On the Multilateral (Kellogg-Briand) Pact Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Kellogg-Briand Pact, also known as the Pact of Paris (and referred to here simply as the “multilateral pact”), was one of many multinational agreements intended to outlaw war and prevent another conflict like World War I. The pact was initially proposed as a bilateral agreement between France and the United States and signaled a new willingness on the part of the United States to involve itself (peacefully) in international affairs. Wary of continuing unrest in Europe, the United States had declined to join the League of Nations at the end of World War I, instead entering a period of isolationism. The Kellogg-Briand Pact was a sign to the world that the nation was cautiously ready to engage in a more activist foreign policy aimed at the avoidance of armed conflict.

Summary Overview

The Kellogg-Briand Pact, also known as the Pact of Paris (and referred to here simply as the “multilateral pact”), was one of many multinational agreements intended to outlaw war and prevent another conflict like World War I. The pact was initially proposed as a bilateral agreement between France and the United States and signaled a new willingness on the part of the United States to involve itself (peacefully) in international affairs. Wary of continuing unrest in Europe, the United States had declined to join the League of Nations at the end of World War I, instead entering a period of isolationism. The Kellogg-Briand Pact was a sign to the world that the nation was cautiously ready to engage in a more activist foreign policy aimed at the avoidance of armed conflict.

In this speech, delivered at the Williamstown Institute of Politics at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Yale law professor Edwin Borchard argued that rather than being the simple, idealist statement it should have been, the Kellogg-Briand Pact contained so many qualifications and exceptions as to render it ineffective. Borchard’s concerns were validated when the pact failed to prevent the rising aggression in Europe in the 1930s that culminated in World War II.

Defining Moment

The Kellogg-Briand Pact began with an open letter from the French minister of foreign affairs, Aristide Briand, to the United States, published on April 6, 1927–the tenth anniversary of the US entry into World War I. France had been particularly devastated by the war and continued to be wary of ongoing insecurity in Germany; it was thus in the country’s best interest to have strong alliances. Briand proposed that the United States and France enter into an agreement to outlaw war. US secretary of state Frank B. Kellogg was reluctant to enter any agreement that might be interpreted as a defensive alliance between France and the United States, which would oblige the United States to involve itself if France were attacked. He suggested instead that the two countries invite the rest of the world to sign the pact.

The peace movement of the 1920s was roughly divided into two camps: large, well-funded organizations, such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and smaller, grassroots peace organizations. It was members of the former who encouraged Briand to write the initial letter. There was widespread public support for peace in the 1920s, as many Americans saw peace as key to prosperity at home, but there was little support for international involvement that could result in another military entanglement abroad.

The United States’ first draft of the pact, produced by Kellogg, plainly renounced war and promised to end all disputes peacefully. Almost immediately, France proposed qualifying language that changed the pact from one that would outlaw all war to one that would outlaw “all wars of aggression.” The final wording of the pact did not use this exact language, but only denounced “war as an instrument of national policy,” thereby allowing for wars defined as self-defense.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact was an idealistic document, expressing a belief in and desire for peace but offering no real consequences for breaching it, just the vague threat that “any signatory Power which shall hereafter seek to promote its national interests by resort to war should be denied the benefits furnished by this Treaty.” The nature of these benefits was also undefined. Many of the nations that ultimately signed the pact were already engaged in other treaties or fell under the auspices of the League of Nations.

Fifteen nations signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact on August 27, 1928, including Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. An additional forty-seven nations signed later, and the pact was ratified by the US Senate by an overwhelming majority of eighty-five to one. Ultimately, however, although the pact had been signed by the majority of independent nations at the time, its idealistic language did little to prevent war in the 1930s and beyond.

Author Biography

Edwin Montefiore Borchard was born on October 17, 1884, in New York City. After earning a bachelor of laws degree from New York Law School and a bachelor of arts from Columbia College, he moved to Washington, DC, where he began his law career as a librarian in the Law Library of Congress. He later earned his PhD from Columbia University.

In 1917, Borchard was hired to teach international law at Yale University, where he remained until his retirement in 1950. He was also an avid musician and, for many years, was first violinist in the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. An active campaigner against US involvement in both world wars, Borchard also represented the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in various suits and wrote several influential books, including Convicting the Innocent (1932) and Declaratory Judgments (1934, expanded from a 1918 article). He was a popular public speaker and a respected scholar. Borchard died in New Haven, Connecticut, on July 22, 1951.

Document Analysis

Borchard begins his discussion of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, then still unsigned, with a history of its original conception as a bilateral agreement between the United States and France. He asserts that in an early version of the pact, “Mr. Kellogg recommended the outright and unconditional renunciation of war and the solution of disputes by pacific means only.” Kellogg wished to produce a document that would be general and ideological enough to have some chance of being useful. He worried that adding qualifications would reduce the sweeping prohibition he wanted to a technical document that would be ultimately meaningless. Borchard quotes a letter dated February 27, 1928, in which Kellogg argued that “if governments should publicly acknowledge that they can only deal with this ideal in a technical spirit and must insist on the adoption of reservations impairing, if not utterly destroying, the true significance of their common endeavors, they would be in effect only recording their impotence.”

Borchard describes the maneuvers of various European powers to protect their interests and produce a document that they could sign in good faith. France was concerned that it would not be able to protect itself and “maintained that the treaties must be construed so as not to bar the right of legitimate defense.” The British went a step further, asking for language that would allow them to defend their empire; British foreign secretary Sir Austen Chamberlain claimed on May 19, 1928, that “there are certain regions of the world, the welfare and integrity of which constitute a special and vital interest for [Great Britain’s] peace and safety,” and “interference with these regions cannot be suffered.” The British would only sign the treaty if it were clear that “it [would] not prejudice their freedom of action in this respect.”

In Borchard’s opinion, these qualifications destroy the meaning of the pact and render it useless: “The original proposition of Mr. Kellogg was an unconditional renunciation of war. The treaty note qualified by the French and British reservations constitutes no renunciation or outlawry of war.” The pact allows for each nation “to make its own interpretation as to when self-defense is involved,” as “no specific definition of self-defense is necessarily accepted,” and, therefore, countries could theoretically justify almost any military engagement. Borchard points out that “considering these reservations, it would be difficult to conceive of any wars that nations have fought within the last century, or are likely to fight in the future, that cannot be accommodated under these exceptions.” In fact, he argues, the pact would have the opposite effect, justifying with the “stamp of legality” wars that would have otherwise been roundly condemned. Worst of all, the United States would be in a codified relationship with members of the League of Nations, which it previously declined to join, and thus would be “bound by League decisions as to ‘aggressors’ and League policy generally, but without any opportunity to take part in the deliberations leading to League conclusions.”

Borchard’s conclusion is a dismal one: “The European amendments transformed the proposal into something entirely different–into a universal sanction for war.” Though this prediction ultimately did not come to pass, the Kellogg-Briand Pact certainly did not prevent war, and the world was at war again within the decade.

Essential Themes

The primary message of this speech is Borchard’s conviction that the numerous qualifications and exceptions that European powers insisted on before signing the Kellogg-Briand Pact fundamentally changed the nature of the pact. In addition, it tied the United States to the League of Nations, in which it was not represented. The Kellogg-Briand Pact was not a sweeping denouncement of war, but rather tacit permission to wage a certain kind of war. Far from accomplishing its original purpose–the establishment of international peace–it instead gave belligerent governments the loophole they needed to wage war.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Mulligan, William. The Great War for Peace. New Haven: Yale UP, 2014. Print.
  • Ninkovich, Frank. The Wilsonian Century: US Foreign Policy since 1900. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. Print.
  • Parrish, Michael E. Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920–1941. New York: Norton, 1992. Print.
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