Why League of Nations(LoN) failed while UN fairly succeeded

General info on LoN:

  • Formed mainly on the persuasion of Woodrow Wilson as he believed that an organization which is kind of a ‘world parliament’, where nations would sort out their arguments. He hoped this would stop wars, would improve people’s lives and jobs, end slavery and persuade nations to agree for disarmament.
  • LoN was also formed for the enforcement of the Treaty of Versailles
  • The Organisation of the League:
    • Assembly(All members)
    • Council(British, France, Italy, Japan)
    • Agencies (committees of the League): Permanent Court of International Justice, Health, International Labour Organisation, Slavery, Mandates Commission (looked after former German colonies).
    • Secretariat (was supposed to organise the League)
  • League’s ‘means of influence’: moral condemnation, arbitration and sanctions. The League could agree to military force, although it had no army.

Why the league failed?

  • Woodrow Wilson ironically is one of the reasons for its failure. He was too idealistic and wanted the league to do everything in its infancy
  • 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. Theoretically, the League was able to use military force, but the League did not have an army of its own. Also, the league unrealistically believed it could use ‘moral persuassion’.
  • The organization of the league was also its weakness. There was coordination lacking between different parts of the league in times of a crisis.
  • Big powers did not join: US(isolation), USSR(refused to join), Germany(was not allowed to join)
  • The criticism of the Versailles treaty(that it was unfair) fell on the league as well.
  • The league in 1920’s was fairly successful compare to 1930s. This is because of Great Depression-Countries now wanted to increase their wealth at other nations’ expense and emergence of facist governments in some countries.
  • Its own members betrayed it and let it down: Japan, Britain, France
  • Success: Small nations boundary disputes like: Finland-Sweden, Yugoslavia-Albania, Greece-Bulgaria(1925-Greece invaded as some of its soldiers were killed over border dispute), Italy-Greece(Corfu incident, 1923: Mussolini invaded Greece’s island Corfu as one of its General was killed, league condemned Italy, Mussolini did not listen later league changed its decision,Greece apologized and payed some money to Italy and got back its island )
  • Its biggest failures:
    • Manchuria: Japan invaded(to overcome depression-need resources) Manchuria in 1932 and overthrew the Chinese. China asked help. Japan refused to leave Manchuria(against League’s orders) and left the League. British, France and others had trading links with Japan and Japan was against Russia so they did not support sanctions. Failure of league here, raised prestige of the Japanese Army which pressured the Japanese government to undertake a policy of armed expansion.
    • Abyssinia: in 1935 Mussolini got ready to invade Abyssinia(Ethiopia) which asked the League to help. The League talked to Mussolini – but he used the time to send an army to Africa. The League suggested a plan to give part of Abyssinia to Italy. Mussolini ignored the League, and invaded Abyssinia. League put some sanctions on weapon sales, metals and rubber, but it did nothing else. Britain and France secretly agreed to give Abyssinia to Italy, which conquered it. This episode meant death for LoN.

Why UN did not fail? 

  • Major countries of the world had more incentive to keep the peace after WWII than they did after WWI.
  • All major countries joined the UN, with the most powerful countries forming its security council
  • Better organization of the body compared to LoN
  • Balance of power between major nations
  • The UN Security Council takes decisions by seven votes including five permanent mem­bers while the League Council took decisions by unanimity, so less obstruction
  • The newly formed Asian and African states have always thrown their weight on the side of peace forces.
  • The economic and social functions of the U.N.O. have been separated from political and legal functions. In case of the League these were blurred. Similarly, the Trusteeship Council is a distinct improvement over the mandatory system of the League. Today the forces of peace are more powerful than those during the inter-war period.


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