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Definition: League of Nations from Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary

Political organization estab. by the Allied powers at the end of WWI; replaced by the United Nations 1946.

Summary Article: League of Nations
From Encyclopedia of United States - Latin American Relations
  • Keywords
  • International Organizations
  • Diplomatic and Military Policy
  • Colombia

Established in the hope of preventing future international conflicts through negotiation and arbitration, the League of Nations convened in Paris, France, on January 16, 1920. The Covenant of the League of Nations, the governing charter for that organization, had been devised as Part I of the Treaty of Versailles and signed by representatives from forty-one nations on June 28, 1919. Initial member nations from Latin America included Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and constituted 36 percent of the league's early membership. Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic would join in 1920 and 1924, respectively. Due in part to antipathy relating to its revolution and the Zimmerman Telegram, the Wilson administration successfully recommended that Mexico not be invited to join the league initially. Mexico subsequently gained admission in 1931. Ecuador's delegation had signed the Covenant, but its legislature did not ratify membership until 1934.

Attracted by the idea that all members would stand as equals, the league offered the nations of Latin America the equally important potential to have a forum through which their disputes could be resolved without resorting to warfare. Article X of the Covenant, which affirmed the league's respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, implicitly carried the promise of mutual protection against future intervention while simultaneously generating enough concern in the U.S. Senate regarding delegation of congressional war powers to an international body to prevent that nation from joining the league. Considerable ambiguity remained, however, as Article XXI of the Covenant specifically named the Monroe Doctrine as a “regional understanding” which would not be superseded by league agreements.

In terms of governing structure the leagues included a Secretariat, an Assembly of representatives from member nations, and a Council, which originally included four permanent members (Great Britain, France, Japan, and Italy) and four nonpermanent members who would be elected to three-year terms by the Assembly. These institutions and the committees subsequently established by the league would in turn be financed by dues levied upon members. In the first decade of the league's existence, this structure precipitated conditions leading to the withdrawal of some nations. Argentina's delegation, for example, proposed amendments in 1920 to broaden the Assembly to any sovereign nation that chose to join, establish election of all Council members by majority vote of the Assembly, and create a Permanent Court of International Justice. While the third idea would be adopted in subsequent years, the initial tabling of all measures led Argentina to announce its withdrawal from the league in 1921. Costa Rica, which had voted to join the league in 1920, announced its departure in 1925 over an inability to pay its dues. Germany's appointment as a permanent member of the Council in 1926 led Brazil to join Spain in announcing withdrawal from the league after its request for appointment as a permanent member was rejected.

Arms Control Initiatives

Recognizing the obvious impact of the arms trade on international conflict, the league considered various measures designed to limit the exportation of arms. Early efforts languished due to attempts to ban arms exports to any nation that had not signed the Covenant. By early 1925, however, a new convention had been proposed that would apply irrespective of signatory status. The resulting convention, which met in Geneva beginning in May 1925, proposed the issuing of export licenses to arms manufacturers at the discretion of the home nation of said manufacturer, while also requiring publication of arms trades. José Gustavo Guerrero of El Salvador, who would later be president of the Permanent Court of International Justice and its successor, the International Court of Justice, served as vice president of the arms control convention.

During negotiations customer nations expressed the greatest criticisms of the proposed system. Licenses could, for example, be used to favor one client nation at the expense of another, while publication requirements would provide specific information regarding military capability to potentially hostile powers. In the former instance, Guerrero proposed that licenses be granted in accordance with practices established by the United States which afforded recognition to nations unless they had been established by revolution or golpe. Guerrero's proposal met with resistance, however, given that Costa Rica's initial exclusion from invitation into the League of Nations had largely been due to the Wilson administration's refusal to recognize the government of General Federico Tinoco Granados, despite the lengths to which the Tinoco government went to demonstrate its opposition to the Central Powers during World War I.

Though delegates would sign the Arms Traffic Convention in June 1925, the convention would ultimately fall short of ratification. Subsequent international conflicts would further reveal no shortage of arms exported to belligerent nations. The convention would bear some success in creating a new standard for behavior, however, as Belgium, Sweden, the United States, and France would voluntarily impose peacetime licensing of arms exports by producers from their nations.

The League as Mediator

Disputes in Latin America would present two key tests for the League of Nations in its second decade of existence. The Chaco War is distinguished as the first conflict in which the league imposed sanctions on belligerent nations. During the same approximate period, the conflict between Peru and Colombia over the Leticia trapezium became the first occasion for which the league made use of peacekeeping forces.

Though cognizant of the various border skirmishes between Paraguay and Bolivia during the 1920s, the league ultimately proved unable to prevent the escalation of this conflict to full-scale warfare in June 1932. Despite sanctions imposed against both nations and a request from Paraguay for leagues mediation, the conflict continued for three years and ultimately ended only through negotiations held under the auspices of the Pan-American conference, with Argentina playing a key role in brokering the initial truce and assisting in negotiation of the settlement and cession of nearly three-fourths of Gran Chaco to Paraguay. Indeed Carlos Saavedra Lamas, the Argentine diplomat most identified with the negotiated settlement that ended the Chaco War, earned the 1936 Nobel Peace Prize. For its part Paraguay's 1935 declaration of its intention to withdraw from the league was due, to some degree, over nearly 445,000 gold francs owed to the league for a combination of unpaid dues and expenses in relation to the Chaco Commission.

The Leticia controversy, to the contrary, represented a tangible success for the league's mission of preventing the escalation of conflict. In contravention of the unpopular 1922 Treaty of Salomón-Lozano by which Peru ceded the Leticia trapezium to Colombia, a group of Peruvian businessmen and soldiers captured the village of Leticia on September 1, 1932, and expelled Colombian authorities. Both Peru and Colombia petitioned the league for mediation. A league commission, consisting of representatives from Spain, the United States, and Brazil, assumed control over the trapezium in June 1933. Between fifty and seventy-five Colombian soldiers effectively served as international peacekeepers and supported the commission at the direction of the league. Control over the trapezium was ultimately restored to Colombian officials in June 1934, after Brazilian-sponsored negotiations conducted in Rio de Janeiro produced a treaty resolving the conflict.

Arbitration of conflicts in other parts of the world would also reverberate in Latin America as Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras announced their intentions to withdraw from the league in 1936 as league sanctions against the Italian role in the Abyssinian crisis intensified, with El Salvador following in 1937. In the context of the sympathies of these nations' leaders with the government of Benito Mussolini, these withdrawals intensified fears in Washington that the influence of the fascist powers had increased significantly in Central America.


The league, of course, became defunct with the onset of World War II, although some of its structures were picked up by the subsequent United States. Despite a mixed record of successes and failures, the league notably presented the nations of Latin America an unprecedented opportunity to become formally integrated as equals within the larger international community. By the same token league attention to crises such as the Peru-Colombia War and the Chaco War not only offered the potential for assistance from outside of the western hemisphere; it also enabled nations such as Brazil and Argentina to rise to the forefront as intermediaries, thereby providing both a boost in national self-confidence as well as a forum by which they could demonstrate regional leadership.

See also Chaco War, 1932–1935; Leticia Controversy, 1922–1935; Tacna-Arica Dispute, 1883–1929; Zimmermann Telegram

  • Calvert, Peter. The International Politics of Latin America. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1994.
  • Kain, Ronald Stuart. “The Chaco Dispute and the Peace System.” Political Science Quarterly 50, no. 3 (1935): 321-342.
  • Martin, Percy Alvin. “Latin America and the League of Nations.” American Political Science Review 20, no. 1 (1926): 14-30.
  • Stone, David R. “Imperialism and Sovereignty: The League of Nations' Drive to Control the Global Arms Trade.” Journal of Contemporary History 35, no. 2 (2000): 213-230.
  • Woolsey, L. H. “The Leticia Dispute between Colombia and Peru.” American Journal of International Law 29, no. 1 (1935): 94-99.
Copyright © 2012 by CQ Press, an Imprint of SAGE Publications, Inc.

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