In January 1918 United States President Woodrow Wilson outlined his blueprint for lasting peace in Europe. His 'Fourteen Points’ formed the basis for the terms of the German surrender, as negotiated at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and documented in the Treaty of Versailles. In the end, though, only four of these points were adopted completely.

Wilson’s 14th point called for ‘A general association of nations’ to be formed ‘for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike’. New Zealand, one of the ‘small states’, joined 40 other nations at Geneva on 1 November 1920 for the first general assembly of the League. Wilson's ideas were out of favour in the United States, however, where a policy of isolationism now prevailed. As a result, that country refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League.

The League's goals

The founders of the League of Nations were desperate to avoid a repetition of the horrors of the Great War. The main aims of the organisation included disarmament, preventing war through collective security, settling disputes between countries through negotiation and diplomacy, and improving global welfare.

The League lacked an armed force of its own to enforce any actions to achieve these aims. There were minor successes involving small powers but overall the League lacked any real teeth. Success ultimately depended on the involvement of the so-called Great Powers. Unfortunately, the Great Powers that joined - like France and Britain - were generally reluctant to do so. The absence of the United States seriously weakened the League, while Germany and Russia were initially absent. Russia was preoccupied with the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution; Germany was not deemed worthy of membership as a result of the war. Both nations were eventually admitted to the League, but both left during the 1930s, along with foundation member Japan.  

Many have pointed to the League's inability to enforce any of its resolutions in the face of aggression and the absence of key nations as primary causes of the Second World War.

New Zealand and the League

New Zealand joined the League mainly to add extra support to British opinion. There was also some tangible recognition for New Zealand’s contribution to the First World War via the League of Nations Mandates established under Article 22 of the organisation's Covenant. Former colonies of the German and Ottoman Empires were placed under the supervision of the League following the war. Among these territories was German (Western) Samoa, which had been occupied by New Zealand troops on 29 August 1914. New Zealand was granted a Class "C" Mandate over Western Samoa from 1919, and ruled the island until its independence in 1962. In practice, these Mandated territories were treated as colonies and critics of the system described them as the spoils of war.

How to cite this page: 'The League of Nations', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/league-of-nations, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 28-Jul-2014