IGCSE History:League of Nations

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Setting up the League of Nations:

Introduction to the LoN:

  • Officially began work in January 1920
  • Was based in Geneva, Switzerland (long tradition of neutrality).
  • The LoN was set up by Wilson to ensure enduring world peace.
  • The League Covenant (rules of the League) were included in each of the peace treaties after the Great War and so by signing the treaties you were indirectly accepting the existence of the League.
  • Had the power to intimidate smaller nations like Bulgaria
  • It was designed to settle international arguments.

Organization of the League:

  • Permanent officials working in the LoN were known as the Secretariat: included Britain, France, Italy and Japan
    • The organization was Eurocentric
    • Small groups can determine whether to pass laws, however their votes had to be unanimous, meaning that it was relatively hard to pass a law as the Secretariats had clashing ideologies (also consider their degree of hatred towards Germany)
    • France: saw the organization as a military alliance
    • Britain: saw it was a looser, informal organization
  • Set up numerous commissions and committees to deal with all the different issues that arouse:
    • Labor Organization attempted to improve working conditions for workers.
    • This still exists and is part of the UN.
    • Health Organization attempted to improve the general health of people especially those in poorer nations.
      • One of its tasks was to wipe out leprosy.
      • This still exists and is part of the UN.
    • The most important of these were the ones dealing with the governance of Mandates and disarmament.
  • The Peace Treaties also set up the conference of ambassadors:
    • They had oversight on the way in which the treaties were being implemented.
    • Hard to say which issues should be dealt with by them and which by the LoN.
  • The LoN had no armed forces and so could not enforce its decisions:
    • It relied instead on the generosity of its members.
      • Wilson had thought that everyone would be as open-minded and selfless as he was but this was not so.
      • They could not stop enemies from fighting each other by themselves without the support of the League members.
  • League Assembly:
    • Each member state sent a representative here.
    • Met annually.
    • Had little power.
    • Whenever nations had a problem they would bring it before the assembly to have it solved by vote:
      • If this failed and a member state was attacked then the League Council would decide how collective security would be implemented.

A Mandate is a former colony owned by one of the Central Powers but given over to the LoN for governance at the end of the Great War.

A European Club?

  • Many did not like how the League gave power to the European nations of France, Britain and Italy:
    • Argentina argued for a democratic league with a council chosen by vote.
    • They were rejected and later walked out.
  • Some thought that the LoN would be dominated by white men:
    • Japan asked to forbid racism.
    • Proposal rejected by America and Britain:
      • They thought it was the duty of more ‘civilized’ states to look after those ‘peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.’

 America Refuses to Join:

  • Wilson was a Democrat but the senate was mainly Republican:
    • The Republicans disliked Wilson.
  • Long standing tradition of ‘isolationism’:
    • The US would not involve itself in international politics.
  • Wilson was stubborn and did not compromise.
  • March 1920, the senate stopped the US joining the LoN:
    • This weakened the authority of the LoN greatly.
      • The LoN could not threaten to impose trade sanctions as the US would simply fill the gap.

Absent Friend?

  • The 45 founder-members of the LoN were either neutral or victorious in the Great War.
    • Germany, Austria and Hungary saw the LoN as a club for their enemies as they were not invited initially.
  • The founders were afraid of the spread of communism:
    • USSR was not invited to join.
  • The LoN lacked German, American and Russian membership which greatly weakened it:
    • These were three of the strongest countries then.

Tension between Britain and France:

  • LoN was dominated by Britain and France.
  • France wanted a strict military alliance:
    • For protection against German invasion.
  • Britain wanted a loose informal alliance:
    • Their military was stretched thin trying to protect her empire and they could not afford to get involved in unnecessary conflicts elsewhere.
  • Britain was suspicious of France:
    • Thought that they wanted to use the LoN to gain power.
  • France and Britain had different opinions on almost every topic to be discussed.

The French turn to direct action:

  • France was displeased with the LoN as it could not force Germany to pay the £6.6 billion that was allotted her over 42 years in 1921 by the Reparations Commission.
  • Germans only made a small payment in 1922 and then stopped.

The occupation of the Ruhr:

  • 11 January 1923, French and Belgian troops invaded the Ruhr area:
    • This was Germany’s industrial heartland.
  • German workers went on strike.
  • America and Britain did not approve of the use of force.
  • France soon admitted that they were wrong.

Collective security:

  • Wilson’s ideas were central to the LoN.
  • Collective security was one of Wilson’s ideas and meant that if a member state was attacked all other countries of the LoN would act together to stop the aggression.
  • This worked in four possible ways:
    • World Public Opinion: Pressure could be applied on politicians by the world’s public to discourage them from warring with another nation. This was based on several misconceptions:
      • Public opinion only existed in democratic nations such as the US.
      • Aggressive governments often had the support of the public.
      • World public opinion was divided – e.g. what people wanted in France at the end of the Great War was different from what people wanted in America.
      • Powerful undemocratic governments did not have to heed the opinion of the public at home or abroad.
    • Disarmament: Wilson saw the arms race prior to the Great War as one of its causes. Article 8 committed member states to disarmament.
      • Article 8 was vague.
      • It only said to “reduce the level of armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety” there was no clear definition as to what point this was.
      • The Disarmament Commission had no way of forcing countries to disarm nor could they check that a country had indeed disarmed.
    • The use of sanctions and force: Articles 11 and 16 of the Covenant stated that the LoN would take action to stop war and that an attack on one member state would be seen as an attack on everyone, respectively. It was also said that the League Council would decide the appropriate punishment for the offending nation.
      • First members would stop trade with the offending nation (trade sanctions/embargoes).
      • Second, if the first step failed they would supply troops for a joint war effort.
      • Both of the above depended on governments being generous and willing to sacrifice the money and lives of their own people for another country.
      • Also if a member nation stopped trading the USA would simply fill in the gap as it was not a part of the LoN.
      • As such using sanctions and force was not feasible.
      • Also the LoN had no troops with which to wage a collective war.

The Geneva protocol:

  • Everyone knew that the LoN was weak.
  • France attempted to give it real military power.
  • Her moves in the early 1920s were blocked by Britain.
  • 1923, ‘draft treaty of mutual assistance’ was discussed:
    • Made the threat of force more real.
    • Countries were only obliged to send troops to nearby conflicts.
    • Thrown out by the British.
  • 1924 Geneva Protocol was discussed:
    • Set out clear rules for the peaceful arbitration of disputes.
    • If these rules were not followed the LoN would use sanctions or force.
    • The British leader Ramsay MacDonald originally supported this but he fell from power in 1924 and the new government rejected the protocol.
  • Attempts to give military power to the league had failed.

Critics of the League:

  • The League allowed others the chance to interfere with one’s own affairs.
  • The Soviets saw the league as a club for western capitalists (the polar opposite of their Comintern).
  • The League required nations to give up some part of their rights to self-government. E.g. Britain’s right to the maintenance of a navy as big as is possible would be gone as the League required disarmament.

Achievements of the League:

  • Refugees from conflicts were given vital help.
  • Fridjof Nansen (Norwegian explorer) worked for the LoN and helped 500 000 trapped PoWs in Russia to return to their homes.
  • The International Labor Organization (ILO) was initially led by an energetic and effective man named Albert Thomas who did encourage many countries to improve working conditions for their workers. The ILO is part of the UN today.
  • Health Organization successfully lowered the number of cases of leprosy and still exists today as the World Health Organization which is part of the UN.

The League in Action:

Successes Failures
1920, Sweden and Finland had a dispute over the Åland islands but the LoN resolved this by giving them to Finland; Sweden accepted this. Poland invaded the Lithuanian city of Vilna in defiance of the peace treaties and the LoN failed to persuade her to leave.
Greece and Bulgaria came close to war in 1925. The LoN promptly ruled that Greece was at fault and they even agreed to pay compensations. Italy invaded the Greek island of Corfu. France blocked firm LoN action as she was afraid of annoying Italy. Italy and Greece reached an agreement themselves but the LoN took no part in this.
1922, organized a rescue plan of the Austrian economy.
Throughout the 1920s the LoN administered the Saarland area and the city of Danzig very fairly.
  • The League’s successes often involved smaller nations.
  • The League had difficulty controlling larger nations as it was weak.


  • The Soviet Union became a member of the LoN in 1934.

Why did the League of Nations fail:

  • Some powerful nations were excluded:
    • Without the USA they could not effectively threaten trade sanctions.
    • The USSR did not join until 1934 by which time the Germans had left.
    • The Germans did not join until 1926 and left a year after Hitler came to power (1934).
  • Britain and France dominated the League in the absence of the USA:
    • They did not always agree.
    • The fact that League Council decisions had to be unanimous made it even harder for them to make decisions with Britain and France disagreeing all the time.
  • The League lacked teeth:
    • It could not make powerful countries such as France and Britain obey it:
      • They were too preoccupied with their own needs and did not wish to be involved in collective security.
  • The Depression undermined the League:
    • The Depression made nations ignore the events of faraway places:

Japan and Italy were able to invade Manchuria and Abyssinia respectively during this timeframe without adequate punishment.

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