What was the League of Nations?

Background Information

The League was the last of Wilson’s 14 Points, and the only one that he got at Versailles. It was a plan to promote peace in Europe, but what exactly was the League of Nations?

The League was an organisation which brought together different countries – it started with 42 members in 1920, and it intended to grow and include as many countries as possible as time went on.

The purpose of the League was to provide these countries with somewhere to bring urgent matters, and discuss them rather than fight over them. It was through this encouraging of cooperation that League intended to bring about greater peace.

Wilson dreamed of the League like a ‘world parliament’, and it certainly had some of these characteristics, although it is not necessarily the most straightforward analogy. Today, we have the United Nations, which is extremely similar, and is what was created when they tried to improve the League after the Second World War.

The Aims of the League

The League had four main aims:

  1. Keep the peace (and prevent war), through improved international cooperation
  2. Facilitate disarmament (get countries to reduce the number of weapons they had)
  3. Improve working and living conditions for people around the world
  4. Help end deadly diseases around the world.

Keeping was peace was arguably the League’s primary function, after all it did grow out of a peace treaty.

The League planned to keep peace through the idea of ‘Collective Security’. This meant that all members would join together if any of them were attacked – an attack on one country would be an attack on all.

Collective security also promised that this extended to every member of the League, and all would be treated and protected equally. As you will see in later lessons, this was not the case.

What was the League of Nations?, figure 1

Some criticised that the League’s mission essentially boiled down to ‘let’s be nice to each other’. They thought the League was empty and meaningless. Others truly believed the League would bring real change.

Who was a Member of the League?

The key founding members were Britain, France, Japan, and Italy – along with a fair few European countries, and others around the world. As such, the League represented a total of 42 member states at the start of the League. These four in particular had to run, and pay for, the League (we will look more at how the League was organised and run in the next lesson).

The United States, The U.S.S.R. (Russia), and Germany were not members. Why?

The United States

Despite the fact that the U.S. and Wilson had come up with the League in the first place, the Republican faction in the U.S. Senate (Government) blocked its signing. Wilson campaigned all over America, but he was unable to overcome Republican arguments that getting involved in the League would make America ‘Europe’s policeman’, and after the messes of the First World War and Treaty of Versailles, America was not willing to spent money or lives on getting Europe ‘out of their own messes’.

This policy was called isolationism – focussing on America and America’s problems only.

It did not help the matter, that Wilson came back fairly embarrassed at how easily his 14 Points had been dismissed at the Treaty, and Americans felt that Europe had taken America’s help to win the War, but weren’t bothered about working together now it was won.

The U.S.S.R.

Russia had undergone a Communist Revolution in 1917, and the new Bolshevik government (under Lenin) was viewed with extreme suspicious in Europe. Britain in particular were adamant that the U.S.S.R. should not be allowed to join the LoN, lest it were to try and cause the rest of Europe to become Communist.

Furthermore, Russia had pulled out of the First World War in 1917 (during the Revolution), and surrendered to the Germans. Where France and Russia had previously been allies, now France saw Russia is a bad ally and a potential liability to the LoN.


Germany was largely kept out of the League for revenge. Britain and France officially told Germany that they had to prove they could be a cooperative and ‘peace loving’ country, before they would be allowed to join.

In reality, Britain and France were worried that Germany would try and use the League to undermine the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and get Reparations reduced, or something similar. As such, they arguably kept Germany out so that they could not make new allies with whom to challenge Britain and France.

What was the League of Nations?, figure 2

The official symbol of the League of Nations. The League worked in English and in French, just like the United Nations today.

Wilson had insisted that the League be fundamentally written into the Treaty of Versailles, and so the first part of the final treaty was actually a set of rules which established the League. This part of the Treaty was known as the Covenant of the League.

This meant that the League was fundamentally bound into the character of the Treaty. When accusations emerged that the Treaty of Versailles was unfair, and corrupt towards Britain and France, this tarred the League with the same brush. As such, even as it was founded the League was seen as a winners’ club. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Germany was refused entry.

What did American absence mean for the League?

As we have learned, American absence undermined the League in several ways:

  1. It was Wilson’s idea, so without America they lacked a leader.
  2. They were lacking the money that America would have provided to help run the League.
  3. Without America the League lacked significant legitimacy. Especially in the hands of Britain and France, and after the ToV, it looked like a Winners’ Club to run their colonies.
  4. The League lacked America’s power to help stop aggressive nations.

America’s absence is perhaps best shown in this cartoon:

What was the League of Nations?, figure 1

One of the most famous cartoons from the time, about America not joining the League of Nations.

This cartoon is a very famous one from the time, and could well appear as part of your exam paper. It would be a perfect ‘This cartoon is critical of the League of Nations. How do you know?’

The cartoon shows ‘Uncle Sam’ lying by the side of an incomplete bridge. (Uncle Sam is a cartoon figure frequently used to represent America). The bridge represents the League.

America is relaxing upon the stone in the bridge which represents America’s contributions. This part of the bridge is called the ‘Keystone’, and is the part of the bridge which architecturally holds the rest together. Without it, the bridge will immediately collapse.

The cartoon therefore suggests that America was the vital ingredient in the League of Nations. That without America, the League would be doomed to fail.

Define the following terms:

Collective Security
Your answer should include: attack / one / all
Your answer should include: not involved / foreign problems / Republican / United States
What were the four aims of the League of Nations?
Your answer should include: keep peace / disarmament / improve conditions / cure diseases
Which of the following was a member of the League in 1920:Germany, Czechoslovakia, The United States, or the U.S.S.R?

The Role of Britain and France

Britain was initially sceptical of the idea; however, partly in order to compromise with Wilson, Lloyd-George eventually came around to the idea. He sent the ‘Fontainebleau Memorandum in March of 1919, which signalled British support for the idea. This was also partly because Britain thought it would do them no harm to keep America close and friendly.

Britain also liked the League because they could keep their colonies, and indeed take German colonies, through the ‘Mandates’ scheme. Officially, this was a programme through which colonies would become independent; however, in practice, it just meant that Britain and France could keep their colonies and run them through the League.

When America failed to join the League, both Britain and France were devastated. France in particular had depended upon an American alliance to feel safe against Germany. Britain had largely seen the League as a place for countries to talk and trade. On the other hand, France had hoped that the League would have real power, and be a shield against Germany. Both purposes would suffer without American support.