When the World Outlawed War
In January 1929, the U.S. Senate ratified by a vote of 85 to 1 a treaty that is still on the books, still upheld by most of the world, and still listed on the U.S. State Department’s website. It’s a treaty that under Article VI of the U.S. Constitution is the “supreme law of the land.”
This treaty, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, bans all war. Bad wars and “good wars,” aggressive wars and “humanitarian wars” — they are all illegal, having been legally abolished like duelling, blood feuds, and slavery before them.
World Affairs, August 27, 1928 – Coolidge and Foreign Affairs
- residual tensions from hard bargaining and perceived double-dealing at Versailles;
- the continuing effort of the U.S. to collect the full amount of war debts incurred by hard-pressed France;
- the embarrassment felt by France because of being assigned a lesser naval role at the Washington Conference (1921);
- the recent failure, regretted by both nations, of the Geneva Conference (1927).
An effort was made by French foreign minister Aristide Briand to warm-up relations between the two former allies. Columbia University professor James T. Shotwell met with Briand in France and suggested that a bilateraltreaty be negotiated that would outlaw war between the two nations. Briand seized this idea and presented it in an open letter to the American people.
The Coolidge government, at least initially, was not interested in having its hand forced in diplomatic matters and offered no response. A few weeks later, Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler sounded the same theme in a letter published in The New York Times. The press in New York and elsewhere began a drumbeat calling for the “outlawry of war.”
Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg was lukewarm to the idea, but at least gave formal recognition to Briand’s proposal. Meanwhile, public sentiment continued to build. A leader in this effort was Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, who secured the support of the National Grange; its petitions supporting the proposed agreement contained more than two million signatures and increased the pressure on the government. Kellogg began to see advantages in such an agreement, but insisted that the concept be expanded to encompass many nations.
The Kellogg-Briand Pact provided for outlawing war as an “an instrument of national policy,” and was further notable for the following:
- No enforcement mechanism was provided for changing the behavior of warring signatories.
- The agreement was interpreted by most of the signatories to permit “defensive” war.
- No expiration date was provided.
- No provision existed for amending the agreement was included.
Despite these shortcomings, the pact was signed in August 1928 by 15 nations. In the following months, more than 60 countries joined in this renunciation of war.
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee studied the matter and issued a report that maintained that the pact did not impair the nation’s ability to act to protect the Monroe Doctrine. Having cleared that hurdle, the full Senate voted 85 to one for ratification. Despite the lopsided tally, little true enthusiasm existed for the highly idealistic agreement. Other nations followed the U.S. lead by ratifying the treaty, but reserving the right to act to protect their special interests.
Events of the 1930s demonstrated the total inability of treaties to halt expansionist nations from making war on their neighbors, proving the skeptics to have been correct. Most damaging perhaps for the United States was that the Kellogg-Briand Pact may have induced some in positions of authority to delay action in the face of aggression, hoping in vain that the terms of the agreement would be honored.
Happy Holidays to all !