The League of Nations was an international organisation, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, created after the First World War to provide a forum for resolving international disputes. Though first proposed by American President Woodrow Wilson as part of his Fourteen Points plan for an equitable peace in Europe, the United States of America never became a member.
Founded on January 10, 1920 as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War, it was the first worldwide intergovernmental organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. Its primary goals, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration.
Other issues in this and related treaties included labour conditions, just treatment of native inhabitants, human and drug trafficking, the arms trade, global health, prisoners of war, and protection of minorities in Europe. At its greatest extent from September 28, 1934 to February 23, 1935, it had fifty-eight members.
Although the League was unable to fulfil the hopes of its founders, its creation was an event of decisive importance in the history of international relations. The League was formally disbanded on April 19, 1946; its powers and functions had been transferred to the nascent United Nations.
The central, basic idea of the movement was that aggressive war is a crime not only against the immediate victim but against the whole human community. Accordingly it is the right and duty of all states to join in preventing it; if it is certain that they will so act, no aggression is likely to take place. Such affirmations might be found in the writings of philosophers or moralists but had never before emerged onto the plane of practical politics.
Statesmen and lawyers alike held and acted on the view that there was no natural or supreme law by which the rights of sovereign states, including that of making war as and when they chose, could be judged or limited. Many of the attributes of the League of Nations were developed from existing institutions or from time-honoured proposals for the reform of previous diplomatic methods. However, the premise of collective security was, for practical purposes, a new concept engendered by the unprecedented pressures of World War I.
Over many years, lawyers had worked out plans for the settlement of disputes between states by legal means or, failing these, by third-party arbitration, and The Hague conferences of 1899 and 1907 had held long debates on these subjects. The results had been unimpressive; the 1907 conference tried in vain to set up an international court, and though many arbitration treaties were signed between individual states, they all contained reservations which precluded their application in more dangerous disputes.
However, though the diplomatists thus kept the free hand as long as possible, the general principle of arbitration, which in popular language included juridical settlement and also settlement through mediation, had become widely accepted by public opinion and was embodied as a matter of course in the Covenant.
The League of Nations
The terrible losses of World War I produced, as years went by and peace seemed no nearer, an ever-growing public demand that some method be found to prevent the renewal of the suffering and destruction which were now seen to be an inescapable part of modern war. So great was the force of this demand that within a few weeks after the opening of the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, unanimous agreement had been reached on the text of the Covenant of the League of Nations.
The diplomatic philosophy behind the League of Nations represented a fundamental shift from the preceding hundred years. The League of Nations lacked its own armed force and depended on the victorious First World War Allies (France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan were the permanent members of the Executive Council) to enforce its resolutions, keep to its economic sanctions, or provide an army when needed.
The Great Powers were often reluctant to do so. Sanctions could hurt League of Nations members, so they were reluctant to comply with them. During the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, when the League of Nations accused Italian soldiers of targeting Red Cross medical tents, Benito Mussolini responded that “the League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out”.
After some notable successes and some early failures in the 1920s, the League of Nations ultimately proved incapable of preventing aggression by the Axis powers in the 1930s. The credibility of the organisation was weakened by the fact that the United States of America never joined the League of Nations and the Soviet Union joined late and was soon expelled after invading Finland.
Germany withdrew from the League of Nations, as did Japan, Italy, Spain and others. The onset of the Second World War showed that the League of Nations had failed its primary purpose, which was to prevent any future world war. The League of Nations lasted for twenty-six years; the United Nations (UN) replaced it after the end of the Second World War and inherited several agencies and organisations founded by the League.
Article X of the Covenant of the League of Nations
Article X of the Covenant of the League of Nations is the section calling for assistance to be given to a member that experiences external aggression. It was signed by the major Peacemakers (Allied Forces) following the First World War, most notably Britain and France. Due to the nature of the Article, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was unable to ratify his obligation to join the League of Nations, as a result of strong objection from U.S. politicians.
It states that “The Members of the League undertake to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League. In case of any such aggression or in case of any threat or danger of such aggression the Council shall advise upon the means by which this obligation shall be fulfilled”.
Although President Woodrow Wilson had secured his proposal for a League of Nations in the final draft of the Treaty of Versailles, the U.S. Senate refused to consent to the ratification of the Treaty. For many Republicans in the Senate, Article X was the most objectionable provision. Their objections were based on the fact that, by ratifying such a document, the United States of America would be bound by international contract to defend a League of Nations member if it was attacked. Under the United States Constitution, the President of the United States of America may not ratify a treaty unless the Senate, by a two-thirds vote, gives its advice and consent.