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date: 22 August 2017

Digital Resources: The League of Nations and Latin America

Summary and Keywords

Historical research on the phenomena of the multilateral interaction and transnationalization of institutional structures and norms centered on the international organisms of the interwar period, with the League of Nations as the central axis, have benefited enormously from the creation and development of several digital resources in first decades of the 21st century. One challenge for this period involves efforts to reconstruct the trajectories, collaboration, and interaction of Latin American members in relation to those international organizations, but these have been increasingly favored by these resources because of the information they concentrate or make available, and because they combat the omissions and imperceptibility to which this region has often been subjected. International histories centered on Geneva that radiate out toward Latin America could represent a new area of development for websites that specialize in consolidating such digital resources as the United Nations Office at Geneva (library and archives), the League of Nations Photo Archive, the League of Nations Search Engine (LONSEA), and the History of the League of Nations.

Keywords: League of Nations, Latin America, digital resources, multilateral diplomacy, inter-American relations

Digital Resources Related to the League of Nations

Despite their shared thematic character, the histories and purposes of the digital sources discussed herein are diverse,1 for each one took care to focus on the resources that existed when they were created in order to avoid repetition. Their gradual appearance reflects the development of paradigms of historical and international research linked to the Internet and their own evolution. Therefore, the early projects present information in simpler formats than the recent research tools. Also, the nature of those projects, housed largely on the Internet, shows clear variations, especially in the cases of The United Nations Office at Geneva (Library & Archives) and the League of Nations Photo Archive, which were developed inside the former library and archives of the League of Nations, concentrated in the so-called Palace of Nations in Geneva, the current home of the United Nations Organization in Europe. Since its inception in 1957, one primordial task of this repository was to promote its bibliographic and documental collections (1919–1946) and make them accessible to researchers who for diverse motives participate in the international dynamism centered in Geneva. As a result, scholars can now efficiently access generous online research resources, including catalogues and guides to both repositories. The League of Nations Photo Archive (2002), developed largely by the Center for the Study of Global Change at Indiana University, is one of the most emblematic projects of institutional collaboration due to its focus on diffusing the photographic archive conserved in the Palais des Nations.

In addition, a comparable collaborative approach directed by the University of Heidelberg has produced the League of Nations Search Engine (LONSEA). The goal of this initiative is to reconstruct personal and institutional transnational links and networks that consolidated with increasing precision as time passed, and which can now be studied thanks to an impressively dynamic presentation. Finally, the History of the League of Nations initiative, directed by the recognized historians Patricia Clavin of Oxford University and Susan Pedersen of Columbia University, presents a website created in 2010 that acts as a network for international research by specialists interested in the League of Nations and other international organizations with similar focuses. These four institutional and academic programs can be very useful, as well, for scholars interested in the Latin American members of the League of Nations, because they recognize the need to contribute to the study of extra-European spaces and regions (see Figure 1), as a means of broadening knowledge of impact of Genevan transnationalism in the form of normative and institutional models.

Digital Resources: The League of Nations and Latin AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Mexican delegates.

Archivo Histórico Genaro Estrada, Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores de México.

From Cataloguing and Digitalization to the Reconstruction of Networks

If an arc linked these four websites or digital resources, this arc would set out from the diffusion of the collections and documents housed and move toward paradigmatic research initiatives, such as the gradual, interactive reconstruction of international networks at diverse levels. Situated at the point of origin of this imaginary arc, the United Nations Office at Geneva recently introduced The Institutional Memory Section that holds eight important collections and archives, two of which are of particular interest: the library and archives of the League of Nations. From its founding in 1919, this library has been enriched by the two international organizations it has served, as well as by permanent missions, specialized agencies, nongovernmental organizations, universities, and international research centers in Geneva. For almost a century, this repository has gathered bibliographic, hemerographic, and statistical materials from around the world largely through specialized purchases and subscriptions, but also thanks to rich collections related to the fields of law, politics, and the social sciences that arrived with documentation concerning diplomacy or in the form of donations by governments, organizations, and important international figures, especially the American industrialist and philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller. Among the presented resources in this article, the United Nations Office at Geneva will require a necessary visit of those interested in thorough research on the Latin American matter because of the material abundance there concentrated.

Latin American members of the League of Nations were not isolated from these dynamics of documental concentration and enrichment, thanks to which a significant number of important and valuable volumes and collections housed in the Geneva library were printed in different areas of Latin America. The historical-diplomatic collection housed in the League of Nations’ archives, contains documentation dated from 1919 to 1946. Over the 2000s and 2010s, these archives have innovated in outstanding ways and today are recognized as a collection of global importance that meets the criteria established by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program. This status facilitates the conservation of, and access to, those holdings. The League of Nations’ archives have been similarly favored by initiatives for iconographic research and networks proposed, respectively, by the Universities of Indiana and Heidelberg. To date, it has digitalized over twenty-seven thousand pages of documents and, in conjunction with the Lithuanian government, has brought to a successful conclusion a truly impressive digitalization project of thirty-five thousand other documents related to that country’s activities in the organization between 1920 and 1946. It is our hope that those Latin America states that had trajectories in the League will pursue similar initiatives in the future, especially in light of the importance that the League attributed to this group of nations due to their number. The special attention that Latin America received from the Permanent Secretariat of the League is clearly reflected in the establishment of the office called the Bureau de l’Amérique Latine (1922–1926) and the regular organization of the so-called American Meetings in which representatives from Latin America participated with the organization’s general secretary (see Figure 2).2

The League of Nations Photo Archive provides access to a substantial (and most important) part of the organization’s photographic collections. The appearance online of this electronic resource has led to an enormous increase in the number of consultations of these holdings for academic inquiry because, before it became available, those photos could only be consulted in the reading rooms at the Palais des Nations. Latin Americanists are now using this digital resource as a primary reference that they find useful for training new researchers who will later join the ranks of this small, but ambitious, group of specialists.3 One support section has a listed bibliography of 513 titles, some of which relate directly to Latin America.

At the other end of the imaginary arc, the LONSEA has stretched the limits of historical research through its efforts to reconstruct interconnections between actors in the international system and multilateral organizations during the interwar period. Latin American countries, seats, and internationalists are clearly visible in the Networks and Country Matrix that characterize this website, which is still under construction. A network in itself, the History of the League of Nations offers content in eight languages and announces publications, events, and information on research resources provided by its members, more than a few of whom are Latin Americanists ascribed to various universities in Latin America, North America, and Europe.

Digital Creators

Behind each one of these scholarly resources and websites is a group of dedicated archivists and researchers who are, to say the least, highly enthusiastic about their work. The current state of organization and development of the League of Nations’ archives is, logically, the result of the ongoing labors of several generations. Today, under the leadership of Blandine Blucacz-Louisfert, a team of archivists and historians has accepted the challenge of new research demands, both “hands-on” and virtual, in the context of the Institutional Memory section included in this important diplomatic and historical archive. The League of Nations Photo Archive project commenced in the League’s archives under the guidance of Robert Goehlert, Indiana University’s librarian for economics, political science, and global studies, and his research team.4 Housed in servers at that university, this outstanding website is supported by the Center for the Study of Global Change and the Records and Archives Unit of the European seat of the United Nations, also supervised by the head of archivists, Blandine Blukacz-Louisfert. All rights to reproduce these digitalized images are reserved and require the authorization of the United Nations Office at Geneva. The LONSEA is being developed by historians at the University of Heidelberg5 under the direction of the Swiss historian, Madeleine Herren-Oesch, in the framework of a more ambitious project entitled “Networking the International System.” Also, the History of the League of Nations, originally a project that proposed constructing academic links, has received significant support from the Carnegie Corporation and the direct attention of Professors Clavin and Pedersen.

Digital Resources: The League of Nations and Latin AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 2. Bureau of l’Amérique Latine.

Iconographic Collection of the Archives of the League of Nations, Geneva.

Structures, Digital Contents, and Benefits

“Once there were cards . . .” boasts the proud announcement at the League of Nations’ Archives in Geneva, whose digital support is state-of-the-art and extremely accurate in terms of its catalogues and consultation guides. It offers users simple access to digitalized documentation or to the classification required to make consultations in the institution’s reading room. Also, the consulting tools for the bibliographic and hemerographic holdings of the United Nations Office at Geneva are efficient and cover all the books, printed journals, e-journals, databases, and official UN documents housed there. Global search is the main search tool for this collection in Geneva, but its archives include two specialized resources: the catalogue and research guides. The catalogue allows users to access the classified and digitalized holdings of this archive through four different pathways. The first, called “full text search”, is designed to execute initial searches based on a keyword or key expression. Similar searches can be made in specific fields along a second route, known as “single field.” The third option, “archives plan,” is the most graphic of the four and provides access to the entire structure of archives through a general folder labeled “UNOG Registry, Records and Archives Unit (1870–)”. This tool, in turn, opens access to the seven principle collections, each of which shows the user every single file included, many of which hold digitalized documents or, at the very least, a precise description of materials and contents:

  • League of Nations Secretariat (1919–1946)

  • Refugees Mixed Archival Group (Nansen Fonds) (1919–1947)

  • League of Nations External Fonds (1920–1937)

  • UNOG Registry First Period (1946–1973)

  • Private Archives (1884–1986)

  • International Peace Movements (1870–)

  • Collections (1919–)

Research on Latin America through virtual consultations of these holdings provides the opportunity to gain familiarity with these valuable repositories and their indispensable resources and documents regarding the League of Nations’ Permanent Secretariat, including the following Sections and Specialized Offices: the Political Section, the Secretary-General’s Office, the Economic and Financial Section, the Intellectual Cooperation Section, the International Bureau and, especially, the Liaison Office for Latin America (1919–1946), the organization’s only archive devoted to a specific region of the continent. Also worthy of scholars’ attention is the section of private archives, including some on Latin American officials.

The League of Nations Photo Archive project concluded with the digitalization of the main collections and photographs, organized in a similar way: personalities, assemblies, councils, delegations, commissions, conferences, the secretariat, the Permanent Court of International Justice, the Bureau International du Travail, and miscellaneous photos. In the first case, personalities are ordered alphabetically, while the images in the main holdings that illustrate practices of multilateral diplomacy in the period (assemblies, councils, commissions and conferences) are listed chronologically. To manage the enormous volume of requests for reproductions of images from these collections, a common classification system was established with the Geneva archives that allows this website to offer three additional tools that can be very useful: a section called “Research Guide” that contains complete bibliographic references, dictionaries, encyclopedias, guides to the League of Nations and international affairs, and frequently asked questions. It also provides a well-developed timeline and detailed registries of delegates, functionaries, and North Americans who participated in commissions and international technical organs that were agencies of the League of Nations.

LONSEA is an enormous data bank with great potential for research, another dynamic, user-friendly website. It is based on four categories of information: organizations, people, places, and topics. This innovative website’s linking tool has the capability to show the interconnections among these broad segments and reduce them to specific geographical, continental, and regional zones. From each record of the international organization that exists from 1617 to 1946, this tool presents those related to seats, meetings and congresses, members, and categories. The section that includes the people registered for each one shows—with no need to search for interconnections—their membership or participation in international organizations. This information can also be displayed by national groups, area of specialization, membership in specific organizations, or participation as delegates in congresses or conferences. Searches performed through the “global places” tool define distinct geographic zones in the world. Selecting any one will display the people from that area, the organizations that existed there, and any international meetings that were held there. Finally, the category “topics” includes, among many others:

  • agriculture (199 people, 34 organizations)

  • arts and sciences (1,145 people, 152 organizations)

  • education (307 people, 46 organizations)

  • labor (446 people, 97 organizations)

  • League of Nations (5,515 people, 144 organizations)

The tool for visualizing interconnections (network, organization arc, country matrix, charts, and congresses) is, without question, the most worthwhile and distinctive element in the LONSEA.

Focus on Latin America

When it was founded in 1920, the League of Nations received significant support from Latin American countries, whose early and numerous contributions helped legitimize the new international system and operationalize its institutional representation. However, this key support was interrupted by temporary—but quite evident—absences of such representative nations in the region as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Also, collaboration by Latin American countries fell short of the League’s multilateral and universalist pretensions, so in the 1920s, this region received special treatment and prerogatives from the League’s Secretariat, alarmed by the looming threat of an eventual massive abandonment. The influence of the League of Nations in America, incalculable in view of the ambiguous compatibility between the Covenant and the Monroe Doctrine (Article 21), was fatally confirmed when the League became involved in two serious conflicts: the Chaco and Leticia. With few exceptions, the general tendency in the following decade, one characterized by complex crises that resulted in a new worldwide conflagration, reveals widespread nonconformity and noncompliance by Latin American members with respect to the system of collective security, coupled with a growing separation that, doubtless, contributed to the League’s eventual collapse.6

The Latin American trajectory and many other specific issues are documented in the Geneva archives. The option full text search of the catalogue of the United Nations Office at Geneva immediately opens subsections derived from the Special Office of the Secretariat for Liaison with Latin America, which consists of eighty-eight file boxes. Similar subcollections are the Political Section (nineteen boxes) and the Information Section (ten boxes) which, in different periods, were also the responsibility of the Special Attention Office. Visits to Latin America by League officials, beginning with the general secretary, Eric Drummond, and his assistants, are included in the results of this general search, which also produces records of inter-American conflicts that echoed in the organization’s chambers or entailed its active involvement, such as the aforementioned Chaco dispute between Bolivia and Peru and the Leticia incident between Colombia and Peru. The results for the first search show concrete summaries on groups dealing with the Chaco issue and their exact ubication and situation—confidential or public. Some searches allow access to digitized documents, but in relation to Latin American members of the League of Nations, this is still exceptional. A search on the Leticia incident leads to the Political, Disputes and Frontiers series of the archives. It gets confined among subseries concerning disputes pacifically solved by Geneva.

Another body of files holds information on the technical assistance provided to this group of nations in general, and on one specific economic commission. The fact is, there are too many to be named! The number of web pages with thematic registries and precise locations in the archive, accessible through its illustrative tool, suggests the possibilities for research provided by this international databank for the interwar period: Argentina (25 pages), Bolivia (10), Brazil (32), Chile (19), Colombia (20), Costa Rica (9), Cuba (13), Ecuador (15), El Salvador (9), Guatemala (10), Haiti (9), Honduras (4), Mexico (23), Nicaragua (11), Panama (10), Paraguay (11), Peru (19), Dominican Republic (5), Uruguay (18), and Venezuela (18). Through its research guides, this resource can be very useful for projects on Latin America, and selecting the option “digitized materials” limits the search to digitalized documentation that can be downloaded directly.

Users are advised to be practical when using the LONSEA. If they are not looking for some specific person or international organization, they should proceed geographically using the global places tool, though it should be noted that this is somewhat inexact in its structural focus, as it divides the American continent in a rather curious way. The category “America,” the main division, is referred to only as the “United States.” From there, everything is geographically more logical in terms of the division into regions: North and Central America, South America, and the Republics of the American Continent. The panoramas that can be derived from this type of regional partitioning are impressive. A search for North and Central America produces eighteen web pages with the names of individuals and their international representations; two pages that list international organizations that had seats in this region; and two more that record the meetings and congresses held in that geographic zone. All these registries indicate the source of the information and include links to other, potentially interesting, sites (e.g., other people, other organizations, and international problems). Simply to show the potential of this search engine and its compressive capacity to illustrate such reconstructed links, take the name of the Panamanian diplomat Cristóbal Rodríguez, a very important officer of the League of Nations Information Section, whose links to other persons and institutions, especially in Latin America, can be showed and analyzed profiting LONSEA data visualization options.

The League of Nations Photo Archive has allowed researchers to see and recognize actors and international facilitators of whom very little was known as recently as 2000, such as corresponding members of the League of Nations or technical specialists, who were not career diplomats properly speaking, but participated in processes of multilateral regulation during those years. These photographic records can tell researchers even more when they can be related to such frameworks as assemblies, councils, conferences and committees, for the historiographic reconstruction of the Latin American members of the League of Nations is an unfinished task, and these photos could not be any more exact. The photos of South American delegations allow us to appreciate just how small some of them were. In contrast, medium and big groups of delegates from Brazil, Cuba, and—in the 1930s—Argentina show the capacities and ambitions of these notable members of the League of Nations (see Figure 3). Latin American functionaries of the League of Nations appear in the collection of photos of the General Secretariat and others related to activities of extraordinary character. The bibliographic search facilitated by this website is most recommendable, for it includes all the titles on Latin America and its countries that are available in the United Nations Office at Geneva (Library), as well as all those for which some knowledge exists.

Digital Resources: The League of Nations and Latin AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 3. Cuban delegates.

Iconographic Collection of the Archives of the League of Nations, Geneva.

Other websites and resources can contribute indirectly to research projects related to Latin America and the League of Nations. One such documental repository that offers digital research tools is the archive of the International Labor Organization (ILO), a current beneficiary of the development of the ILO’s Century Project. The tool par excellence is Labordoc, which offers an access point to digitalized documental, bibliographic, and hemerographic collections (the ILO’s digital repository), or to materials classified in accordance with the bibliographic and archival holdings of the ILO’s seat in Geneva. Interested researchers can easily access a bibliography, a useful chronology, and a list of ongoing research projects, some related to Latin America and member countries of this international organization.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that other collections, though more indirectly, are valuable sources of information on the performance of Latin American members on the international scene and in the internationalized Geneva of the postwar period. First among the options are the National Archives of the United States, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, and the Archives diplomatiques français. The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History—particularly the essays on diplomatic, international and intellectual history, and the section on digital innovations, sources, and interdisciplinary approaches—is also a valuable and growing resource. See, in particular, the entry on Latin America and the League of Nations.

Needs and Challenges Related to Latin America

Except for the League of Nations Photo Archive, the other digital resources mentioned herein involve European-led research projects. None have been planned in universities in Latin America or are supported by scholars there, though some academics in the region would surely welcome the opportunity to collaborate on such projects or to participate in similar initiatives. The logical first step would be to strengthen existing research tools. Together with this possibility—that could certainly be explored by the group of historians that collaborate and meet frequently to discuss advances in their research on the League of Nations and the ILO (see Figure 4)—Latin American diplomatic archives could make agreements with the League of Nations’ archives to digitalize and exchange their diplomatic holdings on these topics, similar to the accord with the government of Lithuania.

These four online portals represent the future for research on topics related to the League of Nations, its time, and its medium- and long-term impact on the world. The process of continually actualizing the contents, and permanently enriching the possibilities, of these tools is indispensable to their future popularity. In this regard, the current panorama of research is, without a doubt, favorable and fulfills the desires of researchers who seek to resolve historical problems that touch on multilateral themes or are conceived as potential transnational phenomena that are key to reconstructing and explaining the Western hemisphere.

Digital Resources: The League of Nations and Latin AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 4. Functionaries of the International Labor Organization in Chile, July 1942.

Iconographic Collection of the Archives of the International Labor Organization, Geneva.

Further Reading

Dumont, Juliette. Le Brésil et l’Institut International de Coopération Intellectuelle (1924–1946): Le pari de la diplomatie culturelle. Paris: Éditions de l’IHEAL, 2009.Find this resource:

Fischer, Thomas. Die Souveränität der Schwachen: Lateinamerika und der Völkerbund, 1920–1936. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2012.Find this resource:

Herrera León, Fabián. “Latin America and the League of Nations.” Latin American History: Oxford Research Encyclopedias. Edited by William Beezley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Herrera León, Fabián. México en la Sociedad de Naciones, 1931–1940. Mexico City: Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores de México, 2014.Find this resource:

Herrera León, Fabián, and Patricio Herrera González, eds. América Latina y la Organización Internacional del Trabajo: Redes, cooperación técnica e institucionalidad social (1919–1950). Morelia: Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas de la Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo-Universidad de Monterrey-Universidad Federal Fluminense, 2013.Find this resource:

McPherson, Alan, and Yannick Wehrli. Beyond Geopolitics: New Histories of Latin America at the League of Nations. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Pita González, Alexandra. Educar para la paz: México y la cooperación intelectual internacional, 1922–1948. México City: Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores de México, 2014.Find this resource:

Rhenan Segura, Jorge. Sociedad de las Naciones y la política centro-americana (1919–1939). Costa Rica: Euroamericana, 1993.Find this resource:

Vargas García Eugênio. O Brasil e a Liga das Nações (1919–1926): Vencer ou não perder. Brasilia: Editora de Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul-Fundação Alexandre de Gusmão, 2000.Find this resource:

Vivas Gallardo, Freddy. Venezuela en la Sociedad de Naciones: 1920–1939; Descripción y análisis de una actuación diplomática. Caracas: Universidad Central de Venezuela, 1981.Find this resource:

Walters, Francis Paul. A History of the League of Nations. Vol. 2. London: Oxford University Press, 1952.Find this resource:

Wehrli, Yannick. “Créer et maintenir l’intérêt: La liaison entre le Secrétariat de la Société des Nations et l’Amérique latine (1919–1929).” Undergraduate thesis, University of Geneva, 2003.Find this resource:

Wehrli, Yannick. “Les délégations latino-américaines et les intérêts de la France à la Société des Nations.” Relations Internationales 137 (2009): 45–59.Find this resource:

Wehrli, Yannick, “Etats latino-américains, organismes multilatéraux et défense de la souveraineté. Entre Société des Nations et espace continental panaméricain (1919–1939).” Doctoral thesis, University of Geneva, 2016.Find this resource:

Wehrli, Yannick, and Fabián Herrera León. “Le BIT et l’Amérique latine durant l’entre-deux-guerres: Problèmes et enjeux.” In L’Organisation Internationale du Travail en devenir: Origine, développement et avenir. Edited by Isabelle Lespinet Moret and Vincent Viet, 157–166. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2011.Find this resource:


(1.) About origins, roles, themes, and issues that Latin America faced at the Legue of Nations, see Fabián Herrera León, “Latin America and the League of Nations,” Latin American History: Oxford Research Encyclopedias, ed. William Beezley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). And to delve widely into the matter, see Thomas Fischer, Die Souveränität der Schwachen: Lateinamerika und der Völkerbund, 1920–1936 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2012); and Yannick Wehrli, “Etats latino-américains, organismes multilatéraux et défense de la souveraineté. Entre Société des Nations et espace continental panaméricain (1919–1939),” PhD diss., University of Geneva, 2016.

(2.) See Yannick Wehrli, “Creer et maintenir l’intérêt: la liaison entre le Secrétariat de la Société des Nations et l’Amérique latine (1919–1929),” undergraduate thesis, University of Geneva, 2003.

(3.) This group of scholars has held frequent meetings since 2011 as participants in the congress celebrated at the University of Ginebra, entitled Latin America and the “International Geneva” during the Interwar Period: The Beginning of Regional and International Integration. Their most recent event took place in Morelia, Mexico (March 2016), to analyze papers from the international seminar “América Latina y el internacionalismo ginebrino de entreguerras: implicaciones a mediano y largo plazo.” The results of such encounters include the joint publication of seminal works that have been well received by academics. See Fabián Herrera León and Patricio Herrera González, eds., América Latina y la Organización Internacional del Trabajo: Redes, cooperación técnica e institucionalidad social (1919–1950) (Morelia: Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas de la Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo-Universidad de Monterrey-Universidade Federal Fluminense, 2013); Alan McPherson and Yannick Wehrli, Beyond Geopolitics: New Histories of Latin America at the League of Nations (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015).

(4.) Jian Liu, Kris Bell, Fenton Martin, Kenneth Steuer, and Sarah Hammill.

(5.) Christiane Sibille (project coordination); Christof Meigen (technical realization and programming); Cornelia Knab and Maya Okuda (project members); Isabel Antz, Dominique Biehl, Christopher Blundell, Jan Diebold, Laura Jakobs, Simone Mbak, Lisa-Marie Zoller (student assistants).

(6.) See Fabián Herrera León, “Latin America and the League of Nations,” Latin American History: Oxford Research Encyclopedias, ed. William Beezley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).