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Lessons of the Kellogg-Briand pact - half a century later

On Aug. 27 the United States will ignore the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Pact of Paris, known familiarly to students of American diplomatic history as the Kellogg-Briand Treaty.

An outgrowth of the strong world peace movement during the 1920s, the agreement outlawed war in no uncertain terms:

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''The High Contracting Parties solemnly declare in the names of their respective peoples that they condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.''

That the treaty proved ineffective can be inferred from a casual reading of the list of 15 initial signatories, incuding the US, Germany, France, Japan, Great Britain, and other prominent participants in the war that erupted just over a decade later.

Yet the treaty ought not be forgotten or referred to condescendingly from the comfortable hindsight of half a century. It ought to be remembered because it is an important, shameful symbol of how people can be gulled by risk-free answers to problems whose solutions may be partial and painful at best.

Optimism was rampant at the time of the signing ceremonies. In a sermon at Washington's National Cathedral it was noted that ''for the first time in the history of mankind the great principle of universal peace is written into a document which governs the action of nations.'' Churches in the United Kingdom celebrated ''Peace-Treaty Sunday'' and one ebullient vicar referred to the pact as ''the greatest moral and spiritual adventure in the history of the human race.'' Sentiment was so favorable that the treaty was approved by the US Senate by an avalanche vote of 85 to 1.

There were skeptics, but their criticism and concern were muted. One US senator described the pact as ''worthless, but perfectly harmless.'' A major newspaper editorialized that ''if the treaty does represent the actual longings of great multitudes throughout the earth, it will not be necessary to inquire too nicely what are its exact legal implications.''

Perhaps the skeptics should have been more outspoken and less tolerant in their objections, for it may be that the treaty was significantly less than harmless. As one historian noted: ''The Kellogg-Briand Pact proved to be a monument to illusion. It was not only delusive but dangerous, for it further lulled the public . . . into a false sense of security.''

It is somewhat startling to learn that the treaty is still a valid international document, despite World War II, the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts, the African wars, and the interminable Middle East struggles. Both Iran and Iraq are listed among the 64 current signatories.

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Today a number of Americans again appear drawn to cotton-candy approaches to world problems which understandably overwhelm their sensibilities. Summertime marches to the cadence of shrill antiwar slogans. Sit-ins at military bases which provide a forum for instant, painless TV martyrdom, those being dragged off generally managing to be home in time to witness their ''arrests'' on the evening news.

Whether viewed as sincere efforts to avoid mass destruction or as some form of communal guilt massage, these activities must neither be applauded nor dismissed as harmless. They are dangerous because they deflect us from the less pleasant and more complicated tasks of confrontation and accommodation with our adversaries in an effort to reduce and confine the prospects for conflict.

The avoidance of wars and mass destruction will not come from 64 signatures on a treaty or from 64 treaties, no matter how eloquent the text or elegant the signing ceremony. It certainly will not come from one or many demonstrations no matter how intense the strumming of the guitars or how wishful the thinking.

If we are to succeed in blunting the knife point of potential disaster, it will require sacrifices rather than gestures: personal and national in nature, hackneyed as well as grandiose in concept, and immediate and long-term in execution.

A willingness to allocate a portion of our wealth to help others generate theirs. A sensibility to the fears and desires of our enemies as well as of our friends. And a determination to stand fast against encroachments upon the goals of freedom and justice for every human being. These are the ideals which must be realized if the world is to find its way to a permanent peace.

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