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When the World Outlawed War: An Interview with David Swanson

For those who know war only through television, criminalizing it sounds like proposing to criminalize government. But there was a time when the masses made war illegal.
 
 
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 David Swanson’s recently released book,  When the World Outlawed War, tells the story of how the highly energized 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 in the United States was so popular that most politicians could not afford to oppose it.  

David Swanson, since serving as press secretary in Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign, has emerged as one of the leading anti-war activists in the United States. While 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, his anti-war activism goes much deeper. He wants to stigmatize militarist politicians as criminals. In his previous book War is a Lie, Swanson made the case for the abolition of war as an instrument of national policy, and When the World Outlawed War provides an historical example of just how powerful war abolitionism can be. 

Bruce Levine: At a college lecture that you recently gave, you asked the students and professors if they believed war was illegal or if they had ever heard of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and only about 2 or 3 percent of a large group raised their hands. But what really seems to have disturbed you is when you asked if war should be illegal, and only 5 percent thought that it should be.  

David Swanson: Well, both responses bothered me somewhat, but only one surprised me at all, and only one offended me. 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 U.N. 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. And I’m still in the camp that considers torture irredeemably evil, by the way. 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. At the end of World War I, war was widely viewed as an evil disease to be eradicated. From World War II forward to today 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 war’s victims and most of its participants it always turns out to be the horror it appeared in 1918. But for those who know war only through U.S. television, the idea of criminalizing it sounds almost 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 World War I. Since World War II we have never returned to normalcy. 

BL: 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? 

DS: The thinking of the peace movement of the 1920s comes out of a different world, and getting back into it may be difficult for a lot of people. One doorway in, I am hoping, is through realization that a law still on the books outlaws war. While banning war may be unimaginable, war is in fact already banned. Every war since 1929 has been illegal. Every act of war has been illegal.