During the 1920s and 1930s the League of Nations would have many issues when attempting to execute on one of its most important goals, disarmament. It would not be the only challenge that the League would face in the 1930s.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 6 - The League of Nations Part 3 - Failure. As always this episode is brought to you by all of the wonderful people who support this podcast by becoming members, including Scott who became a member this week, members gain access to special ad free versions of all of these episodes, plus special members only episodes released once a month, if that sounds interesting to you head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. So far in these episodes we have discussed several of the core problems that the League of Nations was created to solve: international cooperation, the administration of mandates, and organizing collective security actions. Today we will discuss two more of these items, before ending our series on the League of Nations by looking at its long slow decline in the 1930s. The first topic with which the League of Nations would be highly involved would be disarmament. However, this would prove to be a very difficult topic on which to find widespread international agreement. the most important issue was that the larger states were hesitant to agree to anything that they felt restricted their freedom of action and the smaller states feared that any agreement that restricted their ability to defend themselves would just leave them at the mercy of those that were already more powerful. There was also just a general hesitancy to be the first nation to begin disarmament, and so few nations were willing to ratify any kind of disarmament agreement unless every other nation was committed to a similar program. The second topic we will discuss today was the League’s role as a mediator in international disputes, we have already discussed one area in which this type of mediation failed, the Japanese Invasion of Manchuria, but there were a few other examples we can discuss on this topic. The second half of this episode will be concerned with the long decline of the League of Nations as it was first found to be insufficient to the tasks given to it, and then nations would begin to abandon the League, before finally it became powerless to pursue any action.
The goal of disarmament was enshrined in the League’s Covenant in article 8, which stated that ‘the maintenance of peace requires the reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety.’ This goal met with widespread public support, with many citizens around Europe believing that the best way to ensure future peace was through mutual disarmament. It would also make fiscal sense, with armaments having become more and more expensive as they came to require greater and greater levels of technology to produce and maintain. However, among the governments of Europe there was serious hesitancy to enter into any public negotiations around disarmament due to fears that a public rejection of disarmament proposals would have drastic domestic support ramifications. These concerns were however overruled by public opinion to push forward with some sort of plan, and so it was difficult for many leaders, especially those in Western Europe, to openly oppose the convening of a disarmament conference. This would lead to the League to begin seriously planning for that conference in 1925, but the planning stage would then continue for almost 7 years. During this planning process the Preparatory Commission created to lay the groundwork for a global conference had to try and find a way to reconcile the differences of opinion present in many nations. There were always technicalities that prevented all of the nations getting together, even if governments did not openly oppose the work of the commission. There were also events happening outside the League which cause delay. One of these was the Three-Power Naval Conference that was held in the summer of 1927, which was one of several conferences held between the British, American, and Japanese governments to attempt to maintain a reduction in the expenditures that each nation was making on naval construction. The preparatory commission would pause its plans for a conference while waiting for the results of the Naval Conference, since it obviously interacted with global disarmament so directly, even if it was not sanctioned by the League itself.
The Disarmament Conference would finally begin on February 2, 1932. Attendance was very good, with almost every recognized country from around the world sending a delegation. However, by the time that the conference finally began events were already happening around the world that would make success an even greater challenge. One of these events was happening in China, where the Japanese invasion of Manchuria had already occurred. Another was the financial difficulties that many nations were already experiencing due to the Great Depression. While this may have left less money for many nations to spend on armaments, it also heightened distrust and antagonism throughout Europe and the world, making nations far less amenable to the concept of disarmament. A History of the League of Nations by F.P Walters, writing in 1952, would give this description of the suggestion made by the French delegation “Tardieu, Minister for War and head of the French delegation, presented a new and elaborate plan, of which the salient features were that all the most powerful and dangerous weapons— bombing aeroplanes, battleships, heavy guns, &c. — should be set aside by the countries that owned them, to be used only on the orders of the League or in self-defence against sudden attack; that a standing international police force should be placed at the disposal of the Council; that further national forces should be earmarked to reinforce the international police if required; and that the general system of security should be strengthened by compulsory arbitration, definition of the aggressor, an efficient organization of sanctions, and their extension to cover breaches of the Disarmament Convention as well as of the Covenant.” On the spectrum of disarmament plans, this was quite extreme, and the French knew that, and they also knew that there was little chance of their plan actually being implemented. It was just one of many proposals made early in the Conference, where each nation would put forward a plan that worked the best for their interests, but without much consideration given to something that might find consensus. For example, Germany, still under the Versailles Treaty and with a military that was officially just 100,000 strong suggested that every other nation be brought down to Germany’s level. During these early discussion the fault lines of the Conference were drawn. The French were very unlikely to agree to anything that allowed Germany out of its Versailles obligations, and in this they would be joined by many of the smaller states of Eastern Europe and Poland, those most at risk of possible German aggression. The Germans were unlikely to agree to anything that did not allow them out of their Versailles obligations. Other nations like the British Empire, United States, and Italy were more amenable to the idea that Germany should be allowed more armaments, but the details would still be problematic. Japan was generally inclined to vote against anything that limited their ability to increase the size of their military, and in 1934 they would even exit the naval agreements made at Washington in the early 1920s.
Without the ability to quickly agree on at least a framework for future negotiations, political developments in France and Germany interacted to derail the conference. The first delay came when the French government was defeated in the elections taking place after the the start of the conference. This defeat would result in a month delay before the next French Prime Minister was determined. During this month delay the German Chancellor Bruning returned to Berlin. When he arrived back in the German capital without any kind of agreement, he was dismissed by President Hindenburg. With two critical countries left without leadership the representatives at the Conference found productive discussion difficult to come by. It was also around this time that the nations that were at the Conference started to get really bogged down in details, they were important details and they would have to be ironed out, but by discussing them before the broad strokes of an agreement was determined resulted in zero forward momentum. One example of how these disagreements could happen was around battleships and submarines. The British and Americans wanted to classify battleships as defensive in nature, which would grant them some exemption from the disarmaments agreements, but they wanted submarines to be classified as offensive weapons which would very likely greatly restrict their numbers. Smaller nations, those that did not have battleships or could not afford to build them, wanted it to be the opposite, with submarines considered defensive weapons while battleships were offensive weapons. This is just one example, but you can see how these types of details could spiral out into all kinds of problems when the differences in economic, geographical, and political factors of each nation was taken into account. While these details were being discussed the Lausanne Conference was announced, which was a conference focused on Germany’s Versailles reparations, which the French believed would probably end in them making concessions, which made them less likely to compromise on disarmament. There was a somewhat decent attempt to revive the conference with the United States suggesting a massive reduction in all types of major weapon systems. However, when asked if they would join in an agreement which made defensive guarantees to any nation who agreed to the proposal, the United States would refuse. This meant that the proposal was dead in the water, because there was no way that nations would sign an agreement if their neighbors did not unless there were very strong international agreements that would protect them from aggression. France was one of those countries, without international agreements they simply were never going to sign anything that reduced their ability to defend themselves against future German aggression.
After more discussions which consistently ran into some sort of roadblock, Germany eventually just announced that it was no longer going to work with the Conference if it did not first get a guarantee that any agreement would apply to them equally. With both France and Eastern European governments against this, Germany exited the Conference, which made it impossible to gain an agreement from many European nations. The Conference would continue into 1933, but without any real hope of anything meaningful being achieved. Just a few years later European states would begin to openly declare rearmament campaigns. in 1935 Germany would announce that they were fully rejecting the Versailles restrictions on its military forces, and also announced a resumption of conscription. Technically this gave the signers of the Versailles Treaty the right to invade Germany to reinforce the treaty’s provisions, but this was not done, and instead a conference was called, the Stresa Conference, which seemingly achieved very little. In the end the attempts to orchestrate a disarmament agreement fell apart because nations did not submit to the best scenario for all nations, they only wanted the best for themselves, which was disappointing, but also probably unavoidable.
There were three key ways in which the League hoped to reduce the possibility of future conflict, the first was collective security, which we discussed last episode, and then there was also disarmament, the third was to try and provide an avenue for nations to negotiate that did not involve violence. The structure setup by the League of Nations for negotiation of disputes would be used throughout its lifespan, and it would hear 60 such disputes during the interwar period. The ability of the League to successfully resolve these disputes heavily relied on which nations were involved. If it was a dispute that did not involve the larger nations, then it had a reasonable chance of some kind of resolution being found, especially if one of those larger nations supported one side or the other. In these instances the influence of the larger nation, and the ability of that nation to project power, meant that the smaller nations were forced to accept the League’s decision. If the dispute involved one of those more powerful nations, the League often found its difficult to bring the dispute to a peaceful resolution. Without the ability of both sides to be intimidated the possibility space for League action was much smaller. Even if many disputes were not successfully resolved, much like disarmament the idea of negotiation and reconciliation between nations was a powerful idea. It was because of this reason that politicians would often express their support such such negotiations, even if in practice they often did not allow disputes involving their own nation to be settled in such a way. A great example was French Prime Minister Briand, who would say when Germany came into the League in 1926: “We have done with the black veils of mourning for sufferings that can never be appeased, done with war, done with brutal and sanguinary methods of settling our disputes. True, differences between us still exist, but henceforth it will be for the judge to declare the law. Just as individual citizens take their difficulties to be settled by a magistrate, so shall we bring ours to be settled by pacific procedure. Away with rifles, machine-guns, cannon! Clear the way for conciliation, arbitration, and peace.” It was a lofty goal, which the French, along with most other nations, would spent the next 13 years not living up to.
Any discussion of the League of Nations must contain a wider discussion on the brutal mid and late 1930s, which would be the point where the League would begin to have serious problems achieving any of its goals. The full story of that failure is a very large topic, and it will be a story that we will touch on throughout the next year of the podcasts episodes as we discuss the events around the world during the time period. The core of many of the problems would be summarized quite succinctly by Alexandru Grigorescu in Mapping the UN - League of Nations Analogy: Are There Still Lessons to be Learned from the League with “League was built on idealist norms that emphasized the existence of collective interests, which were believed to lead to the avoidance of wars.” I think that is the real key to the problem with the League of Nations. It was designed under the assumption that those collective interests existed, and they would motivate the nations of the League to make the necessary sacrifices to make the League successful. For any international assembly to work it requires the the right nations to want it to work. Those nations need to be those who can both inspire others to follow the work of the assembly, but also those who can force their compliance. These nations are required to make sacrifices, at least early in the existence of the international assembly. Some of these sacrifices are monetary in nature, spending money or crafting economic policy that is better for the whole than for the individual nation. Some of these sacrifices involve a simple reduction in the nation’s freedom of action. For the League the nations that really needed to lead, and to put aside their specific best interests for the group were unwilling to do so. There were those who did not even join the League, like the United States, there were others that were not invited, like the Soviet Union and Germany, then there was a group of nations that were unable or unwilling to put the requirements of the group above their own.
There are many moments that could be called out as the point where the League lost its ability to influence international events. One that must be at or near the top of that list would be the Abyssinian Crisis in 1935 and 1936. This event will be the subject of a whole series of podcast episodes in a few months, but the crisis was ignited by an Italian invasion of Ethiopia. This action, which was such a blazon breach of the League’s ban on conflict as a method of resolving conflict, caused the League to impose sanctions on Italy. As with any other League action, it was dependent on the nations of the League to follow through with this decision, but then, they didn’t. The British and French would instead prioritize good relations with Italy, with the continuance of cooperation between the nations that dated to the First World War being deemed more important. This would prove to not be productive, with Italy later moving closer to Germany in the late 1930s, but at the time that the sanctions against Italy were first called for the hope was that Italy would still be a valuable ally against a resurgent Germany. Even when the sanctions against Italy were not successful at changing Italy’s actions, supporters of the League blamed Britain and France, instead of the League itself, for this failure. Then on March 7th, 1936 the League would receive another blow when the German army moved into the demilitarized zone along the Rhine. This gave France and Belgium the ability to militarily move against Germany, due to the Treaty of Locarno, which deemed any violation of the demilitarized zone to be a violation of French and Belgian sovereign territory. Instead of choosing to pursue such a military action, France decided to refer the matter to the League. Here again the members of the League would be hesitant to commit to action that would put them in the middle of a disagreement between France and Germany. The added complication with this event was that it was obvious that Germany’s actions brought France and Britain into cooperation with Italy once again, making a farce of any previous League guarantees against Italian aggression, which had by that point occupied Ethiopia. This completely undermined the purpose and mission of the League, and made it clear that some nations could avoid any kind of negative action from the League. This undermining would continue when the Spanish Civil War began. In Spain both Italy and Germany would intervene on the side of Franco and his nationalist forces, with Russia would send aid to the Republicans, while this was occurring France and Britain would choose to support a non-interventionist policy and try to prevent the Spanish Civil War from being acted on by the League. The non-intervention policy was openly, if perhaps not publicly flaunted by Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union. Eventually the official policy of non-intervention by the League and the Western Powers was reconsidered, but by that point the war was already decided.
While events in Europe were causing many to question the ability of the League to protect its members, essentially the same process was occurring in Asia. After the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Japanese would expand the Chinese territory that was under their control. Violence would skyrocket in July 1937, which is the time that many consider to be the start of the second Sino-Japanese war. It would be violence near the Marco-Polo bridge in Peking, modern day Beijing, that would ignite this process. The Japanese would demand further territorial concessions from the Chinese government led by Chiang Kai-shek. He would refuse, with the full understanding that the greater military strength of the Japanese army would lead to a conflict that China was ill-prepared to fight. The Japanese would advance quickly, and occupy most of the territory to the north of the Yellow River. The Chinese government would reach out to the League in they would be able to provide some assistance. Unfortunately, when the matter was referred to the Far East committee, the one created back in 1932 to discuss the Manchurian Crisis, they were unable to recommend any real action. Part of the problem was that once again, many nations in Europe did not want to get involved, being far more concerned with events far closer to home, with most European states already in the middle of rearmament campaigns.
After 1937 it was impossible for the League to focus any real action on any major topic. In February 1938 British Prime Minister Chamberlain even mentioned in a speech before the House of Commons that the smaller nations of Europe should no longer put their faith in the League to protect them from their larger neighbors. Even nation in Europe was fully focused on their own concerns in Europe, and rearmament campaigns were in full swing. Even in situations for which the League was designed to participate, the powers rarely deferred to its powers and institutions. For example during the Munich Crisis, which would eventually lead to the Munich Agreement, a negotiated settlement between multiple nations that prevented, or at least delayed, war, the League was not consulted. All that the League could do was to issue a resolution that advocated for continued peaceful resolutions to disagreements, but this could in no way negate the feeling of failure that was by that point overtaking the League in Geneva. Britain and France, among other nations, made it clear that while they still believed that the League’s purpose and principles were correct, they could no longer follow them. With the League essentially abandoned by two of its most important participants, Russia followed suit and soon others would as well. Regular sessions of the League Council would meet in October 1938 and then twice in early 1939. When fighting began first in Eastern and then Western Europe the League would be forced to move out of Geneva, most of its functions moved out of Europe entirely, primarily to the United States and Canada. Throughout the war these organs of the League would meet and continue their mission. Then in 1946 the League would meet one last time, and the last President of the League would put forward a motion to transfer all obligations, functions, and powers of the League to the United Nations. The vote for such an action would be unanimous, and on April 19th 1946 the League of Nations as an official entity would cease to exist.
The Legacy of the League is one of failure, but as the Australian High Commissioner Stanley Bruce would say “it is not a change of Covenant but a change of heart in the nations that is required.” While the League was not successful in achieving its goals, the concept of the League would be vindicated by its successor organization, the League of Nations. There are meaningful differences between the structure of the League and the United Nations, but they were built on similar concepts. The United Nations would have its own challenges, and in some ways failures, but some of its success can be attributed to the different world in which it existed. In the end the League would be a valuable lesson in the difficulty of international cooperation, and how it can fail when presented with a unique set of extreme challenges that would be present in the 1930s.