Why did the League of Nations fail?

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Why did the League of Nations fail?

By Richard Ward  

The objectives of the League of Nations were to 'promote international co-operation and to achieve peace and security'. The League failed these ideals as early as 1921, when Poland occupied Vilna. It failed these objectives once more in 1923 when Mussolini held Greece ransom by occupying and bombing the island of Corfu. Yet the League was not dissolved until 1946. It continued to meet and its agencies continued their work. It was only after 1936 and the collapse of Abyssinian resistance that public opinion swung against the League on a great scale.

        Until the early 1930s, the League of Nations had been displayed in a favourable light as a success. The failures at Corfu and Vilna had been overshadowed by successes at the Åland Islands and in the Greek-Bulgarian war and the booming world economy. Added to that, improvements in international relations had cast a general aura of wellbeing over the world. In hindsight, it is arguable that the League had failed shortly after it had started, but at that time everyone was shocked at the realisation that the League was not everything it said it was.

        On October 24th 1929, the US stock market in Wall Street crashed. The value of shares plummeted as the stock market was ordered to 'sell at any price'. Herbert Hoover, US President, had advocated the purchase of shares by everyone as 'the final triumph over poverty'. Eleven suicides in New York that day demonstrated the severity of the crash.

There were two great failures on the League's part in the 1930s. Firstly, in 1931 as a short-term result of the Wall Street crash and ensuing depression, Japan invaded the northern province of China known as Manchuria. Japan was heavily dependent upon the US economy, and the collapse of trade meant that the only way Japan could survive would be to expand. Possessing very little arable land and even fewer natural resources, Japan relied upon trade and Korea (it had taken Korea in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5) to feed itself. As trade collapsed, Japan had little choice but to take Manchuria. It used the pretext of a suggested Chinese sabotage attempt on the Japanese stretch of the Trans-Siberian railway near Mukden to invade an area of the country caught in internal conflicts between the Mao Tse-Tung led Communists and the Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-Shek. Japan created the puppet state of Manchukuo, and withdrew from the League after a report condemning the invasion was submitted to the League by Lord Lytton.

The League was proved ineffective on the grounds that it could effectively do nothing else. Economic sanctions were not viable because of the Great Depression and the fact that Japan was economically dependent upon the USA, which was in no condition to help China - historically its 'little brother'. Military sanctions were not an option primarily because of distance, and secondly Britain and France's reluctance to embark upon such a venture. Britain did not have an army big enough, and France was more concerned with the construction of the Maginot line. The League had failed miserably, and was now reduced to three members with a significant hand in world affairs.

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Four years later, in 1935, Mussolini ordered the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.  Mussolini was a fascist and dreamt of building a 'second' Roman Empire. He needed to show Hitler (who had become German Chancellor in 1933) that Italy was a force to be reckoned with; Mussolini was suffering from the beginnings of an inferiority complex. Italy had a problem much like Japan - the ratio of food/space to people was unbalanced. Presenting himself as 'Il Duce', Mussolini wanted revenge for the Abyssinian defeat of Italy in 1896. He attacked in 1935, but it took a year for Italian tanks, aeroplanes, ...

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This is a thorough response, with excellent knowledge of the key developments in the League's failure during the 1930s. Occasionally unnecessary narrative precedes the analysis but points are well explained and evaluated. 5 out of 5 stars.