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League of Nations 101: Sir Eric Drummond and His System


The League of Nations 101 is a series that historically analyze the work of the League of Nations. The League of Nations was the first international organization that has aimed to control international affairs and, in order to achieve that, it launched its own international bureaucracy. Through its main organs (the Secretariat, the Assembly and the Council) it was able to form a new, multilateral system by the end of the 1920s.

The League of Nations 101 series' aim is to examine the system-level operations, the possible strategies used by state representations and the activities of the people that were operating the system or intended to prevail in it, as well as to find the place of the League of Nations in the history of diplomacy and international institutions.

The series are divided into the following chapters:

3. Sir Eric Drummond and His System

8. Biggest Failures of the League of Nations

9. The League of Nations VS the United Nations

10. The League of Nations' Place in the History of International Institutions and Bureaucracy

The League of Nations was an organization constructed and run by the winners of the First World War. The death of the league’s greatest patron, Wilson, and the absence of the United States from the League of Nations resulted in a clear British and French supremacy within the organization eventually resulting with the British, who also provided the first Secretary General of the League, taking the lead.

As we have seen during its establishment, one of the big patrons of the League of Nations was Lord Robert Cecil. He originally planned that the League would be headed by a politically powerful chancellor who would, of course, lead the organization in line with goals of the British foreign policy. This plan, however, neither met Lloyd George's views nor the French and Italian ideas. Thus, eventually, no real political power was given to the leader of the League of Nations. The League’s first leader became the Secretary General instead of becoming the chancellor, who lead the administrative body of the organization: the Secretariat. (1)

Regarding the further details of the unprecedented international agency, the founders only constructed the most important bodies of the League: the Secretariat that has operated throughout the year, the Assembly, the Council that met periodically) along with several specialized agencies, which served as subsidiary organizations next to the League. However, the establishment of the institutional structure itself and its placement on the international stage was the merit of the enterprising first Secretary General, Sir Eric Drummond. (2)

The portrait of Sir Maurice Hankey. Britannica.

The post of Secretary General was first offered to the British Sir Maurice Hankey, who rejected the request stating that the British Empire was stronger than the League of Nations that lacked the United States as its member, so he could do more for peace from London than from Geneva. (3) This is how the 44 years old, Scottish Sir Eric Drummond took up the post of Secretary General and built an independent system behind the scenes. Born on 17 August 1876, Drummond studied at Eton College in Britain, one of the oldest and most elite private schools. Early in his career, he had worked as the private secretary to various British politicians and diplomats. He entered the Foreign Office in 1910, and between 1912 and 1918, he was a private secretary to Herbert Henry Asquith, Sir Edward Gray and Thomas McKinnon Wood; he was also a member of the Balfour mission and, after the First World War, he has become a member of the British peace delegation. He was a close colleague and a good friend of Gray, Balfour, and Cecil. Drummond has also won Colonel House's trust almost immediately. His talent was well known, as was the fact that, unlike most diplomats, he liked the idea of the League of Nations, even hinting on several occasions that he would be happy to take up the post of Secretary General. (4) On May 31, 1919, he also made a memorandum on the operation, functions and subsequent sections of the organization. (5)

Sir Eric Drummond circa 1918.

As a devotee of the old school of diplomacy, Drummond knew as well that the League of Nations without the United States was greatly exposed to the goodwill of the French, Japanese, and above all the British. That urged him to manoeuvre between British and French interests and maintain the best and closest possible relationship with the British foreign affairs. He was so successful in his plan insofar that the Foreign Office even gave him access to secret British foreign affairs reports, especially to those that were in some way related to the activities of the League of Nations, or matters before him. On the other hand, he gained the trust of the League’s member states and thus was able to advise them – always informally. (6)

When the League of Nations was set up, Drummond appointed officials he had known before such as Erik Colban, Paul Mantoux, and AJ Salter; later, when selecting a new official, he first examined the candidate's nationality, then his suitability, and, if necessary, he inquired at the sending state as to whether it was desirable to employ the selected person. Thus political will and the recommendation of reliable, key people was an important factor in the system that set up by Drummond. (7) The key officials of the 1920s, including Jean Monnet, Raymond Foshdick, Dioniso Anzilotti, Arthur Salter, Paul Mantoux, Thanassis Aghnides, Salvador de Madariaga, Pablo, and Frank P. Walters not only possessed the necessary, extremely high level of competencies but also enjoyed the personal trust of the Secretary-General. Thus, the officials in important positions were not only the confidants of Drummond but also had good relations with the key states, such as France, Germany, Japan, and Italy. Through the cooperation of these well-chosen top officials, Drummond hit several birds with one stone, making a gesture to the great powers as well. The most important of them, and the closest official to Drummond, was the French Jean Monnet, followed by Arthur Sweetser, who had excellent American connections. With this, the United States slowly began to become involved in the non-political work of the League of Nations. Through the connections of Japanese officials, Drummond was also able to get a line quickly on Far Eastern issues. Italian and German officials also played an important role, although they were judged differently than the members of the previous three states. (8)

Drummond, who blended the cards well and built the system thoughtfully, also regarded his staff as informants who helped manoeuvre the organization between the great powers and thus helped the League to be effective. However, this flow of information also worked backwards meaning that these officials were also non-formal government exponents. (9) All this encouraged the member states to try placing their own people among the officials of the Secretariat. (10)

The portrait of Arthur Salter. Sir Arthur Salter. Library of Congress.

Arthur Salter, head of the economics and finance department, later recalled the first years of the Secretariat as a cheerful team whose members were equally inspired by the great idea. However, Drummond’s opinion nuances the picture as he said that the officials could not set aside their identities and thus they were affected by liberal internationalism as much as colonialism and nationalism. (11) The composition of the Secretariat was therefore not ideologically uniform, but concerning nations, British and French were clearly over-represented in comparison to the other nations. (12)

On the other hand, the League of Nations wanted to ensure the protection of women's rights. During the establishment of the League, Wilson was approached on the issue by several movements and organizations, including the women's suffrage movement chaired by the famous suffrage Millicent Fawcett, whose representatives Wilson also met in person. (13) He assured them of his support - but the resolutions of the Italian and Japanese delegates thwarted the full implementation of the plans. (14) However, one plan that states any position in the organization could be filled by both women and men has been achieved. This is how we have a female top official, Dame Rachel Crowdy, as the head of the Department of Opium Traffic and Social Issues.

Dame Rachel Eleanor Crowdy in the early 1920s. National Portrait Gallery, London.

This principle of operation crystallized step by step during the 1920s. The League of Nations officials, even if they reported to the governments of their own state, really believed in the new diplomacy embodied by the League of Nations and its success. Drummond who acknowledged the strong political role of the Secretariat himself a few years after his resignation (15) was definitely successful in his aim of creating an effective international staff – for the first time in history.


1., 6., 8., 15. Barros, James (1983): The role of Sir Eric Drummond. In: The League of Nations in retrospect – La Société des Nations: rétrospective. United Nations Library, Geneva. pp. 32., 36., 38.

2. Gram-Skjoldager, Karen – Ikonomou, Haakon A. (2017-2019): The Construction of the League of Nations Secretariat. Formative Practices of Autonomy and Legitimacy in International Organizations. International History Review 41. (2019) vol. 2. pp. 257–279. (Published online: 21 Dec 2017)

3. Henig, Ruth B. (2010): The League of Nations. Makers of the Modern World. The peace conferences of 1919–1923 and their aftermath. London. pp. 22.

4. Walters, F. P. (1952): A History of the League of Nations. Oxford University Press, London–New York–Toronto. pp. 75.

5., 14. Bromley, Pam (2003): Altruistic States? The Institutionalization of Developement Aid Ideas in the League of Nations. [New Jersey], Princeton University. 6 November 2003. pp. 39.

7., 11. Dykmann, Klaas (2015): How International was the Secretariat of the League of Nations? The International History Review 37 vol. 4. pp. 721–744.

9. The report of Zoltán Baranyai to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry. Geneva, 28th February 1930. Hungarian National Archives OL K 107 64. cs. 62. t. 190.

10. The letter of Paul de Hevesy to Lajos Walko. Geneva, 14th May 1928. Hungarian National Archives OL K 107 64. cs. 59. t. 247.

12. Siotis, Jean (1983): The institutions of the League of Nations. In: The League of Nations in retrospect – La Société des Nations: rétrospective. United Nations Library, Geneva. pp. 26.

13. Macmillan, Margaret (2005): Béketeremtők. Az 1919-es párizsi békekonferencia. GABO, Budapest. pp. 92.


1. The portrait of Maurice Hankey. Maurice Pascal Alers Hankey, 1st Baron Hankey. Britannica.

3. The portrait of Arthur Salter. Sir Arthur Salter. Library of Congress.

4. Dame Rachel Eleanor Crowdy in the early 1920s. National Portrait Gallery, London.


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