HomeStudent Archival EssaysWhat were the primary factors in the failure of the League of Nations Union in Australia to create what Helen McCarthy terms a ‘rich and participatory culture of political protest, popular education and civic ritual’?

What were the primary factors in the failure of the League of Nations Union in Australia to create what Helen McCarthy terms a ‘rich and participatory culture of political protest, popular education and civic ritual’?

by Patrick Howe

League of Nations Union-Pacifism-Unseen Assassins
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Australian League of Nations Union report publications
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Australian League of Nations Union members, 1938

The League of Nations Union of Australia conclusively failed to match the achievements of its British branch. The Union aimed to mobilise mass support for the league of Nations and to pressure the government to adhere to the tenets of its Covenant[1].Unlike in Britain, where the Union wielded considerable influence at a political level and possessed over 650,000 members in 1928, the Australian branch consistently failed to make an impact upon government policy and foreign affairs and in the same period had only 330 paid members[2][3]. A rich and participatory culture of political protest, popular education and civic ritual remained unachieved by the time World War II had put a practical end to the relevance of the League of Nations its local union of supporters. The failure of the League of Nations Union to exert significant influence over Australia can attributed to a number of factors. The long-standing divisions in the Australian pacifist movement meant that the Union remained unable to cross ideological boundaries and generate cross-sector support for the League. The Union also failed to secure effective political bipartisan support. The Union’s inability to mobilise the Trade Unions and the working class Australians similarly limited their support base, both in terms of members and political influence. Furthermore, the League seldom managed to exert influence over political decisions and events. The issue of conscription was of extreme significance to the politics of the period and was a crucial element of the Union’s political landscape. These factors together were critical to the failure of the Australian League of Nations Union.

The pacifist movement will be referenced in this essay and spoken of in conjunction with the League of Nations Union. While there were significant links between the two, it is important to establish that the League of Nations was a product of the Internationalism movement, which aimed to reduce war and conflict through a faith in diplomatic resolution of disputes, rather than of the pacifist movement[4]. It did not advocate for full-scale disarmament, unlike the more traditional pacifists; rather, it placed its faith in collective security[5]. Collective Security was conceived as eliminating the need for large national armies, as any disputes that escalated to a stage requiring force would be faced by the overwhelming numbers of all the members of the League of Nations[6].

While the Union itself was the product of the internationalist movement, other important pacifist bodies were present. The broader peace movement was divided into three strands: true pacifism, liberal humanitarianism, and international socialism[7]. The differing ideological motivations for support meant that the peace movement was internally divided, which in turn limited the potential support for the Union and League. This division became particularly damaging as the League came to be seen, especially by the socialists, as an attempt of the Great Powers to maintain their empires[8]. To all intents and purposes, this was correct; many, especially among the conservatives, saw the League in exactly these terms, and their support and advocacy was dependent upon this[9]. The Union itself was not immune to internal conflict, especially with the rise of Fascism in the 1930s and the need for the states of the League to rearm themselves in order to confront the fascist powers. This shift was difficult for many within the League of Nations Union, who continued to equate re-armament with aggression[10]. The need for states to begin to rearm was apparent after the League’s failure over Ethiopia, where sanctions were ineffective in halting Italy from attacking a fellow League of Nations member in the sort of international aggression the body was founded to combat. This was a major blow to the prestige of the League of Nations and initiated its fall from relevance[11]. The Union suffered from this failure as well; photographs from the 1938 annual conference have only 12 members present, a paltry number and an indication of the depths to which the Union fell[12]. The divisions within the League of Nations Union limited its ability to influence foreign policy.

The pacifist movement had historically mapped its growth and decline with specific events or policies. The 1885 Sudanese conflict is nominated as the beginning of a pacifist movement in Australia, but it was the Boer war of 1899-1901 which lead to the first appearance of pacifism on the broader political scheme[13]. While the war possessed overwhelming support within Australia, the pacifist movement did experience growth, especially after the British concentration camps and burning of Boer farms became public knowledge. During World War I, the population generally supported the war, but pacifist groups were formed, especially in the wake of the rising death toll and the conscription campaigns of 1916-17. In the wake of rising casualties and diminishing enlistments, Billy McMahon attempted to institute conscription. However, in two vicious and divisive campaigns, the move was defeated. These campaigns laid much of the groundwork for later pacifist movements, especially in the Labor party, which split between conscription supporters of McMahon (who left to form the National Party after the second defeat) and the new Federal Labor. The short history of Australian Pacifism meant that there was little in the way of institutions or individuals with experience of mobilising public opinion in pursuit of a cause like there was in Britain, where idealistic campaigns such as the criminalising of slavery or of emancipation for men and women had habituated the society to movements and organisations around an issue. This lack of institutional knowledge or support had severe implications for the abilities of the Union to mobilise a significant support base. These factors were cited as being extremely influential at the time by key Union members, who argued that there was little in the way of public appetite for pacifism[14]. The pre-extant problems within the pacifist movement and its place within Australian society made the Union’s task a difficult one.

The Union’s inability to create a popular culture of protest and civic ritual is in part attributable to its refusal mobilise the support of the trade unions. In Australia, the unions were the bodies which were most habituated to a culture of protest[15]. The strikes of the 1890s had demonstrated their power and the unions were slowly growing in strength and political influence. In practice, many unions were also sympathetic to the aims and objectives of the Union: the nascent Australian Workers Union, still far from the height if its power, was one of its key NSW support groups. However, the unions were never harnesses to the Union to the extent they were utilised during the anti-conscription campaigns. The Australia middle class were not able to create a culture of protest at this time, so if the League were to follow the British example, they would need the assistance of the Unions. This was neither seriously pursued nor practically possible. The unions were still divided and lacked coordination, especially in the aftermath of the Labor party split in the late 1920s. Into the 1930s, as the memories of past conflict continued to recede, the public apathy to the League continued to be a concern, with the Union identifying the struggle for public support as their main task for the future[16].

Difficulties in generating an independent foreign policy can also be traced to the complex political environment within Australia at the time. Unlike Britain, where the Union was able to obtain consensus support for the league across the major parties, the Union in Australia was unable to obtain bipartisan support[17]. The Labor Party was in principle committed to an internationalism that leant its support to the League of Nations. However, the party was seldom coherent in its policy, with views on the League which ranged across the political spectrum. The right of the party was led by William Hughes, Prime Minister during World War I and the man who attempted, at great cost of political unity, to introduce conscription twice during the conflict. On the far left were the socialists of J.T Lang, who vociferously denounced the League as an imperialist construct aimed at maintaining the status quo, and argued for total isolation as a means to protect the workers, who they argued were always the ones to suffer losses during wartime[18]. This inability to reconcile the two wings of the party around the Centre lead to the split of the Labor party in NSW into Lang Labor and Federal Labor, and resulted in Labor absence from government in NSW and federally for a decade. Meanwhile, Hughes had, in the wake of his conscription defeat in 1917, lead Labor members into a coalition with the Commonwealth Liberals to form the Nationalist Party, which remained in government until 1929. Labor under James Scullin won the 1929 election, but was defeated by the United Australia Party established by one of his former allies, Joseph Lyons. This was a poor result for the League, as the Labor government had indicated during its time in office a willingness to engage with reduced defence spending and less militaristic policy[19]. The Labor policy of disarmament and a rejection of conscription is evident in their publications of the time, and indicated a support for the broader aims of the League of Nations Union[20]. The split also prevented Labor from formulating a clear foreign policy and retaining government, which limited the ability of the Union to engage with them upon this issue and their policy towards the League of Nations[21].

The League of Nations Union was also compromised by the prevailing attitudes within Australia at the time. In 1920, Australian citizens still overwhelmingly identified as British, and this deeply shaped their attitudes towards peace and pacifism, as evident from contemporary sources[22]. While Gallipoli has often been nominated as the starting point for the development of a national identity of its own, this was still only 6 years in the past upon the formation of the League of Nations Union in 1921. Australian society saw itself as proudly British in nature and believed themselves to be dependent on Britain; many were indifferent to the League of Nations and placed their faith in empire to protect them[23]. In the arena of Defence this was undoubtedly correct; Australia’s defence policy was based upon the idea of the British Fleet sailing out of Fortress Singapore to confront the foe before they landed[24]. Those who saw Australia as a permanent member of the British Empire saw little need for independent policy upon the League of Nations. Indeed, it was only in 1920 that the Department of Foreign Affairs was established, while Australia continued to rely upon British diplomats into the late 1930s[25]. This attitude of comfortable dependence extended into government, as was seen in the 1935 placing of sanctions upon Italy for the invasion of Ethiopia. This case is often cited as the clearest example of the LNU influencing political decisions, as it mobilised those who believed that Britain had to impose sanctions on Italy and caused the government to place sanctions which it (and by extension, the League) were initially unwilling to do. The Lyons government, despite the implications for Australian defence and trade if a Mediterranean war started and blocked the Suez Canal, based its policy almost entirely upon the British reaction[26]. This was despite the presence in London of Australian High Commissioner Stanley Bruce, who enjoyed the confidence of the British Parliament and had a seat upon the League of Nations Council during the crisis[27]. Even with a trusted, influential and connected representative in the Council, there was little in the way of an independent Australian policy towards Italy. The implication for the Union was this: if the Federal Government was fundamentally unwilling to deviate from British policy and create its own diplomatic position, there was almost no possibility for the League of Nations Union in Australia to influence Australian foreign policy. It was more likely that the British League of Nations Union would influence Australian foreign policy than the Australian branch, given its power in Britain. The fact that the Nationalist party provided both the main supporter base for the League of Nations Union and the political party least likely to implement its own policy was an unfortunate coincidence. The Union itself recognised that it was struggling to influence federal matters, with its 1932 General Report noting the lack of effect in the Union’s actions and advocating that this was a matter of considerable concern for the Union[28].  The report nominated that the Union should focus more upon effecting policy change rather than holding lectures of a ‘general’ nature[29]. This political confusion meant that links to government were difficult to form, especially given the fact that state factions were much more important than in the modern day. This confusion was emblematic of the political inexperience which so compromised the ability of the Union to influence policy matters. As a result, the League found little in the way of political support or advocacy during the 1930s[30].

The question of conscription was an essential factor in the politics of the time. The Australian Imperial force which served during the First World War was entirely composed of volunteers, in stark countries to the conscript armies of France and Britain. In the aftermath of the war, the editors of the Times newspaper commented that “A deep horror of war has entered into the soul of the millions… it has generated steam in the somewhat inert engine of human idealism”.[31] This determination to avoid war was evident in those who supported the League of Nations and its union, with The Union in Britain citing their role as giving direction to this sentiment[32].  

Australia’s numerous differences to Britain also implicated the ability of the League to influence society. This was in part due to the distance of Australia from world affairs, in a manner difficult to conceive in today’s hyper-connected world. It took five weeks for a newspaper extract from Britain to reach Australia, by when it was obviously outdated. This also made it expensive for materials and literature to be sent out to Australia to distribute to the various branches- indeed, purchasing literature was one of the largest expenses for the Union[33]. The sheer size of Australia also played a factor: while the population was concentrated in the cities, the lack of urbanisation external to the state capitals made it difficult to establish local Unions. These limitations meant that economies of scale were never properly implemented, and was a contributing factor to the lack of success of the Union.

The Australian League of Nations Union never managed to wield the influence of its British counterpart. The origins of the pacifist movement minimised support for the Union from these bodies, while prevailing attitudes to foreign affairs meant that the Union had difficulty in gaining support from the general population. Political divisions within the Labor Party and ideological barriers within the conservative Nationalist and united Australia parties made advocacy difficult, while the small membership of the league and its inability to engage with the trade unions also limited the willingness of the political parties to engage with the Union. Finally, environmental factors such as the sheer distance of Australia from Britain and the cost of materials meant that the Union failed to inspire a ‘rich and participatory culture of political protest, popular education and civic ritual’.


[1] Hilary Summy, “Countering War: the role of the League of Nations Union”. Social Alternatives, Vol.33 No.4 (2014) pg 15

[2] J.A Thompson 1972. "THE League of nations Union and Promotion of the League Idea in Great Britain "Australian Journal Of Politics & History 18, no. 1. 54

[3] General Secretary, “Excerpt from Report of General Secretary on the weaknesses of the Australian League of Nations Union.” June 1930 to May 1933. Accessed from the Baillieu Archives.

[4] Helen McCarthy, The British people and the League Of Nations (Manchester University Press, 201), 3

[5] Donald Birn, “The League of Nations Union and Collective Security”. Journal of Contemporary History, 9 pg 131-133.

[6] Ibid. 135

[7] C.Rasmussen “Defending the Bad against the Worst: The Peace Movement in Australia in the 1930s”. PHD doctorate- February 1974. Pg 3

[8] E. Andrews "Australian Labour and Foreign Policy, 1935-1939: the retreat From isolationism." Labour History 9 (1965): 24-26.

[9] Malcolm Saunders and Ralph Summy. The Australian peace movement: a short history. Peace Research Centre, Australian National University, 1986. pg 48.

[10] Birn, Collective Security, pg 139

[11] ibid, pg 139

[12] Private picture- Now available on Trove and through the National Library of Australia, “Australian League of Nations Union members at the annual conference. Canberra 1938,” Interwar Internationalism: An Archival History. Accessed October 26 2015.

[13] Saunders and Summy, pg. 39

[14] Sir William Harrison Moore, “Public Sentiment towards League of Nations,” Interwar Internationalism: An Archival History, accessed October 30, 2015

[15] Michael Quinlan, and Margaret Gardner. "Strikes, Worker Protest, and Union Growth in Canada and Australia, 1815-1900: A Comparative Analysis." Labour/Le Travail (1995): 186.

[16] Summy, “Countering War”, pg 17

[17] Andrews, “Labour and Foreign Policy”, pg.

[18] Andrews, “Labor foreign policy”, pg24

[19] Harrison Moore, William. “Notes of Sir William Harrison Moore on the change of government in 1930, and how that may affect Australia's Military/ Defence Stance. ,” Interwar Internationalism: An Archival History, accessed October 28, 2015

[20] Labor Anti-War Committee, “Labor's Case Against War and Fascism [pamphlet],” Interwar Internationalism: An Archival History, accessed October 29, 2015, 

[21] Andrews, ”Australian Labour and Foreign Policy, 1935-1939; the retreat from Isolationism”. Pg 24

[22] Argus Newspaper, “"the Quest for Peace" newspaper clipping, Argus Newspaper 1937,” Interwar Internationalism: An Archival History, accessed October 30, 2015

[23] Summy, “Countering War”, pg 16.

[24] Andrews, “Australian Labor and foreign policy”, pg 23

[25] Carl Bridge, "Australia and the Italo-Abyssinian crisis of 1935-6." Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 92, no. 1 (2006): 3-4

[26] Ibid, 6

[27] Ibid, 2

[28] General Secretary, “Excerpt from Report of General Secretary on the weaknesses of the Australian League of Nations Union.” June 1930 to May 1933


[30] Summy, ‘Countering War’, pg 18.

[31] Thompson pg 53

[32] Ibid.

[33] Australian League of Nations Union, “Australian League of Nations Union report on audience for publications ,” Interwar Internationalism: An Archival History, accessed October 30, 2015