Cabinet Submission by Sir Henry Gullett, Minister for External Affairs

28 September 1939


1. On 4th September, 1939, the Secretary General of the League of Nations [1] informed the Commonwealth Government that the United Kingdom Government had notified him it would be impossible in existing circumstances for a British Delegation to reach Geneva for Council and Assembly meetings called for 8th and 11th September respectively, and had suggested that the meetings should be postponed. [2] The Commonwealth Government thereupon informed the Secretary General through the Australian High Commissioner in London [3] that it agreed to postponement, and on 7th September the Commonwealth Government was advised that adjournment of the meetings had been agreed to by majorities of the Members of the Council and the Assembly. [4] 2. The United Kingdom Government has now telegraphed to the Commonwealth Government [5] concerning the adjourned meetings of the Council and the Assembly and setting out the following ‘considered views’ on this subject:

(a) Although it is impracticable to hold meetings at the moment, they should be held at the latest by the end of this year;

otherwise the League Budget will not be passed and the League’s Organisation, including the International Labour Organisation, will collapse. Moreover, certain important matters require consideration, viz., the election of judges of the Permanent Court of International justice, the election to certain vacancies on the League Council, and the Report of the Committee on collaboration with non-Member States.

(b) Serious difficulties will arise if political questions such as the position in China or Czechoslovakia are discussed.

(c) Discussion by the Council of the Report of the Permanent Mandates Commission (including the Report on Palestine) would be highly embarrassing, but there will probably be no effective opposition to a suggestion that the Council, and consequently the Assembly, should suspend consideration of the Report until a suitable opportunity occurs.

(d) Speeches concerning the present conflict with Germany are not likely to be useful or effective and may be considered by the Swiss Government prejudicial to Swiss neutrality. If, after consultation with the Swiss Government, any such statement is made, it should be in general terms and confined to the main facts.

(e) The United Kingdom Government is of opinion that the agenda of the Council and Assembly should be ‘confined to the minimum indispensable items necessary to maintain in existence the essential shape of the League’. A final decision as to actual agenda items can be postponed until the Report of the League Supervisory Commission, which will shortly be available, has been considered.

The United Kingdom Government adds that it is anxious not to take action counter to the wishes of the Dominions, and would be grateful for any observations at the earliest possible opportunity.

3. Apart from the immediate question raised, the above telegram by implication necessitates an examination of the future of the League as at present constituted, and the attitude of the Commonwealth Government towards it. At the moment the cost of the League contribution by the Commonwealth Government is A.45,000 per annum. It is generally accepted that the work of the auxiliary organization, the International Labour Office, and of the social and humanitarian organizations of the League are of permanent value to all nations. States which have withdrawn from the League, and States which have never acceded to it, such as Germany, Italy Japan and the United States of America, still co-operate in the humanitarian activities of the League. Certain of its technical work in connection with such matters as nutrition, health, and the Singapore Epidemiological Bureau, are of definite value to Australia. It is felt that all these functions should continue.

The League is the only organization in being which has the recognized machinery for international collaboration, and if the League were to disappear, some other organization would have to be established for the purposes mentioned.

On the other hand, the League as a political organization, has lost any prestige and authority it had. [6] Built on the aspirations and circumstances arising out of the last war, it is doubtful if its covenant could be used as a basis for a new world order at the end of the present war. A new political statute to which all nations could adhere seems a desirable objective towards which present efforts might be directed.

In the meantime, it is not unreasonable to suggest that all the political activities of the present League might be suspended. As a consequence steps should be taken at the earliest possible opportunity to ensure that the budgetary requirements of the League are so reduced as to allow of substantial reduction of contributions by States Members to be made. During the last year there has been approximately a 20 per cent. reduction in staff. No undue hardship would be caused by a further reduction, as the League has large reserve funds and the members of the Secretariat by the terms of their contracts are entitled to good pensions.

Since, however, it is desirable to investigate possible reactions of other members of the British Commonwealth of Nations and of other countries to any proposal that the League’s political activities should be suspended or abandoned, it may be thought desirable to consult with the High Commissioner in London on this point before placing the views of the Commonwealth Government formally before the United Kingdom Government.

Two draft telegrams, therefore, are submitted herewith for consideration, viz.- (a) Reply to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs [7] stating that the Commonwealth Government is in general agreement with the views expressed in his telegram and intimating that the Commonwealth Government is giving further consideration to the question of the future functions and activities of the League of Nations, and (b) A telegram to Mr Bruce [8] setting out the above-mentioned views of the Commonwealth Government on the future political activities of the League and inviting his comments. [9]


1 Joseph L.A. Avenel.

2 Cablegram Ai (A) 1939, not printed (on file AA:A981, L of N, 20th Assembly 3).

3 Commonwealth Government to S.M. Bruce, unnumbered cablegram, 5 September 1939, not printed (On file AA: A981, L of N, 20th Assembly 3).

4 Confirmation of this cablegram is on file AA:A981, L of N, 20th Assembly 3 5 Circular cablegram B340 from Dominions Secretary, 19 September 1939, not printed (on file AA:A981, L of N, 20th Assembly 3).

6 This sentence was amended by Gullett. It originally read ‘On the other hand, the League as a political organization, has not only lost any prestige and authority it had, but in some quarters is regarded as a potential danger to peace’.

7 Document 303.

8 Document 304.

9 This submission was considered and the draft cablegrams approved at a Cabinet meeting in Melbourne on 19 October 1939. See AA:A2697, vol. 3A, 19 October 1939, Minute 102.


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