4: Foundations


The Paris Peace Conference would result in the creation of the League of Nations, designed to foster communication and cooperation between all nations.



  • Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World by Akira Iriye
  • A History of the League of Nations by F.P Walters
  • The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire by Susan Pedersen
  • In Pursuit of Equality and Respect: China’s Diplomacy and the League of Nations by Alison Adcock Kaufman
  • Collective Security as Political Myth: Liberal Internationalism and the League of Nations in Politics and History by George W. Egerton
  • Transnationalism and the League of Nations: Understanding the Work of Its Economic and Financial Organization by Patrician Clavin and Jens-Wilhelm Wessels
  • Getting Out of Iraq-in 1932: The League of Nations and the Road to Normative Statehood by Susan Pedersen
  • A “Great Experiment” of the League of Nations Era: International Nongovernmental Organizations, Global Governance, and Democracy Beyond the State by Thomas Richard Davies
  • The League of Nations Health Organisation and the Evolution of Transnational Public Health by Patricia Anne Sealey
  • The League of Nations, International Terrorism, and British Foreign Policy, 1934-1938 by Michael D. Callahan
  • Japan and the League of Nations: An Asian Power Encounters the “European Club” by Thomas W. Burkman
  • Exporting Development: The League of Nations and Republican China by Margherita Zanasi
  • The League of Nations and the Great Powers, 1936-1940 by Peter J. Beck
  • The League of Nations and the Minorities Question by Carole Fink
  • Imperialism and Sovereignty: The League of Nations’ Drive to Control Global Arms Trade by David R. Stone
  • The League of Nations, Public Ritual and National Identity in Britain, c. 1919-56 by Helen McCarthy
  • The Legacies of Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations in Russia by Alexander S. Khodnev
  • Mapping the UN - League of Nations Analogy: Are There Still Lessons to be Learned from the League by Alexandru Grigorescu
  • Minorities and the League of Nations in Interwar Europe by Mark Mazower
  • The League of Nations and the Settlement of Disputes by Lorna Lloyd
  • The Transnational Dream: Politicians, Diplomats and Soldiers in the League of Nations’ Pursuit of International Disarmament, 1920-1939 by Andrew Webster
  • Turkey’s Entrance into the League of Nations by Yucel Guclu


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War episode 4, the League of Nations Part 1: Foundations. Patreon Stuff The League of Nations was important for many reasons. Its creation during the Paris Peace Conference trumpeted a new era for international relations and it also represented the triumph of a new view of the world and how nations should interact on the global stage. Instead of a world of anarchy, where war and conflict were not just possible but inevitable, the very existence of the League was a testament to the fact that there were many who believed that the world could and should live in peace. The goals of the league and those nations that supported it were to create a world where there was an option for nations to settle their differences without wars, to improve the world through cooperation, and to provide a way to safeguard human rights around the world. To accomplish these goals roughly 50 nations sent delegates to Geneva every year after 1920. They would meet and discuss, plan, and negotiate to try and improve the world. They would try to find ways, through their coordinated actions that the world could be made a better place, and they would fail. The League would not fail in all of its efforts, but it would fail in the ones that really mattered and each of those failures had a different cause and a different consequence. Some of them were due to the active resistance of some of the leading nations within the League itself, others were due to actions of those countries outside of the League, and others almost appeared to be based on pure chance. But, the League was not a complete failure. It did not prevent future wars, it did not convince nations to openly work together economically, and it did not safeguard the rights of minorities, but it did increase international communication and cooperation. Economic and healthcare professionals would be brought together to share knowledge and information and to try and encourage all nations to participate in programs to improve the economic situation and well-being of people around the world. The next three episodes will be about the League of Nations, first what it was and what it hoped to be, how some of its programs were implemented around the world, and then how it failed in its most important missions.

The creation of the League of Nations occurred because one person wanted it to, and that person just so happened to be the president of the United States at the time of the First World War. Woodrow Wilson was first elected president in 1912, and he would be re-elected in 1916. During his second term he would oversee the entry of the United States into the First World War and then would represent the country at the Paris Peace Conference. Key to the American position during the war were the 14 points that Wilson would announce to the world in early 1918. Most of the points addressed specific territorial concerns, but there were some points with broad implications if they were to be applied to the world of 1918, like Point 5 which stated “A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable government whose title is to be determined.” This point was seen as possibly problematic by the large colonial powers of Europe. While these points did not directly relate to the League of Nations they were a clear indicator of Wilson’s priorities during any future peace negotiations. When the conference began Wilson immediately started pushing for the creation of the League of Nations in both private meetings with other leaders and during the more public official League gatherings. Just to be clear, the League, or at least an international body with the purposes of the League were not wholly an original idea. It had been a concept that had gained support around the world, and specifically in Europe in the preceding decades. However, Wilson had several key advantages that would allow him to take a somewhat fringe idea and turn it into reality. There was a strong desire by the three Western powers in Paris: Britain, France, and the United States to appear united in their decisions at the conference. The British and French also needed the United States and Wilson to stay engaged in the conference and to participate in the peace. The leaders of those countries, and specifically Lloyd George and Clemenceau, found that the easiest way to get Wilson to agree to almost anything was to express support for the League of Nations. They even agreed to allow Wilson to setup a commission on the 25th of January to hash out the official League of Nations proposal. The commission worked very quickly, mostly due to Wilson leading the commission and the fact that an already outlined structure for the League met with general acceptance from other countries. Many of the main features of the eventual League of Nations charter would be present in a very early draft that was created by Jan Christian Smuts from South Africa and Wilson before the conference even began. There would be a General Assembly and an executive council, there would be a structure in place to settle international disputes, there would be mandates for countries that were believed to not be ready to rule themselves, there would not be a League of Nations army, all of these were key pieces that were already in place before the work even got underway at the Paris Peace Conference. Along with the absence of a League of Nations army there were many things that the League could not do, like force countries to submit their disagreements to arbitration or to force any kind of disarmament onto the nations of the League. This meant that the League itself had very little real power, and most of its ability to prevent any future conflicts was based around the pledge made by its members not to cause those conflicts and then the ability of all of the nations of the League to collectively pressure other nations to work within the confines of the League.

During these initial conversations there were concerns among the more powerful nations that if they gave too much power to the smaller nations then they would be outvoted in instances where all of the smaller nations banded together. This caused provisions to be put in place so that nations like the British Empire, France, Italy, and the United States would have much greater voting power within the assembly, and if they all voted together they would always retain a majority. While the initial draft contained many of these essential provisions that would eventually be a part of the League, it was still subject to many amendments and attempted amendments. One example of this was an attempt by the Japanese delegation to get an amendment put in place that would guarantee racial equality. The British wanted to put in some clauses to prevent another naval arms race from igniting and Lloyd George made it clear to Wilson that without an agreement on the naval problem he would oppose anything even slightly relating to the Monroe Doctrine. After discussions with Lloyd George, Wilson introduced an amendment that stated that the League would not affect the validity of existing international agreements, and therefore would not affect the Monroe Doctrine. Essentially Wilson did not want the United States’ relative autonomy and control over the conduct of affairs in the Western Hemisphere to be questioned. But the French asked a simple question by pointing out that there was already a provision in the League’s charter that said that all countries who joined the League had to make sure that their international agreements were in accord with all of the League’s restrictions. If the countries that joined the League followed this Wilson’s amendment was unnecessary, unless of course Wilson believed that the Monroe Doctrine ran afoul of some of the contents of the League’s covenant. Instead of backing off on his amendment, Wilson continued forward, and in the process several more amendments were made, all of which collectively robbed the League of whatever power it may have had. Existing international agreements were to be unaffected, the League would have no power over domestic affairs, countries could leave at any time, and they could also refuse to enact any mandate from the League. Whatever actual possibility for future good the League had in the initial drafting was robbed from it in the last two weeks of April 1919 when the final discussions and amendments were made. Most of them put forward due to concerns that the international body would have too much power, and it would be those concerns which would rob the League of any real power whatsoever.

The eventual charter for the League covered many topics, beyond the general structure and make up of the League it also contained many aspirational ideas. Article 8 expressed that “the maintenance of peace requires the reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety and the enforcement by common action of international obligations.” It would go on to say that all members of the League would work toward these reductions. Article 10 would cover collective security, stating that “The Members of the League undertake to respect and preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members of the League.” While Article 12 stated that all members of the League agreed to submit any disputes between themselves and other members of the League to arbitration. There would be 26 articles in total, and I have placed a link to the original text of those articles in the show notes if you would like to check them out. At the Paris Peace Conference 32 nations would sign the original Charter, and 13 more would be invited to do the same. Countries missing from either of those categories were those that had fought against the Western Allies during the war, including Germany, Austria, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. Russia was also not invited, as it was at the time in the midst of a Civil War which would continue into the early 1920s. The process for these nations, which were initially excluded, to join the League later would be a long and drawn out process. For example, if we take the nation of Turkey, which would be internationally recognized after the Greco-Turkish War, there was a general distrust of the League by Turkish leaders, mostly out of the concern that by joining the League they would just be placing their new country under the control of the Western powers. It was not until almost a decade later, and the relations between those Western Powers and Turkey had greatly improved, that Turkey would seek to join the League. It would not be until July 1932 that the process would be complete. The Soviet Union would not join until 1934, by which point the League was already in the process of seeing several nations leave after Japanese aggression in northern China and Hitler came to power in Germany. The Soviet leaders hoped that joining the League would provide some benefits in the realm of Collective Security, an idea that was at the very core of the original League of Nations concept.

The specific term “collective security” would not be a term that was commonly used until the 1930s, but its ideas dated back into history. It was the idea that there could be an international agreement among nations that would, but their collective strength, put enough pressure on all nations to prevent any single nation from going outside of the accepted geopolitical norms. This was also an idea that was firmly ensconced in the League of Nations by the charter and then by agreements made after the League was founded. However, because the League itself did not have any actual ability to uphold punishments, generally in the form of sanctions or in the worst case a military to prosecute military actions, it depended upon the member states to collectively pool their resources against any nation that failed to obey the League’s expected international behaviors. There are some obvious pre-requisites for collective security to properly function, and it would be these pre-requisites that would prevent the League from being successful in its implementation, especially during the 1930s. Basically, for the League to be able to force nations to obey its own international laws, the members of the League must be ready, willing, and able to put enough pressure on any other nation. This works, but only as long as the members of the League are strong enough, economically and militarily, to bring this pressure to bear. When the United States did not join the League, the League lost one of its strongest members, at least economically and without their presence the British government had to take the lead. They were often hesitant, especially when they lacked the backing of the French, to lead the way on such actions as economic sanctions because these sanctions also had the tendency to hurt the economics of the British Empire. The unwillingness of the British to fully commit to economic sanctions when they might have been needed, and an even greater resistance to resort to military action without the full backing of every other member of the League would be a critical component of the League’s failures in the early 1930s, failures that would lead many to question to ability of the League to uphold collective security.

When the First World War ended many countries believed that the economy and international finance would return to the prewar status quo. However, due to the economic devastation caused by the war this did not happen quickly. To try and understand the postwar economic world the League of Nations created the Economic and Financial Organization, or EFO. The entire purpose of this group was to promote economic and monetary cooperation between all nations with the belief that through this cooperation all would benefit. Some of the League’s members were concerned that the EFO would attempt to breach their sovereignty by restricting their ability to set policy in the economic realm, and so there was always some amount of tension between the suggestions from the EFO and the nations that received them. These concerns grew stronger as the size and scope of the EFOs actions increased. What would start as a place to just gather and publish statistics soon had an advisory committee setup to provide specific information and suggestions to the rest of the League for any questions in the economic or financial realm. The importance of this information and the decisions made would prompt the United States to join the EFO in 1927, even though it still refused to join the League. It was also in 1927 that the first World Economic Conference would be held. The conference was attended by economic experts from 50 nations, including countries that were not yet part of the League of Nations like the United States and the Soviet Union. Like many conferences it had no ability to directly act on anything, but it would create many resolutions which advised all nations of the world on how best to help the world economic engine run at greater efficiency. This included statements emphasizing the importance of free trade and benefits of great cooperation between nations. The advice was well received in the relatively good economic environment of the late 1920s, but after the beginning of the Great Depression it was harder for the EFO or any other international organization to find receptive leaders in the nations around the world as more, and not less, barriers to economic cooperation were erected in the early 1930s.

While the EFO had a very global scope for some of its conferences and discussions, it would also seek to provide detailed answers to detailed questions. One example of this was a three person mission that was sent to China in 1933 with the goal of providing guidance on how to increase Chinese economic development and productivity. The concept of this type of mission was good, trying to provide support for China was it tried to improve its economic position. However, the mission was shackled with many ideas of Western superiority. The concept of Western superiority was in many ways enshrined in the League’s original chart, with the idea that the more “modern” western powers should try to help the more uncivilized world, which in this case included China. A colonialist mindset might be a good way to summarize it, and many European leader still approached international interactions with that colonial mindset, and this was reflected in the League. It was also reflected in this EFO mission to China. This meant that the actual actions and recommendation to China looked a lot like the League trying to take the basic tenants of Western economic development and just apply the to China, instead of trying to take the local situation as a starting point to improve. For many local problems the solution suggested was a wholesale replacement of local systems with ones that looked more like the ideal Western system, now the exact structure of these systems was generally up for debate, and for the most part the recommendations given to the Chinese leaders were soon irrelevant given the fact that China was about to enter into over a decade of conflict.

While there were some issues with how the League of Nations treated groups around the world, there were some genuine attempts to make sure that the rights of minority groups around the world were protected. Many of these would come in the form of clauses relating to the protections for minority groups which had been rolled into many of the treaties that ended the First World War, and which the League of Nations was called upon to enforce. The main purpose of these protections was to provide the minority groups both within Europe and the wider world protection from persecution, and to provide them with a way to raise concerns to the international community. They could do this by writing petitions to the League, which would be given to a Committee of Three, which was made up of representatives from three countries which were chosen for their neutrality. Then, in theory, the council would determine the best course of action to address the concerns raised by the petition. If the concerned nations could not come to an agreement, then it would be forwarded on to the League Council, the executive body within the League. However, if it was forwarded onto the League Council, it would be made public and put in the public record of the League and this meant that often the nations involved in the petition would come to some kind of agreement, promise concessions or reforms or whatever was required to make the petition essentially disappear, and to preserve the nations reputation.

Within the League there were two competing priorities when it came to protecting minorities. There were the smaller countries, especially those of Eastern Europe who had signed their minority agreements after the First World War. These had been put in place because the larger nations of Western Europe did not want these new multi-ethnic states to oppress minorities within their territory, or to implement policies of forced immigration. While the smaller states had signed the treaties, by the 1920s they were already resentful of the fact that they placed restrictions on their ability to implement certain domestic policies. These restrictions were not the largest complaint from these nations though, but instead that they were being held to a higher standard than those nations that had been so insistent about the minority treaties to begin such as the United States, Italy, France, and the British Empire. These larger nations really did not want the international community investigating or interfering with their actions, especially how they were treaty minority groups either domestically or in their colonial holdings around the world. The excuse that they would use to avoid any restrictions was that the larger and older nations had already developed systems to assimilate the minorities within their territories, and to fold them into their nations, a capability that they would claim the newer Eastern European states did not possess. This friction between the members of the League would prevent many attempts to protect minorities, because enacting such protections would require all nations to submit to following them.

This problem was probably the largest reason that the League’s policies on minorities were failures. If nothing else this failure can be seen in how the minorities around the world interacted with the League, in 1930 204 petitions would arrive in Geneva, but by 1936 that number had dropped to just 15. This clearly displayed that, regardless of the actions of the League the minorities around the world that they were theoretically protecting had lost faith in the ability of League to actually act on their concerns. During this period essentially no meaningful action could be taken because the Western Powers, who were the only ones powerful enough to force change, simply refused to fully acknowledge that something should be done. This resulted in Germany actually becoming the strongest advocate for minority rights, which is of course quite odd given the actions that would occur in Germany just a few years later. During this time the Germans were concerned about the rights of German minority groups in several of the new Eastern European states. Edward Benes, the League representative for Czechoslovakia, and president of the League in 1927 and 1928, would say that “In the end, things came to such an extraordinary pass that the totalitarian and dictator states-Germany, Hungary, and Italy-persecuted the minorities in their own territories and at the same time posed as protectors of minorities in states which were really democratic.” Eventually many of the nations of Eastern Europe would publicly renounce the parts of their treaties dealing with minority rights. While the League would fail in its attempts to protect minority rights almost from its inception, it would not be the only concept that proved hard to properly accomplish, another would be the system of Mandates created around the world, which will be our topic for next episode.