League of Nations, former international organization, established by the peace treaties that ended World War I. Like its successor, the United Nations, its purpose was the promotion of international peace and security. The League was a product of World War I in the sense that that conflict convinced most persons of the necessity of averting another such cataclysm. But its background lay in the visions of men like the duc de Sully and Immanuel Kant and in the later growth of formal international organizations like the International Telegraphic Union (1865) and the Universal Postal Union (1874). The Red Cross, the Hague Conferences, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (Hague Tribunal) were also important stepping-stones toward international cooperation.
The Covenant: The Basis of the League
At the close of World War I, such prominent figures as Jan Smuts, Lord Robert Cecil, and Léon Bourgeois advocated a society of nations. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson incorporated the proposal into the Fourteen Points and was the chief figure in the establishment of the League at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The basis of the League was the Covenant, which was included in the Treaty of Versailles and the other peace treaties.
The Covenant consisted of 26 articles. Articles 1 through 7 concerned organization, providing for an assembly, composed of all member nations; a council, composed of the great powers (originally Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, later also Germany and the USSR) and of four other, nonpermanent members; and a secretariat. Both the assembly and the council were empowered to discuss
"any matter within the sphere of action of the League or affecting the peace of the world."
In both the assembly and the council unanimous decisions were required.
Articles 8 and 9 recognized the need for disarmament and set up military commissions. Article 10 was an attempt to guarantee the territorial integrity and political independence of member states against aggression. Articles 11 through 17 provided for the establishment of the Permanent Court of International Justice (see World Court), for arbitration and conciliation, and for sanctions against aggressors. The rest of the articles dealt with treaties, colonial mandates, international cooperation in humanitarian enterprises, and amendments to the Covenant.
The original membership of the League included the victorious Allies of World War I (with the exception of the United States, whose Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles) and most of the neutral nations. Among later admissions to membership were Bulgaria (1920), Austria (1920), Hungary (1922), Germany (1926), Mexico (1931), Turkey (1932), and the USSR (1934). Through the efforts of Sir Eric Drummond, the first secretary-general of the League, a truly international secretariat was created. Geneva, Switzerland, was chosen as the League headquarters.
Successes and Failures
The League quickly proved its value by settling the Swedish-Finnish dispute over the Åland Islands (1920–21), guaranteeing the security of Albania (1921), rescuing Austria from economic disaster, settling the division of Upper Silesia (1922), and preventing the outbreak of war in the Balkans between Greece and Bulgaria (1925). In addition, the League extended considerable aid to refugees; it helped to suppress white slave and opium traffic; it did pioneering work in surveys of health; it extended financial aid to needy states; and it furthered international cooperation in labor relations and many other fields.
The problem of bringing its political influence to bear, especially on the great powers, soon made itself felt. Poland refused to abide by the League decision in the Vilnius dispute, and the League was forced to stand by powerlessly in the face of the French occupation of the Ruhr (1923) and Italy's occupation of Kérkira (1923). Failure to take action over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (1931) was a blow to the League's prestige, especially when followed by Japan's withdrawal from the League (1933). Another serious failure was the inability of the League to stop the Chaco War (1932–35; see under Gran Chaco) between Bolivia and Paraguay.
In 1935 the League completed its successful 15-year administration of the Saar territory (see Saarland) by conducting a plebiscite under the supervision of an international military force. But even this success was not sufficient to offset the failure of the Disarmament Conference, Germany's withdrawal from the League (1933), and Italy's successful attack on Ethiopia in defiance of the League's economic sanctions (1935). In 1936, Adolf Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland and denounced the Treaty of Versailles; in 1938 he seized Austria.
Faced by threats to international peace from all sides—the Spanish civil war, Japan's resumption of war against China (1937), and finally the appeasement of Hitler at Munich (1938)—the League collapsed. German claims on Danzig (see Gdańsk), where the League commissioner had been reduced to impotence, led to the outbreak of World War II. The last important act of the League came in Dec., 1939, when it expelled the USSR for its attack on Finland.
In 1940 the League secretariat in Geneva was reduced to a skeleton staff; some of the technical services were removed to the United States and Canada. The allied International Labor Organization continued to function and eventually became affiliated with the United Nations. In 1946 the League dissolved itself, and its services and real estate (notably the Palais des Nations in Geneva) were transferred to the United Nations. The League's chief success lay in providing the first pattern of permanent international organization, a pattern on which much of the United Nations was modeled. Its failures were due as much to the indifference of the great powers, which preferred to reserve important matters for their own decisions, as to weaknesses of organization.
See F. P. Walters, A History of the League of Nations (2 vol., 1952; repr. 1960); W. Schiffer, Legal Community of Mankind (1954, repr. 1972); G. Scott, The Rise and Fall of the League of Nations (1974); F. S. Northedge, The League of Nations (1986); H. F. Margulies, The Mild Reservationists and the League of Nations (1989).