The League of Nations

This preamble to the United Nations has vanished without trace. It was one of the oddest disasters waiting to happen the world has ever seen. It appeared after the Treaty of Versailles (1918 – 25) had sealed the fate of this planet. Indeed its creation was the last and most important of President Woodrow Wilson of the United States’ famous ‘Fourteen Points’. Wilson insisted that it should appear in each one of the peace treaties, covering the Covenent or Constitution of the League. But then the United States itself refused to join.

The Covenant demanded collective world security and the peaceful settlement of disputes by arbitration. It was quite right to do so, as the basically unnecessary World War I had just ended, that cause of 250 million deaths among armed forces and civilian casualties. Any country or leader resorting to war (or declaring it) would be subjected to economic sanctions. There would be the League itself (based in Geneva), and a General Assembly, a Council and a Secretariat, for preparing agendas and reports.

The Assembly consisted of representatives of all the Member states and was to decide on general policy. Negative opinions of it started when it was decided the Assembly should meet but once a year.

The Council met more often, but not much more often, to make decisions on specific disputes as they arose, and consisted of four permanent members, though it should have been five: these were Britain, France, Italy and Japan. The Americans refused to make a fifth. Four more – later nine – would be elected by the Assembly for three year terms. Decisions in both the Assembly and the Council had to be unanimous.

The League also set up a institution called the Permanent Court of International Justice, meeting at The Hague (Holland) to deal with legal disputes arising between nations. There was also an International Labour Organisation which dealt with Mandates, Refugees, Health, Drugs and Child Welfare. These organisations worked the best in the League, especially the ILO, working hard to persuade governments to set up fixed wages, and maximum working hours. The Refugee Organisation helped to settle more than half a million people who might otherwise have been homeless and stateless.

The Geneva Protocol (1925) worked to prohibit the use of gas and bacteriological weapons in war – and is still there, though many states have ignored it.. But the Protocol also produced some questionable pronunciamientos such as when it decided Britain could not use the newly invented .303 Bren machine gun in wartime, on the grounds that it was too accurate! Naturally the British took no notice, and the Bren was used effectively throughout the Second World War and beyond, though the calibre was changed to 7.62 in the early 60s.

Not all these bodies were successful by any means; the Disarmament Commission failed to persuade governments to reduce arms production levels. Initially the League had 42 members, 55 by 1926 but its clout was seriously weakened by the refusal of the US to join. When asked why, a visiting representative said that Congress would not see its sovereignty lessened by ‘the transference of decision-making to an international body’. This was American isolationism (q.v.) hard at work. Many important columnists and commentators found it difficult to find much logic in this. It seemed to them that the United States, having in effect forced the League of Nations on the world, preferred not to join the League of Nations. Britons found it hard to swallow that the US had only entered the World War (1918-18) in 1917 when it was virtually over, with France and Britain ruined. Was the tardiness intentional?

Despite some good moves, the League was further weakened when it was twice overruled by the Conference of Ambassadors in Paris. In 1920 the League had supported Lithuania in her claim to the city of Vilnawhich had been seized by Poland. The ambassadors awarded it to Poland. Mussolini (q.v.) bombed Corfu in 1923 after three Italians had been killed there. Greece appealed to the League, but again the ambassadors ordered Greece to pay the compensation demanded by Italy.

What went wrong? No major power was involved in any of the small disputes the League managed to control. When a great power was at the centre of a conflict, League members were uneasy about taking any kind of action. For example, China asked the League to intervene when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. There was hardly any response. But it was the war in Ethiopia (1935/36) that undid the last nut in the League’s structure. Its leading members France and Britain tried to fix a deal with Il Duce (the Hoare-Laval Pact), and feebly applied sanctions. Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia but failed to consult with the League beforehand, and must have been amused by the League’s silence afterwards. Mussolini (again) invaded Albania and took an active part in the Spanish Civil War. At last the League arose from its pastoral torpor by expelling the Soviet Union when it attacked Finland in December, 1939. After that it did not meet again, and was dissolved in 1946.

The League of Nations could never have worked anyway, without the commanding presence and almost unlimited power of the newly emerged great power – the United States. The really bizarre thing is that the League was in effect proposed and architected by the President of those United States. When the United Nations replaced the ill-fated League, its headquarters were made permanently in the centre of New York, satisfying both Congress and the Senate.

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