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League of Nations: The Early Years


Absent friends?

Forty-five states were founder-members of the League of Nations. These were all either victorious or neutral in the First World War. The defeated nations were not allowed to join immediately. As a result Germany, Austria and Hungary saw the League as a club for their enemies.


The founders were frightened of the spread of communism, and the new Soviet Union was also not invited to join. Lacking American, German and Russian membership, the League could not really claim to be the voice of world opinion.


Tension between Britain and France

In the absence of other powerful countries, the League was dominated by Britain and France. These two countries had different views of how the League should work. The French wanted to make the League into a military alliance, with strict obligations on members to support each other. This was a result of the French obsession with the dangers of an attack on France by Germany.


The British saw the League as a much looser, less formal organization. The British resisted French demands for a stronger League. The British were finding it difficult to defend their own empire and had no wish to get involved unnecessarily in military conflicts anywhere else in the world.


The French turn to direct action

By 1923 the French were unhappy at the League's inability to ensure Germany kept to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. They were determined to make Germany pay reparations. The Reparations Commission announced in 1921 that Germany should pay 6,600 million over 42 years. The Germans, however, made only a small payment in 1922 and then stopped paying. The French were angry and took matters into their own hands.


The occupation of the Ruhr

On 11 January 1923 French and Belgian soldiers invaded the German industrial area of the Ruhr. This area was the heartland of the German economy. The occupation of the Ruhr did not work out well for France. The British and the Americans disapproved of the use of force. The people of the Ruhr refused to co-operate with the invaders and went on strike. Within a few months the French had to admit that direct action had not worked.


Collective security

Although the USA did not join the League, the ideas of Woodrow Wilson were central to its work. Wilson said that the League would provide 'collective security'. This meant that if a member state of the League was attacked, all other countries of the League would act together to Stop the aggression. Collective security could make use of four possible weapons:


World public opinion

Wilson believed in the power of public opinion. He felt that if ordinary people were allowed to speak out politicians would never go to war. Wilson claimed that if the League of Nations had existed in 1914 politicians would not have dared to start the First World War.


Looking back, the ideas of Wilson seem very naive. His talk of the power of world public opinion was based on a number of mistakes:


In democracies like the USA people felt free to disagree with their government and could express a public opinion. Many other countries were not democratic and in these countries there was no such thing as a voice of public opinion.


There was no evidence that ordinary people preferred peace and justice to war and injustice. Aggressive governments often had widespread support among the public.


World public opinion did not always speak with one clear voice. What people wanted in France, for example, at the end of the war was very different from what most Americans wanted.


Democratic government had to pay attention to public opinion in their country. Powerful undemocratic governments could ignore public opinion at home and abroad.