WHEN NATIONS TRIED TO OUTLAW WAR:
A FORGOTTEN EVENT IN AMERICAN DIPLOMATIC HISTORY
Charles F. Howlett, Molloy College
In 1928, over sixty nations signed an agreement, which renounced war as an instrument of national policy. This august marks its eighty-fifth anniversary. Newspapers throughout the country, including the New York Times, printed front-page headlines hailing the importance of this diplomatic achievement on behalf of world peace. In subsequent years, schools throughout the nation sponsored essay contests on the importance of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, or Pact of Paris as it is referred to in European circles. At the time, social studies textbooks also lauded this treaty and asked students to consider its importance. Contrary to what St. Augustine may have posited about the notion of a “just war” in his epic City of God, however, what really did happen to the notion of making war an international crime against humanity?
Reeling from the horrors and devastation caused by World War I peace activists, statesmen, and the public at large greeted this peace treaty with adulation and hope. Clearly, disillusionment with World War I left a determination in millions of Americans never to fight again; no one was willing to stand up now and sing songs like “Rally Round the Flag” or attend romantic plays like “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh.” The Unknown Soldierundefinedthe American doughboy whose very identity remained buried beneath the rubble of the war’s destructionundefinedsymbolized that this was a fight to forget. At no time in U.S. history was the hold of pacifism, or disdain for war, as strong or compelling as it was between the first and second world wars.
The origins behind the effort to make war illegal quickly began in the aftermath of the disillusionment in the United States regarding the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. A Committee for the Outlawry of War emerged in the early part of the 1920s as an alternative to the United States’ failure to ratify the treaty and objections to the League of Nations advocacy of the use of sanctions. The committee proposed three things: (1) outlaw war as a legal method of settling international disputes; (2) establish a code of international law that all nations would adhere to; and (3) create a court of justice similar to the U.S. Supreme Court, which would encourage each signatory nation to surrender its own war criminals, regardless of influence or stature, to this international tribunal. On the surface this seemed to be a reasonable alternative to League opponents in the United States and to recapture the nation’s lead in ending all wars and making the world safe for democracy.
The driving force behind the outlawry of war crusade was a rich Chicago attorney and Yale Law School graduate by the name of Salmon O. Levinson, who was once characterized by British MP Lord Robert Cecil as “energetic but annoying.” Carrying one step further Hugo Grotius’ seventeenth-century treatise on the law of the war and peace (De Jure Belli et Pacis, published in 1625 at Paris), Levinson called for the de-legalization of war and gave as an example the abrogation of dueling as a practical step toward achieving this goal on an international scale.
Although world leaders favored Article X of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, establishing the League with certain powers of economic and military enforcement, the significance of Levinson’s plan was his proposal for outlawing war by the written code of nations backed by the decrees of an international tribunal. What he sought to impress upon diplomatic officials was that the use of sanctions against a nation was the equivalent of war and that it was ludicrous to attempt to outlaw and abrogate war while at the same time keeping it as a means of enforcement. Simply put, he wanted to instill in the minds of officials, as well as the public, that war is a crime and offending political or military leaders be brought before the international court by citizens of those nations prior to any attempt by them to carry out acts of aggression against another country. War is the real enemy, not nations.
The idea quickly caught on and a number of notable Americans joined Levinson’s campaign. One was none other than the famous Columbia University philosopher and educator John Dewey. Certainly not appreciated for his writing styleundefinedpolitical scientist Harold J. Laski referred to Dewey’s writings as “unreadable” while the famed trial attorney Clarence Darrow who is probably best remembered for his defense of John T. Scopes in the argument over teaching evolution in schools once remarked that “I am familiar with his writings and ideas, if any….Of course, such literature as Dewey’s has a strong hold in universities, in hopes that the professors may possibly make people believe that they aren’t so bad as they really are”undefinedDewey was enamored about the prospect of applying his instrumentalist approach to solving the problem of world conflict. For Dewey, a code of law and a court, means and end, fitted nicely into his pragmatic approach to world politics.
The famous Unitarian minister and pacifist John Haynes Holmes, along with Charles Clayton Morrison, editor of Christian Century Magazine, also signed up. But the one individual Levinson counted on most was none other than the Republican “irreconcilable” senator from Idaho, William E. Borah, who looked for a way to enhance his own political stature while also keeping the country out of entangling alliances and avoiding the sting of Old World politics. A young journalist trying to make his bones by the name of Walter Lippmann remarked about the senator that “Like the universe and like the weather the only thing to do about Borah is to accept him.”
Lippmann, a former intelligence officer on General John J. Pershing’s staff during the war, initially liked the idea but would later comment that “it ‘is not their court and their code, but the treaty ‘outlawing war.’ They believe that this slogan has the power to arouse and then to crystallize mankind’s abhorrence of war.” Lippmann’s reservation had more to do with the necessity of diplomacyundefinedthe human factor of the equationundefinedoutside of the purview of the outlawrists’ court and code.
Nevertheless, attempting to capture the imagination of the American public, Levinson’s committee gained support from Protestant religious groups, peace organizations like the newly-created Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and members of the Republican Party. Naturally, as with any political undertaking, new elements were injected into this undertaking; ones that Levinson had not counted on, nor wanted.
By the mid-twenties, James T. Shotwell, a history professor at Columbia and friend of Dewey’s, though that relationship would be strained due to their competing interests in the outlawry concept, proposed his own idea on the subject. Shotwell, who was now director of research at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, devised a plan with the help of General Tasker H. Bliss and David Hunter Millerundefinedall three served on Wilson’s staff at the Treaty of Versailles. Unlike the Levinson proposal, Shotwell’s plan proposed outlawing aggressive war, use of “permissive sanctions,” and a definition of aggression demanding that the failure of any militant nation failing to appear before the Permanent Court of International Justice (then recently established at The Hague) within four days would be charged with precipitating a war. It represented a middling attempt to incorporate the outlawry concept within League organizations under the umbrella of collective security.
As the two competing factions battled over political custody of the U.S. Senate and things seemed to stall, Shotwell took the initiative to reach out to the French foreign minister, Aristide Briand. Shotwell, on a visiting professorship of international relations at the Hochschule fur Politik in Berlin, contacted Briand and told him about his proposal and American interest in renouncing war as an instrument of national policy rather than renouncing war as an instrument of justice.
Franco-American relations had been somewhat strained due to U.S. efforts to collect on its war debts and French embarrassment for being assigned lesser naval power at the Washington Naval Limitations Conference of 1921-1922. Briand, an attorney, supporter of the labor-union movement, and a prime negotiator behind the 1925 Locarno Pact based upon his concept of regional, collective security arrangements, had been searching for a bilateral security agreement with the United States as a way to shore up France’s security in Europe. In his discussions with Shotwell, Briand tendered a peace proposal to the United States in early April 1927 based upon the concept of arbitration and the Locarno model.
The Coolidge administration, particularly, the State Department, turned a cold shoulder to the idea. The stranglehold of isolationist sentiment still prevailed within Republican circles. However, two events changed the administration’s attitude. On April 25th Columbia University president Nicholas Murray Butlerundefinedmany referred to him as “Czar Nicholas” given his treatment of professors opposed World War Iundefinedpenned a letter to the New York Times publicly endorsing Briand’s overture. A month later, and perhaps an even greater diplomatic push to the outlawry idea occurred, when Charles A. Lindbergh successfully completed his trans-Atlantic solo flight, where hundreds of French people enthusiastically greeted him with open arms upon landing on French soil.
New York City newspapers, in particular, quickly picked up on the Briand overture in the backdrop of “Lucky Lindy’s” flight, and began endorsing the idea. Coolidge’s secretary of state and former U.S. ambassador to England, Frank B. Kellogg was even more lukewarm than his boss. But after Borah secured the support of the National Grange, whose 2 million signatures to petitions supporting the proposal were introduced into the Congressional Record, Kellogg deftly flipped Briand’s proposal from a bi-lateral agreement to a multi-national one. Briand grudgingly agreed given his nation’s obligation to the League and its allies, which included the notion of defensive war.
Negotiations continued throughout May, June, July and August, when, on August 27, 1928, at the Quai d’Orsay, fifteen nations signed the agreement. Eventually, sixty-two nations ratified the pact, outlawing war as “an instrument of national policy.” The U.S. Senate voted 85 to 1 in favor of ratificationundefineda backdoor apologia for Versailles, perhaps?
However, any true commitment for lasting peace was offset by the Senate Foreign Relations committee reserving the right of self-defense, the right to uphold the Monroe Doctrine, and the right not to enforce the pact against any violators. Given the realization that the pact neither impaired the nation’s ability to act to protect itself nor compelled it to take action against nations that violated the treaty, the very notion of delegalizing war led the campaign’s intellectual spokesperson, Dewey, to sadly comment that “There has, therefore, always been the danger that official adoption of the outlawry idea would turn out to be an embalming of the idea rather than an embodiment.”
Adding insult to injury, moreover, was the fact that prior to the passage of the Pact of Paris in Congress, the Senate approved a bill authorizing the construction of fifteen naval vessels. As George W. Wickersham’s article “Pact of Paris: A Gesture or a Pledge?” aptly pointed out eight months after the signing of the treaty: “The consideration of a bill authorizing the building of fifteen cruisers merely accentuated the Senators’ lack of conviction in the reality of the peace treaty, and moreover, demonstrated a willingness on the part of that august body to appear like the temple of Janus, with two heads-one contemplating peace and the other smiling at war!”
Others also joined the chorus of critics. Albert Bushnell Hart, Professor of History at Harvard, sarcastically referred to the movement to outlaw war as “amateur diplomacy.” Robert Lansing, former secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, criticized the crusade as an absurdity, which appealed to unthinking and unrealistic pacifists, “who ignore real conditions and the application to them of logic and reason, and loudly clamor for something which common sense and rational thought perceive to be as impracticable as it is vain.” Senator George P. McLean of Connecticut voted for it while referring to the pact as “throwing peace paper wads at the dogs of war, expecting they will seriously injure the dogs of war or destroy their appetite for a more palatable diet.” Moreover, as the “cynical, saw-voiced, silver thatched” Senator James A. Reed of Missouri satirically remarked, “What the proclamation of Sinai did not accomplish in four thousand years, what Christ’s teachings have not achieved in twenty centuries of time, is to be produced by the magic stroke of Mr. Kellogg’s pen.”
The final dagger was plunged into the outlawrists’ chests by Yale Professor Edwin M. Borchard when he asked, “In view of the fact that the treaty apparently leaves each country contemplating or exercising measures of force as well as the judge of what constitutes “self-defense,” who could assert, therefore, that any signatory going to war under circumstances which it claims require “self-defense,” is violating the Pact? Has any modern nation ever gone to war (and without any suggestion of bad faith) for any other motive? How then could this Pact ever be legally violated or for that matter diplomatically enforced?”
Sadly, given diplomatic realities based upon national interestsundefinedLippmann had a pointundefined the pact merely outlawed declarations of war and nothing more. It never really fulfilled Levinson’s hope of revisiting Augustine’s just war or defensive war theory. It never made the legitimacy of war the true enemy or the criminal, as Levinson intended it to be. Its most useful application came at the Nuremberg war-guilt trials after World War II. It was employed as a basis for prosecution, but after the fact!
In terms of its educational value, however, it became a very popular topic of discussion in America’s schools between the world wars. After its passage numerous attempts were made to incorporate it into school curriculums. John Cooper, the United States Commissioner of Education, boasted that the pact is a basic component of the law of our land and schools are obliged to teach it. His implication was obvious: the Pact has all the power of the Federal Government and the courts behind it as an official part of U.S. foreign policy. The Delaware State Department of Public Instruction, for example, distributed to all high schools in the state a social-science unit on “Mankind’s Progress Toward World Peace,” and the State Board of Education of Kansas developed a high school curriculum establishing a half-year course of study on international relations, which focused on peace and the renunciation of war. Speeches and essay contests on the significance and importance of the Kellogg-Briand Pact were also part of school-sponsored efforts. In 1930, the winner of the essay contest held by the National Student Forum on the outlawry pact noted its psychological importance as a substitute for war and the continuing need to promote internationalism as a cultural inoculation against rabid nationalism and racial and ethnic prejudice.
Seizing on this sentiment, moreover, peace groups, in particular, made a concerted effort to talk up the Pact. The American Friends Service Committee, under the direction of Ray Newton, established a “Peace Caravan” in the early 1930s in which college students toured the country by car during summer vacations. While visiting small towns across America, members of the caravan discussed the historical evolution of the pact and how it could be applied to other peace attempts in order to prevent the outbreak of another world war. It represented an innovative attempt from the non-public education sector of society.
Peace organizations even helped disseminate copies of the Pact’s text to be posted in all classrooms as a bulletin board poster. So popular was this poster campaign that the Journal of the National Education Association printed a version of it in one of their 1929 issues encouraging teachers to ignite a debate or discussion as to the Pact’s merits. The poster campaign’s popularity was so immense that the National Education Association compiled and published a book, which highlighted hundreds of schools that created and submitted their classroom posters for inclusion. In addition, educator and director of the annual National Student Forum on the Paris Pact that was conducted from 1929-1936, Arthur Charles Watkins published a 160-page textbook for high school students, The Story of the Paris Pact: For Students of the Higher Citizenship, which sold over 65,000 copies. Furthermore, former Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, who would be the only member to vote against World Wars I and II, urged teachers and students to pen letters to their elected officials or the U.S. State Department to receive their own individual copy.
As for the players involved, only the diplomats and one late comer to the process were rewarded. Briand and Kellogg were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929. Butler, an indirect player in this particular event near the end, would be recognized two years later with the same award while taking away the limelight from social reformer and peace activist Jane Addams, whom he shared it with. The only satisfaction for Levinson was that his idea was given a hearing with no definitive judgment or compelling sentence.
Considering the state of the world today, maybe it is time for a rehearing and not count on the bomb and limited military engagements as the only diplomatic checkmates against rogue states, militant groups, or nations bent upon carrying out acts of violence and aggression. In the world’s ongoing struggle to achieve lasting peace let us first declare war, itself, “Public Enemy Number One.”