The New Yorker:
On August 27, 1928, in Paris, with due pomp and circumstance, representatives of fifteen nations signed an agreement outlawing war. The agreement was the unanticipated fruit of an attempt by the French Foreign Minister, Aristide Briand, to negotiate a bilateral treaty with the United States in which each nation would renounce the use of war as an instrument of policy toward the other. The American Secretary of State, Frank Kellogg, had been unenthusiastic about Briand’s idea. He saw no prospect of going to war with France and therefore no point in promising not to, and he suspected that the proposal was a gimmick designed to commit the United States to intervening on France’s behalf if Germany attacked it (as Germany did in 1914). After some delay and in response to public pressure, Kellogg told Briand that his idea sounded great. Who wouldn’t want to renounce war? But why not make the treaty multilateral, and have it signed by “all the principal powers of the world”? Everyone would renounce the use of war as an instrument of policy.
Kellogg figured that he had Briand outfoxed. France had mutual defense treaties with many European states, and it could hardly honor those treaties if it agreed to renounce war altogether. But the agreement was eventually worded in a way that left sufficient interpretive latitude for Briand and other statesmen to see their way clear to signing it, and the result was the General Treaty for the Renunciation of War, also known as the Paris Peace Pact or the Kellogg-Briand Pact. By 1934, sixty-three countries had joined the Pact—virtually every established nation on earth at the time.
The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, gets bad press. It imposed punitive conditions on Germany after the First World War and is often blamed for the rise of Hitler. The Kellogg-Briand Pact does not get bad press. It gets no press. That’s because the treaty went into effect on July 24, 1929, after which the following occurred: Japan invaded Manchuria (1931); Italy invaded Ethiopia (1935); Japan invaded China (1937); Germany invaded Poland (1939); the Soviet Union invaded Finland (1939); Germany invaded Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France and attacked Great Britain (1940); and Japan attacked the United States (1941), culminating in a global war that produced the atomic bomb and more than sixty million deaths. A piece of paper signed in Paris does not seem to have presented an obstacle to citizens of one country engaging in the organized slaughter of the citizens of other countries.
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