League of Nations
The League of Nations was created in the wake of World War I. It formally existed from 10 January 1920 until 1946, with its seat in Geneva (in neutral Switzerland). The league cannot be dissociated from the ravages of the Great War and the emergence of its conception as “the war to end all wars,” even though it totally failed in its goal of preventing the outbreak of another world war.
During the Paris Peace Conference, which was largely dominated by debate of Wilson’s Fourteen Points (delivered a year earlier to the U.S. Congress on 8 January 1918), the final draft of its Covenant (constitution) was agreed upon by the leaders of France, Great Britain, and the United States, known as the “Big Three” (Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Woodrow Wilson), on 14 February 1919. The Covenant became part of the Treaty of Versailles (28 June 1919). Point 14 argued that “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.” Though European intellectuals had broached the idea of an international peacekeeping organization before the war, and a “League of Nations Society” was founded in Britain in 1915, the proposal has therefore remained associated with President Wilson.
The two great European victors, prime ministers Clemenceau and Lloyd George, had grave reservations, for different reasons. France would bow to the discipline of such an organization only if it felt safe against renewed German attack, and during the discussions, Wilson persuaded Clemenceau that if he agreed to join in the creation of the League of Nations, the United States would guarantee the inviolability of France—and Lloyd George agreed to associate himself with the proposal. In Britain, the Conservatives, or the “party of empire,” as they liked to call themselves, were suspicious of this American idea, which might well be a ploy to sap Britain’s world role. Most important, Lloyd George had reservations about the proposed clause concerning sanctions by other League members if one member was attacked—the gist of what came to be known as collective security. Economic sanctions would penalize exporting countries like Britain, and military intervention would of necessity rely on the Great Powers’ involvement if it was to have any efficacy—which would also be onerous to Britain, with the largest navy in the world. Thus Britain would lose the freedom to make its own judgments and be automatically committed to costly measures possibly decided by others. But for President Wilson, this clause was the essence of the League—as indeed subsequent events were repeatedly to demonstrate—and Lloyd George relented, because he knew that this was the only way he could obtain reciprocal concessions from Wilson.
Much the same arguments on the loss of sovereignty to other (implicitly, lesser) nations were heard in the United States, especially in Republican circles, with their traditional isolationist desire to avoid entangling alliances. But Wilson refused to listen to these warnings, and despite the reluctant support of Clemenceau and Lloyd George, he was unable to persuade the United States Senate to provide the necessary two-thirds majority to ratify the Treaty on 29 November 1919 (the vote was 49 for, 35 against). The League was mortally wounded, since its credibility and viability as an international peacekeeping force was seriously impaired, the more so as Bolshevik Russia had not been invited to join. Britain and France, both severely weakened by World War I, were left to provide leadership for an organization that never really managed to establish itself as an undisputed moral authority, let alone a respected military arbitration force.
The League had some success in settling minor border disputes between Bulgaria and Greece and Iraq and Turkey in the 1920s, but when it had to face its first major crisis involving two powerful members, the invasion of Manchuria, China, by the Japanese in September 1931, its impotence was made clear to all. Neither Britain, which had a wide but indefensible presence in South and Southeast Asia, nor the United States, which aspired to replace Britain as the major Western power in the area, was prepared to alienate the Japanese, who were allowed to keep the territories conquered by military force—the prevention of which was the raison d’etre of the League. And when the League refused to recognize the new puppet state of Manchukuo, Japan resigned in protest (March 1933), thus setting a pattern followed by other unscrupulous states: aggression leading to purely verbal condemnation, seen as a pretext for withdrawal from the League.
Only a few weeks earlier, Hitler had become chancellor of Germany, which had been admitted in 1926. At the earliest opportunity, provided by the failure of the World Conference on Disarmament sponsored by the League, Nazi Germany left the organization, in October 1933. Italy followed suit in December 1937, after its invasion of Ethiopia and its easy defiance of sanctions imposed by the League. The Soviet Union, which had joined in 1934 because it feared Nazi Germany, was expelled in December 1939 after its invasion of Finland. The year 1940 marked the de facto demise of the League, even though it continued to exist de jure until its remaining economic and humanitarian activities were officially taken over by the new United Nations organization on 19 April 1946.
Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965)
The Avalon Project at Yale Law School (League of Nations Covenant, complete text). (1996). Retrieved April 9, 2010, from http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/leagcov.asp
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