by Emil Seidenfaden, PhD in History, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Saxo-Institute, University of Copenhagen
In 1945, a former League official wrote, “in no other respect did the creation of the League mark a more complete break with the habits of the past, than in the new kind of relationship between a diplomatic body and public opinion that was established at Geneva”. He was referring to the work of the Information Section of the Secretariat. Following the “rediscovery” in recent decades of the League of Nations in international history scholarship, and with the renewed public interest in propaganda this section has only recently started to attract scholarly attention from historians and media studies researchers.
The Information Section handled the League’s public relations and its press services. Officials across the Secretariat spoke of the section as a cornerstone of the organization. The section was among the largest of the Secretariat throughout its existence. At the height of its prestige in 1932, it took up close to a fifth of the Secretariat’s salary budget.
The section saw itself as the vanguard of one of the League’s key missions, namely to create an “open diplomacy” in contrast to the secret treaties and alliances said to have caused the war of 1914-1918. Whereas other sections (such as Health, Legal and Intellectual Cooperation) existed to support the League’s specialized (or “auxiliary”) organizations, the Information Section served the Secretariat, the Council and the Assembly and thus permeated most of what the League of Nations did. Its officials were not specialists but generalists, expected to acquire a broad knowledge of the League’s work and explain it succinctly to the public.
During 1919, the League Secretariat’s formative months, Secretary General Eric Drummond singled out three men, each a national of a major League member state, to draft plans for an Information Section. These were Pierre Comert (French), Arthur Sweetser (American) and George Herbert Mair (British), all appointed on the basis of their experience in journalism and government press relations.
The lifespan of the section may be divided into two phases. From the time of the League’s creation in 1920 and until 1932 the section rose to its peak strength under director Comert, who was a close confidante of Secretary-General Eric Drummond. Comert was Drummond’s line of communication to the Quai d’Orsay, in particular after the resignation of Jean Monnet in 1923.
In 1932, Comert was pressured to resign because Germany, a League member since 1926, would not accept two Frenchmen on key posts in the Secretariat and therefore only accepted the pre-arranged succession to Secretary General of the Frenchman Joseph Avenol on the condition that Comert left. After this, some League member states started to question the necessity of the muscular section he had built, and as a result, the Assembly’s Supervisory Committee instigated reductions in the section’s allowance and functions. In 1933, during this process, Arthur Sweetser directed the section. Sweetser too was a key player in its development. An enthusiastic internationalist and friend of the deposed director, Sweetser secured funding for League projects by means of creatively using his extraordinary personal network among US elites. Finally, between 1934 and 1940 Dutch Adrianus Pelt became director and sought to compensate for the section’s new constrained position by prioritizing new communications technology like broadcasting and educational film. Pelt struggled with diminishing funds and limited enthusiasm from Secretary-General Avenol, who was a more centralizing type of leader and was preoccupied trying to tackle the League’s growing crisis of legitimacy.
Throughout its existence, the section pursued three overall categories of activity, which often overlapped in practice: press relations, information work, and gathering information for the League. Press relations involved assisting the international Geneva press corps (resident correspondents and visitors for the annual Assembly) with accreditation to conferences or meetings of the Council and Assembly, technical assistance, a news communiqué service and social events. Information work involved producing a range of information material for the public, including a Monthly Summary of the League’s work, books, pamphlets and slide-collections for educators. From early 1930, the section broadcasted talks on League-related topics via the Radio-Nations wireless station, and commissioned a handful of informational films, including a well-known infomercial “The League at Work”. Finally, the section kept the Secretariat informed on writings in the international press, mainly major newspapers of Western countries, and it was charged with a more undefined mission of gathering “unofficial, confidential information” for the use of high officials. Throughout its existence, leading forces in the section considered its liaison with private pro-League associations, such as League of Nations Unions, women’s rights groups, student associations and the like, to be of vital importance in keeping the Secretariat connected to and embedded in “public opinion”. Without the support of public opinion, the section deemed the League could never gain legitimacy and solve the political crises of the time.
UN Archives Geneva
Note that the Section Files left by that section are scarce. Look for additional material and correspondence concerning the Information Section in the Registry Files of the Secretariat. These fall into three distinct periods and should be studied further in the archives’ Repertoire Generale, but examples include: Public Information, League of Nations Societies - International Federation of League of Nations Associations
Library of Congress, Washington D.C
The extensive personal archive of Arthur Sweetser can be accessed at the Library of Congress and contain a wealth of League-related material. Get an overview and access a helpful finding aid.
Lorenz-Gellrich, Arne, Koenen, Erik, Averbeck-Lietz, Stefanie, ”The epistemic project of open diplomacy and the League of Nations: Co-evolution between diplomacy, PR and journalism, Corporate Communications. An International Journal, vol. 24. No. 4, (2020), 607-621.
Seidenfaden, Emil Eiby, “The League of Nation’s Collaboration with an International Public”, Contemporary European History, vol. 31, no. 3 (2022), 368-380.