The League of Nations was the first grand attempt to end war through international cooperation. It ended in failure--and in the birth of the United Nations.

To End All Wars

In 1918, the world was changing. World War I had shown the terrifying carnage modern warfare could produce. The Battle of Verdun alone accounted for 700,000 casualties. Such unprecedented bloodshed convinced many people worldwide that war had to be eradicated.

One such person was US President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson had led the United States into the war, but he dreamed of ending all wars. On January 18, he delivered an address to Congress calling for an international association, open to countries large and small, that would prevent future wars through collective economic and military force.

Peace in Paris

When the Paris Peace Conference convened in 1919 to negotiate an end to the war, Wilson took the idea with him. Handling the negotiations himself, Wilson succeeded in getting the plan for a League of Nations incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles. In theory, the League would arbitrate international disputes, work to reduce armaments, and act in concert against any aggressor. It would include an assembly in which every nation had one vote, a council composed primarily of great powers, and a secretary general.

The League was a remarkable achievement that won Wilson the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize. Yet there were signs of trouble from the start. Originally, the League was supposed to back its decisions with military force. But any action required a unanimous vote by the council, and each nation's participation in military sanctions was entirely voluntary. Without the strength to back up its decisions, critics accused the League of being no more than a debating society.

What's more, major world powers stood outside the League. Germany and the Soviet Union initially weren't allowed to join (though both eventually did). And, to Wilson's dismay, the United States decided to reject its invitation.

Battle over Peace

During Wilson's time overseas, political tides had turned back home. Ratifying the Treaty of Versailles--and, with it, the League of Nations--required a two-thirds majority in the Senate. The elections of 1918, however, had given Republicans control of both houses of Congress, and they were dubious of the Democratic president's agenda.

Wilson campaigned tirelessly for the League, arguing that America had a moral obligation to join. "Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?" he asked. Henry Cabot Lodge, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led the opposition. Lodge was concerned that the League would threaten America's sovereignty and enmesh the nation in regional squabbles. "I have never had but one allegiance," he said, "I cannot divide it now. I have loved but one flag and I cannot share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for a league."

The fight was brutal, and Wilson wasn't able to see it through to the end. The President suffered two strokes in 1919, and the second left him a shell of his former self. Bereft of their leader, pro-League forces went down in defeat. The Senate failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.

League is Lost

Wilson's loss was also the League's. Over the next two decades, the League proved reluctant to use military force, and its economic sanctions proved ineffective since they were not binding on non-member states. As the world marched toward war during the 1930's, the League came apart at the seams. Japan and Germany withdrew in 1933. Italy followed suit in 1937. In 1939, Russia was expelled after invading Finland.

During World War II, the League virtually ceased operations. When hostilities ceased, though, it was reborn in a new form. In 1946, the League's services, mandates, and property were transferred to the new United Nations, which would face many of the same problems that plagued its precursor.

Mark Diller March 24, 2005

KnowledgeNews, by permission


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