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 Antecedents to the UN



Sun Yat-Sen’s 1924 speech on Pan-Asianism argued that European civilization was based on the "rule of Might," while the peoples of East Asia should unite to restore the former status of Asia. For Sun Yat-Sen, "Pan-Asianism represents the cause of the oppressed Asiatic peoples."

The Laws of War

The Avalon project at Yale has made all Hague and other conventions on war and disarmament available from the 1856 Declaration of Paris onwards.

A General Postal Union

This 1864 British book calls for the establishment of a General Postal Union. The book represents one of many expressions of a desire for international conferences (sanitary, monetary, disarmament etc.) and unions. These emerged increasingly from the mid-nineteenth century.

Peace Without Victory

In this speech to the Senate on January 22, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appealed to Europeans to create a “peace without victory” in Europe. However, Wilson’s hopes were dashed when the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic and sent the Zimmermann telegram. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points

In a speech to Congress on January 8, 1918, Wilson outlined fourteen points as a basis for peace and an assurance to the United States that the War was being fought for a just cause. Germany agreed to an armistice in November 1918 on the basis of these points. Nevertheless, the eventual Treaty of Versailles signed with Germany bore little resemblance to the Fourteen Points. Importantly for the later formation of the League of Nations, Wilson suggests this idea in Point Fourteen: “A general association of nations should be formed on the basis of covenants designed to create mutual guarantees of the political independence and territorial integrity of States, large and small equally.”

Covenant of the League of Nations

After negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Hurst-Miller draft of the covenant was approved on 11 April 1919. The treaty entered into force on 10 January 1920. Articles 4, 6, 12, 13, and 15 were amended in 1924.

Organizational Chart of the League of Nations

A contemporary pictorial depiction of the organization of the League of Nations. It highlights, amongst other things, the importance of the League’s technical organizations and its international institutes in Paris and Rome.

Punch Cartoon Satirizing the US absence from the League of Nations

A Republican majority in Congress blocked US ratification of the Versailles treaty and entry into the League of Nations. This cartoon is from December 10, 1919.

The Locarno Pact

Signed in 1925, this pact between Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy guaranteed Germany’s western borders as designated in the Treaty of Versailles. By not guaranteeing Germany’s eastern borders, however, it did lay open the path for irredentism and revisionism vis-à-vis Eastern European countries.

Kellogg-Briand Pact

The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 was a treaty between the United States and other major powers renouncing the use of war as a legitimate means of national policy. In many ways, it represented a high point in interwar idealism about the possibilities of disarmament and peace. Further documents and a bibliography on the pact are located here: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/kbmenu.asp

Albert Einstein’s Radio Broadcast to the World Disarmament Conference

At the start of the conference in February 1932, Einstein broadcast a radio message asking for statesmen to cooperate at the conference and assigning responsibility to every person on earth to create a public opinion favorable to disarmament. Hosted by the League of Nations in Geneva, the Conference started in 1932 and ground to a halt from October 1933 onwards, after Hitler withdrew Germany from the League and the Conference.

H.G. Wells on the London Economic and Monetary Conference of 1933

Chapter 14 in Wells’ 1933 book, The Shape of Things, describes the conference, highlighting the participants’ shortcomings, but also expressing his disappointment in their failure and the likely spread of fascism and dictatorships.

The Communist International

Articles from Comintern’s journal, The Communist International, here from 1919 to 1926.

Lenin’s Speech at the Third Communist International

Trotsky’s Analysis of the League of Nations

Trotsky’s article on the League in 1936 claims that the League was an instrument of the Great Powers, filled with hypocrisy. Please concentrate on the primary source, rather than the introduction to it on this website.

Lenin and Trotsky on Versailles and the League of Nations

This article by Joseph Vanzler from 1945 provides excellent quotations from both Lenin and Trotsky on their views of the League and Versailles.

Dimitrov Thesis

In 1935, Georgi Dimitrov (1882-1949) declared that there should be working-class unity against fascism. In a 1937 speech here, he states that “fascism is war” and calls for the international labor movement to unite under the Communist ethos. For an archive of Dimitrov’s work, see here.

Great East-Asia Conference

Convened by Japan in 1943, this conference included the states that Japan had invaded and vaguely promised independence. Prime Minister Tojo’s speech and the conference conclusions can be found here.


League of Nations chronology

Created by the UN in Geneva, this chronology runs from 1918 to 1946 with a gap between 1938 and 1945.

League of Nations Photo Archive

In addition to the League of Nations Photo Collection, there is a digital copy of The Illustrated Album of the League of Nations, which includes a very concise overview of the League plus other photos and diagrams. The League of Nations: A Pictorial Survey also includes numerous photos. Another useful book is The Aims, Methods and Activity of the League of Nations, published by the Secretariat in 1935. It provides a basic introduction designed for the general public about the origins, organization and achievements of the League.

Timeline of League Conferences

This is a comprehensive timeline of all conferences conducted under the auspices of the League of Nations.

Indiana University League of Nations Archive

This collection includes speeches by Wilson and newspaper articles of the time. It mainly has sources on the United States and the League of Nations.

League of Nations Treaties

This provides full texts of over 4500 League of Nations treaties and agreements, hosted by the World Legal Information Institute.

LONSEA Database

This League of Nations search engine allows researchers to explore the people, places, and organizations associated with the League of Nations. It also includes data visualization.  


An examination of Pan-Asianism as an Ideal of Asian Identity and Solidarity, 1850–Present by Sven Saaler and Christopher Szpilman. This article serves as an excellent introduction to the concept of pan-Asianism and its main protagonists. A bibliography of further works is also listed.

Timeline of Khilafat Movement

International Sanitary Conferences, 1851-1938

This book by Norman Howard-Jones, former director of the WHO, details the important international sanitary conferences prior to World War II.

International Monetary Conferences

Written in 1898 by Henry Benajah Russell, this book illustrates the longer-term history of international monetary conferences prior to Bretton Woods.

International Disarmament Conferences

This website on the Hague conferences provides details about the first international disarmament conferences at the Hague in 1899 and 1907.

History and architecture of the Palais des Nations

This building in classical style housed the League of Nations in Geneva. It was built from 1929 to 1936 following a completion. The interior was decorated through donations from League members. The complex now houses the League of Nations archives and UN buildings in Geneva.

UN in World War II

This project at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS, London, includes interactive maps and timelines.

War Crimes Project: UN, the Holocaust & the War Crimes Commission, 1943-1948

Run by at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS, London, this project investigates the Axis crimes of World War II, looking at international statements and the work of the UNWCC between 1943 and 1948.


As the literature on the League of Nations and other antecedents is vast, this of course represents a small selection of the latest books and articles available and only includes English-language studies. Works on the antecedents of specific UN agencies can be found in the respective bibliographies for those agencies.

Sunil Amrith and Patricia Clavin, "Feeding the World: Connecting Europe and Asia, 1930-1945," Past and Present 218 (2013) suppl. 8: 29-50.

This article uses policies related to food to explore the transnational networks established by the League of Nations that later became institutionalized in the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization, and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The article also links nutrition, health, and rural development to examine connections between the interwar years and the postwar pursuit of 'development.'

Andrew Arsan, Su Lin Lewis, and Anne-Isabelle Richard, Special issue, "The Roots of Global Civil Society and the Interwar Movement," Journal of Global History 7.2 (2012).

This special issue examines transnational associational life in the interwar years and argues that the concept of 'global civil society' helps us to understand the "paradoxical nature of this period, which witnessed both the de-globalization of the world and a growing sense of global interconnectivity."

Cemal Aydin, The Politics of anti-Westernism in Asia: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

Aydin examines pan-Islamic and pan-Asian reactions to Westernism and Westernization from 1840 to 1945. It investigates these movements in a comparative context, identifying six phases that Aydin traces. See reviews by Erez Manela and Michael Facius.

Alexander Badenoch and Andreas Fickers, eds., Materializing Europe: Transnational Infrastructures and the Project of Europe (Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

This edited volume provides articles on the infrastructural creation of Europe through transportation and communications networks.

Sugata Bose and Kris Manjapra (eds.), Cosmopolitan Thought Zones: South Asia and the Global Circulation of Ideas (Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

Bose and Manjapra’s edited volume explores important forms of South Asian cosmopolitanism, showing how South Asia remained interconnected to larger global trends and intellectual movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Robert Boyce, The Great Interwar Crisis and the Collapse of Globalization (Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

An attempt to unite recent work on the League of Nations with older work of the 1970s and 1980s on interwar financial history. For a roundtable discussion of the work, see the H-Diplo Roundtable.

Patricia Clavin, "Money Talks: Competition and Co-operation with the League of Nations, 1929-1940" in Money Doctors. The Experience of International Financial Advising, 1850-2000 (London; New York: Routledge, 2003).

Frank Costigliola, Roosevelt's Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2012).

Costigliola investigates how the personal politics between the "Big Three" of Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt. See H-Diplo reviews here.

Richard Thomas Davies, "A 'Great Experiment' of the League of Nations Era: International Nongovernmental Organizations, Global Governance, and Democracy beyond the State," Global Governance. A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 18 (2012), pp. 405-423.

C. Ernest Dawn, “The Formation of Pan-Arab Ideology in the Interwar Years,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 20:1 (1988), pp. 67-91.

This article examines authors who participated in Arab nationalist politics in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq during the interwar period.

Prasenjit Duara, “The Discourse of Civilization and Pan-Asianism,” Journal of World History 12:1 (Spring 2001), pp. 99-130.

Focusing on Tagore, Tenshin and Zhiang Taiyan, Duara argues that there was an “anti-imperialist regionalization project in Asia” in the interwar period.

Klaas Dyckmann, “How International was the Secretariat of the League of Nations?” International History Review 37.4 (2015), pp. 721-744.

This article examines the origins of the Secretariat and its staff. This article argues that the secretariat was international in a European understanding of the notion. This understanding separated European “high politics” from extra-European regional matters.

David Ekbladh, “American Asylum: The United States and the Campaign to Transplant the Technical League, 1939–1940,” Diplomatic History 39.4 (2015): 629-660.

This article explores a Roosevelt-backed plan to move the main technical branches of the League of Nations to the United States. This was intended to shield the institutions from fascist influences and to bolster the US’ position in postwar planning.

Carole Fink, Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878-1938 (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

This book examines the creation of minority rights protection and evaluates early international human rights diplomacy.

Harald Fischer-Tine and Carolien Stolte, "Imagining Asia in India: Nationalism and Internationalism (ca. 1905-1940)," Comparative Studies in Society and History 54.1 (2012), pp. 65-92.

Fischer-Tine and Stolte examine concepts of Asia and pan-Asianism in India during the struggle for Independence, including the tension between national aspirations and supra-national visions of pan-Asianism.

Robert Gerwarth (ed), Twisted Paths. Europe 1914-45 (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Patricia Clavin, "Europe and the League of Nations," pp. 325-354.

Clavin provides a concise overview of the history of the League of Nations.

Michael Geyer and Johannes Paulmann, eds., The Mechanics of Internationalism: Culture, Society, and Politics from the 1940s to the First World War (London; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

The chapters in this edited volume explore myriad aspects of the conscious formation of movement across borders from passports to international organizations to economic, sporting, and scientific exchanges.

Manu Goswami, "Imaginary Futures and Colonial Internationalisms," American Historical Review, vol. 117.5 (December 2012), pp. 1461-1486.

Goswami explores internationalism in the interwar period through the work and life of Benoy Kumar Sarkar, a prolific and globe-trotting Indian social scientist.

Martyn Housden, The League of Nations and the Organisation of Peace (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2012).

This book offers an overview of various topics related to the League of Nations, in particular minorities, refugees, economic and social projects, and security. It also provides insights into the documents available for studying the League of Nations. 

Akira Iriye, Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

Iriye traces the development of international organizations from the nineteenth century to the present. He views the development of NGO’s has been a highly positive force for change and human betterment. For review (in German), see here.

Akira Iriye, Cultural Internationalism and World Order (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

Iriye uncovers the vast array of cooperative initiatives and argues that we can best view these in a global context.

Harold James (ed.), The Interwar Depression in an International Context (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2002).

This edited volume includes essays by most of the leading scholars on the Great Depression, including Harold James and Barry Eichengreen, and revises some of Kindleberger’s conclusions.

Charles Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 1929-1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

The standard account of the causes of the Great Depression, mostly through an examination of the Great Powers. Kindleberger explains the Great Depression through the absence of a hegemon, i.e. a dominant economic power with a strong interest in softening the crisis, the ability to affect the global situation and enough clout to ensure that others will respond according to the dominant power’s actions or desires. For a discussion of other explanations and works on the Great Depression, see here.

Sandrine Kott, ed., “International Organisations during the Second World War,” Journal of Modern European History 12.3 (2014). 

The essays in this collection examine the role of various non-government organizations and League of Nations entities during World War II and consider the transition from the League of Nations to the United Nations. The articles are listed bellow.
Sandrine Kott, “Internationalism in Wartime. International Organisations during the Second World War. Introduction”
Ludovic Tournès, “The Rockefeller Foundation and the Transition from the League of Nations to the UN (1939–1946)”
Corinne A. Pernet, “Twists, Turns, and Dead Alleys: The League of Nations and Intellectual Cooperation in Times of War”
Sandrine Kott, “Fighting the War or Preparing for Peace? The ILO during the Second World War”
Joelle Droux, “From Child Rescue to Child Welfare: The Save the Children International Union Facing World Warfare (1939–1947)”

Vincent Lagendijk, Electrifying Europe: The Power of Europe in the Construction of Electricity Networks (Amsterdam: Aksant, 2008).

Lagendijk traces the development of European electricity networks back to the interwar period and looks at the role of intergovernmental organizations including the League of Nations to the Union and the Coordination of Production and Transmission of Electricity.

Daniel Laqua, “Transnational Intellectual Cooperation, the League of Nations, and the Problem of Order,” Journal of Global History 6.2 (2011), pp. 223-247.

This article explores two League of Nations bodies, the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation and the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation. It argues that the search for order helps us to understand interwar intellectual cooperation.

Daniel Laqua, ed., Internationalism Reconfigured: Transnational Ideas and Movements between the World Wars (London; New York: I. B. Tauris, distributed in the United States by Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

This edited volume reveals the great variety in transnational ideas, groups, and practices, including the role of science and technology, funding, and advocacy.

Joyce Lebra (ed.), Japan’s Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in World War II: Selected readings and Documents (Kuala Lumpur; New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

For a review of these selected essays on the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, see here.

Joyce Lebra-Chapman, “Postwar Perspectives on Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” Harmon Memorial Lectures in Military History (Colorado: U.S. Air Force Academy, 1991).

Lebra-Chapman provides useful interpretations of the meaning of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2002), Chapter 7 (“The League of Nations”) and Chapter 8 (“Mandates”).

A detailed study of the Paris Peace Conference that repudiates many myths, such as the crushing nature of reparations. See the review by Sally Marks, a distinguished scholar of the interwar period.

Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Manela explores the impact of Wilsonian ideas on the colonized. See reviews by Michael Provence and Katya Naumann (in German).

Ethan Mark, “Asia’s” Transwar Lineage: Nationalism, Marxism and “Greater Asia” in an Indonesian Inflection,” The Journal of Asian Studies 65: 3 (2006), 461-493.

This article examines the evolution of concepts of national identity and Asia, particularly in Indonesia, in the first half of the twentieth century.

Kevin McDermott and J. Agnew, The Comintern: a History of International Communism from Lenin to Stalin (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1996).

This is the standard history of the Comintern (1919-1943). The Comintern aimed to struggle “by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the State.”

Vanessa Ogle, "Whose Time is It? The Pluralization of Time and the Global Condition, 1870s to 1940s," American Historical Review 120, no. 5 (Dec. 2013), pp. 1376-1402.

Ogle's article examines the interaction between time reform, globalization, and state formation.

Susan Pedersen, “Back to the League of Nations:  Review Essay,” AHR, 112: 4 (Oct. 2007), pp. 1091-1117.

Pedersen provides an extremely helpful overview and analysis of the latest literature on the League of Nations.

Susan Pedersen, “The Meaning of the Mandates System:  An Argument,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 32: 4 (Oct-Dec. 2006), pp. 560-82 

Pedersen argues against the traditional view of the mandate system as a complete failure, showing that it did create publicity and discussion amongst participants.

Susan Pedersen, “Getting Out of Iraq – in 1932: The League of Nations and the Road to Normative Statehood,” AHR, 115: 4 (Oct. 2010), pp. 975-1000.

Pedersen details how and why Iraq was the only mandate territory to be made nominally independent. She is particularly strong on relations within the Mandate Commission.

J. A. Pemberton, “New Worlds for Old: The League of Nations in the Age of Electricity,” Review of International Studies 28 (2002), pp. 311-336.

This article examines how League bureaucrats and supporters propagated a doctrine of rationalization through electricity from the mid-1920s to early 1930s.

Dan Plesch, America, Hitler and the UN. How the Allies Won World War II and Forged a Peace (London; New York: I. B. Tauris, 2010).

Plesch examines the origins of the United Nations starting in January 1942, narrating an alternative history of the foundation of the UN. Review available here.

Dietmar Rothermund, The Global Impact of the Great Depression, 1929-1939 (London; New York: Routledge, 1996).

An examination of the effects of the Great Depression on nations previously underexamined, such as India. An economic historian, Rothermund concentrates especially on the relationship between the developed “core” of nations and underdeveloped “periphery.”

Johan Schot and Vincent Lagendijk, “Technocratic Internationalism in the Interwar Years: Building Europe on Motorways and Electricity Networks,” Journal of Modern European History 6 (2008), pp. 196-216.

Schot and Lagendijk argue for the importance of interwar discussions amongst engineers about cross-border motorway and electricity networks that fostered the exchange of knowledge and created the foundations for postwar infrastructural networks.

Heidi J. S. Tworek, “Peace Through Truth? The Press and Moral Disarmament Through the League of Nations,” Medien & Zeit 25.4 (2010), pp. 16–28.

This article examines how the League of Nations tried to cooperate with the press to prevent false news and to use the press as a form of moral disarmament in the early 1930s.

Elisabeth van Meer, “The Transatlantic Pursuit of a World Engineering Federation: For the Profession, the Nation, and International Peace, 1918-1948,” Technology and Culture 53.1 (2012), pp. 120-145.

Van Meer investigates how Czechoslovak and American engineers attempted to establish a World Engineering Foundation in the 1920s and the legacy of these efforts for the postwar period.

Erik van der Vleuten and Arne Kaijser (eds.), Networking Europe: Transnational Infrastructures and the Shaping of Europe, 1850-2000 (Sagamore Beach, MA: Science History Publications, 2006).

This edited volume provides contributions on how various infrastructures have shaped the development of Europe, facilitating the transportation of people, goods, and ideas.

F. P. Walters, A History of the League of Nations (London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1952).

Still the standard and most detailed overall history of the League of Nations.

Keith David Watenpaugh, “Between Communal Survival and National Aspiration: Armenian Genocide Refugees, the League of Nations, and the Practices of Interwar Humanitarianism,” Humanity 5.2 (2014): 159-181.

Eric Weitz, “From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions,” AHR 113: 5 (Dec, 2008), pp. 1313-1343.

Weitz examines the transition from the nineteenth-century Vienna system that simply adjusted territory to the Paris system that treated entire populations in terms of their ethnicity, nationality, or race.

Stephen Wertheim, "The League that Wasn't: American Designs for a Legalist-Sanctionist League of Nations and the Intellectual Origins of International Organization, 1914-1920," Diplomatic History 35.5 (November 2011), pp. 797-836.

Wertheim examines the two rival concepts of international organizations in the United States during World War I: the legalist-sanctionist model and the organicist ideal that Wilson eventually adopted. Wertheim argues that Wilson thus ensured that subsequently, the United Nations too would subordinate law to politics.