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The first world war was the most horrific war the world had ever seen at that time. When the conflict ended, there was an effort to make sure that such a thing never happened again.
To that end, a deliberative body was created where nations could come together to debate and discuss matters before starting an armed conflict.
While having some success, this deliberative body ultimately failed at its stated goal of avoiding another world war.
Learn more about the League of Nations and why it failed on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The first world war was devastating to all of the parties which took part.
In the over four years during which the war raged in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, most of the belligerent countries were far more focused on winning the war than they were on what would come after its conclusion.
When the United States finally entered the war in 1917, they had been sitting on the sidelines for almost three years watching the various European powers rip themselves apart.
On January 8, 1918, the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, made an address before the United States Congress and presented what became known as his Fourteen Points.
The fourteen points didn’t deal with the minutia of the war currently being fought in Europe but rather was an outline for what the international system should look like after the war.
The first four points were a statement of general principles. It stated that all agreements between countries should be public and not a secret, that there should be freedom of navigation on the high seas, that trade and economic barriers to trade should be kept at a minimum, and that national militaries should be kept as small as possible.
Points five through thirteen dealt with territorial questions of individual countries, including colonial claims, Russia, Belgium, Italy, France, Turkey, Poland, Austria, and the Balkans.
The fourteenth point was a call to create a “league of nations to ensure peace and justice.”
The idea of an international organization to try to mitigate conflicts dates back over 125 years before Wilson’s proposal.
The Philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed an international assembly to prompt peace. There was another call for a formal body after the Napoleonic wars of the 19th century.
Prior to the outbreak of war in 1914, several prominent Europeans had advocated for such a body.
The problem was all of these calls to create an international organization never found their way to someone who could actually get something done.
Intellectuals promoting something was one thing, but a world leader advocating it was quite another.
Wilson’s idea of a league of nations was heavily promoted on both sides of the conflict. The Fourteen Points were republished in German newspapers during the war, and many Germans, both in and out of the government, assumed that these points would be the basis for any future peace treaty.
When the armistice was signed and the war ended in November 1918, Wilson took it upon himself personally to make the League of Nationals a reality.
He left for Paris on December 4th, 1918, and remained in France until July, save for a two-week return trip to the US in late February and early march. It was the longest any American president has been outside of the country during their term of office.
Because the United States had no territorial claims, Wilson’s primary goal at the conference of Versailles was the creation of the league.
Wilson personally chaired the sessions at the Versailles conference relating to the creation of the League of Nations.
Wilson came down with the Spanish Flu for several weeks, which meant he wasn’t around to stop some of the more onerous parts of the treaty, which were intended to punish Germany.
Nonetheless, Wilson did get the League of Nations passed, and it was section one of the Treaty of Versailles.
There were several things that the establishment of the League lacked that Wilson wanted. For example, Wilson wanted to get rid of colonies or start the decolonization process. The League of Nations did nothing to address this.
Wilson was also a believer in the right of self-determination. If a region was disputed between two countries, he felt that the people who lived there should be able to determine under which country they would live.
This also was not part of the founding documents of the League of Nations.
The section of the Treaty of Versailles, which founded the League of Nations, was signed on June 28, 1919.
The official starting date was January 20, 1920.
It wasn’t exactly what Wilson wanted, but it was still a major advance in international relations.
The League of Nations was to be headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, with preliminary work being done in London.
The organization’s structure consisted of a general assembly comprising every member nation. When the League had its first session in 1920, there were 42 countries, and membership peaked at 58 countries in 1935.
There was also an executive council that consisted of the major powers of Britain, France, Italy, and Japan, pulse other countries, which were voted on by the general assembly for a three-year term.
Finally, a permanent secretariat was led by a Secretary-General who managed the various agencies run by the league and its day-to-day affairs.
Woodrow Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
While President Wilson spearheaded the creation of the League of Nations, it would still have to be approved by the United States Senate by a ? majority.
When Wilson returned to the United States, he began a cross-country campaign to get America to join the league. At the end of his tour, he suffered a stroke which disabled him for the remainder of his second term in office.
The traditional explanation is that it was isolationists in the Senate who killed the League of Nations ratification.
This isn’t quite true.
There were three groups of senators. Those who were for it, those who were against it for various reasons, and a group known as the reservationists.
As the name implied, the reservationists were not against the League of Nations per se, but had reservations about some parts of the treaty. In particular, joining the league would require the United States to go to war if any league members were attacked.
The pro-treaty senators and the reservationists had enough to ratify the treaty, but it would have required some compromises, and Wilson refused to compromise on anything.
It was actually Wilson who encouraged pro-treaty Democrats to vote no rather than compromise.
The final vote, taken on March 19, 1920, was 49 in favor and 35 against.
With the world’s largest economy and the League of Nations’ biggest supporter now out, it seriously hampered the organization.
The League of Nations was not a complete failure as it is often portrayed.
They successfully negotiated border disputes between Sweden and Finland, Poland and Lithuania, and Greece and Bulgaria.
They administered the disputed areas of the Saarland between France and Germany and the city of Danzig, disputed between Germany and Poland.
The league was behind the Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of chemical gas in warfare.
They established the Permanent Court of International Justice, the predecessor to the International Court of Justice.
They established agencies for international cooperation in science and culture, the precursor to UNESCO.
They worked with helping refugees, creating standards for communications and transportation, took steps to try to end the slave trade, and also worked on trying to end diseases like leprosy and malaria.
In the end, their failures overwhelmed their successes.
The big problem with the League of Nations was that they had no teeth. They couldn’t enforce anything that they passed.
With the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, the League of Nations proved themselves to be impotent.
They couldn’t stop the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1932.
They didn’t prevent Moussiloini’s annexation of Ethiopia in 1935.
They didn’t do anything to prevent Hitler from taking over the Sudetenland and Austria in 1938.
Germany had quit the League of Nations in 1933.
The league was often so afraid of failure that they chose to do nothing, rather than something.
In 1920, the Soviet Union attacked a port on the Caspian Sea, in what was then Persia. Persia, which was a member of the League of Nations, appealed for help, but the League chose to do nothing because the Soviet Union wasn’t a member at that time and would probably just ignore them.
They felt that if they were ignored, it would harm their credibility. In reality, not honoring their commitments probably did more damage in the long run.
Germany, Japan, and Italy considered the League of Nations a joke and ignored them in their plans for conquest.
When war officially broke out in 1939, most of the members were not involved in the war. Those who were involved in the war were almost all on the allied side.
This made Switzerland uncomfortable hosting an organization that had become a de facto allied group, so they shut down their headquarters in Geneva.
The one thing that the League of Nations did do in respones to the war was to expel the Soviet Union after their invasion of Poland and Finland. They couldn’t expel Germany because they had already quit.
The Soviet Union was the only country in the history of the League of Nations to have been kicked out.
In December 1939, the League of Nations general assembly passed a resolution transferring most of its power to the Secretary-General, allowing the organization to at least exist on paper during the entire duration of the second world war.
The Irish diplomat Seán Lester served as the Secretary-General of the League of Nations throughout the entire war. Lester remained in Geneva the whole time, overseeing the few humanitarian programs the league still ran.
During the 1943 Tehran Conference, the Allies recognized the need for a new organization to replace the League of Nations. They called it the United Nations, which was a name used for the allies during the war.
Even before the war ended, a planning conference laid the groundwork for the new United Nations in San Francisco in 1944.
Much of the structure of the United Nations was based on the League of Nations. The major difference was that the executive council was now called the security council, and the major powers all had a veto.
There was one final meeting of the League of Nations after the war. On April 18, 1946, the last meeting took place in Geneva. The purpose of the meeting was to liquidate the league.
All of the League of Nations assets were transferred to the United Nations, including the property of its headquarters, the Palace of Nations, which today is the UN’s Geneva headquarters.
A committee of nine people from different countries oversaw the liquidation and transfer of assets and the payment of all debts.
The League of Nations officially dissolved on July 31, 1947.
Today there are over 15 million pages from the League of Nations archive in Geneva, and there is an effort to digitize the entire collection which scheduled to be completed in 2022.
In the end, while the League of Nations did fail to prevent the second world war, it wasn’t a complete failure. They did have several modest successes, and if nothing else, it did lay the foundation for the United Nations, which succeeded it.
One of the greatest advocates of the League of Nations was the British diplomat Robert Cecil. He was one of the organization’s architects, along with Woodrow Wilson, and even campaigned with Wilson for five weeks in the United States to help with ratification.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1937 for his work.
At the very last session of the League of Nations in 1946, he addressed the assembly and said,
Let us boldly state that aggression wherever it occurs and however it may be defended, is an international crime, that it is the duty of every peace-loving state to resent it and employ whatever force is necessary to crush it, that the machinery of the Charter, no less than the machinery of the Covenant, is sufficient for this purpose if properly used, and that every well-disposed citizen of every state should be ready to undergo any sacrifice in order to maintain peace … I venture to impress upon my hearers that the great work of peace is resting not only on the narrow interests of our own nations, but even more on those great principles of right and wrong which nations, like individuals, depend.
The League is dead. Long live the United Nations!
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
As much as it pains me to do so, occasionally I must make a correction to a previous episode.
In my episode on Broken Arrows, accidents with nuclear weapons, listener McPrime over on Audible.com corrected pointed out that Tybee Island and Hunter Army Airfield are in Georgia, not South Carolina.
That is correct. The bombs did accidentally drop in South Carolina. In the case of the Tybee Island bomb, Tybee Island is right on the border with South Carolina. The water border is literally only a few hundred yards from the island.
As far as can be determined, the bomb fell into South Carolina waters off the coast of the island, which is in Georgia.
The other correction from the episode is a bit bigger. This comes from listener Mark Hyman over on the new Facebook Group.
In the episode, I said that no US nuclear submarine has ever sunk. Mark is a former submariner who served on the USS Narwhal.
He pointed out that there were in fact TWO US nuclear subs which have been lost. The USS Scorpion and the USS Thresher.
This I have no excuse for. I’ve done a reasonable amount of research on Hyman Ricover and the US nuclear navy, and I’ve done some preliminary research on Soviet nuclear subs which have sunk.
However, in all the research I’ve done on this, I have never come across this fact before. I just had no idea. This is one of those facts that just escapes you when do research. I feel like it is something that I really should have known, but I didn’t.
So, thank you Mark. This one will go up there with the great incident of odd numbered pistons.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show. Also, don’t forget about the show’s new Facebook group. Just search for Everything Everywhere Daily on Facebook or click on the link in the show notes.