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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. 

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. 

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. 

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? 

DS: One of the strengths of the 1920s peace movement was that it did not put the same emphasis on individual leaders that we do today. People were Outlawrists, not Borahists. Today there are Libertarians, but there are also self-identified Ron Paulers. This makes it harder. But the peace movement of the late 1920s succeeded only when the internationalists and the isolationists came together behind Outlawry and Kellog-Briand. This meant working in alliance with people who disagreed on many things. The leaders of the peace movement included the leaders for and against the prohibition of alcohol. We have to be willing to work on causes with people we have disagreements with on other causes. But “Who’s the lesser evil, Obama or Paul?” is the wrong question. The right question is “How will we come together to eliminate war and injustice from the face of the earth?” 

 
Bruce E. Levine is a clinical psychologist and author of Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite  (Chelsea Green, 2011). His Web site is www.brucelevine.net.