The Kellogg-Briand Pact Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Trying to outlaw war may seem like a noble, yet naïve endeavor, but those who had witnessed the horrors of World War I were open to any ideas to prevent or eliminate future conflicts. As historian Joan Hoff writes, “The Kellogg-Briand Pact stands as the most idealistic (and most impractical) collective attempt to ensure peace” in the interwar period. Yet, for both idealistic and realistic reasons, sixty-two nations signed the agreement that announced an end to war forever. While the Kellogg-Briand Pact had no enforcement mechanism and effectively collapsed only a decade after it was signed, the international agreement still revealed much about ongoing French fears of Germany and about American public sentiment concerning international relations in the 1920s. Indeed, the details of the American negotiation of the treaty and the support for it among the US public revealed that, in the decade after World War I, the United States was not really isolationist, but actually engaged the world to a significant degree.

Summary Overview

Trying to outlaw war may seem like a noble, yet naïve endeavor, but those who had witnessed the horrors of World War I were open to any ideas to prevent or eliminate future conflicts. As historian Joan Hoff writes, “The Kellogg-Briand Pact stands as the most idealistic (and most impractical) collective attempt to ensure peace” in the interwar period. Yet, for both idealistic and realistic reasons, sixty-two nations signed the agreement that announced an end to war forever. While the Kellogg-Briand Pact had no enforcement mechanism and effectively collapsed only a decade after it was signed, the international agreement still revealed much about ongoing French fears of Germany and about American public sentiment concerning international relations in the 1920s. Indeed, the details of the American negotiation of the treaty and the support for it among the US public revealed that, in the decade after World War I, the United States was not really isolationist, but actually engaged the world to a significant degree.

Defining Moment

Between 1918 and the mid-1930s, Europe was unstable. Essentially, ineffective solutions to the payment of German reparations and European war debts, combined with simmering animosity between Germany, on one hand, and the Soviet Union and France, particularly, on the other, meant that the continent remained a powder keg during the interwar period. In 1923, a conflict over German repayment led the French and Belgians to occupy the industrial Ruhr region of western Germany. This led to the US-sponsored Dawes Plan in 1924 that lowered German payments until they could be afforded and extended private US loans to Germany. The next year, the major European powers signed the Pact of Locarno, which, according to historian George Herring, seemed to “resolve major issues left over from Versailles and ease French security concerns at least a bit, providing some hope for European recovery and stability.” A large, well-organized domestic peace movement and new organizations, such as the League of Nations and the World Court (though the United States joined neither) added to the expectation that global wars were a thing of the past. In this context, a larger pact to outlaw war was both a preventative measure that could potentially further calm tensions over payments and a seemingly viable plan, given that major European powers, which had just fought a bloody conflict, were able to agree to the Dawes Plan and the Pact of Locarno.

The more immediate context of the pact was the French desire to avoid a repetition of World War I. When Charles Lindbergh made his famous flight across the Atlantic to Paris in 1927, Aristide Briand wrote a public letter in which he suggested a treaty between the United States and France that would prohibit a war between the two nations. Not wanting to automatically get involved in another European war should it result, US leaders countered by proposing a larger agreement, which became the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Negotiations lasted until fifteen countries signed the document on August 27, 1928. Forty-seven more added their names later, and the US Congress overwhelmingly ratified it.

Author Biography

Born in 1856, Frank Billings Kellogg was a Minnesota lawyer who had been involved in breaking up monopolies, such as Standard Oil, during the Progressive Era. He joined the US Senate in 1917 for one term, and, although a Republican, he supported Democratic president Woodrow Wilson’s initiative for the United States to join the post–World War I League of Nations, showcasing the internationalism that he would later display with the pact that bears his name. He remained involved in diplomacy, serving as US ambassador to Great Britain from 1923 until 1925, when he was named secretary of state. He received the 1929 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Kellogg-Briand Pact. He died on December 21, 1937, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Aristide Briand was born in 1862 and became a lawyer and journalist. Rising through the political ranks, he was the prime minister of France from 1909 to 1913, 1915 to 1917, and then again from 1921 to 1922. From 1925 until his retirement in January 1932 he was the foreign minister of France. Having lead France during a large part of World War I, his postwar foreign policy goals were twofold. He wanted to soften the harsh treatment of Germany in the Versailles Treaty, which he did not help write, and reconcile the two nations to prevent a future conflict. However, he also sought to obtain security agreements from the United States and Great Britain should his first goal prove unworkable. He won the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize for the Pact of Locarno between France and Germany, which he shared with his German counterpart Gustav Stresemann. He died on March 7, 1932, in Paris.

Document Analysis

The nineteenth century witnessed a rapid growth of extreme nationalist sentiments in Europe, when virtually every major ethnic group clamored for their own country. This pattern helped produce World War I, when Serbian nationalists, who wanted freedom from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. After the bloodshed of 1914–18, national leaders would do anything they could to avoid the deleterious effects of nationalism. Nationalism was not the only condition that produced World War I, but it was certainly a significant factor.

Therefore, the Kellogg-Briand Pact speaks much about the way nation-states employed the use of force in achieving their national goals. Speaking of the need to “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” and that “all disputes or conflicts… shall never be sought except by pacific means,” the pact seeks to prevent powerful nations from automatically resorting to armed conflict to achieve their national goals, whether political, economic, or territorial. Though such restraint seemed unlikely to occur, world leaders believed that after the horrible experience of World War I and in what seemed like a stable postwar environment this part of the pact might move the world toward a less violent future.

In one sentence near the beginning of the pact, the French objective of enhancing its own security against Germany is evident as the pact states that any nation who broke the agreement “should be denied the benefits furnished by this Treaty.” Since no explicit benefits are spelled out except the fact that all nations should refrain from war, the phrase essentially means that if one nation makes war, then the other signatory nations are free to make war on that original instigator. Again, while not explicit, this reveals how the French were trying to deter any potential future attack from a rebuilt Germany. In theory, if Germany attacked France again and all other nations still honored and abided by the pact, then Germany would face at least the possibility of attack from all the other nations who had signed the treaty. With the United States unwilling to commit to the League of Nations, this was a roundabout way in which the French could threaten the Germans without having to persuade the United States to sign a formal mutual security agreement. The pact is, therefore, both the idealistic pursuit of a world without war and a practical move by the French to try to prevent a repeat of 1914–18.

Essential Themes

The Kellogg-Briand Pact contained no enforcement measures and only included the vague phrase that the agreement would “remain open as long as may be necessary for adherence by all the other Powers of the world.” In theory, this meant that until all nations signed the treaty and agreed to never make war, the vague threat would remain that if a nation started a war, they would not be protected by the treaty.

The pact was one of the first attempts to enshrine in international law the idea that powerful nations should not use violent force to achieve their national interests. This was a new idea in the human experience, especially given that one of the most violent wars in history had ended only a decade before. Furthermore, the pact, along with the League of Nations, can be considered predecessors, however vague and ineffective, to post-1945 organizations, such as the United Nations. While the pact perhaps remains open to criticism for its naïveté, vague language, and lack of enforcement mechanisms, it was an attempt to create a better world. The goal of reducing war, violence, and human suffering was, and still is, a noble one.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Doenecke, Justus D. “Recent Explorations Concerning the Interwar Period.” A Companion to American Foreign Relations. Ed. Robert D. Schulzinger. Malden: Blackwell, 2006. Print.
  • Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
  • Hoff, Joan. “The American Century: From Sarajevo to Sarajevo.” The Ambiguous Legacy: U.S. Foreign Relations in the “American Century.” Ed. Michael J. Hogan. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.
  • United States Dept. of State. “Kellogg-Briand Pact, 1928.” Milestones: 1921–1936. Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, US Dept. of State, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
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