League of Nations
█ ADRIENNE WILMOTH LERNER
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared that the nation's intention was to fight in the final war to ensure the survival and strength of democracy in the Western world. After the war, Wilson encouraged the victorious Allied powers to establish an international organization that would mediate conflict through diplomacy and promote peace. Wilson's idea led to the creation of the League of Nations, and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. The League of Nations was short lived, and plagued with problems from its inception. The organization did, however, lay the foundations for international cooperative efforts in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Despite Wilson's efforts to gain public support for the League of Nations, the United States government failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, the final agreement of the ending of World War I, and therefore, did not join the League. The lack of United States participation and financial backing forever plagued the League, hampering its efficacy and political influence. United States abstention from the League drew ire from some nations, and made others suspicious of the organization itself. Britain expressed dissatisfaction with the League, but ratified the treaty with the League of Nations provisions simply to avoid extended negotiation on reforming the already delayed peace settlement. Despite U.S. reservations, over 30 other nations joined the League in 1920 when the Treaty of Versailles went into effect on January 10: Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Ecuador, France, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Hejaz, Honduras, Italy, India, Japan, Liberia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serb-Croat-Sloven State (later, Yugoslavia), Siam, South Africa, and Uruguay.
The League was headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, because of the nations long-standing policy of declared neutrality. Though the Treaty of Versailles provided for the establishment of the diplomatic entity, it did not outline its organization. Its eventual structure took shape over the first two years of representative meetings of member nations. Eventually, the League came to be composed of three principal organs and several technical organizations.
The main body of the League of Nations was the assembly. Composed of representatives from each member states, the assembly met annually. Each resolution, or legal advisory, passed by the assembly was subsequently published.
The council was a smaller body of representatives separate from, but still accountable to, the assembly. Membership on the council varied, and included a mixture of permanent and non-permanent seats. The mission of the council was to mediate and settle international disputes. The League of Nations charter stipulated that the council meet every four years, or as needed in the event of a crisis. In the League of Nation's 20-year history, the council met 107 times.
The secretary-general directed the League of Nations, serving as its chief negotiator and the leader of the assembly. The office of the secretary-general, the secretariat, carried out the routine office work of the league.
In addition to the principal organs of the league, several technical committees advised the assembly and council on international policy and special concerns. The league maintained a health organization, an economic and financial organization, the Opium Advisory Committee, and the Permanent Mandates Commission, in addition to several other temporary groups.
In its two-decade tenure, the League of Nations produced the first truly international laws and cooperative initiatives. The League Health Organization promoted safe hospital practices, vaccination campaigns, and public health information campaigns to curb the spread of venereal disease and tuberculosis. In response to the horrors of poison gas on the World War I battlefield, member nations negotiated bans on chemical weaponry. The rules of engagement for war were modified and codified for the modern era in the terms of the Geneva Convention. The league prompted member states to adhere to its terms, but to avoid war if possible.
In the mid-1930s, the league became increasingly ineffective. Though several nations attempted to halt the spread of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism through diplomacy, their efforts failed to prevent the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The league met for the last time during the war, and was dissolved by its member states on April 18, 1946.
Despite its limitations, the League of Nations established modern, international diplomatic protocol and fostered increasing cooperation between large and small nations on both sides of the Atlantic. Participation in the league drew some nations out of isolationism and propelled others onto the international economic and political stage. After the dissolution of the League of Nations, another international and legal entity, the United Nations, emerged. The atrocities of the Holocaust and a rise in war crimes prompted the international community to establish a body that could define and administer international law. The United States joined the United Nations as a charter member, officially ending its remnant isolationist policies. The United Nations assumed the duties of the former League of Nations and continues to expand its role in international diplomacy.
█ FURTHER READING:
Knock, Thomas A. To End All Wars, reprint ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.