The Kellogg-Briand Pact: War Outlawed

Peace symbol buttons from 1970 calling for a referendum vote on the Vietnam War
Vietnam War Referendum Vote Buttons. The Frent Collection / Getty Images

In the realm of international peacekeeping agreements, the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 stands out for its stunningly simple, if unlikely solution: outlaw war.

Sometimes called the Pact of Paris for the city in which it was signed, the Kellogg-Briand Pact was an agreement in which the signatory nations promised never again to declare or take part in war as a method of resolving “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them.” The pact was to be enforced by the understanding that states failing to keep the promise “should be denied of the benefits furnished by this treaty.”

The Kellogg-Briand Pact was initially signed by France, Germany, and the United States on August 27, 1928, and soon by several other nations. The pact officially went into effect on July 24, 1929.

During the 1930s, elements of the pact formed the basis of isolationist policy in America. Today, other treaties, as well as the Charter of the United Nations, include similar renunciations of war. The pact is named after its primary authors, U.S. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg and French foreign minister Aristide Briand.

To a great extent, the creation of the Kellogg-Briand Pact was driven by popular post-World War I peace movements in the United States and France.

The U.S. Peace Movement

The horrors of World War I drove a majority of the American people and government officials to advocate for isolationist policies intended to make sure the nation would never again be drawn into foreign wars.

Some of those policies focused on international disarmament, including the recommendations of a series of naval disarmament conferences held in Washington, D.C., during 1921. Others focused on U.S. cooperation with multinational peacekeeping coalitions like the League of Nations and the newly formed World Court, now recognized as the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial branch of the United Nations.

American peace advocates Nicholas Murray Butler and James T. Shotwell started a movement dedicated to the total prohibition of war. Butler and Shotwell soon affiliated their movement with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an organization dedicated to promoting peace through internationalism, established in 1910 by famed American industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

The Role of France

Especially hard hit by World War I, France sought friendly international alliances to help bolster its defenses against continued threats from its next-door neighbor Germany. With the influence and help of American peace advocates Butler and Shotwell, French Minister of Foreign Affairs Aristide Briand proposed a formal agreement outlawing war between France and the United States only.

While the American peace movement supported Briand’s idea, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge and many members of his Cabinet, including Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg, worried that such a limited bilateral agreement might obligate the United States to become involved should France ever be threatened or invaded. Instead, the Coolidge and Kellogg suggested that France and the United States encourage all nations to join them in a treaty outlawing war.

Creating the Kellogg-Briand Pact

With the wounds of World War I still healing in so many nations, the international community and the public in general readily accepted the idea of banning war.

During negotiations held Paris, the participants agreed that only wars of aggression – not acts of self-defense – would be outlawed by the pact. With this critical agreement, many nations withdrew their initial objections to signing the pact.

The final version of the pact contained two agreed upon clauses:

  • All signatory nations agreed to outlaw war as an instrument of their national policy.
  • All signatory nations agreed to settle their disputes only by peaceful means.

Fifteen nations signed the pact on August 27, 1928. These initial signatories included France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Belgium, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, and Japan.

After 47 addition nations followed suit, most of the world’s established governments had signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact.

In January 1929, the United States Senate approved President Coolidge’s ratification of the pact by a vote of 85-1, with only Wisconsin Republican John J. Blaine voting against. Before passage, the Senate added a measure specifying that the treaty did not limit the United States' right to defend itself and did not obligate the United States to take any action against nations that violated it.

The Mukden Incident Tests the Pact

Whether because of the Kellogg-Briand Pact or not, peace reigned for four years. But in 1931, the Mukden Incident led Japan to invade and occupy Manchuria, then a northeastern province of China.

The Mukden Incident began on September 18, 1931, when a lieutenant in the Kwangtung Army, a part of the Imperial Japanese Army, detonated a small charge of dynamite on a Japanese-owned railway near Mukden. While the explosion caused little if any damage, the Imperial Japanese Army falsely blamed it on Chinese dissidents and used it as justification for invading Manchuria.

Although Japan had signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, neither the United States nor the League of Nations took any action to enforce it. At the time, the United States was consumed by the Great Depression. Other nations of the League of Nations, facing their own economic problems, were reluctant to spend money on a war to preserve China’s independence. After Japan’s ruse of war was exposed in 1932, the country went into a period if isolationism, ending with its withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933.

Legacy of the Kellogg-Briand Pact

Further violations of the pact by signatory nations would soon follow the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935 and the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. In 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany invaded Finland and Poland.

Such incursions made it clear that the pact could not and would not be enforced. By failing to clearly define “self-defense,” the pact allowed too many ways to justify warfare.

Perceived or implied threats were too often claimed as justification for invasion.

While it was mentioned at the time, the pact failed to prevent World War II or any of the wars that have come since.

Still in force today, the Kellogg-Briand Pact remains at the heart of the UN Charter and embodies the ideals of advocates for lasting world peace during the interwar period. In 1929, Frank Kellogg was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the pact.