More than twenty Americans have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Some of those winners are well-known historical figures: Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama to name the most obvious. Other winners were famous in their day but now are only remembered by their descendants and historians. Frank B. Kellogg, Calvin Coolidge’s secretary of state, falls into this latter category. He won the Nobel peace prize for negotiating a treaty that he didn’t much like and tried desperately to avoid. But on August 27, 1928, fifteen nations met in Paris to sign the Kellogg-Briand Pact, “providing for the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy.”
Over eighty years of hindsight makes it easy to mock the Kellogg-Briand Pact. But while the treaty embodied lofty idealism—or if you prefer, rank foolishness— it was the product of Realpolitik and cynical political calculations. To understand why requires knowing a bit about French strategic thinking and American public opinion in the 1920s.
French leaders were consumed with the possibility of repeating the agony of World War I. More than a million French soldiers had died in the war that showed the truly devastating capabilities of modern technology. Paris’s solution to its predicament came straight out of the Realpolitik handbook: it constructed a defensive alliance aimed at Germany.
In the United States, meanwhile, many Americans had become disillusioned with Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter World War I. They were searching for alternatives to power politics, and many had come to believe that the solution to the scourge of war lay in the universal renunciation of its practice. Activists like Chicago lawyer Salmon Levinson, who created the American Committee for the Outlawry of War, Columbia University president Nicholas M. Butler, and Columbia University professor James T. Shotwell helped popularize and legitimize the idea.
Shotwell eventually persuaded French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand to champion the idea of outlawing war. On April 6, 1927, exactly ten years after the United States entered World War I, Briand wrote a public letter, which the Associated Press distributed in the United States, to invite Washington to join with Paris in “any mutual engagement tending, as between those two countries, to ‘outlaw war,’ to use an American phrase.” Briand’s appeal carried a special weight. He had won the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Locarno Treaty of 1925, which resolved Germany’s western boundary issues and eventually allowed it to enter the League of Nations.
Briand’s offer thrilled pacifist-minded Americans. However, he not made it in a fit of high-mindedness. Instead, he made it because it served France’s strategic needs. Paris worried that in a future war with Germany that Washington might insist, to the point of going to war, that France respect the rights of neutral countries. However, if the United States renounced war in its dealings with France, then Paris could run roughshod over neutral rights and not have to worry that Washington might intervene militarily. In that sense, Briand’s offer was a way to sideline the United States should France go to war.
Kellogg understood immediately what Briand was trying to accomplish and wanted nothing to do with the offer. His also understood and did not like the fact that Briand had made his offer publicly in a clear bid to energize U.S. peace groups and thereby box in the Coolidge administration. The lobbying was immediate and intense. Major news papers like the New York Times hailed the idea. Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic to Paris in May added to the sense of Franco-American good feeling. Within weeks petitions calling on the Coolidge administration to take up Briand’s offer had garnered more than two million signatures.
Kellogg did what any sensible diplomat does when faced with unrelenting public pressure to do something: he agreed to talk. The French formally presented a draft of the proposed “Pact of Perpetual Friendship.” Kellogg then did what any savvy diplomat does when dragged to the bargaining table against his will: he stalled.
Kellogg caught a break in December 1927 when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee informed him that it favored a general treaty outlawing war over a simple bilateral treaty. Kellogg now made Briand a new offer: France and the United States should jointly invite all countries to sign their pact renouncing war. By making the invitation universal Kellogg had rendered it largely ineffective, more a toy handcuff than an iron manacle.
Briand wasn’t happy to have been one-upped, and he tried to wriggle out of the trap Kellogg had set for him. But his options were limited. Having won a Nobel Peace Prize and having championed a bilateral treaty renouncing war, he hardly was in a position to argue against a universal ban on war. He was left with making the best of a bad situation—Paris would serve as the site for the historic meeting to renounce war.
The U.S. Senate voted on January 15, 1929 to approve the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Few senators had any illusions that the treaty would change the rough-and-tumble conduct of world politics. They knew it was the international equivalent of an air kiss. That same day they also voted to fund the construction of fifteen new warships.
More than sixty countries, including Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union, eventually added their signatures to those of the original fifteen signatories. Despite the solemn oaths provided by all these countries, the Kellogg-Briand Treaty never stopped any wars. Eleven years later after the Paris signing, World War II had begun. An estimated forty-eight million people died.