Chicago’s unknown hero of peace

By David Swanson, Guest columnist, The Daily Herald

In its 1929 Man of the Year article, Time magazine acknowledged that many readers would believe Secretary of State Frank Kellogg the right choice, as probably the top news story of 1928 had been the signing by 57 nations of the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact in Paris, a treaty that made all war illegal, a treaty that remains on the books today.

But, noted Time, “analysts could show that Mr. Kellogg did not originate the outlawing-war idea; that a comparatively obscure lay figure named Salmon Oliver Levinson, Chicago lawyer,” was the driving force behind it.

David Swanson

Indeed he was. S.O. Levinson was a lawyer who believed that courts handled interpersonal disputes better than dueling had done before it was banned. He wanted to outlaw war as a means of handling international disputes. Until 1928, launching a war had always been perfectly legal. Levinson wanted to outlaw all war. “Suppose,” he wrote, “it had then been urged that only ‘aggressive dueling’ should be outlawed and that ‘defensive dueling’ be left intact.”

Levinson and the movement of Outlawrists whom he gathered around him, including well-known Chicagoan Jane Addams, believed that making war a crime would begin to stigmatize it and facilitate demilitarization. They pursued as well the creation of international laws and systems of arbitration and alternative means of handling conflicts. Outlawing war was to be the first step in a lengthy process of actually ending that peculiar institution.

The Outlawry movement was launched with Levinson’s article proposing it in The New Republic magazine on March 7, 1918, and took a decade to achieve the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The task of ending war is ongoing, and the pact is a tool that might still help. This treaty commits nations to resolving their disputes through peaceful means alone. The U.S. State Department’s website lists it as still in effect, as does the Department of Defense Law of War Manual published in June 2015.

Levinson and his allies lobbied senators and key officials in the United States and Europe, including French Foreign Secretary Aristide Briand, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman William Borah, and Secretary of State Kellogg. The Outlawrists united a U.S. peace movement far more mainstream and acceptable than anything that’s borne that name in the decades since. But it was a movement that had been split over the League of Nations.

The frenzy of organizing and activism that created the peace pact was massive. Find me an organization that’s been around since the 1920s and I’ll find you an organization on record in support of abolishing war. That includes the American Legion, the National League of Women Voters, and the National Association of Parents and Teachers.

By 1928, the demand to outlaw war was irresistible, and Kellogg who had recently mocked and cursed peace activists, began following their lead and telling his wife he might be in for a Nobel Peace Prize.

On August 27, 1928, in Paris, the flags of Germany and the Soviet Union newly flew along many others, as the scene played out that is described in the song “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.” The papers the men were signing really did say they would never fight again. The Outlawrists persuaded the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty without any formal reservations.

None of this was without hypocrisy. U.S. troops were fighting in Nicaragua the whole time, and European nations signed on behalf of their colonies. Russia and China had to be talked out of going to war with each other just as President Coolidge was signing the treaty. But talked out of it they were. And the first major violation of the pact, World War II, was followed by the first ever (albeit one-sided) prosecutions for the crime of war — prosecutions that rested centrally on the pact. The wealthy nations have, for a number of possible reasons, not gone to war with each other since, waging war only in poor parts of the world.

The United Nations Charter, which followed without replacing the Kellogg-Briand Pact, seeks to legalize wars that are either defensive or U.N. authorized — loopholes more abused than used over the years. The lessons of the Outlawry movement may still have something to teach both the neocon war advocates and the “Responsibility to Protect” humanitarian warriors. It’s a shame that their literature is largely forgotten.

In St. Paul, Minn., appreciation is reviving for local hero Frank Kellogg, who was indeed given the Nobel, is buried in National Cathedral, and for whom Kellogg Avenue is named.

But the man who led the movement that began to stigmatize war as evil and to make war understood as optional rather than inevitable was from Chicago, where no memorial stands and no memory exists.

David Swanson is the author of “When the World Outlawed War.” He’ll be speaking in Chicago on Aug. 27. For information, see

13 Responses

  1. I don’t recall ever getting to cover this movement in my General Academics’ education. It seems like schools hasten to mumble through the twentieth century at the end of the school year, leaving pertinent contemporary history for the street. I recall doing a report on the United Nations. I found out it was actually formed in San Francisco, and only later after it was moved into the rich benefactors’ building in New York did people like Barney Baruk get to come up with new terms like ‘Cold War’.

  2. So this means that GW Bush is a war criminal. He went on an offensive war with this treaty on the books.

  3. Robert,

    Most history is not taught in the schools. You have to do your own research using good sources you find on your own to understand major movements and developments that shaped people in the past, developments that are the background against which we live today.

    History, real history, is threatening to certain powerful institutional interests. History in general education is dumbed down to meaningless recitations of events, dates and figures all without context to understand what their struggles meant in their times. Understanding that context, however, is what opens up history as the most meaningful tool we have to gain perspective on our current issues, realizing that what we do today will be the history we leave behind for others to pick up where we left off. We are part of a continuum that runs before our time and after our time. That’s why a deep understanding of history is so threatening and why the dumbing down of society is so important to keep us acquiescent, focused on the meaningless and trivial and unable to conceive of a higher purpose for ourselves.

    Good work on reading about founding of the UN. You are one of the exceptions to the rule, one who got through school AND got an education.

  4. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” So why be a peacemaker if you’re already a child of God? Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!

    Verbal violence is sometimes necessary. Jesus Christ, the very one I quoted, had no problem calling his violent, deceitful enemies ‘children of Satan.’ Like Christ, we need to shame those who ridicule non-violent conflict resolution and lie their ways into wars.

  5. Thanks for this highly important article, David & RootsAction. I’ll be sure to publicize this in my community come mid Sept, especially as my public library has seen fit to propagandize militarism by involving child & adolescent patrons in a program called A Million Thanks, in which letters are written to military members thanking them for their “service”. I have been giving feedback to my library about that extremely poor decision, you may be sure!

  6. War is a multilateral mass homicide, therefore a crime against humanity. It must be replaced with an impartial World Court. We need a universal board to see the matter through. Check World Peace on my website

  7. The need for lying regarding peace and diplomacy was this stat regarding u.s.a. history. The annal of peace, of course began before the annals of one-personhood in 1880-81, and your inclusion of the man pushed aside by impunity, was also continuing today i.e. that of Oligarchs of and for plutocracy!

    What else is the new-Rome good for, if not for mliitary-Hegemony and usury thru illegal usages of NSDU-238 the first nuclear-Weapon.

    New Rome will never give out “peaceAwards” as the Nobels, yet they are a far cry from wars-Warring drone weddings/war-Laureate…thanks David, we need the se truth-Pronouncements…

  8. The late, much lamented Terry Pratchett handled this idea with great skill in one of his best Discworld fantasy novels, JINGO, a superb antiwar story.

    Here’s a quote, then go and read the entire novel:

    [Vimes to Prince Cadram] “You’re under arrest,” he said.
    The Prince made a little sound between a cough and a laugh. “I’m what?”
    “I am arresting you for conspiracy to murder your brother. And there may be other charges.” . . .
    “Vimes, you have gone insane, said Rust. “You can’t arrest the commander of an army!”
    “Actually, Mr. Vimes, I think we could,” said Carrot. “And the army, too. I mean, I don’t see why we can’t. We could charge them with behavior likely to cause a breach of the peace, sir. I mean, that’s what warfare is.”

  9. Noble idea, but one which the U.S.A. and former U.S.S.R. have little interest in the sovereignty of other nations. It is all about national interests which is code for business interests in foreign assets they would acquire at any price.

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