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

Robert Lansing

August 16, 1924

During the five years which have passed since the Treaty of Peace was signed at Versailles on June 28, 1919, there has been an enormous increase of organizations in the United States with the laudable object of finding a way to prevent the recurrence of a terrible disaster like the World War. These associations are generally national, but some of them are international. They approach the subject from many angles and suggest many ways of achieving the common object which all are seeking. Some of these suggested ways appear to be based on rational and practical grounds, but the majority are without merit because impracticable and unworkable…

Among the more recent proposals for the insurance of world peace is the one calling upon the nations to make war illegal. Certain organizations have raised a standard inscribed with the words, “Outlaw War.” And to that standard have flocked many supporters with the same fatuous enthusiasm that made possible the Children’s Crusade. The idea has even won favor with some American statesmen who ought to be endowed with sufficient reason to appreciate the utter futility of such a demand. One can forgive and pity hysterical women and illogical sentimentalists adopting such a motto, but for men, chosen to public office presumably because of their superior mental attainments, to subscribe to it and acclaim it causes one to doubt their intelligence.

The effectiveness of any law is the moral or physical sanction which underlies it. Physical sanctions are the common and prevailing means of law enforcement in view of the frailties of human nature. It is the physical might of government which prevents crime and protects the individual in the enjoyment of his natural rights and liberties. Moral sanctions are those imposed by an individual upon himself and depend on his sense of justice and duty to do what is right. In international law, moral sanctions prevail since there is no supernational power to exert physical sanctions. It is then the good faith of nations, their high sense of obligation, and their standard of international morality that give vitality to the law of nations and justify the word “law” being applied to the principles and precepts which have come to be recognized as those which should regulate the intercourse between civilized states.

If, however, a nation does not respond to moral obligation, or if a government is inspired by immoral motives which place its own selfish interests above the rights of others, what remedy is there but an appeal to arms? Is there any other means by which a nation can maintain the rights of itself and of its nationals? It is the only way to prevent an unscrupulous and ambitious neighbor or rival from wresting from it its independence and sovereignty. All the declarations in the world as to the wickedness and lawlessness of war will not prevent the use of force. Submission and passive resistance will not save the life of a nation if it is invaded by the armies and navies of an enemy seeking its destruction. There is but one way in such a case to preserve the national safety, and that is by matching force against force, by resisting with all the physical might possessed by a nation the invasion of its territory and the infringement of its rights.

War cannot be outlawed, because under certain conditions it is the only means of preserving national life, because it is often the only means of protecting the rights to which a nation and its people are entitled by every principle of justice and morality. The law, which far transcends any man-made law, is the supreme law of self-preservation.

If all nations were moral and responsive to moral sensibilities, there might be something to the cry, “Outlaw War.” But, unfortunately for the peace of the world and the welfare of mankind, civilization has not attained so high a plane, nor does such a condition seem imminent. It would mean the millennium, and that is far in the future. Many nations among those which we term civilized show themselves covetous and selfish and disposed to take every advantage in international affairs, provided it will increase their power and prestige. Recent years have given ample evidence of this aggressive spirit which has persisted in human relations since the very dawn of history…

One may deplore the fact that wars take place. One may agree that war is an evil and contrary to the highest ideals of modern thought, but under existing conditions to attempt to abolish it by proclaiming it illegal is utterly futile. And, when these dreamers suggest that it can be accomplished by binding themselves as individuals to take no part in any way in arming their country against attack or in resisting foreign aggression, they assume an attitude as irrational and indefensible as it is unpatriotic. They not only preach a pernicious and dangerous doctrine, but they invite the contempt and ridicule of all thinking men.

Until human nature changes and all nations become uniformly virtuous, war cannot be abolished by mandate. The way to stop wars under present conditions is to remove as far as possible their causes. Mutual confidence and cooperation between nations should be cultivated, friendly and fair economic competition practiced, while diplomatic intercourse should be frank and unequivocal and founded on the immutable principles of justice…

As a civilized nation will never at the present, time admit to the world that it wages an aggressive war, but invariably asserts that it was justified in taking up arms because its rights were threatened, its legal right to make war is declared. Who is to pass judgment on the rightfulness of that declaration and on the legality of the war? Where rests the authority to decide which belligerent is guilty of aggression and deserving of condemnation? How, then, can either party to an international conflict be denounced as employing force illegally and without justification? Only world public opinion and history yet to be written can determine which party was in the wrong, and that an appeal to force was in violation of legal right and moral obligation.

In the face of these actualities, the present cry, “Outlaw War,” becomes an absurdity, an empty demand from unthinking though well-meaning pacifists, who ignore real conditions and the application to them of logic and reason, and loudly clamor for something which common sense and rational thought perceive to be as impracticable as it is vain. No man or woman possessing even average intellect will listen seriously to the words, “Outlaw War.”

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