League of Nations

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League of Nations

League of Nations, former international organization, established by the peace treaties that ended World War I. Like its successor, the United Nations, its purpose was the promotion of international peace and security. The League was a product of World War I in the sense that that conflict convinced most persons of the necessity of averting another such cataclysm. But its background lay in the visions of men like the duc de Sully and Immanuel Kant and in the later growth of formal international organizations like the International Telegraphic Union (1865) and the Universal Postal Union (1874). The Red Cross, the Hague Conferences, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (Hague Tribunal) were also important stepping-stones toward international cooperation.

The Covenant: The Basis of the League

At the close of World War I, such prominent figures as Jan Smuts, Lord Robert Cecil, and Léon Bourgeois advocated a society of nations. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson incorporated the proposal into the Fourteen Points and was the chief figure in the establishment of the League at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The basis of the League was the Covenant, which was included in the Treaty of Versailles and the other peace treaties.

The Covenant consisted of 26 articles. Articles 1 through 7 concerned organization, providing for an assembly, composed of all member nations; a council, composed of the great powers (originally Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, later also Germany and the USSR) and of four other, nonpermanent members; and a secretariat. Both the assembly and the council were empowered to discuss “any matter within the sphere of action of the League or affecting the peace of the world.” In both the assembly and the council unanimous decisions were required.

Articles 8 and 9 recognized the need for disarmament and set up military commissions. Article 10 was an attempt to guarantee the territorial integrity and political independence of member states against aggression. Articles 11 through 17 provided for the establishment of the Permanent Court of International Justice (see World Court), for arbitration and conciliation, and for sanctions against aggressors. The rest of the articles dealt with treaties, colonial mandates, international cooperation in humanitarian enterprises, and amendments to the Covenant.


The original membership of the League included the victorious Allies of World War I (with the exception of the United States, whose Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles) and most of the neutral nations. Among later admissions to membership were Bulgaria (1920), Austria (1920), Hungary (1922), Germany (1926), Mexico (1931), Turkey (1932), and the USSR (1934). Through the efforts of Sir Eric Drummond, the first secretary-general of the League, a truly international secretariat was created. Geneva, Switzerland, was chosen as the League headquarters.

Successes and Failures

The League quickly proved its value by settling the Swedish-Finnish dispute over the Åland Islands (1920–21), guaranteeing the security of Albania (1921), rescuing Austria from economic disaster, settling the division of Upper Silesia (1922), and preventing the outbreak of war in the Balkans between Greece and Bulgaria (1925). In addition, the League extended considerable aid to refugees; it helped to suppress white slave and opium traffic; it did pioneering work in surveys of health; it extended financial aid to needy states; and it furthered international cooperation in labor relations and many other fields.

The problem of bringing its political influence to bear, especially on the great powers, soon made itself felt. Poland refused to abide by the League decision in the Vilnius dispute, and the League was forced to stand by powerlessly in the face of the French occupation of the Ruhr (1923) and Italy's occupation of Kérkira (1923). Failure to take action over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (1931) was a blow to the League's prestige, especially when followed by Japan's withdrawal from the League (1933). Another serious failure was the inability of the League to stop the Chaco War (1932–35; see under Gran Chaco) between Bolivia and Paraguay.

In 1935 the League completed its successful 15-year administration of the Saar territory (see Saarland) by conducting a plebiscite under the supervision of an international military force. But even this success was not sufficient to offset the failure of the Disarmament Conference, Germany's withdrawal from the League (1933), and Italy's successful attack on Ethiopia in defiance of the League's economic sanctions (1935). In 1936, Adolf Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland and denounced the Treaty of Versailles; in 1938 he seized Austria.

Faced by threats to international peace from all sides—the Spanish civil war, Japan's resumption of war against China (1937), and finally the appeasement of Hitler at Munich (1938)—the League collapsed. German claims on Danzig (see Gdańsk), where the League commissioner had been reduced to impotence, led to the outbreak of World War II. The last important act of the League came in Dec., 1939, when it expelled the USSR for its attack on Finland.

In 1940 the League secretariat in Geneva was reduced to a skeleton staff; some of the technical services were removed to the United States and Canada. The allied International Labor Organization continued to function and eventually became affiliated with the United Nations. In 1946 the League dissolved itself, and its services and real estate (notably the Palais des Nations in Geneva) were transferred to the United Nations. The League's chief success lay in providing the first pattern of permanent international organization, a pattern on which much of the United Nations was modeled. Its failures were due as much to the indifference of the great powers, which preferred to reserve important matters for their own decisions, as to weaknesses of organization.


See F. P. Walters, A History of the League of Nations (2 vol., 1952; repr. 1960); W. Schiffer, Legal Community of Mankind (1954, repr. 1972); G. Scott, The Rise and Fall of the League of Nations (1974); F. S. Northedge, The League of Nations (1986); H. F. Margulies, The Mild Reservationists and the League of Nations (1989).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

League of Nations


an international organization whose purpose, as stated in its Covenant, was “to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security.” In fact, however, the League of Nations was a political instrument of the imperialist powers, particularly Great Britain and France. It functioned from 1919 to 1939.

The Covenant of the League of Nations was drawn up by a special commission formed at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919–20 and was included in the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919 and the other peace treaties that brought an end to World War I. Initially, it was signed by 44 states, including 31 that had participated in the war on the side of the Entente or that had been allied with the Entente (Great Britain, France, the USA, Italy, Japan, Canada, Australia, the Union of South Africa, New Zealand, India, China, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Greece, Haiti, Hejaz, Honduras, Liberia, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Siam, Czechoslovakia, and Uruguay). The remaining 13 states had maintained neutrality throughout the war (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Norway, Spain, Paraguay, the Netherlands, Iran, El Salvador, Switzerland, Sweden, and Venezuela). The USA did not ratify the Covenant of the League of Nations and did not become a member of the organization.

The principal bodies of the League of Nations included the Assembly, in which all members participated and which met annually in September. The Council initially consisted of four permanent members—the representatives of Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan—and four rotating members, but later its composition and the number of its members were changed. There was also a permanent Secretariat headed by a secretary-general. All decisions of the Assembly and Council, with the exception of decisions on procedural matters, had to be accepted by a unanimous vote. The Permanent Court of International Justice, the International Labor Organization, and other organizations were established as autonomous organizations under the League of Nations. The headquarters of the chief bodies of the League of Nations were located in Geneva.

During the first years of its existence the League of Nations was one of the organizational centers of the struggle against the Soviet state. The Soviet government fought against the League’s attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the young Soviet republic. Nevertheless, the Soviet government participated actively in disarmament conferences and sessions held under the aegis of the League of Nations. The Soviet republic introduced proposals aimed at genuine resolution of this most important international problem and denounced the political speculations of the imperialist states.

In the early 1920’s the states that had won the world war divided up the colonies of the Axis powers, using the League as a cover for this operation by distributing mandates. The League of Nations made many attempts to smooth over sharp contradictions between its chief members by encouraging collusion against the Soviet Union (for example, the Locarno treaties of 1925) and by concluding the reparations agreements (for example, the Dawes and Young plans). Germany, which was admitted to the League of Nations in 1926, withdrew from the League in 1933, as did Japan, in order to gain full freedom of action for the preparation of a new war. (In 1931, Japan attacked China and encountered no genuine resistance from the League of Nations, which limited itself to futile “recommendations.”)

Reacting to growing threats from fascist Germany, fascist Italy, and militarist Japan in the 1930’s, the governments of certain states began to seek cooperation with the USSR both within and outside of the League of Nations. On Sept. 15, 1934, acting on the initiative of French diplomacy (specifically, the proposal of J. L. Barthou), 30 member states of the League of Nations proposed that the USSR join the League. On Sept. 18, 1934, the USSR became a member of the League of Nations and took a permanent seat in the Council. (The Netherlands, Portugal, and Switzerland voted against membership for the USSR.) In accepting the proposal to join the League of Nations, the Soviet government believed that under the new conditions that had developed after the departure of the most aggressive states from the League of Nations, the League might at least, to some degree, help to prevent the unleashing of another world war. The Soviet government warned all members of the League that it would not take responsibility for decisions and treaties that had been concluded by the League without the participation of the USSR. During its five-year stay in the League of Nations (1934–39), the Soviet Union firmly and consistently defended the cause of peace and the security of nations faced by fascist agression.

The most important issues discussed in the League of Nations from 1934 to 1939 were Italian aggression against Ethiopia (1935–36), Germany’s violation of the Versailles (1919) and Locarno (1925) treaties (Germany’s remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936), the Italo-German intervention in Spain (1936–39), and Germany’s annexation of Austria (1938). During this period the position of the Western powers, who attempted to direct fascist aggression against the USSR, made the League of Nations an impotent body incapable of carrying out a single effective measure against the aggressors.

The Soviet Union’s persistent battle for peace and collective security and its activities directed at exposing the fascist aggressors as well as the political games played by the ruling circles of Great Britain, France, and the USA, made its participation in the League of Nations undesirable for the governments of the Western powers. Using the Soviet-Finnish war of 1939–40 as a pretext, the governments of Great Britain and France won acceptance of a resolution for the expulsion of the USSR from the League of Nations by the Council of the League on Dec. 14, 1939. In essence, all activities of the League of Nations ceased at this time. The League of Nations was formally dissolved in April 1946 by a decision of a specially convened Assembly.


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Ivanov, L. N. Liga natsii. Moscow, 1929.
Kol’skii, A. Liga natsii (Ee organizatsiia i deiatel’nos’). Moscow, 1934.
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Notovich, F. Razoruzhenie imperialistov, Liga natsii i SSSR. Moscow-Leningrad, 1929.
Istoriia mezhdunarodnykh otnoshenii i vneshnei politiki SSSR, vol. 1. Moscow, 1961.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

League of Nations

world organization for international cooperation. [World Hist.: EB, 6: 102]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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