Why Did the League of Nations Fail?

Luke Tomes

First World War Twentieth Century Uncategorised
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2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the United Nations. Created in the aftermath of the Second World War, the UN was established to preserve international peace and security, and to prevent any future conflict.

The United Nations was not the first global organisation to be formed with the intention of maintaining peace. It has now been over century since the League of Nations, a similar body established to resolve international disputes, was founded following the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles.

In hindsight, we know that peace in Europe only lasted for roughly two decades after the Treaty of Versailles was signed. This occurred despite the creation of the League, which had been designed for the sole purpose of preserving unity.

So, what went wrong for the League, and why did it fail to prevent a second world war?

Dan Plesch is director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. He is the author of 'America, Hitler and the UN', co-editor of 'Wartime Origins and the Future United Nations', and has been a frequent contributor to the Guardian and other media. His latest book is entitled 'Human Rights After Hitler: The Lost History of Prosecuting Axis War Crimes'.Listen Now

Background

In January 1918, the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, detailed his ‘Fourteen Points‘. Within his speech, Wilson outlined his vision for ending the Great War and proposed ways in which such a disastrous and deadly conflict could be avoided in the future.

Key to this vision was the establishment of “a general association of nations” – Wilson’s 14th point. The President blamed secret alliances between nations as the cause of the First World War and thought that in order to maintain peace, all states should commit to fewer armaments, reducing trade barriers, and encouraging self-determination.

Woodrow Wilson 28th President of the United States. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

This would be achieved with the creation of a ‘League of Nations’, where a universal rule of law would exist, encouraging member states to function as a collective. The League would be comprised of an Assembly, Council, Permanent Secretariat, and an International Court of Justice. The principal idea was that nations in a dispute could approach the League and the Court for arbitration and a collective ruling.

It soon became apparent, however, that the League was unable to resolve international disputes. Barring a few exceptions, the organisation ultimately failed in its goal to prevent a global conflict. It is important to understand the several factors that contributed to this reality.

Structural and functional weakness

The League, with its headquarters in Geneva, consisted of a few large powers and several smaller nation states. A country’s power and influence on the global stage, however, did not reflect its relative authority within the organisation.

All states were equal and could cast a vote on Assembly matters. The League of Nations operated on a system of universal consent, rather than majority rule. This meant that in order for a decision or ruling to be made, all members had to vote unanimously in favour of it.

League of Nations Commission. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

As progressive as this process was on paper, it was founded upon the false assumption that internationalism had replaced nationalism as the principal force shaping the policies of member states. In reality, all nations maintained their own vested interests and were often not prepared to sacrifice or compromise in order to resolve disputes.

The impractical system of unanimous voting soon came to undermine the League as it was quickly realised that little could be accomplished if each nation possessed the power to jeopardise an otherwise unified call for action through a single veto.

Absence of the United States

The absence of the United States as a League member has often been attributed as a main cause of its failure. Having proposed its creation, Wilson toured America to gain public support for the international project. Unfortunately, he was fiercely opposed in Congress.

Reservationists, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, supported the idea of the League, but wanted the United States to have greater autonomy within the organisation. It was claimed that America would be burdened by obligations that might force them to declare war.

Lodge achieved a Senate majority when Wilson refused to compromise, denying the United States’ entry into the organisation it had founded.

The Gap in the Bridge. Cartoon from Punch magazine, December 10, 1920, satirizing the gap left by the U.S. not joining the League. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

The United States’ non-membership damaged the League’s reputation and its ability to function effectively. Their absence undermined the League’s message of universal solidarity and cooperation. Here was a prime example of a nation acting in its own interest, something Wilson had strongly condemned.

The United States’ absence would have practical consequences too. France and Britain, the two remaining Allied ‘powerhouses’ in the League, had been crippled economically by the war, and they lacked the strength to enforce discipline and diplomacy.

The Great Depression

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the resulting global economic depression led many countries to adopt isolationist policies to protect their internal economies. Isolationism contributed to a growing disinterest in the League, consequently damaging the organisation’s reputation. The Great Depression demonstrated that a policy of international cooperation was often abandoned in times of crises.

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Many governments reverted to nationalism to sustain their national pride. This occurred in countries such as Germany, Italy and Japan, where economic strife facilitated the rise of dictatorships and aggressive foreign policies.

Lack of military strength

Countries within the League were actively encouraged to disarm, supposedly secure in the knowledge that any disputes could be resolved diplomatically in Geneva.

Ultimately, the League relied on good faith between member states. After such a disastrous war, most governments were reluctant to offer any military support. Moreover, the League had urged them to reduce the capacity of their armed forces.

Should diplomacy fail, however, the League possessed no backstop. Without its own military force and a guarantee that member states would offer support, it lacked any power to prevent aggression. This would soon be exploited by nations such as Japan and Italy.

Toothless response to crises

When an international crisis loomed, the inherent weaknesses of the League were cruelly exposed. In 1931, Japanese troops invaded Manchuria. China appealed to the League, which deemed the invasion to be an unprovoked and immoral act of aggression. Japan’s intentions were clear, yet the League could hardly retaliate.

The League’s response was to establish a Commission of Enquiry lead by Lord Lytton. The culminating report took over a year to produce and condemned Japan’s actions. It concluded that Japan should leave Manchuria, but that Manchuria itself should be run as a semi-independent country.

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Japan did not accept these proposals. Instead of leaving Manchuria, they simply resigned from the League in 1933. This unearthed the League’s impotence to resolve conflicts, and exposed a critical flaw in its functionality – there was no obligation to remain in the organisation. As Japan had demonstrated, if a nation did not agree with the ruling of the Court of International Justice, it could simply exit the League.

It was not long before other member states exited the League. After the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (1834), Mussolini removed Italy from the League despite British and French to appease the dictator, which contradicted the organisation’s principles in itself. Germany also resigned in 1935 as Hitler’s desire for conquest and annexation steadily grew.

Italian Artillery Corps in Abyssinia, 1936. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Britain shortly abandoned the idea that stability within Europe and Asia could be achieved through the League of Nations. Neville Chamberlain’s adoption of an appeasement policy in the 1930s confirmed Britain’s desire to seek peace through independent mediation, rather than international collaboration. Unfortunately, neither approach successfully prevented what would become the deadliest global conflict in history.

Tim Bouverie has a look at the old questions about appeasement. Was it right to appease Hitler in order to buy time to re-arm? Why did Chamberlain and Halifax not take action when the Rhineland was re-occupied, or during the Anschluss of 1938, or during the occupation of the Sudetenland? Listen Now

Luke Tomes