A League of Its Own: The League of Nations Has Been Much Derided as a Historical Irrelevance, but It Laid the Foundations for an International Court and Established Bodies That the United Nations Maintains Today

By Henig, Ruth | History Today, February 2010 | Go to article overview

A League of Its Own: The League of Nations Has Been Much Derided as a Historical Irrelevance, but It Laid the Foundations for an International Court and Established Bodies That the United Nations Maintains Today


Henig, Ruth, History Today


The conventional view of the League of Nations, which was set up by the peacemakers at the end of the First World War, is that it was a complete failure having been unable to prevent the outbreak of a second major European conflict in 1939. Some dismiss it as a total irrelevance and those who study it as 'eccentric historians'.

It is high time that these verdicts are challenged and that the League is seen for what it was, a bold step towards international cooperation which failed in some of its aims but succeeded comprehensively in others. I am one of those 'eccentric historians' who has studied the League for over 30 years and who argue that its creation marked an important step on the road to our contemporary global system of international organisation, coordinated through the United Nations, which was built on the foundations of the League's experience.

It is undoubtedly the case that expectations of what the League might be able to achieve were too high. It was hoped that some of its mechanisms would be able to prevent international crises from escalating into full-scale conflict as had happened in 1914. But they relied on means such as delay to allow impartial enquiry to take place and on member states accepting the rules and conventions of the League Covenant. It was clear early on that the League, which had no army of its own or members' troops to enforce its will, would not be able to combat overt aggression. As Lord Balfour, a former British prime minister and foreign secretary, commented in 1924: 'The danger I see in the future is that some powerful nation will pursue a realpolitik in the future as in the past ... I do not believe we have yet found, or can find, a perfect guarantee against this calamity.' Nor was the League able to secure agreement among the leading powers of the world to reduce their armaments.

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Looking back 80 years, with the benefit of recent experience of international arms negotiations, we can see that the expectations placed on the League to bring about disarmament were completely unrealistic. But at the time, the failure of the League's Disarmament Conference of 1932-34, coupled with its inability to secure strong and agreed action against Japanese aggression in Manchuria and the Italian conquest of Abyssinia, caused its leading members and their publics to lose faith in the ability of the League to promote peace.

And yet its work in some areas was groundbreaking and increasingly effective. The Permanent Court of International Justice, established under Article 14 of the League Covenant, started work in 1922 and was kept busy from the outset, giving advisory opinions to the League Council or deciding cases submitted to it by individual governments. By 1939 it had heard 66 cases and its success showed that a standing international court had a role to play 'in the gradual acceptance by states that rules had a place in international politics: The International Court of Justice established after the Second World War by the United Nations reproduced in almost identical form the League's Permanent Court and has continued to extend its international authority to the present day. …

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A League of Its Own: The League of Nations Has Been Much Derided as a Historical Irrelevance, but It Laid the Foundations for an International Court and Established Bodies That the United Nations Maintains Today
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