Quarterly - FOCUS IN/ON

Eby’s work demonstrates his horror over World War I at a time when the sabers of World War II were already rattling. In U.S. diplomatic history the interwar period is a telling time. World War I, also known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars, spawned diplomatic efforts to prevent future war as well as citizen peace movements. The failure of most of the former reveals the true nature of Realpolitik and makes one question whether and how it is truly possible to make war an obsolete instrument, or even a more humane one. Despite developments in international law that began a few decades before World War I and reached a highpoint after World War II, war in many ways has become messier over time. The most revealing statistic of this is that whereas prior to 1950 80 percent of war casualties were combatants, the figure has reversed so that since 1950, at least 80 percent are civilians.

Efforts to regulate warfare have a long history but achieved several important milestones with the development of the Geneva Conventions, beginning in 1864, and The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. These conventions were an effort to ameliorate the suffering of soldiers and civilians in wartime, for example by setting standards for treatment of prisoners of war, by allowing passage of medical staff to treat wounded on the battlefield, and by the prohibition of inhumane weapons such as expanding bullets and poisonous gas. The Hague Peace Conferences were also an effort to construct diplomatic structures that would promote peaceful settlements of disputes. Many prominent citizens and politicians in the United States were members of peace societies during the decade prior to World War I, and one manifestation of this trend toward limiting war was a set of arbitration treaties that the United States negotiated with other nations, the treaty signers promising to submit disputes of certain types to the newly created arbitration court at The Hague.

Despite efforts and hopes prior to 1914 to make the world more peaceful, World War I was a nasty and brutal example of total warfare: warfare that mobilized, enveloped, and destroyed entire societies. Yet, in the midst of rebuilding there again developed idealistic hopes that rational man could render war obsolete. The first embodiment of this idealism was the ill-fated League of Nations.

Despite being a chief architect and proponent of the League, the United States did not participate in it. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge spearheaded the opposition in the U.S. Senate. Isolationists feared that the League would drag the United States into foreign conflicts, and nationalists rejected the notion that the country should subject its sovereignty to any form of international control. The Senate debate about the League foreshadowed current debate about the U.S. role in the League’s successor, the United Nations, with the isolationism of the early 20th century developing into the “go it alone” unilateralism of current U.S. foreign policy.

While rejecting the opportunity the League presented to work with other nations in the interest of peace, the United States revived its old habit of signing arbitration treaties, which were qualified by conditions that made them pointless. Despite all of the arbitration treaties and in spite of the obligation assumed by members of the League to peacefully resolve their disputes, the possibility of “legal” war still existed in situations when the League Council failed to take action. Thus, the most stalwart proponents of peace sought to take things one step further and to outlaw war itself, making ALL war illegal.

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