League of Nations

20th-century international organisation, predecessor to the United Nations

The League of Nations (abbreviated as LN in English, "Société des Nations" abbreviated as SDN in French) was the first worldwide intergovernmental organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. Founded on 10 January 1920 following the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War, it ceased operations on 20 April 1946.

It is true that we have the League of Nations, but it is only a mechanical frame and the soul has still to grow into its body. The spirit of ill-will and distrust is widespread. ~ Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
The program of the world's peace, therefore, is our program; and that program, the only possible program, as we see it, is this:
1. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view. ~ Woodrow Wilson

The organisation's primary goals, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. Its other concerns included labour conditions, just treatment of native inhabitants, human and drug trafficking, the arms trade, global health, prisoners of war, and protection of minorities in Europe. The Covenant of the League of Nations was signed on 28 June 1919 as Part I of the Treaty of Versailles, and it became effective together with the rest of the Treaty on 10 January 1920. The first meeting of the Council of the League took place on 16 January 1920, and the first meeting of Assembly of the League took place on 15 November 1920. In 1919 U.S. president Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as the leading architect of the League.


  • Italy wants to rule over Abyssinia instead of allowing the black people to govern their own country. This, of course, is what used to happen in the old days. Strong countries like England used to capture other people's countries and that was how we got Australia, Canada and India. No one could stop us. We just did it because we were the strongest country.
    But now that we have got a League of Nations in the world, all the countries have promised not to do that kind of thing any more, and nearly every country, including Abyssinia, whether it consists of white people or black people, has joined the League of Nations. In future if any country feels angry with another country, like Italy does with Abyssinia, it must not go off on its own, like Francis Drake used to, and capture that country. It has to come to the League of Nations and say: "We are angry with our neighbours." And then the League of Nations goes into the trouble and tries to make up its mind who is right and who is wrong, just like a Judge does in our own country when two people have a quarrel.
    • Clifford Allen to his daughter, Polly, during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War (19 November 1935), quoted in Martin Gilbert, Plough My Own Furrow: The Story of Lord Allen of Hurtwood as told through his own writings and correspondence (1965), pp. 343-344
  • [M]ost important of all, we have set up in the League of Nations a new international polity which promises, if it is given free scope and full authority, first to bring about progressive disarmament, and next to provide in future a rational and humane substitute for the ruinous arbitrament of war.
    • H. H. Asquith, speech in Paisley (6 February 1920), quoted in Speeches by The Earl of Oxford and Asquith, K.G. (1927), p. 266
  • The idea of the League of Nations was right, but it was not put into practice. This time we must see to it that an international order is established in the world with the power and the will, and not merely the desire, to prevent war breaking out again.
    • Clement Attlee, speech to the conference of representatives of the British and Dominion Labour parties, Westminster, London (12 September 1944), quoted in The Times (13 September 1944), p. 8.
  • The dispute between the League and Italy is real, but it is not more real than our friendship...in being true to our pledged word to the League we wish also to preserve an old friendship. But loyalty to our pledge is inescapable, for, as the Secretary of State said in his recent Note to the French Government, we look on the League as the only escape from "the senseless disasters of the past." That is the key to our whole action and to our every motive.
    • Stanley Baldwin, speech to the Peace Society (31 October 1935), quoted in This Torch of Freedom (1935), pp. 336-337
  • The League of Nations has had many critics, but I am not aware that, among the multitude of criticisms that have been offered, any suggestion makes its appearance for finding a substitute for that organization which we desire to see entrusted, I admit, with the great task of preserving the peace of the world. Those who criticize the League of Nations have no substitute for the League of Nations. They are prepared, it seems, for the civilized world to go on in the future, as it has gone on in the past, oscillating between those scenes of violence and sanguinary disturbance and the intervals in which great and ambitious nations pile up their armaments for a new effort. To me such an ideal appears to be absolutely intolerable, and I am not prepared, seriously, to discuss with any man what the future of the international relations should be unless he is prepared either to accept in some form or another the League of Nations, or to tell me what substitute he proposes for it.
  • "Covenants without swords are but words," bleakly wrote Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century. The League of Nations possessed no sword. How could it? The League, as such, enjoyed no kind of independent existence and authority at all. The widely made assumption that it did, as when men spoke of "support for the League" or "loyalty to the League", was founded on mass self-deception. For the League was no more than, or other than, its member states... If the League were ever to coerce a lawbreaker, it would not be the Paraguayan army or the Liberian navy that would do the coercing; but the Royal Navy and the French army. So when British internationalists demanded that Britain should disarm and entrust her security to "the League", they were really proposing that Britain should rest her safety on her own weakness. When they demanded that the French too should disarm they were unwittingly trying to deprive the League of the only swords ever likely to be unsheathed against breakers of the Covenant. There was therefore a fundamental and fatal flaw in the internationalists' new world system, glossed over in their idealistic enthusiasm. Without the sanction of overwhelming force behind the new international morality, the League of Nations had no chance whatsoever of putting an end to the anarchy of the power struggle between nation-states. It was like hoping to end the Wars of the Roses by creating a League of Barons pledged to keep the peace and obey the law of the land.
  • Talk to me of treaties! Talk to me of the League of Nations! Every Great Power in Europe was pledged by treaty to preserve Belgium. That was a League of Nations, but it failed.
    • Edward Carson, speech (7 December 1917), Liberal Magazine, XXV (1917), p. 604, quoted in Henry R. Winkler, ‘The Development of the League of Nations Idea in Great Britain, 1914-1919’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Jun., 1948), p. 105
  • The League of Nations had no sooner been created than it received an almost mortal blow. The United States abandoned President Wilson’s offspring. The President himself, ready to do battle for his ideals, suffered a paralytic stroke just as he was setting forth on his campaign, and lingered henceforward a futile wreck for a great part of two long and vital years, at the end of which his party and his policy were swept away by the Republican Presidential victory of 1920. Across the Atlantic on the morrow of the Republican success isolationist conceptions prevailed. Europe must be left to stew in its own juice, and must pay its lawful debts. At the same time tariffs were raised to prevent the entry of the goods by which alone these debts could be discharged. At the Washington Conference of 1921, far-reaching proposals for naval disarmament were made by the United States, and the British and American Governments proceeded to sink their battleships and break up their military establishments with gusto. It was argued in odd logic that it would be immoral to disarm the vanquished unless the victors also stripped themselves of their weapons. The finger of Anglo-American reprobation was presently to be pointed at France, deprived alike of the Rhine frontier and of her treaty guarantee, for maintaining, even on a greatly reduced scale, a French Army based upon universal service.
    • Winston Churchill, The Second World War Volume I: The Gathering Storm (1948), ISBN 0-7953-0602-4, pp. 29-30
  • Up till the year 1934, the power of the conquerors remained unchallenged in Europe and indeed throughout the world. There was no moment in these sixteen years when the three former allies, or even Britain and France with their associates in Europe, could not, in the name of the League of Nations and under its moral and international shield, have controlled by a mere effort of the will the armed strength of Germany. Instead, until 1931 the victors, and particularly the United States, concentrated their efforts upon extorting by vexatious foreign controls their annual reparations from Germany. The fact that these payments were made only from far larger American loans reduced the whole process to the absurd. Nothing was reaped except illwill. On the other hand, the strict enforcement at any time till 1934 of the disarmament clauses of the Peace Treaty would have guarded indefinitely, without violence or bloodshed, the peace and safety of mankind. But this was neglected while the infringements remained petty, and shunned as they assumed serious proportions. Thus the final safeguard of a long peace was cast away. The crimes of the vanquished find their background and their explanation, though not, of course, their pardon, in the follies of the victors. Without these follies crime would have found neither temptation nor opportunity.
    • Winston Churchill, The Second World War Volume I: The Gathering Storm (1948), ISBN 0-7953-0602-4, pp. 32-33
  • There is no use for us to shut our eyes to realities. The fact remains that the policy of collective security based on sanctions has been tried out, as indeed we were bound to try it out unless we were prepared to repudiate our obligations and say, without having tried it, that the whole system of the League and the Covenant was a sham and a fraud. That policy has been tried out and it has failed to prevent war, failed to stop war, failed to save the victim of the aggression.
  • Is it not apparent that the policy of sanctions involves, I do not say war, but a risk of war? Is it not apparent that that risk must increase in proportion to the effectiveness of the sanctions and also by reason of the incompleteness of the League? Is it not also apparent from what has happened that in the presence of such a risk nations cannot be relied upon to proceed to the last extremity of war unless their vital interests are threatened?
  • The Labour movement was loth to accept the logic of its own declarations. Everyone knew in his heart that resolutions of protest wouldn't stop the dictators. But Labour people abhorred war and were deterred by the prospects of a world-wide conflict with all its horrors. We tried to take refuge in repeated demands for collective action by the League of Nations. The League had no forces of its own and it was patent to me that it must rely on those of its member states who were ready and capable of shouldering the major responsibility of defending the collective security we talked so much about. Economic sanctions were both slow to operate and not very effective.
  • Whether we wish it or not, it is not the International Parliament of Geneva, subtle epitome of all the Parliaments of this world, with no executive powers, that will determine the peace of the future.
  • The League of Nations had been formed largely at the instance of the President of the United States, but President Wilson was repudiated by the electors, the League therefore suffering an almost mortal blow at its inception... Great Britain, blind to the change in the situation, proceeded...to go "international" and our great country, which had been saved by the valour and patriotism of our people, was deliberately encouraged to rely for its safety upon a hotch-potch collection of small states embodied in what was never a world League of Nations but a League of some nations based not on defensive force but on pious resolutions which were endorsed by ceaseless chatter at many conferences. Of all the nations of the League at that time only Britain, France, Italy and Japan were powerful enough to make any impression upon world affairs, and later two of these were to resign their membership... The League of Nations Union had won the day for disarmament in the one country which had made any attempt to make the League a real thing, thus rendering it impotent and delivering the coup-de-grâce to the League itself.
  • Despite its poor historical reputation, the League of Nations should not be dismissed as a complete failure. Of sixty-six international disputes it had to deal with (four of which had led to open hostilities), it successfully resolved thirty-five and quite legitimately passed back twenty to the channels of traditional diplomacy. It failed to resolve just eleven conflicts. Like its successor the United Nations, it was capable of being effective provided some combination of the great powers - including, it should be emphasized, those, like the United States and the Soviet Union, who were not among its members - had a common interest in its being effective. Remarkably, given Manchuria's role as an imperial fault line earlier in the century, this was not the case in 1931. So uninterested was Stalin in the Far East at this point that in 1935 he offered to sell the Soviet-owned Chinese Eastern Railway to Japan and to withdraw all Soviet forces to the Amur River. If the Soviets were not interested in Manchuria, it was hard to see why Britain or the United States should be, especially at a time when both were reeling from severe financial crises.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), p. 301
  • [T]he two most important and intractable problems were to make the Covenant an efficient instrument for the preservation of peace and to bring about disarmament. Although this was not generally perceived at the time, these aims were contradictory. In order that the Covenant should be made effective it was necessary that sanctions, and in the last resort force, should be used against the aggressor. Men deluded themselves by speaking of collective security. What aggressor nation, they asked, could resist the united might of fifty nations? But they overlooked the elementary truth that zero plus zero still equals zero. In 1925...the only members of the League who possessed significant military forces were England and France... Consequently the whole burden of enforcing the Covenant rested on the[ir] shoulders... This meant that the general staffs of these two countries were faced with more extended military commitments than they had ever known in the days when their sole task was to protect the national interest. The answer should have been to make a proportionate increase in the British and French military establishments. Instead they were told that collective security diminished the extent of their commitments and that in consequence it would be safe to embark on a massive programme of disarmament. Never in our history has there been a more flagrant case of muddled thinking and self-deception.
  • There are many things the world has realised and is prepared to take into account and to provide against. This League of Nations is an attempt to do it by some less barbarous methods than war. Let us try it. I beg this country to try it seriously, and to try it in earnest. It is due to mankind that we should try it. Anything except the horror of the last four and a half years!
  • The League of Nations is the greatest humbug in history. They cannot even protect a little nation like Armenia. They do nothing but pass useless resolutions.
    • David Lloyd George's remarks to Lord Riddell, as recorded in Riddell's diary (18 December 1920), quoted in The Riddell Diaries 1908-1923, ed. J. M. McEwen (1986), p. 330
  • I have loved but one flag and I can not share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for a league.
    • Henry Cabot Lodge, remarks in the Senate (August 12, 1919), Congressional Record, vol. 58, p. 3784
  • In attaching so much importance to the idea of the League of Nations England was moved in part by a sincere idealism but also by a false idea she had formed of a League of Nations that would overcome cannon with volleys of edifying discourse. Harold Nicolson, a member of the British Parliament, told me he had received the following letter from one of his constituents:
    "I hope you are for the League of Nations and no foreign entanglements."
    This confusion of ideas, this incredible self-confidence, this refusal to look reality in the face had produced the effects that might have been foreseen. Having slumbered on her green lawns from 1919 to 1939 England awoke after Munich when it was too late, and she came to the war with almost no army.
  • A mirage, and an old one... One may as well talk of London morality being due to the Archbishop of Canterbury. But take away Scotland Yard!
    • John Morley's answer to John Hartman Morgan, who asked him what he thought of the League of Nations (15 February 1918), quoted in J. H. Morgan, John, Viscount Morley: An Appreciation and Some Reminiscences (1924), p. 92
  • I have not read it, and I don't intend to read it. It's not worth the paper it's written on. To the end of time it'll always be a case of “Thy head or my head.” I've no faith in these schemes.
    • John Morley's answer to John Hartman Morgan, who asked him what he thought of the Covenant of the League of Nations (1919), quoted in J. H. Morgan, John, Viscount Morley: An Appreciation and Some Reminiscences (1924), p. 91
  • The real difficulty of the situation lies in the practical working of the coercion. Let it be laid down that the League as a whole will take the necessary action, economic or military. Well and good; but the League is not a military or economic unit and possesses no central executive. It is a society of independent sovereign states, their independence somewhat modified by treaty obligations and a habit of regular conference, but none the less real. I doubt whether the League as a League could declare war or wage war. The force would have to be supplied by each state separately, of its own deliberate will... One cannot expect Siam or Canada to mobilize because one Balkan state attacks another. And if the duty is not incumbent on all members, who is to decide what members are to undertake it? The Council has no absolute authority. No nation will be eager to subject itself to the strain and sacrifice of coercive action unless its own interests are sharply involved. But the question is whether, in a world that increasingly detests war and mistrusts force as a instrument of international policy, the various national Parliaments or Governments will in general have sufficient loyalty to the League, sufficient public spirit and sense of reality, to be ready to face the prospects of war not in defence of their own frontiers or immediate national interests, but simply to maintain the peace of the world.
    • Gilbert Murray, The Ordeal of This Generation: The War, the League and the Future (1929), p. 91
  • It is hard on many people, on naval and military circles, on Philistine newspapers, on smart society in London, just as it is hard on similar circles in Berlin, to have to give up their favourite dreams and admit themselves definitely defeated, defeated even in the Tory Cabinet, by dull middle-class pacifism... all parties are pledged to the League...all Prime Ministers and ex-Prime Ministers support it...no candidate for Parliament dares to oppose it openly.
    • Gilbert Murray, The Ordeal of This Generation: The War, the League and the Future (1929), pp. 101-102
  • I am always a little surprised at the common habit of attributing “the failure of the League” to small defects in the Covenant or to the timidities of the French and British Governments in 1931 and after; the primary cause was obviously the disunion of the Great Powers on whose union everything depended. America withdrew; Japan turned traitor and was too strong to coerce; Italy after a period of blackmail went over to the enemy. Whether Britain and France together might still have saved the situation is of course open to doubt; I am disposed to think they could, but one must not forget how great the difficulties were.
  • It is true that we have the League of Nations, but it is only a mechanical frame and the soul has still to grow into its body. The spirit of ill-will and distrust is widespread. Internationalism is only an idea cherished by a few and not a part of human psychology. Ten years after the peace, the sky is not clearer than it was in August, 1914. Europe has a million more men under arms than there were before the war.
  • I was not alone. The atmosphere, after the joys of the armistice, was strange and foreboding for those of us who sought a world of peace and international comity. Woodrow Wilson had, as Martin Luther King had, a dream, and I shared that dream—all fourteen points of it—and watched it come to nothing. (I was in the press gallery of the House of Representatives when President Woodrow Wilson returned from Europe and addressed Congress. I saw Senator Henry Cabot Lodge avoiding him. I heard Wilson's muted passion, and I cried.) What a splendid vision the League of Nations was; how sickening to watch it scuttled.
  • No League of Nations, or of individuals, can avail, without a change of heart. Reformers of all classes must recognize that it is useless to preach peace by itself, or socialism by itself, or anti-vivisection by itself, or vegetarianism by itself, or kindness to animals by itself. The cause of each and all of the evils that afflict the world is the same the general lack of humanity, the lack of the knowledge that all sentient life is akin, and that he who injures a fellow-being is in fact doing injury to himself. The prospects of a happier society are wrapped up in this despised and neglected truth, the very statement of which, at the present time, must (I well know) appear ridiculous to the accepted instructors of the people.
  • I assert that the problem submitted to the Assembly today is a much wider one. It is not merely a question of the settlement of Italian aggression. It is collective security: it is the very existence of the League of Nations. It is the confidence that each State is to place in international treaties. It is the value of promises made to small States that their integrity and their independence shall be respected and ensured.
  • The program of the world's peace, therefore, is our program; and that program, the only possible program, as we see it, is this:
    1. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.
    • President Woodrow Wilson, first of the "Fourteen Points," address to a joint session of Congress (January 8, 1918); in Albert Shaw, ed., The Messages and Papers of Woodrow Wilson (1924), vol. 1, p. 468. This speech on war aims and peace terms laid the groundwork for the proposal of a League of Nations.
  • Twice in this century, in the aftermath of world wars which resulted in considerable measure from the shortcomings of the old diplomacy in regulating the relations of powerful States, world organizations—first the League of Nations and then the United Nations—have been set up to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” This is the central function of the United Nations under the Charter. Both with the League of Nations and with the United Nations, after initial enthusiasm a great disillusionment set in, and Governments tended more and more to disregard the political functions of the international organization which they themselves had set up in the wake of war and to revert to the international practices of earlier times. In the 1930s this process led to the Second World War. I do not believe that any Government has any intention of letting us drift into a third world war, but unless we are prepared to learn from the past and to make our international political institutions work as they were intended to work, that danger will always exist. History tells us that we cannot afford to take for granted the persistence of moderation and reason in international affairs, and that international organization is necessary as a safeguard when moderation and reason fail.
    • Kurt Waldheim, August 9, 1972, as quoted in Historic Documents of 1972. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
  • In the world of the 1930s it was by no means easy to decide what to do in the face of the German menace. The international institution created in the peace settlement, the League of Nations, had been crippled at birth by the absence of the United States and the exclusion of Russia as well as the defeated powers. When confronted by its first serious test in Japan’s 1931 seizure of Manchuria, it failed over a problem inherent in the concept of collective security, recurring monotonously in the 1930s, and of continuing difficulty today. In a world of separate states, the theory of averting the danger of war by the threat of universal or at least large-scale collective action requires for its implementation that in practice countries be willing to go to war if necessary over specific issues that might be, or at least appear to be, of only marginal significance to them. Not only does this require all involved to maintain substantial forces at all times, but it also makes every little war into a very big one. No power was prepared to do so over Manchuria. Hitler’s strategy of fighting a series of isolated wars would confront the powers with the same dilemma: the responsibility for converting his carefully delimited conflicts into a world war would be left to others who were peacefully inclined and who had begun their rearmament after and in response to Germany’s.
    • Gerard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms : A Global History of World War II, Cambridge University Press, 2005