How Strong was the League?

The League had no means of enforcing its decisions other than the effect of world opinion.   If a power chose to be defiant, there was nothing effective that the League could do.

S Reed Brett, European History 1900-1960 (1967).  



History Learning site  

Organisation Diagram



- Giles Hill on the establishment of the League


   Describe the organisation of the League of Nations.

   What were the strengths and weaknesses of the League of Nations in the 1920s?

Strengths and Weaknesses

The main strength of the League was that it had been set up by the Treaty of Versailles, and agreed by everybody at the conference.   When, later, many people started to criticise and attack the Treaty, this was also a major weakness.


1. Organisation

One of the biggest weaknesses was that the Organisation of the League was a muddle. The different parts of the League were supposed to act together; but in a crisis, no-one could agree.


2. Membership

Forty-two countries joined the League at the start. In the 1930s about 60 countries were members . This made the League seem strong.

Britain and France were the main members, helped by Italy and Japan; they were quite powerful countries.

A critical weakness was that the most powerful countries in the world were not members. The USA did not want to join. The Russians refused to join – they were Communists and hated Britain and France. Germany was not allowed to join. Without these three big powers, the League was weak.


3. How the League kept peace

The League hoped that it could influence countries to 'do the right thing' by:

  1. Collective Security  

  2. Community of Power  

  3. Moral Persuasion

The 'moral power' of the League lay in the League's Covenant, especially Articles 10-17, in which members promised to keep the peace. Many writers have pointed out that this is hardly a very effective deterrent against a powerful country which was determined to disobey the League.   

If these moral influences failed, the League had three powers it could use to make countries do as it wanted.  Theoretically, the League was able to use military force, but the League did not have an army of its own – so if a country ignored it, in the end, there was nothing the League could do.








The Organisation of the League

1.    Assembly (the League's main meeting – all members met once a year.   Decisions had to be unanimous.)

2.   Council (a small group of the more important nations – inc. Britain, France, Italy & Japan – met 4–5 times a year).

3.   Agencies (committees of the League):

•   Permanent Court of International Justice.

•   Health.

•   International Labour Organisation.

•   Slavery

•   Mandates Commission (looked after former German colonies).

4.   Secretariat (was supposed to organise the League).




The Three Powers of the League

1.   Condemnation (the League could tell a country it was doing wrong).

2.   Arbitration (the League could offer to decide between two countries).

3.   Sanctions (stopping trade).





Source A

If any member of the League goes to war, all the other members will behave as if that member country had declared war on them.   They will stop trading with that country.   They will advise the Council of the League about any armed action that should be taken.

adapted from the Covenant of the League of Nations (1919).


Source B

One basic weakness of the League was that it was tied in people's minds to the Versailles settlement, and criticism thrown at Versailles fell on the League.   The refusal of the USA to join the League and the fact that Britain and France were the only major nations of Europe who remained full members, severely handicapped its efforts.

Written by PJ Larkin, European History for Certificate Classes (1965). 

PJ Larkin was a teacher of secondary school pupils, and this is a revision book.





1.   Does Source C suggest that the League of Nations was powerful when it came into existence?

2.    Did the League of Nations have any chance of success?



Source C  

Powerpoint presentation explaining the cartoon

‘Moral Persuasion'– a Punch cartoon of 1920.

The rabbit is saying: "My offensive equipment being practically nil, it remains for me to fascinate him with the power of my eye."

Click here for the interpretation



America Pulls Out

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the League was that, when Wilson got back home to the United States, the American Senate refused to join the League.  

Americans did not want to get dragged into other countries’ problems. 

This damaged the League a lot.  It did not have access to the prestige, influence, wealth or military power of the United States.   It was forced to rely on Britain and France, who had both been weakened by the First World War.





Basic narrative account

A brilliant explanation by Ben Walsh of why America refused to join

Sources showing why America refused to join

  Speeches by American politicians

Source D  

Powerpoint presentation explaining the cartoon

‘The Gap in the Bridge’ – a cartoon of 1919 by Leonard Ravenhill in the British magazine Punch.

This cartoon is critical of America.   Although President Wilson had been the originator the the idea of a League (see the sign), now - although the USA is the 'keystone' (essential to stop the League collapsing) - America (represened by the sleeping figure of 'Uncle Sam') is refusing to join.

Click here for the interpretation