the governments of Turkey and Iraq. The league's inability to settle a conflict between the governments of Bolivia and Paraguay at the beginning of the 1930s demonstrated that the league's sphere of influence was centered on Europe. It also showed that the league's activities in Latin America were hampered by Washington's lack of support for, or membership in, the organization. During its entire history, none of the disputes that the league successfully resolved affected the interests of the Great Powers.

It is generally argued that the limitations of the league were manifested most obviously in the Manchurian crisis of the early 1930s. The Chinese government requested help from the league following Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931, but the league failed to prevent the ensuing Sino-Japanese conflict. None of the other major powers in the league were able or willing to take a strong stand against Japan, and the league moved slowly on what little action it did take, following well behind the unfolding situation. By early 1932 the Japanese government had set up the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria. It was not until February 1933 that the league discussed and adopted the report of the Lytton Commission, which had been dispatched earlier to look into the affair. Although the report was a relatively mild document, it did recommend that Manchuria be given autonomous status within China. Within a month of the adoption of the report of the Lytton Commission, the Japanese government had withdrawn from the League of Nations.

In the wake of the league's failure in Manchuria, the crisis that clearly signaled its waning influence in the 1930s was the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy in October 1935. This led to the imposition of economic sanctions on war-related materials that were, in theory, carried out by all members of the league. These sanctions soon proved insufficient. But the ability of the league, or more particularly of Britain and France, to move to more significant actions, such as closing the Suez Canal to Italian shipping and the cutting off of all oil exports to Italy, was constrained by the fear that such action would provoke war with Italy. The situation was further undermined because Britain and France tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a secret deal with Mussolini (the Hoare-Laval Pact) that would settle the dispute peacefully by allowing Italy to retain control of some Ethiopian territory.

The End of the League of Nations

In broad terms the decline of the League of Nations in the 1930s reflected the unwillingness or inability of Britain, France, and the United States to oppose the increasingly nationalist-imperialist and militaristic trajectories of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and imperial Japan. The post-1919 international order that resulted from the Treaty of Versailles was fragile, and the league embodied that fragility. Following the Ethiopian crisis the league was more or less irrelevant. It failed to respond to the direct military intervention of Germany and Italy in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). Meanwhile, Turkey's capture of part of Syria, Hitler's occupation of Czechoslovakia, and Mussolini's invasion of Albania in the late 1930s also produced virtually no response from the league. Its final, and largely symbolic, action was the expulsion of the Soviet Union following its invasion of Finland in 1939. The League of Nation's numerous shortcomings ensured that it never played the role in international affairs that its early promoters had hoped it would. In a somewhat circular fashion it is clear that the lack of cooperation and collective action between nation-states that encouraged political leaders to call for a League of Nations in the first place was the very thing that undermined the league once it was created. The League of Nations was dissolved in 1946. However, World War II also led to the reinvention of the League of Nations, insofar as the United Nations, which was first suggested in the Atlantic Charter in 1941 and formally established in late 1945, built on the earlier organization.


Armstrong, David. The Rise of the International Organisation: A Short History. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Gill, George. The League of Nations: From 1929 to 1946. Garden City Park, N.Y.: Avery, 1996.

Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Ostrower, Gary B. The League of Nations: From 1919 to 1929. Garden City Park, N.Y.: Avery, 1996.

Thorne, Christopher G. The Limits of Foreign Policy: The West, the League, and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1931–1933. New York: Putnam, 1973.

Walters, F. P. A History of the League of Nations. 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1952.

Mark T.Berger

See alsoVersailles, Treaty of .

League of Nations

views updated Jun 11 2018



The League of Nations was established as part of the peace settlement of 1919, with the express aim of ensuring that no conflict on the scale of World War I would ever occur again. The United States president, Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), took the lead in pressing for the immediate formation of a worldwide organization of states during the opening phase of the Paris Peace Conference. He insisted that the constitution of the new body—to be called the Covenant—should constitute the first twenty-six articles of each of the peace treaties concluded in 1919–1920. Ironically, Wilson's attempt to secure United States membership in the League by incorporating its constitution into the Treaty of Versailles failed when in November 1919 and again in March 1920, the United States Senate failed to ratify the treaty. Thus the United States never became a member of the League of Nations.

The major aims of the League were to prevent the outbreak of a major war, and to contain and resolve, by peaceful means as far as possible, any disputes that did break out between nations. In an attempt to maximize its effectiveness, the League was given a wide range of functions, all of which, separately or in combination, could provide "avenues of escape" from war. Thus the League was equipped to play many different roles: to act as a permanent interstate conference; as a disarmament agency; as the guarantor of the frontiers of its member states; as an agency for arbitration, conciliation, and the orderly settlement of disputes; as a body that could promote peaceful change and oversee mandates and minority provisions; and as an agency that could resolve wide-ranging international social and economic issues. It was also to oversee the International Labour Organization and other international bureaus. Geneva was chosen to be the headquarters for the new League.

The League of Nations came into existence in January 1920 and worked through two main decision-making bodies: an assembly that included delegates from all member states and met annually and the League Council, which comprised the major League powers and four representatives of smaller states, and met regularly during the year. There were four major powers who became founding members in 1920: Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. Germany and other former enemy powers were not invited to join the League in 1920 because the peacemakers at Paris agreed that they should have to demonstrate their fitness for inclusion by showing that they were carrying out the terms of the peace treaties. Nor was Bolshevik Russia—perceived as a hostile regime that aimed to undermine the peace settlement—regarded as an acceptable member. There were forty-three founding members of the League; sixteen from Europe; seventeen from Central and South America; five Dominions of the British Empire; China, Japan, and Siam from Asia; Persia (Iran); and Liberia. The League Assembly in 1920 voted for the inclusion of six more states, five from Europe and one from Central America.


Any assessment of the League's effectiveness between 1920 and 1939 must take account of its many and complex functions. While it clearly failed to perform well in its most high profile roles, and failed abysmally to prevent the outbreak of World War II, it also recorded some modest successes and left an enduring legacy. As a permanent interstate conference that aimed to include all the peace-loving states of the world, it has already been noted that the League was severely weakened by the failure of the United States to join. Until the mid 1920s, the League Council contained as many minor powers as it did major ones, but in 1926 Germany joined the League and stayed until 1933. In that year, both Germany and Japan gave notice that they intended to leave the League, but in 1934 the USSR became a member, only for Italy to withdraw three years later.

Thus the League never contained all the world's major powers and it therefore failed in one of its major objectives. However, the members it did have met regularly, and the friendships forged among the delegates helped to oil the wheels of international diplomacy, especially between 1925 and 1933. More important, an influential international secretariat was built up at Geneva of experts and civil servants from across the world, which administered League machinery and advised its member states. The wide-ranging expertise and specialist networks that developed at Geneva in the 1920s and 1930s exerted an influence on international affairs well beyond World War II.

As a disarmament agency, the League failed completely to persuade the great majority of its members to disarm to any great extent. It was the failure to achieve any lasting international arms limitation agreements that led people at the time and subsequently to dismiss the League as a totally ineffective body. However, in this role the League faced a number of severe obstacles that made success virtually unachievable from the start. In the face of a Germany that had been defeated but that was still territorially intact, and a hostile Bolshevik regime in Russia, mainland European powers demanded additional security from the League before they were prepared to reduce their armaments. With the United States out of the League, naval disarmament talks took place away from Geneva. Though representatives from both the United States and the USSR worked with League powers at Geneva from 1926 to draw up a disarmament convention, discussions were bedeviled by political and technical disagreements. The League Disarmament Conference that met in 1932 finally broke up in disarray after Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) led the German delegation out in October 1933.

League efforts to guarantee the political independence and territorial integrity of member states were also doomed to failure in the unstable aftermath of World War I. It proved impossible to preserve the postwar European and global territorial status quo, not least because leading League powers such as Japan and Italy had unsatisfied territorial ambitions that they were determined to pursue. And because neither Germany nor the USSR accepted the 1919 peace settlement as more than provisional, there was no way that the League would be able to prevent substantial territorial changes from occurring at some future point. The only issue was whether the changes would take place peacefully or through military challenge.

The League did have some success in resolving minor territorial disputes. A potential conflict over the Aland Islands between Sweden and Finland was peacefully settled in 1920, and the League also supervised the division of Upper Silesia between Poland and Germany in 1921. A dispute between Bulgaria and Greece was brought to an early end by firm League action in 1925. However, the seizure of Corfu by Italy in 1923 as retaliation for the murder of an Italian official, allegedly by Greek bandits, proved more difficult to resolve. Corfu was handed back to Greece, but only after the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) had tried hard to cause divisions between League powers and to deny that the League should have any jurisdiction over the dispute. The Greeks had to pay Italy a large indemnity, and the crisis revealed how limited the League's power was in the face of strong divisions between its leading members.

The two major conflicts that fatally challenged the League's credibility and authority and as a peacekeeping agency were the Manchurian dispute between Japan and China in 1931–1933 and the invasion and occupation of Ethiopia—a League member since 1923—by Italian troops in 1935. The League failed to prevent Japan from establishing the Manchurian province in north China as a Japanese-controlled puppet state or to force Italy out of Ethiopia. Indeed, the effect of halfhearted League action to try to restrain Japan and then Italy helped to drive both powers into an alignment with Nazi Germany. And as substantial German rearmament got under way after 1933, east European League members came under threat. Austria was annexed to Germany in March 1938, and six months later the Sudeten part of Czechoslovakia was ceded to Hitler. In March 1939 German troops invaded and occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. The League proved powerless to protect its members in the face of a resurgent German state, and in September 1939 World War II broke out when German troops invaded Poland. A last—and futile—League gesture in 1940 was to expel the USSR when it invaded Finland, the only time in its history that such action was taken.

As an administrative body, the League proved to be useful in supervising treaty agreements. It kept reasonable order in the Saar until 1935, and in Danzig, and it received annual reports from mandatory powers in respect of the mandates over German and Turkish colonies that had been established in the early 1920s. It also had responsibility for overseeing minority agreements entered into by a number of new central and east European states as part of the peace settlement, and it worked hard to try to resolve a range of potentially explosive ethnic tensions, though it lacked any means of enforcing its recommendations. And as Germany was not covered by any minority agreements, the League was unable to protect Jews from persecution after 1933.

The League also undertook a wide range of humanitarian activities such as assisting refugees, trying to prevent white slave trafficking and drug smuggling, and combating tropical diseases and the spread of infection. The International Labour Office was active in promoting labor agreements between employers and workers and improving working conditions. There was general agreement among member states that the League's social and economic activities had proved to be very effective, and in the late 1930s a League report called for an expansion of activities in these areas. While the League had failed in its major aims, its "nonpolitical" work was very successful and was continued and expanded upon by the United Nations.


Thus, the League did have some important successes, not least in providing the foundations for the United Nations after World War II. It is interesting that the United Nations has faced similar problems to the League, in particular the concern of member states to protect their own national interests and the difficulty of achieving any common agreement to pursue collective goals on a sustained basis. But globalization has resulted in increasing numbers of international bodies, and all of them have learned from the League's failures and are building on its foundations.

See alsoRed Cross; United Nations; Versailles, Treaty of .


Bendiner, Elmer. A Time for Angels: The Tragicomic History of the League of Nations. New York, 1975.

Henig, Ruth, ed. The League of Nations. Edinburgh, 1973.

Northedge, F. S. The League of Nations: Its Life and Times. Leicester, U.K., 1986.

Scott, George. The Rise and Fall of the League of Nations. London, 1973.

Steiner, Zara. The Lights That Failed: European International History 1919–1933. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 2005.

Walters, Frank. A History of the League of Nations. London, 1952.

Ruth Henig

League of Nations

views updated Jun 27 2018

League of Nations


When the United States entered World War I in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared that the nation's intention was to fight in the final war to ensure the survival and strength of democracy in the Western world. After the war, Wilson encouraged the victorious Allied powers to establish an international organization that would mediate conflict through diplomacy and promote peace. Wilson's idea led to the creation of the League of Nations, and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. The League of Nations was short lived, and plagued with problems from its inception. The organization did, however, lay the foundations for international cooperative efforts in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Despite Wilson's efforts to gain public support for the League of Nations, the United States government failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, the final agreement of the ending of World War I, and therefore, did not join the League. The lack of United States participation and financial backing forever plagued the League, hampering its efficacy and political influence. United States abstention from the League drew ire from some nations, and made others suspicious of the organization itself. Britain expressed dissatisfaction with the League, but ratified the treaty with the League of Nations provisions simply to avoid extended negotiation on reforming the already delayed peace settlement. Despite U.S. reservations, over 30 other nations joined the League in 1920 when the Treaty of Versailles went into effect on January 10: Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Ecuador, France, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Hejaz, Honduras, Italy, India, Japan, Liberia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serb-Croat-Sloven State (later, Yugoslavia), Siam, South Africa, and Uruguay.

The League was headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, because of the nations long-standing policy of declared neutrality. Though the Treaty of Versailles provided for the establishment of the diplomatic entity, it did not outline its organization. Its eventual structure took shape over the first two years of representative meetings of member nations. Eventually, the League came to be composed of three principal organs and several technical organizations.

The main body of the League of Nations was the assembly. Composed of representatives from each member states, the assembly met annually. Each resolution, or legal advisory, passed by the assembly was subsequently published.

The council was a smaller body of representatives separate from, but still accountable to, the assembly. Membership on the council varied, and included a mixture of permanent and non-permanent seats. The mission of the council was to mediate and settle international disputes. The League of Nations charter stipulated that the council meet every four years, or as needed in the event of a crisis. In the League of Nation's 20-year history, the council met 107 times.

The secretary-general directed the League of Nations, serving as its chief negotiator and the leader of the assembly. The office of the secretary-general, the secretariat, carried out the routine office work of the league.

In addition to the principal organs of the league, several technical committees advised the assembly and council on international policy and special concerns. The league maintained a health organization, an economic and financial organization, the Opium Advisory Committee, and the Permanent Mandates Commission, in addition to several other temporary groups.

In its two-decade tenure, the League of Nations produced the first truly international laws and cooperative initiatives. The League Health Organization promoted safe hospital practices, vaccination campaigns, and public health information campaigns to curb the spread of venereal disease and tuberculosis. In response to the horrors of poison gas on the World War I battlefield, member nations negotiated bans on chemical weaponry. The rules of engagement for war were modified and codified for the modern era in the terms of the Geneva Convention. The league prompted member states to adhere to its terms, but to avoid war if possible.

In the mid-1930s, the league became increasingly ineffective. Though several nations attempted to halt the spread of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism through diplomacy, their efforts failed to prevent the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The league met for the last time during the war, and was dissolved by its member states on April 18, 1946.

Despite its limitations, the League of Nations established modern, international diplomatic protocol and fostered increasing cooperation between large and small nations on both sides of the Atlantic. Participation in the league drew some nations out of isolationism and propelled others onto the international economic and political stage. After the dissolution of the League of Nations, another international and legal entity, the United Nations, emerged. The atrocities of the Holocaust and a rise in war crimes prompted the international community to establish a body that could define and administer international law. The United States joined the United Nations as a charter member, officially ending its remnant isolationist policies. The United Nations assumed the duties of the former League of Nations and continues to expand its role in international diplomacy.



Knock, Thomas A. To End All Wars, reprint ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.


United Nations Security Council
World War I

League of Nations

views updated Jun 27 2018


Formed by the victorious powers in 1919, the League of Nations was designed to enforce the Treaty of Versailles and the other peace agreements that concluded World War I. It was intended to replace secret deals and war, as means for settling international disputes, with open diplomacy and peaceful mediation. Its charter also provided a mechanism for its members to take collective action against aggression.

Soviet Russia and Weimar Germany initially were not members of the League. At the time of the League's founding, the Western powers had invaded Russia in support of the anticommunist side in the Russian civil war. The Bolshevik regime was hostile to the League, denouncing it as an anti-Soviet, counterrevolutionary conspiracy of the imperialist powers. Throughout the 1920s, Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs Georgy Chicherin aligned the USSR with Weimar Germany, the other outcast power, against Britain, France, and the League. German adherence to the Locarno Accords with Britain and France in 1925, and Germany's admission to the League in 1926, dealt a blow to Chicherin's policy. This Germanophile, Anglophobe, anti-League view was not shared by Deputy Commissar of Foreign Affairs Maxim Litvinov, who advocated a more balanced policy, including cooperation with the League. Moreover, the USSR participated in the Genoa Conference in 1922 and several League-sponsored economic and arms control forums later in the decade.

Chicherin's retirement because of ill health, his replacement as foreign commissar by Litvinov, and, most importantly, the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany served to reorient Moscow's policy. The Third Reich now replaced the British Empire as the main potential enemy in Soviet thinking. In December 1933 the Politburo adopted the new Collective Security line in foreign policy, whereby the USSR sought to build an alliance of anti-Nazi powers to prevent or, if necessary, defeat German aggression. An important part of this strategy was the attempt to revive the collective security mechanism of the League. To this end, the Soviet Union joined the League in 1934, and Litvinov became the most eloquent proponent of League sanctions against German aggression. Soviet leaders also hoped that League membership would afford Russia some protection against Japanese expansionism in the Far East. Unfortunately, the League had already failed to take meaningful action against Japanese aggression in Manchuria in 1931, and it later failed to act against the Italian attack on Ethiopia in 1935. Soviet collective security policy in the League and in bilateral diplomacy faltered against the resolution of Britain and France to appease Hitler.

When Stalin could not persuade the Western powers to ally with the USSR, even in the wake of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, he abandoned the collective security line and signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Hitler on August 23, 1939. Subsequent Soviet territorial demands on Finland led to the Winter War of 19391940 and to the expulsion of the USSR from the League as an aggressor. However, Hitler's attack on Russia in 1941 accomplished what Litvinov's diplomacy could not, creating an alliance with Britain and the United States. The USSR thus became in 1945 a founding member of the United Nations, the organization that replaced the League of Nations after World War II.

See also: chicherin, georgy vasilievich; litvinov, maxim maximovich; nazi-soviet pact of 1939; united nations; world war i; world war ii


Buzinkai, Donald I. (1967). "The Bolsheviks, the League of Nations, and the Paris Peace Conference, 1919." Soviet Studies 19:257263.

Haigh, R.H.; Morris, D.S.; and Peters, A.R. (1986). Soviet Foreign Policy: The League of Nations and Europe, 19171939. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble.

Haslam, Jonathan. (1984). The Soviet Union and the Struggle for Collective Security in Europe, 193339. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Jacobson, Jan. (1994). When the Soviet Union Entered World Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Teddy J. Uldricks

League of Nations

views updated Jun 08 2018


The League of Nations is an international confederation of countries, with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, that existed from 1920 to 1946, its creation following world war i and its dissolution following world war ii. Though the League of Nations was a flawed and generally ineffective organization, many of its functions and offices were transferred to the united nations, which has benefited from the hard lessons the league learned.

President woodrow wilson, of the United States, was the architect of the League of Nations. When the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, Wilson sought to end a war that had raged for three years and to begin constructing a new framework for international cooperation. On January 8, 1918, he delivered an address to Congress that named fourteen points to be used as the guide for a peace settlement. The fourteenth point called for a general association of nations that would guarantee political independence and territorial integrity for all countries.

Following the November 9, 1918, armistice that ended the war, President Wilson led the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. Wilson was the only representative of the Great Powers—which included Great Britain, France, and Italy—who truly wanted an international organization. His power and influence were instrumental in establishing the League of Nations.

Although Wilson was the architect of the league, he was unable to secure U.S. Senate ratification of the peace treaty that included it. He was opposed by isolationists of both major political parties who argued that the United States should not interfere with European affairs, and by Republicans who did not want to commit the United States to supporting the league financially. The treaty was modified several times, but was nevertheless voted down for the last time in March 1920.

Despite the absence of the United States, the League of Nations held its first meeting on November 15, 1920, with forty-two nations represented. The constitution of the league was called a covenant. It contained twenty-six articles that served as operating rules for the league.

The league was organized into three main branches. The council was the main peacekeeping agency, with a membership that varied from eight to fourteen members during its existence. France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union held permanent seats during the years they were members of the league. The remainder of the seats were held by smaller countries on a rotating basis. Peacekeeping recommendations had to be made by a unanimous vote.

The assembly was composed of all members of the league, and each member country had one vote. The assembly controlled the league's budget, elected the temporary council members, and made amendments to the covenant. A two-thirds majority vote was required on most matters.

When a threat to peace was the issue, a majority vote plus the unanimous consent of the council was needed to recommend action.

The secretariat was the administrative branch of the league. It was headed by a secretary general, who was nominated by the council and approved by the assembly. The secretariat consisted of over six hundred officials, who aided peacekeeping work and served as staff to special study commissions and to numerous international organizations established by the league to improve trade, finance, transportation, communication, health, and science.

President Wilson and others who had sought the establishment of the league had hoped to end the system of interlocking foreign alliances that had drawn the European powers into World War I. The league was to promote collective security, in which the security of each league member was guaranteed by the entire league membership. This goal was undermined by the covenant because the council and the assembly lacked the power to order members to help an attacked nation. It was left up to each country to decide whether a threat to peace warranted its intervention. Because of this voluntary process, the league lacked the authority to quickly and decisively resolve armed conflict.

This defect was revealed in the 1930s. When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1933, the League of Nations could only issue condemnations. Then, in 1935, Italy, under benito mussolini, invaded Ethiopia. Ethiopia appeared before the assembly and asked for assistance. Britain and France, unwilling to risk war, refused to employ an oil embargo that would have hurt the Italian war effort. In May 1936 Italy conquered the African country.

The league also lost key member states in the 1930s. Japan left in 1933, following the Manchurian invasion. Germany, under the leadership of adolf hitler, also left in 1933, following the league's refusal to end arms limitations imposed on Germany after World War I. Italy withdrew in 1937, and the Soviet Union was expelled in 1939 for invading Finland.

The beginning of World War II, on September 1, 1939, marked the beginning of the end for the League of Nations. Collective security had failed. During the war the secretariat was reduced to a skeleton staff in Geneva, and some functions were transferred to the United States and Canada. With the creation of the United Nations on October 24, 1945, the League of Nations became superfluous. In 1946 the league voted to dissolve and transferred much of its property and organization to the United Nations.

The United Nations followed the general structure of the league, establishing a security council, a general assembly, and a secretariat. It had the benefit of U.S. membership and U.S. financial support, two vital elements denied the League of Nations.

further readings

Anghie, Antony. 2002. "Colonialism and the Birth of International Institutions: Sovereignty, Economy, and the Mandate System of the League of Nations." New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 34 (spring).

Harriman, Edward A. 2003. The Constitution at the Cross Roads: A Study of the Legal Aspects of the League of Nations, the Permanent Organization of Labor and the Permanent Court of International Justice. Clark, N.J.: The Lawbook Exchange.

Zimmern, Alfred. 1998. The League of Nations and the Rule of Law, 1918–1935. Holmes Beach, Fla.: Gaunt.

League of Nations

views updated May 23 2018

League of Nations

Hoping to counterbalance the growing political and economic power of the United States and the economic dominance of Britain in Latin America, nine Latin American countries (Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Peru) became charter members of the League of Nations in 1919, followed by several others that joined during the 1920s.

After World War I, Latin America continued to fear the possibility of direct foreign intervention in hemispheric affairs, not having forgotten European attempts, both direct and indirect, to do so during the 1800s and the U.S. buildup in the Caribbean in Theodore Roosevelt's day. The "big stick," the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, and dollar diplomacy had left their mark. In spite of Woodrow Wilson's declaration on 27 October 1913 that the United States would never again seek territory through conquest, and of some goodwill he gained by accepting Latin American leadership in the mediation of the Mexican Revolution, Latin American political leaders sought clarification of the Monroe Doctrine in the international arena. Just as Baron Rio Branco had closely aligned Brazil with unpopular U.S. policies in order to use the prestige of the U.S.-Brazilian alliance to escape British domination while establishing a favorable western boundary, Latin American leaders aligned themselves with the League of Nations.

Unfortunately, the League usually ignored Latin America and proved to be the wrong forum for negotiation, since the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the League's Covenant and the United States thus did not become a member. During the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. manufactured goods flooded Latin American markets while U.S. investments, particularly in Brazil, dominated Latin American economic development.

The League did get involved, however, in two incidents of open fighting in Latin America. In July 1932, the League began to investigate sporadic fighting between Bolivia and Paraguay over an area called the Gran Chaco. Paraguay formally declared war on 10 May 1933. More than 100,000 lives were lost while the League's fact-finding commission, headed by Álvarez del Vayo of Spain, investigated and made its way back to Geneva in December of that year. The League proposed a peace treaty, which both sides rejected, and then an arms embargo. The Chaco War dragged on mainly because, despite U.S. imposition of a separate arms embargo, existing arms contracts to Bolivia for the defense of the oilfield owned by Standard Oil of New Jersey were not affected. The war ended 14 June 1935 when Paraguay ran out of matériel.

The League was even less effective in settling open fighting between Peru and Colombia over Leticia, a small town with a strategic location on the upper Amazon. Both sides ignored League mediation efforts, but the conflict came to an end when Peru's president, Luis Sánchez Cerro, was assassinated in 1933. League commissioners administered the area around Leticia for a year and then returned it to Colombia.

By 1938, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Honduras had dropped out of the League, which they viewed as powerless, and turned to direct negotiations with the United States.

See alsoChaco War; Monroe Doctrine; Roosevelt Corollary; Wilson, Woodrow.


E. Bradford Burns, The Unwritten Alliance: Rio-Branco and Brazilian-American Relations (1966).

Joseph S. Tulchin, The Aftermath of War: World War I and U.S. Policy Toward Latin America (1971).

Elmer Bendiner, A Time for Angels: The Tragi-comic History of the League of Nations (1975).

Robert F. Smith, ed., The United States and the Latin American Sphere of Influence (1981).

F. S. Northedge, The League of Nations: Its Life and Times, 1920–1946 (1986).

Additional Bibliography

Irurozqui, Marta. "A bala, piedra y palo": La construcción de la ciudadanía política en Bolívia, 1826–1952. Seville: Diputación de Sevilla, 2000.

Lorini, Irma. El nacionalismo en Bolivia de la pre y posguerra del Chaco (1910–1945). La Paz: Plural Editores, 2006.

Segura, Jorge Rhenán. La Sociedad de las Naciones y la política centroamericana: 1919–1939. San José, Costa Rica: Euroamericana de Ediciones, 1993.

                                      Lesley R. Luster

League of Nations

views updated May 14 2018

League of Nations. The League of Nations was formally established on 10 January 1920 with a permanent headquarters at Geneva. It was very much the brainchild of President Woodrow Wilson, who insisted that it should be included in the peace treaties at the end of the First World War, and supported by the other allied statesmen, notably Lloyd George, with rather less enthusiasm. There was an assembly, at which all members were represented, and a council which included four permanent members (Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, joined by Germany in 1926) and a number of other members elected by the assembly. It supervised the transfer of German and Turkish colonies to the victorious allies under the mandate system. As a peace-keeping body, the League suffered from two handicaps which proved insuperable. First, some of the most important world powers were not members: Germany was excluded until 1926, the Bolshevik government in Russia denounced it as a capitalist club and did not join until 1934; worst of all, Wilson failed to persuade the US Senate to ratify the treaty and the most powerful nation of the world was therefore absent. Secondly, the League had no armed force of its own and member states were reluctant to provide troops: it was therefore obliged to rely upon economic sanctions, which were difficult to enforce and slow to take effect.

The League had some modest successes in its early days. Its specialized agencies did much to encourage international co-operation against slavery, drugs, and disease, and the Permanent Court of International Justice, set up by the League in 1920, resolved a number of minor disputes. In December 1925 at Locarno, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy reaffirmed their commitment to peace and accepted their western boundaries, a prelude to Germany's entry into the League in 1926. In 1928 the Kellogg–Briand pact, signed by most powers, announced their aim to repudiate war and settle all disputes peacefully. No more than a declaration, at least the USA was involved. Cynics pointed out that it merely repeated matters to which League members were already fully pledged.

The League's first major test came in 1931 when the Japanese invaded Manchuria. The League retorted with an investigation followed by a condemnation of Japan's violation of the covenant, and the Japanese promptly withdrew from the League in March 1933. A second challenge came in October 1935, when Mussolini's Italy invaded Ethiopia. This time the League did attempt to enforce economic sanctions, though there were vast gaps, particularly oil, and the invasion was completed before sanctions could bite. But, in any case, the rise of Nazi Germany presented a challenge on a far larger scale. Hitler had always made clear his contempt for the League of Nations as a talking shop and a tool for the Versailles victors. He lost no time in withdrawing Germany. The re-militarization of the Rhineland, the Anschluss with Austria, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the invasion of Poland followed in quick succession, with the League helpless. The council met only once after the outbreak of the Second World War, on 8 April 1946 when it handed over its powers to the new United Nations.

J. A. Cannon

League of Nations

views updated May 29 2018

League of Nations

In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) developed a peace program called “Fourteen Points.” His vision imagined a world without secret alliances or imperialism (the dominance of one country over many others). It was important to Wilson that even weaker countries be heard alongside stronger ones.

The last of his Fourteen Points called for the formation of a League of Nations, an international alliance to preserve peace. Representatives from all countries would join and work to solve international disputes without war. The League was established in 1920, and ironically, the U.S. Senate voted against joining, because most Senate members agreed that the United States was already involved in too many of Europe's disputes and conflicts. The American public supported this stance. As a result, the United States never joined the League of Nations, though American diplomats did encourage the League's activities and attend its meetings unofficially.

It became clear that the League had failed in its mission to prevent war when World War II (1939–45) began. The organization disbanded in 1946 and was replaced by the United Nations. For his efforts toward international peace, Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920.

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