The stated if not startling goal of the League of Nations is obvious from the title the international agency chose for itself - an alliance of all nations on earth. If it does not to some readers, then consider the preamble of the treaty that started it:

"... to promote international cooperation and to achieve international peace and security by the acceptance of obligations not to resort to war, by the prescription of open, just and honourable relations between nations, by the firm establishment of the understandings of international law as the actual rule of conduct among Governments, and by the maintenance of justice and a scrupulous respect for all treaty obligations in the dealings of organised peoples with one another, agree to this Covenant of the League of Nations."

From these idealistic if not ambitious words, verbatim from the historic 1919 international contract (aka treaty), sprung into existence the League of Nations. The hope was to get the entire world in on it. Hardly, in the history of law, could any event have more promise.

League of Nations Covenant signature pageAs a treaty, the Covenant was subject to the traditional two-step process of one-by-one acceptance within each individual state. The signature page of the original Covenant (see adjacent image) was darkened with signatures and red seals. But as any treaty, the document could well be signed by diplomats of all countries but it was not recognized as law in any country (state) which did not complete the second step of the treaty tango: domestic ratification (approval by the local legislative assembly, by whatever name it went by be it a "parliament", a "congress", etc.).

Notably, the United States signed the treaty but never ratified it domestically. This was then and has ben since, criticized by historians especially in light of subsequent events as it was publicly championed by the then-President of the USA, Woodrow Wilson throughout the formative years of the League.

A "New World, Sunlight Flooded the ... Chamber of the Nations"

The first meeting of the governing Council of the League of Nations was held at Paris on January 16, 1920, and ten months later, the plenary assembly of the League of Nations met in Geneva (see adjacent image below). Thus, 1920 is often given as the year of birth of the League even though, arguably, the genesis was in 1918 and 1919.

Immediately, the formal absence of the USA was felt as the record of the proceedings reflect:

"On January 10, 1920, the league and treaty came into force. A few days later the President of the United States, in accordance with the terms of §5 issued a call for the first meeting of the council of the league at Paris on January 16, and on that day the world saw the beginning of the most practical effort humanity has yet made to substitute right for force in the settlement of international disputes....

"January 16, 1920, will go down to history as the date of the birth of the new world.... In an imposing structure on the banks of the Seine a distinguished company assembled at the appointed hour to witness the initiation of the momentous undertaking. As the sunlight flooded the council chamber of the nations, it threw across the table where were gathered the representatives of the participating countries the shadow of an empty chair — the chair that should have been occupied by a representative of the United States. To this day the nations of the league have kept that chair vacant, waiting and praying for our help and comradeship....

"We respect the reasons which still delay the final decision of our friends in Washington, but we may all express the hope that these last difficulties will soon be overcome, and that a representative of the great American Republic will occupy the place which awaits him among us."1

But there was also great hope, though dramatically stated, that the League was:

"... determined to prevent, by every means in our power, the recurrence of these terrible disasters (world war), which have imperiled civilisation and drenched the world in blood (and) the expression of a universal desire for a saner method of regulating the affairs of mankind....

"Should disputes unhappily arise, the disputants will find themselves in an assembly of impartial and unbiased Councillors."2

Other expectations were more realistic, such as the formal communiqué of Italy:

"It would neither be just nor sincere to hide from ourselves the fact that the League of Nations is born to-day in a certain atmosphere of scepticism.... (W)e do not consider that this scepticism is justified, but we must neither exaggerate nor ignore it. After all their suffering so heroically borne, the world to-day is still awaiting many of the benefits of peace. Here lies the task for the League of Nations to fulfil."

Paper Tiger

The League treaty was given a unique but unusual, almost spiritual name: a Covenant. It contained twenty-six articles of proposed international law each dripping with hope but on which could not look, the eyes of the 8.5 million people who died in the First World War.3 Though that ought to have been motivation enough to grow the League of Nations, it was doomed from the start for several reasons all of which are set out in the short history the United Nations later published (circa 2013), on its predecessor agency:

"As the Second World War unfolded, it became clear that the League had failed in its chief aim of keeping the peace. The League had no military power of its own. It depended on its members' contributions; and its members were not willing to use sanctions, economic or military. Moral authority was insufficient.

"Several (states) failed to support the League: the United States crucially never joined. Germany was a member for only seven years from 1926 and the USSR for only five years from 1934. Japan and Italy both withdrew in the 30s. The League then depended mainly on Britain and France, who were understandably hesitant to act forcefully. It was indeed difficult for governments long accustomed to operating independently to work through this new organization."4

1920 meeting of the League of NationsIn legal history, the 1919 Covenant of the League of Nations is often represented as the first international law document of great significance.

The League of Nations, known in French as the Société des nations, even had a formal journal, the League of Nations Official Journal (legal citation League of Nations O. J.).

The League of Nations L. J. ran to 21 annual issues. World War II ignited and progressed in spite of the League's desperate but mostly ignored work. The League journal read inceasingly as an state obituary notice board as well-armed, bully states invaded other, smaller or weaker states. From the last official League of Nations journal, this poignant letter received from Finland (Finland was quickly overwhelmed by a huge, Stalin-led USSR military invasion):

"By the invasion of Finland, the U.S.S.R. has unilaterally violated international undertakings arising.out of the Covenant of the League of Nations.... On the morning of November 3oth, 1939, without any declaration of war, and even without any ultimatum, Soviet land forces crossed the frontiers of Finland at several places in the Isthmus of Karelia and between.the Lake Ladoga region and Petsamo, whilst -the air forces were sent to bomb towns and other centres of population. This attack was carried out so suddenly that there had not been time even to evacuate the civilian populations to the countryside."5

Cartoonists from around the free world began to express that "certain atmosphere of skepticism", and unfairly lampooned the League in a whole set of unfavourable cartoons which ran in the newspapers of all major cities, mostly depicting the League as an opulent elephant or pig, in the midst of a barren, bomb-wrecked landscape. Yet the heart of the League was beating but the full support of necessary free and democratic states was lacking which led aggressor nations to act with impunity as regards to admonitions from the League, and observors to believe that the League was impotent.

Legacy of the League of Nations

logo League of NationsStates such as Germany started to build up arms again in the 1930s with no other purpose but war or agression, as if the rise of Adolph Hitler needed any circumstantial evidence to show the designs of Nazi Germany. When it was needed the most, the League proved itself to be without any real influence.

But from that failure would grow phenomenal success as the flag of a union of nations was raised again in the 1940s first as a military alliance and then to blossom, and fully bloom as the United Nations in 1945.

The League of Nations, "the most practical effort humanity had yet made to substitute right for force in the settlement of international disputes", had not been for naught.

It remains one of the most important events of the history of law on Earth, an initiative that ultimately demonstrated that the only real deterrent against world war is a strong league of nations, by whatever name, but one which is supported actively by peace-loving nations.

REFERENCES:

  • NOTE 1: First League Council record including the words of Chairman-elect, Léon Bourgeois at the first meeting of the League of Nations, Jan. 16, 1920, 1 League of Nations O.J. 20 and 21 (wording re-ordered slightly to improve readibility).
  • NOTE 2: Mr. George Curzon of the "British Empire" at the opening Council meeting of the League on 1920-01-16 (Paris).
  • NOTE 3: The Public Broadcasting Service of the United States, WW1 Casualty and Death Tables, [retrieved from the Internet on December 3, 2013 from http://www.pbs.org/greatwar/resources/casdeath_pop.html].
  • NOTE 4: The United Nations, An Introduction for Students - The Predecessor: The League of Nations [retrieved from the Internet on December 3, 2013 at http://cyberschoolbus.un.org/unintro/unintro3.htm].
  • NOTE 5: Letter dated February 27, 1940, from the delegate of Finland to the Secretary-General Concerning the Methods of Warfare Employed by the U.S.S.R., 21 League of Nations O.J., page 20
  • Two black and white photograph images, presented in a news-related context, are © United Nations which has been advised of this use.