On Aug. 27, 1928, the United States, France, Germany and many other nations formally renounced war forever.
After the horrors of World War I, most Western nations had decided that anything was better than another conflict and increasingly their diplomacy was directed toward preventing another war at all costs. In 1927, 10 years after America's historic entry into World War I, Aristad Briand, the French foreign minister, sent a draft treaty to Frank B. Kellogg, the American secretary of state. The treaty called for both nations to formally renounce war as an instrument of national policy.
Kellogg sat on the proposal for several months before finally responding to Briand in early 1928. Instead of a bi-lateral agreement, Kellogg suggested a multinational treaty in which many nations could formally reject the option of war.
Kellogg and Briand met in Paris in August to sign what came to be known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Amid fanfare and celebrations, 15 nations from across the globe signed alongside the French and the Americans, and many more would soon add themselves to the agreement. Among the signatories were Germany, Japan and Italy — the future Axis powers.
The treaty was not without its controversial points, however. Though the text did not explicitly say so, it was understood that each nation reserved the right to fight a defensive war against an aggressor nation. This led to some discussion about whether definitions of “defensive” or “aggressive” war should be included in the text.
Appearing before the United States Senate, Kellogg justified the reasons for not including such definitions: “A nation claiming to act in self-defense must justify itself before the bar of world opinion as well as before the signatories of the treaty. For that reason I declined to place in the treaty a definition of aggressive or of self-defense because I believed that no comprehensive legalistic definition could be framed in advance. ... This would make it more difficult rather than less difficult for an aggressor nation to prove its innocence.”
Most senators were not impressed with Kellogg's reasoning, and it's easy to see why. Essentially, any future war would be judged not by strict legal definitions, but by arbitrary factors that could be swayed by one side or the other. The door was open to what today we call “spin.”
Nevertheless, the United States Senate approved the treaty 85-1. Not having joined the League of Nations after World War I, the United States saw this independent treaty as a good way to maintain the status quo and prevent wars, without committing the United States military to future overseas adventures.
Therein lay the weakness and the failure of the Kellogg-Briand Pact. A treaty designed to keep the peace must rest upon the strength of the adherents and the willingness to use force to enforce it. The blurry legal definitions of what constituted “defensive” and “aggressive” war also contributed to its failure. A treaty that can be interpreted to mean anything, in the end means nothing.
In his book "Diplomacy," Henry Kissinger, the former United States secretary of state, wrote: “The ineffectual Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 ... showed the limits of exclusively legal restraints. As Hitler was to demonstrate, in the world of diplomacy, a loaded gun is often more potent than a legal brief.”
In 1938 when Hitler threatened war over Austria and Czechoslovakia, he claimed he was acting in defense of the ethnic Germans in the regions. He had little fear Britain and France, once confronted with the specter of a new war, would stand up to him. Despite the Kellogg-Briand Pact, Hitler had no doubt that the United States wouldn’t do much beyond a diplomatic protest when he invaded Poland in 1939, thus starting World War II.
As historian Carroll Quigley wrote in his book “Tragedy & Hope: A History of the World in Our Time,” “The Kellogg-Briand Pact took one of the first steps toward destroying the legal distinction between war and peace, since the Powers, having renounced the use of war, began to wage wars without declaring them, as was done by Japan in China in 1937, by Italy in Spain in 1936-1939, and by everyone in Korea in 1950.”
Though the treaty was undertaken with the best of intentions, the Kellogg-Briand Pact rested upon a foundation of false conclusions, unwarranted idealism and general naivete. In its sweeping declaration of the renunciation of war, it actually gave the Western powers an unfounded sense of security even as they let their ability to defend themselves stagnate. It empowered aggressors like Hitler and Mussolini, who played upon the Western desire to avoid war, to get what they wanted.
Far from preventing war, the Kellogg-Briand Pact helped to make World War II inevitable.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the codeveloper of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org