The League of Nations was an international diplomatic group developed after World War I as a way to solve disputes between countries before they erupted into open warfare. A precursor to the United Nations, the League achieved some victories but had a mixed record of success, sometimes putting self-interest before becoming involved with conflict resolution, while also contending with governments that did not recognize its authority. The League effectively ceased operations during World War II.
What Was the League of Nations?
The League of Nations has its origins in the Fourteen Points speech of President Woodrow Wilson, part of a presentation given in 1918 outlining of his ideas for peace after the carnage of World War I. Wilson envisioned an organization that was charged with resolving conflicts before they exploded into bloodshed and warfare.
By December of the same year, Wilson left for Paris to transform his Fourteen Points into what would become the Treaty of Versailles. Seven months later, he returned to the United States with a treaty that included the idea for what became the League of Nations.
Republican Congressman from Massachusetts Henry Cabot Lodge led a battle against the treaty. Lodge believed both the treaty and the League undercut U.S. autonomy in international matters.
In response, Wilson took the debate to the American people, embarking on a 27-day train journey to sell the treaty to live audiences but cut his tour short due to exhaustion and sickness. Upon arriving back in Washington, D.C., Wilson had a stroke.
Congress did not ratify the treaty, and the United States refused to take part in the League of Nations. Isolationists in Congress feared it would draw the United Sates into international affairs unnecessarily.
Paris Peace Conference
In other countries, the League of Nations was a more popular idea.
Under the leadership of Lord Cecil, the British Parliament created the Phillimore Committee as an exploratory body and announced support of it. French liberals followed, with the leaders of Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Greece, Czechoslovakia and other smaller nations responding in kind.
WATCH: The Legacy of World War I
In 1919 the structure and process of the League were laid out in a covenant developed by all the countries taking part in the Paris Peace Conference. The League began organizational work in the fall of 1919, spending its first 10 months with a headquarters in London before moving to Geneva.
The Covenant of the League of Nations went into effect on January 10, 1920, formally instituting the League of Nations. By 1920, 48 countries had joined.
League of Nations Plays it Safe
The League struggled for the right opportunity to assert its authority. Secretary-General Sir Eric Drummond believed that failure was likely to damage the burgeoning organization, so it was best not to insinuate itself into just any dispute.
When Russia, which was not a member of the League, attacked a port in Persia in 1920, Persia appealed to the League for help. The League refused to take part, believing that Russia would not acknowledge their jurisdiction and that would damage the League’s authority.
Adding to the growing pains, some European countries had a hard time handing over autonomy when seeking help with disputes.
There were situations in which the League had no choice but to get involved. From 1919 to 1935, the League acted as a trustee of a tiny region between France and Germany called the Saar. The League became the 15-year custodian of the coal-rich area to allow it time to determine on its own which of the two countries it wished to join, with Germany being the eventual choice.
A similar situation happened in Danzig, which was set-up as a free city by the Treaty of Versailles and became the center of a dispute between Germany and Poland. The League administered Danzig for several years before it fell back under German rule.
Disputes Solved by the League of Nations
Poland was in frequent distress, fearing for its independence against threats from neighboring Russia, which in 1920 occupied the city of Vilna and handed it over to Lithuanian allies. Following a demand that Poland recognize Lithuanian independence, the League became involved.
Vilna was returned to Poland, but hostilities with Lithuania continued. The League was also brought in as Poland grappled with Germany about Upper Silesia and with Czechoslovakia over the town of Teschen.
Other areas of dispute that the League got involved in included the squabble between Finland and Sweden over the Aaland Islands; disputes between Hungary and Rumania; Finland’s separate quarrels with Russia, Yugoslavia and Austria; a border argument between Albania and Greece; and the tussle between France and England over Morocco.
In 1923, following the murder of Italian General Enrico Tellini and his staff within the borders of Greece, Benito Mussolini retaliated by bombing and invading the Greek island Corfu. Greece requested the League’s help, but Mussolini refused to work with it.
The League was left on the sidelines watching as the dispute was solved instead by the Conference of Ambassadors, an Allied group that was later made part of the League.
The Incident at Petrich followed two years later. It’s unclear precisely how the debacle in the border town of Petrich in Bulgaria started, but it resulted in the deaths of a Greek captain and retaliation from Greece in the form of invasion.
Bulgaria apologized and begged the League for help. The League decreed a settlement that was accepted by both countries.
Larger Efforts by the League of Nations
Other League efforts include the Geneva Protocol, devised in the 1920s to limit what is now understood as chemical and biological weaponry, and the World Disarmament Conference in the 1930s, which was meant to make disarmament a reality but failed after Adolf Hitler broke away from the conference and the League in 1933.
In 1920 the League created its Mandates Commission, charged with protecting minorities. Its suggestions about Africa were treated seriously by France and Belgium but ignored by South Africa. In 1929, the Mandates Commission helped Iraq join the League.
The Mandates Commission also got involved in tensions in Palestine between the incoming Jewish population and Palestinian Arabs, though any hopes of sustaining peace there was further complicated by Nazi persecution of the Jews, which lead to a rise in immigration to Palestine.
The League was also involved in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which sought to outlaw war. It was successfully adapted by over 60 countries. Put to the test when Japan invaded Mongolia in 1931, the League proved incapable of enforcing the pact.
Why Did the League of Nations Fail?
When World War II broke out, most members of the League were not involved and claimed neutrality, but members France and Germany were immediately impacted.
In 1940, League members Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and France all fell to Hitler. Switzerland became nervous about hosting an organization perceived as an Allied one, and the League began to dismantle its offices.
Soon the Allies endorsed the idea of the United Nations, which held its first planning conference in San Francisco in 1944, effectively ending any need for the League of Nations to make a post-war return.
The Guardians. Susan Pederson.
The League of Nations: From 1919 to 1929. Gary B. Ostrower.
The League of Nations, 1920. U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian.
The League of Nations and the United Nations. BBC.