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League of Nations: The rise and fall


The Establishment of the League

The idea of a League of Nations was discussed by American, British and French politicians during the First World War, as an organization that would prevent future war.


The American President, Woodrow Wilson, was very keen on the idea of the League. He was very idealistic but not very practical about how the League should work.


The League was set up as part of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919. It began work in 1920. Its headquarters was in Geneva, Switzerland.


The plan was that the League would bring peace to the world through a system called 'collective security'. Collective security meant that the members of the League would act together to punish and stop any country that attacked another state. This punishment could be either economic sanctions: a ban on trade with an aggressor country; or military action: the use of war.


The Organization of the League

Decisions were taken by the Council. This small group was dominated by a few powerful countries who were permanent members. At first the permanent members were Britain, France, Italy and Japan. Other countries took it in turns to have temporary membership of the Council.


At first it was expected that the USA would be a leading member of the League. President Wilson had a disagreement with the US Senate about the League. In 1920 the Senate refused to let the USA join the League.


Any decisions taken by the Council had to be unanimous: every member of the Council had to agree before any action could be taken.


11 member states could send representatives to the Assembly. This was a place to discuss the problems of the world. It had little real power.


The Work of the League

The League was responsible for several organizations that did good work in a number of fields. These organizations still exist today as part of the United Nations and included:


The Refugee Organization which helped the victims of war;


The International Labor Organization which tried to improve working conditions;


The Health Organization which encouraged schemes to improve healthcare.


Successes in Peace-keeping

The League made some progress in solving arguments between states during the 1920s. Often the success stories involved arguments between smaller countries:


1920: an argument was settled between Finland and Sweden about the Aland Islands;


1922: the League rescued Austria from a financial crisis;


1925: action by the League stopped war from breaking out between Greece and Bulgaria;


1926: Germany joined the League as part of the Locarno settlement;


1934: the Soviet Union became a member of the League.


Failures in Peace-keeping

From the beginning, the League found it difficult to stop powerful countries from attacking other states. The weakness of the League became clear to the world in the 1930s:


1923: Italy seized the Greek island of Corfu. The League could not agree on any action;


1931: Japan attacked the Chinese province of Manchuria. The League did little and Japan remained in Manchuria. Japan did not like being criticized by the League and left the organization in 1933;


1934: Hitler had despised the League since it was set u p. A year after he took power, Germany left the League;


1935: Italy invaded Abyssinia. The League tried to stop Italy through the use of economic sanctions. These did not include a ban on the sale of oil and they failed. After this the League was not taken seriously.


Why did the League fail?

Some powerful countries were not members

The League was greatly weakened by the refusal of the USA to join. If America had joined, the League would have had more power and authority. Other powerful countries were either excluded or chose to leave. Germany did not join until 1926. The USSR was excluded until 1934, by which time Germany had left the League.


Britain and France could not always agree

In the absence of the USA the most powerful states in the League were Britain and France. They did not trust each other and often disagreed about how the League should work. The rule that Council decisions had to be unanimous made it even more difficult for the League to make decisions.


The League lacked teeth

Collective security did not work. France, Britain and other members were more concerned about their own interests than the authority of the League. As a result they were reluctant to get involved in collective security. The League could not make powerful countries obey its rulings.


The Depression undermined the League

The League was weakened by the Great Depression that swept the world after 1929. At a time of economic crisis governments were less interested in what happened in faraway places. Japan and Italy were able to invade other countries without being punished effectively by the League.