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League of Nations: Setting it up

 

After the First World War a new organization called the League of Nations was set up to solve arguments between countries in a peaceful way. The League was not a success and did not bring peace to the world.

 

Why was the League unable to ensure world peace?

The organization of the League

The setting up of the League of Nations was written into the Treaty of Versailles and all the other treaties that were signed at the end of the war. The rules of the League, known as the League Covenant. formed part of each peace treaty. The League officially began its work in January 1920 when the Treaty of Versailles came into effect.

 

Geneva was chosen for the League headquarters because it was in Switzerland, which had a long tradition of neutrality. Some officials worked permanently for the League in Geneva. They were known as the Secretariat.

 

The League set up a number of commissions and committees to deal with particular issues and problems. The most important commissions were those which dealt with disarmament and the running of the 'mandates ' (the former German and Turkish colonies).

 

The committees included the Health Organization which campaigned to improve the health of people, particularly in poorer countries, and the International Labor Organization which tried to improve conditions for working people.

 

The peace treaties not only set up the League but also established a group called the conference of ambassadors. The conference was supposed to have oversight of the way the peace treaties were put into effect. There was some uncertainty about which issues should be decided by the League and which should be sorted out by the conference of ambassadors.

 

All member states sent representatives to the League Assembly. This body met at least once a year. The League Assembly had no real power. Power in the League lay with a much smaller body known as the League Council. This was dominated by a few rich countries who were permanent members of the Council: Britain, France, Italy and Japan.

 

In theory, decisions by the Council would be carried out by all member-states. Council decisions had to be unanimous: that is, all Council members had to agree. This rule made it difficult for the Council to take action if there was any disagreement among its members.

 

A European club?

Many non-Europeans were very unhappy with the way the Covenant gave power to the European countries of Britain, France and Italy. At the first meeting of the Assembly, non-Europeans criticized the rules of the League. The representatives from Argentina were particularly critical. They argued for a democratic League, with the Council elected by all the countries of the Assembly. These ideas were rejected and the Argentine delegation walked out.

 

Some non-European countries were worried that the League would be dominated by white people. The Japanese asked that the League should promise to oppose racial discrimination. The Americans the British rejected this proposal. The Covenant took a very patronizing view of people living in colonies. It considered that more 'civilized' states should have the job of looking after those 'peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world'.

 

America says 'no' to the League

At first it was envisaged that the USA would be a member of the Council, but in the end America failed to join the League. Woodrow Wilson was a Democrat. The majority in the US Senate belonged to another party - the Republicans - and many of them disliked Wilson.

 

There was a strong tradition of isolationism in the USA: a belief that America should not get involved in international politics. Wilson was very stubborn and he failed to compromise or to persuade his opponents to support the League. In March 1920 the US Senate stopped the USA from joining the League. The absence of the USA greatly weakened the authority of the new League of Nations.