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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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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, in 1927, hated and cursed peace activists; and in 1928, worked night and day to answer their demands. Why? In part because the peace activists didn’t line up behind political leaders, a president, or a party, or Frank Kellogg. They moved the entire culture, all parties and all politicians, in their direction. Kellogg lined up behind them. 

There’s no better cure for helplessness, hopelessness, and defeatism than struggle. And I don’t mean typical work in Washington’s nonprofit industrial complex. I mean passionate all-out devotion to a moral cause that is going to change the world. Salmon Oliver Levinson, of whom few have heard today, got a handful of friends together and hatched a plan to outlaw war, and then did it. That should inspire us. It should also bring us to understand that we owe it to our predecessors to make good use of what they accomplished. 

BL: The Kellogg-Briand Pact, which was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1929 by a vote of 85 to 1, is still on the books as part of the supreme law of the United States. The Pact clearly condemns war and renounces war as an instrument of national policy, and resolves that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means. But does it really say that war is illegal? Even the declaration of war again Nazi Germany?  

DS: No reservations were made to the treaty by the U.S. Senate, but the Senate did pass an interpretive statement. Secretary of State 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 all 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 only “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—and this is the difficult one to grasp—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 war against Japan on behalf of China, as detailed in my earlier book War Is A Lie.  

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.