When War Was Declared Illegal: The Kellogg-Briand Pact

The word "war" crossed out, signifying attempts to make war illegal

By Joanne Dufour

Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro begin their book The Internationalists with the following description of the historic event on August 27, 1928: “On that day, crowds gathered outside the Quai d’Orsay to watch the world leaders arrive at the Clock Room in the immense Foreign Ministry in Paris, France. Onlookers stood everywhere they could. The streets were jammed with cheering supporters on sidewalks, tops of taxis, rooftops, flagpoles, streetlamps.” The crowds were there because of over-a-decade-long advocacy by millions around the world calling for peace. The entire ceremony took less than an hour. At 3:57pm a Swiss Guard banged his halberd on the floor, the cameras stopped rolling, and, for the first time in the history of the world, war was declared illegal.

The calls for peace began with the start of World War I in 1914 and grew over the course of the war according to David Swanson in his book When the World Outlawed War. It is no exaggeration to say that where there had been relatively few peace schemes before the first World War, there now were hundreds and even thousands in Europe and the U.S. The decade following the war was a decade of searching for peace: “Peace echoed through so many sermons, speeches and state papers that it drove itself into the consciousness of everyone. Never in world history was peace so great a desideratum, so much talked about, looked towards and planned for, as in the decade after the 1918 Armistice. This was the case in Europe perhaps even more than in the U.S. Pacifism came to dominate trade unions, political parties and peace organizations."

As Swanson details, the years following the end of the war saw the founding of such organizations as the Carnegie Endowment, the American Friends Service Committee, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Association for Peace Education, Friends General Conference, War Resistors International, War Resistors’ League, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Women’s Peace Society, World Peace Association… to name a few. In the 1920s as women gained the right to vote in the U.S., so did their participation in the anti-war movement grow. Hathaway and Shapiro show how over the course of the 1920s the peace movement began to consider the creation of a treaty which outlawed war. In the United States, Secretary of State Frank Kellogg—who proposed the text of, campaigned for, and signed the treaty, and who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929—and Salmon Oliver Levinson—author, pacifist, and originator of the concept of “outlawing war”—rose into positions of leadership. Kellogg was recognized as the American author of the Treaty. Leadership in Europe was supplied by Aristide Briand, Minister of Foreign Affairs in France; he had won the Nobel prize in 1926 for brokering the Locarno Treaties, an interlocking set of agreements assigned to prevent the major European powers from waging war with each other.

This treaty was signed by world leaders from Germany, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom acting for Ministers from Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and by plenipotentiaries from Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Irish Free State, India, Italy, Japan, and Poland. So what did it actually say? The main provisions of the treaty included three major articles, though the first two alone were essentially referred to as the Peace Pact as time went on.


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.


The High Contracting Parties agree that the settlement or solution of all disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them, shall never be sought except by pacific means.


The present Treaty shall be ratified by the High Contracting Parties named in the Preamble in accordance with their respective constitutional requirement, and shall take effect as between them as soon as all their several instruments of ratification shall have been deposited at Washington.

This Treaty shall, when it has come into effect as prescribed in the preceding paragraph, remain open as long as it may be necessary for adherence by all the other Powers of the world. Every instrument evidencing the adherence of a Power shall be deposited at Washington and the Treaty shall immediately upon such deposit become effective as; between the Power thus adhering and the other Powers parties hereto. …

DONE at Paris, the twenty seventh day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and twenty-eight.

As things turned out, this Kellogg-Briand Treaty was the most successful one ever signed at that time, the most quickly ratified in history with 63 signatories. Aristide Briand, the French foreign Minister, was the master of ceremonies. Hathaway and Shapiro quote Briand’s declaration that the treaty’s passage “marks a new date in the history of mankind” and the end of “selfish and willful warfare.” From this moment, “The nations of the world will no longer treat war as a lawful means to resolve disputes.” The treaty will attack “the evil at its very root” by depriving war of “its legitimacy.” His words were met with extensive applause. Tears ran down Kellogg’s cheeks.

Yet today, the Kellogg-Briand Pact is largely forgotten. Few people have ever heard of it. Most historians ignored it. Yet in The Internationalists, the authors pose the thesis that it should still be applauded. The Peace Pact, as it came to be known, quite plainly did not create world peace. Yet its passage was among the most transformative events of human history, one that has ultimately made our world far more peaceful. It did not end war between states, but it marked the beginning of the end, and with it the replacement of one international order with another: one that began to recognize international law. It ushered the creation of over 2,800 volumes of treaties and bilateral and multilateral agreements, which have helped resolve or prevent conflict, and introduced the concept of cooperation in a wide range of areas from coffee growing to tax collection.

While the Old World Order accepted and promoted war as the method of creating peace—with its rules governing conquest, criminal liability, gunboat diplomacy, and neutrality—the New World Order has rules for all these concepts too, except they are precisely the opposite. In the New World Order, aggressive wars are illegal and because they are illegal, states no longer have the right to conquer other states; waging an aggressive war is a grave crime; gunboat diplomacy is no longer legitimate, and economic sanctions are not only legal, but the standard way in which international law is enforced. While the end of WWI saw leaders allowed to live on with impunity and no evaluation of their war crimes, the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials at the end of World War II held leadership accountable for their acts. The pact was cited in the opening remarks of the prosecution. Since war was now considered illegal, leaders were held accountable for their war crimes and faced the firing squad. From The Internationalists: “Axis leaders could no longer find protection in the laws of war. The Kellogg-Briand Pact changed all that. When the great powers signed that agreement in 1928 announcing war as an instrument of national policy, war in that instant became an act of outlawry, a crime against society, against the whole human family.” The provisions of the International Criminal Court in 2002 was a further step into the future of holding individuals accountable for their war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression, facing lifelong imprisonment if found guilty. And why the majority of nations have not accepted Israel’s annexation of the “occupied territories” of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights as a result of the 1967 war, or Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014, is because of the Kellogg-Briand Treaty’s legacy.

By 1934 the following countries had become parties to the Pact (their names are printed as they were in 1934; italics indicate original signatories): Afghanistan, Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Danzig, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Estonia, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Hejaz, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, India, Iraq, Irish Free State, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liberia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Persia, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Siam, South Africa, Soviet Union, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States of America, Venezuela, and Yugoslavia. Barbados joined in 1971, Antilles and Aruba in 1986, the Commonwealth of Dominica in 1988, and Bosnia & Herzegovina in 1994.

As the drums of war began to sound in Germany with the election of Chancellor Adolph Hitler and the invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland, in time, the quest for peace began again. In documents like the Atlantic Charter as well as the Charter of the United Nations, reference to the Peace Pact—again, another name for the Kellogg-Briand Pact—emerged. The first section of the first draft of the UN Charter repeated the Peace Pact almost verbatim.

Though nine decades have expired, Secretary Kellogg, French Minister of State Briand, and those many who supported their efforts deserve recognition: that their simple message has changed the world and that it needs continuous support and repetition. The call for ratification of the new Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons of 2017 is the most recent voice with the same essential message. It will just require the same kind of support among the peoples of the world as dominated the public in the 1920s. If you lend your voice to this message, it can happen.