HomeStudent Archival EssaysPaths to Peace: A comparison of the voluntary peace groups in Britain and Australia

Paths to Peace: A comparison of the voluntary peace groups in Britain and Australia

by Alexandra Trollip

Victorian Council of the I.P.C. meeting 30 Sep 1938.jpg
Meeting Minutes, Victorian Council of the International Peace Campaign, 1938
World Peace Conference Petition to Canberra.jpg
World Peace Conference Petition to Canberra
Constitution of the Victorian Council of the International Peace Campaign.jpg
Constitution of the Victorian Council of the International Peace Campaign

To what extent did voluntary peace groups in Australia, particularly the League of Nations Union and its affiliates, mirror the interwar internationalist effort in Britain?

Voluntary peace groups within Britain initially provided a blueprint for their Australian counterparts to follow; however examination of the intentions, methodology, and impacts reveal these groups were not always closely aligned. For the purpose of this essay, the League of Nations Union (LNU) provides the archetype for voluntary organizations in the interwar peace movement. The group was the most significant, high profile advocate of the League of Nations; its role was to mobilize the public’s support mobilization and pressure their respective governments toward internationalist foreign policy.[1] Thus, the LNU provides the exemplar for supplementary peace groups with similar aims. Studying the similarities and differences between the British and Australian branches reveals the extent to which voluntary groups echoed each other. This is demonstrated in through three trends: the intentions of each nation’s groups, the tactics they used to foster support for internationalism and the impacts of the peace movement in their respective countries. Ultimately, the peace movements were more than just the League’s peripheral support system; they played a vital role in championing popular opinion, mobilising support and provided the basis for future internationalist organizations.

The establishment of the League of Nations, following the Great War, served to achieve international peace and security, and promote material and intellectual international cooperation.[2] As the Covenant of the League of Nation suggests, by 1918 people were ready for peace: ‘The cataclysm awakened the universal conscience of mankind and never was humanity better prepared to receive a message of peace’.[3] Whilst the League dealt with the bureaucracy of world governance, voluntary peace organizations imbued themselves with the job to deliver that message and cultivate popular support. There was widespread consensus that for the League to guarantee peace, it would need mass support to survive: Pederson labels it a ‘symbiotic relationship’.[4] The subsequent movement was a global phenomenon: churches, women’s organizations, education facilities, unions and so forth spawned a wave of voluntary peace groups that pushed this agenda. Significantly, the LNU, originating from Britain in October 1918, was a ‘large and influential society of League supporters’ and an integral leader in the worldwide peace movement, impelling worldwide support for ‘collective security’, intent on preventing another world war. [5] Liberal peace advocates established the Australian branch of the LNU in 1921, initially aiming to be an extension of their British counterparts’. An address by Hon. George Swinburne in Adelaide, 1925, reiterated that the League was ‘the hope of the world’; it was the job of the voluntary groups to proliferate this sentiment.[6] Yet, as the mounting tension of the interwar years spiralled, especially from German aggression and the Sino-Japanese conflict, shifting purposes emerged between Australian and British peace groups.[7]

Understanding of the divergence in aims between the British and Australian voluntary groups requires discussion of the political conditions that shaped each nation’s approach to foreign policy. Where Britain was a leader in the European conversation about internationalism, Australia increasingly became locked in a domestic exchange between those that wanted to remain loyal to their imperial roots, and those that wanted independence from Great Britain, ‘or at least to loosen the apron-strings’.[8] This naturally embedded a discrepancy between each nation’s motivations: Britain faced a dilemma about combating fascism whilst avoiding war, whereas Australia’s focus turned towards solidifying its own distinct identity. Australia might have shared ‘habits, interests and sympathies for Britain’, but Britain’s lack of power projection in the southwest Pacific meant Australia had to carve its own geopolitical strategies.[9] Consequently, this ‘general reorientation of Australian thought’ in the interwar years prompted a drift from their Imperial protector, especially as the proximity to the growing threat of Japan saw an increasing need to secure the nation independently.[10] The question over whether Australia would look for a strong alliance with the United States began to surface in this period. Professor Keith Hancock assuaged these anxieties, writing in 1930 that the consensus feeling in Australia was that the ‘virtue of her honourable co-operation’ with the Commonwealth provided more security than a tighter allegiance with America could offer at this time.[11] Nevertheless, Australia sought to establish and control foreign policy autonomously from Britain, as up until this period Australian foreign policy was dictated by the British Empire.[12] Australia acquiring an international voice accumulated in ‘plausibility and appeal’ by the mid-1930s, and voluntary groups seized this idea and sought to champion Australia’s weight in the international arena.[13] Thus, these political conditions shaped the direction voluntary peace groups took their movement.

Initially, both British and Australian LNU’s aim was to invite a rich, participatory culture that promoted internationalism and support the League in preventing future wars. Laurin Zilliacus (1938) wrote that the peace movement had a two-fold challenge: ‘the intellectual task is to clarify the concept of democracy… The emotional task is essentially to arouse a social conscience’.[14] Lead by Lord Robert Cecil in Britain, the LNU was intended to prevent war, negotiate peace and establish ‘unquestioned faith’ in the League.[15] Importantly the Union’s main objective in the 1920s was to secure collective security by accelerating disarmament, which attests to the ‘value of human personality’.[16] Yet, the impending fascist threat in Europe caused a deviation from this position. Noticeably this caused internal disagreement about whether disarmament remained the best method to preserve peace. When the issue reached ‘boiling point’, a General Council of the Union meeting in December 1936 pushed a resolution conceding the necessity of British re-armament, exacerbating intragroup tensions.[17] The division was split between those who backed Lord Cecil’s forceful approach, and the conservative style favoured by Lord Chamberlain. By late in the 1930s, tensions were inflamed by the dubious status of the Union itself; having peaked membership at over 400,000 in 1931, number had dropped to 264,180 in 1938, pushing the LNU to seek alternative strategies.[18] Hence, the aims of the LNU had to shift. Namely, the focus on security became less about disarmament and instead about advocating military pacts with allies and not helping aggressor nations– the LNU in Britain even began pushing for anti-appeasement measures. Additionally, the LNU collaborated in 1936 with the International Peace Campaign (IPC), a French-British initiative to revive the flailing peace movement.[19] Joined by similar aims, the IPC’s public support was far broader than the LNU’s staunchly middle-class activists. While the LNU’s aim for collective security to guarantee peace did not waiver, the LNU shifted which policies they sponsored to achieve this aim, in reaction to an impending Second World War. As a result, in a twist of ‘cruel irony’ the LNU and the League were cast with responsibility for Britain’s unpreparedness approaching the war.[20]

Essentially, from the 1920s to the early 1930s, the Australian peace movement aligned with their British counterpart, specifically mirroring its rally towards disarmament. Lord Cecil in England emphasized the role of public opinion in pushing the World Disarmament Movement (WDM), stating ‘if the people want disarmament, disarmament they can have’.[21] This slogan echoed loudly back in Australia; at a Melbourne Town Hall in July 1928 Judge Higgins repeated this chant as a ‘trumpet call to action’.[22] LNU member Douglas Copland sought to soothe criticisms that the League was too imperialist: he purposefully invited socialists to support WDM to bridge LNU membership to the political left, a tactic independent from their British equivalents.[23] The failure of the disarmament conference triggered a pivot in Australian voluntary group’s aims, away from their British roots. Internationally, the 1932 Disarmament Conference brought together 59 world delegates, including the United States and the Soviet Union to reach global consensus on disarmament. However, the Conference was fraught by lingering post-war economic, political and social disunity in Europe. Merged with belligerent German nationalism and the rigid Sino-Japanese conflict, the event was far from a success.[24] Nations revealed they were more self-interested in re-arming themselves in the present instability than building on ‘collective security’.

Australia, fearing for its geographic isolation and the imminent threat in the Pacific, became concerned with its own policy ahead of following British directives. This change in approach became the key difference between British and Australian voluntary groups. A Town and Country Union pamphlet highlighted this, stating Australia need to secure the peace by through ‘protection’ of its own nation and ‘make Australia self-contained’.[25] Subsequently, Judge Foster, the Australian LNU President in 1934, replaced Copland at the WDM and decided to ‘inject new energy and direction into a flagging LNU’, turning Australia’s attention to peace education, as the movement sought to chisel an Australian identity on the international stage.[26] This is further demonstrated in the General Secretary’s report for the Australian LNU from June 1930-May 1933, stating the ‘weakness of the movement’ could be allayed by success of the LNU’s educational projects.[27] This spoke to a wider trend of the Australian LNU seeking to foster an anti-imperial ‘spirit of Australianism’ in the mid-1930s.[28]

Globally, the interwar peace movements used similar methodology to promote their message. Common to both the Australian and British LNU chapters was standard propaganda, such as posters and leaflets, instigating petitions and letters to the government, as well as hosting public meetings, debates and lectures.[29] Voluntary groups were the mouthpiece for the League of Nations: saturating the public sphere with messages asking for support, especially towards disarmament in the early inter-war years, and later pushing for anti-appeasement measures. Specifically, the British arm of the LNU used Headway, a monthly publication, to disseminate information; at its peak it had almost 100,000 paid subscriptions from LNU members.[30] Archived Headway journals provide a window into the LNU’s trajectory. The February 1924 edition revealed the Union was unsure about how to respond to Mussolini’s fascist threat, yet indicated his regime would be ‘sensitive to the good opinion of the world at large’, thus should not warrant rearming the nation.[31] Later, the March 1936 publication supported the government’s instigation of an extensive arms program in the name of ‘strengthening… the collective system’, so long as nations were not seeking individual rearmament outside the League.[32] These shifting ideas in Headway reflected the LNU’s changing priorities in this period.

The LNU’s methods to incite public support were not stagnant, but adapted in the mid-1930s to match the burgeoning discontent that the League and the Union received in reaction to growing belligerence in Europe. Namely, the British LNU sponsored discussions and invited expert opinions about how to appeal to farmers and workers, circumventing criticisms for its distinct middle-class demographics.[33] Additionally, the LNU sought better sales techniques, livened-up the appeal of Headway and moved advertising to the modern mediums of radio and film.[34] To get politicians to align with the League, the Union ‘exerted relentless pressure’ on their representatives.[35] The British LNU’s most significant activity was its organization of the 1934 Peace Ballot. Crafted by a host of voluntary organisations lead by the LNU, the Peace Ballot was a referendum asking the British people for their opinion on membership to the League, international disarmament and collective security.[36] Essentially, the Ballot was trying to evoke public support for a resolution not to go to war in increasingly tense times, but later became blamed for Britain not acting soon enough, and demonstrated the LNU to be ‘a gullible supporter of a hopeless cause’.[37] Despite this, the British LNU displayed its ability to mould and mobilise public opinion, and pressure the government to reacting to its demands.

Though Australian voluntary groups borrowed peace-promoting methods from the British, as their aims diverged in the interwar period, so did their activities. The extensive archived documents of Australian peace groups uncover the commendable job they undertook; from drafting slips for citizens to sign at the World Peace Conference advocating the government not to commit to war;[38] letters from peace movements to Robert Menzies requesting extensions of peace policies towards belligerent nations;[39] even minutes from IPC meetings at the outbreak of World War II, urging the British government to exhaust every avenue ahead of fighting.[40] Moreover, by 1930, the LNU had enlisted 112 Australian organizations to support the World Disarmament Movement, including women’s, church and labour groups.[41] The campaign reached its zenith on the 30 November 1931, where a petition was marched from the War Memorial to the Town Hall in Melbourne and presented to Prime Minister Scullin, demanding disarmament. Magazine Peacewards wroteit was ‘the first time the voice of the peoples was heard by the League of Nations’, emblematic of Australia’s growing desire to be merited on its own opinion.[42] In order to bolster its promotion of collective security, the LNU joined forces with the IPC in 1936. For example, minutes from an IPC meeting held in the Victorian LNU library 30 September 1938, discuss the distribution of 32,000 leaflets on the Czechoslovakian situation Australia-wide, highlighting the tangible effort these groups made.[43] Moreover, The Mercury wrote an article detailing the LNU’s protests in Hobart, 1937 against Japan slaughtering civilians in China, further reiterating Australia’s active approach to be part of the world peace conversation.[44] Thus, there is no shortage of evidence of attempts from voluntary groups in the interwar period, to preserve their goal of maintaining peace.

The breakdown of the Disarmament Conference, the German withdrawal from the League of Nations, and the threat of Japan in Manchuria in the mid-1930s proved a ‘bitter blow’ to the Australian peace movement, causing a loss in momentum and a reduction in public interest.[45] A public letter to the Argus editor on 20 September 1937 emphasized this, suggesting the ‘preservation of peace’ had been ‘severely restricted’ because of the Empire’s failure to ‘lead the world in disarmament’.[46] As a result, in Australia a large onus was placed on education as a means to achieve the LNU’s aims. Education reforms were a seemingly unified approach to shaping public opinion between Britain and Australia, insofar as both nations developed curriculums to foster internationalism. The UK New Education Fellowship (NEF) embodied this notion, hosting worldwide conferences from the 1920s as part of the global movement towards ‘institutionalized internationalism’.[47] Australia hosted NEF conferences, bringing a mix of international experts to sculpt a modern Australian curriculum. Held over seven weeks, the conference travelled through each state capital between August-September 1937, amassing a total 8,718 participants and receiving extensive press coverage.[48]

However, though Australia borrowed the UK’s NEF scaffolding for nationwide education conferences, it acknowledged the need to tailor the advancement of internationalist principles with ‘more sober assessments of perceived problems and challenges’ specific to Australia.[49] With Victoria as the prime example, the LNU cooperated with the Victorian Department of Education in a variety of ways; issuing government publications, adding the League of Nations and other internationalist topics into school curriculums and civic syllabuses and developing Junior League of Nations Unions in schools.[50] Moreover, the LNU and Department of Education held a League of Nations Day for over 250,000 Victorian school children in 1935.[51]  The LNU lead the day under Judge Foster’s direction, with addresses about the League, mock assemblies, debates, lectures, pageants and exhibitions.[52] This educational episode intended to evoke internationalist sympathies into Australian culture, as well as defining the nations’ role in the globe.[53] Thus, though Australian voluntary groups certainly mirrored the British methodology to promote their aims, the desire to shape its own identity saw its interwar efforts deviate from its imperial ties.

Historiography has traditionally lambasted voluntary peace groups as failures, as both Britain and Australia were plunged back into war just two decades after World War I. In Britain, the voluntary peace groups were perceived to be at the heart of this breakdown, blamed for ‘blocking rearmament and sapping the public’s will to fight’, causing Britain to be unprepared to face European fascism.[54] Violet Bonham Carter wrote to Headway in 1941, declaring the LNU and its Peace Ballot as the central cause of this failure.[55] Yet, the LNU’s idealism could not control government decision making, even if it tried to.[56] In actuality, during the 1930s the LNU was at the ‘centre of opposition’ to the British government’s appeasement policies, a flip from its original position years earlier.[57] Similarly, Australia’s LNU lost its purpose after the outbreak of World War II. By October 1939, war in Europe was seemingly inevitable after Germany invaded Poland, as such, the liberals and left wings pushing the peace movement collapsed.[58] Resistance to the war in Australia may have outstretched their British counterparts into the late 1930s, but by this point the Australian LNU accepted ‘the painful decision to support the war effort’.[59] Regardless, the LNU was out of sync with the government and international policies during the late 1930s. Shrinking membership exemplified the LNU’s disintegration; a photo taken at the Canberra 1938 annual League of Nations Conference shows only thirteen attendees, illustrating the dwindling membership that manifested the loss of the LNU’s clout by the end of the 1930s.[60] Consequently by this point the LNU’s demise was unavoidable.

Though with hindsight the LNU and its affiliated voluntary peace groups as failures, it laid the groundwork for international institutions that still function today. Pederson attributes this to the ‘innovative structure’ of the voluntary organizations that helped build the scaffolding for post-war internationalism.[61] Lord Cecil described the League as ‘the first great experiment as an instrument for world peace’, and declared that, while the League had flailed, it was succeeded by another, lasting institution on 24 October 1945: ‘long live the United Nations’.[62] Indeed, Cecil advocated that it was not the League that had failed, but the governments that had failed the League.[63] Historian Helen McCarthy suggests that the League movement started a rich conversation about nations’ rights and responsibilities, and it was the LNU that ‘transformed liberal internationalism into a practical experiment’, becoming the foundation for ‘democratic participation and cross-mobilisation’.[64] In Australia, the Union was renamed the United Nations Association of Australia in October 1945 and received federal support where the LNU had not.[65] Hence, both the Australian and British LNU branches, though divergent in their aims, both created a blueprint for international organisations to bloom following the conclusion of World War II, the most significant outcome of their interwar efforts.

The League of Nations Unions and other voluntary peace groups in Australia did mirror some aspects of the British interwar internationalist effort. Both groups used similar means to advocate peace, and equally lay the foundation for later international liberal institutions. However, the main divergence between the two was their aims: the British groups’ primary focus was about maintaining peace in Europe and buffering against the fascist threat, where the Australian equivalents became increasingly attentive towards their own identity in the international sphere.  Hence, though not dissimilar, the groups had their own trajectories in the interwar period.


[1] Helen McCarthy, introduction to The British People and the League of Nations: Democracy, Citizenship and Internationalism 1918–45, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011): 2

[2] ‘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): 15

[3] ‘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): 14

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

[5] D.S. Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security.' Journal Of Contemporary History, vol. 9, no. 3 (1974): 131

[6] Swinburne, George, ‘The League of Nations – the Hope of the World,’ 27 April 1926, UMA, George Swinburne, 1980.0171, Unit 21, Melbourne, VIC. found online at:

[7] Hilary Summy, ‘Countering War: The role of the League of Nations Union.’ Social Alternatives vol. 33, no. 4 (October 2014): 17

[8] Richard Devetak, ‘An Australian Outlook on International Affairs? The Evolution of International Relations Theory in Australia.’ Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 55, no. 3 (2009): 338

[9] Devetak, ‘An Australian Outlook on International Affairs?’ 338

[10] Devetak, ‘An Australian Outlook on International Affairs?’ 339

[11] Devetak, ‘An Australian Outlook on International Affairs?’ 338

[12]Neville Kirk, ‘’Australians for Australia: The Right, the Labor Party and Contested Loyalties to Nation and Empire in Australia, 1917 to the Early 1930s.’ Labor History, no. 91 (November 2006), 96

[13] Devetak, ‘An Australian Outlook on International Affairs?’ 340

[14] Laurin Zilliacus 1938, 12 in Julie McLeod, 'Educating For ‘World-Mindedness': Cosmopolitanism, Localism And Schooling The Adolescent Citizen In Interwar Australia.' Journal Of Educational Administration And History, vol. 44, no. 4 (2012): 349

[15] J.A. Thompson, ‘The League of Nations Union and Promotion of the League Idea in Great Britain,’ Australian Journal Of Politics & History 18, no. 1 (March 1972): 52; Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 139

[16] World Disarmament Movement, ‘World Disarmament Movement Booklet,’ 27 August 1929, Melbourne, Victoria, 3, found online at:

[17] Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 140, 141

[18] Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 144

[19] Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 144, 148

[20] Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 158

[21] World Disarmament Movement, ‘World Disarmament Movement Booklet,’ 5-6; Summy, ‘Countering War,’ 17

[22] Summy, ‘Countering War,’ 17

[23] Summy, ‘Countering War,’ 16

[24] Summy, ‘Countering War,’ 17

[25] The Town and Country Union, ‘The League of Nations, "For the Prosperity and Peace of the World",’ UMA, 1980.0171, Unit 21, Melbourne, VIC. found online at:

[26] McLeod, 'Educating For ‘World-Mindedness,' 340

[27] 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. ,’ May 1933, UMA, Sir William Harrison (1867-1935) Collection, Box 16, series 10/1, Melbourne, VIC. found online at:

[28] Kirk, ‘Australians for Australia,’ 95

[29] Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 133

[30] Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 147

[31] Headway, February 1924, 25, in Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 136

[32] Headway, March 1936, 42 in Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 139

[33] Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 151

[34] Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 151

[35] Thompson, ‘The League of Nations Union and Promotion of the League Idea in Great Britain,’ 57

[36] McCarthy, The British People and the League of Nations, 5

[37] Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 134

[38] Pledge Peace Union of S.A., ‘World Peace Conference Petition Slip,’ (n.d.) UMA, Kenneth Deakin Rivett Collection, 81/136, Melbourne, VIC.

[39] Kenneth Deakin Rivett to Hon. R. G. Menzies, ‘Letter to Right Hon. R. G. Menzies, and the Minister for Information in Canberra,’ 4 August 1940, UMA, Kenneth Deakin Rivett Collection, 81/136, Melbourne, VIC.

[40] Victorian Council of the International Peace Campaign, ‘Minutes of Victorian Executive of I.P.C., held Wednesday 29th August 1939,’ UMA, International Peace Campaign, 1981.0087, Box 2, Melbourne, VIC.

[41] Summy, ‘Countering War,’ 16

[42] Summy, ‘Countering War,’ 16

[43] Victorian Council of the International Peace Campaign, ‘Minutes from Meeting held in the L.N.U. Library, 30th September, 1938,’ UMA, International Peace Campaign 1981.0087, Box 2, Melbourne, VIC.

[44] The Mercury, ‘Acts of Aggression ,’ 21 October 1937, Interwar Internationalism, accessed October 1, 2015, found online at:

[45] Summy, ‘Countering War,’ 17

[46] The Argus, (Melbourne, Vic.: 1848 - 1957), 20 September 1937, 10

[47] McLeod, 'Educating For ‘World-Mindedness,' 341

[48] McLeod, 'Educating For ‘World-Mindedness,' 347

[49] McLeod, 'Educating For ‘World-Mindedness,' 348

[50] Summy, ‘Countering War,’ 17

[51] ‘League of Nations Day: Observed in Schools.’ The Age, (Melbourne, Vic.), August 10 1935, 10, found online at:,4044788&hl=en

[52] ‘League of Nations Day: Observed in Schools.’ The Age, (Melbourne, Vic.), August 10 1935, 10

[53] ‘League of Nations Day: Observed in Schools.’ The Age, (Melbourne, Vic.), August 10 1935, 10; Summy, ‘Countering War,’ 17

[54] Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 133

[55] Headway, June 1941, 9 in Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 133

[56] Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 135

[57] Birn, 'The League Of Nations Union And Collective Security,' 131

[58] Summy, ‘Countering War,’ 18

[59] Summy, ‘Countering War,’ 18

[60] Australian League of Nations Union, ‘Private Picture – Australian League of Nations Union members at the annual conference, Canberra 1938,’ January 1938, NLA, found online at:

[61] Susan Pederson, ‘Back to the League of Nations,’ 1116

[62] Lord Robert Cecil, The League Is Dead, Long Live The United Nations. (London: The United Nations Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 1946): 4

[63] Lord Robert Cecil, All the Way, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1949): 240

[64] McCarthy, The British People and the League of Nations, 6

[65] Summy, ‘Countering War,’ 17