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League of Nations: World Public Opinion



The League was committed to disarmament: getting rid of weapons. Woodrow Wilson saw the arms race before 1914 as one of the causes of the First World War. The Covenant said that all members of the League should disarm.


The problem with this talk of disarmament was that it was so vague. The Covenant said that countries could keep a minimum level of arms needed for self-defense: it was not at all clear what level was. A Disarmament Commission was set up to persuade countries to get rid of their weapons. The Commission had no way of forcing countries to disarm or checking that they had disarmed.


The use of sanctions and force

Perhaps the most important part of the Covenant were those articles that stated how the League would respond to future aggression. These ideas were found in Articles 11 and 16 of the Covenant: Article 11 said that the League of Nations would take action to stop war: Article 16 said that an attack on one member state would be seen as an attack on all League members. The League Council would decide on the appropriate punishment to use against the offending state.


The League had no army of its own. Instead. the idea was that all countries could act to help any other country if it was attacked. This turned out to be completely unrealistic.


Every member state would first of all stop trade with an aggressive country, and if this failed every country would supply soldiers for a joint war against the aggressive country. This assumed that governments would be remarkably generous and would risk the money and lives of their own people in order to sort out a quarrel between two other countries. The threat of trade sanctions was weakened by the absence of the USA from the League. Members of the League knew that if they stopped trading, the USA could simply fill the gap.


The Geneva Protocol

From the beginning, people were aware that the League was weak. The French, terrified as they were by the idea of a strong Germany, tried to give real military power to the League. However, Britain blocked moves in the early 1920s to improve the arrangements for the use of force.


In 1923 a 'draft treaty of mutual assistance' was discussed. This was meant to make the threat of force more practical by saying that the League would only ask members to send troops to nearby conflicts. In 1924 a document called the Geneva Protocol was discussed.


The Protocol set out clear rules for the peaceful arbitration of disputes. If countries did not follow these rules the League was entitled to use trade sanctions and force. The British government was not keen to get involved in other peoples' arguments. Britain was able to throw out the draft treaty.


The British leader, Ramsay MacDonald, initially supported the Geneva Protocol. He fell from power in 1924 and the new government rejected the Protocol. Attempts to strengthen the military power of the League had come to nothing.


The achievements of the League

The commissions and committees of the League did some good work. Refugees from conflicts were given vital help. A famous Norwegian explorer Fridjof Nansen, worked for the League on the problems of prisoners of war stranded in Russia and he helped half a million men to return safely home.


The International Labor Organization (ILO) was led by an energetic and effective French man called Albert Thomas. Under his guidance the ILO encouraged many countries to improve working conditions for ordinary workers. The ILO is still in existence today and continues to campaign for workers' rights.


The Health Organization organized work on health matters, particularly in poorer countries. It worked successfully to reduce the number of cases of leprosy. Like the ILO the Health Organization continues its work today as part of the United Nations Organization (today it is known as the World Health Organization).


The League in Action

In 1920 the League dealt successfully with a dispute between Sweden and Finland. Both countries claimed control of the Aland Islands. The League decided that the islands should be given to Finland and this decision was accepted by Sweden.


Throughout the 1920s the League administered the Saarland area of Germany and the Baltic city of Danzig with great fairness.


The League was unable to find a solution to an argument between Poland and Lithuania over the town of Vilna. Poland had seized the town in 1920 in defiance of the peace treaties and the League was unable to persuade Poland to leave.


In 1922 the League successfully organized a rescue plan for the Austrian economy.


In 1923 Italy invaded the Greek island of Corfu. The League could not agree on what action to take. France did not want to annoy the Italian government and blocked firm League action. A settlement was eventually reached between Greece and Italy but the League took no part in negotiating this deal.


Greece and Bulgaria came close to all-out war in 1925. The League took prompt action and ruled that Greece was at fault. Both sides stopped fighting and Greece agreed to pay compensation.