League of Nations 101: The Birth of the League of Nations


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:

1. A New Spirit

2. The Birth of the League of Nations

3. Sir Eric Drummond and his System

4. Methods, Techniques, Operational Mechanisms, and Advocacy Opportunities

5. Hungarian Diplomats Next to League in the 1920s

6. The League's Specialized Agencies

7. Biggest Successes of the League of Nations

8. Biggest Failures of the League of Nations

9. The Past Versus The Future

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

It is commonly known that the League of Nations was established quite after the First World War, based on Woodrow Wilson’s famous 14 points. (1) However, the idea of creating such an organization has a longer history, which is closely attached to the pacifist movement.

From the early 1910s onwards, more and more people raised the issue of disarmament and the creation of an organization for peace - including Theodore Roosevelt, and the Nobel Peace Prize winner British writer, journalist, politician Norman Angell. The latter’s work The Great Illusion, published in 1910, had a great impact on the politicians and thinkers of the early 20th century. (2)

The portrait of Norman Angell. https://alchetron.com/Norman-Angell

Before the outbreak of the First World War, the program of the Second International (1889–1916) also included the issue of maintaining peace - congresses were held (Stuttgart 1907, Copenhagen 1910, Basel 1982), at which the Social Democratic parties undertook a program to condemn militarism and war. (3)

The horrors of the First World War amplified these ideas around the world, and more and more people supported the establishment of a large international organization. Many began to look for a new order of conflict management and human relations, focusing on the whole world. Those who trusted the creation of a global, supranational organization wanted to create the conditions and framework for peaceful coexistence for all states and peoples. (4)

However, the details of the international organization fulfilling this particular role had been the subject of long debates – as nearly everyone, who dealt with the issue, had their own ideas on how it should look like. Just to mention some of the many: The American League to Enforce Peace was formed under the leadership of the former President William Taft - Woodrow Wilson was one of the keynote speakers at its May 1916 rally in Washington. (5) A year later, Henry Noel Brailsford published a work titled The League of Nations, calling for the formation of an alliance. (6)

Towards the end of the war, in 1917, the Inquiry organization was set up in the United States to prepare for peace. Wilson also invited external experts (historians, missionaries, etc.) to join the Inquiry. The reports prepared by the Inquiry were partially presented at the meetings of the Supreme War Council (the council consisted of the most powerful associates of the Paris Peace Conference; also known as the Council of Ten) in 1919. (7) It is no coincidence that the Inquiry, coordinated by Walter Lippmann, a Harvard University writer and journalist who was an adviser of Theodore Roosevelt, took his work seriously and produced detailed reports and fairly accurate analyses related to them - all of the reports were made in accordance with the implementation of Wilson’s plans. In these reports and analyses, the system of new state formations and mandates to replace the old monarchies (Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) has already emerged, but in a much fairer form than the divisions that were already created and accepted at the Paris Peace Conference. (8)

The portrait of Walter Lippmann. Jere Hokkanen: Objectivity, detachment, and Walter Lippmann https://journalismresearchnews.org/objectivity-detachment-and-walter-lippmann/

Meanwhile, David Lloyd George, who was not particularly supportive of the idea of ​​a federation, took over as British Prime Minister – his foreign secretary became Lord Arthur James Balfour, who sought American friendship on the issue and was strengthened by Lord Robert Cecil, who insisted on creating a committee to consider the proposals for a League of Nations. In January 1918, independently of one another, both Lloyd George and Wilson delivered similar speeches to their own governments. Lloyd George declared on January 5 that efforts should be made to establish an international organization that would limit armaments, thus reduce the risk of war. (9) On January 18, Wilson unveiled to the Congress his famous 14 points which included the establishment of the alliance as one of his essential claims.

Lord Robert Cecil. The Nobel Prize. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1937/chelwood/biographical/

By June 1918, the French had also drafted their own proposal, which dreamed of a much stronger alliance than the Anglo-American conceptions. 10) Meanwhile, Jan Christian Smuts, General of the British Army, and Robert Cecil (who also got the Nobel Peace Price in 1937 for his participation in the establishment of the League of Nations) (11) also dealt with concrete drafts of the League of Nations. Smuts’ pamphlet had been sent even to Wilson. (12)

Concerning the issue, of course there were real political reasons as well: the main aim of the creators of the League was to preserve the positions they already held. French politicians who supported the formation of the League of Nations hoped that such an organization would make it easier for them to maintain control of Germany and ensure French hegemony over Europe; British supporters of the idea hoped the organization would maintain a balance of power; while Wilson and his circle considered ‘open gates’ and ‘maritime freedom’ to be of paramount importance, and their goals included the desire to intervene in Europe’s internal affairs. (13) The goals of the three powers met in the development of the system of mandates - the former colonies of the losing powers were later subordinated to the mandate of the League of Nations and were handed over to protector states in accordance with previously settled secret agreements. (14)

Léon Bourgeois in 1917. https://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Léon_Bourgeois#/media/Fájl:Léon_Bourgeois_1917.jpg

Of course, while the United States and England, which are separated from Europe by sea, could not have been in danger even if collective security had failed. Such a failure would have risked France's existence. France could therefore only see the League of Nations as an institution that would protect it from Germany if necessary. Léon Bourgeois consequently called for the establishment of an international army that would have put a kind of executive mechanism in the hands of the League of Nations against a possible aggressor. Thus, a number of concrete proposals and memoranda were made in connection with the increasingly probable League of Nations, the venue for reconciliation and discussion of which was almost evident: the peace talks that ended the First World War. The elaboration and establishment of the league took place in parallel with the birth of the peace system in Versailles.

On January 25, 1919, the Peace Conference adopted a draft for the establishment of the League of Nations, and a committee was established for the elaboration of it. Wilson, who considered the formation of the League of Nations to be the most important point of the peace talks, insisted on chairing the committee. The committee began its work on February 3 in Colonel House’s suite, and after lengthy and heated discussions, by February 14, the comprehensive and detailed draft was finished. (15)

Wilson himself wanted a dual function for the League of Nations in order to keep the peace and to make up for the mistakes made in creation of the peace - even he himself was aware of the contradictions. For this system however, a kind of world government or world police force should have been set up as well. As the creation of such a force seemed like a dream, Wilson wished to replace it with the world’s public opinion and its moral power. (16)

The 'Big Three': Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Wilson. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zbg4t39/revision/2

Although the weaknesses of the League of Nations were already felt by many even then, the statute of the League of Nations had to be accepted by all in the end, as there was no other alternative at the time. The final draft was thus adopted on April 28, 1919, by the members of the Peace Conference. The charter had to be ratified by all the signatories of the Treaty of Versailles, for the peace texts began with the founding document of the League of Nations. On June 28, 1919, the first Treaty of Versailles was signed. The signing of the treaty can also be considered as the founding of the League of Nations. However, the United States was left out of the signing process: the debate on whether the US should or should not take a part had been an important issue discussed during the US presidential campaign of the time, resulting with the Senate not accepting the treaty. Therefore, the US did not join the League of Nations either. (17, 18)

While the campaign wars were taking place in the United States, the League of Nations came into operation on the other side of the Atlantic. On January 16, 1920, under the chairmanship of Léon Bourgeois, the first meeting of the Council opened in Paris, and at the meeting in London on the 11-12th of February 1920, chaired by Lord Arthur James Balfour, the issue of protection of minorities came to the fore. On November 1, 1920, the headquarters of the League of Nations moved from London to Geneva, and on November 15, the first regular session of the General Assembly of the League of Nations opened.

This is how the League of Nations was created. At that time, the new organization inspired the whole the world to open to ideals. As a teacher summed it up much later: “To work for the League of Nations. […] Everyone wanted to in those days. It was such a noble idea.” (19)


  • Beck, Sanderson (2005): World Peace Efforts since Gandhi. Goleta, Calif.: World Peace Communications. http://www.san.beck.org/GPJ21-LeagueofNations.html

  • Brailsford, Henry Noel (1917): A League of Nations. Headley Bros. Publishers, London.

  • Burns, Eric (2015): 1920. The Year that Made the Decade Roar. Pegasus Books, New York–London. pp. 181.

  • Galántai, József (1980): Az első világháború. Gondolat, Budapest. pp. 495–496.

  • Hathaway, Oona A.– Shapiro, Scott J. (2017): The Internationalists. How a Radical Plan to Oulaw War Remade the World. Simon & Schuster, New York–London–Toronto–Sydney–New Delhi. pp. 111.

  • Henig, Ruth B. (2010): The League of Nations. Makers of the Modern World. The peace conferences of 1919–1923 and their aftermath. London. pp. 17.

  • Kissinger, Henry pp. 230.

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

  • Németh, István (2001): Európa-tervek 1300-1945. Visszapillantás a jövőbe. ELTE Eötvös Kiadó. pp. 136-137.

  • Robert Cecil – Biographical. The Nobel Prize. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1937/chelwood/biographical/

  • Schmidt, Karl J.: The League of Nations. American History from Revolution to Reconstruction and beyond. [Unknown.] http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/essays/1901-/the-league-of-nations-karl-j-schmidt.php

  • Srodes, James (2012). On Dupont Circle. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World. Counterpoint. Berkeley. pp. 60; pp. 1.

  • The Fourteen Points. Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. Rejection of the Treaty of Versailles. https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/peace/fourteen-points

  • Varsányi, Erika (1988): Weltner Jakab életútja. Kossuth Könyvkiadó, Budapest. pp. 72.

  • Walters, F. P. (1952): A History of the League of Nations. Oxford University Press, London–New York–Toronto. pp. 18-20.

  • Zeidler, Miklós (2006): A Nemzetek Szövetsége a magyar külpolitikai gondolkodásban. In: PRITZ Pritz, Pál– Sipos, Balázs–Zeidler, Miklós (Ed.): Magyar külpolitikai gondolkodás a 20. században. Magyar Történelmi Társulat, Budapest. pp. 151-177. http://mek.niif.hu/05200/05284/05284.htm#7


  • Léon Bourgeois in 1917. https://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Léon_Bourgeois#/media/Fájl:Léon_Bourgeois_1917.jpg

  • Lord Robert Cecil. The Nobel Prize. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1937/chelwood/biographical/

  • The 'Big Three': Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Wilson. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zbg4t39/revision/2

  • The portrait of Norman Angell. https://alchetron.com/Norman-Angell

  • The portrait of Walter Lippmann. Jere Hokkanen: Objectivity, detachment, and Walter Lippmann https://journalismresearchnews.org/objectivity-detachment-and-walter-lippmann/

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Lujza Varga

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