League of Nations

During the First World War several world leaders such as Woodrow Wilson and Jan Smuts, began advocating the need for an international organization to preserve peace and settle disputes by arbitration. In September, 1916, Robert Cecil, a member of the British government, wrote a memorandum where he argued that civilisation could survive only if it could develop an international system that would insure peace.

When peace negotiations began in October, 1918, Woodrow Wilson insisted that his Fourteen Points should serve as a basis for the signing of the Armistice. This included the formation of the League of Nations.

The constitution of the League of Nations was adopted by the Paris Peace Conference in April, 1919. The League's headquarters were in Geneva and its first secretary-general was Sir Eric Drummond. The Covenant (Constitution) of the League of Nations called for collective security and the peaceful settlement of disputes by arbitration. It was decided that any country that resorted to war would be subjected to economic sanctions.

The main organs of the League of Nations were the General Assembly, the Council and the Secretariat. The General Assembly, which met once a year, consisted of representatives of all the member states and decided on the organization's policy. The Council included four permanent members (Britain, France, Italy and Japan) and four (later nine) others elected by the General Assembly every three years. The Secretariat prepared the agenda and published reports of meetings.

As a result of the decision by the US Congress not to ratify the Versailles Treaty, the United States never joined the League of Nations. Others joined but later left the organization: Brazil (1926), Japan (1933), Italy (1937). Germany was only a member from 1926 to 1933, and the Soviet Union from 1934 to 1940.

The League of Nations had no armed forces and had to rely on boycotts (sanctions) to control the behaviour of member states. In January 1923 France occupied the Ruhr. Six months later Italy bombed the Greek island of Corfu. When the League of Nations discussed these events, the governments of France and Italy threatened to withdraw from the organization. As a result, the League of Nations decided not to take any action. Konni Zilliacus, a member of the Information Section of the League Secretariat, wrote to his friend Norman Angell: "I feel depressed and fed up. Who could have imagined things would turn out as badly as this?"

In 1924 the League of Nations was given a boost when James Ramsay MacDonald, Arthur Henderson and Edouard Herriot, leading politicians in Britain and France, visited Geneva in 1924. Hugh Dalton, wrote enthusiastically, "The League seemed to have come to life again, and to have gained a new significance."

The League of Nations also had success in adverting wars in the border disputes between Bulgaria-Greece (1925), Iraq-Turkey (1925-26) and Poland-Lithuania (1927). The League of Nations also had noticeable success in the areas of drugs control, refugee work and famine relief.

In 1929 foreign ministers of all the main European nations attended meetings of the League of Nations. Mary Hamilton, a Labour Party delegate to the League of Nations wrote: "Geneva in 1929 and 1930 was a genuine International clearing-house of ideas... There was hard work, and there was goodwill."

The League of Nations faced a fresh crisis in September 1931 when the Japanese Army occupied large areas of Manchuria, a province of China. The Chinese government appealed to the League of Nations under Article 11 of the Covenant. China also appealed to the United States as a signatory of the Kellogg Pact.

Robert Cecil, Britain's official delegate to the League of Nations, proposed an inquiry to deal with the dispute. Henry L. Stimson, the US Secretary of State, advised against this as he believed it would upset the Japanese government. However, eventually it was agreed that the League of Nations would establish a commission of inquiry under the chairmanship of Lord Lytton.

GOD: Woodrow Wilson, where are your 14 points?WILSON: Don't get excited, Lord, we didn't keep your Ten Commandments either!Thomas Heine, Simplicissimus, (17th June, 1919)
GOD: Woodrow Wilson, where are your 14 points?
WILSON: Don't get excited, Lord, we didn't keep your Ten Commandments either!
Thomas Heine, Simplicissimus, (17th June, 1919)

In March 1932 Japan renamed Manchuria as Manchukuo ("land of the Manchus"). Only Germany and Italy recognised the new state. The Lytton Report was published six months later. The report acknowledged that Japan had legitimate grievances against the Chinese Government. However, the report condemned the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and refused to recognise Manchukuo as an independent state. When the League adopted the report Japan resigned from the organization.

Konni Zilliacus, an official of the League of Nations, believed that Germany and Italy posed the greatest threat to world peace. He argued for the creation of an "inner ring" of states within the League of Nations, led by Britain, France and the Soviet Union. He also proposed the election by proportional representation of a new international debating chamber of the League of Nations. His views influenced some leading British politicians such as Arthur Henderson, Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison and Hugh Dalton, but the idea was rejected by the government led by Stanley Baldwin.

In October 1935 Benito Mussolini sent in General Pietro Badoglio and the Italian Army into Ethiopia. The League of Nations condemned Italy's aggression and in November imposed sanctions. This included an attempt to ban countries from selling arms, rubber and some metals to Italy. Some political leaders in France and Britain opposed sanctions arguing that it might persuade Mussolini to form an alliance with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Over 400,000 Italian troops fought in Ethiopia. The poorly armed Ethiopians were no match for Italy's modern tanks and aeroplanes. The Italians even used mustard gas on the home forces and were able to capture Addis Ababa, the capital of the country, in May 1936, forcing Emperor Haile Selassie to flee to England.

In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, met Adolf Hitler at his home in Berchtesgaden. Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia unless Britain supported Germany's plans to takeover the Sudetenland. After discussing the issue with the Edouard Daladier (France) and Eduard Benes (Czechoslovakia), Chamberlain informed Hitler that his proposals were unacceptable.

Benito Mussolini suggested to Adolf Hitler that one way of solving this issue was to hold a four-power conference of Germany, Britain, France and Italy. This would exclude both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, and therefore increasing the possibility of reaching an agreement and undermine the solidarity that was developing against Germany.

The meeting took place in Munich on 29th September, 1938. Desperate to avoid war, and anxious to avoid an alliance with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier agreed that Germany could have the Sudetenland. In return, Hitler promised not to make any further territorial demands in Europe. Adolf Hitler, Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier and Benito Mussolini now signed the Munich Agreement which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany. The League of Nations remained silent on the invasion.

Joseph Stalin now became concerned about the Soviet Union being invaded from the West. Stalin argued that Leningrad was only thirty-two kilometres from the Finnish border and its 3.5 million population, were vulnerable to artillery fire from Nazi Germany. After attempts to negotiate the stationing of Soviet troops in Finland failed, Stalin ordered the Red Army to invade on 30th November 1939. This time the League of Nations decided to take action and expelled the Soviet Union.

The League of Nations did not meet during the Second World War. In 1946 the responsibilities of the League of Nations was handed over to the United Nations.

Primary Sources

(1) Lee Smith, speech in the House of Commons (21st October 1916)

Security can only be obtained by a scheme by which the nations of Europe and outside agree together that all will guarantee each and each will guarantee all. The purposes of the war will be achieved if there is a League of Nations with an absolute and decisive veto upon any mere aggression, and consideration of any legitimate claims which any of the countries engaged in the War may be able to make good. Go back to the old Liberal tradition and trust yourself boldly to those decent, kindly, humane forces to be found in every man and every nation.

(2) President Woodrow Wilson, Fourteen Points (October 1918)

What we demand in this war, therefore, is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealings by the other peoples of the world, as against force and selfish aggression. All the peoples of the world are in effect partners in this interest, and for our own part we see very clearly that unless justice be done to others it will not be done to us.

The program of the world's peace, therefore, is our program, and that program, the only possible program, as we see it, is this:

I. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind, but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.

II. Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants.

III. The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.

IV. Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.

V. A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the Government whose title is to be determined.

VI. The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest co-operation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy, and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire.

VII. Belgium, the whole world will agree, must be evacuated and restored, without any attempt to limit the sovereignty which she enjoys in common with all other free nations.

VIII. All French territory should be freed and the invaded portions restored, and the wrong done to France by Prussia in 1871 in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine, which has unsettled the peace of the world for nearly fifty years, should be righted, in order that peace may once more be made secure in the interest of all.

IX. A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.

X. The peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development.

XI. Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be evacuated; occupied territories restored; Serbia accorded free and secure access to the sea; and the relations of the several Balkan States to one another determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality; and international guarantees of the political and economic independence and territorial integrity of the several Balkan States should be entered into.

XII. The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.

XIII. An independent Polish State should be erected which would include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which would be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.

XIV. 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.

(3) President Woodrow Wilson, speech on the League of Nations (8th September, 1919)

For the first time in history the counsels of mankind are to be drawn together and concerted for the purpose of defending the rights and improving the conditions of working people - men, women, and children - all over the world. Such a thing as that was never dreamed of before, and what you are asked to discuss in discussing the League of Nations is the matter of seeing that this thing is not interfered with. There is no other way to do it than by a universal league of nations, and what is proposed is a universal league of nations.

Only two nations are for the time being left out. One of them is Germany, because we did not think that Germany was ready to come in, because we felt that she ought to go through a period of probation. She says that she made a mistake. We now want her to prove it by not trying it again. She says that she has abolished all the old forms of government by which little secret councils of men, sitting nobody knew exactly where, determined the fortunes of that

great nation and, incidentally, tried to determine the fortunes of mankind; but we want her to prove that her constitution is

changed and that it is going to stay changed; and then who can, after those proofs are produced, say "No" to a great

people, 60 million strong, if they want to come in on equal terms with the rest of us and do justice in international affairs?

I want to say that I did not find any of my colleagues in Paris disinclined to do justice to Germany. But I hear that this treaty is very hard on Germany. When an individual has committed a criminal act, the punishment is hard, but the punishment is not unjust. This nation permitted itself, through unscrupulous governors to commit a criminal act against mankind, and it is to undergo the punishment, not more than it can endure but up to the point where it can pay it must pay for the wrong that it has done.

But the things prescribed in this treaty will not be fully carried out if any one of the great influences that brought that result about is withheld from its consummation. Every great fighting nation in the world is on the list of those who are to constitute the League of Nations. I say every great nation, because America is going to be included among them, and the only choice my fellow citizens is whether we will go in now or come in later with Germany; whether we will go in as founders of this covenant of freedom or go in as those who are admitted after they have made a mistake and repented.

(4) George Norris, letter to Walter Locke, editor of the Nebraska State Journal, about the formation of the League of Nations (18th March, 1918)

During practically all of my public life, I have been a sincere advocate of an agreement between the leading nations of the world to set up all the necessary international machinery that would bring about a practical abolition of war between civilized nations. I advocated it long before the great world war commenced, and to keep the American government in a position to lead in such a movement, I used it as one of the arguments against our entering into the war. I thought we should be better able to lead if we stayed out. I may have been mistaken in this because subsequent events have determined that we are now in such a position that if we unite upon a fair and honorable plan, the entire civilized world will be disposed to follow. I realize that no such thing can be brought about unless every man and every nation approaches the subject with a willingness to compromise, with a willingness even to sacrifice some of his own cherished opinions, in order to bring the nations together. Nothing has ever happened in my life in which I felt a deeper interest or for which I would make a greater sacrifice. I am willing that somebody else shall get all the honor and all the praise if this cherished thing can be realized.

I think we ought to take the world as it is and not as we would like to have it. It seems, therefore, inadvisable to me to enter into any agreement that would make it necessary for us or, for that matter, for any other nation to maintain standing armies for the support of new and independent governments that it is intended to establish among semi-civilized people. Such a course not only is dangerous and will in my judgment bring failure to that part of the enterprise, but it is in no sense necessary to maintain the peace of the world. The right kind of a league between nations that can be numbered on the fingers of one hand will insure a permanent peace.

Our activities would not be confined to Europe and Asia, but we would have on that theory ample reasons to go into Mexico and other countries located in the western hemisphere. There is not much danger of the smaller nations if the big nations will behave.

We ought to disarm Germany completely. We ought to disarm Turkey completely. We ought to disarm Austria. We ought to destroy every fort along every international boundary line in Europe. This would be an easy thing to do if we and our allies would announce that it must be done. And when it is done, we ought to follow the example by disarming ourselves. No nation ought to keep a navy larger than is necessary to do police duty. If the world is disarmed, and remains disarmed, there will be no more world wars. If these leading nations would agree, in addition to this, that an international court of arbitration should be set up, that no nation should engage in conquest, that no secret treaty would be entered into or recognized, the danger of war would be as completely averted as it is possible for human beings to avert it. The constitution ought to specifically state that every nation is left entirely independent and supreme in its internal affairs, such as regulating emigration and all other similar matters.

(5) Arthur Henderson, speech at the League of Nations (1932)

The world wants disarmament. The world needs disarmament. We have it in our power to help fashion the pattern of future history. Behind all the technical complexities regarding manpower, gun power, tonnage, categories, and the like, is the well-being of mankind, the future of our developing civilisation.

(6) Henry (Chips) Channon, diary entry (30th July, 1935)

I am bored by this Italian-Abyssinian dispute, and really I fail to see why we should interfere. Though, of course, the League of Nations will stand or fall by it. But I am a little uneasy that the destinies of countless of millions should be in the exquisite hands of Anthony Eden, for whom I have affection, even admiration - but not blind respect. Why should England fight Italy over Abyssinia, when most of our far flung Empire has been won by conquest?

(7) Julio Alvarez del Vayo, speech, League of Nations (11th December 1936)

Last September, I alluded to the tragic proof supplied by the youth of Spain, who fall in thousands in the trenches of freedom as the victims of Fascist aeroplanes and of the foreign war material delivered month after month, despite the non-intervention agreement, by those who base their international policy on the systematic breaking of treaties and of their international undertakings. Today, Madrid has become one more irrefutable proof. No one can doubt the validity of this evidence. Every foreign mission which has visited Spain has brought back fresh accusations against this monstrosity: that the capital of a State Member of the League has been reduced to ruins, and that the women and children of this capital have been butchered in hundreds by bombing planes under the orders of rebel generals and supplied by States which have, in fact, begun a war, and which are continuing to make war, while statesmen talk of preserving peace.

The war is there; an international war is raging on Spanish soil. We have seen how, in the last few days, the rebels, after the failure of their Moroccan troops, are now preparing to receive the assistance of fresh forces which they themselves call "blond Moors." Moreover, we must expect that poison gas, which has already been employed these last days, will continue to be used in the attacks against Madrid, and that the parts of the city in which the workers live will be bombed more and more violently in order to try to obtain by panic what the rebels have failed to obtain by other means. It would be both useless and dangerous to continue to ignore the situation. The worst thing that could happen to the League of Nations would be to contribute by its own silence and inaction, to the spread of this war.

Such a peace, it is true, would have cost the lives of millions of men, women and children and would have meant that many capitals would have suffered the fate of Madrid, that hundreds of towns would have known the fate of Cartagena and of Alicante. But, from a formal point of view, peace would not have been disturbed. When the Spanish Government decided that it was its duty to assume the grave responsibility of requesting a meeting of the Council of the League, it did so precisely because it wished, so far as it was concerned, to declare in the most solemn fashion its firm decision to oppose any such paradoxical and murderous "peace policy."

Allow me to recall just what were the reasons that made the Spanish Government feel it was necessary to demand a meeting of the Council. In the first place, the Spanish rebels have just been recognised as a legitimate Government by two great European Powers - Germany and Italy. The moment the rebels had received this recognition their chief threatened to start a blockade of the Government ports in the Mediterranean. At the same time, naval attacks took place at different points on the Spanish coast by warships whose nationality it was impossible to establish. Two Government warships have been attacked by two submarines also of unknown nationality at the entry to the port of Cartagena.

(8) Konni Zilliacus wrote about the Spanish Civil War and the League of Nations in his unpublished autobiography, Challenge to Fear.

In September 1936 del Vayo had appealed to the League under Article 10 of the Covenant to provide the Spanish Government with the arms it needed to defend its territorial integrity and political independence against Hitler's and Mussolini's aggression. I can still remember that black day in the Assembly, listening to Eden droning away from the rostrum, explaining why it was contrary to the Covenant of the League to interfere in an ideological conflict. What cunning bastards they are, the damned hypocrites, thought I, standing there with death in my heart, light-headed from the stench of catastrophe, feeling a little sick with the "steely taste of defeat" in my mouth.

(9) Vernon Bartlett was in Godesberg working for the Daily Chronicle when Neville Chamberlain met Adolf Hitler on 22nd September 1938. He wrote about it in his book And Now, Tomorrow (1960)

Very late that night we learnt that agreement had been reached. But the people whom it principally concerned - the Czechoslovaks - had not been consulted. When it was all over, and the German journalists who had shown such alarm a week earlier were standing on the tables and toasting everybody in large glasses of beer, I watched the two Czech observers enter Mr. Chamberlain's room on the first floor of the Hotel Regina at 2 a.m. in order to learn the fate of their country. "Two days ago," I wrote in my dispatch, "the British and French governments were prepared to help Czechoslovakia if she were attacked; the same governments are now pledged to hold themselves responsible for the fulfilment of the plan for German occupation." It was clear to the Czechoslovak representatives, and surely to everybody else who was there except the British Prime Minister himself, that the independence of their country had been signed away by statesmen (the word should, perhaps, be printed in inverted commas) whose fear had stifled all sense of honour.

(10) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954)

When, with Austria in his possession. Hitler opened his campaign against Czechoslovakia in the late spring of 1938 I was much concerned. I had many friends among the Czech socialists and I also knew Dr. Benes and Jan Masaryk very well. Czechoslovakia was the only real democracy among the Succession States.

I did not believe that Hitler could be argued out of his plan to absorb this key strategic State in the German Reich. We in our Party were violently opposed to Fascism. We had seen with horror the persecution of the Jews and the socialists in Germany.

Chamberlain informed me of his intention to fly to Germany to see Hitler, which he thought was a possible way of averting war. I told him that I had little faith in the venture, but I could not oppose his action provided that he stood firm on principle. He informed the House of his intention just when we were about to debate Foreign Affairs. I said that no chance should be neglected of preserving peace without sacrifice of principle. But it was just this sacrifice which was made. On his return from Munich with a piece of paper we realised that the pass had been sold and we sat silent while the majority of the Tories stood up and cheered.

It was on the 3rd October, 1938, that Chamberlain reported to the House of Commons on his visit to Munich. I recall that before the Prime Minister made his statement. Duff Cooper (later Lord Norwich) made a personal explanation of the reasons that had led him to resign from the Government the previous day. Following immediately after Chamberlain, I spoke at some length and perhaps the line I took can be summed up in a couple of sentences early in my speech: "The events of these last few days constitute one of the greatest defeats that this country and France have ever sustained. There can be no doubt that it is a tremendous victory for Herr Hitler."

(11) Henry (Chips) Channon, diary entry (9th September, 1938)

Rab (Butler) arrived, looking ridiculously like a Minister, at 7.10 a.m. I met him at the station and rather sleepily escorted him to the hotel. He was a touch aloof, as always when contact has been broken, and his clothes are really tragic. But he has a quiet, strong shyness which is deceiving.

We went to the League building, which is a vast affair, a huge modern, white, dignified, lavish, empty palace, as befits the meeting place of 47 nations. 47 nations in theory, but in reality, the League is now really only an anti-dictator Club. The bars and lobbies of the League's building are full of Russians and Jews who intrigue with and dominate the press, and spend their time spreading rumours of approaching war, but I don't believe them, not with Neville (Chamberlain) at the helm. He will wriggle out somehow.

We all dined gaily again tonight at the Plat d'Argent, and Rab almost embarrassed us once or twice with his high staccato laugh which, when he is amused, becomes veritably soprano, like a pheasant's call. But he charmed, and was charmed by, Diana (Cooper).

Tomorrow the League racket begins.

(12) Manchester Guardian (1st December, 1939)

Russia invaded Finland early yesterday morning, and at once began to try to enforce submission by air attacks.

The Finnish Government resigned early this morning. It is reported from Copenhagen that Dr. Tanner, the Finnish Finance Minister, who was one of the Finnish delegates to Moscow, will form a new Government to open negotiations with Russia.

News of the resignation came after the Russian threat, broadcast from Moscow, that unless Finland surrendered by three o'clock this morning Helsinki would be completely destroyed.

A representative of the United States Legation in Helsinki sent the information of the Government's resignation to the American Embassy in Moscow, which is expected to communicate with the Kremlin.

M. Erkko, the Finnish Foreign Minster, in a broadcast to the United States last night, said "We remain ready to work for a solution of the dispute by conciliation."

The Soviet Government yesterday rejected the United States' offer of its good offices in settling the dispute; the Soviet Government did not think they were needed. Finland accepted the offer.

The invasion of Finland without any declaration of war has cause the greatest indignation throughout the world, especially in other Scandinavian countries and in the United States, Italy, and Spain. In the House of Commons yesterday Mr. Chamberlain made a statement on the invasion.