League of Nations

Not to be confused with Commonwealth of Nations or Nations League.
This article is about the intergovernmental organisation. For the group in professional wrestling, see The League of Nations (professional wrestling).
League of Nations
Société des Nations  ( French)
Sociedad de Naciones  ( Spanish)
Intergovernmental organisation

1939–41 semi-official flag

Anachronous world map showing member states of the League of Nations from 1920 to 1945
Capital GenevaSwitzerland [a]
Political structure Intergovernmental organisation
 •  1920–33 Sir Eric Drummond
 •  1933–40 Joseph Avenol
 •  1940–46 Seán Lester
Deputy Secretary-General
 •  1919–23 Jean Monnet
 •  1923–33 Joseph Avenol
 •  1937–40 Seán Lester
Historical era Interwar period
 •  Treaty of Versailles 10 January 1920
 •  First meeting 16 January 1920
 •  Dissolved 20 April 1946
Succeeded by
United Nations
a. ^ The headquarters were based from 1 November 1920 in the Palais Wilson in Geneva, Switzerland, and from 17 February 1936 in the purpose built Palace of Nations also in Geneva.

The League of Nations (abbreviated as LN in English, La Société des Nations [la sɔsjete de nɑsjɔ̃] abbreviated as SDN or SdN in French) was an intergovernmental organisation founded on 10 January 1920 as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War. It was the first international organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. [1] Its primary goals, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. [2] Other issues in this and related treaties included labour conditions, just treatment of native inhabitants, human and drug trafficking, the arms trade, global health, prisoners of war, and protection of minorities in Europe. [3] At its greatest extent from 28 September 1934 to 23 February 1935, it had 58 members.

The diplomatic philosophy behind the League represented a fundamental shift from the preceding hundred years. The League lacked its own armed force and depended on the Great Powers to enforce its resolutions, keep to its economic sanctions, or provide an army when needed. However, the Great Powers were often reluctant to do so. Sanctions could hurt League members, so they were reluctant to comply with them. During the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, when the League accused Italian soldiers of targeting Red Cross medical tents, Benito Mussolini responded that "the League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out." [4]

After a number of notable successes and some early failures in the 1920s, the League ultimately proved incapable of preventing aggression by the Axis powers in the 1930s. Germany withdrew from the League, as did Japan, Italy, Spain, and others. The onset of the Second World War showed that the League had failed its primary purpose, which was to prevent any future world war. The League lasted for 26 years; the United Nations (UN) replaced it after the end of the Second World War on 20 April 1946 and inherited a number of agencies and organisations founded by the League.



The 1864 Geneva Convention, one of the earliest formulations of international law.

The concept of a peaceful community of nations had been proposed as far back as 1795, when Immanuel Kant's Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch [5] outlined the idea of a league of nations to control conflict and promote peace between states. [6] Kant argued for the establishment of a peaceful world community, not in a sense of a global government, but in the hope that each state would declare itself a free state that respects its citizens and welcomes foreign visitors as fellow rational beings, thus promoting peaceful society worldwide. [7] International co-operation to promote collective security originated in the Concert of Europe that developed after the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century in an attempt to maintain the status quo between European states and so avoid war. [8] [9] This period also saw the development of international law, with the first Geneva Conventions establishing laws dealing with humanitarian relief during wartime, and the international Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 governing rules of war and the peaceful settlement of international disputes. [10] [11] As historian Ronald E. Powaski points out, Theodore Roosevelt was the first American President to call for an international league. [12] At the acceptance for his Nobel Prize, Roosevelt said: "it would be a masterstroke if those great powers honestly bent on peace would form a League of Peace" [13] [14]

The forerunner of the League of Nations, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, was formed by the peace activists William Randal Cremer and Frédéric Passy in 1889. The organisation was international in scope, with a third of the members of parliaments (in the 24 countries that had parliaments) serving as members of the IPU by 1914. Its aims were to encourage governments to solve international disputes by peaceful means. Annual conferences were held to help governments refine the process of international arbitration. Its structure consisted of a council headed by a president, which would later be reflected in the structure of the League. [15]

At the start of the 20th century, two power blocs emerged from alliances between the European Great Powers. It was these alliances that, at the start of the First World War in 1914, drew all the major European powers into the conflict. This was the first major war in Europe between industrialised countries, and the first time in Western Europe that the results of industrialisation (for example, mass production) had been dedicated to war. The result of this industrialised warfare, which provided modern weapons, coupled with outdated 19th century strategies, led to an unprecedented casualty level: eight and a half million soldiers killed, an estimated 21 million wounded, and approximately 10 million civilian deaths. [16] [17]

By the time the fighting ended in November 1918, the war had had a profound impact, affecting the social, political and economic systems of Europe and inflicting psychological and physical damage. [18] Anti-war sentiment rose across the world; the First World War was described as " the war to end all wars", [19] [20] and its possible causes were vigorously investigated. The causes identified included arms races, alliances, militaristic nationalism, secret diplomacy, and the freedom of sovereign states to enter into war for their own benefit. One proposed remedy was the creation of an international organisation whose aim was to prevent future war through disarmament, open diplomacy, international co-operation, restrictions on the right to wage war, and penalties that made war unattractive. [21]

Initial proposals

Lord Bryce, one of the earliest advocates for a League of Nations.

At the start of the First World War the first schemes for international organisation to prevent future wars began to gain considerable public support, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States. Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, a British political scientist, coined the term "League of Nations" in 1914 and drafted a scheme for its organisation. Together with Lord Bryce, he played a leading role in the founding of the group of internationalist pacifists known as the Bryce Group, later the League of Nations Union. [22] The group became steadily more influential among the public and as a pressure group within the then governing Liberal Party. In Dickinson's 1915 pamphlet After the War he wrote of his "League of Peace" as being essentially an organisation for arbitration and conciliation. He felt that the secret diplomacy of the early twentieth century had brought about war and thus could write that, "the impossibility of war, I believe, would be increased in proportion as the issues of foreign policy should be known to and controlled by public opinion." The ‘Proposals’ of the Bryce Group were circulated widely, both in England and the US, where they had a profound influence on the nascent international movement. [23]

In 1915, a similar body was set up in the United States by a group of like-minded individuals, including William Howard Taft. It was called the League to Enforce Peace and was substantially based on the proposals of the Bryce Group. [24] It advocated the use of arbitration in conflict resolution and the imposition of sanctions on aggressive countries. However, none of these early organisations envisioned a continuously functioning body; with the exception of the Fabian Society in England, they maintained a legalistic approach that would limit the international body to a court of justice. The Fabians were the first to argue for a "Council" of states, necessarily the Great Powers, who would adjudicate world affairs, and for the creation of a permanent secretariat to enhance international co-operation across a range of activities. [25]

The British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour commissioned the first official report into the matter in early 1918, under the initiative of Lord Robert Cecil. The British committee was finally appointed in February 1918. It was led by Walter Phillimore (and became known as the Phillimore Committee), but also included Eyre Crowe, William Tyrrell, and Cecil Hurst. [22] The recommendations of the so-called Phillimore Commission included the establishment of a "Conference of Allied States" that would arbitrate disputes and impose sanctions on offending states. The proposals were approved by the British government, and much of the commission's results were later incorporated into the Covenant of the League of Nations. [26]

The French also drafted a much more far-reaching proposal in June of that year; they advocated annual meetings of a council to settle all disputes, as well as an "international army" to enforce its decisions. [26]

The American President Woodrow Wilson instructed Edward M. House to draft a US plan which reflected Wilson's own idealistic views (first articulated in the Fourteen Points of January 1918), as well as the work of the Phillimore Commission. The outcome of House's work, and Wilson's own first draft, proposed the termination of "unethical" state behaviour, including forms of espionage and dishonesty. Methods of compulsion against recalcitrant states would include severe measures, such as "blockading and closing the frontiers of that power to commerce or intercourse with any part of the world and to use any force that may be necessary..." [26]

The two principal drafters and architects of the covenant of the League of Nations [27] were Lord Robert Cecil (a lawyer and diplomat) and Jan Smuts (a Commonwealth statesman). Smuts' proposals included the creation of a Council of the great powers as permanent members and a non-permanent selection of the minor states. He also proposed the creation of a Mandate system for captured colonies of the Central Powers during the war. Cecil focused on the administrative side, and proposed annual Council meetings and quadrennial meetings for the Assembly of all members. He also argued for a large and permanent secretariat to carry out the League's administrative duties. [26]


The official opening of the League of Nations, 15 November 1920

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Wilson, Cecil, and Smuts all put forward their draft proposals. After lengthy negotiations between the delegates, the Hurst- Miller draft was finally produced as a basis for the Covenant. [28] After more negotiation and compromise, the delegates finally approved of the proposal to create the League of Nations ( French: Société des Nations, German: Völkerbund) on 25 January 1919. [29] The final 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. On 28 June 1919, [30] [31] 44 states signed the Covenant, including 31 states which had taken part in the war on the side of the Triple Entente or joined it during the conflict.

The League would be made up of a General Assembly (representing all member states), an Executive Council (with membership limited to major powers), and a permanent secretariat. Member states were expected to "respect and preserve as against external aggression" the territorial integrity of other members and to disarm "to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety." All states were required to submit complaints for arbitration or judicial inquiry before going to war. [22] The Executive Council would create a Permanent Court of International Justice to make judgements on the disputes.

Despite Wilson's efforts to establish and promote the League, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1919, [32] the United States did not join. Opposition in the Senate, particularly from two Republican politicians, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Borah, and especially in regard to Article X of the Covenant, ensured that the United States would not ratify the agreement. [33] [34]

The League held its first council meeting in Paris on 16 January 1920, six days after the Versailles Treaty and the Covenant of the League of Nations came into force. [35] On 1 November 1920, the headquarters of the League was moved from London to Geneva, where the first General Assembly was held on 15 November 1920. [36] [37]