HomeStudent Archival EssaysThe League of Nations: Lessons and Legacy

The League of Nations: Lessons and Legacy

by Joshua Wright

W.I.L.P.F pamphlet
How to Work for Peace Pamphlet
Acts of Aggression, Murcury 1937

By the end of the First World War, boundaries between States, nations, religions, ideologies and almost every other point of discrimination had become blurred and confused. In its place, a newfound awareness of interdependence and internationalism had permeated the globe, leading many to the conclusion that the world had indeed “shrunk both for peace and war.”[1] Taking advantage of this distortion of boundaries, American President Woodrow Wilson proposed a Fourteen Points plan for equitable peace in Europe, attempting to assimilate conflicting groups by uniting them within a single ‘League of Nations,’ a League which officially came into existence at the Paris Peace Conference in 1920.[2] With the commencement of the Second World War, however, the League was considered a failure and consequently discontinued and replaced by the United Nations. The effect of this has, however, often misdirected historians to obsess over the League’s lessons rather than its legacy, confusing the very important distinction between the League’s desire for war-prevention and peace-promotion.[3] I will therefore explore the latter by examining how the League inspired a “rich and participatory culture of political protest, popular education and civic ritual,” recalled “anti-slavery, temperance and suffrage movements,” and achieved both cultural and economic influence in Australia and around the globe.[4] Moreover, I will illustrate how the media potentially distorted the Leagues aims by elucidating the gulf between the Leagues own intentions and Australia’s understanding of them. Ultimately, whilst the League could not end war altogether, it managed to begin a generation that prioritized international relations over national interests, synthesized a culture that would foster interdependence and co-operation, and build bridges instead of fences. To understand the culture we live in today, it is important to look back at its infancy and answer the question of how a world of conflicting ideologies was brought together to become a ‘League of Nations.’

Before delving into an analysis of its existing legacy, it first important to examine the historiography of the League and contextualize our assessment by understanding the disparity between the League’s own “intention” and its international “reception.”[5] In this comparison we may discover both how the media distorted such intentions, as well as how the League’s own hypocrisies tarnished its image. But, in beginning with the intentions of the League itself, as stated by its own Covenant in 1929, one will very quickly find that, contrary to popular belief, the League had two primary objectives: “to achieve international peace and security” (war-prevention) and to “promote co-operation, [both] material and intellectual” (peace-promotion).[6]  The common misconception of the League’s failure, then, does not account for this second objective and thus ultimately clouds its legacy. Whilst the Second World War brought an end to the League, its material influence on the economy and international affairs as well as its intellectual influence through the medium of education yielded great success. Furthermore, the League did not intend to form an international government, nor did it attempt to abolish national sovereignty.[7] Indeed, to borrow from Helen McCarthy, the League was more of a ‘pacificist’ than a ‘pacifist,’ a forum through which members could mediate between the “clashes of national ambitions and interests which must inevitably occur.”[8] Thus, by understanding the historiography surrounding the League of Nations and the truth behind its intentions, one may properly contextualize the events that took place throughout its lifetime and fairly judge its successes and failings.

That the League’s own intentions differ so greatly from our conceptions of them, however, is evidently indicative of the manipulative tendencies of the media. The various anti-discrimination protests that took place during the interwar period, whilst undoubtedly an indirect success of the League, also created a gulf in understanding between what was intended and what was received by the Australian public. The media often distorted the message of the League itself by instead addressing the agendas of minority groups that were using this new environment of ‘political protest’ and activism to achieve their own ends. The Victorian Council, for instance, appealed to the wider community to “boycott Japanese goods” but only cited the backing of such organizations as The Labour and Socialist International, The All-Indie National Congress, and The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.[9] The LNU Hobart Branch too was reported to have requested global “collective action” in confronting Japan, appearing to speak on behalf of the League internationally.[10] The League of Nations itself, however, was sending a different message altogether, one that had become ‘lost in translation’ as it went from journalist to journalist. The resolutions achieved by the League throughout the Sino-Japanese controversy explicitly conferred that action was only to be take by the “respective governments” involved.[11] Moreover its statement on International Policy demanded a “removal of hindrances to international commerce,” explicitly contradicting the apparent ‘financial boycotting’ propagated by the media.[12] Interestingly, Australia’s economic boycotts occurred only a few years before America enforced their own trade embargos, leading Japan into complete economic insecurity and perhaps, however indirectly, forcing their hand in Pearl Harbor. Of course, this is not to say that Australia were directly or even indirectly responsible for these attacks, but rather that the media caused great disruption within and outside of the League. And whilst there is of course an alignment of interests between the media, the League, and the various minority groups, it is the conflicting courses of action that ultimately undermined what the League stood for in the first place.

However, there are also undoubtedly a number of inherent flaws and ironies within the League itself that contributed to its demise, since the failings of the League cannot be wholly attributed to the unwillingness of aggressor States in giving their full support. Indeed, States will invariably and predictably pursue their own interests, and if these interests could not be pursued through the mechanisms of the league, then these mechanisms, at least in part, must necessarily be at fault.[13] A number of inherent paradoxes saw how some facets of the League that helped it to peacefully negotiate certain aspects of foreign policy could seriously hinder its ability to mediate others, in particular disarmament negotiations.[14] Australia, for example, on account of the League, was dutifully yet paradoxically obliged to remain committed to interdependence whilst she attempted to pursue her own independence.[15] Consequently, during its interwar years Australia’s international outlook would become torn between those who sought to remain close with Britain and those who would press for closer alignment with America, creating ever-greater divides between peoples.[16] Moreover, there was also an idealistic misconception that the League was composed of equal sovereign States, when in reality it was comprised of “member states of very different types and possessed of vastly unequal geopolitical reach and power,” and thus the League found itself preoccupied with the business of adjudicating, managing, and delimiting relations of sovereignty.”[17] Indeed many of the problems that faced the League stemmed from its own inherent hypocrisies, traceable back even to its infancy where Woodrow Wilson formulated the outlines of a League that was to “inaugurate a new international era,” and yet never joined.[18] Thus, paradoxically, the League was an experiment for co-operative building that self-destructed, limited ultimately by its conception of an idealistic rather than realistic world. Eventually, if not inevitably, the League was terminated at the final assembly in April 1946 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.[19]

Thus the League ultimately failed in its first objective, limited by the closed-mindedness of its members and its own internal hypocrisies. However, the League was not only committed to the prevention of war, but also the promotion of peace. Indeed the League achieved great success in the spreading of its views and values, since whilst various rogue media reports ultimately tarnished the reputation of the League, it also played a fundamental role in synthesizing and building a culture of connectedness and interdependence. The “main weapon” that the League harnessed, according to the Covenant, was its “appeal to the public opinion of the world and the worlds respect for justice,” hence the “wider the publicity, the more boldly and more powerfully could this respect for justice be manifested.”[20] As Helen McCarthy notes, groups such as the League of Nations Society were created amidst a “flurry of agitation and pamphleteering,” as everything from newspapers to radio broadcasts helped to spread the League’s message.[21] The use of the term “International co-operation,” for instance, rose by over eight hundred percent between 1915 and 1945, showing distinct spikes during the First and Second World Wars.[22] To this end, both media and education played crucial roles in proliferating the Leagues ideology. As the League emphasized in its report in 1933, education should not only address the “League-that-is” but also the “League-that-ought-to-be.”[23] Thus, whilst journalists and their newspapers were a medium for communication with the present, education was a medium for the future.

What ultimately threatened the League during its lifetime was the presence of absolutists, who failed to partake in healthy debate on issues of global politics. As AJP Taylor notes; “A man can disagree with a particular line of British foreign policy, while still accepting its general assumptions. The Dissenter repudiates its aims, its methods, its principles.”[24] The League could not win over such absolutists through the media, but it could educate future generations. In 1933, the Australian League of Nations Union expressed in a report its frustration with the “small impact on current political tendencies,” identifying education, specifically lectures, as being of a “’general’ character” given to private groups with no tenable influence over public policy.[25] In response to this, the League put emphasis on the importance of international relations in school and university curriculum. Progress was slow and it was not until the University of Melbourne established a Department of political Science in 1939 that education of international affairs and politics had properly begun to take shape in Australia.[26] The Victorian Department of Education included the League of Nations in the civics syllabus at most schools and the formation of numerous Junior League of Nations was a popular project promoted by Constance Duncan during the 1930s.[27] Thus, whilst the media could only distort and confuse the message for its contemporary audience, education resonated with a future generation and ultimately began the culture interdependence and co-operation that permeates our own contemporary society.

The education of such values also brought about a rise in the political and social activism of minority groups, an indirect consequence of the League’s attempt to promote ‘intellectual co-operation.’ Indeed, during the interwar period, Australia saw the mergence of “pro-Aboriginal Australian feminist activism” that drew a relationship between “white imperial subjectivity” and “western feminism.”[28] In a world so ideologically contested between fascists, socialists, communists and capitalists, the significance of a ‘feminist’ campaign for ‘racial’ equality reflected a monumental shift in worldview: the building of bridges in place of fences, as it were. Australian feminists exercised their authority in the British Commonwealth League to ensure the consideration of Aboriginal women, delivering papers on Aboriginal women at the 1927 and 1929 conferences as well as every successive conference up until 1939.[29] The League of Nations itself had strongly advocated equal “standards for colonized peoples,” and in 1933 the APNR (Association for the Protection of Native Races) held a celebration for the Centenary of Emancipation in which they elucidated the issue of forced Indigenous labour within the Australian community.[30] What is interesting is that whilst racial equality, among many others, was very much supported by the League, the League itself never needed to take direct action. Australia’s international status during the inter-war years was dependent on its involvement at the League of Nations and, as such, it participated in a number of international agreements. In 1929, the International Labour Organization adopted legislation that “opposed forced labour and, by 1935, formulated regulations regarding the recruitment of Indigenous labourers.”[31] Essentially, the interwar period represented a time where “direct international intervention” seemed possible, and hence Australia sought to recognize the Indigenous minority and their rights before it was publically recognized on the world stage.[32]

In inspiring this ‘rich and participatory culture of political protest,’ the League gave agency to women in Australia and around the world to seek political and statutory reform in a number of areas. Outside of racial equality, the Women’s International League also released a number of pamphlets seeking co-operation in the declaration of world disarmament, a declaration with no specifically feminist agenda.[33] However, whilst the interwar period saw a considerable change in the “discursive terrain of antiracist politics” amongst many other areas, it is important to acknowledge that Feminist campaigns also sought their own political agendas, ones which were in turn “shaped by the conceptual frameworks provided by the League.”[34] However, this did not take place through a continuance of the feminist and suffrage movements as they were conducted by Emmeline Pankhurst in the pre-world war era. Instead, the rights and liberties that the suffragists had once championed could ironically be obtained by ignoring them altogether. By championing for the rights of Indigenous peoples, propagating declarations of world peace, and seeking support for boycotts in Japan, women were actually enacting the liberties they had so desired less than a decade previously. The Australian Women’s National League (WNL), for example, did not seek “place or power” but rather the “equality of opportunity” and to “educate themselves and others to use consciously and intelligently the vote the country has given them.”[35] Thus the League was already being indirectly conducive to the attainment of social equality.

This is, however, not to say that women did not use the conditions laid out by the League to achieve their own agendas, for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) cited the desired “establishment of political, social and moral equality between men and women” in its objectives.[36] In April 1939, over five hundred workers at the Sydney Rubber Works Factory in Drummoyne went on strike in protest of discriminatory working conditions during a period of mounting inflation.[37] The 1907 Harvester Judgment had set women’s wages at fifty-four percent of men’s wages for the same amount of work, a pay cut which was fought over for the next two decades by feminist activists.[38] At the Arbitration Court basic wage hearing in 1941, Jessie Street and Nerida Cohen fought to receive one hundred percent of men’s wages but eventually received only eighty-four percent as was ruled by the Council of Action for Equal Pay.[39] Thus, in evaluating the various successes of minority groups, it is clear the League resulted in a sizeable shift in power. In such a culturally radical environment, anyone and everyone could harness the potential of political activism to achieve their own ends. For Australian feminists, postwar internationalism was marked not only by the growth of social equality, but also by a “significantly altered and evolving national and imperial context.”[40] That Australia had only recently achieved national autonomy had great influence over where the WNL and WILPF sought its political reform. The British Commonwealth League, through which feminists had originally sought consideration for Indigenous women, was somewhat rejected in favour of the Pan-pacific Women’s Association which appeared more conducive to the national interests of the Womens’ League.[41] That women did indeed have national and racial interests, among many others, is again indicative of the overlap between previously conflicting groups brought about by the League of Nations, generating for the first time a world in which feminists prioritized racial equality and national security above its own agendas.

Ultimately, the League of Nations held a very “liberal-internationalist agenda,” promoting co-operation and interdependence at the national, international, and ideological levels.[42] But to properly understand the League’s relevance to our own contemporary society, we must necessarily discern between its two objectives, since, as noted by Murray Smith, if we expected the League to only prevent war then it has failed, and the cause of its failure is to be found in our inability to distinguish adequately “between two conceptions of the League – as a superior nation for the prevention of war and as a society for promoting peace.”[43] From its failure we, represented by the United Nations, can learn many lessons, since the League of Nations did ultimately fail in its pursuit of a war-free world. To the League’s detriment, it is “human nature to look to external sources for both the cause and the cure of maladies peculiar to itself,” and hence war could never really be conceived of as an error of humanity.[44] But the successes that define its legacy should be equally valued, as the League marked a shift in world thinking, fostering through education and the success of various minorities a desire for equality. To understand our contemporary society we must appreciate its legacy in its beginning, but ultimately the truth is that this culture is still very much in its infancy today as we continue to build on the views and values first propagated by a League of Nations.


[1] ‘The Covenant of the League of Nations,’ in The Aims and Organisation of the League of Nations (Geneva: Secretariat of the League of Nations, 1929), 13.

[2] Hilary Summy, “Countering War: The role of the League of Nations Union,” Social Alternatives, 33, 4 (2014): 15.

[3] Susan Pederson, ‘Back to the League of Nations,’ The American Historical Review, vol. 112, no. 4 (Oct 2007): 1092.

[4] Helen McCarthy, introduction to The British People and the League of Nations: Democracy, Citizenship and Internationalism 1918-1945 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), 1; McCarthy, British People, 8.

[5] McCarthy, British People, 7.

[6] “Covenant of the League,” Aims and Organizations, 15.

[7] “Covenant of the League,” Aims and Organizations, 16.

[8] McCarthy, British People, 3; “Covenant of the League,” Aims and Organizations, 16.

[9] Movement Against War and Fascism, Victorian Council, “Boycott of Japanese goods,” Interwar Internationalism, accessed September 30, 2015,

[10] The Mercury, “Acts of Aggression ,” Interwar Internationalism, accessed September 30, 2015,

[11] Westel W. Willoughby, The Sino-Japanese Controversy and The League of Nations (Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1935), 72.

[12] League of Nations Union, “League of Nations Union Statement on International policy,” Interwar Internationalism, accessed October 1, 2015,

[13] Gerhart Niemeyer, “The Balance Sheet of the League Experiment,” International Organization 6, no. 4 (1952): 537-558.

[14] Pederson, Back to the League, 1092-1093.

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

[16] Devetak, Australian Outlook, 338.

[17] Pederson, Back to the League, 1099.

[18] “Covenant of the League,” Aims and Organizations, 14.

[19] Summy, “Countering War,” 18.

[20] “Covenant of the League,” Aimes and Organizations, 16.

[21] McCarthy, British People, 2.

[22] Ngram Viewer of ‘International Co-operation,’ Google, last modified 2015,

[23] Australian League of Nations Union, “Excerpt from Report,”

[24] AJP Taylor, The Trouble Makers: Dissent over Foreign Policy 1792-1939 (London, 1967), 13.

[25] Australian League of Nations Union, “Excerpt from Report of the General Secretary of the Australian League of Nations Union for the period June 1930 to May 1933.” Interwar Internationalism, accessed September 30, 2015,

[26] Devetak, “An Australian outlook,” 345.

[27] Summy, “Countering War,” 17.

[28] Fiona Paisley, “Citizens of their World: Feminism and Indigenous Rights in the Internaitonal Context, 1920s and 1930s,” Feminist Review, 58 (1998), 66-69.

[29] Angela Woollacott, “Inventing Commonwealth and Pan-pacific feminisms: Australian Women’s International Activism in the 1920s-30s,” Wiley Blackwell 10 (1998): 440.

[30] Fiona Paisley, “An Echo of Black Slavery: Emancipation, Forced Labour, and Australia in 1933,” Australian Historical Studies, 45, 1 (2014), 107.

[31] Paisley, “Citizens of their World.” 73.

[32] Paisley, “An Echo of Black Slavery,” 123.

[33] Women's International League, “W.I.L.P.F pamphlet,” Interwar Internationalism: An Archival History, accessed October 5, 2015,

[34] Marilyn Lake, “Feminism and the gendered Politics of Antiracism, Australia 1927-1957: From Maternal Protectionism to Leftist Assimilationism,” Australian Historical Studies, 29,110(2008): 91-92.

[35] Australian Women's National League , “Constitution of the Australian Women's National League,” Interwar Internationalism: An Archival History, accessed October 4, 2015,

[36] Women’s International League, “Statement of Aims,” Interwar Internationalism, accessed October 1, 2015,

[37] John Tully, “’Nothing but Rebels:’ Union Sisters at the Sydney Rubber Works, 1918-42,” Labour History 103 (2012): 59.

[38] Tully, “Nothing but Rebels,” 60.

[39] Tully, “Nothing but Rebels,” 61.

[40] Woollacott, “Inventing Commonwealth and Pan-pacific feminisms,” 436.

[41] Woollacott, “Inventing Commonwealth and Pan-pacific feminisms,” 436.

[42] McCarthy, British People, 9.

[43] A. Murray Smith, “Can the League Promote Peace?” The Australian Quaterly 10 (1938): 65.

[44] Murray Smith, “Can the League Promote,” 64.