The League of Nations Continues Its Influence a Century Later

A new book argues that our knowledge-based world was built on foundations laid by the League

The League of Nations—created in the wake of World War I—doesn’t have a stellar reputation. Its primary goal of stopping wars very clearly failed. The U.S. never even joined, though that is hardly the reason there was no peace kept in Europe and the rest of the world.

But the League, which was based in Geneva, Switzerland and formally dissolved in 1946, had much more impact than is commonly recognized, says David Ekbladh, a professor of history, in his new book Plowshares into Swords: Weaponized Knowledge, Liberal Order, and the League of Nations.

“Historians have noted that the post-World War II global hegemony of the United States was built on knowledge. We have forgotten that it was built on the foundations laid by the League and the international society it served,” he writes.

That knowledge, developed by experts from around the world, covered areas such as “public health, pollution control, human trafficking, transportation, world statistics, international economics, and other issues that remain relevant today,” he says. “The failure of the League politically has obscured its remarkable technical accomplishments, which defined internationalism and global life in the modern world.”

Tufts Now spoke with Ekbladh to learn more about internationalism, the legacy of the League of Nations, how it affected liberal order before and after World War II, and why its work affects us to this day.

Tufts Now: What prompted you to write the book?

David Ekbladh: I was working on a bigger project about the rise of American globalism in the 1930s, and I noticed that so many Americans in the interwar years who supposedly were not dealing with the League were citing League publications. More importantly, there were all of these points of contact, even during World War II. It ran against narratives we always hear that the U.S. didn’t have much to do with the League of Nations.

Portrait of David Ekbladh

“The League was ultimately expendable, but the variety of technical work needed to sustain liberal order was indispensable,” says David Ekbladh. “It is why the institutions that took a page from the League, the information gathering and analysis, are all still vital today.” Photo: Anna Miller

The story I wanted to tell was that the League was important—and let’s acknowledge that—however, the book is fundamentally about something bigger. What does liberal order demand for it to function as a global system? What is telling is that much of what I’m discussing outlived the League itself. When the League died, the international community stripped off the pieces that they needed and plugged them back into what followed—the U.N. and many other international institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

What do you mean by the liberal order?

It’s a much discussed and yet rarely defined concept—a moving target historically. But for me, and put very simply, it’s a system of states and empires that want world conditions built to tolerances they prefer, which are societies centered around the individual, with boundaries between the state and civil society, and a fondness for market economies.

The public mission of the League of Nations was political, but it sounds like it was equally an information-based organization that was trying to create more global cooperation.

Absolutely—and we didn’t suddenly discover the importance of data in the twenty-first century—knowledge has always been power. The League experts were doing what we see as technical work, but they were not technocratic in the sense that they didn’t have beliefs or think their work had no political aspects. They were in a very political age, not unlike our own, where they were very aware of the political implication of some of the things they worked on.

I’ll say it loud and proud—the League was about collective security, and it was an absolute failure in that critical mission. But the League was also an international organization, taking on ongoing efforts like, say, economic statistics and medical standardization—facilitating international exchange and making the world work better. Its work tracked with what a lot of others around the world saw as imperative, including many constituencies in the U.S. That’s why it was valued, because it was supporting work on problems that were bigger than the League itself.

Even parts of the Republican Party in the U.S., which had no truck for the League as a political organization, thought the League was great because it was doing technical stuff that allowed the world to work better.

How were Americans influenced by the League—and were the people in the League influenced by Americans?

Book cover for Plowshares into Swords

It’s very much a two-way street, and that is a big part of the story I am telling. The U.S. was just one part of a larger world community collaborating on major issues, though of course it was very influential. American civil society, often through foundations, gave a lot of money to the League. American experts, particularly those in universities and activist groups, were quite active with it and drew from League programs.

Some American organizations heavily invested because they saw that the League’s work in things like health and economics provided answers to questions they had about all sorts of domestic as well as international problems, everything from health to nutrition, to economic work, to standardization—a whole slew of issues across the board. They were critical parts of international life then and remain so today.

The League also created some spaces where Americans very much interacted directly with their counterparts in other parts of the world. One of them that’s fascinating is the International Studies Conference, which convened every year through the League’s cultural organization, kind of a precursor to UNESCO. People like John Foster Dulles, later Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state and a key figure in the 1940s and 50s, attended the conference.

You tell a story that some of these League technocrats were spirited out of Europe as the Nazis took over, much like physicists who became critical to the U.S. war effort were airlifted out.

Those experts had some pretty spectacular things happen to them, in part because they were seen as a strategic commodity. In the middle of the summer of 1940, as France fell to Germany, FDR was concerned about what was going to happen to them—they had to be rescued from Geneva.

League officials furtively microfilmed their documents and escaped across Spain to Lisbon, where they were flown to the U.S., when that was a luxury. Other people who weren’t as important didn’t get out. You don’t hear about the economists getting air lifted out ahead of Nazi advances, but they were. They are this group of exiles who are seen as important for the U.S. to have their hands on because their work had relevance to some much bigger concerns.

You were talking about UNESCO, but also I presume organizations like FAO and WHO have their roots in the 1930s in the League.

Yes, they do. The WHO [World Health Organization] has a direct link to the League’s health organization; the FAO [U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization] came out of some of the League’s work. There were many remarkably well-traveled individuals who circulated, knew each other, and seemed to know everybody, who were involved in these organizations.

One of the points of the book is that the Americans were influenced by not just the French and British, but by people from smaller states who used the League as a platform to project their ideas into global discussions. One of these was an Australian named Frank Lidgett McDougall, a fruit farmer who worked himself into being an economic advisor of a former prime minister and ended up in Geneva.

War brought him to the U.S., and during World War II McDougall, who was a master at schmoozing, used his League bona fides to sell the Americans on the need for an organization to provide technical support for food production and agricultural activity globally. He got Henry Wallace, the U.S. vice president, interested, who then told Eleanor Roosevelt.

She talked to Franklin, and got McDougall invited to a White House dinner. MacDougall got his minutes with FDR, and these ideas became part of Allied war aims and turned into an institution. Ideas become a reality not just because they were good but because they had utility for people fighting to defend the liberal order.

Are there any lessons learned from the League and what was accomplished that apply today?

The major takeaway is that liberal order depended on a wide variety of technical work in the 1930s and it still does now. The “international society” of individuals and groups that worked with and through the League understood this, which is why they took pains to build up capacity to do such things during and after World War II. The League was ultimately expendable, but the variety of technical work needed to sustain liberal order was indispensable.

It is why the institutions that took a page from the League, the information gathering and analysis, are all still vital today. Whenever you hear the IMF just did a study on the impact of climate change, or the World Bank said we’re going to have tremendous growth problems in the developing areas of the world because of the pandemic, or that we may be headed toward a debt crisis—all of those things are defined by the information gathered and analyzed by these institutions, stemming from the days of the League.

Back to Top