We’ve collectively forgotten what was probably the single biggest news story of 1928. It is little known and even less appreciated that the United States is party to a treaty that bans all war. This treaty, known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, or the Peace Pact, or the Renunciation of War, is listed on the U.S. State Department’s website as in force. The Pact reads:
“The High Contracting Parties solemly [sic] declare in the names of their respective peoples that they condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it, as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.
“The High Contracting Parties agree that the settlement or solution of all disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them, shall never be sought except by pacific means.”
Pacific means only. No martial means. No war. No targeted murder. No surgical strikes.
The story of how this treaty, to which over 80 nations are party, came to be is inspiring. The peace movement of the 1920s that convinced U.S. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg from St. Paul, Minn., to work for it was a model of dedication, patience, strategy, integrity, and struggle.
Playing a leading role was the movement for “outlawry,” for the outlawing of war. War had been legal until that point. Following World War I, atrocities could be objected to but not the launching of war, and not the seizing of territory. The Kellogg-Briand Pact changed that.
With the creation of the peace pact, wars were avoided and ended. But nations continued to arm themselves and to support the rise of militaristic governments. Following World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt used the Kellogg-Briand Pact to prosecute the losers of the war for the brand new crime of war. From that day to this, despite an endless plague of war on and among the poor nations of the world, the wealthy armed nations have yet to launch a third world war among themselves.
When not simply ignored or unknown, the Kellogg-Briand Pact is dismissed because World War II happened. But what other legal ban have we ever tossed out following the very first violation and what appears to have been a quite effective prosecution?
An argument can also be made that the U.N. Charter undoes the peace pact simply by coming later in time. But this is by no means an easy argument, and it requires understanding the U.N. Charter as the re-legalization of war rather than the ban on war that most people imagine it to be. While Frank Kellogg’s treaty bans all war, the U.N. Charter allows wars that are either defensive or U.N.-authorized.
In fact, the Kellogg-Briand Pact has continued to be used in international law, including in a case at the World Court in 1998 that arguably prevented a U.S. war against Libya.
Eliminating war, the outlawrists believed, would not be easy. A first step would be to ban it, to stigmatize it, to render it unrespectable. A second step would be to establish accepted laws for international relations. A third would be to create courts with the authority to settle international disputes. The outlawrists took the first big step, but we haven’t followed through.
Supporters of torture and unlimited election spending and all sorts of dubious innovations point to court proceedings marginalia, overridden vetoes, speeches, and tangentially related ancient precedents, but not laws.
Supporters of peace have a law that can be pointed to, and a stronger one than the U.N. Charter. As long as some wars are deemed legal, supporters of any war will argue for its legality.
But how do you enforce a ban on war, without using war to do it? There are other means. If Canada were to invade the U.S., Americans could refuse to cooperate with the occupation, Canadians could refuse to take part in it, activists from around the world could come to the U.S. as human shields. The world’s governments could condemn, ostracize, sanction, and prosecute the Canadian war-makers. In other words, war could be resisted using tools other than war. (Sorry for the example, Canada! I am aware which nation has a history of invading the other.)
There’s a song from 1950 that describes the scene on August 27, 1928:
Last night I had the strangest dream, I ever dreamed before.
I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.
That was Frank Kellogg’s dream. It’s time we started dreaming it again.