The League of Nations – From Founding to Dissolution

The Palestine Mandate was established as part of the League of Nations’ mandate system.  Thus, an overview of the League is helpful, including its founding, the mandate system, and the League’s eventual demise, in order to see the Palestine Mandate within its larger institutional context.

The League of Nations’ formal existence began on 10 Jan 1920, following the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War.  Its founding in the wake of the devastation of World War I was a first attempt at realizing an age-old dream, the dream of a world without war, of cooperation between nations big and small, as envisioned by the ancient Hebrew prophets (swords into plowshares, Isaiah 2:4, Amos 4:3; the wolf dwelling with the lamb, Isaiah 11:6-7). 

Political thinkers and philosophers wrote about various forms of an association of nations for centuries, from Dante Alighieri in De Monarchia in the 1300s, to Immanuel Kant in his essay, Perpetual Peace, published in 1795.1  Kant proposed a federation of free “republican” states – by “republican” meaning representative, constitutional government.

During the 19th Century, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, there was a growing demand for an organized system for the peaceful settlement of disputes among nations and the lessening of the danger of war. Robert Cecil extensively reviews and analyzes the historical and philosophical background in Chapter 2 of <em>A Great Experiment - An Autobiography</em>.

F.P. Walters traces four lines of this development:2 

1. Practical internationalism – the establishment of functional, specialized bodies, such as the International Telegraphic Union and the Universal Postal Union, as a consequence of the industrial revolution and great increase in global trade.
2. Consultation between the great powers – the Concert of Europe.
3. Growth of pacifist movements.
4. Developments in international law, such as, proposals for a permanent international court, the practice of arbitration, and developments arising from the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907.

The ferment for a new international organization grew dramatically in the face of the devastation of the four years of World War I.  By the time of the Armistice in November 1918, governments and peoples were coming to accept the idea of a new international system.3  But it was not until President Woodrow Wilson delivered his “Fourteen Points” speech before the United States Congress on 8 Jan 1918, that diplomats and governments began to seriously consider the proposal to create an association of nations.

1 For a concise discussion of the most important of those writings, see, Dr. Alan Sharp, The League of Nations: The ‘Great Experiment’ and the Failure of Collective Security, 1916-1936 (2013).  See also Chapter 2 of F.P. Walters, A History of the League of Nations (1952).
2 See, F.P. Walters, ibid, p. 7.
3 See, F.P. Walters, ibid, Chap. 3; Henry R. Winkler, The Development of the League of Nations Idea in Great Britain, 1914-1919, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Jun., 1948), pp. 95-112; International Government: Two Reports by L.S. Woolf Prepared for the Fabian Research Department (1916).


8 Jan 1918
Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points Speech

In his speech before a joint session of the United States Congress, President Wilson offered his view of war aims and peace terms. His plan not only dealt with territorial issues but offered principles upon which a long-term peace might be built, including the establishment of a association of nations to guard against future wars.  In articulating his idealistic vision he stated:

What we demand in this war, therefore, is nothing peculiar to ourselves. It is that the world be made fit and safe to live in; and particularly that it be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world, as against force and selfish aggression.

Of the 14-point program which followed, the fourteenth point proposed:

XIV. A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

With this speech, the idea of such an association entered into the diplomatic process which resulted in the founding of the League of Nations at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

January to December 1918
Preliminary Proposals

A number of proposals for an association of nations were developed under government auspices prior to the 11 Nov 1918 armistice which ended the war.1

  • In January 1918, shortly after Wilson’s Fourteen Point speech, British Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, appointed a Committee “on the League of Nations”, chaired by Sir Walter Phillimore.2  The Committee was directed to inquire into the various schemes for establishing “by means of a League of Nations, or other device”, some alternative to war as a means of settling international disputes. An interim report was circulated to the War Cabinet, and its final proposal submitted on 20 Mar 1918.
  • Bourgeois Committee [in French with English trans.]
  • Colonel House Draft
  • Wilson’s First Draft
  • Smuts Proposal

1 See, F.P. Walters, A History of the League of Nations (1952) pp. 26-30; David Hunter Miller, The Drafting of the Covenent (1928) Vol. 1, Chap. 1.
2
See the comment on the Phillimore Committee by Lord Davies during a debate in the British House of Lords on 5 Aug 1942.

18 Jan 1919 to 21 Jan 1920
Paris Peace Conference

The Paris Peace Conference was called to establish the terms of peace after World War I and convened on 18 Jan 1919.  The proceedings, dominated by the leaders of the United States (Woodrow Wilson), Britain (David George Lloyd), France (Georges Clemenceau), and Italy (Vittorio Emanuele Orlando), involved diplomats from 32 countries.  Wilson arrived at the conference intent on prioritizing the creation of a league of nations as part of the peace settlements.  Lloyd George prepared a resolution on the matter that was submitted to the Supreme Council, which consisted of representatives from the United States, France, Britain, Italy, and Japan.  The resolution directed the appointment of a committee (later termed a “Commission”) to work out the details for the constitution and functioning of the league. It was adopted on 25 Jan 1919, at a plenary session of all of the parties gathered at the Conference.1 Major actions taken by the Conference were: (1) the establishment of the League of Nations; (2) the transfer of German and Ottoman overseas possessions into the mandate system of the League of Nations; (3) the drafting of five peace treaties; (4) reparations; and (5) the drawing of new national boundaries. The five peace treaties were:

  1. Treaty of Versailles, signed 28 Jun 1919, concerning Germany  [Eng/Fr ver. with maps]
  2. Treaty of Saint-Germain, signed 10 Sep 1919, concerning Austria
  3. Treaty of Neuilly, signed 27 Nov 1919, concerning Bulgaria
  4. Treaty of Trianon, signed 4 Jun 1920, concerning Hungary
  5. Treaty of Sèvres, signed 10 Aug 1920, concerning Turkey 
The first 26 articles of all five of the treaties were the Covenant of the League of Nations.  The Treaty of Sèvres was signed but not ratified, and was subsequently superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

The committee (Commission) charged with drafting a covenant for a league of nations completed its work on 11 Apr 1919.  The Peace Conference approved the final text of the Covenant on 28 Apr 1919. It was subsequently incorporated into all five of the above treaties.

The League was formally established on 10 Jan 2020, upon the entry into force of the Treaty of Versailles.  This brought the Paris Conference to an end before the signing of the treaties with Turkey or Hungary.

The disposition of Palestine, which had been part of the Ottoman Empire, was one of the matters under consideration during the Conference and was ultimately included in the League’s mandate system, created pursuant to Article 22 of the Covenant, as the Palestine Mandate.

Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, The Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Vol III, 201, 319 (1943).

Records of the Peace Conference

 

January to June,1919
At the Peace Conference
Drafting of the Covenant

In a two-volume work, The Drafting of the Covenant (1928), David Hunter Miller, an American lawyer who was intimately involved in the drafting process, detailed the meetings, discussions, and drafting in Volume I, and compiled documents from the process in Volume II. Additional accounts are in the resources below. What follows are a few highlights of the process.

  • 25 Jan – a resolution is adopted at a plenary session of the Peace Conference nominating a committee (Commission) to draft a covenant for a league of nations, which covenant is to be an integral part of the peace treaty concluded at the Conference.  
  • 3 Feb – the first meeting of the Commission on the League of Nations, with President Wilson presiding, takes as a basis for discussion, one of a number of draft proposals – the one developed by Cecil Hurst of Britain, and David Hunter Miller of the United States.
  • 13 Feb  – at the tenth meeting of the Commission a draft is completed for submission to the conference plenary.
  • 14 Feb – the conference plenary releases the Commission's draft for public comment.
  • 11 Apr – the Commission, at its fifteenth and last meeting approves a draft of Covenant to be submitted to the Peace Conference as a whole.  At that final meeting Geneva is selected to be the seat of the League of Nations.
  • 28 Apr – final text of the Covenant is unanimously adopted at a plenary session of the Peace Conference.  The first Secretary-General of the League, James Eric Drummond of Britain, is appointed by the plenary.
  • 28 Jun – the Treaty of Versailles, which includes the Covenant of the League of Nations as the first 26 articles, is signed.
May 1919 to January 2020
Preparatory Steps

Several ideas and suggestions were proposed regarding the organization of the League:

The Organization Committee of the League appointed by Resolution of the April 28th Plenary Conference held two meetings. A third meeting was proposed but did not take place (see ¶ 3 of the 13 Aug 1919 minutes of the Directors’ meeting).

  • 5 May 1919 meeting – 5 resolutions were approved concerning preparing plans for the organization, allocating a line of credit, authorizing temporary staffing, salary, and allowances for the Acting Secretary-General, and adjournment sine die.   Minutes
  • 9 Jun 1919  meeting – 2 resolutions were adopted concerning the transmittal of information from member states to the Secretariat, and the treatment by member states of national officials appointed to the Secretariat. In addition, two resolutions concerning communications between member states and the Secretariat were discussed at length but reserved for consideration by the Council.
  • July 1919 proposed meeting. The Secretary-General proposed that the resolutions from the June 9 meeting again be considered by the Organization Committee.

The organizing work was subsequently taken up at meetings of the Directors of the preliminary Secretariat.

  • Minutes of the Directors’ meetings from 13 Aug 1919 to 28 Jan 2020
Structure of the League
Covenant of the League of Nations

The League of Nations consisted of three main bodies – the Secretariat, the Assembly, and the Council – and a number of subsidiary bodies, the Permanent Mandates Commission being of principal concern to this Project.

  • The Assembly was the main representative body of the League of Nations, composed of delegates from all member states.
    • It established the Supervisory Commission as the League’s central arm for financial administration. The Commission would play a central role during WWII and the windup of the League’s affairs after the war.
  • The Council, which worked in parallel with the Assembly and met far more frequently, consisted of permanent and non-permanent members, the numbers varying over time.
  • The Secretariat served as the administrative organ of the League.

Two additional organizations, the Permanent Court of International Justice and the International Labor Organization were associated with the League though they were independent entities.

Functional Chart         Spider Chart


For further resources see below

1920 to 1921
Startup

First Formal Meetings

1921 to 1939
Primary Years of Operation

A review of the work and activities of the League of Nations during its years of operation is beyond the scope of this project.  We just note that the League provided the first pattern of a permanent international organization, a pattern on which much of the United Nations system was modeled.

The League at Work Main Areas of the League’s Activities

Essential Facts About the League of Nations  (1939)

There have been many evaluations of the League, of its successes and failures. A few are referenced in the resources listed below.

1939
League Meetings At the Start of WWII

As war clouds were gathering in 1938, the Assembly anticipated the need to streamline the work of the League in the event of an actual outbreak of war. It thus adopted a resolution at its 19th Session authorizing the Secretary-General, with approval of the Supervisory Commission, to take necessary administrative and financial measures without prior approval by the Assembly. This authority was renewed by the Assembly at its 20th Session in December 1939 and continued in effect throughout the war years.

  • December 9, 1939 – 106th League Council Session.  The League of Nations Council held its one-hundred-sixth session in Geneva.
  • December 11-14, 1939 – 20th League Assembly Session. The League of Nations Assembly held its twentieth session in Geneva.
  • December 14, 1939 – 107th League Council Session.  The League of Nations Council held its one-hundred-seventh session to consider the Soviet Union’s expulsion from the organization in response to the Soviet invasion of Finland. The Council suspended operations at the end of the session and never convened again.
1940 to 1945
The League During WWII

During the war, neither the Assembly nor the Council met, and the Supervisory Commission assumed the powers allocated to it by the Assembly resolutions of 1938 and 1939.

The League Secretariat remained in Geneva with a greatly reduced staff, while a number of League bodies were dispersed elsewhere for the duration of the conflict:

  • The League’s Treasury relocated to London in early 1941.
  • The major part of the Economic, Financial and Transit Department was hosted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey.
  • The Opium Supervisory Body and the Office of the Permanent Central Opium Board were largely re-situated in Washington, D.C. 
  • The High Commissioner for Refugees and the Permanent Court of International Justice functioned from London.
  • The International Labor Organization moved to Montreal, Canada.

The work and functioning of the League during the war is described in the following official reports:

See below for other accounts of the League’s activities during the war:

1945 to 1947
Windup and Handover to the United Nations

As World War II progressed, the Allied powers began moving toward the creation of a new international organization to replace the League of Nations. By the time of the Dumbarton Oaks Conversations in the summer and autumn of 1944, the demise of the League was a forgone conclusion. After the adoption of the Charter of the United Nations on 26 Jun 1945, the chief concern was to see the League terminate its activities and dissolve itself in a smooth and noncontroversial manner. The process began on the date the UN Charter was adopted.The dissolution of the League was approved by the League’s Assembly on 18 Apr 1946. Lord Robert Cecil, one of the League’s founders, noted that the efforts of those who had established the League of Nations were not lost, because without them the new international organization, the United Nations, could not exist. He closed the Assembly with the words: “The League is dead, long live the United Nations!”The handover to the United Nations and formal windup ended in 1947, though certain limited matters, primarily financial, lingered for some time after. The following is a chronology of the main steps taken to coordinate the process with the United Nations, to move towards windup and dissolution, and to transfer assets and functions to the United Nations. For further detail, see the resources below.

  • 26 Jun 1945 – The signatories of the UN Charter adopted a set of Interim Arrangements that established a Preparatory Commission and Executive Committee geared toward the startup of the new organization. Paragraph 4.c. directed consideration of the transfer of functions from the League of Nations. 
  • 20 Sep 1945 – The Acting Secretary-General of the League queried members on his proposal to invest the League’s Supervisory Commission with primary responsibility to coordinate the provisional terms of transfer to the UN, subject to final decision by the League’s Assembly. The great majority of members replied favorably and the Acting Secretary-General informed the members on 17 Oct 1945 that the Supervisory Commission had accepted the task.
  • 27 Oct 1945 – The Executive Committee issued its report. Chapter IX offered its recommendations for the transfer of certain functions, activities, and assets of the League. Report of the Executive Committee
  • 23 Dec 1945 – The Preparatory Commission issues its report, of which Chapter XI covered recommendations for transfer from the League. Report of the Preparatory Commission
  • 28 Jan 1946 – Release of the Common Plan developed in negotiations between the Committee set up by the UN Preparatory Commission and the League’s Supervisory Commission.
  • 12 Feb 1946 – The UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 24(I) concerning the transfer of functions, activities, and assets of the League, and established a small committee to assist in further negotiations with the League.
  • 8 Apr 1946 – Resumption and close of the 20th session of the Assembly of the League and opening of the 21st session.
  • 18 Apr 1946 – The last meeting of the 21st Assembly session approved the dissolution resolution, effective 19 Apr 1946, the appointment of a Board of Liquidation, and the assumption of responsibility for the League's mandates by the UN Trusteeship Council, among other matters.
  • 23 Apr 1946 – First meeting of the League’s Board of Liquidation.
  • 19 Jul 1946 – Agreement signed between the League and the UN concerning the transfer of assets.
  • 7 Dec 1946 – UN General Assembly adopts Resolution 79(I) concerning the transfer of assets from the League to the UN.
  • 14 Dec 1946 – UN General Assembly adopts Resolution 51(I) concerning the assumption of certain non-political functions and activities of the League.
  • 31 Jul 1947 – Board of Liquidation completes its work. Final Report
  • 25 Oct 1947 – Windup and dissolution of the League’s Secretariat
  • 11 Dec 1948 – UN General Assembly adopts Resolution 250(III) concerning the transfer of assets of the UN

Online Documentation and Bibliographies:

Further Reading:

Organization and Structure

Assembly

Secretariat

Membership

History – General

Drafting of the Covenant

League Activities During WWII

Dissolution, Windup and Handover

Selected Evaluations