The League of Nations: Its Achievements and its failures
1. The League of Nation’s Achievements in the 1920s:
The treaties that were signed at the Paris Peace Conference involved a lot creating new states and altering borders of other existing states. But drawing a line on a map was easier than working out where the borders were on the actual ground. Communities were being split, and the League was to deal with these border disputes. Though there was the Conference of Ambassadors to help out when there was too much work for the League, which there was from the start. It had been set up to deal with problems that would arise from the post-war treaties, and consisted of the leading politicians of Britain, France and Italy, who were also main members of the League. The first major border dispute was Vilna, in 1920: Poland and Lithuania were two of the new states that the Paris Peace Conference treaties created. Vilna was the capital of Lithuania, but most of its population was Polish. So a private Polish army simply took it over. Lithuania then appealed for help. This was the first major dispute the League had faced. Both countries were members of the League. Poland was clearly the aggressor in all of this, though many people could understand the reasons behind the aggression itself. The League told Poland off, but Poland ignored it and did not withdraw. The League was stuck. If it had followed the Covenant, then it would have sent French and British troops and force the Poles out of Vilna. But it did not: France did not want to upset Poland, seeing it as a potential ally against Germany in the future, and Britain refused to act alone and send troops to the other side of Europe. So in the end the League did nothing and the Poles got to keep Vilna.
The next major dispute was the Aaland Islands dispute, in between Finland and Sweden in 1921. Both countries threatened to fight for the islands, and they appealed to the League before fighting would break out. The League studied the matter closely, and in the end granted the islands to Finland, and Sweden accepted the verdict. War had been avoided.Then there was the Corfu incident: a dispute in between Greece and Italy. The Conference of Ambassadors had been in charge of sorting out borders, and one of the borders was the Greek and Albanian one. It appointed an Italian general named Tellini to supervise this border. On the 27th of
August while he was surveying the Greek side of the border, his team was ambushed and killed. Benito
Mussolini, the Italian leader, was furious. He blamed the Greeks, seeing as Tellini was on the Greek side when this happened for the murder and demanded that the government of Greece pay compensation and execute the murderers. But the Greeks had no clue who the murderers were, so they couldn’t execute them. Italy got impatient and bombed the Greek island of Corfu then occupied it. Fifteen people were killed, and so Greece appealed to the League for help.
The situation was serious, and it looked scarily similar to the events that led to World War One. Fortunately, the League of Nations Council had already been in session, so it acted swiftly. By the 7th of September, it had passed its judgment: It condemned Mussolini’s actions, and also suggested Greece pay compensation but that the money should be paid to League which would hold it until Tellini’s murderers were found. In the eventuality where they were found, the League would pass it on to Italy.Officially, Mussolini accepted the verdict. Yet he secretely negotiated with the Conference of Ambassadors and persuaded it to change the League’s ruling. The Greeks were to apologize and pay compensations straight to Italy. Mussolini withdrew from Corfu finally on the 27th of Semptember.
The Corfu incident showed how easily the League could be undermined by its own members. So Britain and France produced the Geneva Protocol in 1924, which in general said that if two member states had a dispute, they were to bring it up with the League, and they were to accept the verdict given to them. But before the plan could be put into effect, a general election in Britain brought to power a new Conservative government who was not so keen on the plan, and so refused to sign it, because they did not want to be forced to agree to something that was not in Britain’s interests. And so, the Protocol, instead of strengthening the League, weakened it.Following this event was the League’s prevention of war in between Greece and Bulgaria in October 1925. Greek troops had invaded Bulgaria after an incident on the border in which some Greek soldiers had been killed. Bulgaria then appealed for help, but also sent orders to its army. The League condemned the Greek action. It told Greece to pull its troops out and to pay compensation to Bulgaria. Greece only agreed because it feared the disapproval of the major powers in the League. Though they did complain that there seemed to be different rules for the larger states like Italy and for the smaller states like itself.
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The League though did pursue its plans on disarmament, but failed for the most part in bringing it about. At the Washington Conference, the USA, Japan, Britain and France agreed to limit the size of their navies, and that was as far as disarmament ever got. A disarmament treaty was made in 1923 by the League and was accepted by France and other nations, but Britain refused because it would tie it to defending other countries.
Plans were made for a disarmament conference were made but it only got together in 1933. But even so, in the late 1920s, the League’s failure over disarmament did not seem to serious because of the following treaties…Two important treaties in the later half of the 1920s helped preserve peace and helped the League in its work: The Locarno treaties and the Kellogg-Briand Pact.
The Locarno Treaties:
Representatives of France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Poland and Czechoslovakia met in Locarno in Switzerland in October 1925. Important agreements emerged after many days of hard negotiating:
-Germany was to finally accept the borders with France and Belgium that had been laid out in the Treaty of Versailles. Both Britain and Italy guaranteed to protect France should Germany violate these borders.
-Germany accepted that the Rhineland was to remain a demilitarized zone.
-France and Germany agreed to settle future disputes through the League of Nations.The Locarno agreements were greeted very enthusiastically, especially by France, for Germany had shown more goodwill to it than ever before. This pave the way for Germany to join the League in 1926, leaving the Soviet Union as the only major power not in the League.
The Kellogg-Briand Pact: The Kellogg-Briand Pact marked the high point of international relations in the 1920s, the terms being:
-The parties were to condemn war as a means of solving international disputes and reject it as an instrument of policy.
-The settlement of all disputes shall only be sought by peaceful means.But there was nothing in the Pact about what should happen if as state broke the terms of the agreement, nor did it help the League with its disarmament issues, for the states had all agreed that hey had to keep their armies for self-defence. Yet, at the time the Pact was seen as a turning point in
Conclusion: By 1930, we can tell how successful the League was. It only did well when there involved smaller nations. When it had troubles with larger states, it had trouble because of France’s and Britain’s lack of commitment to sending in troops. This lack of commitment led to the League’s demise.
2. The League’s Failure in the 1930s:
Most historians have trouble agreeing on how successful the League of Nations was in the 1920s, but almost all agree that it was a failure in the 1930s. Several factors and events led to this downfall:-The Manchurian Crisis (1931-33): The Japanese invaded Manchuria. The Great Depression following the Wall Street Crisis hit Japan badly. Its government could not meet the demands of its growing population as most of its products were imported due to the fact that most of Japan was covered by high mountains, giving little land to grow food on. It did not have raw materials like iron and coal, these were again imported from China. During the 1930s, Japan had controlled the South Manchurian Railway. In September 1931, they got the perfect excuse to go and expand their empire. They claimed that Chinese soldiers had sabotaged the railway. To retaliate they overran Manchuria and threw out all Chinese forces. In February 1932, they set up a puppet government in Manchuria, and renamed the region Manchukuo. It did everything the Japanese Army told it to do. Later in 1932, Japanese airplanes and gunships bombed Shangai. The civilian government in Japan ordered the Japanese army to withdraw, but the instructions were ignored. It became clear that the Japanese army and not the civilian government was in control of Japanese foreign policy.China appealed to the League of Nations, but Japan claimed it was not invading as an aggressor, but invading to settle a local difficulty. The Japanese argued that they hat to invade in self-defense to keep peace in the area as China was in such a state of anarchy. Japan was a leading member of the League. This was a serious test for it. There was a long and frustrating delay during which the Leaugue
representatives sailed around the world to deal with the crisis and make a report.was only by September 1932 that they presented it. It said that Japan had acted unlawfully and that Manchuria should be returned to China or that it should be governed by League. Instead, in February 1933, Japan did the opposite: it announced that it was to invade more of China in ‘self-defense’. The report from the League’s officials was approved on the 24th of February with 42 votes to 1 in the Assembly. Only Japan had voted against it. In response to the insult, Japan left the league on the 27th of March, and the next week invaded Jehol.
The League was powerless. Economic sanctions would be meaningless without the USA, Japan’s main trading partner. Also, Britain was more intent on keeping good relations with Japan rather than agreeing on sanctions. The League also discussed banning arms sales with Japan but none of the members could even agree on that. They were worried that Japan might retaliate and the war would escalate. And the idea of either Britain or France using their navies or armies against Japan was not even brought up. Only the USA or the USSR would have had the resources to remove the Japanese by force from Manchuria, and they weren’t even members of the League. There were all sorts of excuses for the League’s failure. Japan was so far away, it was a special case, it had a point about China was in the grip of anarchy. But the significance of the Manchurian Crisis was obvious. It was the first of several incidents that would lead to the downfall of the League
-The 1932-34 Disarmament Conference: The League had not been successful in this area in the 1920s, but the international climate back then did not make it a pressing matter. But in the aftermath of the Manchurian crisis, the call for disarmament was growing. The Germans had long been angry about the fact that they had been forced to disarm after the First World War, while other nations had not done the same. In fact, most nations were spending more on their armament then before World War 1. The long promised Disarmament Conference got underway in February 1932. By July 1932,it had produced resolutions that prohibited the bombing of civilian populations, chemical warfare, limited the size of artillery, and the tonnage of tanks. But little was shown in the resolutions on how this was to be achieved. For example, the bombing of civilians was to be prohibited, yet the abolishment of planes capable of bombing cities did not succeed. Even the proposal to ban the manufacture of chemical
weapons failed.It didn’t show as a promising start. However, a bigger problem was facing the Conference- what was to be done about Germany. They had been in the League for six years, and most people agreed that they should be treated more fairly than the Treaty of Versailles. The big question going around was whether everyone else should disarm to the level Germany had been forced to, or whether the Germans should be allowed to rearm to a level closer to everyone else. The experience of the 1920s showed that the former was not going to work, and members of the League were having trouble accepting the latter option. During the next 18 months, the following event happened:July 1932: Germany proposed that all countries disarm down to its level. When the Conference failed to agree to this, Germany leaves the Conference.
September 1932: The British sent the Germans a note that agreed to equality somewhat, but the superior tone in the note angered them further.
December 1932: An agreement was finally reached to treat the Germans equally.January 1933: Germany announced it was to rejoin the Conference.February 1933: Hitler rises to power as Chancellor of Germany at the end of January, and he immediately starts to secretly rearm Germany.May 1933: Hitler promised not to rearm Germany if ‘in five years all other nations destroyed their arms’.June 1933: Britain produced an ambitious disarmament plan.
October 1933: Hitler withdrew from the Disarmament Conference, and soon after from the League itself.
-The Abyssinian Crisis (1935-1936): The last and final blow to the League came when the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. It was a similar case to Japan’s. Like Japan, Italy was a leading member of the League, and like Japan, it also wanted to expand its empire by invading another country. Yet, unlike Manchuria, this dispute was on the League’s doorstep, meaning they could not use the excuse that it was so far away. Italy was a European power. It had a border with France. Abyssina bordered on the Anglo-Egyptian territory of Sudan and the British colonies of Uganda, Kenya, and British Somaliland. The origins of this event lay back the 1896. Italian troops had tried to invade Abyssinia but had been defeated by a poorly equipped ‘army’ of tribesmen. Mussolini wanted revenge for this humiliation. He also had his on the fertile lands and mineral wealth of the region. Most importantly, he wanted conquest and glory. His style of leadership required military victories, and he had often mentioned restoring the Roman Empire.
There was a dispute in December 1934, between Italian and Ethiopian soldiers at an oasis in Abyssinia. Mussolini then claimed that it was actually Italian territory. He then demanded an apology and prepared the army for an invasion. The Abyssinian emperor Haile Selassie appealed to the League for support.In between January 1935 to October 1935, Mussolini was supposedly negotiating with the League while shipping off men to Africa, and also inspiring the Italian people with images of glory and conquest.The British and the French failed to take the situation seriously, they were only playing for time as they were desperate to keep good relations with Mussolini, who seemed to be their strongest ally against Hitler. They signed an agreement with him in 1935, the Stresa Pact, which formalized a protest at German rearmament and a commitment to stand united against Germany. At the meeting to discuss this, the Abyssinian issue was not even raised. As the year wore on, there was a public outcry against Italy’s behavior. There was much talking and negotiating, but the League never actually did anything to discourage Mussolini. On September the 4th, a committee reported to the League that neither side could be held responsible for the incident at the Wal-Wal oasis. The League put forth a plan that would give Mussolini some of Abyssinia, but he rejected it. From October 1935 to May 1936, the question was whether or not there was going to be any sanction. In October, Mussolini’s army was ready, and he launched his full scale invasion of Abyssinia. The Abyssinians were no match for the modern Italian Army, which was equipped with planes, tanks and poison gas. This was a clear case of a large and powerful nation attacking a smaller and weaker one. The League had been designed to stop such disputed, and this time, unlike the Manchurian crisis, it was ideally place to act. This was a serious issue, there was no doubt about that. The Covenant of the League made it clear that sanctions must be introduced against the aggressor. A committee was immediately set up to agree what sanctions to impose. But sanctions would only work if they were introduced quickly and decisively. Each week a decision was delayed would allow Mussolini to up his stockpile of raw materials. The League imposed an immediate ban on arms to Italy, while allowing them to Abyssinia. It banned all loans to Italy and all imports from Italy and it banned the export to Italy of rubber, tin and metals. Yet, the League delayed the decision on whether or not to ban oil exports to Italy for two months, fearing the Americans would not support the sanctions, and that its’ members economic interest would not be further damaged. In Britain, the Cabinet was informed that 30,000 British coal miners were about to lose their jobs because of the ban on coal exports to Italy.Britain and France owned the Suez Canal, and had not closed it to Italian supply ships. The Canal was the main supply route to Abyssinia, and closing it to the Italians might have started a war with them. The failure to close it was fatal to Abyssinia. What also damaged the League was the secret dealing that were going on between the Italians and the French and British. In December 1935, while sanctions were still taking place, the French and British Foreign Ministers, Laval and Hoare, were making a plan that aimed to give Mussolini two thirds of Abyssinia in exchange for calling off the invasion.But, details were leaked to the French press of the plan before it had been put forward. It proved disastrous for the League, Haile Selassie demanded an immediate League debate about it. It was seen as a blatant act of treachery against the league in both Britain and France. But the real damage was to the sanction discussions, which lost all momentum, further delaying the question about banning oil sales. In February the committee concluded that if they did stop oil sales to Italy, the Italian supply would dry up in 2 months, but it was too late by then: Mussolini had already taken over most of Abyssinia, and the Americans were even more disgusted with the dealings of the French and British than they had been before and blocked a move to support the League’s sanctions. American oil producers actually stepped up their exports to Italy.
The final and fatal blow to the League came on the 7th of March 1936: Hitler marched his troops into the Rhineland, a direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Any hope of French support on the sanctions against Italy were now dead, as the French were now desperate to gain the support of Italy against Germany, and were prepared to give Abyssinia to Mussolini. Yet Italy continued to ignore the League’s orders and by May 1936 had taken the capital of Abyssinia. On the 2nd of May, Haile Selassie was forced into exile, and on the 9th, Mussolini formally annexed the entire country. The League watched all of this helplessly. Collective security had turned out to be an empty promise. The League of Nations had failed.All hopes of the British and French handling of the crisis strengthening their position against Hitler proved wrong. In November 1936, Mussolini and Hitler signed their own agreement called the Rome-Berlin Axis.