When the World Outlawed War

David Swanson’s recently released book, When the World Outlawed War, tells the story of how the peace movement in the 1920s, supported by an overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens from every level of society, was able to push politicians into something quite remarkable—the Kellogg- Briand Pact and the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy. The 1920s “War Outlawry” movement was so popular that most politicians could not afford to oppose it. 


Since serving as press secretary in Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign, Swanson has fought against the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and tried to alert Americans to the fact that U.S. military spending is the source of most of our economic problems. In his book War is a Lie, Swanson made the case for the abolition of war as an instrument of national policy. When the World Outlawed War provides an historical example of just how powerful war abolitionism can be. 


Levine: At a recent college lecture, you asked if anyone believed war was illegal and if they had ever heard of the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Only 2 or 3 percent of the large group raised their hands. When you asked if war should be illegal, only 5 percent thought that it should be.  


Swanson: Both responses bothered me somewhat. I knew people in the United States did not believe war was illegal. I knew that only the most serious peace activists had heard of the Kellogg-Briand Pact and that even they didn’t recognize its value, including the degree to which it is stronger than the UN Charter in its prohibition of all wars, not just certain kinds of wars. 


But why wouldn’t people want war to be made illegal? To my ear that sounds like not wanting slavery or rape or torture to be illegal. At the end of the 19th century, when the United States snatched up Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, Panama, etc., there was a popular love for war in the air. By the end of World War I, war was widely viewed as an evil disease to be eradicated. From World War II forward there has been an ever-increasing tendency to view war as ordinary, necessary, and patriotic—if not a war in Vietnam or Iraq, then certainly some other war. 


For those who know war only through television, the idea of criminalizing it sounds like proposing to criminalize government. That state of affairs is what I find disturbing, the realization of how normal it is to think of government as essentially responsible for large-scale killing. This is miles away from Warren Harding’s return to “normalcy” after WWI. Since World War II, we have never returned to normalcy. 


People have a difficult enough time today believing that they have enough power to stop a single senseless war. Did the peace movement in the 1920s really believe they could abolish war? 


Creating awareness of a law will not lead to its immediate enforcement, of course, but the activists of the 1920s believed that Kellogg-Briand would begin to delegitimize war, to stigmatize it. In fact, after Kellogg-Briand, territorial gains through war were no longer recognized and, following World War II, the act of making war was prosecuted as a crime for those on the losing side.  


In the 1920s, as you point out, peace was actually “patriotic” and a peace movement wasn’t going up against anywhere near the kind of military-industrial complex we have today. In researching the history, is it your sense that Americans today—despite their majority opposition to ongoing wars—have become more helpless, hopeless, and defeatist with regard to achieving a peaceful nation? 


Back then, war could be seen as something that backward Europeans had dragged the United States into, albeit with help from greatly resented propaganda that had been produced by President Wilson’s PR team. If you ask someone in the United States if they are for peace today, they may tell you that they like peace, but wouldn’t want to oppose war. Even in the 1920s, the United States was making war in Nicaragua and threatening it in Mexico, but peace was still considered the norm. Then wars were imperialistic or humanitarian or racist and, conceivably, avoidable. Now wars are necessary to protect us from evil. In other words, they are defensive.  


Pro-war attitudes today are not insurmountable. Popular opinion turned against the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars fairly quickly and never got behind the Libyan War or our various drone wars. But there is a more important difference between the 1920s and today.


The rise of the military-industrial complex has been around since the Civil War. The Navy was being built up at the same time that the U.S. Senate was ratifying Kellogg-Briand. But the weapons companies were not pulling Congress’s strings in the 1920s. Farmers, who wanted Europeans to buy more corn and less weaponry, had more influence than arms merchants. In addition, congressional districts were smaller, bribery was illegal, newspapers were fairly diverse and credible, television didn’t exist, gerrymandering had not been perfected, and it was common for members of the House and Senate to oppose the positions of their political parties. The robber barons didn’t run the whole show—some of them invested heavily in peace activism. 


The deck is stacked against us today and we know it. Outlawrists believed success would likely come in a future generation, step by step, so they happily worked for what they believed to be a just cause, for what William James called “the moral equivalent of war.” 


This came hand-in-hand, I think, with their belief in democracy. Frank Kellogg, the mean-tempered Republican Secretary of State for whom the Kellogg-Briand Pact is named hated and cursed peace activists. In 1928, he worked night and day to answer their demands. Why? In part because the peace activists didn’t line up behind political leaders, a president, a party, or Kellogg. They moved the entire culture, all parties and all politicians, in their direction. Kellogg lined up behind them. 


The Pact clearly condemns war as an instrument of national policy and resolves that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means. But does it say that war is illegal?   


No reservations were made to the treaty, but the Senate did pass an interpretive statement. Kellogg had also published his interpretations of the treaty and communicated them to the other national signatories prior to the treaty’s creation. The negotiations were very public, having begun with a statement to the Associated Press from Aristide Briand, the Foreign Minister of France, a statement illegally drafted for him by an American peace activist lobbying France to lobby the United States for peace. The public discussion of the treaty and the U.S. Senate’s view of its meaning suggest that the answer to your first question is yes. 


The big looming question for people today is, of course, “What about self-defense?” Levinson’s response was to point to the example of dueling. No nation had banned “aggressive dueling” and yet people could still defend themselves. They did so without making use of “defensive dueling.” It takes two to tango, to duel, or to make war. Nazi Germany did not attack the United States before the United States put its economic muscle into a war against Germany and, indeed, its assistance into attacking German submarines. Japan attacked a U.S. territory stolen from the people of Hawaii, but only after long and deliberate provocation, including U.S. support for and participation in a war against Japan on behalf of China.  


More than self-defense, the big concern in 1928-1929 was to make clear—as Kellogg and the Senate made very clear—that the Peace Pact would not place on the United States any obligation to go to war against another nation that violated the pact, or any obligation to join an international alliance to “keep the peace” through the use of war. The League of Nations was voted down in the Senate and the Kellogg-Briand Pact up, not purely out of irrational “isolationism,” but also because the idea of making alliances of war did not seem a wise way to eliminate war. In fact, it looked to many people in the United States all too similar to how World War I had begun. We now have further examples, of course, of the United Nations and NATO launching wars.


Most historians say that the primary reason for the failure of the Kellogg-Briand Pact to prevent wars was that the treaty provided no means of enforcement or sanctions against parties who violated its provisions and it did not effectively close the loopholes regarding when self-defense could lawfully be claimed. Is that your take on the failure of Kellog-Briand?


The UN Charter leaves a giant loophole for defensive war, as well as one for any war authorized by the UN. The Kellogg-Briand Pact does not. This is why Kellogg-Briand is stronger. A court to resolve disputes by pacific means and to prosecute war makers was never established and still needs to be. The World Court of the League of Nations, like today’s International Criminal Court of the United Nations, did not fit the bill. Joining the League of Nations without transforming it radically would have brought the United States into World War II more quickly, but would not have prevented it. What might have prevented it would have been punishing war makers after World War I instead of punishing the entire nation of Germany, promoting and funding peaceful parties in Germany rather than Nazis, negotiating arms reductions rather than launching an arms race, and investing in the study of nonviolent dispute resolution instead of in eugenics and chemical warfare.  


Bruce E. Levine is a clinical psychologist and author of Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Chelsea Green, 2011). This article was first published by Alternet.org. Photo of Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Frank Kellogg.