The Outlawry of War: A Debate Between Robert Lansing and William E. Borah

William E. Borah

September 13, 1924

“There is not a government on the face of the earth strong enough to declare and carry on war against the aroused and sustained public opinion of the people.”

…If force be the ultimate arbiter in international affairs, as the ex-Secretary plainly argues, then it should be the business of each and every nation to develop its instruments of force to the highest point of perfection. Instead of discussing international law, world courts, and thus deluding the minds of the people and leading them into unsafe paths, it should be our business to spur our experts to the invention of yet more deadly instruments of death, to in-crease our armies and our navies, and to bring force to its highest degree of perfection. It is absolutely certain that there will always be controversies between nations, and equally certain that such controversies must be adjusted, either through orderly, legal methods and under the direction of law and a sense of justice, or by force. Mr. Lansing clearly accepts the latter. The idea of peace, therefore, from his standpoint is a fallacy, an annoying and impossible ideal. All plans and schemes for peace are not only futile, but delusive and dangerous. With great respect for the ex-Secretary, I reject any such savage and destructive doctrine and the theory upon which it is based…

There have been other instances in which imperious intellects and massive minds have turned with a pitying eye upon the sentimentalists and the hysterical. One recalls how the great Webster stood upon the steps of the Revere House in Boston and, in pitying tones, spoke of those hysterical women and illogical sentimentalists–the abolitionists–as irresponsible and dangerous and denounced the whole abolition movement as “rub-a-dub” agitation, fit only for little minds and fatuous disturbers. Mr. Webster’s powerful intellect, his remorseless logic, failed to properly measure the uplifting and directing power of an aroused sense of justice, failed to comprehend the invincible force of public opinion. He thought only of physical force, that governments rest at last upon force, that slavery was protected by the Constitution and that back of the Constitution was force. Garrison and Phillips and their hysterical followers were appealing to a power which rewrites constitutions and reforms continents. There is not a government on the face of the earth strong enough to declare and carry on war against the aroused and sustained public opinion of the people. If we are to end war, we must get back of governments and diplomats and ex-secretaries, back of leagues and courts, to that educated, aroused, and well-directed public opinion upon which all agreements, all laws, all leagues, and all courts must ultimately seek foundation…

I am unable to determine from Mr. Lansing’s article whether he wants an end of war or not. But I must presume he does. If so, does he think that he will turn men and leaders from war more readily by recognizing war as a legitimate institution for the settlement of international disputes, or by declaring it a crime and pointing the way to settlement through lawful procedure? Assuming that the principles we contend for were invoked in international law, accepted by the leading nations, with public opinion behind them, would it not seem certain that it would have a staying effect upon all those who appeal to war for the acquisition of territory and to gratify ambition? If we are to prevent war or to reduce the chances of war, every means known, moral, educational, arbitral, legal, must be harnessed for the struggle.

We must bear in mind also that wars seldom come by reason of mass movements. They are the result of selfish policies and personal scheming. “Peoples do not make war,” declared Mr. Lansing’s great leader. The peoples of the dif¬ferent nations were not responsible for the late war. Had the peoples of the different nations been consulted, or even informed of the real facts, there would have been no war. It was forced upon the world with all its attendant sacrifices and misery by a few men. Lord Loreburn, ex-Chancellor of England, declared: “We went to war in a Russian quarrel because we were tied to France in the dark.” Lord Hugh Cecil declared: “When war was decided upon, it was not decided upon by the House of Commons, or the electorate, but by a concurrence of ministers and ex-ministers.” A code of international law declaring war a crime and making criminally liable those who foment war could be carried out as successfully as any provision of domestic law in the United States. Under our Constitution, Congress may punish violations of international law, and so could other nations.

“Until all nations stand on the same high plane of morality…this talk and discussion of outlawing war is as useless as it is foolish.” This has been the plea of timid souls in every great struggle against wrong and injustice, against every great reform in the history of the world. They say: “Wait until nation’s stand on the same high plane, wait until the world and the people are all good,” but propose to do nothing to bring the nations to the same plane or to lead the people to a higher life. The hoary antiquity of this argument ought to encourage men to leave it undisturbed. It was the argument invoked in the first instance against international law itself, against making piracy a crime, against outlawing dueling. The question is: What do we propose to do to bring these nations to the same high plane? The outlawry of war seems to us to be the one vital, essen¬tial, and indispensable first step to attain that end. To treat war as a crime in international law, to remove its legal shield, to shear it of its glory, to educate the world to believe that war is wrong, that force is destructive, that it settles nothing–this is a part of the program to bring the nations to this high plane.

Does the ex-Secretary think that we will make any headway by pursuing the old course and treading the old slippery, bloody paths? For three thousand years we have experimented with his theory and adjusted our minds to this cruel creed of force. We have seen peace schemes and plans and alliances, all recognizing war as a legitimate institution for the settlement of international disputes, all based in the last analysis upon force organized to prevent or minimize war. As a result, we are on the very verge of universal breakdown. Another chapter in Mr. Lansing’s philosophy, another “step toward peace” along his way would destroy civilization. With ten million killed on the field of battle, with three hundred billion dollars’ worth of property destroyed, with the hospitals from Petrograd to Peking and from Berlin to San Francisco still crowded with the diseased and the insane, with nations more heavily armed now than at the beginning of the late war, with the experts of the different nations industriously scheming for more deadly instruments of torture and destruction–with all these we seem to be gathering the fruits of the philosophy, the theory, the creed of Mr. Lansing. Is it not time to lay the ax at the root of the tree, to recognize war no longer as legitimate, to declare nations and men criminals who engage in this supercrime? It is the moral and educational and legal foundation upon which all plans and schemes and hopes of peace must rest.

The Ex-Secretary of State seems to have a sensitiveness about being regarded as an idealist. “The way to stop wars…is to remove as far as possible their causes,” he says. But in this proposal he suffers himself to ascend to the higher level. Greed is one of the great causes of war. Can we ever remove it? Ambition, love of power, territorial acquisition, are causes of war. Can we ever remove them? Ex-President Wilson declared at St. Louis that commercial rivalry was the cause of the World War. Does anyone expect to remove commercial rivalry? Does anyone desire to remove commercial rivalry? Certainly not. But you can bring men to understand that commercial rivalry must be waged within the compass of established laws and within the rules of reason, that controversies concerning matters of commerce may not be settled by force, that these things should be settled as disputes relative to commercial rivalry in private affairs are settled, under the law and through the courts.

Is there any law upon the statute books which awaited its enactment for the removal of all causes of crime with which the law was intended to deal? Did we remove the cause of piracy before we outlawed it? Have we removed the causes of murder or theft? Certainly not. We pass laws that men may not push causes to the point of violence. There will always be causes for war. There will always be controversies. There will always be ambitious men and blundering criminal diplomats. And the supreme question is: Shall we adjust these matters and restrain the actors by means of and under the influence of law? Shall we settle such controversies by appeal to violence or to law? Shall men who appeal to violence be protected in the belief and the knowledge that they have a legal right to make such an appeal? If we are ever going to reach a time when these controversies and conflicts are to be settled under and through the process of the law, certainly we must begin by outlawing the opposite of law–war. We must repudiate the antithesis of law–violence…

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