League of Nations

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League of Nations

The League of Nations is an international confederation of countries, with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, that existed from 1920 to 1946, its creation following World War I and its dissolution following World War II. Though the League of Nations was a flawed and generally ineffective organization, many of its functions and offices were transferred to the United Nations, which has benefited from the hard lessons the league learned.

President woodrow wilson, of the United States, was the architect of the League of Nations. When the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, Wilson sought to end a war that had raged for three years and to begin constructing a new framework for international cooperation. On January 8, 1918, he delivered an address to Congress that named fourteen points to be used as the guide for a peace settlement. The fourteenth point called for a general association of nations that would guarantee political independence and territorial integrity for all countries.

Following the November 9, 1918, Armistice that ended the war, President Wilson led the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. Wilson was the only representative of the Great Powers—which included Great Britain, France, and Italy—who truly wanted an international organization. His power and influence were instrumental in establishing the League of Nations.

Although Wilson was the architect of the league, he was unable to secure U.S. Senate ratification of the peace treaty that included it. He was opposed by isolationists of both major political parties who argued that the United States should not interfere with European affairs, and by Republicans who did not want to commit the United States to supporting the league financially. The treaty was modified several times, but was nevertheless voted down for the last time in March 1920.

Despite the absence of the United States, the League of Nations held its first meeting on November 15, 1920, with forty-two nations represented. The constitution of the league was called a Covenant. It contained twenty-six articles that served as operating rules for the league.

The league was organized into three main branches. The council was the main peacekeeping agency, with a membership that varied from eight to fourteen members during its existence. France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union held permanent seats during the years they were members of the league. The remainder of the seats were held by smaller countries on a rotating basis. Peacekeeping recommendations had to be made by a unanimous vote.

The assembly was composed of all members of the league, and each member country had one vote. The assembly controlled the league's budget, elected the temporary council members, and made amendments to the covenant. A two-thirds majority vote was required on most matters. When a threat to peace was the issue, a majority vote plus the unanimous consent of the council was needed to recommend action.

The secretariat was the administrative branch of the league. It was headed by a secretary general, who was nominated by the council and approved by the assembly. The secretariat consisted of over six hundred officials, who aided peacekeeping work and served as staff to special study commissions and to numerous international organizations established by the league to improve trade, finance, transportation, communication, health, and science.

President Wilson and others who had sought the establishment of the league had hoped to end the system of interlocking foreign alliances that had drawn the European powers into World War I. The league was to promote collective security, in which the security of each league member was guaranteed by the entire league membership. This goal was undermined by the covenant because the council and the assembly lacked the power to order members to help an attacked nation. It was left up to each country to decide whether a threat to peace warranted its intervention. Because of this voluntary process, the league lacked the authority to quickly and decisively resolve armed conflict.

This defect was revealed in the 1930s. When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1933, the League of Nations could only issue condemnations. Then, in 1935, Italy, under Benito Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia. Ethiopia appeared before the assembly and asked for assistance. Britain and France, unwilling to risk war, refused to employ an oil embargo that would have hurt the Italian war effort. In May 1936 Italy conquered the African country.

The league also lost key member states in the 1930s. Japan left in 1933, following the Manchurian invasion. Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, also left in 1933, following the league's refusal to end arms limitations imposed on Germany after World War I. Italy withdrew in 1937, and the Soviet Union was expelled in 1939 for invading Finland.

The beginning of World War II, on September 1, 1939, marked the beginning of the end for the League of Nations. Collective security had failed. During the war the secretariat was reduced to a skeleton staff in Geneva, and some functions were transferred to the United States and Canada. With the creation of the United Nations on October 24, 1945, the League of Nations became superfluous. In 1946 the league voted to dissolve and transferred much of its property and organization to the United Nations.

The United Nations followed the general structure of the league, establishing a security council, a general assembly, and a secretariat. It had the benefit of U.S. membership and U.S. financial support, two vital elements denied the League of Nations.

Further readings

Anghie, Antony. 2002. "Colonialism and the Birth of International Institutions: Sovereignty, Economy, and the Mandate System of the League of Nations." New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 34 (spring).

Harriman, Edward A. 2003. The Constitution at the Cross Roads: A Study of the Legal Aspects of the League of Nations, the Permanent Organization of Labor and the Permanent Court of International Justice. Clark, N.J.: The Lawbook Exchange.

Zimmern, Alfred. 1998. The League of Nations and the Rule of Law, 1918–1935. Holmes Beach, Fla.: Gaunt.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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