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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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BL: The success of the peace movement in the 1920s in getting politicians to enact a law that renounces war as an instrument of national policy, and for this law then not to be taken seriously reminds me of when the Cherokee People won a great victory in the U.S. Supreme Court with respect to their stolen lands; and then Andrew Jackson, president at that time, ignored the Supreme Court ruling with blatant contempt by stating about the Supreme Court Justices, “They have made their decision, now let them enforce it.” Could it be Americans’ karma—because most of us have never really taken seriously illegalities perpetrated against Native Americans and other oppressed peoples—to “win the law” but have no power to enforce it?  

DS: Well, of course, I don’t actually believe in Karma any more than in trickledown economics, the Invisible Hand, or humanitarian war, and I’m not inclined to suffer injustices because dead people who looked like me committed others. But this is a crucial problem for us to face: just as liberty requires eternal vigilance, the enforcement of any law, especially against those with power, requires eternal vigilance. We have a sad history of not domestically criminalizing the violation of international treaties, and not prosecuting powerful people for crimes. What’s needed is cultural pressure. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that just because the Constitution says habeas corpus cannot be taken from you does not mean you ever had it. President Obama has put in place policies that pretty well establish that you don’t have it anymore. That line in the Constitution was not poorly written. Our nation, over two centuries later, is poorly run—by us. 

BL: Most historians say that the primary reason for the failure of the Kellogg-Briand Pact to prevent wars was that the treaty provided no means of enforcement or sanctions against parties who violated its provisions, and it did not effectively close the loopholes regarding self-defense and as to when self-defense could lawfully be claimed. Is that your take on the failure of Kellog-Briand? In concrete terms, has the Pact done any good? Some historians argue that the peace movement should have focused more on getting the U.S. to join the League of Nations—do you disagree? 

DS: The U.N. Charter leaves a giant loophole for defensive war, as well as one for any war authorized by the U.N. The Kellogg-Briand Pact does not. This is why Kellogg-Briand is stronger. A court to resolve disputes by pacific means and to prosecute war makers was never established and still needs to be. The World Court of the League of Nations, like today’s International Criminal Court of the United Nations, did not fit the bill. Joining the League of Nations, without transforming it radically, would have brought the United States into World War II more quickly, but would not have prevented it. What might have prevented it, would have been punishing war makers after World War I instead of punishing the entire nation of Germany, promoting and funding peaceful parties in Germany rather than Nazis, negotiating arms reductions rather than launching an arms race, and investing in the study of nonviolent dispute resolution instead of in eugenics and chemical warfare. 

BL: In When the World Outlawed Law, you talk about the importance of the Republican Senator from Idaho, William Borah, who replaced Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge as Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Lodge had promoted the Spanish American War as well as World War I, and supported a massive build-up of the Navy. However, when Lodge died in 1924, Borah, a major opponent of imperialism and militarism, became Chair of Foreign Relations. You mention that, with regards to foreign policy, the international isolationist Borah was similar to Ron Paul. With regard to domestic policies, there were some things about Borah, like Paul, that made him unappealing to progressives. Today, there are many progressives who loathe some of Paul’s domestic agendas so much that they cannot conceive of forming a coalition with him when it comes to anti-militarism. What’s your take on that, given Borah’s importance in getting the Kellogg-Briand Pact through the Senate?