The League of Nations

  • David Armstrong
Part of the The Making of the 20th Century book series (MACE)


At one level, the history of the League of Nations is synonymous with the often-told story of the failure of the Western democracies to oppose the aggression of the Fascist regimes and prevent world war. The international order established at Versailles was inherently unstable because the temporary weakness of Germany and Russia meant that the balance of power upon which it was founded was essentially artificial and impermanent and would come under increasing strain as those two states regained their strength. In so far as the League was associated with that order, it too would come under threat. Since the founders of the League always saw it as, above all else, a provider of collective security, there can be no real objection to an assessment of the League in these terms. However, at another level — the one with which we are most concerned here — the League was also an episode in the history of international organisation. Viewed in this light, what is most remarkable is that, far from the disastrous failure of the League leading to a hiatus in the growth of international institutions, it was followed by an unparalleled increase in their number and range of functions. So, while an organisation was discredited between 1919 and 1939, international organisation as a significant process in the relations amongst states may be said to have become firmly established during the same period. To understand how and why this was the case, four distinct aspects of the League need to be considered: its collective security operations, its role as cornerstone of the international legal order, its function as overseer and co-ordinator of a variety of economic, social and technical activities, and the development of its principal institutions.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Cf. W. S. Schiffer, The Legal Community of Mankind (Columbia, 1954) pp. 199 and 205.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    I. L. Claude, Power and International Relations (New York, 1962) pp. 196–7.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    F. H. Hinsley, Power and the Pursuit of Peace (Cambridge, 1967) pp. 307–22.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    A. Zimmern, The League of Nations and the Rule of Law (London, 1936) pp. 304–5.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Report to the 2nd Assembly of the League on the Work of the Council and on the Measures Taken to Execute the Decisions of the 1st Assembly’, League of Nations Document A.9. (1921) p. 30.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Report to the 5th Assembly’, League of Nations Document A.B. (1924) p. 18.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Documents on British Foreign Policy (DBFP) 1st ser. vol. XIII (London, 1963) p. 489.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Ibid., vol. VII (1958) pp. 134–5.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    DBFP ser. 1A, vol. I (London, 1966) p. 847.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Ibid., p. 848.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    B. Dexter, The Years of Opportunity: The League of Nations, 1920–1926 (New York, 1967) pp. 171–6.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    DBFP ser. 1A, vol. I, p. 7.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Notes of a conversation between Lloyd George and Briand, 5 January 1922, DBFP, vol. XIX (1974) p. 13.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    DBFP vol. XI (1961) pp. 337, 355–6, 372–3.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    League of Nations Document A.37 (1920) p. 25.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    For the text of Lloyd George’s telegram to the League Secretary-General, see T. P. Conwell-Evans, The League Council in Action (London, 1929) p. 43.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Report to the 3rd Assembly’, League of Nations Document A. 7 (1922) p. 31.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    League of Nations Official Journal (LNOJ) (February 1925) p. 146.Google Scholar
  19. For a comprehensive account of this affair see J. Barros, The Corfu Incident of 1923: Mussolini and the League of Nations (Princeton, N.J., 1965).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Report to the 5th Assembly’, League of Nations Document A. 8. (1924) p. 19.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Report to the 7th Assembly’, League of Nations Document A.6 (1926).Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Cited in E. Bendiner, A Time for Angels (London, 1975) p. 218.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Dexter, The Years of Opportunity, p. 135.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    J. Barros, Office without Power: Secretary-General Sir Eric Drummond, 1919–1933 (Oxford, 1979) p. 252.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Ibid., p. 253–7.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    See J. Barros, Betrayal from Within: Joseph Avenol, Secretary-General of the League of Nations, 1933–1940 (New York, 1969) pp. 47–51 and Bendiner, A Time for Angels pp. 317–19, Zimmern, The League of Nations pp. 424–30.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    The United States did however join a separate ‘mediatory group’, Zimmern, The League of Nations p. 429.Google Scholar
  28. The most comprehensive study of the Manchurian crisis is C. Thorne, The Limits of Foreign Policy: The West, the League and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1931–1933 (London, 1972).Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Japan’s reasons for withdrawing from the League included an assertion of the ‘just and equitable principle’ that it was necessary for the operation of the Covenant to vary in accordance with the actual conditions prevailing in different regions of the world, LNOJ (May 1933) p. 657.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    For one example out of many of this kind of thinking in the British Foreign Office, see DBFP ser. 2, vol. VIII, pp. 681–82.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    See F. P. Walters, A History of the League of Nations, vol. II (London, 1952) p. 474.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    DBFP ser. 2, vol. VIII, pp. 679–80.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Ibid., pp. 714–15.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    For example, when China made a new appeal in January 1932, invoking Articles 10 and 15 for the first time, Japan insisted that this meant that the Chinese needed to supply the Council with a freshly documented statement of their case. 6th meeting of the Council, LNOJ (January 1932) pp. 339–42.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Fifth meeting of the Council (28 January 1932) LNOJ (January 1932) pp. 327–8.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Telegram from the Tokyo Embassy, DBFP ser. 2, vol. VIII, p. 700.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Foreign Office Memorandum’, ibid., pp. 826–9.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    For the text of the Ethiopian appeal, see LNOJ (May 1935).Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Telegram to the French Ambassador in Rome, 19 July 1935, cited in G. Warner, Pierre Laval and the Eclipse of France (London, 1968) p. 96.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Laval had gone some way towards implying as much during a visit to Rome in January 1935, while another important indication came at the Stresa Conference of April 1935 between France, Britain and Italy, whose final communiqué opposed the unilateral repudiation of treaties but restricted this to cases which might endanger the peace ‘of Europe’. See E. M. Robertson, Mussolini as Empire Builder: Europe and Africa, 1923–1936 (London, 1977) pp. 114–16 and 129–31.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    J. Barros maintains that part of the responsibility for the League’s noninvolvement in the early stages of the Ethiopian crisis rested with the Secretary-General, Avenol, whose consistent advice was that the affair should be settled informally between the major powers. This may be crediting him with rather more influence than he in fact possessed. See Betrayal from Within.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Warner, Pierre Laval p. 106 and Robertson, Mussolini pp. 172–3.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    See DBFP 2nd ser. vol. XV, passim for details of these differences.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Minute by Sir R. Vansittart on the Position of Sanctions and the Possibility of Closing the Suez Canal to Italian Shipping’, DBFP 2nd ser. vol. XVI, pp. 358–60.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Memorandum dated 27 November 1935 by Sir S. Hoare and Mr A. Eden on a possible oil embargo, in DBFP, 2nd ser. vol. XV, pp. 332–40.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Telegram to British Ambassador in Washington, 4 December 1935, DBFP 2nd ser., vol. XV, p. 377.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Hoare and Eden Memorandum, DBFP 2nd ser., vol. XV, pp. 332–40.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    See for example, telegram dated 26 November 1935 from Sir S. Hoare to the British Ambassador in Washington, DBFP 2nd ser., vol. XV, pp. 324–5.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    Memorandum dated 15 December 1935 from the British Ambassador in Paris to Sir S. Hoare, DBFP 2nd ser., vol. XV, pp. 480–2.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
  51. 51.
    LNOJ (June 1936).Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    For details of the Convention, see LNOJ (1930) Special Supplement no. 84.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    LNOJ (January 1936) pp. 24–6.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    DBFP 2nd ser., vol. XV, pp. 269 and 274–5.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Robertson, Mussolini p. 185.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    LNOJ (June 1936) p. 660.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    The problem of the ‘sources’ of international law is a controversial one. However, the dominant approach is probably the ‘positivist’ one, which argues that only treaties and the established customs of states create binding obligations.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    M. O. Hudson, The Permanent Court of International Justice, 1920–1942 (New York, 1943) pp. 92–112.Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Article 9 of the Statute of the Court.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, The Development of International Law by the International Court (London, 1958) pp. 273–6.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    Ibid., p. 4, and S. Rosenne, The World Court (New York, 1973) p. 25.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    R. P. Dhakali, The Codification of Public International Law (Manchester, 1970) p. 115.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    S. Rosenne (ed.), The League of Nations Committee for the Progressive Codification of International Law (1925–1928) vol. I (Oceana Publications, 1972) introduction, pp. xxx-xxxi.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    See ibid. for the history of this committee.Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, however, disagrees with this verdict: The Development of International Law p. 7.Google Scholar
  66. 66.
    The American Council on Public Affairs, World Organisation (Washington, 1942) p. 265.Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    Bendiner, A Time for Angels pp. 328–32.Google Scholar
  68. 68.
    American Council on Public Affairs, World Organisation p. 250.Google Scholar
  69. 69.
    LNOJ (February 1936) p. 203.Google Scholar
  70. 70.
    For further details on the regulations for each type of mandate, see the League of Nations, The Mandates System (Geneva, 1945) pp. 24–32; F. White, Mandates (London, 1926) pp. 24–30, and Q. Wright, Mandates under the League of Nations (Chicago, 1930) pp. 24–63.Google Scholar
  71. 71.
    In its first report the Commission declared: ‘We shall endeavour to exercise our authority less as a judge from whom critical pronouncements are expected than as collaborators who are resolved to devote their experience and their energies to a joint endeavour.’ Cited in Wright, Mandates p. 196.Google Scholar
  72. 72.
    The Bruce Report on the Technical Work of the League Special Supplement to the Monthly Summary of the League of Nations (September 1939) p. 7.Google Scholar
  73. 73.
    Report to the 4th Assembly, League of Nations Document A.10 (1923) pp. 49–59.Google Scholar
  74. 74.
    Supplementary Report to the 8th Assembly, League of Nations Document A.13 (a) (1927) pp. 21–31.Google Scholar
  75. 75.
    League of Nations Secretariat, Ten Years of World Co-operation (Geneva, 1930) pp. 199–201.Google Scholar
  76. 76.
    Walters, History of the League of Nations vol. II, pp. 518–23.Google Scholar
  77. 77.
    LNOJ (January 1932) pp. 152–4.Google Scholar
  78. 78.
    American Council on Public Affairs, World Organisation p. 173.Google Scholar
  79. 79.
    See The Bruce Report and League of Nations Secretariat, Ten Years of World Co-operation pp. 232–60.Google Scholar
  80. 80.
    Report to the 2nd Assembly, League of Nations Document A.9. (1921) p. 64.Google Scholar
  81. 81.
    M. Burton, The Assembly of the League of Nations (New York, 1974) p. 45.Google Scholar
  82. 82.
    Ibid., pp. 73–5.Google Scholar
  83. 83.
    Ibid., pp. 175–205.Google Scholar
  84. 84.
    H. Butler, The Lost Peace (London, 1941) p. 31.Google Scholar
  85. 85.
    Burton, The Assembly p. 382.Google Scholar
  86. 86.
    Barros, Betrayal from Within p. 12.Google Scholar
  87. 87.
    Barros, Office without Power p. 395.Google Scholar
  88. 88.
    Ibid., p. 291.Google Scholar
  89. 89.
    Ibid., p. 54.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© David Armstrong 1982

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Armstrong

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations