The League of Nations: Definition, Members & Failure

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  • 0:00 The League of Nations:…
  • 1:28 What Was the League Of…
  • 3:15 Problems and Failures
  • 4:25 Holdouts
  • 5:54 End of the League
  • 7:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
The devastation of World War I prompted over forty nations to join a new international organization dedicated to ending wars before they began: the League of Nations. But high-profile exceptions to the body ultimately doomed the League to irrelevance and failure.

The League of Nations: A Dream of Peace

At the end of the worst, most catastrophic event in human history, there was a hope - a small one, but very real - that maybe something good might come out of it all. The First World War (then known only as the Great War) ended in 1918, and the human toll was almost beyond reckoning: 25 million dead, entire nations wrecked, whole generations of young people gone, European culture devastated. And for what? That was the question which occupied the world that year: if all of this meant nothing, then what did that say about humanity?

The only good result from the war that anyone could conceive was the possibility that war, all war, was done for. Human beings had proven to themselves that they had the ability to wipe themselves out. Given that, the reasoning went, every nation would be motivated to make sure that such destruction would no longer be a possibility.

Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, came forward with a plan that everyone hoped would truly make the Great War the last human conflict. The centerpiece of his plan, the League of Nations, was meant to provide an international forum to promote peace and prevent hostility. It is grimly ironic, then, that the failure of the League not only meant a resumption of war, but a new conflict that was immensely more destructive than the 'war to end all wars.'

What Was the League of Nations?


Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris at the beginning of 1919 to a hero's welcome. The U.S. had joined the war in its third year, 1917, but its entrance had helped bring an end to the conflict, and now the hope was that Wilson's plan to put the world back together again would be ratified at the Versailles Conference, the meeting of the victorious powers outside Paris.


Wilson's plan was nicknamed the Fourteen Points, which, taken together, were meant to create an international structure to end war, once and for all. The major part of the plan was the creation of an international body, the League of Nations, which would be the prime mechanism for mediating and resolving conflict.

The idea for an organization like this had been around for some time, and similar international efforts had produced a body of international law (such as the Geneva Conventions of 1846 and 1906), but no permanent organizations had been created. The hope was that the devastation of the World War would convince everyone of the need for such a body.


The League of Nations was made up of a General Assembly, which contained all the member states, and an Executive Council made up of only major nations (particularly the Big Four: Great Britain, France, Italy, and presumably, the U.S.). Member states were to disarm as much as practicable while maintaining sufficient force to ensure domestic safety. After its ratification by the Versailles Conference in January 1919, 42 nations joined, including 31 which had fought on the losing side in the World War.

Problems and Failures


The League met first in Paris in January 1920, ultimately settling later that year in Geneva, Switzerland.

One issue with the League became apparent shortly after it began functioning, in that a unanimous vote of member states was necessary for most major decisions. This was meant to preserve the autonomy and sovereignty of each nation, and to ensure that decisions would be the product of compromise and agreement, rather than by compulsion. However, this also meant that many decisions were difficult to procure, given the high standard.

Another problem was in the remedies the League could apply in the case of international conflict. While the League could impose economic sanctions in order to compel an offending nation to change its policies, many member states were reluctant to go along with such sanctions, fearful that they could disrupt trade and commerce. Even worse, if the economic sanctions failed, the League could use military force, but because the League did not maintain its own body of troops, it had to ask member states to use their own militaries, which was both impractical (since only Britain and France had the level of preparedness and sufficient force to do so) and unpopular with member nations.


But the biggest problem with the League was who wasn't there. Germany, which had been pegged as the major aggressor in the Great War, wasn't allowed to join which meant that it wasn't part of international mediation or collaboration, a fact which contributed mightily to Germany's sense of isolation between World Wars I and II. Russia, which had turned to communism after its 1917 revolution, was also refused entry. When the Soviet Union was finally allowed to join the League in 1938, it was expelled again within a year for its invasion of Finland at the beginning of World War II. But the most important nation to stay out of the League was the one that had promoted the idea in the first place - the United States.

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