HomeStudent Archival EssaysThe League in Nations: the Effects of Identity

The League in Nations: the Effects of Identity

by Whye Tan

Boycott of Japanese goods
Letter from Arthur F. Sheldon to League of Nations Union
Letter from Roy L Curthoys to Constance Duncan

A comparative analysis of Britain and Australia concerning the way in which each nation’s roles, responsibilities, and global position shaped the local impact of the League of Nations

The League of Nations was a multilateral organisation that aimed to prevent future global conflict by establishing international relations and promoting intellectual and material co-operation. 1 Announced by Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the body was to act as a bulwark to “guard against fresh catastrophes.”2 Such inspiring and ambitious objectives triggered the creation of groups such as the League of Nations Union, a British association that aimed to educate the public about the policies and ideals of the League in Britain, as well as in Australia and other Dominion countries. Though the way in which these organisations manifested themselves in each nation contributed to the degree of success they enjoyed in each country, the country’s relationship with the League itself and the relevance its policies and ideals carried in their respective communities also factored largely into the effectiveness of such auxiliary organisations. As an intergovernmental body whose power and existence derived from the nations of which it was composed, the League’s relationship with each of its members was largely different. Depending on each society’s perceptions of their global roles and responsibilities in the contemporary era, as well as the nation’s political influence and reach, the significance of the League’s policies and ideals varied in each country.   Accordingly, success of the British LNU and other organisations can be seen to stem largely from the nation’s imperial identity and prestigious position in the global order. Coupled with a cultural sense of imperial responsibility and moral purpose, the nation’s global reach and significant involvement in the League acted as considerable factors in the British public’s acceptance of the organisation and its willingness to disseminate its ideals and policies. Though Australia’s identity as a member of the Commonwealth and its motives of self-preservation had similar effects, ultimately, the absence of an independent global identity meant that the League had a less pronounced effect on the Australian public. Hence, the extent of activity stimulated by the League can be seen as intimately linked with the respective nation’s identity and position in the global political paradigm of the era.

Though the establishment of the League of Nations would suggest the end of the imperial narrative and the beginning of a new era of international diplomacy, the reality of the interwar years suggested otherwise. In fact, historian Emily Baughan describes this period of Commonwealth history as the “high point of popular imperialism,” during which the idea of ‘Empire’ was not only preserved, but also increasingly perpetuated in society and public culture.3 Indeed, Helen McCarthy notes the extravagance of the two Empire exhibitions held between the wars, referring specifically to the popularity of the “elaborate pavilion” and “silvery carillon” at the 1938 event.4 Popular acceptance of the imperial role did not, however, prove to be adverse to the League’s cause. Instead, identifying themselves as members of the head of the British Empire, the British public conceived in themselves a sense of imperial responsibility that required them to offer their assistance to those in need, hence introducing a sense of civic ritual within society. The “civilising mission” of the Empire was not over; it had merely evolved from a hostile, expansionist conquest into a reformist mission that evinced “familial” notions of concern and care.5 Ideas regarding the social responsibility of the Empire were so widespread  that humanitarian groups often espoused such rhetoric in order to attract the participation of the public, even when the imperialist narrative did not feature within their own values. For instance, though their founder Eglantyne Jebb did not agree with imperialist sentiments, the Save the Children Fund regularly promoted the idea that Britain, as an imperial power and the head of the Empire, had a “greater duty towards nations with lesser means.”6 Recognising that contemporary British sentiment was partial towards their role in the Empire, Jebb conceded her own personal values in order to save the “greatest possible number of children.”7 Indeed, comparing the amount raised by the British S.C.F with that of the Dominions’ chapters combined, a special  ‘Empire  edition’  of  the  fund’s magazine in 1924 suggested  that British imperial responsibility was accountable for her generosity.8 The nation’s superior role in the imperial hierarchy was hence seen to have inculcated a spirit of giving, making it “impossible [for her and her people] to stand back” from the children’s plight.9 Perpetuating the sense of a “broader moral purpose,” the nation’s leadership in the Commonwealth encouraged social acceptance of a self-imposed imperial obligation.10 The British community were hence well placed to disseminate League ideals that aspired to attain “easier, happier and nobler” lives for men.11

However, “visions of Empire based on notions of responsibility” were not simply limited to the sphere of humanitarian action.12 Instead, imperial responsibility also encompassed a thorough grasp of the British nation and Empire, and an understanding of “these loyalties in a broader, international frame.”13 Britain’s role as an imperial power was seen to have “bestowed upon her people … the obligations of belonging to a international commonweal.”14 Hence, during the interwar period, the importance of an internationalist education and – as the League Covenant had put it – “a …   growth of mutual trust and understanding” was constantly reinforced in British society.15 Knowledge and understanding of international relations and the League’s work came to be seen as an essential quality of a good British citizen. In August 1927, the LNU magazine, Headway, maintained that “intelligent citizenship” and an “enlightened patriotism” could only come from those who had an awareness of “[British] rights and duties as a member of the international community.”16 Unsurprisingly, the LNU hence placed a considerable emphasis on encouraging an “enlightened public opinion in Britain.”17 Despite a meagre budget of £471 in 1921, the Union published leaflets and pamphlets entailing such matters, distributing them to several thousand schools across the country.18 The success of these publications is evident through the  growth of junior branches of the Union; established by students at their respective schools, the number of such groups more than doubled over the span of three years.19 Interest in internationalist education also proliferated outside the classroom. In fact, by 1925, member of associations representing subgroups such as workers and Christian youths had joined the Union’s Education Committee. 20 Understood as an essential characteristic of British citizens, knowledge regarding the League and the contemporary international order developed a “mainstream appeal” during the interwar years.21 The correspondence between the objectives of the League of Nations and that that was perceived to be imperial responsibility is hence seen, yet again, to facilitate the diffusion of League values in British society.

Though also a member of the Commonwealth, Australia’s position in the regime was vastly different. Officially declared a Dominion by the Balfour Declaration of 1926, it was pronounced to be the “master of its [own] destiny.”22 Nevertheless, the nation identified strongly with its British ties. In fact, even in 1936, the Federation was said to have “in no way diminished the existing loyalty to the British Empire.”23 The two nations’ distinct positions in the imperial hierarchy meant that their respective relationships with the League were, too, largely different. Whilst British propagation of the League’s ideals and values were closely linked with notions of imperial responsibility, Australian action regarding the League was, instead, stimulated by its Commonwealth identity. This meant that while the coinciding of League values and social responsibilities was the reason behind British action, Australian action was largely incited by a determination to stand by her imperial leader, rather than by a greater moral purpose. In other words, Australia’s acceptance of, and relationship with the League was often prompted by that of Britain. In fact, an Australian LNU publication of 1936, World Peace, the League and Australia, even concedes that the nation’s  “unconditional  support  of  the  League”  was  based  mostly  on Australia’s “determination  to  stand  by  Great  Britain.”24  The  League  is  hence  rarely  seen  to inspire domestic movements in the young nation. Rather, “taking its cues from its British counterpart,” Australian efforts to perpetuate pacifist or League values were often stimulated by similar British action.25 Several pacifist organisations – the LNU and Australian Peace Pledge Union amongst them – were hence branches “modelled on the British pattern.”26 Furthermore, brochures and pamphlets that had been printed for the British public were distributed in Australia, and even those that had been designed for a local audience often included a section that delineated British opinions on the particular organisation. Indeed, in an informational handout produced in Australia in 1939 regarding the International Peace Campaign, a section entitled “What the I.P.C. means to British Leaders” even precedes that which laid out “How The I.P.C. works nationally.27 In a similar vein, the guest of honour at a Peace Congress held in September 1937 was not an Australian, but rather, British M.P. Arthur Henderson, who took care to emphasise Australia’s Commonwealth identity.28 Perhaps more than the League of Nations itself, it was Australia’s identification with her role in the Commonwealth order that seemed to legitimise and stimulate the nation’s relationship with the League, and British guidance that seemed to inspire civic participation during the interwar years. This sentiment is epitomised in the fact that a publication by the Australian LNU – namely, an organisation set up to support the League – noted that Australia’s “close relationship with Great Britain, and … ultimate dependence for [its] security on her, necessitates [the nation’s] whole-hearted support of the League system so long as [Britain] remains a member of it.”29

To some extent, however, the nation’s geographical position – distant from Europe, but in close proximity to Japan – also compelled her to remain somewhat committed to the League of Nations, and to promote the organisation’s policies.30 For instance, in 1938, when the Australian Government had “refused to take the economic action they were obliged to … by the League Covenant,” the Movement against War and Fascism group issued a pamphlet imploring the public to boycott Japanese goods.31 This prompted  a  wave  of  responses  from  various  groups,  which,  though  inconsistent, nonetheless indicated civic interest in the League’s policies.32 Even so, there was still an overwhelming tendency to assume that Australian interests would be “sufficiently safeguarded by Great Britain.”33 As historian W. J. Hudson argues, to the “myopic Australian eye” of the pre-war era, Britain “looked still to be the great power.”34 Such a view is, indeed, supported by The Woman, a magazine produced by the Australian Women’s National League in 1926. Asserting that “the British Commonwealth of Nations is the greatest bulwark against the onslaught of Prussianism or Despostism,” the magazine urges the “cultivation of an imperial spirit.”35 Allegiance to the imperial power was evidently seen as the most secure method of self-preservation that would ensure protection in the case of future conflict. Yet again, imperial ties seemed to trump a relationship with the League; rather than membership of the League itself, it was “membership of the British Commonwealth [that] continued to provide the deepest sense of security for Australians.”36 Despite some engagement with the League and its values, Australia is seen to both prefer, and have greater trust in, the shelter offered to her by her “imperial protector.”37 Hence, though factions of the Australian community attempted to deepen its relationship with the League, there was “rather little theoretical engagement with the subject by comparison to the British Empire and Commonwealth.”38

The respective global positions and political significance of the two nations were also a reason for which the popularity of the League of Nations varied in each country. As historian Susan Pedersen notes, “international relations is the art of making great- power interests and global stability coincide.” 39 Imperial responsibility aside, Britain’s privileged position in the contemporary global hierarchy hence meant that League policies often favoured the nation’s objectives, allowing the organisation to be seen as an “extension of British power.”40 Such a view is certainly apparent in a speech given by the Prince of Wales at a banquet hosted for delegates at the Imperial Conference in 1930, which linked the British Commonwealth and the League of Nations together as “two great institutions” with much common ground, in which all Britons should place their faith.41 Painting the Commonwealth and the League as “complementary and interlocking spheres of co-operation,” the Prince effectively implied  that  the  missions  of  the  two  associations  had,  to  some  degree,  a mutual objective.42 Indeed, as Daniel Gorman observes, the mandates system of the League can be seen as Britain’s attempt to “reassert its imperial power under the auspices of the [organisation],” and to “maintain the old imperial order under a different guise.”43 Article XXII of the League’s Covenant, which conferred the “tutelage” of formerly German and Ottoman possessions to “advanced nations … [with] resources [and] experience” – Britain amongst them – is a particularly apt example of this.44 The League’s public appeal can hence be credited, in part, to the fact that the organisation supported the nation’s concerns. True to that which the League Covenant had promised, the nation was able to “retain their own aspirations and watch over their own interests” through the multilateral association.45 Furthermore, Britain’s vast empire and political reach also meant that global esteem of Britain was perceived to be at its peak.46 A Headway writer in 1934 even goes to the length of declaring that “what Britain says the world listens to … what she does the world notes … she is a rock whose stability and steadiness inspires confidence.”47 Hence, believing that “the fate of the world hinged on their actions, on their steadfastness in support of the League,” the British public were convinced that their support of the League and participation in its auxiliary associations was crucial.48 With such a “moral purpose” in hand, it is thus unsurprising that “League consciousness” propagated within the British public, inspiring her people more than any other nation.49

Australia’s relevance in interwar global politics, however, cannot be considered similar to that of Britain in the era. As a British Dominion, the country had, theoretically, a degree of autonomy and an “enhanced capacit[y] for independent state action.”50 However, despite this, the young nation privileged such a status and continued to identify primarily as a member of the Commonwealth. For instance, even in an address regarding the importance of the League in 1926, the Hon. George Swinburne took care to outline Australia’s identity as a “Unit in the great Commonwealth of British Nations.”51 Furthermore, as Julie McLeod observes in her article regarding interwar education in Australia, though Australian civics education attempted to “loo[k] beyond national shores” in this period, the question of Empire was never neglected, and “continued to be addressed in a dedicated chapter [of a civics textbook].”52 In some ways, such a close relationship with Britain precluded development of a uniquely Australian perspective of foreign affairs, and a distinctively Australian global identity. J. C. Rockwood Proud, the research  secretary at the Bureau of Social and International Affairs even comments in 1936 that “the Australian, to a very large degree, looks at European politics through English eyes.”53 Australia’s tendency to determine her relationship with other countries  through British links rather than a “consciously formulated policy” meant that a “sense of separate interes[t]” did not develop in the nation.54 Hence, though other British Dominions began to formulate their own foreign policies and global identities, such a progression did not occur in Australia in the interwar period. The absence of a distinctive foreign policy and identity, together with Australia’s geographical distance from Europe, often meant that the Australian public were less motivated by the League’s policies and ideals. While the participation of activists from nations such as Britain and the United Stated in the ongoing foreign policy debates was legitimised by their country’s distinctive role in contemporary global affairs, the Australian public did not have the same privilege. Due to the country’s lack of individual policy, the Australian activist’s task was much more complex. In order to enact change they would not only have to mobilise local public opinion, but also persuade the government to pressure their British counterpart into modifying policies and relations. Overwhelmed by how ill-placed they were to stimulate change, even those who were inspired by the League’s policies were frustrated by the “stultifying degree of remove.”55 As such, though British foreign policy and global identity legitimised activists’ efforts, the lack thereof in Australia often discouraged such individuals, reducing the significance and popularity of auxiliary organisations such as the LNU.

Hence, due to their contrasting identities and position in the contemporary global order, the League of Nations is seen to have a significantly different effect in Britain and Australia. While social acceptance of imperial responsibility in Britain stimulated the execution of the League’s policies and encouraged the dissemination of popular education regarding the League, such sentiment did not exist in Australia. Instead, Australian efforts were more likely to be motivated by Commonwealth loyalty and the objective of self-preservation. Consequently, the nation’s efforts were often simplified reproductions of those of Britain, rather than organically inspired by the League itself. The difference in the two nations’ global political relevance also played a part in their respective public’s efforts regarding the League. Britain’s privileged position in the political paradigm of the period as well as in the League of Nations was seen to lend legitimacy to its citizens’ activism, leading to a greater propensity to engage in civic participation. On the other hand, Australia’s relative irrelevance in the international community, coupled with the lack of a distinctive foreign policy in the nation meant that activists were more inclined to feel discouraged, precluding higher levels of public engagement. Although there was a reasonable culture of activism in interwar Australia, the stimulation of this can be credited largely to her allegiance to the Commonwealth and the British Empire, rather than the League of Nations itself. Hence, due to the country’s loyalties and indistinctive political identity, the League of Nations is seen to play a lesser role in inspiring activism in Australia than in Britain.



1 The League of Nations, “Part One: The Covenant of the League of Nations,” in The Aims and Organisation of the League of Nations (Geneva: League of Nations, 1929), 15. Available at:

2  Ibid, 14.

3 Emily Baughan, “‘Every Citizen of Empire Implored to Save the Children!’ Empire, internationalism and the Save the Children Fund in inter-war Britain,” Historical Research 86, 231 (2013): 117.

4 Helen McCarthy, The British people and the League of Nations: Democracy, citizenship and internationalism, c. 1918-45 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), 147.

5  Ibid, 143.

The World’s Children, April 1924, as cited in  Baughan,  “Empire, internationalism and the SCF,” 128.

7 Save the Children Archives, EJ 121, E. Jebb, notes on relief in Cologne, as cited in ibid, 127.

8  Baughan, “Empire, internationalism and the SCF,” 128.

9 Ibid.

10 McCarthy, British People and the League, 9.

11 The League of Nations, “Covenant,” 15.

12 Joyce Goodman, “Education, internationalism and empire at the 1928 and 1930 Pan-Pacific Women’s Conferences,” Journal of Educational Administration and History, 46, 2 (2014): 152.

13 McCarthy, British People and the League, 124.

14 F.S Marvin, “Britain and the League of Nations,” in England and the World,  ed. F.S Marvin (London: Oxford University Press, 1925), 236, as cited in ibid, 108.

15 The League of Nations, “Covenant,” 13.

16 “Looking Ahead,” Headway, August 1927, as cited in McCarthy, British People and the League, 132.

17 Donald Birn, “A Peace Movement Divided: Pacifism and Internationalism in Interwar Britain,” Peace & Change 73, 1 (1973): 20.

18 B. J. Elliott, “The League of Nations Union and History Teaching in England: a Study in Benevolent Bias,” History of Education 6, 2 (1977): 132.

19 This widespread support for the League was reflected in the growth of junior branches of the Union. In the period between January 1926 and 1929, the number of such groups rose from 293 to more than 650. Ibid, 134.

20 Apart from the groups specified – Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) – groups such as the World Association for Adult Education, the Educational Settlements Association, and the National Adult School Union also had representatives in the Committee. McCarthy, British People and the League, 117.

21  Ibid, 105.

22 Inter-Imperial Relations Committee, Report, Proceedings and Memoranda, Imperial Conference, 1926. Available at:

23 J. C. Rockwood Proud, World Peace, The League and Australia (Melbourne: Robertson & Mullens Ltd., 1936), 6.

24  Proud, World Peace, 53.

25 Hilary Summy, “Countering War: the role of the League of Nations Union,” Social Alternatives 33, 4 (2014): 16.

26 Peter Brock and Malcolm Saunders, “Pacifists as Conscientious Objectors in Australia,” in Challenge to Mars, eds. Peter Brock and Thomas P. Socknat (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 273.

27 University of Melbourne Archives, International Peace Campaign Collection, 81/87, Box 5, Series 5/7, pamphlet entitled “What is the IPC”, 1939.

28 “Great Rally Ends Peace Congress: 4000 People attend at Exhibition,” Argus, 20 September 1937.

29  Proud, World Peace, 53.

30 Richard Devetak, “An Australian Outlook on International Affairs? The Evolution of International Relations Theory in Australia,” Australian Journal of Politics and History 55, 3 (2009): 337.

31 University of Melbourne Archives, International Peace Campaign Collection, 81/87, Box 5, Series 5/6, Brochure entitled “Boycott?,” 1937.

32 For letters from the Australian Student Christian Movement, Australian Movement Against War and Fascism, Assistant Mistresses’ Association of Victoria, Youth Movement, Melbourne Society of the New Church and various other groups regarding this matter, see: University of Melbourne Archives, International Peace Campaign Collection, 81/87, Box 5, Series 5/6.

33  Proud, World Peace, 12.

34 W. J. Hudson, Australia and the League of Nations (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1980), 190.

35 University of Melbourne Archives, George Swinburne Collection, 1980.0171, Box 21, Article entitled “The Cultivation of an Imperial Spirit in magazine, The Woman, May 1926.

36 Carolyn Rasmussen, The Lesser Evil? Opposition to War and Fascism in Australia 1920-1941 (Parkville, Victoria: History Department, University of Melbourne, 1992), 16.

37  Devetak, Australian Outlook, 339.

38  Ibid, 342.

39 Susan Pedersen, “Back to the League of Nations,” The American Historical Review 112, 4 (2007): 1093.

40  Birn, Peace Movement Divided, 23.

41 Prince of Wales, as cited in McCarthy, British People and the League, 132.

42 McCarthy, British People and the League, 134.

43 Daniel Gorman, “Liberal Internationalism, the League of Nations Union, and the Mandates System,” Canadian Journal of History 40, 3 (2005): 451.

44 The League of Nations, “Article 22,” in Aims and Organisation, 88.

45 The League of Nations, “Covenant,” 16.

46 Earnest Bramsted, “Apostles of Collective Security: The LNU and its  Functions,” Australian Journal of Politics and History 13, (1967): 350.

47 Ibid.

48  Birn, Peace Movement Divided, 23.

49 McCarthy, British People and the League, 2.

50 Nicholas Brown, “Enacting the International: R.G. Watts and the League of Nations Union,” in Transnational Ties: Australian Lives in the World, eds. Desley Deacon, Penny Russell and Angela Woollacott (Acton, A.C.T.: ANU E Press, 2008), 76.

51 University of Melbourne Archives, George Swinburne Collection, 1980.0171, Box 21, “Address given by the Hon. George Swinburne,” February 1926.

52 Julie McLeod, “Educating for ‘world-mindedness’: cosmopolitanism, localism and schooling the adolescent citizen in interwar Australia,” Journal of Education Administration and History 44, 4 (2012): 344.

53  Proud, World Peace, 52.

54  Rasmussen, The Lesser Evil?, 14.

55  Ibid, 16.