Cambridge and Baccalaureate Exams | Litcharts | Sparknotes Analysis TO WHAT EXTENT WAS THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS A SUCCESS?


How successful was the League in the 1920s?


On the one hand it is clear that the League succeeded in encouraging cooperation as can be seen in the agencies. It also had some successes in keeping the peace. However when it concerned the interests of powerful countries the limits to its effectiveness are clear.


Aims of the League


  • To discourage aggression from any nation
  • To encourage countries to co-operate, especially in business and trade
  • To encourage nations to disarm
  • To improve the living and working conditions of people in all parts of the world


  • Contained 26 articles or rules which members had to follow
  • Article 10 was about ‘collective security’ – where the members would act together to prevent war and defend each other.


Work of some League of Nations agencies

Agency Aims Results
International Labour Organisation To improve working conditions in member states Produced some 70 ‘conventions’ or rules which member states could adopt e.g. on wage rates, employment of women and children.
Refugee Committee To send prisoners of war home, and provide for refugees April 1920 – April 1922, helped over 425, 000 prisoners to return home. Dealt with post-war refugee crisis and found homes for 600, 000 Greeks fleeing from Turkey.
Drugs Committee To stop the smuggling and misuse of dangerous drugs Improved some controls to tighten up customs, and ran programmes to educate people about the dangers of drugs.


Successfully resolved disputes in the 1920s

Dispute Problem League Action Why League successful
The Aaland Islands, 1920 Both Finland and Sweden claimed these Islands Decision by League to maintain Finnish ownership In both cases the countries involved were small and so submitted to the decisions of the League. These issues did not effect the interests of the major powers such as France and Britain.
The Greek-Bulgarian War, 1925 Fighting broke out on the border, leading to a Greek invasion. The League ordered a stop to the fighting, and threatened sanctions.


However the failures to resolve disputes in the 1920s show the limits of the League:

Dispute Problem League Action Why League not successful
Vilna, 1920 A Polish army seized Vilna, the capital of Lithuania League asked the Poles to withdraw. They refused. Later Vilna was awarded to the Poles. Because the Poles were allies of the French. It went against Frances self interest to punish Poland.
Corfu, 1923 Following the killing of an Italian General in Greece, the Italians asked for compensation, and invaded Corfu to enforce this. After Mussolini, the Italian leader threatened to pull out of the League, Greece was ordered to pay 50 million lira in compensation. The League did not condemn the aggressive actions because Italy was a permanent member whose friendship was more important to countries like Britain and France than friendship with a small country like Greece.


However many were optimistic about the prospects for lasting peace because in the 1920s the League seemed to be making steps towards World Peace:


1920 – League of 48 nations

1925 – Locarno Treaties confirmed Germany’s acceptance of its western borders with Belgium and France.

1926 – Germany joined the League suggesting Germany was committed to a path of peace.

1928 – Kellogg-Briand Pact, 45 nations including Germany agreed never to go to war again.

1929 – League of 54 nations



Focus Point 2 – How far did weaknesses in the League’s organisation make failure inevitable?


Weakness in the way the League made decisions, was structured so that major powers such as Britain and France had more of a say, and the gaps in its membership all helped to undermine the effectiveness of the League.


Weakness in the structure

Body Powers Weaknesses
The Council 1. Consisted of 4 permanent members (Britain, France, Italy, Japan) and 4 non-permanent members

2. Dealt with problems when Assembly not in session

3. Could use organise sactions against an offending state:
Moral Condemnation
Economic Sanctions
Call on members to join forces against an aggressor

1. All decisions had to be unanimous

2. Permanent members could veto any decisions they disliked

3. The council depended on its members’ armed forces. It did not have its own army.

The Assembly 1. was the league’s debating chamber

2. each member state had a vote

1. met only once a year

2. all decisions had to be unanimous

3. could only advise Council to take action

The Permanent Court of Justice 1. consisted of 15 judges, elected by Assembly.

2. gave decisions on cases referred to it by countries in dispute

1. there was no international police force. It could not enforce its decisions.


Other bodies

The Secretariat Consisted of permanent officials who carried out all administrative functions such as preparing reports for the Council and Assembly
Commissions and Special Committees Mandates Commission, Refugees Committee, Slavery commission, Health committee (see above for some of their successes)
International Labour Organisation An association of all League members aiming to improve working conditions worldwide.


Weakness in membership

When the League started it had 48 members, but membership was denied to Germany and the USSR (Russia)

More importantly, despite Wilson’s enthusiasm, the USA chose not to join the League.

Furthermore important countries such as Japan and Italy eventually left the League.


These absences weakened the ability of the League to act effectively in the use of military and economic sanctions.


Why did the USA not join the league?

  1. The League was part of the Treaty of Versailles, but some Americans hated the Treaty itself such as the millions of German Americans. They did not want Americans to have to defend the treaty.
  2. Appalled at the loss of lives in WWI, some Americans wanted to stay out of any further conflicts in the world.
  3. Some Americans, especially business leaders, were worried at the economic cost of joining the League.
  4. Some Americans were anti-British and anti-French and thought the treaty did nothing about the British and French empires which they thought were unfair.


How far did the Depression make the work of the League more difficult?


The Great Depression

In 1929 the Wall Street Crash in the USA triggered the Great Depression worldwide.   International trade collapsed.   Banks, factories and businesses closed down. About 25 million people worldwide lost their jobs.

Social Distress

Mass unemployment e.g. 6 million in Germany by 1932. This was accompanied by mass poverty as wages fell and businesses closed down.

Economic Rivalry

Rivalry replaced cooperation as countries tried to protect their people from the worst effects of the Depression

Rise of Aggressive Nationalism Weakness of the League Attitude of Britain and France
Countries like Germany turned to dictatorships to solve their problems

Leaders of Japan, Italy and Germany tried to improve conditions at home by aggression towards other countries in order to:

– gain land and resources

– increase national pride

– compete with the Empires of France and Britain


In the case of Germany, the discontent over the Treaty of Versailles, such as over reparations, disarmament and the loss of territory, contributed to Hitler’s appeal who said that he would undo the injustices of the treaty.

The events of the 1930s placed much more pressure on the League and it showed itself to be too weak:

a) Membership – USA not a member. Japan, Germany and Italy leave.

b) Selfinterest – The League depended on co-operation between states. In the end countries like Britain and France put their own interests first.

c) Collective Security – this depended on Britain and France and neither had the will to provide troops to fight.

d) Failures such as disarmament, Manchuria and Abyssinia

Britain and France wished to avoid war and looked to their own self-interest:

– They were less willing to take military action or to damage their own economies by using sanctions against countries.

– Hoped to keep Italy on side by giving in over Abyssinia.

– Believed in appeasement in giving in to Hitler.

– Failed to cooperate with the Disarmament conference.

– Instead looked to their own defence, France and the Maginot Line, and Britain and its navy.


Why did the League fail over Manchuria and Abyssinia?




Why did the Japanese invade Manchuria?

  1. Japan’s exports collapse with its main trading partner, the USA, due to the Great Depression
  2. Manchuria was rich in minerals and had fertile soil. The Chinese government was weak..
  3. Japan hoped to use these resources for its own suffering industry, and to be able to resettle its own peasants.
  4. Japan ran the South Manchurian Railway making access easy for its armed forces.
  5. Army officers wanted to add Manchuria to the Japanese Empire.


Time Line of events

1931    Japanese army invades Manchuria

1932    Japanese conquest of Manchuria

League’s Lytton Commission reports

1933    Japan withdraws from the League

1936    Japan forms Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany

1937    Japan invades China


Ineffectiveness of the League’s actions

League Action Results
Ordered Japanese withdrawal (1931) Japanese army refused
Lytton Commission sent to investigate (1932) Takes an entire year to investigate and report, again condemning Japanese aggression.
Following the report, invites Japan to hand Manchuria back Japan kept Manchuria, left the League in 1933, made further attacks on other parts of China.


Why did the League fail?

  1. The Depression – members were unwilling to impose economic sanctions on Japan at a time when their economies were suffering.
  2. Great Powers were unwilling to take military action. Britain, in particular, feared Japanese attacks on its colonies such as Singapore.
  3. Absent Members. The USA and Russia were the most powerful countries in the region but were not members of the League and did not cooperate in taking further action.





The Crisis


Mussolini, the dictator of Italy, was determined to expand Italy’s empire, and targets Abyssinia:

Dec1934          Italian troops provoke a clash with Abyssinians at Wal Wal as an excuse for a quarrel

Oct 1935          Italy invades Abyssinia

Dec 1935         Britain and France produce Hoare-Laval Plan. Large areas of Abyssinia to be given to Italy in return for troop withdrawal. Public outcry leads to the plan being abandoned.

May 1936        Italy conquers Abyssinia.

1936                Mussolini and Hitler form the Rome-Berlin Axis

Hitler re-militarises the Rhineland (March)

League abandons sanctions against Italy (July)

1937                Italy leaves the League of Nations


Ineffectiveness of the League’s actions

League Action Results
Dec 1934 – Sept 1935, following the Wal Wal incident debates and discussions including a request from Abyssinia for assistance No further action
Oct 1935

a)      Condemned Italian invasion of Abyssinia

b)      Imposed economic sanctions

Little impact.

a)      Sanctions did not include oil, iron, steel and coal.

b)      Non-League members e.g. the USA and Germany continued to trade with Italy.

c)      Britain and France who owned the Suez canal did not close it to Italian supplies to its war effort in Abyssinia.

d)      Lack of will to defend Abyssinia is seen in the secret Hoare-Laval plan (Dec 1935) that would have given most of what Mussolini wanted.

March 1936 After much delay an oil embargo on Italy was threatened. Too late, Italians conquered Abyssinia by May.

Hitler noted the League’s weakness, and remilitarised the Rhineland (March 1936) while attention was on Abyssinia

July 1936 Sanctions against Italy abandoned Italy

a)      kept Abyssinia

b)      turned to Germany

c)      left the League (1937)


Why did the League fail?

  1. Successful action against Italy depended on Britain and France; but they were unwilling to take strong measures because:
    a) They feared Mussolini might attack anyone who enforced economic sanctions and they were not ready for a war with Italy. They did not, therefore cut off Mussolini’s military lifeline by closing the Suez Canal to Italian oil supplies
    b)   They were frightened by the rise of Hitler’s Germany. They wanted to keep Italy as ally against Germany and so were anxious not to offend Mussolini.
  2. The attempt by Britain and France to find their own compromise solution to the crisis with the Hoare-Laval Plan (1935) disunited and undermined the League.



How do you explain the failure of the League in the 1930s



Weaknesses in the structure of the League Weaknesses in

a)      Decision making e.g. need for unanimous votes

b)      Limits to its powers e.g. no League army

c)      Dependency on Major powers to act e.g. permanent members could veto decisions in the Council.

Limits to its successes in the 1920s Although the League could be effective in disputes involving small powers, it was not successful where the self-interest of major powers such as Britain and France were threatened
The Depression places the League under greater pressure Not only did the Depression lead to the rise of aggressive powers such as Hitler’s Germany and Japan, it also weakened the resolve of countries like Britain and France to support collective security and collective actions such as economic sanctions as a means to keeping aggressive nations in check.
Manchuria and Abyssinia The weakness of the League in these incidents lead to:

a)      Countries losing faith in the League and its ideals

b)      Rather than put their trust in international co-operation, several countries including France and Britain began to rearm, and follow their own policies such as appeasement.


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