David Swanson discusses his book about the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact and how it makes current wars illegal
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. David Swanson is a prolific author and activist and organizer, and his latest book is When the World Outlawed War. So you will say to yourself, when did the world outlaw war? I know of no such moment. Well, actually, apparently there is. So now joining us is David Swanson, the author of the book When the World Outlawed War. Thanks for joining us.
DAVID SWANSON, AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST: Great to be here.
JAY: So when did the world outlaw war?
SWANSON: In 1928, in a treaty signed by dozens of nations around the world, 60-some nations, ratified by the US Senate in January 1929 by a vote of 85 to 1–and the one poor individual who voted the wrong way was censured by the state legislature up in Wisconsin. There was a universal understanding in early 1929 that war had been made a crime.
JAY: So give us the context. How does this come about, and who’s behind it, and what’s the wording of this?
SWANSON: Between 1918 and 1928, from the end of World War I until the creation of this treaty, called the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which is on the books on the State Department’s website, the law of the land in this country, and adhered to by countries around the world–including Iran, by the way, which originally signed it as Persia. This happened after a decade of relentless peace activism, peace activism that was absolutely mainstream, funded by robber barons like Andrew Carnegie, peace movement organizations that had profited from World War I from the manufacture of steel, led by university professors and lawyers and Republican senators. It was a movement that was an uncomfortably large coalition that brought together people who disagreed on everything else except peace, and it was a movement that suffered defeat after defeat after defeat for ten years–arms negotiations that resulted in more arms, the League of Nations defeated, the World Court membership defeated in this country, and just relentlessly people pressed on, including, notably, women, who could now vote and were a factor in this country.
JAY: And what did the agreement say?
SWANSON: It said that these–the parties signing this treaty, the Kellogg-Briand pact, which was signed in a huge ceremony in August 28 in Paris, France, will renounce war as an instrument of national policy and will settle disputes only by pacific means. And this was very intentionally worded to eliminate war as a tool in any instance. So this–they very carefully did not say, we are banning aggressive war or the bad wars or the nonhumanitarian wars. This was not an alliance of nations to use war to prevent war, which is how many saw the League of Nations, which was blocked not just by ignorant isolationists but by people who didn’t want to use war to prevent war, didn’t want a treaty that said, we’ll go to war with you if you start a war. They wanted to avoid the course we’ve gone down with NATO and the United Nations. They wanted to eliminate war, set up a body of laws, set up a World Court, and deal with war as a crime.
JAY: So this is is passed, signed by United States and all of the European countries?
SWANSON: Absolutely, and countries around the world.
JAY: And ratified in the United States.
JAY: Which makes it American law.
SWANSON: Yes, under Article 6.
JAY: And then we–then what is it? Twelve years later we’re in World War II. And not too many years before that is the Spanish Civil War. So what happens to this agreement?
SWANSON: Well, the agreement is put on the books in 1929 and some wars are prevented. Russia is told, what are you doing going into Manchuria? Don’t you know about the Kellogg-Briand Pact? And they back out. And the same thing happens again with Japan. But eventually wars start, despite the existence of this treaty, which–you know, Italy goes into Ethiopia, Germany and Russia going into Poland, and so forth. War comes. Much more was done in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s to provoke war and to prepare for war. At the same time that they were banning war, they were building more weaponry for war.
JAY: Was there ever a formal pronouncing? For example, when Hitler backs Franco in Spain, which is not too many years after this is signed, or even more directly when Hitler invades Poland, does Germany ever actually formally renounce this? Or everyone just ignores the agreement?
SWANSON: No one renounces the treaty. No one repeals it, withdraws from it. It remains on the books to this day. You can find it on the US State Department’s website with the list of adhering nations, some of them relatively recently adhering nations. But the vast majority of the world is party to this treaty, which under Article 6 of the US Constitution is the supreme law of the land.
JAY: Now, after World War II, even though everybody more or less ignored the agreement, all of a sudden somebody dusts it off and brings it out to use against Nazi war criminals. And so what’s that about?
SWANSON: It was largely forgotten by then. But there was concern about how to prosecute, how to engage in this victor’s justice at the end of World War II, to go after the Nazis in particular. And there was a lawyer in New York who communicated with President Roosevelt and said, look, here’s the way to do it. The war itself is a crime, and so any of the actions engaged in by participants in the war are automatically crimes under domestic laws in each country. And the way you do that is to pull out the Kellogg-Briand Pact and say this wasn’t just a piece of paper. And so Nazis were prosecuted, including diplomats who threatened war on nations that preemptively surrendered, where no war was engaged in, including industrialists who backed war. Germans were prosecuted under the Kellogg-Briand pact for the crime of making war, which at the end of World War I was not a crime.
JAY: Well, if it didn’t distinguish between aggressive and other forms of war, wouldn’t all the countries involved in World War II be subject to the same thing, then?
SWANSON: Yes. Well, this was a–
JAY: This is victor’s justice too.
SWANSON: –this was an ironic and perverted reading of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, as it was revived at the end of World War II, to create the crime of aggressive war–ironically, because the Kellogg-Briand Pact had been written and enacted specifically to avoid creating a crime called aggressive war, by people who wanted to treat all war as a crime.
JAY: So then we get to the UN Charter and the writing of the UN Charter. How much does this agreement influence the writing of the charter, which really creates the more modern codification of what’s supposed to be legal and illegal in warfare?
SWANSON: Well, the Kellogg-Briand Pact was the predecessor. This was what had made it possible to say to nations, beginning in 1930, the world will not recognize gains made by war. War was no longer neutral or legal. It was a crime. Even if it was only enforced by victors and enforced selectively, it was newly a crime. And the Kellogg-Briand Pact had a great deal of influence in some of the same individuals who were involved in drafting both that and the UN Charter, but the UN Charter is flawed deeply, is not nearly as strong as the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The UN Charter allows wars authorized by the United Nations, and it allows wars that are defensive. Those are two very big loopholes, as you know, that allow the current practice of attacking impoverished unarmed nations halfway around the globe in defence or under the pretense that the UN authorized that action, even if the UN says, no we didn’t.
JAY: If the Kellogg-Briand Pact is now US law, and the invasion of Iraq was not authorized by the United Nations, and Kofi Annan, you know, a year or two after the end of the war, called it an illegal war, that means that there is a law one could charge George Bush and Dick Cheney under, ’cause there’s been some question about what could you really charge them with, even if they didn’t–. You know, if there was some deception in how the war began, exactly what would you charge them under? But there is an American law they could be charged under, then.
SWANSON: Well, they could be charged with dozens of things, including defrauding the Congress, including lying to the Congress, including all variety of war crimes and atrocities engaged in. And certainly even under the UN Charter that was an illegal war. But under the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which has a much higher standard, any of these wars are illegal wars. All wars are illegal wars. There is no such thing as a legal war.
JAY: But if you’re going to try to charge them just under the UN Charter, it’s much more difficult than charging them under domestic law in the United States. And you’re saying there is a domestic law they could be charged under.
SWANSON: Well, I’m saying that there is a treaty that under Article 6 of our Constitution, like the UN Charter, the Kellogg-Briand Pact is considered the supreme law of the land, and that it is standard practice and is the requirement when you adhere to a treaty that you institute domestic law to enforce that treaty. And that ought to be done. But the people who put this on the books in 1928 expected this to be the work of generations. They expected this to be a movement of changing the culture morally. They didn’t think, we’re going to put a law on the books and end war the next day. And I don’t think that’s about to happen next week. I think making people aware of the thinking that put this on the books and the fact that it’s there is going to be a step that moves us in the direction of eventually getting a real court–not like the International Criminal Court that’s a creature of the UN, just as the World Court back then was a creature of the League of Nations, but a real court and a real standard of treating war as a crime. It’s–we have a long way to go. But when people want to give corporations rights, they dig up marginalia on court rulings, they dig up overridden vetoes, they dig up speeches and op-eds. We have actual laws on our side. And just making people aware of that is a step in the right direction.
JAY: Thanks for joining us again. And the book, again, is When the World Outlawed War by David Swanson. And thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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