Hostname: page-component-cd4964975-598jt Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-03-30T06:00:48.441Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

The Administrative Anatomy of Failure: The League of Nations Disarmament Section, 1919–1925

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2021

Haakon A. Ikonomou*
Saxo-Instituttet, Københavns Universitet, Att. Haakon A. Ikonomou, Karen Blixens Plads 8, DK-2300 København S


This article investigates the creation and workings of the Disarmament Section of the League of Nations Secretariat. It shows that the Disarmament Section was an outlier of the Secretariat: supressed by the Great Powers, it had less autonomy than other parts of the administration, which from an early stage limited its bureaucratic practice to the production of information. This bureaucratic production created unreliable factual foundations for negotiations and unrealistic public expectations. Thus, the article argues that the troubled birth and administrative strangling of the Disarmament Section of the Secretariat should play a significant role in our understanding of the broader collapse of general disarmament. By making this argument, the article breaks new ground by introducing failure as an analytical category to understand the role and practices of international public administrations.

Copyright © The Author(s) 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Salvador de Madariaga, the first official Director of the Disarmament Section of the League Secretariat, in Disarmament (New York: Coward-McCann Inc., 1929), 361.

2 The autonomisation of the nexus between bureaucracy and expertise in IOs has become an increasingly pervasive feature in international relations. Christensen, Johan and Yesilkagit, Kutsal, ‘International Public Administrations: A Critique’, Journal of European Public Policy, 26, 6 (2019), 946–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Pedersen, Susan, ‘Back to the League of Nations’, American Historical Review, 112, 4 (2007), 1091–117CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 For the former, see Northedge, Frederick S., The League of Nations: Its Life and Times, 1920–1946 (New York: Holmes and Meier Pub, 1988)Google Scholar. For the latter, see Iriye, Akira Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Clavin, Patricia, ‘Defining Transnationalism’, Contemporary European History, 14, 4 (2005), 421–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar. An overview of the transnational turn in international history can be found in Finney, Patrick, ‘Introduction: What is International History?’ in Finney, Patrick, ed., Palgrave Advances in International History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2005)Google Scholar. Two landmark studies of the League are Clavin, Patricia, Securing the World Economy: The Reinvention of the League of Nations, 1920–1946 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Pedersen, Susan, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 An earlier body of literature investigates the diplomatic role of the Secretaries-General of the League of Nations. See, for example, Barros, James, Office Without Power: Secretary-General Sir Eric Drummond, 1919–1933 (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1979)Google Scholar; Barros, James, Betrayal from Within: Joseph Avenol, Secretary-General of the League of Nations, 1933–1940 (New Haven, CT 1969)Google Scholar; Rovine, Arthur W., The First Fifty Years: The Secretary-General in World Politics 1920–1970 (Leyden: A.W. Sijthoff, 1970)Google Scholar. For an analysis of three generations of League Secretariat literature, see Gram-Skjoldager, Karen and Ikonomou, Haakon A., ‘Making Sense of the League of Nations Secretariat: Historiographical and Conceptual Reflections on Early International Public Administration’, European History Quarterly, 49, 3 (2019), 420–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 For an overview, see Webster, Andrew, ‘The League of Nations, Disarmament and Internationalism’, in Sluga, Glenda and Clavin, Patricia, eds., Internationalisms: A Twentieth-Century History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016)Google Scholar; Davies, Thomas R., The Possibilities of Transnational Acitivism: The Campaign for Disarmament between the Two World Wars (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2007)Google Scholar.

7 Egon Ranshofen-Wertheimer, The International Secretariat: A Great Experiment in International Administration (Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1945), 128–30; Harris, Henry Wilson, What the League of Nations Is: A Clear and Short Account of what the League of Nations is and What it is Doing (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1925)Google Scholar; Later studies include Dykmann, Klaas, ‘How International was the Secretariat of the League of Nations?’, International History Review, 37, 4 (2015), 721–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Holthaus, Leonie and Steffek, Jens, ‘Experiments in International Administration: The Forgotten Functionalism of James Arthur Salter’, Review of International Studies, 42, 1 (2016), 114–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gram-Skjoldager, Karen, Ikonomou, Haakon A. and Kahlert, Torsten, ‘Scandinavians and the League of Nations Secretariat, 1919–1946’, Scandinavian Journal of History, 44, 4 (2019), 454–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kahlert, Torsten, ‘Pioneers in International Administration: A Prosopography of the Directors of the League of Nations Secretariat’, New Global Studies, 13, 2 (2019), 190227CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Wheeler-Bennett, John, Information on the Reduction of Armaments (London: Allen & Unwin, 1925)Google Scholar; Greaves, Harold, The League Committees and World Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Some of these were produced by key protagonists: Madariaga, Disarmament; Noel-Baker, Philip, Disarmament (London: Hogarth Press, 1926)Google Scholar.

9 Lincove, David, ‘Data for Peace: The League of Nations and Disarmament 1920–40’, Peace and Change, 43, 4 (2018), 498529CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Megan Donaldson, ‘From Secret Diplomacy to Diplomatic Secrecy. Secrecy and Publicity in the International Legal Order c. 1919–1950’, Ph.D. thesis, NYU School of Law, 2016.

10 Webster, Andrew, Strange Allies. Britain, France and the Dilemmas of Disarmament and Security, 1929–33 (London: Routledge, 2019), 1746CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Gram-Skjoldager, Karen and Ikonomou, Haakon A., ‘The Construction of the League of Nations Secretariat: Formative Practices of Autonomy and Legitimacy in International Organization’, International History Review, 41, 2 (2019), 257–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Brendebach, Jonas, Herzer, Martin and Tworek, Heidi, eds., International Organizations and the Media in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Exorbitant Expectations (London: Routledge, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tworek, Heidi, ‘Peace Through Truth? The Press and Moral Disarmament through the League of Nations’, Medien & Zeit, 25, 4 (2010), 1628Google Scholar; Akami, Tomoko, ‘Beyond the Formula of the Age of Reason: Experts, Social Sciences, and the Phonic Public in International Politics’, in Ikonomou, Haakon A. and Gram-Skjoldager, Karen, eds., The League of Nations: Perspectives from the Present (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2019), 161–72Google Scholar; Davies, Thomas R., ‘A “Great Experiment” of the League of Nations Era: International Nongovernmental Organizations, Global Governance, and Democracy Beyond the State’, Global Governance, 18, 4 (2012), 405–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Emil Seidenfaden, ‘Message from Geneva: The Public Legitimization Strategies of the League of Nations and their Legacy, 1919–1946’, Ph.D. thesis, Aarhus University, 2019; Lincove, ‘Data’.

14 Steiner, Zara, The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919–1933 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 565601CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Geyer, Michael, Aufrüstung oder Sicherheit: Die Reichswehr in der Krise der Machtpolitik 1924–1936 (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1980)Google Scholar; Maiolo, Joe, Cry Havoc: The Arms Race and the Second World War, 1931–1941 (London: John Murray, 2010), 3854Google Scholar.

15 In March 1920 the United States failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, and with it also a Treaty of Assistance, which would ensure Anglo-American support to the French in case of German aggression. Accordingly, the British also pulled out of the Treaty of Assistance. Davies, Thomas, ‘France and the World Disarmament Conference of 1932–34’, Diplomacy & Statecraft, 15, 4 (2004), 765–80, 770CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Peter Jackson, ‘French Security and a British Continental Commitment after the First World War: A Reassessment’, English Historical Review, CXXVI, 519 (2011), 345–85, 345; Boemeke, Manfred, Feldman, Gerald and Glaser, Elisabeth, The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years (Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Dockrill, Michael L. and Gould, J. Douglas, Peace without Promise: Britain and the Peace Conference, 1919–1923 (Hamden, Conn.: Archer Books, 1981)Google Scholar; Barros, Andrew, ‘Disarmament as a Weapon: Anglo-French Relations and the Problems of Enforcing German Disarmament, 1919–28’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, 29, 2 (2006), 301–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Davies, Possibilities.

19 Wolfers, Arnold, Britain and France Between Two Wars: Conflicting Strategies of Peace since Versailles (New York: Harcourt/Brace, 1940)Google Scholar; Macmillan, Margaret, Peacemakers: Six Months that Changed the World (London, John Murray 2001), 101–2Google Scholar.

20 Yearwood, Peter J., Guarantee of Peace: The League of Nations in British Policy 1914–1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 88138CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 See (last visited 13 July 2018).

22 Walters, Frank P., A History of the League of Nations (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), 217Google Scholar.

23 See (last visited 13 Aug. 2018).

24 Webster, Andrew, ‘“Absolutely Irresponsible Amateurs”: The Temporary Mixed Commission on Armaments, 1921–1924’, Australian Journal of Politics & History, 54, 3 (2008), 373–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Cecil, Viscount Robert, A Great Experiment (London: Jonathan Cape & Co., 1941), 152Google Scholar.

26 Yearwood, Guarantee, 282–325; Peter Jackson, Beyond the Balance of Power: France and the Politics of National Security in the Era of the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 427–68.

27 Carolyn J. Kitching, Britain and the Problem of International Disarmament (London: Routledge, 1999), 65–114.

28 The League had greater success with limited efforts at international disarmament: Andrew Webster, ‘Making Disarmament Work: The Implementation of the International Disarmament Provisions in the League of Nations Covenant, 1919–1925’, Diplomacy & Statecraft, 16, 3 (2005), 551–69.

29 Robert G. Kaufman, Arms Control During the Pre-Nuclear Era: The United States and Naval Limitations Between the Two World Wars (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

30 Webster, Strange Allies, 9. This is a criticism Webster levels at much of the state-centric analysis of interwar disarmament.

31 Gram-Skjoldager and Ikonomou, ‘Construction’.

32 Drummond, Memo: Organisation of the Secretariat of the League, 31 May 1919 [Registry Files] R1455, League of Nations Archives, Geneva [henceforth LoNA]; Drummond to Cecil, 05 July 1919, R182, LoNA.

33 Lord Colum Crichton-Stuart “Disarmament”, Undated, R182, LoNA.

34 Note, Drummond, 21 July 1919, R182, LoNA. My italics.

35 Walters to Drummond, 17 July 1919, R182, LoNA; Buxton to Drummond, 18 July 1919, R182, LoNA.

36 Drummond to Hankey, 22 July 1919, R182, LoNA.

37 Walters to Drummond, 17 July 1919, R182, LoNA; Note, Drummond, 21 July 1919, R182, LoNA.

38 Sackville-West to Drummond, 21 June 1919, R184, LoNA; Drummond to Sackville-West, 24 June1919, R184, LoNA.

39 Minutes Directors’ Meeting [henceforth DM], 1 Oct. 1919, 3 Dec. 1919, LoNA.

40 DM, 3 Dec. 1919, LoNA.

41 Drummond to Sackville-West, 16 June 1919, R184, LoNA; Drummond to Hankey, 22 July 1919, R182, LoNA.

42 Webster, ‘Absolutely’, 374.

43 Article 12. Rome Resolutions: Report. On the functions, composition and work of the Secretariat of the PAC, 16 Apr. 1921, R1455, LoNA.

44 ‘Report of Committee No. VI: Armaments’, Records, 1st Assembly, 515-20, 14 Dec. 1920, LoNA.

45 The PAC only spent 52,833,09 Gold Francs of its appropriated 200,000 Gold Francs in 1921 and budgeted with 100,000 Gold Francs in the following year. Budget, 5th Fiscal Period, OJ-3-34-1923, LoNA.

46 Webster ‘Absolutely’ (see footnote 12 for a list of its most important members). See also Andrew Webster, ‘The Transnational Dream: Politicians, Diplomats and Soldiers in the League of Nations’ Pursuit of International Disarmament, 1920–1938’, Contemporary European History, 14, 4 (2005), 493–518, 499; Donaldson, ‘Secret’, 436.

47 C.E./1-27-1921: Minutes, 4th Committee, 2nd Meeting, 19 Nov. 1920, LoNA.

48 Webster, ‘Absolutely’, 376.

49 ‘Consideration of Assembly Resolutions on Reduction of Armaments and Kindred Question’, Report, Bourgeois, Council, Feb. 1921, LoNA.

50 Report, 16 Apr. 1921, R1455, LoNA.

51 Reduction of Armaments: Resolutions adopted by the Assembly, 1 Oct. 1921, LoNA.

52 Drummond to Branting, 29 Sep. 1921, R217, LoNA.

53 By 1923 the PAC-secretaries accounted for 42 per cent of the budgeted spending on salaries, while the chef de section and two MoS absorbed 37,5 per cent. In 1924 the chef and MoS took up 29,3 per cent of salary budget. Estimates based on: Budget, 5th Fiscal Period (1923), OJ-3-34-1923, LoNA; Salaries for 1924 decreased from 168,000 to 141,358 Gold Francs. Based on: Annex to the General Report on Financial Questions. Amendments to the original budget estimates introduced or approved by the Fourth Committee, OJ-3-10-1924, LoNA.

54 Comm. Adams by Aghnides, 24 May 1939, Geneva, Personnel Files [henceforth PF] of Adams, LoNA.

55 Drummond to Cecil, 16 June 1930, Geneva, Add-MS-51112, Cecil Papers [henceforth CP], British Library, London [henceforth BL].

56 Procès-Verbal: 5th Session, Council. Rome, 14–19 May 1920, 2nd Public Meeting, 19 May 1920, PAC, Bourgeois, LoNA.

57 Drummond, Memorandum: Secretariat of PAC, 11 Apr. 1923, R229, LoNA. In April 1923 the Section consisted of one Chef de Service, one MoS, three military secretaries, one statistics clerk and five assistant secretary-stenographers.

58 Discussions, Réquin and Drummond, Apr.–Sept. 1923, R229, LoNA.

59 Report: PAC to Council, 06 Sept. 1923, R229, LoNA.

60 Drummond to Cecil, 13 Aug. 1923; quote from Drummond to Cecil, 11 Sept. 1923; Walters to Drummond, 10 Aug. 1923. All from Add MS-51110, CP, BL.

61 Drummond to Cecil, 13 Aug. 1923, Add MS-51110, CP, BL.

62 Already noted in the ‘Noblemaire Report’ (1920). Gram-Skjoldager and Ikonomou, ‘Construction’, 265–68.

63 Financial Questions, General Report adopted by the Assembly, 28 Sept. 1923, 5-LoN-OJ-3-10-1924, LoNA; Annex to the General Report on Financial Questions. Amendments to the original budget estimates introduced or approved by the Fourth Committee, 5-Lo-OJ-3-10-1924, LoNA.

64 Drummond to Sloutzki, 6 Feb. 1925; Attolico to Sloutzki, 24 Nov. 1925; Madariaga to Sloutzki, 3 Nov. 1926. All PF of Sloutzki, [Section Files] S883, LoNA.

65 Drummond to Aghnides, 17 June 1921; Note, Staff Committee: Aghnides, 17 June 1921; Angeli to Dudgeon, 22 Sep. 1921. All PF of Aghnides, S699, LoNA.

66 Attolico: Note, Aghnides, 20 Dec. 1922; Drummond to Aghnides, 28 June 1922. All PF of Aghnides, S699, LoNA.

67 Drummond to Attolico, 20 Jan. 1922, 28 June 1922, 29 Aug. 1922, S705-706, LoNA; Minutes, Appointments Committee [henceforth AC], 27 June 1922, S954, LoNA.

68 Attolico: Note, Madariaga, Disarmament Section, 8 Aug. 1923, S822-823, LoNA.

69 Torsten Kahlert and Karen Gram-Skjoldager, ‘The Men Behind the Man: Canvassing the Directorship of the League of Nations Secretariat’, in Haakon A. Ikonomou and Karen Gram-Skjoldager, eds., The League of Nations: Perspectives from the Present (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2019), 19–29.

70 17-LoN-O.J. Spec. Supp. (1923) Minutes: Fourth Committee, LoNA.

71 Drummond to Madariaga, 4 Oct. 1926, S822-823, LoNA; De Madariaga, Salvador, Morning Without Noon – Memoirs (Hampshire: Saxon House, 1974), 25Google Scholar.

72 Kahlert and Gram-Skjoldager, ‘Men’. Aghnides (1 June 1921 – 1 Aug. 1922); Madariaga (1 Aug. 1922 – 1 Aug. 1928); Colban (1 Aug. 1928 – 1 June 1930); and then Aghnides again. This excludes Attolico's role.

73 AC, 11 June 1930, S957, LoNA.

74 Madariaga, Morning, 25.

75 AC, 27 June 1922, S954, LoNA.

76 AC, 14–15 Nov. 1927, S956, LoNA.

77 AC, 11 June 1930, S957, LoNA.

78 Note: Weizsäcker, 21 Feb. 1930, R96796, Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts, Berlin [henceforth AA].

79 Tollardo, Elisabetta, Fascist Italy and the League of Nations, 1922–1935 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

80 AC, 11 June 1930, S957, LoNA.

81 Dufour to Weizsäcker, 10 Mar. 1930, R96796, AA.

82 Gram-Skjoldager, Ikonomou and Kahlert, ‘Scandinavians’.

83 Webster, ‘Absolutely’, 374.

84 The Information Section, ‘The League of Nations and Reduction of Armaments’, Dec. 1923, 6–9, LoNA.

85 DM, 08 July 1921; 11 Nov. 1921; 01 Feb. 1922; 21 Apr. 1922, LoNA.

86 DM, 08 July 1922, LoNA.

88 Donaldson, ‘Secret’, 441; Akami, ‘Beyond’.

89 Webster, ‘Transnational’, 501.

90 Webster, ‘Making’, 558–9.

91 ‘Reduction of Armaments, I. Work of the [TMC]’, July 1923, 730, LNOJ-4, LoNA.

92 Lincove, ‘Data’, 8–9; Aug. 1923, 1031, LNOJ-4, LoNA; Quote from Sloutzki, N., The League of Nations and the Control of Trade in Arms (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1974), 97–8Google Scholar.

93 Report by Secretariat to TMC (June Session), Appendix. Exchange of Information. (Assembly Resolution No. IX.), Aug. 1923, 1033–1034, LNOJ-4 [henceforth Report by the Secretariat], LoNA.

94 Report by the Secretariat, 1033.

95 The Secretariat suggested groups based on shared borders, like a Northern Group of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland, and groups based on ‘centres of unrest’, like a Group of Succession States to Austria-Hungary.

96 Report by M. Salandra, Resolution adopted by the Council on 07 July 1923, Annex 537. C.443.1923. IX. Reduction of Armaments. Exchange of Information. (Assembly Resolution No. IX.), Aug. 1923, 1031-1036, LNOJ-4, LoNA.

97 Sluga, Glenda, Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism (Pennsylvania: UPenn Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

98 Report by the Secretariat, 1034.

99 Donaldson, ‘Secret’, 425, 426.

100 N. Sloutzki, The World Armament Race, 1919–1939, Geneva Studies, 12, 1 (Geneva: Geneva Research Centre, 1941), 9, 14–5.

101 Sloutzki, World, 126–7, 15, 18, 9; Donaldson, ‘Secret’, 458ff.

102 Quote from Webster, ‘Internationalism’, 140.

103 Bourgeois, Procès-Verbal: 5th Session, Council, 19 May 1920, LoNA.

104 Walters to Drummond, 17 July 1919, R182, LoNA.

105 DM, 3 Dec. 1919, LoNA.

106 DM, 1 Oct. 1919, LoNA.

107 DM, 29 June 1921, LoNA.

108 Reduction of Armaments. Report, 3rd Committee. Adopted by the assembly 1 Oct. 1921, 27 Sept. 1921, R217, LoNA.

109 TMC. Propaganda for the reduction of Armament, 15 Feb. 1922, R217, LoNA.

110 Aghnides to Drummond, 3 Apr. 1922, R217, LoNA.

111 Aghnides to Drummond, 13 Apr. 1922, R217, LoNA.

112 Davies, ‘Great Experiment’, 410.

113 Webster, ‘Internationalism’, 150.

114 Davies, Possibilities, 79–109.

115 Davies, Possibilities, 71; Drummond to Cecil, 27 Apr. 1927, Add-MS-51111, CP, BL.

116 Drummond to Cecil, 24 Apr. 1928; Cecil to Drummond, 27 Apr. 1928. All Add-MS-51111, CP, BL.

117 Cecil to Drummond, 27 Jan. 1926, All Add-MS-51111, CP, BL.

118 Comert to Sweetser, 17 Apr. 1926, Geneva, Box 30, Arthur Sweetser Papers, Library of Congress, Washington [henceforth ASP]. My Translation.

119 Davies, Possibilities, 79–109.

120 Franck, Thomas M., ‘The Success and Failure of International Organizations’, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law), 90 (1996), 596–8, 596Google Scholar.

121 Christensen and Yesilkagit, ‘International’.

122 Gram-Skjoldager, Karen, Ikonomou, Haakon A. and Kahlert, Torsten, eds., Organizing the World – International Organization and the Emergence of International Public Administration 1920–1960 (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)Google Scholar.