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The League of Nations emerged from the aftermath of World War I. This predecessor to the United Nations has a relatively brief but interesting history. This chapter discusses how the League came into being in the post-war world. It also addresses the role, members, structure and mandates of the League, as well as its successes and weaknesses.

The formation of the League of Nations

The individual most associated with advocating the formation of the League of Nations is United States President Woodrow Wilson. In January 1918, Wilson gave a speech to the US Congress outlining a plan, now known as the Fourteen Points, to secure lasting peace in Europe. At the very heart of the Fourteen Points was the establishment of an international organisation, which would mediate all future conflicts between nations.

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When negotiations calling for the end of 'the war to end all wars' began in October 1918, Wilson insisted that the Armistice be based on the Fourteen Points (including the establishment of the League of Nations). The Armistice came into effect at 11am on 11 November 1918. It did not provide for Wilson's Fourteen Points or the international organisation which was later known as the League of Nations.

On 18 January 1919, leaders from 32 countries attended the Paris Peace Conference to agree on the terms of a peace settlement. It was here that Wilson returned to his initial ampaign by urging the establishment of the League of Nations. Wilson's insistence paid off. A commission was established for the drafting of the Covenant (set of rules) of the League of Nations. The Covenant was approved as a part of the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed on 28 June 1919. The League of Nations was formally endorsed on 10 January 1920, which was six days prior to the first session of the Council of the League. In November of that year, the League headquarters was moved to Geneva where the first General Assembly was held.

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What was the League of Nations?

The League of Nations was an international association of nation states, which aimed to achieve international peace, security and co-operation. Upon signing the Covenant, these states pledged not to go to war before attempting to settle their disputes through arbitration. Arbitration involves a process in which submissions are heard by an impartial person or group whose appointment has been mutually agreed upon.

The League of Nations had no armed forces. Member states agreed to disarm to the greatest possible extent, without leaving themselves in a position which could compromise their national security. This disarmament indicated that, contrary to what France had hoped, the League of Nations would not act as a military alliance. Instead, sanctions were imposed on members who did not comply with the Covenant.


There were 42 original members of the League of Nations. They included Australia, the Republic of China, Columbia, Canada and Peru. Despite United States President Wilson formulating the concept of the League, the United States never joined the League of Nations. While ex-enemy nations were allowed to join, they were required to prove their intentions to abide by the peaceful terms of the League. The Allies' enemy Germany was made a member of the League in 1926, but withdrew seven years later (1933).


The League was made up of a Secretariat, Council and General Assembly. It was the responsibility of the Secretariat, under the direction of the secretary-general, to prepare the agenda for the Council and General Assembly, and publish reports of meetings. The first secretary-general was Sir Eric Drummond (UK), who served in this position for 13 years (1920-1933).

The Council met several times a year to discuss international disputes. It comprised two different types of Members: Permanent Members, which were the major powers of the time - the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Japan; and Non-Permanent Members, which were elected by the Assembly. The first Non-Permanent Members were Belgium, Brazil, Greece and Spain. The four (later increasing to six and then nine) Non-Permanent Members were elected by the General Assembly for a term of three years.

The General Assembly was an annual meeting, in September, at which all member states were represented. Each member had one vote in the General Assembly.

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The League of Nations also managed a number of other organisations and commissions. They included the Permanent Court of Justice, the Health Organisation, the International Labour Organisation, the Slavery Commission and the Commission for Refugees.


A particular commission of importance was the Permanent Mandates Commission. In accordance with the treaties which followed World War I, Germany was required to surrender her colonies, and Turkey her territory, to the Allies. These lands were then granted, as a mandate, by the League of Nations to a member state (mainly Britain and France). Under this system, the former German and Turkish territories did not belong to the mandatories (member states holding a mandate). The role of the mandatory was to administer the government and affairs of the former Germany colonies and Turkish territory, in the hope of eventually preparing them for self-government. The Permanent Mandates Commission was established to examine the annual reports of the mandatories. This ensured that mandatories were fulfilling their responsibilities.

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The League of Nations is often criticised as being a failure, since the Second World War proved that it was essentially unable to achieve its primary objective: to prevent the outbreak of war. The League did, however, achieve a number of successes. Under its support, the League averted potential war between Sweden and Finland (1921), Albania and Yugoslavia (1921), Germany and Poland (1922), and between Greece and Bulgaria (1925), amongst others.

The League also assisted in fighting against the opium and slave trade. One of the greatest successes of the League was its issuing of the Nansen passport, in 1922, to stateless (without citizenship) refugees. Recognised by 52 countries, the Nansen passport was the first international identity document for stateless refugees. Without this travel document, stateless refugees were denied access to immigration.

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It is agreed that World War II led to the final demise of the League of Nations. Even before this, however, fundamental flaws were evident in the League. Since the League had no armed forces, it was without complete power to enforce its rulings. While the League had access to the militaries of its powerful member states, the League could not make them deploy their armed forces. The only power that the League had was to impose sanctions. This, however, was often ineffective, since the sanctioned country could still trade with other countries which were not members of the League. A unanimous response was also required to enact a resolution, making it difficult to achieve an expeditious (prompt) and effective outcome.

One of the greatest hindrances to the League of Nations was that the United States was not a member. The loss of this powerful nation state meant that the League's potential power was severely limited. It was further weakened when Japan (1933), Germany (1933) and Italy (1937) withdrew from the League.

One of the League's major failures was when France and Belgium (both member states) breached the League's laws by invading German's Ruhr Valley (1922). This invasion was in response to Germany's failure to pay reparations, which was stipulated in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.

The United Nations

Following the failure of the League of Nations, it was dissolved in 1946. A new and more effective organisation, known as the United Nations (UN), was introduced to carry out the functions, and oversee the mandates, of the League. While the UN shares some similarities with the former League of Nations, including the absence of an armed force and the occasional reliance on economic sanctions, the UN has proved more effective than its predecessor.

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