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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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Laws are, of course, what we make of them. Some laws are forgotten, others expanded to completely alter their meanings. The Bill of Rights now applies to corporations, while the Kellogg-Briand Pact is considered archaic—but that is purely for cultural reasons; the Pact has actually never been repealed. 

Creating awareness of a law will not lead to its immediate enforcement, of course, but the Outlawrists of the 1920s didn’t believe they would end war in their lifetimes. They 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. But the process of delegitimization of war has stalled and back-tracked. The body of law and the world court that the Outlawrists envisioned have never been attempted. It is time we picked up where they left off. 

BL: You say that the thinking of the peace movement of the 1920s comes out of a “different world.” 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 of the 1920s, is your sense that Americans today—despite their majority opposition to our ongoing wars—have become increasingly more helpless, hopeless, and defeatist with regard to achieving a peaceful nation? 

DS: 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 Woodrow 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 wars. 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. This is a result of the twisted interpretation of the Kellogg-Briand Pact that was used to prosecute Nazis. A treaty intentionally created to avoid banning “aggressive war,” in order to ban all war, was transformed into a ban on aggressive war at Nuremberg. Every war since has had to be “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 nor our various drone wars. But there is a more important difference that you mentioned between the 1920s and today: the rise of the military-industrial complex. It had 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. Women got the vote in 1920. Jim Crow laws prevented many African-Americans from voting, and eighteen to twenty-year-olds still couldn’t vote, but the robber barons didn’t run the whole show—and some of them invested heavily in peace activism. 

The deck is stacked against us today, and we know it. Outlawrists in the 1920s didn’t imagine they'd live to see success, but they did believe success would likely come in a future generation, step by step. They believed that outlawing blood feuds and dueling and slavery pointed the way toward outlawing war. They believed in cultural progress, even if it came slowly. So, they happily worked for what they believed to be a just cause, for what William James called “the moral equivalent of war,” and they seemed in my reading to go through fewer cycles of optimism and pessimism than do most activists today. They seemed to exhibit, in fact, less interest in what their cause could do for them than in what they could do for the cause.