How did the structure of the League undermine it?

Background Information

  1. Set up in 1920 by the Treaty of Versailles.
  2. Originally the idea of Woodrow Wilson who wanted the League to be like a world parliament.
  3. Based in Geneva, Switzerland.
  4. 42 countries joined at the start. By the __1930s __this had risen to 60.
  5. May 1920, the US Senate voted against Versailles, thus the country did not join the League. This was a major blow to the League.
  6. The USSR (communist Russia) was not invited to join the League until 1934.
  7. Germany was not allowed to join as a punishment for causing WWI.
  8. The leading members were Britain and France, helped by Italy and Japan. Both Britain and France were poorly placed to take in this role.

Both had been weakened by WW1. Neither country was quite the major power it had once been. They could not fill the gap left by the USA. Both countries had other priorities. British politicians were more interested in rebuilding British trade and looking after the British Empire. France’s main concern was Germany. They were willing to bypass the League in order to strengthen its position against Germany.

How did the structure of the League undermine it?, figure 1

This was the meeting room of the League, in Geneva. What had been designed as a place for countries to air their disputes and resolve problems ended up being totally paralysed by inaction and structural faults.


  1. The Assembly met once a year and every country in the League had one vote at the Assembly. In order for a decision to be passed, every country must be agreed, this is called a unanimous decision. If a unanimous decision could not be reached, the motion would be passed to the Council
  2. The Council met at least four times a year. It had permanent members (Britain, France, Italy, Japan and later Germany) and temporary members. The permanent members could veto (stop a ruling) council decisions.
  3. The Secretariat carried out the administrative work of the League and were responsible for carrying out the decisions taken by the League
  4. The Permanent Court of International Justice was a law court made up of fifteen judges from different member countries. Their task was to settle international disputes
  5. Special Commissions were set up to tackle worldwide economic and social problems. They included the International Labour Organisation, the Disarmament Commission, the Health Organisation and the Slavery Commission

Key Details

  1. When the League was formed there were 42 members and this rose to 58 by 1934
  2. There were four permanent members (Britain, France, Italy and Japan) who made all the big decisions
  3. Although Wilson was a key figure in the creation of the League, America did not actually join. This was due to the Senate adopting a policy of isolationism whereby they wanted to keep America out of European affairs
  4. Germany was not allowed to join the LON until 1926
  5. The USSR was not allowed to join either as countries such as Britain and France was worried by its communist government. Russia accused the League of being a ‘capitalist’s club’

How did the structure of the League undermine it?, figure 1

As shown in this cartoon, the League was expected to carry the peace of Europe all by itself. Many historians have argued that this was never going to bye possible, due to the contradictions and weaknesses within the structure of the League.

What could the League do to keep peace and enforce its will?

  1. Mediation (the League would invite countries to discuss the problem, and try to find a resolution that would be acceptable to all).
  2. Moral condemnation (the League could tell a country it was doing wrong).
  3. Economic sanctions_ _stopping trade with a country who was in the wrong).
  4. Military sanctions (countries in the League could send their own armed forces?)

How did the structure of the League undermine it?

Many argue that the League was doomed to fail as a result of its structure.

This is for several reasons:

  1. The Assembly only met once a year, and when it did meet it still had to pass resolutions unanimously. This made it almost entirely impossible to make any decisions in the League.
  2. The veto made this problem even worse – when gridlock in the Assembly passed a decision to the Council, any one of those countries could also block the motion with one vote.
  3. The sanctions sounded good in principle but had several significant problems:
  4. Mediation was great when it worked, but required a willingness to talk, and to accept the resolution. If not, the League had to escalate.
  5. Moral condemnations did absolutely nothing.
  6. Economic sanctions were almost pointless when many of the world’s strongest economies were outside of the League, including the U.S.
  7. Military sanctions were never used – the League had no army of its own, and so relied entirely upon member states to send troops. It was never able to convince member states to do so.
  8. Lacking important states such as the United States and Russia meant that the League had greatly limited finances and influenuce.

A Timeline of the League’s Membership

How did the structure of the League undermine it?, figure 1

This map shows how membership of the League varied around the world, and changed over time. Notice the importance of the countries which left before 1939 (in yellow) - which side were they on when war broke out?

1920: League set up with Britain, France, Japan, and Italy as the permanent members of the Council.

1926: Germany joins the League, after Britain and France promise that they can join at the Locarno conference (negotiated outside of the League).

1933: Japan leaves the League after the Manchurian Crisis. Germany leaves the League after the failed Disarmament Conference.

1934: The U.S.S.R. joins the League, in an attempt from Britain and France to bring them onside, after they see the danger of losing Japan and having limited influence in Asia.

1936: Italy leaves the League.

1939: The U.S.S.R. is expelled from the League.

Define the following terms:

administrative work
Your answer should include: decisions / veto / Japan / Britain / France / Italy
Your answer should include: once / year / all / vote / unanimous
Your answer should include: Japan / Germany