Did the League of Nations matter in the 1920s?

The League of Nations Organization, 1925 (Robert Kreuz, UEA Archives)

The League of Nations was one of the most ambitious attempts ever made to overcome the nationalist rivalries in international relations and attempt to solve problems through an internationalist approach rather than an approach based on national self-interest.

At the end of the First World War there was a determination among political leaders that they should try to find new ways to settle international disputes and to make nations feel secure. Before the war, nations had tried to ensure their security by building alliances to make themselves secure against their enemies. However, their enemies did the same.  The result was increased tension and eventually war.

In 1918 US President Woodrow Wilson put forward Fourteen Points which he hoped would make the world a more secure place. One of these points was the creation of a League of Nations. The thinking behind the League of Nations was that it would be a world Parliament. States could bring issues to the League and the League would judge impartially. The aims were set out in the Covenant of the League of Nations, including the following:

  • To be united and strong enough to discourage any nation from using force as a way to solve disputes
  • To provide a place where disputes could be discussed and worked out peacefully
  • To encourage countries to cooperate, especially in business and trade
  • To encourage nations to disarm
  • To improve living and working conditions for people around the world.

By sticking together, the nations of the world would enjoy protection and help from each other – this was called collective security.

Powerful nations like Britain and France thought that the League would be a sort of informal club, where in a crisis, the big nations would get together. However, Wilson insisted that the League would work like a kind of international government. It would be formed like this:

  • The Assembly was the League’s parliament. It voted on issues like the budget of the League, or letting in new members. Decisions had to be unanimous (every single member had to agree on a particular action)
  • The Council was much more important. It had temporary members elected from the Assembly. The real power in the League lay with the permanent members: Britain, France, Italy and Japan. Each permanent member could veto (stop) any action by the League. The Council took the important decisions in a crisis. For example, if one League member attacked another the Council could punish them. They could use:
    o    Moral condemnation – criticising the actions of the aggressor (the nation which was attacking another nation)
    o    Economic sanctions – cutting off important supplies like oil
    o    Armed force – using force against the aggressor.
  • The Permanent Court of International Justice helped to settle disputes between countries. Each state would make its case and then the Court would make a decision
  • The League of Nations Commissions tried to tackle a huge range of social issues including economic recovery (the Financial Committee), working conditions (International Labour Office), health (Health Office) and scientific research.

The Gap in the Bridge. Cartoon about the absence of the USA from the League of Nations, depicted as the missing keystone of the arch. The cigar also symbolizes America (Uncle sam) enjoying its wealth. 10 December 1919 (Punch Magazine 10 December 1919 Raffo, P. (1974). The League of Nations. London: The Historical Association, p. 7)

Although Britain and France had their reservations about the League, they joined and became its leading members. Wilson failed to persuade the US Congress to join the League, which weakened it significantly. However, we should not underestimate either the ambitions or the achievements of the League, especially in the 1920s.

In the 1920s there was a recognition that nationalist policies had led to war. Politicians were willing to try a more internationalist approach. The League was central to this and acted as a mediator in several disputes in the 1920s. For example, the League managed to negotiate an agreement between Poland and Germany over the province of Upper Silesia. In Bulgaria in 1925 the League intervened in a dispute between Greece and Bulgaria. It found in favour of Bulgaria, and Greece accepted the decision. The League had its disappointments too of course. In 1923 the Italian dictator Mussolini attacked Greece. The League ruled against Mussolini but he managed to persuade Britain and France to change the League’s decision.

In many ways the real success of the League was in the ‘small change’ of international diplomacy. Politicians for most major powers, even the USA, usually attended meetings of the League. This meant that the League became an important way for the powers to discuss and work out solutions to problems.

The League also helped to solve other types of problems. It had a series of agencies whose role was to tackle social and economic problems. For example, in 1923 Austria and Hungary suffered a major financial crisis. The League’s Financial Committee organized loans and financial reforms which stabilized the economy of these countries. The League also did important work improving working conditions through the International Labour Organization. The League’s Health Committee brought together leading experts from many countries to help develop approaches to combat deadly diseases like smallpox and malaria.