The League of Nations (LON or SoN) was an international organization introduced by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and dissolved in 1946. This same treaty was elaborated during the Paris Peace Conference, during which the Covenant or Pact establishing the SDN was signed, in order to preserve peace in Europe after the end of the First World War. Based in Geneva, in the Wilson Palace and later in the Palace of Nations, it was replaced in 1945 by the United Nations Organization, which took over some of its agencies. The main promoter of the UNS was U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. The last of Wilson”s Fourteen Points of January 1918, which called for an association of nations, formed the official policy basis. However, the U.S. Senate, in opposing ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, voted against membership in the League of Nations, and the United States did not join.
In addition to being a free trade treaty affirmed in the first three of Wilson”s Fourteen Points, the goals of the League include disarmament, the prevention of war through the principle of collective security, the resolution of conflicts through negotiation, and the overall improvement of the quality of life.
The diplomatic approach that presided over the creation of the Society represented a fundamental change from the thinking of previous centuries, advocating collective negotiation as opposed to the secret diplomacy that the American president abhorred. However, the Society had no armed force “of its own” and therefore depended on the great powers to implement its resolutions, whether it was economic sanctions or the provision of troops when needed. The countries concerned were reluctant to intervene. Benito Mussolini thus declared: “The League of Nations is very effective when the sparrows cry, but not at all when the eagles attack. Between the wars, three countries (Nazi Germany, Japan in 1933, and Italy in 1937) left the League.
After many notable successes and some particular failures in the 1920s, the League of Nations was completely unable to prevent Axis aggression in the 1930s.
Despite the peaceful resolution of minor tensions and conflicts (in the Åland Islands, in Albania, in Austria and Hungary, in Upper Silesia, in Memel, in Greece against Bulgaria, in Saarland, in Mosul, in the Alexandria Sandjak, in Liberia, between Colombia and Peru), the League of Nations was considered a failure because it was unable to stop either the Spanish Civil War neither the Italian aggression against Ethiopia, nor Japanese imperialism, nor the annexation of Austria by Hitler, nor the Sudeten crisis, nor the German threats against Poland, that is to say, all the international crises that preluded the outbreak of the Second World War. Moreover, its management of certain colonies by European powers under the mandate format will pose problems whose effects will be effective until today (Rwanda, Middle East).
End of the war
In 1917, the Germans, knowing that the arrival of the American troops was near, decided to concentrate their efforts in the west, to win the war before the Allied reinforcements landed. In March 1918, the German general Erich Ludendorff attacked Picardy and opened a gap between the French and British armies. The Allies created a single command for the first time, entrusted to Marshal Ferdinand Foch on March 26. In May, the Germans reached the Marne River and threatened Paris, but Ludendorff was unable to take advantage of this success due to a lack of reserves. The United States troops had time to land and helped push the Germans back. In 1918, the Italians obtained the capitulation of Austria, while the Allied troops gathered in Salonika forced Bulgaria and then the Ottoman Empire to ask for an armistice. Germany capitulated on November 11, 1918.
Treaty of Versailles
The Treaty of Versailles put an end to the First World War. It was signed on June 28, 1919 at the Palace of Versailles between Germany and the Allies. Although this conference brought together 27 states (the defeated excluded and, in reality, 32, with the United Kingdom speaking on behalf of Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and India), the work was dominated by a sort of four-member board: Georges Clemenceau for France, David Lloyd George for the United Kingdom, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando for Italy and Woodrow Wilson for the United States.
The sanctions taken are extremely harsh for the defeated:
At the time of defining the new borders of Europe, the United States and the United Kingdom refused to accede to the French request to create a military barrier on the Rhine, to avoid French hegemony on the continent. Moreover, these two countries were convinced that Europe could not be rebuilt effectively without a strong Germany. This is why they tried to moderate the enormous demands of France. To avoid the creation of this barrier, the United States and the United Kingdom proposed to sign a common defense treaty with France in case of German aggression, which meant that France would immediately receive military aid from these countries. Clemenceau accepted this proposal, but the American Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.
Germany was extremely dissatisfied with the provisions of the treaty, so the French saw fit to protect themselves in another way. They formed a small agreement with Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania to replace the non-existent support of the United States and the United Kingdom.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, peace societies were founded in New York, London and Geneva. In 1892, the International Peace Bureau was created in Bern and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1910.
The beginnings of the League of Nations were, in many ways, the Hague International Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, which led to the creation of the Hague Court of International Arbitration. The “Confederation of Hague States”, as the neo-Kantian pacifist Walther Schücking called it, formed a universal alliance whose aim was disarmament and the peaceful settlement of disputes through arbitration. These two axes were each derived from one of the commissions set up at the conference and chaired by Léon Bourgeois; axes that were initially considered minor in the eyes of the powers that instigated the conference. The concept of a peaceful community of nations had previously been described in Immanuel Kant”s book Towards Perpetual Peace (1795). Following the failure of these conferences (a third was planned for 1915), the idea of the League of Nations was initiated by British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey and enthusiastically taken up by Democratic U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and his advisor, Colonel Edward M. House, who saw it as a means of preventing a new bloodbath comparable to that of the First World War, the “war to end war.
The creation of the League was also the subject of Wilson”s Fourteen Points, especially the last one: “A global association of nations should be formed by specific commitments guaranteeing political independence and mutual territorial integrity to all countries large and small.
The participants of the Paris peace conference accepted the proposal to create a League of Nations (in English: League of Nations, in German: Völkerbund) on January 25, 1919.
The project was completed on February 14, 1919. On April 28, 1919, Geneva was chosen as the headquarters of the organization. This choice was justified by the international influence acquired by the city over the centuries and its membership in Switzerland (a neutral country).
The Convention defining the League of Nations was drafted by a special commission, the creation of the League being provided for in Part 1 of the Treaty of Versailles signed on June 28, 1919. Initially, the Charter was signed by 44 states, 31 of which had taken part in the war on the side of the Triple Entente or joined it during the conflict. Despite Wilson”s efforts to create and promote the League – for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 – the United States never ratified the Charter, nor did it later join it due to opposition from the U.S. Senate, particularly from influential Republicans such as Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and William E. Borah of Idaho, in conjunction with Wilson”s refusal to compromise.
The Society held its first meeting in London on January 10, 1920. Its first act was to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, thus officially ending the First World War. The governing bodies of the League moved to Geneva on November 1, 1920. The first General Assembly was held there on November 15, 1920 with representatives from 41 nations. Its first president was the Belgian Paul Hymans. The Frenchman Léon Bourgeois was the president of the first meeting of the Council (January 16, 1920). He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920.
David Kennedy has studied the League through scholarly texts about it, the treaties that created it, and the votes in the plenary sessions. Kennedy suggests that the Society was a unique moment when international affairs were “institutionalized,” as opposed to the legal and political methods of pre-World War I.
Role of the United States
In a fourteen-point program, American President Woodrow Wilson proposed the creation of a League of Nations to guarantee world peace. The project was relatively poorly received in France because of the moderation of the United States towards the defeated nations during the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles. However, the President of the Council, Georges Clemenceau, agreed to join the League because he understood that in this way he would obtain the consent of the United States to his demands on Germany. Wilson suffered a serious setback when the U.S. Congress refused to join the League out of a tradition of isolationism towards Europe. The United States will never be a member.
Negotiations on “race equality
The Japanese delegation defended the inclusion of the principle of “equality of races” in the UNSC pact, but faced strong opposition from Australia and, to a lesser extent, the United States and the United Kingdom. Throughout the debates, the American and British press strongly criticized Japan, accused of wanting to facilitate the emigration of its nationals.
On the contrary, these discussions raised the hopes of populations suffering from racial discrimination or segregation, especially African Americans. Black American intellectual William Edward Burghardt Du Bois saw Japan as a player in the revenge of the colored peoples: “As black Africans, brown Indians, and yellow Japanese fight for France and England, it would be possible for them to emerge from this bloody mess with a new idea of the essential equality of men.”
Yet, as historian Matsunuma Miho points out, “Japan”s goal was not to achieve equality for all races. Its government was mainly concerned that an inferior status assigned to its nationals would disadvantage its position in the future international order.” Japanese nationals suffering humiliating discriminatory measures in the United States, Canada, and Australia. In addition, Japan itself practiced a policy of discrimination and repression against the Chinese and Koreans, whose independence demonstrations in March 1919 were crushed.
The failure of the initiative provoked in Japan a great popular anger and resentment towards the West, in particular the Anglo-Saxons.
The League of Nations pact was drafted from February 3 to April 11, 1919 at the Hotel de Crillon in Paris during the 1919 peace conference. It regulates the relations between the member states.
The SDN has three basic goals:
The 26 articles that make up the Covenant define the functions of the four main bodies:
Any action by the League had to be authorized by a unanimous vote of the Council and a majority vote of the Assembly.
The Society originally comprised 45 countries, 26 of which were non-European. Later, the number of member countries temporarily increased to 60 (September 28, 1934 to March 26, 1935).
Secretariat and Assembly
The secretariat staff was responsible for preparing the agenda for the Council and the Assembly and for editing the minutes of the meetings and reports on current issues, acting in effect as officers of the Society. The Secretariat is organized into sections and employs several hundred staff and experts.
Each member state was represented and had a vote in the Assembly (although not all states had a permanent representative in Geneva). The Assembly held its sessions once a year in September.
The Council of the League of Nations had authority to deal with any matter affecting world peace. Its composition was initially four permanent members (the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Japan) and four non-permanent members, elected by the General Assembly for a period of three years. The first four non-permanent members were Belgium, Brazil, Greece and Spain. The United States was supposed to be the fifth permanent member, but the U.S. Senate, dominated by Republicans after the 1918 elections, voted against ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, thereby preventing the country”s participation in the League, and reflecting the isolationist tendencies of the Americans.
The initial composition of the Council was subsequently modified on numerous occasions. The number of non-permanent members was first increased to six (on 22 September 1922) and then to nine (on 8 September 1926). The Weimar Republic also joined the Society and became the fifth permanent member of the Council, bringing the total number of members to fifteen. Later, when Germany and Japan left the Society, the number of non-permanent members was finally increased from nine to eleven. On average, the Council met five times a year, not including special sessions. One hundred and seven public sessions were held between 1920 and 1939.
The League oversaw the Permanent International Court of Justice and various other agencies and commissions created to deal with pressing international problems. These included the Commission on Firearms Control, the Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, the Mandates Commission, the Permanent Central Bureau for Opium, the Commission for Refugees, and the Slavery Commission. While the Society itself is often stigmatized for its failures, many of its agencies and commissions have had notable successes in carrying out their respective mandates.
The Commission obtained the initial agreement of France, Italy (the economist V. Pareto was its representative), Japan and Britain to limit the size of their respective navies. Nevertheless, the United Kingdom refused to sign the 1923 disarmament treaty, and the Briand-Kellogg Pact, facilitated by the Commission in 1928, failed in its objective of banishing war. Finally, the Commission failed to stop the rearmament of Germany (which obtained, in December 1932, the principle of equal rights to armaments, and reintroduced compulsory military service in 1935), Italy and Japan during the 1930s. Japan left the League in 1933, two years after invading Manchuria.
The “Hygiene Organization” of the League of Nations was a complex structure articulating a Hygiene Committee specific to the League of Nations, founded in 1923, and complex relations with the International Office of Public Hygiene (IOPH) created before the League of Nations, in 1907, and heir to the International Health Conferences.
The Hygiene Organization aimed, among other things, to eradicate leprosy, malaria and yellow fever, the last two by launching an international mosquito extermination campaign. The Organization also succeeded in preventing a typhus epidemic from developing in Europe through early intervention in the Soviet Union. A large number of practical activities were still carried out by the OIHP.
The Commission supervised the Mandate territories of the League of Nations. It also organized referendums in disputed territories so that their residents could decide which country they wanted to join; the most famous was the Saarland referendum in 1935.
This body was headed by the Frenchman Albert Thomas. He succeeded in banning the use of lead in paint, and convinced a number of countries to adopt an eight-hour workday and a forty-eight hour workweek. He also worked to abolish child labor, to improve women”s right to work, and to make shipowners liable for accidents involving seafarers.
Created in 1920 at the first General Assembly of the League of Nations, the Advisory Commission on Opium Traffic was responsible for pursuing international drug policy as initiated by the International Opium Convention signed in The Hague in 1912. Its first meeting took place in 1921 and it sat continuously until 1940. It was here that the international conventions on drugs adopted during the interwar period were discussed and elaborated. It thus contributed greatly to the construction of international drug control as it still exists at the beginning of the 21st century, by creating a legal market for drugs intended solely for medical and scientific purposes.
Headed by Fridtjof Nansen, the Commission oversaw the repatriation and, if necessary, resettlement of 400,000 refugees and former prisoners of war, most of whom had been stranded in Russia at the end of World War I. It established camps in Turkey in 1922 to deal with an influx of refugees into the country and thus help prevent disease and famine. It also established the Nansen passport as a means of identifying stateless persons.
The ICCI, founded in 1921, aims to promote the conditions for international peace. The aim is to develop the critical spirit of individuals through education so that they can act in a healthy and responsible manner. The ICCI, which brings together several intellectuals from around the world, has as its first president the philosopher Henri Bergson. This consultation body disappeared during the Second World War and reappeared in 1946 in a new form, that of UNESCO.
Many of these institutions were transferred to the United Nations after World War II. In addition to the International Labour Organization, the permanent International Court of Justice became the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and the Health Organization was reorganized as the World Health Organization (WHO).
The member countries
The League of Nations had 42 founding members; 16 of them left or withdrew from the organization. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was the only one of the founding members to leave the Society and then return, remaining a member until the end. In the year of its foundation, six other states joined; only two of them remained members until the end. Subsequently, 15 other countries became members, of which only two remained until the end. Egypt was the last member in 1937. The Soviet Union was expelled from the Society on December 14, 1939, five years after it joined on September 18, 1934. Iraq was the only member that was also a Mandate of the League of Nations. Iraq became a member in 1932.
The League of Nations never had an official flag or logo. Proposals were made in the early days of the League to adopt an official symbol, but the member states never agreed.
Nevertheless, the Society”s organizations used a variety of flags and logos for their own purposes. An international competition was held in 1929 to find a design, which again did not lead to a symbol. One of the reasons for this failure may have been the fear by member states that the power of this supranational organization might have surpassed their own. Finally, in 1939, a semi-official emblem was created: two five-pointed stars in the center of a blue pentagon. The pentagon and the stars were to symbolically represent the five continents and the five races of humanity. The flag included the English (League of Nations) and French (Société des Nations) names at the top and bottom respectively. This flag was displayed on the building of the 1939-1940 New York International Fair.
The official languages were French and English. In the early 1920s, a proposal was made to adopt Esperanto as a working language. Thirteen delegates from countries that together included almost half of the world”s population and a large majority of the population of the UNSG countries accepted the proposal, but only one, the French delegate Gabriel Hanotaux, vetoed it. Hanotaux did not like the fact that French was losing its position as the language of diplomacy and saw Esperanto as a threat. Two years later, the Society recommended that its member states include Esperanto in their educational programs.
The “Mandates” of the League of Nations
The territories under the mandate of the League of Nations, or “Mandates”, were created under Article 22 of the League of Nations” commitments. These territories were former colonies of the German Empire and provinces of the Ottoman Empire.
There were three classes of terms.
These were territories “which had reached a sufficient stage of development to be identified, on a provisional basis, as independent nations and could receive advice and assistance from a ”Mandatory”, until such time as they could govern themselves. The wishes of these communities should be a primary consideration in the selection of the Agent. These territories were mainly part of the former Ottoman Empire.
These were territories that “were at a stage where the agent was to be responsible for the administration of the territory under conditions that guaranteed :
These were territories “which, by reason of their low population density, or small size, or remoteness from the centers of civilization, or geographical contiguity from the territory of a Mandatory, and other circumstances, may be better administered according to the laws of the Mandatory.”
The territories were governed by delegations of power, as was the case for the United Kingdom in Palestine (British Mandate of Palestine) and South Africa (Union of South Africa), until the territories were capable of self-government.
There were fourteen mandates administered by six agents: the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, New Zealand, Australia and Japan. In practice, the mandated territories were treated as colonies, and critics denounced them as war grabs. With the exception of Iraq, which joined the Society on October 3, 1932, these territories were unable to gain independence until after World War II, a process that was not completed until 1990. Following the dissolution of the League, most of the remaining mandates came under the control of the United Nations as United Nations Trust Territories.
In addition to the mandates, the League of Nations itself administered the Saarland for 15 years, before it was ceded back to the Third Reich following a plebiscite, and the Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk, Poland) from November 15, 1920 to September 1, 1939.
The League was generally accused of failing in its mission. However, it had significant successes in a number of territories.
The Åland Islands
Åland is a group of about 6,500 islands located halfway between Sweden and Finland. The inhabitants are exclusively Swedish-speaking, although Finland – then under Russian rule – gained sovereignty in the early 1900s. From 1917, most of the residents wanted the islands to become a Swedish region. Finland, now independent, opposed this. The Swedish government raised the issue at the League of Nations in 1921. After careful consideration, the League decided on June 25, 1921, that the islands should be Finnish but have an autonomous government, thus avoiding a potential war between the two countries.
The border between Albania and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia remained a matter of controversy after the Paris peace conference in 1919, with Yugoslav forces occupying part of Albanian territory. After clashes with Albanian tribes, Yugoslav forces penetrated further into the territories. The Society sent a commission composed of representatives of the various regional powers. The commission ruled in favor of Albania and the Yugoslav forces withdrew in 1921, but not without protest. War was again avoided.
Austria and Hungary
Following World War I, Austria and Hungary faced bankruptcy as a result of the dismantling of their territories and the very large war reparations they had to pay. The Society set up loans for both nations and sent commissioners to oversee their spending. In the Austrian case, it deployed large-scale international aid, and pushed Vienna to reform its economic system to stabilize its budget. These actions put Austria and Hungary on the road to economic recovery.
The port city of Memel (now Klaipėda) and the surrounding area of the Memel Territory were placed under the control of the League of Nations at the end of World War I and was governed by a French general for three years. Although the population was predominantly German, the Lithuanian government claimed the territory and its troops invaded in 1923. The Society chose to cede the territory surrounding Memel to Lithuania, but declared that the port should remain an international zone, which Lithuania accepted. This decision could be seen as a failure (the League having reacted passively to the use of force), but the settlement of the issue without significant bloodshed was a favorable outcome for the League.
After a border incident between Greek and Bulgarian sentries in 1925, Greek troops invaded their neighbor. Bulgaria ordered its troops to offer only token resistance, trusting the League to settle the conflict. The League of Nations condemned the Greek invasion and demanded both the withdrawal of Greek troops and compensation for Bulgaria. Greece complied, but complained about the disparity in treatment with Italy (see below: the Corfu incident).
The Society resolved a dispute between Iraq and Turkey over control of the former Ottoman province of Mosul in 1926. According to the United Kingdom, which had received a Mandate “A” over Iraq from the League in 1920 and thus represented Iraq in its foreign affairs, Mosul had belonged to Iraq. On the other hand, the newly created Turkish republic claimed the province as its historical center.
A three-person committee was sent by the League of Nations to the region in 1924 to study the case and recommended in 1925 that the region be attached to Iraq, on condition that the United Kingdom retain its mandate over Iraq for a period of 25 years to ensure the autonomous rights of the Kurdish population.
The Council of the League of Nations adopted the proposal and decided on December 16, 1925, to allocate Mosul to Iraq. Although Turkey had accepted the League”s arbitration in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, it rejected its decision. However, the British, Iraq, and Turkey signed a treaty on June 5, 1926, which in broad terms repeated the decision of the League Council, also allocating Mosul to Iraq.
The sandjak of Alexandrette
Under the supervision of the League of Nations, the Sandjak of Alexandrette had been devolved to the French mandate of Syria. After numerous troubles and disputes between the Turkish minority and Syria, a resolution of the League pushed France, the mandate holder, to grant its autonomy in November 1937. Renamed Hatay, the sandjak proclaimed its independence and founded the Republic of Hatay in September 1938, after the elections of the previous month. It was later annexed by Turkey in 1939.
Following rumors of forced labor in the independent African country of Liberia, the Society launched an investigation into the matter, particularly regarding allegations of forced labor on Firestone”s massive rubber plantations in the country. In 1930, a Society report implicated many government officials in the sale of labor, leading to the resignation of President Charles D. B. King, his vice president and many other government officials. The League went on to threaten to establish a trusteeship over Liberia unless reforms were made, which became the main objective of President Edwin Barclay.
Colombian-Peruvian war of 1932-1933
The Colombian-Peruvian war, which took place between 1932 and 1933, was a territorial dispute concerning the “trapezium” of Leticia, an area of 10,000 km2, located in Colombia. After violent confrontations, it is the mediation of the League of Nations which put an end to the conflict and led the two parts to sign a treaty of peace.
The League also fought the international opium trade and sexual slavery and helped alleviate the plight of refugees, especially in Turkey in 1926. One of its innovations in this area was the creation of the Nansen passport in 1922, which was the first internationally recognized identity card for stateless refugees. Many of the Society”s successes were achieved through its various agencies and commissions.
In the long run, the League was a failure. The outbreak of World War II was the immediate cause of its demise, but there were many other, more fundamental reasons for its demise.
The Society, like the United Nations today, had no armed force of its own and depended on the Great Powers to enforce its resolutions, which they were never very willing to do. Economic sanctions, which were the most serious measure the Society could decide on – just before the military option – were difficult to impose and had little impact on the countries targeted because they could continue to trade with countries that did not belong to the League. The problem is illustrated in the following passage:
“With respect to military sanctions under Article 16(2), there is no legal obligation to apply them…if there is a political and moral duty incumbent on states, again, there is no obligation on them.”
The two largest members of the Society, Britain and France, were reluctant to use sanctions and even more reluctant to resort to armed action on behalf of the Society. So soon after the end of World War I, the populations and governments of both countries were pacifist. British conservatives were particularly lukewarm about the role of the League and preferred, when in government, to negotiate treaties without the organization”s involvement. Eventually, both Britain and France abandoned the concept of collective security in favour of appeasement in the face of rising militarism in Germany under Adolf Hitler.
The representativeness of the Society has always been a problem. Although it was intended to include all nations, many never joined, or their participation was short-lived. In January 1920, during the early days of the League, Germany was not immediately admitted to membership because of strong resentment towards that country after the First World War. A key weakness was the non-participation of the United States, which removed much of its potential power. Although U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had been a major player in the creation of the League, the U.S. Senate tactically opposed U.S. membership in the League on November 19, 1919, and again on March 19, 1920, on the merits.
The Society was further weakened when some of the major powers left in the 1930s. Japan, a permanent member of the Council, withdrew in 1933 after the League expressed its opposition to the Japanese conquest of Manchuria. Italy, also a permanent member of the Council, withdrew in 1937. The Society had accepted Germany in 1926 as a “friend of peace,” but Adolf Hitler expelled it when he came to power in 1933.
Another of the great nations, the Soviet Union, was only a member between 1934, when it joined the League out of antagonism to Germany (which had resigned the previous year), and December 14, 1939, when it was expelled for its aggression against Finland. When the Soviet Union was excluded, the Society violated its own rules. Only seven of the 15 members voted for the exclusion (Great Britain, France, Belgium, Bolivia, Egypt, the Union of South Africa and the Dominican Republic), which did not represent the majority of votes required by the Charter. Three of these members had been appointed to the Council the day before the vote (Union of South Africa, Bolivia, and Egypt). In fact, the Society ceased to function effectively after that. It was formally dissolved in 1946.
The Society”s neutrality tended to be seen as indecision. The League required a unanimous vote of all nine (later fifteen) members of the Council to pass a resolution, so it was difficult, if not impossible, to achieve effective conclusion and action. It was also slow to reach decisions. Some of these decisions also required the unanimous consent of the Assembly, that is, of all members of the League.
Another important weakness was that it claimed to represent all nations, but most members were protecting their own national interests and did not really commit themselves to the League and its goals. The reluctance of the membership as a whole to employ the military option clearly demonstrated this. Had the Society shown more resolve at its inception, countries, governments, and dictators might have been more circumspect in risking its wrath in the years that followed. These failures were, in part, responsible for the outbreak of World War II.
Moreover, the Society”s recommendation of disarmament of Britain and France (and other members) concomitant with the recommendation to establish collective security showed that the League unconsciously deprived itself of the only real means that could have established its authority. Indeed, if the League had had to force a country to respect international law it would have been mainly the Royal Navy and the French Army that would have had to fight. Moreover, Britain and France were not powerful enough to impose international law throughout the world, even if they had wanted to. For its members, the commitments to the League of Nations presented the risk that states would be drawn into international disagreements that did not directly concern their respective national interests.
On June 23, 1936, following the total failure of the League”s efforts to prevent Italy from starting a war of conquest in Abyssinia, United Kingdom Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin told the House of Commons (United Kingdom) that collective security “was a total failure because of the reluctance of nearly all the European nations to proceed to what I might call military sanctions…. The real, or main, reason was that we discovered during the past weeks that there was no country, except the aggressor, which was ready for war… If collective action is to be a reality and not merely a concept, it means not only that every country must be ready for war, but must be ready to go to war immediately. This is a terrible thing, but it is an essential part of collective security. This was an accurate assessment and a lesson that was clearly followed in the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which succeeded the League of Nations in one of its roles, as it guaranteed the security of Western Europe.
The weaknesses of the League of Nations are illustrated by its failures.
Cieszyn (German: Teschen, Czech: Těšín) is a region between Poland and the present-day Czech Republic, important for its coal mines. Czechoslovak troops moved to Cieszyn in 1919 to take control of the area at a time when Poland was facing a Bolshevik attack. The League of Nations intervened, deciding that Poland should retain control of most of the city but that Czechoslovakia could keep one of the suburbs, which had the most important mines as well as the only railway line connecting the Czech territories and Slovakia. The city was divided into a Polish and a Czech part (Český Těšín). Poland refused this decision and, although there was no further violence, the diplomatic controversy lasted another 20 years.
After World War I, both Poland and Lithuania regained the independence they had lost when Poland was partitioned in 1795. Although the two countries had shared centuries of common history during the Polish-Lithuanian Union and the Republic of Two Nations, rising Lithuanian nationalism prevented the re-creation of the former federation. The city of Vilnius (Old Lithuanian: Vilna, Polish: Wilno) became the capital of Lithuania, despite its predominantly Polish population.
During the Russo-Polish war of 1920, a Polish army took command of the city. Despite the Polish claim on the city, the latter decided to ask for the withdrawal of the troops. The Poles stayed. The city and its surroundings were then declared part of the Republic of Central Lithuania. Following widely boycotted elections, on February 20, 1922, the local Polish-dominated parliament signed the Act of Unification with Poland. The city became part of Poland as the capital of the Vilna Voivodeship.
In theory, British and French troops could have been called in to enforce the UNSC resolution. Nevertheless, France did not want to enter into conflict with Poland, which was a potential ally in a future war against Germany and the Soviet Union, while Britain did not want to act alone.
In addition, both the British and the French wanted to keep Poland as a “buffer zone” between Europe and the possible threat of Communist Russia. In the end, the Society accepted the attachment of Vilnius to Poland on March 15, 1923. The Poles held the city until the Soviet invasion in 1939.
Lithuania refused to accept Poland”s authority over Vilnius, considering it an artificial capital. It was not until the ultimatum of 1938, when Lithuania broke off diplomatic relations with Poland, that it de facto accepted the borders with its neighbor.
Invasion of the Ruhr (1923)
According to the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had to pay war reparations. It could do so in money or in goods at a fixed value. However, in 1922 Germany was unable to make this payment. The following year, France and Belgium decided to react and invaded Germany”s industrial center, the Ruhr, despite the fact that this represented a direct violation of the Society”s rules. France being a major member of the League, nothing was done. This set a significant precedent: the League would rarely act against the major powers, and would at times violate its own rules.
A major border issue that remained after the end of World War I concerned Greece and Albania. The Conference of Ambassadors, a de facto body of the Society, was to settle the issue.
The Council appointed Italian General Enrico Tellini to oversee the matter. On August 27, 1923, during an inspection on the Greek side of the border, Tellini and his staff were assassinated. Italian leader Benito Mussolini was exasperated and demanded monetary reparations from Greece as well as the execution of the murderers. The Greeks could not actually identify the murderers.
On August 31, Italian forces occupied the Greek island of Corfu and fifteen people were killed. Initially, the Society condemned the invasion, but also recommended that Greece pay monetary compensation to be held by the League until Tellini”s killers were arrested.
Mussolini, although he accepted this decision at first, decided to have it changed. Working with the Council of Ambassadors, he succeeded. Greece was forced to apologize and to pay the compensation directly and immediately to Italy. Mussolini was thus able to leave Corfu triumphantly. By bowing to pressure from a large country, the League of Nations once again set a dangerous and damaging example. It was one of its major failures.
The invasion of Manchuria (1931-1933)
The Mukden Incident was another failure of the League and acted as a catalyst for Japan”s withdrawal from the organization. In the Mukden Incident, also known as the “Manchu Incident,” Imperial Japan took control of the South Manchurian Railway in the Chinese region of Manchuria. It claimed on September 18, 1931, that Chinese soldiers had sabotaged the railroad, which was an important trade route between the two countries.
In fact, it is believed that the sabotage was designed by Japanese officers of the Kwantung Army, without the knowledge of the Japanese government, to trigger a full-scale invasion of Manchuria. In retaliation, the Japanese army, contrary to the orders of the civilian government of Japan, occupied the entire region and renamed it Manchukuo. This new country was internationally recognized only by El Salvador (March 1934), the Vatican (April 1934), Spain, then Italy (November 1936) and Germany (February 1938) as well as by countries allied or occupied by the Axis powers during the Second World War such as Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Finland, Denmark, Croatia, the rest of the world continuing to consider Manchuria as a Chinese region.
In 1932, the Japanese air force and navy bombed the Chinese city of Shanghai, triggering a short war, the first Shanghai Incident. The Chinese government requested assistance from the League, but the long boat trip by League officials to investigate the incident themselves caused delays. When they arrived, the officials were confronted with Chinese allegations of an illegal Japanese invasion, while the Japanese claimed to have acted to keep the peace in the area. Despite Japan”s high standing in the Society, the Lytton Report declared Japan wrong and called for Manchuria to be returned to China. However, before the report was voted on in the Assembly, Japan announced its intention to continue the invasion of China. When the report was approved at the Article 42-1 Assembly in 1933 (only Japan voted against it), Japan withdrew from the Society.
According to its own Convention, the League of Nations should have decided on economic sanctions against Japan, or gathered an army and declared war on it. Nevertheless, nothing happened. On the one hand, economic sanctions had been rendered ineffective by the refusal of the United States of America to join the League of Nations: for a state under economic sanctions, trade with the United States of America was an easy way to circumvent the sanction. On the other hand, no army was ever set up, due to the self-interest of many member states. This led to the refusal of Britain and France to set up a common army for the benefit of the Society, as they were already busy with their own affairs (such as maintaining control over their vast colonial empires), especially after the turmoil of the First World War.
Japan retained control of Manchuria until the Soviet Red Army invaded the region in 1945 and returned it to China at the end of World War II.
Chaco War (1932)
The League of Nations could not prevent the Chaco War, in 1932, between Bolivia and Paraguay in the arid region of the Boreal Chaco (South America).
Although the region was sparsely populated, it gave control of the Paraguay River, which would have provided access to the Atlantic Ocean for one of these two landlocked countries.There was also speculation, later proven false, that the Chaco might be rich in oil. Skirmishes on the border throughout the 1920s culminated in an all-out war in 1932 when the Bolivian army, under orders from President Daniel Salamanca Urey, attacked a Paraguayan garrison at Vanguardia. Paraguay appealed to the League of Nations, but the latter gave up acting when the Pan-American Conference offered to negotiate in its place.
The war was a disaster for both sides, causing 100,000 casualties and bringing both countries to the brink of economic disaster. Before a cease-fire was negotiated on June 12, 1935, Paraguay had seized control of most of the region. The new situation was endorsed in a truce in 1938, during which three quarters of the Chaco Boreal were awarded to Paraguay.
The Italian invasion of Abyssinia (1935-1936)
It is perhaps the most famous failure of the Society. In October 1935, Benito Mussolini sent General Pietro Badoglio with 400,000 troops to invade Abyssinia, present-day Ethiopia. The modern Italian army easily defeated a poorly equipped Abyssinian army and took Addis Ababa in May 1936, forcing Emperor Haile Selassie to flee. During the conflict, the Italian army used chemical weapons (mustard gas) and flame throwers. The Society condemned the Italian aggression and imposed economic sanctions in November 1935, but they were largely ineffective.
According to British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the cause was the inadequacy or absence of military forces at the service of the League, which would have been able to resist an Italian attack. Moreover, on October 9, 1935, the United States, even though it was not a member, refused to cooperate with any action by the League. It placed an embargo on the export of arms and war material to the belligerents in accordance with its new neutrality law on 5 October. On February 29, 1936, they attempted to limit exports of oil and other materials to normal peacetime levels. The sanctions of the League of Nations, decreed on July 4, 1936, thus remained a dead letter.
In December 1935, an attempt to end the conflict in Abyssinia, due to the British Foreign Secretary Hoare and the French Prime Minister Laval, and therefore known as the Hoare-Laval Pact, was launched. The idea was to divide Abyssinia into two parts: an Italian sector and an Abyssinian sector. Mussolini would have been ready to accept the pact, despite fragmentary information. British and French public opinion reacted vehemently and accused the League of wanting to sell off the integrity of Abyssinia. Hoare and Laval were forced to go back on their proposal. Their respective governments dissociated themselves from it.
As in the case of China and Japan, the major nations reacted weakly, considering that the fate of a poor and remote country, inhabited by non-Europeans, was not of major interest to them. On December 11, 1937, Italy left the League of Nations.
Rearmament of Germany (1936), then of future Axis powers
The League of Nations was powerless (and mostly silent) in the face of the major events that led to the Second World War, such as the remilitarization of the Rhineland, the occupation of the Sudetenland and the Anschluss by Germany, which was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles.
Like Japan, the Third Reich in 1933 – using the failure of the World Disarmament Conference to establish arms parity with France as a pretext – and Italy in 1937 preferred to leave the Society rather than submit to its judgements. The League”s commissioner in Danzig was unable to deal with German claims to the city, a factor that contributed to the outbreak of the Second World War. The last significant act of the League was to exclude the Soviet Union in December 1939 after its invasion of Finland.
Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)
On July 17, 1936, an armed conflict broke out between the Republicans (supporting the legitimate government) and the Nationalists (supporting the Spanish army”s uprising in Morocco). Alvarez del Vayo, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, called on the League in September 1936 to defend the integrity of the country and its political independence by armed force. Nevertheless, the League could not act on its own in this civil war, nor could it prevent external interventions in the conflict. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini continued to give aid to the insurgents of General Franco (who ranged from the conservative right to the fascist far right) while the Soviet Union supported the Republican government. The Society tried to prohibit the intervention of the International Brigades.
The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)
Following the invasion of Manchuria and Japan”s departure from the League of Nations, many border incidents occurred, especially around the demilitarized zone created by the 1933 peace treaty between Japan and the Republic of China, which extended from Tianjin to Beijing. The Marco Polo Bridge incident was the immediate cause of the Japanese invasion of the rest of China on July 7, 1937 and the Second Sino-Japanese War. On September 12, the representative of China, Wellington Koo, launched an appeal for help to the Society to organize an international intervention. Western countries were supportive of China in its struggle, especially to defend their interests from the international and French concessions in Shanghai. Although the League of Nations condemned Japan on September 28, 1937, it could not agree on concrete sanctions.
With the outbreak of World War II, it was clear that the Society had failed in its goal of avoiding another world war. During the war, neither the Assembly nor the Council of the League was able to meet (or wanted to) and the secretariat in Geneva was reduced to a skeleton staff, with many offices being transferred to North America.
Following this failure, it was decided at the Yalta conference to create a new organization to replace the role of the League of Nations. This was the United Nations. Many of the organs of the League, such as the International Labour Organization, continued to function and were eventually attached to the UN. At a meeting of the Assembly held in Geneva from 8 to 18 April 1946, the League was legally dissolved and its services, mandates, and properties were transferred to the UN. The structure of the UN was to make it more effective than the League.
The five major winners of World War II (the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, France, the United States and China) became permanent members of the UN Security Council (a mirror image of the UNSC), giving the new “Great Powers” significant international influence. The decisions of the UN Security Council are binding on all members of the organization. Nevertheless, unanimity of decisions is not required, unlike in the League Council. In addition, the permanent members of the UN Security Council have a shield (the “veto right”) to protect their vital interests, which has prevented the UN from acting effectively in many cases.
In addition, the UN has no armed forces of its own. But the UN has been more vocal in its requests to member states to participate in armed interventions, such as the Korean War and peacekeeping in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, in some cases, the UN has been forced to rely on economic sanctions. The UN has also been much more successful than the League of Nations in attracting the nations of the world, making it more representative (virtually every country in the world is a member).
The Great War
The League of Nations is closely linked to the context of its creation. The Great War thus permeated the creation of the international organization. Its history is that of the post-war period and the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles, whose clauses served more to avenge the victors and weaken the vanquished, than to create the conditions for reconciliation and lasting peace. The authors agree on the fact that the Great War constituted a break with the conflicts and wars that preceded it. It was “perceived as an aberration” because of its brutality. It is precisely this rupture that would have led to the creation of a world order.
In the excerpt “La bataille, le combat, la violence, une histoire nécessaire” (The battle, the fight, the violence, a necessary history) of their book 14-18, recovering the war, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker argue that the Great War constituted a real breakthrough in terms of the violence that was deployed there. With the First World War, a level of violence appeared that had never been equaled. This general violence was exercised against the combatants, but it also affected the prisoners and civilians. This violence was all the more intolerable because it followed more than forty years of peace and scientific and technical progress. This first world conflict was therefore a major break. This brutalization can be seen in the number of dead, injured and psychologically disturbed soldiers. The war is said to have left nine to ten million dead, almost all of them soldiers. These numbers, transformed into daily casualties, show the magnitude of the toll and allow for a comparison of combat mortality during the different conflicts that shook the 19th and 20th centuries. Mortality in combat would have been more important during the First World War than during the Second. In relation to the duration of the conflict, the losses would also have been greater than during the revolutionary and imperial wars. According to Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker, the mortality during the Great War was not only due to developments in the field of armaments. To this must be added the brutality of combatant behavior, a brutality fueled by the hatred felt towards the adversary. The brutalization observed during the conflict could be explained by the adherence of the combatants to the Great War and its objectives. They would have consented to the violence and would have been the vectors of it. Consent would have been given in a general way among the soldiers. This brutalization would also have been expressed in the non-respect of the measures of limitation of violence put in place on the international scene in the 19th century. On the other hand, in a century, the way of dying had changed. Before, many soldiers lost their lives due to disease. In the Great War, “violent death,” as Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker point out, occurred largely on the battlefield. Nevertheless, it was not only the way of dying that changed. It was also the case with the wounds inflicted. Never before had soldiers been wounded so severely.
Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker describe well the rupture that the Great War constituted in the following passage: “One of the specificities of this four and a half year conflict is that the modalities of confrontation reached unprecedented levels of violence. Violence between combatants, violence against prisoners, violence against civilians. Attempting to approach this violence, diversified and multiform, but linked to homogeneous and coherent systems of representation, is an essential prerequisite for any in-depth understanding of the 1914-1918 conflict, as well as for any interpretation of its long trace in the Western world, and in particular in Europe, from 1918 to the present day.
Other authors agree that the Great War constituted a real break with the conflicts and wars that preceded it. This is the case of Pierre Vallaud, a historian specializing in the history of international relations. In his book 14-18: la première guerre mondiale, volume II, Vallaud describes the turning point initiated by the Great War. He exposes the extent of human, material and economic losses. Pierre Vallaud mentions the following with regard to human losses: “With more than 9 million dead and 6 million invalids, the First World War gave Europe one of the saddest records in its military history. The losses themselves constitute an important break.
In his article “War and Law. The irreconcilable?”, Emmanuel Naquet exposes, in turn, the turning point that the Great War constituted. Nevertheless, as far as he is concerned, the rupture is not limited to human losses. In his opinion, “the Great War constitutes a turning point for the renewal of its discourse and practices on war and peace, law and the State, the individual and the nation.
The rupture constituted by the Great War is directly responsible for the creation of the League of Nations. Indeed, on this subject, Jean-Michel Guieu quotes Léon Bourgeois in his article L””insécurité collective. Europe and the League of Nations between the wars: “he horror of four years of war had arisen, as a supreme protest, a new idea that imposed itself on consciences: that of the necessary association of civilized States for the defense of law and the maintenance of peace. Jean-Michel Guieu himself underlines the link between the Great War and the League of Nations in his book Le rameau et le glaive, les militants français pour la Société des Nations. According to him, the idea of creating an international organization was imposed after the war. “When the war was over, the Peace Conference brought the League of Nations into the realm of reality: faced with the magnitude of the catastrophe, the idea of an international organization responsible for maintaining peace, which had been viewed with skepticism and even contempt before the war, was now a necessity.
On the subject of the idea of an international organization that was needed after the war, the writings of Jean-Michel Guieu agree with those of Pierre Gerbet. Like Guieu, Gerbet mentions that the idea of an international organization took shape as the Great War took hold. In his book Le rêve d”un ordre mondial, de la SDN à l”ONU, Pierre Gerbet states the following: “The war of 1914-1918 demonstrated by its very universality the solidarity that henceforth united all the countries of the world. At the same time that it exasperated nationalistic passions in the majority of people, it naturally pushed thoughtful minds to seek ways to prevent the return of such a scourge. The organization of peace had preoccupied, in the course of the twentieth century, only a small number of people willingly considered with disdain as utopians. In the face of the cataclysm that was shattering humanity, it was imposed as an imperative necessity. On all sides, plans for a world constitution arose, surpassing in magnitude all that had been imagined by the most audacious pacifists”…
Later, Gerbet mentions that the organization of peace in the aftermath of the war led to the creation of the League of Nations. Everyone wanted to avoid, at all costs, another war. The war of 1914-1918 was to be the last the world would ever know.
The League of Nations: the historiographic curve
In his book Le citoyen et l”ordre mondial (1914-1919), le rêve d”une paix durable au lendemain de la Grande Guerre, en France, en Grande-Bretagne et aux États-Unis (The Citizen and World Order (1914-1919), The Dream of a Lasting Peace in the Aftermath of the Great War, in France, Great Britain and the United States), Carl Bouchard devotes a section to the historiography of the creation of the League of Nations. He mentions that the historiography of the creation of the League of Nations underwent an evolution. This evolution would include two distinct phases: the diplomatic facts and the deep forces. In the first phase, historians would have long focused on the diplomatic facts surrounding the international organization. In a second phase, they would have addressed the deep forces, forces influencing the context of the creation. This information is presented by Carl Bouchard in his book: “The history of the League of Nations has followed the curve of the historiography of international relations: after a long initial phase devoted to recounting and analyzing the diplomatic facts – with, in particular, a focus on the successes and, above all, the failures of the international organization – historians gradually began to take an interest in the less tangible factors – the deep forces dear to Pierre Renouvin – that contributed to its establishment.
The League of Nations: the visions presented by the studies
According to Carl Bouchard, the historiography is more abundant with regard to the American and British visions of the League of Nations than with regard to the French vision. The reason for the predominance of the American and British visions is that the organization was primarily an Anglo-American conception. This is what Carl Bouchard mentions in his book Le citoyen et l”ordre mondial (1914-1919), Le rêve d”une paix durable au lendemain de la Grande Guerre, en France, en Grande-Bretagne et aux États-Unis (The Citizen and the World Order (1914-1919), The Dream of a Lasting Peace in the Aftermath of the Great War, in France, Great Britain and the United States): “As with the history of peace and pacifism, there are more studies on the formation of the League of Nations from the British and the American point of view than from the French; a disproportion that is largely explained by the fact that the international organization was mainly an Anglo-American creation.
The League of Nations: an old idea and a turning point in international relations
The authors agree that the idea of a society of nations predates the creation of the international organization. The idea of a world order and perpetual peace are ancient. Carl Bouchard agrees. In his book, he discusses the historical origins of the idea of an international order. To do so, he goes back as far as the ancient period. His book, The Citizen and the World Order (1914-1919), The Dream of a Lasting Peace in the Aftermath of the Great War, in France, Great Britain and the United States, contains a chapter entitled The Pre-1914 Peace Projects and the Break-up Following the Outbreak of the First World War. “This introductory chapter deals with the historical foundations of the international order. Evoking the multiplicity of orders – ancient, Christian, medieval -, the emphasis is placed on what can be called the classical projects of perpetual peace, such as the Grand Dessein of Henri IV and Sully, that of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre and that of Immanuel Kant, to which the authors of the corpus regularly refer and which constitute the principal sources of the theoretical elaboration of the international system.
Christian Birebent also adheres to the thesis that the idea of a League of Nations predates the creation of the international organization. In his book Militants de la paix et de la SDN: Les mouvements de soutien à la Société des Nations en France et au Royaume-Uni, 1918-1925, he discusses the origin of the League of Nations. Despite the triggering element of the Great War, the organization was the result of several works prior to 1914 that addressed the idea of a world order. According to Birebent: “The history of organizations in favor of the League of Nations predates its birth and begins well before the Wilsonian attempt. It can even be said, with a certain amount of exaggeration, that it was not a new idea in Europe and in the world at that time. It is true that the horrors of war, the need to rebuild a stable order and the activism of the American president contributed to its popularity and its implementation. But it was also the culmination of previous thoughts and work. In 1917, we did not start from scratch.
Jean-Michel Guieu is also one of those authors who situate the origins of the League of Nations in a period prior to the Great War. In his case, he goes back to the modern era and discusses the peace projects that were born there. He continues his analysis of the origins of the League of Nations by addressing the desire to reform the international system particular to the nineteenth century. Indeed, the will concerned the reform of the principle of the balance of power. According to Jean-Michel Guieu: “Without going back to the most ancient times, the idea of an international legal order intended to put an end to the incessant wars between European states emerges in the modern era with a certain number of projects for perpetual peace, then develops throughout the 19th century with a whole series of reflections on the need to reform the international system and to find the antidote to the system of the balance of powers insufficient to guarantee universal peace.
However, despite the fact that the idea of a society of nations predates 1914, the creation of the League of Nations represents a turning point in international relations as well as in international law. This is what Robert Kolb underlines in his article Globalization and International Law. As far as international law is concerned, he states that “the League of Nations proposes the brand-new idea of a political organization of states, with principles of order, peace and rule of law. He adds that the international organization gave birth to “institutionalized international cooperation”. On the development of international relations and international law, another author attributes great importance to the League of Nations. This is F. P. Walters. In his book A History of the League of Nations, Walters states: “was the first effective move toward the organization of a world-wide political and social order, in which the common interests of humanity could be seen and served across the barriers of national tradition, racial difference, or geographical separation.
The League of Nations: the role of Leon Bourgeois and Thomas Woodrow Wilson
President Wilson”s involvement in the movement to create the League of Nations is discussed in all of the sources presented in the reference list. However, this is not the case with Léon Bourgeois. The various authors disagree on the respective roles of each in the development of the idea of the League and in the creation of the organization. Some give full credit to Léon Bourgeois. For others, Wilson was the most important figure in the project. Some authors do not fit into these two conceptions of the respective roles of each. Instead, they define their different contributions.
In his speech at the congress of the French League of Human Rights, which took place in Paris on November 1, 1917, Georges Lorand, a Belgian deputy and president of the Belgian League of Human Rights, mentioned that the idea of the League of Nations had been developed by two main utopians: Léon Bourgeois and Thomas Woodrow Wilson.
Some authors believe that the idea of the League of Nations was developed by some of the American president”s advisors. The latter, a former professor of political science at Princeton, and for whom secret diplomacy was the main cause of the First World War, would have formulated the idea in his Fourteen Points and then submitted it to his allies. “A League of Nations project was implemented by the President”s advisers, based on doctrinal ideas that had emerged in the United States as early as 1915 in the League to Enforce Peace. The North American projects were very well received in Great Britain, because they corresponded to an Anglo-Saxon conception of the organization of peace. The French conception was different, relying essentially on the existence of procedures and organs. The American projects won without difficulty before the commission for the elaboration of a draft pact.
However, according to Alexandre Niess, Léon Bourgeois, who has been forgotten for a long time, would also be a “father” of the League of Nations, in his capacity as theorist of international peace through such an organization. “Bourgeois” holds a central place in the construction of the French conception of the League of Nations and in the project presented by the United States to its Allies. is the creation of the League of Nations, although posterity gives him little credit for the authorship of the project, leaving Thomas Woodrow Wilson the place of choice.” Thus, Niess does not deny the importance of the intervention of Wilson and American diplomacy in the process of creating the League of Nations, but he believes that they adhered to the idea theorized by Bourgeois while deviating it to serve their particular interests.
Other authors maintain that the two men played an important, but different, role in the creation of the League of Nations. Bourgeois is said to have been the one who developed the idea, and Wilson is said to have embraced it, giving the project a great deal of publicity. The “official adhesion of the American president Woodrow Wilson to the idea of the League of Nations incited all the French partisans of such an institution to redouble their efforts to specify the details and to have it adopted by the public. A veritable Wilsonian mystique thus took hold of certain groups of the population and the first organizations specifically dedicated to the fight for the League of Nations came into being at the end of 1916 and the beginning of 1917.
The League of Nations: the review
Some authors emphasize, in their book or in their article, that the League of Nations was a real failure.
Before the creation of the League of Nations, the idea of an international organization to ensure the final peace was hopeful. The hope was the same in the early years of the society”s existence. However, during the Second World War, opinion became increasingly critical of the League of Nations. It had failed in its mandate. Moreover, in general, the more recent the historiography, the less critical it is of the international organization. The same phenomenon can be observed with regard to the peace treaties, in particular the Treaty of Versailles. Was the Treaty of Versailles responsible for the Second World War? In his book Pourquoi la 2e Guerre mondiale, Pierre Grosser traces the historiographic path of the question. Grosser concludes that, as mentioned above, recent historiography is less critical: “Since the 1970s, the Treaty of Versailles has been seen in a less negative light. The national and international constraints were considerable, and limited the margins of maneuver. The continent seemed to be sinking into anarchy, and treaties had to be drafted quickly enough to avoid it. The drafting reflected the difficult compromises between the ultimately pragmatic and moderate leaders, but it also allowed for adjustments.
In his speech delivered at the congress of the French League of Human Rights, which took place in Paris on November 1, 1917, Georges Lorand mentioned that the League of Nations was the only possible solution to international anarchy and brigandage. He states that the League of Nations was the “only legal solution that could come out of the war”.
In contrast, in his article “Collective insecurity. Europe and the League of Nations in the interwar period”, Jean-Michel Guieu quotes the Comte de Saint-Aulaire on the subject of the League of Nations. The quote dates from 1936. It is a criticism of the organization. At the time, the international organization had suffered failures. It had, on several occasions, failed in its mandate. We can think in particular of the “Manchurian affair”, the “failure of the disarmament conference”, the “violation of the military clauses of the Treaty of Versailles”, etc. Here is the quotation from the Count of Saint-Aulaire: “these are only venial peccadilloes next to the mortal sin of which it is the main living thing, a mortal sin only for the peoples who believe in it: the organization of collective insecurity which, by application of its only immutable principle, the disguise of all things in their opposite, it calls collective security. This is the origin of current catastrophes and, if we do not provide for it in time, of future catastrophes.
To conclude the historiographical overview, Jean-Michel Guieu”s book, Le rameau et le glaive, les militants français pour la Société des Nations, is a good example of the evolution of historiography. It offers a less critical position towards the League of Nations. According to Guieu, the League of Nations did not entirely fail, and was beneficial on several occasions. A section of the book, entitled “It was not the League of Nations that failed,” demonstrates the recent historiographic view: “failure was far from complete, as the Geneva organization worked well in areas such as intellectual cooperation, sanitation, transit, refugees, financial and monetary restoration of certain countries, or social issues. And even on the political level, as Theodore Ruyssen pointed out, it had achieved “appreciable successes”, since up to December 1938, it had been seized of “some forty disputes, about half of which were resolved in a satisfactory and lasting manner”. In the eyes of its activists, the main responsibility for the failure of the League lay not in its legal regime, but above all in the attitude of the states.
The League of Nations Archives are a collection of files and documents of this organization. They include about 15 million pages, from the creation of the League in 1919 until its dissolution in 1946. The collection is located at the United Nations Office in Geneva and is being digitized in 2020.
In 2017, the UNOG Library launched the League of Nations Total Digital Access (LONTAD) project, with the intention of preserving, digitizing, and providing online access to the League of Nations archives. It is expected to be completed in 2022.
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