THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS 1919-1939
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THE BIG QUESTIONTo what extent was the League of Nations a success?

HEADLINE QUESTIONSWhat were the aims of the League?How successful was the League in the 1920s?How far did weaknesses in the League’s organisation make failure inevitable?How far did the Depression make the work of the League more difficult?Why did the League fail over Manchuria and Abyssinia?


CONTENT YOU NEED TO KNOWThe aims of the League, its strengths and weaknesses in structure and organisation;Successes and failures in peacekeeping during the 1920s;Disarmament; the work of the Court of International Justice;The ILO and the Special Commissions;The impact of the World Depression on the work of the League after 1929;The failures of the League in Manchuria and Abyssinia.

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To what extent was the League of Nations a success?


What were the aims of the League?
  • The League of Nations was the Fourteenth Point of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.
  • The League was an attempt to create an international organisation that would be able to prevent wars in the future.
  • The League adopted the principle of 'Collective Security'.
  • This was an attempt to unite the nations of the world in a joint guarantee of peace.

Membership of the League
  • Membership of the League was open to all countries, providing they signed the Covenant of the League; this was the set of rules that members had to agree to accept.
  • However, some countries were not allowed to join. Germany was not allowed to join and nor was Russia. This immediately meant that two of the most important countries of the world were banned.
  • In fact both of these countries did join later. Germany was admitted in 1926 and the USSR, as it became known in 1924, joined in 1934.
File:League of Nations Anachronous Map.PNG
File:League of Nations Anachronous Map.PNG

The Structure and Organisation of the League


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  • The Council met three times a year. There were four permanent members, Britain, France, Italy and Japan (Germany became the fifth in 1926). They took most of the important decisions.
  • The Assembly had representatives of all the members and it meant once a year.
  • Decisions in the Council and the Assembly had to be unanimous.
  • The Permanent Court of Justice was set up in The Hague to settle disputes between countries, but both sides had to agree to take a dispute to the Court; so many issues never reached it.
  • The Council of Ambassadors often took decisions, because the Council and Assembly only met occasionally.
  • Covenant was the agreement which members had to sign. It was a set of rules, which included not using force to settle a disagreement with another country.
  • The League could use two types of sanctions to punish a country, which broke the Covenant. Economic Sanctions banned trade; Military Sanctions meant a declaration of war by each member.
  • However, there was no provision for a League army, so individual countries had to declare war on members that had broken the Covenant.
  • The Secretary-General was in charge of the administration of the League. The first holder of the office was Sir Eric Drummond, who was British.

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Strengths and weaknesses of the League

Successes of the League

  • The League itself was a success, as nothing like it had ever existed before. After the First World War there was a genuine desire for peace.
  • The League was successful in the 1920s in settling disputes between countries like Finland and Sweden over the Aaland Islands and Greece and Bulgaria over a border dispute.
  • It also did very good work in an attempt to stamp out the slave trade and in tackling diseases.
  • In the 1920s the League had the support of most major countries and was successful in settling a series of minor disputes.
  • The League was also important in tackling a number of international problems. It took charge of the returning refugees and prisoners of war to their own countries after the Great War. About 400,000 were returned safely.
  • The ILO (International Labour Organisation) set hours of work and tried to establish trade union rights on an international basis.
  • The Mandates Commission was responsible for looking after former German colonies; these were mostly handed over to Britain and France to govern and prepare for independence.
  • The League’s agencies also tackled the slave trade, which was still widespread in parts of Africa.
  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) tried to prevent epidemic diseases such as cholera, typhoid and malaria. It is all too easy to overlook the successes of the League and only concentrate on its failings.
  • The League kept disarmament at the forefront of the international agenda, but was unable to arrange a conference until 1932.

Problems faced by the League
  • Russia was not allowed to join after the Communist Revolution in 1917. Germany was not allowed to join, but did become a member in 1926.
  • The USA did not join, even though the League was Woodrow Wilson's idea. Congress voted against membership. In fact the USA would probably have made little difference. In the 1920s and 1930s US armed forces were very weak.
  • Italy, a Permanent Member of the Council, broke the Covenant in 1923 when Mussolini occupied Corfu, which was owned by Greece.
  • In August 1923 five Italian surveyors were mapping the Greek-Albanian border for the League of Nations. They were shot and killed on the Greek side of the border and
  • Mussolini, the Italian Prime Minister, demanded compensation from the Greeks. When the Greek government ignored the demand, Mussolini ordered the Italian navy to bombard and then occupy the Greek island of Corfu.
  • Italy was a Permanent Member of the Council of the League. Eventually the League backed Mussolini and forced the Greeks to pay compensation to the League. Then Mussolini had to withdraw his forces from the island.
  • Britain and France then decided that compensation should be paid by Greece to Italy, rather than to the League as was originally decided.
  • The Corfu incident suggested that major powers could afford to ignore the Covenant when it suited them.
  • The Corfu incident suggested that major powers could afford to ignore the Covenant when it suited them.
  • The League came to be seen as a club for the victors of the First World War and was mostly European. Its headquarters were in Geneva. It appeared to give even more influence to Europe.
  • It was a mistake to appoint Sir Eric Drummond as the Secretary-General. He was a representative of one of the Permanent Members of the Council and this made countries outside Europe believe that the League was pro-European.
  • The League had no army; it had to rely on member countries declaring war on countries which broke the Covenant.
  • Often the great powers acted without the consent of the League. The Locarno Pacts and the Kellog-Briand Pact were both arranged without the League’s involvement.
  • The Council and the Assembly met very rarely, consequently, decisions were often taken by the Council of Ambassadors; this allowed Britain and France to dominate the League.
  • Support for the League in terms of membership varied considerable. Many countries came and went and in some areas of the world, such as South America, it had little impact.

How far did weaknesses in the League make failure inevitable?
  • The Corfu incident showed that major powers would break the Covenant when it suited them.
  • It also suggested that Britain and France were prepared to compromise when their interests were involved.
  • The lack of an army meant that military sanctions were virtually impossible.
  • Disputes could be settled if they were in Europe and members were prepared to refer them to the League, but what if disputes were in remote areas of the world?
  • Most of the major powers in the League were in Europe.
  • The absence of major powers such as the USA and the Soviet Union undoubtedly weakened the League.
  • However, the real reason for the weakness of the League was the depression from 1929.
  • The delay in organising the Disarmament Conference made the League look indecisive.
  • In October 1929 the Wall Street Crash plunged the world into crisis and then Depression.

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How far did the Depression make the work of the League more difficult?

How did it affect the work of the League of Nations?
  • It destroyed the relative prosperity of the 1920s. In Germany it wiped out the recovery that had taken place since 1924.
  • This created massive unemployment and poverty, which in turn led to desperation and despair.
  • This led to increased support for extremist parties, who used violence and adopted aggressive policies.
  • In Japan, Italy and Germany, militarism became more influential.

Japanese expansion into Manchuria and China

Why did Japan invade Manchuria and China?

In the 1920s, however, there was a revival of traditional Japanese ideas.

Why did Japan become more militarist in the 1920s and 1930s?
  • Japan failed to gain the land that she was expecting at the Treaty of Versailles.
  • The Washington Naval Agreement of 1922 made Japan an inferior partner.
  • The population began to grow rapidly and Japan needed more land and raw materials. The price of rice fell and exports of silk were affected by the Depression.
    • Manchuria had vast resources of coal and iron that Japan lacked.
  • In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, which was a province of China, claiming that they were acting in self-defence. It claimed that a railway had been blown up at Mukden on 18th September.
  • In 1932 the Japanese set up the puppet state of Manchukuo, with the last emperor of China, P’u-i as its head.

How did the League of Nations react to the Japanese actions?
  • The League of Nations set up a Commission of Inquiry under the Earl of Lytton to investigate.
  • In October the Lytton Commission reported that there was no evidence that the Japanese had acted in self-defence and recommended that Manchuria should be an autonomous region under Chinese control.
  • The Japanese ignored the report and the condemnation from the League and resigned in 1933.
  • The Japanese action was a major blow to the League of Nations, not only because it failed to act effectively, but also because Japan was a Permanent Member of the Council.

Why was the League unable to do anything about Manchuria?
  • The lack of an army meant that countries had to be persuaded to declare war on Japan.
  • Manchuria was remote and military action would be very difficult.
  • There was very little sympathy for China and some support for Japan, which seemed to be trying to restore law and order.
  • In reality there was very little that the League could have done.

What effects did the League's actions have upon Japan?
  • The failure to condemn Japan led to the government falling under the control of the army.
  • Politicians who stood up to the armed forces were sometimes murdered. The country began a period of territorial expansion on the mainland.
  • From 1932, more of China was occupied by the Japanese army.
  • In July 1937 the Japanese army invaded northern China. The following month, two Japanese sailors were killed at a Chinese aerodrome in Shanghai.
  • This led to the landing of an army, which captured and then forced its way inland. The Japanese airforce was used to bomb Chinese cities into submission.
  • Within a year Nanking, the capital, Tsingtao, Canton and Hankow had all been taken. Britain and the USA gave large loans to the Guomingdang government of China.
  • The Japanese government began to demand that Britain and the other western Countries should give up supporting China and co-operate with Japan in establishing a ‘new order’ in the Far East.
  • The Japanese government intended to set up a ‘Greater South East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere’.
  • In fact this was to be nothing more than a Japanese Empire, intended to provide living space for Japan’s growing population and to enable Japan to acquire the raw materials which she desperately needed, the most crucial of which was oil.

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Events in Italy
  • In October 1922 Benito Mussolini became prime minister of Italy. From 1925 he ruled as a virtual dictator.
  • Mussolini began a series of 'battles' to try and tackle Italy's economic problems, autostrada (motorways) were built, land reclaimed and public buildings constructed.
  • From 1929 many of Mussolini's plans began to go wrong. He rarely followed ideas through and lacked determination.
  • His policy of increasing the value of the lira, the Italian currency, meant that Italian exports became more expensive.
  • By the mid-1930s Italy was suffering very badly from the effects of the Depression and Mussolini was becoming very unpopular. His solution was to begin an aggressive foreign policy.
  • Italy had been denied territory in the Balkans in 1919, Mussolini’s solution was to extend the Italian Empire in East Africa.

The Italian conquest of Abyssinia

  • On 3 October 1935, the Italian armed forces invaded the African state of Abyssinia (now called Ethiopia).
  • At first the Italians faced considerable opposition, as the Abyssinians avoided a pitched battle and retreated slowly.
  • In early 1936, however, the Italians began to use poison gas and, along with their air power, this led to the collapse of the Abyssinian forces.
  • In May 1936 the capital Addis Ababa was occupied and the Emperor Haile Selassie fled to Britain. Abyssinia was annexed to Italy and the King of Italy became Emperor of Abyssinia.

Why did Italy invade Abyssinia?
  • Italy had invaded Abyssinia in 1895, but had been humiliatingly defeated by the Abyssinian army at the battle of Aduwa (Adowa). The 1935 invasion was revenge.
  • Mussolini wanted an African empire to fulfil his aims to revive the Ancient Roman Empire.
  • Mussolini also wanted to divert public opinion in Italy away from the failures of his domestic policies, which were making him increasingly unpopular.
Why was the invasion of Abyssinia important?
  • Italy was a Permanent Member of the Council of the League of Nations. The invasion deliberately broke the Covenant and severely weakened the authority of the League.

How did the League react to the invasion of Abyssinia?
  • Sanctions were applied to Italy, including an arms embargo, banning Italian imports and all financial dealings, but oil was not included.
  • Mussolini later admitted that that was the one thing that would have forced him to withdraw.
  • In June 1936 Haile Selassie addressed the Assembly of the League of Nations. Throughout he was heckled by Italian journalists, who whistled to try to stop him being heard. His speech had no effect.

Why did the League not take effective action?
  • In 1935 Britain and France tried to arrange a compromise solution to the crisis, the Hoare-Laval Pact. This would have allowed Mussolini to retain control of most of Abyssinia.
  • The Pact had to be dropped as a result of hostile public opinion. This and the refusal to add oil to the sanctions made Britain and France, and the League of Nations, appear to be weak.
  • Both Britain and France were alarmed at events in Germany and wanted to keep Mussolini on their side against Hitler.
  • The three nations had already formed the Stresa Front in 1934. Britain and France did not want Mussolini to resign from the League of Nations.
  • The actions of Britain and France over Abyssinia did great harm to the League's reputation.

Why did the League fail over Manchuria and Abyssinia?
  • Both countries were invaded by major powers who were Permanent Members of the Council; there was very little appetite for military action against either.
  • If Permanent Members broke the Covenant, there seemed to be little point in the League.
  • Both invasions were in remote areas; it would have been very difficult to mount military campaigns.
  • In Manchuria, the League acted very slowly, the Lytton Commission took nine months to produce a report.
  • In the case of Abyssinia, Britain and France tried to do a deal with Mussolini in the Hoare-Laval pact; when this became public, the moral authority of the League disappeared.
  • Britain and France attempted to keep Mussolini ‘onside’ by preventing oil being added to the economic sanctions.
  • Britain also refused to close the Suez Canal; that would have paralyzed Mussolini