League of Nations

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

The League of Nations (abbreviated as LN in English, "Société des Nations" abbreviated as SDN in French) was an intergovernmental organisation founded as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War. It was the first international organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. Its primary goals, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament, and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. Other issues in this and related treaties included labour conditions, just treatment of native inhabitants, human and drug trafficking, arms trade, global health, prisoners of war, and protection of minorities in Europe. At its greatest extent from 28 September 1934 to 23 February 1935, it had 58 members.

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

QuotesEdit

  • [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 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
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • The League of Nations also failed to prevent conflicts in various parts of the world, such as the attack of Italy on Ethiopia, the civil war in Spain, the Japanese aggression against China and the Anschluss of Austria. Furthermore, in case of the Munich Betrayal that, in addition to Hitler and Mussolini involved British and French leaders, Czechoslovakia was taken apart with the full approval of the League of Nations. I would like to point out in this regard that, unlike many other European leaders of that time, Stalin did not disgrace himself by meeting with Hitler who was known among the Western nations as quite a reputable politician and was a welcome guest in the European capitals.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. Should it happen that a strong Government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give its judgment in all freedom. God and history will remember your judgment.
  • 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.

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