How the League of Nations Came to Be

The League of Nations, an intergovernmental organization, was founded on January 10, 1920 after the Paris Peace Conference that brought the Great War to an end. The League was the first international organization that’s main purpose was to maintain peace worldwide. One of its primary goals was to prevent wars with collective security and also disarmament and settling international arguments and disputes by negotiation and arbitration. The United States never became a member of the League, despite the fact that it had originally been President Wilson’s idea. Ultimately, the league failed and dissolved after the second World War on April 20, 1946.  


The League of Nations’ Flag. Source:

The idea of creating an international organization to hopefully prevent any future wars was largely favored when the World War I broke out in 1914. In countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, it was particularly popular. British political scientist Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, coined the term for this sort of organization, a “League of Nations”. Dickinson and Lord James Bryce played a large role in establish a group of international pacifists they called the Bryce Group. Later on, it came to be called the League of Nations Union. Slowly and steadily, the group became more and more influential and popular with the public, but also as a pressure group within the Liberal Party, which governed the United Kingdom at that point. Dickinson wrote a pamphlet in 1915 titled After the War. In this pamphlet, he spoke of a “League of Peace” that was an organization for arbitration and conciliation. He also wrote of his beliefs that the secret diplomacy of the early twentieth century had been the reason for the war.

A similar group was organized in the United States in 1915. One of the members included former president William Howard Taft, who had served prior to the current president of the time, Woodrow Wilson. The League to Enforce Peace, as they called it, was based on the Bryce Group’s proposals. The organization advocated for the imposition of sanctions on aggressive countries along with using arbitration to resolve conflict. None of the early organizations were envisioning a body that would continually function. The Fabian Society, which was in England, however, did. They were able to maintain a legalistic approach that, by limiting the international body, was a Court of Justice. The Fabian Society argued that a “Council” of states was needed to adjudicate world affairs and to permanently create a secretariat that was to enhance a range of international co-operational activities. Their argument was mainly directed to the Great Powers.

In early 1918, the British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour, under Lord Robert Cecil’s initiative, was commissioned the first official report in this matter. By February of that same year, they finally established a British Committee led by Walter Phillimore that included members such as Eyre Crowe, Cecil Hurst, and William Tyrell. The Committee became known later on as the Phillimore Committee. The Phillimore Commission, as it was called, recommended a “Conference of Allied States” to arbitrate disputes and to impose sanctions on any offending states. The British Government approved the proposals. Most of the results of the commission were then later incorporated into the Covenant of the League of Nations.

Meanwhile, the French had drafted a proposal in June of 1918 that was much more far-reaching. They advocated for a council to meet annually to settle any disputes and to enforce their decisions, an “international army”.

Edward M. House was instructed by President of the United States Woodrow Wilson to draft a plan for the U.S., reflecting Wilson’s own ideas and viewpoints that he had earlier spoke of in his Fourteen Points in January of 1918. Points made by the Phillimore Commission were also included. In the end, the plan proposed that they get rid of any “unethical” state behavior, which included espionage and dishonesty. Severe measures would go to any uncooperative and dishonest states.

British Lord Robert Cecil and Jan Smuts were the primary drafters and architects of the covenant of the League of Nations. Smuts proposed that a Council made up of the great powers was created with permanent members and for minor states, non-permanent members. That was not all though. He also proposed they create a Mandate system for any colonies the Central Powers had captured during the war. Cecil was more focused on the administrative side though. He proposed that the Council meet annually and meetings every four years for the Assembly, made up of all members. Cecil argued that they needed a large and permanent secretariat that could carry out any administrative duties of the League.


The Paris Peace Conference and signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Source:

At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which began that January, Cecil and Smuts, along with President Wilson, all put forward the proposals they had drafted. The delegates spent a long time negotiating until they finally produced the Hurst-Miller draft as the basis for the Covenant. After even more time spent negotiating and compromising, the proposal was approved and thus, the League of Nations was created on January 25, 1919. A special commission drafted the final copy of the Covenant of the League of Nations. Under Part I of the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations was established on June 28, 1919. In total 44 states signed the Covenant. 31 of those 44 states had been on the side of Triple Entente (Russia, France, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland).

A General Assembly that would represent all member states, an Executive Council for members with major powers, and a permanent secretariat would make up the League. Members states of the League were given the expectations to “respect and preserve against external aggression” the other members’ territorial integrity and to disarm “to the lowest point consistent for domestic safety). Before going to war, all member states were required to submit arbitration or judicial inquiry complaints. A Permanent Court of International Justice was created to make judgements on these disputes by the Executive Council.

The United States, however, never joined the League, despite Wilson being one of the main creators and advocates for the League. Wilson was even warded the Nobel Peace Prize in October of 1919 for his efforts. Two main Republican politicians Henry Cabot Lodge and William Borah had been very much against the League, Article X of the Covenant especially. President Wilson was very stubborn and refused to compromise on the U.S. joining the League. When he suffered a terrible stroke in 1919, he was incapacitated for the remainder of his term. So, the U.S. never did join the League of Nations.

On January 20, 16, the League held its first council meeting after finally coming into effect on January 10, 1920 along with the Versailles Treaty. The first meeting was held in Paris, but on November 1 of that same year, the headquarters were moved to Geneva, Switzerland. The First General Assembly was then held on November 15, 1920.

In the end, the League of Nations did not survive and was dissolved on April 20, 1946. Though its primary goal was to preserve world peace, it did not succeed, as World War II broke out in 1939. The League did set the stage for the United Nations though, which was established in 1945 and is still alive today.