Even before World War One, Woodrow Wilson had been arguing strongly for an international organisation to preserve peace and to settle disputes between nations through arbitration. When peace negotiations began in October 1918, President Wilson insisted that his ‘Fourteen Points’ should serve as a basis for signing the Armistice and these included the establishment of the League of Nations, the constitution of which was to be adopted by the Paris Peace Conference in April, 1919, leading to the Treaty of Versailles. Essentially, this embodied the terms for peace to be imposed by the victors, the USA, France and Britain, upon the losers, Germany.
With its headquarters in Geneva, the Covenant (Constitution) of the League of Nations consisted of 26 Articles which called for compulsory registration of treaties, reduction and control of arms and ‘collective security’, a means of securing peaceful settlement of disputes by arbitration. It was decided that any country that resorted to war or aggression against another country would be subjected to economic sanctions. The League also had power to intervene with military force against an aggressor nation, but any international force was completely dependent on voluntary support from members of the League, which had no permanent armed force under its control.
The League of Nations comprised a General Assembly, which involved an annual meeting of all member states, a Council made up of four permanent members (Britain, France, Italy and Japan) and initially four but later nine other states elected every 3 years. The League had a permanent secretariat based in Geneva.
Although President Wilson had been the main influence in settling the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and a major proponent of the League of Nations, the American Congress refused to ratify the Treaty, and consequently the United States never became a member of the League of Nations. That the most powerful nation was absent from the League is considered by many as condemning it to failure from the outset, and so it seemed when, in January 1923, France occupied the Ruhr, and 6 months later, Italy bombed and invaded the island of Corfu, following the death of an Italian general in Greece. Both these events were discussed by the League, but threatened with withdrawal from its membership by France and Italy, both permanent members of the Council, no action as such, in terms of sanctions, was taken, although a solution of sorts was found to the Corfu ‘situation’ when the League changed its original decision to condemn Mussolini and tell him to leave Corfu, and instead told Greece to apologise and pay money to Italy, after which Mussolini returned the island to Greece.
The fortunes of the League did revive in the second part of the 1920’s decade, however, when a number of border disputes were settled without recourse to war, and the League achieved some notable success in the areas of drug control, famine relief and refugee work.
By 1930, the League’s headquarters in Geneva were seen as ‘a genuine international clearing-house of ideas’ typified by hard work and international goodwill, but in 1931 the League faced a new, and serious crisis when the Japanese army, on a pretext, occupied large areas of Manchuria, a province of China, leading to an appeal by China to the League of Nations under Article 11 of the Covenant.
After some disagreement, it was decided that the League would establish a commission of enquiry to look into the dispute, chaired by Lord Lytton. This took 6 months to report, by which time Japan had re-named Manchuria as Manchukuo. Only Germany and Italy recognised this new state. When the Lytton Report, whilst acknowledging Japan had legitimate grievances against the Chinese Government, nevertheless condemned Japan for invading Manchuria and recommended that the new state of Manchukuo should not be recognised, the League of Nations decided to adopt the Report, and Japan, one of the 4...
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