Following the end of the First World War, US president, Woodrow Wilson, proposed a programme of Fourteen Points to be presented at the Paris Peace Conference. The fourteenth point suggested the formation of an international body to help maintain future peace and arbitrate over disputes. The exact wording was as follows:
‘A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.’
Endorsed by the peace conference, the League of Nations was founded on 28 June 1919, the day the Treaty of Versailles was signed, with 44 founding members, and held its first meeting in Paris on 16 January 1920. Its HQ, however, was in Geneva and a British diplomat, Sir Eric Drummond, its first (of three) Secretary-General.
Member states came and went but 63 nations belonged to the League at one time or another, the most notable exception being the US. In 1919, an increasingly isolationist US refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and never joined the League of Nations as a member despite the efforts of Woodrow Wilson. For a brief five months period (September 1934 to February 1935) there was a record 58 members.
However the League was dogged almost from the start. Germany was admitted in 1926 and the Soviet Union in 1934. The League oversaw various mandates (particularly in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon); supervised the free city of Danzig in Poland; managed to settle disputes between competing nations, notably between the Soviet Union and Poland in 1921, and dealt with the practicalities of child welfare and refugee movements.
But its failures were of greater significance. It failed to stop Japan from invading Manchuria in 1931 (despite both Japan and China being members); dealt inadequately with Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1936, (also both members); and its influence was notably lacking following Hitler‘s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938.
Unlike the United Nations, the League never possessed a military wing so any punitive measures were limited to sanctions and harshly-worded but usually ineffectual missives.
Hitler withdrew Germany from the League in 1933 and free of the League’s (limited) interference was able to step-up Germany’s rearmament programme. Japan also withdrew in 1933 and Italy in 1937.
In 1939, during the early months of World War Two, the Soviet Union, still a member, invaded fellow-member Finland, for which it was expelled from the League. It is unlikely that Joseph Stalin felt overly perturbed.
Its work during the war was restricted to humanitarian and practical ventures but politically the League was a spent-force.
On 18 April 1946, the League of Nations gave way to the United Nations.
Rupert’s novel, This Time Tomorrow, a compelling drama set during World War One, is now available.