League of Nations Is Established Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The League of Nations was created in an attempt to preserve international peace by means of multilateral diplomacy and collective action against states committing acts of aggression.

Summary of Event

World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period was the single most important event leading to the creation of the League of Nations. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, many governments had anticipated the coming of a major war—although they did not imagine anything of the magnitude of World War I—and had tried to take steps to prevent it. League of Nations;founding Diplomacy;League of Nations [kw]League of Nations Is Established (Apr. 28, 1919) [kw]League of Nations Is Established (Apr. 28, 1919) League of Nations;founding Diplomacy;League of Nations [g]France;Apr. 28, 1919: League of Nations Is Established[04730] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr. 28, 1919: League of Nations Is Established[04730] [c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 28, 1919: League of Nations Is Established[04730] Wilson, Woodrow [p]Wilson, Woodrow;League of Nations Cecil, Lord Robert (1864-1958) Smuts, Jan Christian Bourgeois, Léon Orlando, Vittorio Emanuele

At the First Hague Peace Conference, First Hague Peace Conference Peace conferences;First Hague Peace Conference which was convened in 1899, twenty-six nations came together to explore what could be done to preserve peace and reduce armaments. The conference was unusual, perhaps even unprecedented on such a scale, in that its goal was to devise procedures and possibly new international machinery for the purpose of maintaining a stable and peaceful international order rather than to settle a specific problem. Governments were acting preventively—a sign of progress. Unfortunately, however, the threat of war was not sufficiently imminent and international tensions were not sufficiently great to impel the participants to be radically innovative. The conference did nothing to reduce the risk of war beyond making a rather bland attempt to improve international arbitration. Discussions did not touch on the issue of armaments. Ironically, the participants codified some of the laws and customs of war to reduce the inhumanity of armed conflict, but they did not interfere with the traditional right of states to resort to war.

The first meeting of the Assembly of the League of Nations, 1920.

The conference participants did agree, however, that meeting in such a fashion was desirable and should happen again. They could not be accused of being overly eager or driven by a sense of urgency; the Second Hague Peace Conference Second Hague Peace Conference did not take place until eight years later, and, despite worsening international tensions, it also failed to devise new ways to protect world peace or to reduce armaments. Once again, the participants agreed to another meeting in about eight years, but World War I interrupted their leisurely process.

The terrible losses and the magnitude of the suffering caused by World War I drastically changed perceptions of the need for change. By the end of the war, the idea of establishing some sort of international organization or association of nations to prevent another world war was strongly supported in many countries. In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson made the creation of such an organization one of his Fourteen Points, Fourteen Points and he arrived at the Paris Peace Conference Paris Peace Conference (1919) Peace conferences;Paris Peace Conference (1919) determined that this should be among the first questions raised.

At the plenary meeting of January 25, 1919, conference participants agreed that a League of Nations should be created to provide safeguards against war and that it should be an integral part of the peace treaty. A commission was appointed to draft the Covenant of the new organization. League of Nations;Covenant Wilson served as chair; other members of the commission included Lord Robert Cecil of Great Britain, Jan Christian Smuts of South Africa, and Léon Bourgeois of France. The Covenant was written in record time, in part because of the great amount of work done in previous years on the subject. The text of the Covenant was adopted by a unanimous vote of the conference participants on April 28, 1919, but it could come into force only as part of the Treaty of Versailles, Versailles, Treaty of (1919) which was set to go into effect on January 10, 1920. Implementation work began immediately, however. Sir James Eric Drummond was named as the new organization’s first secretary-general, and a preparatory committee was appointed.

The peace conference specified that the League of Nations would be headquartered in Geneva, although the preliminary seat of the organization was in London. The main organs of the League were the Assembly, the Council, and the Secretariat. The Assembly was composed of the entire membership (initially forty-one nations), but it never became global. The U.S. Congress refused to consent to the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and never joined the League of Nations; Japan, Germany, and Italy left the organization as a result of their expansionist policies. The Soviet Union became a member but was expelled when it invaded Finland in 1939.

Meeting once a year, the Assembly was empowered to discuss any issue brought to it by League members; however, it could only make nonbinding resolutions requiring unanimity among those who voted. Thus, in theory, any member could veto any recommendation. In practice, this rarely happened. Rather, dissenting members expressed their displeasure in committee meetings and simply abstained from voting in plenary sessions.

The Council was initially composed of four permanent member nations (France, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan) and four nonpermanent members, subsequently increased to six, then nine, and finally eleven. Germany was made a permanent member in 1926. The Council developed the practice of having four regular meetings a year (and special meetings as needed). Member states regularly sent their foreign ministers or prime ministers to attend these meetings, and they developed the habit of working together as colleagues. The League’s Covenant made no clear differentiation between the duties of the Council and those of the Assembly. Both bodies had the right to deal with any matter of concern to the League of Nations but were allowed to make only nonbinding recommendations. The rule of unanimity applied in the Council as it did in all League of Nations organs.

The small Secretariat, under the authority of the secretary-general, was given the duty of servicing the organization; it started with a staff of about one hundred in 1919, a number that rose to a maximum of about seven hundred in 1931. Under Drummond’s leadership, the staff became a truly impartial and independent international civil service with high standards of efficiency. Members of the League of Nations, however, especially the most affluent, made determined efforts to cut expenditures to the bone.

The Paris Peace Conference had stipulated in the League’s Covenant the establishment of a permanent Court of International Justice, Court of International Justice and it was left to the League of Nations to set up the court. The Assembly approved the structure of the court in 1920, but it was kept independent of the League of Nations. The court quickly became highly respected for the quality of its decisions; when the United Nations United Nations was created, the court was incorporated into the U.N. structure without any substantive changes.

The Treaty of Versailles also created the International Labor Organization International Labor Organization (ILO), the function of which was to promote the rights of working people around the world. In many respects independent from the League of Nations but administratively tied to it, the ILO was structured in a highly innovative way. In contrast to other international organizations whose member states were represented by governmental personnel, national delegations to the ILO included representatives of employees and of employers, each group having the right to vote separately. The ILO later became an agency of the United Nations.

The League of Nations rapidly became a complex structure, and it created subsidiary organs to address some of the many issues brought to it. These included the Permanent Mandate Commission to supervise the administration of the former colonies taken from the defeated powers, the minorities committees of the Council, and the committees concerned with military affairs and with the problems of disarmament. Even more numerous were bodies dealing with economic and social matters, among them the Economic and Financial Organization, the Health Organization, and the Intellectual Cooperation Organization as well as offices dealing with child welfare, the abolition of slavery, and refugee problems. Some of these had subsidiary organs of their own. They did an enormous amount of work that seldom made headlines but nevertheless affected the well-being of people around the world.

Peace was beginning to be understood not simply in terms of power relationships, armaments, and political disputes but also in terms of the economic and social conditions of people in various parts of the world. Agencies integrated into an administrative system were for the first time available to deal with the needs of a growing global society. The world had come a long way since the conferences at The Hague. Sovereign states remained the primary actors, but most of them now accepted the need to work together as members of permanent international structures.

Significance

The League of Nations is seldom given credit for having done much for global society. Given that it was created in an attempt to prevent the folly of another world war and yet World War II occurred anyway, it is often said that the League of Nations failed. That conclusion is debatable, however.

The League of Nations, imperfect as it was, provided all the machinery that was needed to curb the unbounded ambitions of Japan, Italy, and Germany. What was lacking was the will to use that machinery. The members of the League of Nations had pledged to act collectively under the organization’s Covenant to stop aggression. When aggression was committed, however, they were not prepared to carry out under the banner of the League of Nations the kind of military action that was needed.

No organization or governmental body can work without the will to act on the part of its members. In the case of the League of Nations it is convenient to blame the machinery, but the truth is that the governments that had pledged to protect peace and justice betrayed the trust that had been placed in them. The League could have stopped Japan in its first act of aggression (perhaps teaching a lesson to future potential aggressors). It could have stopped Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia. Adolf Hitler himself was incredibly vulnerable when he gambled and remilitarized the Rhineland, but the members of the League of Nations were unwilling to act in fulfillment of the Covenant.

With regard to the process of world politics, the creation of the League of Nations represented a considerable improvement over the Hague Peace Conferences convened at eight-year intervals. It provided an ongoing world forum in which every nation, the weak as well as the strong, could be heard. This was progress in a world in which smaller states tended to be ignored. Moreover, the League of Nations brought about a major change in the traditionally recognized right of states to go to war. For the first time in the history of the modern state system, organized society had claimed the right to assess the legitimacy of recourse to force. No previous organization had ever had this option.

The League of Nations was a stepping-stone toward the more elaborate form of international organization created after World War II. As the world became more interdependent, states discovered that international institutions could help them meet the needs of their people. Economic and social issues were added to the agenda of diplomacy, with enormous benefits for ordinary people around the world. Dependent people were able to appeal in defense of their rights, refugees found more coordinated assistance, and workers gained better protection against a variety of abuses. It was the first time in the history of international affairs that such an array of public agencies had been made available to serve international society. The people of the world gained much from this experiment, despite the slowness or reluctance of some national governments to adjust to the new environment. League of Nations;founding Diplomacy;League of Nations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Woodrow Wilson and the American Diplomatic Tradition: The Treaty Fight in Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A thorough narrative of the development of the League concept in Woodrow Wilson’s political thought and his efforts to create an international organization in 1919-1920.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bailey, Thomas A. Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace. New York: Macmillan, 1944. An older, but still useful, account of how Woodrow Wilson inserted the League of Nations idea into the Treaty of Versailles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, John Milton, Jr. Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Describes Wilson’s part in the struggle to establish the League of Nations and to gain support for the international body in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eagleton, Clyde. International Government. Rev. ed. New York: Ronald Press, 1948. An excellent presentation of the historical background of the League of Nations and the international political context within which it operated. Discusses the League’s work and compares it with the United Nations. A very good introduction to international organization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Egerton, George W. Great Britain and the Creation of the League of Nations: Strategy, Politics, and International Organization, 1914-1919. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978. Useful for its focus on how the British and Americans cooperated and differed in framing the League of Nations during World War I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gathorne-Hardy, G. M. A Short History of International Affairs, 1920-1939. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960. An excellent review of the evolution of international politics during the era of the League of Nations. Very helpful in explaining the issues facing the organization and how it performed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodrich, Leland M. “From League of Nations to United Nations.” In International Organization: Politics and Process, edited by Leland M. Goodrich and David A. Kay. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973. Contrasts the two world organizations in their character, structure, and functions in the realm of international security and in economic and social cooperation. A concise comparison by a long-established scholar in the field.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Examines how Wilson’s ideals for a League of Nations emerged from the American political environment and his own political thought. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Link, Arthur S. Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War, and Peace. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1979. A good brief analysis of Wilson’s thinking about the League of Nations by one of the foremost students of his life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ostrower, Gary B. The League of Nations from 1919 to 1929. Garden City Park, N.Y.: Avery, 1996. Concise history of the League of Nations focuses on the organization’s first ten years. Includes chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walters, F. P. A History of the League of Nations. 1965. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Classic study of the League of Nations offers a superb historical presentation. Comprehensive, detailed, and accurate. Covers developments prior to World War I leading to the creation of the League of Nations and includes one chapter on the drafting of the League’s Covenant.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zimmern, Alfred. The League of Nations and the Rule of Law, 1918-1935. 1936. Reprint. Holmes Beach, Fla.: Wm. Gaunt & Sons, 1998. An excellent study of the pre-World War I international setting leading to the creation of international organizations. Presents the various plans proposed for the League of Nations. A superior historical work.

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