Nicholas Murray Butler and the American Peace Movement

by Charles F. Howlett - 1983

This article follows the activities of Nicholas Murray Butler's involvement in the peace movement at the turn of the century. Butler, a college administrator, statesman, Republican politician, and friend of big business, belonged to the peace-through-internationalism approach and believed in working within the domestic system. (Source: ERIC)

This article has been written in honor of Merle Curti’s contributions to the study of American peace history. His pioneering works on the subject, The American Peace Crusade, Bryan and World Peace, and Peace and War: The American Struggle, have greatly contributed to my own understanding of the topic.

Nicholas Murray Butler (1861-1947), college administrator, statesman, Republican politician, and friend of big business, remains one of the most interesting personalities in the history of American higher education. By the time of World War I, Butler was a noted university president (Columbia), respected authority on educational theories, confidant to U.S. presidents, vice-presidential running mate of Republican incumbent William H. Taft, and leading peace activist. So all-encompassing were Butler’s activities that William Allen White, noted journalist from Emporia, Kansas, remarked: “Probably no other citizen of this land for the last forty years has known so many of the powerful figures of business, education and politics in Europe and the United States. . . . He has made his private opinion public sentiment probably more definitely than any other living man in this country, influencing these three great estates of human life.”1


To a considerable extent, Butler’s popularity derived from his lofty academic position at Columbia, his GOP politics, easy access to New York-based national communications systems, contacts with noted businessmen such as Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan, and his Darwinian optimism about human rationality and societal improvement. These factors were greatly responsible for enabling Butler to assume an important role in the newly emerging peace movement at the turn of the century. This article follows the activities of Butler’s involvement in the peace movement. It will attempt to show that despite the complexity and sectarian biases of the American peace movement, Butler remained, despite certain contradictions, rather consistent in his approach to international affairs. He belongs to the elite, peace-through-internationalism approach that came into being in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unlike numerous reformers who sought social change by laboring outside its key institutions, Butler, the organizational man, worked within the domestic system. He emphasized the instruments of politics, finance, legalism, reason, and education, which formed part of a larger theater whose stability and prosperity were necessary for a nation’s well-being. He also carefully defined their relationships to the larger international theater. I will try to assess why such a politically effective and respected operator proved to be such an ineffectual advocate in the campaign for an internationally organized peace.2

Because of Butler’s preeminent role in American higher education, few historians have discussed his activities in the peace movement; not one published article exists on the topic. Yet his international activities constituted virtually a second career. He exerted considerable influence through trips to Europe, often as an unofficial presidential envoy. Indeed, he was more highly regarded in Europe than in the United States, and H. G. Wells aptly labeled Butler “the Gilbert Murray of the United States” and “the champion international visitor and retriever of foreign orders and degrees.“3

Butler’s interest in world peace dates back to his days in graduate school at Columbia University.4 In his autobiography, Across the Busy Years, he stated that “the foundation for my lifelong interest in international relations was laid by the experiences of my student days in Germany, in France and in England.” It was not possible, he added, “for any one who had my experiences so early in life to look upon any civilized nation as in isolation from the rest of the world.“5 In particular, his education in Germany proved instrumental in shaping his view of the world. He was impressed by the German state of philosophy and education. Here was a country that amassed the fruits of scholarship for all the world to emulate; especially influential in shaping Butler’s thinking was the contribution of German scholars like Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel, whose systems of absolute idealism were predicated on unceasing change, and a vindication of the status quo in society.

So impressed was Butler by German philosophical scholarship that his 1883 M.A. thesis was entitled “The Permanent Influence of Immanuel Kant.” In this thesis Butler demonstrated allegiance to neo-Kantism as the way out of both skepticism and dogmatism. Equally contributory in shaping Butler’s peace ideology was Kant’s argument that man is a rational being and that pure reason can devise a system of “pure morality” based on “rational principles of eternal human right.“6 Kant’s emphasis on moral principles, guided by judicial integrity and intellect, became Butler’s paramount concern, underlying his educational philosophy as well as his theories of politics, economics, and international relations. Butler’s last official address as head of Columbia attests to his Kantian idealism: “[As] powerful as science is and always will be, morality must always be more powerful.“7 A system of morality was essential for a good world to continuously progress.

If Kant proposed that a high-minded intellectual elite should rule a stable social order according to established principles of law and morality, Butler’s professor of political science, John W. Burgess, taught him the essence of liberty in a self-governing society.8 It was through Burgess’s emphasis on the metaphysical theory of the state that Butler found the distinction between state and government; this perspective also helped shape his views on international relations. According to Burgess, the state is equivalent to society (that which embodies the sovereignty of the people as a whole) while government is an administrative instrumentality serving the purposes of society. Burgess’s distinction thus implied the fundamental preservation of the principle of liberty. Butler was forever impressed. In a private letter to New York Governor Herbert H. Lehman, Butler observed: “The American people have from the beginning differentiated in their political organization between the spheres of Government and the sphere of Liberty. They have set up Government and defined and regulated its powers and activities. Everything not so delegated they have retained for themselves in the sphere of Liberty.“9 It was the state, not government, that prompted Butler to place his hopes for a stable world order in the conscience of enlightened and morally obligated leadership. “The real function of government,” Butler noted, “is to act as a traffic policeman and not to undertake to be a chauffer.”10 Society and its components, sovereignty and humanitarianism, were not bound to the Philistine strictures of national governments.

It was not until the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1898, a war Butler mistakenly supported in the name of Darwinian advancement, however, that Butler publicly engaged in peace action. In the summer of 1898, Czar Nicholas of Russia called for the first international peace conference to convene at the Hague the following year. Peace advocates throughout the world were elated. Butler himself became ecstatic: “Now for the first time in centuries, the door seemed to be open to the building of a new federation of civilized nations which would make possible prosperity and peace for them each and all.”11 He began to promote the Hague idea among his educational colleagues. In July 1899, for instance, the board of directors of the National Education Association passed at his urging a resolution bidding “Godspeed and success” in his quest for peace to Andrew White, president of Cornell University, recently appointed head of the delegation.12

Butler’s support of the first Hague Conference, which stimulated his interest in the peace movement in general, also brought him into contact with a number of interesting foreign personalities. Among them was Baron d’ Estournelles de Constant of the French Senate. They quickly became close friends, d’Estournelles introducing him to French statesmen and Butler returning the favor with an honorary degree from Columbia University in 1911. Together they founded in 1905 the pamphlet series Conciliation Internationale, which gave way two years later to International Conciliation, published under the auspicies of the American Association for International Conciliation-an organization Butler founded and headed, and which received generous financial support from Andrew Carnegie.13

From 1905 until 1914, Butler attended and participated in the major gatherings of the peace societies in Europe and the United States. One of his most important contributions to the peace movement, as historian Albert Marrin perceptively notes, was in gathering and harmonizing, organizing and contemplating, diverse tendencies and giving them wide and constant publicity. He was not an original thinker but rather a skillful organizer. His attendance at the annual Lake Mohonk Conference, devoted to discussing problems of peace, proved instrumental in shaping the organized peace movement in America. He served as president of the conference in 1907 and every year between 1909 and 1912.

Butler’s Mohonk presidential addresses were collected and published in 1913 under the title The International Mind: An Argument for the Judicial Settlement of International Disputes. It became a continuous source of inspiration to peacemakers and gave currency to the term “internationalism.” In this important work, Butler saw lasting peace as emanating from enlightened public opinion based on moral leadership, armament limitations, and an independent international judiciary as originally conceived at the second Hague Conference in 1907. For Butler, “internationalism” was as much an educational and cultural state of mind as it was economic and political.14

The book contains Butler’s ideological support for peace, including his own practical suggestions for achieving it. His internationalism could be traced in large measure to his distaste for a world of nations uncontrolled by law.15 He therefore followed the lead of international lawyers who favored exclusively judicial settlements of disputes as opposed to settlement through arbitration and diplomacy. His attitude toward courts and the law was directly affected by his domestic views and politics. Revering the U.S. Supreme Court as he did, Butler saw infinite potential for good in a world supreme court. The independent judiciary, linchpin of the Constitution, was the unique contribution of the United States to political science. What it had accomplished there, he maintained, it could accomplish the world over. He thus advocated establishing justice among nations in the transformation of the Hague Court into a permanent tribunal, isolated from political pressures and with paid judges for life: “The striking service performed by an independent judiciary will offer the best solution of the problems international in character that arise out of international business and international rivalries.” Enforcing the court’s decisions became a matter of supreme importance, and although Butler occasionally mentioned an international legislature and a world police force he believed, somewhat naively, that the main force behind the court’s rulings would be the moral weight of public opinion, “the true international executive.”16

Butler’s legalist view, depicted in The International Mind, was more than an ideology or movement in many respects; it was, in the words of historian Charles DeBenedetti, “an ethos that suffused the thinking of a significant number of . . . peace leaders. “17 Such a conception would characterize the approach several peace organizations undertook to eliminating the problem of modern war after the great debacle of 1914-1918. Internationalists, like Butler, perceived peace as a state attendant on the triumph of justice, via enlightened leadership; peace was contingent on the extension of justice throughout international politics. The extension of justice, in turn, consisted of the codification by experts—the knowledgable leaders of society-of international rules of equity, the application of these rules by an international court of justice, and final acceptance by litigants respectful of the sanction of world public opinion. Through a tightening web of procedure, substantive “legal justice”—making the law itself its own best argument for obedience—would gradually be gained and peace assured. Legalists made clear that they did not seek the “abstract justice” of the “reformer and the idealist,” but rather the “legal justice” of courts and codes that could be “counted upon to function with certainty” in minimizing the possibilities of future war.18

This particular proposition held sway among a large number of peace advocates before World War I. In the largest sense, the peace movement was perhaps the ultimate expression of the nineteenth century’s faith in progress. The great technological advances gave rise to a belief that mankind was on the way to solving its age-old problems of war, disease, and poverty by the application of reason and science. Furthermore, not only had enlightened nations controlled the spread of war—European powers had been successful in avoiding a general war for nearly a century—but they had begun to experiment with a substitute in the form of international litigation. John Bassett Moore, the dean of American authorities on international law, was able to cite at least 136 treaties or agreements signed during that century, which had included comprehensive settlements embracing hundreds of particular cases and involving millions of dollars.19

This healthy development caused a number of lawyers and jurists to swell the ranks of peace advocates. They saw a gradually developing body of international law as an outgrowth of the increased recourse to litigation among nations. More specifically, many of them joined the newly formed Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). One of many peace organizations founded before the war, CEIP became famous for sponsoring research and cooperating closely with government officials in developing the “international mind” (this was the elite, establishment-oriented approach to peace); it hoped to accomplish this noble goal by encouraging the application of the Anglo-American legal experience to world politics and practice. Butler emerged as one of the principal leaders of this organization.20

As head of the Division of Intercourse and Education, one of the three main branches of CEIP, Butler stressed the need to educate public opinion, urging the use of lectureships, publication series, and exchange visits abroad on an expanded scale.21 In keeping with his elitist preferences for a knowledgable citizenry, he recommended enlisting “respectable citizens,” “level-headed” community leaders from boards of trade, chambers of commerce, and other business groups who had previously been attracted to the Mohonk Arbitration Conferences. Moreover, thinking in terms of an organization that transcended national boundaries, Butler suggested that adherents be sought in every sizable city in the world, both to distribute publications and to exercise influence on the endowment’s behalf.22

Even more ambitious, as historian Michael Lutzker noted, was Butler’s view that CEIP should become an international fact-finding bureau operating above the passions of national politics. Its task would be to correct misrepresentation of one government’s policies as they were reported in the press of other countries. Butler’s conception was no less, Lutzker argues, “than that of an authoritative repository of information to which the world’s press and eventually world opinion would look as the arbiter between fact and sensationalist distortion.”23

Yet only four years after the endowment’s creation, the effort to mobilize world opinion as the arbiter of fact over sensationalism became paralyzed by the outbreak of world war. At first, it was very difficult for Butler to accept the realities of German aggression. Was not Germany the center of European culture? Was this not the land that produced great thinkers the likes of Kant, Shiller, Hegel? He also had great admiration for Kaiser Wilhelm, who had previously assured him that “all this talk of war in Europe is nonsense. No European nation wants to go to war, and none could afford it even if it wanted to. The interests of Germany and the interests of Europe lie in peace.“24

But when the guns of August resounded throughout the lowlands and the German war machine kept moving closer and closer to Paris, Butler found the European world, at least, trapped by demands for unyielding patriotic conformity. Who was to blame for this horrible situation? What happened to enlightened statesmanship? Much to his chagrin and dismay the war, Butler explained in September 1914 to Columbia students, had not been forced on unwilling governments by the masses; it had been forced on the innocent people by kings and cabinets, the people accepting it with “grim resignation and reluctant enthusiasm.“25

He was perplexed and disappointed. He felt betrayed by his own appeal to enlightened statesmanship and the Kantian conception of a powerful intellectual elite bonded by reason; national leaders and not the masses were supposed to lead the way to international peace and a stable world order. Such was not the case. In the early days of the struggle, therefore, Butler publicly declared his strict personal neutrality, pleading to remain silent on every aspect of its meaning and conduct.

The Carnegie Endowment followed suit. Butler suggested that the endowment should project no future course of action until the war had ended and the terms of peace had been determined. “No other course was possible,” he asserted. “To continue . . . peace propaganda in the face of the war that raged was to make ourselves ridiculous, while nothing was clearer than that the advent of war and its issue would completely alter our program of work.“26 Rejecting the protests of European affiliates, the Carnegie’s directors terminated support for European peace societies and suspended publication of potentially controversial works on armaments and socialism; documents revealing Allied as well as German responsibility for the war were hidden away in its vaults. Only in this way could the endowment retain its reputation for high-minded nonpartisanship and preserve its influence among statesmen, regardless of who was right or wrong.

In line with his position of neutrality, Butler was a leading supporter of the antipreparedness campaign. In December 1914 he created a stir by giving a press interview declaring his belief that Europe’s large-scale armaments had led directly to war and rejoicing that the country had in the White House a president able to withstand the preparedness pressure. “In modern democracies the functions of the army and navy are police, philanthropic, and sanitary,” he proclaimed, and he urged the American people “to put behind us forever the notion that we must arm in peace as a preventive of war, and that we must be perpetually defending ourselves, or getting ready to defend ourselves against new enemies. No people will be hostile to us unless we, by our conduct, make them so.” In a letter to the New York Times he reaffirmed his opposition to preparedness: “It must not be forgotten that militarism has its origin in a state of mind and that in reality it is a state of mind.“27

Sadly, this “state of mind” became a state of “reality.” The breaking of the Sussex Pledge, the resumption of U-Boat attacks, and the Zimmerman Telegram altered Butler’s tune. He now abandoned his position of neutrality. Germany must be defeated at all costs: “This war offers no ground for compromise or for equivocation, because it goes to the very bottom of human life and of human government. It must be prosecuted until the world can be made secure.”28 America now had an obligation to fulfill “to those nations and those men who in darkness and in daylight have been fighting for your property and mine, for your government and mine, for your ideas and mine!”29 Temporarily, at least, unilateral nationalism superseded vision of world community.

Why did Butler support Washington’s overseas war while simultaneously proclaiming his peace concerns? Did he abandon his international vision? Not really. He attributed to the war the very values for which he had worked before—the search for international equity, law, and order. Butler and the Carnegie Endowment worked on the assumption that the collapse of the German imperial government was requisite for peace. Consequently, Butler stumped the country for Liberty Loans, sponsored many patriotic meetings on campus, endorsed the Reserve Officers Training Corps, and became an early advocate of compulsory national service and of military conscription, hitherto deemed the supreme violation of individual liberty. He even permitted George Creel’s Committee on Public Information, the arm of America’s wartime propaganda machine, to utilize the Carnegie Endowment’s offices, which he relinquished for the duration of the war.30

Unfortunately, in his own vigorous prosecution of the war effort, Butler was quick to denounce any and all dissenters. He ignored the principles of conscientious objectors and those whose academic reasoning would not allow them to support the call to arms. This was a particularly sensitive issue, and one Butler came to regret.

In his efforts to support government policies, Butler quickly came into conflict with his own views on liberty. He had always maintained that government is subordinate to liberty; government exists to preserve and promote liberty. However, the war found Butler and many academicians who steadfastly defended their Lockean predispositions totally unprepared for contingency operations. In attempting to win the war quickly, and in the process seeking complete support, they abandoned the concept of liberty for the goals of expediency and conformity. In Butler’s case it came in the form of academic freedom.

Much has been written on this score. Historians Walter P. Metzger, Albert Marrin, and Carol Gruber have examined in detail how Butler blatantly ignored the issue of academic freedom for the cause of patriotic loyalty.31 Yet what has not been mentioned is the way Butler interpreted academic freedom and how he juxtaposed it under the rubric of loyalty. Indeed, when Butler was asked to define university freedom he did so in terms of organizational loyalty and service to the state. This was a corporate definition that ignored individual prerogatives. He argued the right of the university as a whole to pursue its ideals unhampered by the actions of any of its members in contrast to academic freedom. But what about those unusual situations, such as war, when the issue of freedom applies equally to both sides?

Apparently, Butler had no concrete answer. For him freedom imposes responsibility, and in this case that meant loyalty to majority will: “A teacher who cannot give to the institution which maintains him that which common loyalty implies ought not to be retained through fear of clamor or of criticism.” Indeed, according to Butler, “a university teacher owes a decent respect to the opinions of mankind. Men who feel that their personal convictions require them to treat the mature opinion of the civilized world without respect or with contempt may well be given an opportunity to do so from private station and without the added influence and prestige of a university’s name. “32 The war had caused Butler to elevate the issue of university loyalty to national patriotism. Service to the university now meant conformity to the dictates of the state. In his commencement day speech to the class of 1917, he stated boldly:

So long as national policies were in debate, we gave complete freedom, as is our wont, and as becomes a university—freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of publication to all members of the University who in lawful and decent ways might wish to inform and to guide public policy. Wrongheadedness and folly we might deplore, but we are bound to tolerate. So soon, however, as the nation spoke by the Congress and by the President, declaring that it would volunteer as one man for the protection and defense of civil liberty and self-government conditions sharply changed. What had been tolerated before becomes intolerable now. What had been wrongheadedness was now sedition. What had been folly was now treason. This is the University’s last and only warning to any among us, if such there be, who are not with whole heart and mind and strength committed to fight with us to make the world safe for democracy.33

Conditions had changed, only it was Randolph Bourne, not Butler, who correctly assessed the war’s impact on the American psyche when he stated that “war is the health of the State.“34

The issue of academic freedom tormented the Morningside campus. Columbia faculty members Leon Fraser, James McKeen Catell, Charles Beard, Henry R. Mussey, and Ellery C. Stowell either were dismissed or resigned in protest over the loyalty craze. It was extremely difficult for them to justify Butler’s position when only a couple of years earlier he had stated that “a university owes it to itself to defend members of its teaching staff from unjust and improper attacks made upon them, when in sincerely seeking truth they arrive at results which are either novel in themselves or in opposition to some prevailing opinion.“35 How was it possible to maintain impartiality and objectivity on the part of the university when the pressures of war demanded another set of values based on conformity at all costs? Butler had no pat answer. Allegiance to the government and Columbia’s Board of Trustees became more important than academic freedom and individual choice. Beard’s letter of resignation, addressed to Butler, put it best:

Having observed closely the inner life of Columbia for many years, I have been driven to the conclusion that the University is really under the control of a small and active group of trustees who have no standing in the world of education, who are reactionary and visionless in politics, narrow and medieval in religion. . . . I have, from the beginning, believed that a victory for the German Imperial Government would plunge all of us into the black night of military barbarism. . . . But thousands of my countrymen do not share this view. Their opinions cannot be changed by curses or bludgeons. Arguments addressed to their reason and understanding are our best hope.36

While at the same time chastizing certain members of his faculty for their lack of patriotism, Butler also found time to comment on President Wilson’s proposal for a League of Nations. In a series of articles appearing in the New York Times during the fall of 1916, and later published as The Basis of Durable Peace, Butler praised certain aspects of Wilson’s Covenant; he agreed in principle with the covenant’s reliance on the allegiance of free peoples, its recognition of international responsibility for labor conditions, health, and the welfare of backward peoples, and its provision of a world court to hear disputes.37 However, Wilson’s arbitrariness regarding American interdependence with Europe, and his insistence on combining the Covenant for the League of Nations with a peace treaty on cessation of warfare, ultimately led Butler to argue that the president had committed a “monumental blunder.“38

Spurred on by Elihu Root’s opposition to the League in support of a more juridical-legalist world order in the Hague tradition, Butler criticized Wilson’s emphasis on consultation and diplomacy, processes favoring expediency at the expense of right. Legalists and political conservatives lined up behind Butler in expressing fears of concentrated power in the hands of the central government, which now took an international form. In numerous speeches, Butler argued that the League of Nations meant “majority rule” in the form of a “supergovernment” by the same blundering politicians responsible for the tragedy of 1914.39

Butler’s most serious objection to the League plan as it stood, however, rested with Article X and its provisions for sanctions. He believed the covenant conflicted with the U.S. Constitution. What would happen, he asked, should the League decide on military action? Only Congress could commit American forces. He reasoned that to join the League without guaranteeing American freedom of action in disposing of its armed forces might create a situation in which, if Congress refused to participate in League-imposed sanctions, the nation would become a lawbreaker.40 Therefore, rather than total rejection of the League, as advocated by isolationists and Republican Irreconcilables, Butler suggested amending its covenant in line with his own judicialist preferences. He suggested the following proposals: (1) “the establishment of a High International Court of Justice”; (2) “the establishment of international conferences at stated intervals to codify and revise the rules of international law”; (3) “an amendment protecting the Monroe Doctrine in a proper form and not in the stupid form in which it has been attempted in the revised covenant.“41 What he had in mind, of course, was a juridical-legalist world order in place of a nebulous plan for collective security.

The failure of the U.S. Senate to approve the Versailles Treaty, thus dismissing American participation in the League of Nations, led peacemakers like Butler to search for alternative strategies to internationalism during the 1920s. One strategy Butler became interested in was the Outlawry of War movement.

The idea to outlaw war was the brainchild of a Chicago lawyer, Salmon O. Levinson.42 Levinson proposed outlawing the institution of war by universal declaration. He argued for the notion of outlawing war as an instrument of national policy on the grounds that law had to be codified before it could be applied, and that an international treaty agreement would alleviate American apprehensions of involvement with the League. Using his financial assets he established the American Committee for the Outlawry of War. He enlisted a number of supporters including Senator William Borah of Idaho and John Dewey. From 1923 to 1928 the movement spread rapidly.

But while Levinson, Borah, and Dewey were launching this outlawry campaign, Butler and James T. Shotwell, professor of international relations at Columbia, took up the cudgel and pronounced their own plan for abolishing war—the practical solution was not to use the term “outlaw” but rather to have nations agree to a treaty calling for the renunciation of war as an instrument of public policy. Part of the reason for Butler’s interest in the plan may have been based on his extreme dislike of the senator from Idaho. In a letter to his old peace colleague Edwin Mead, he commented that “Borah’s relation to an advanced and progressive foreign policy is absolutely nil. He is violently and persistently opposed to every step that will allow us to help in building up institutions to represent the peace-loving sentiment of the world. In fact, as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations he is at the present moment the chief obstacle to the advancement of the movement for peace among men.”43

Another reason for Butler’s support of this version of war renunciation was its implication of important ties between the United States and the League. During the postwar period Butler supported James T. Shotwell’s League of Nations Non-Partisan Association. Butler, now head of the Carnegie Endowment (he succeeded Root in 1925), supported Shotwell’s organization in its efforts to work for changes that would make the international experiment more effective at the same time it sought to make it more acceptable to the public. The Carnegie Endowment joined other League supporters-the World Peace Foundation, the Foreign Policy Association, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation—in an informal coalition to increase the involvement of the United States in an advisory capacity. 44 Although Butler remained firmly committed to American entry into the World Court, he saw no reason why the American government should not lend its expertise to the League.

But perhaps Butler’s main objection to Levinson’s scheme had to do with the word “outlaw”; he did not think it was a realistic term to employ. Substituting the word “renunciation” for “outlawry,” he thought, would inject a sense of realism into the peace campaign. As he recollected in a letter to John H. Finley, editor of the New York Times:

I took occasion at that time sharply to distinguish renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy from that of outlawry of war which had been suggested by a group in the United States and to which I was strongly opposed. I pointed out that to outlaw war meant to be ready to punish violators of that law, which punishment could be nothing other than war itself. I drew the parallel between renunciation and outlawry on the one hand, and temperance and prohibition on the other. Renunciation would be a moral act by a free agent, while outlawry would be merely a legal act with all the weaknesses, limitation and violations which laws carry in their train.45

Actually, Butler did not abandon his juridical instincts. He had hoped for an enlightened public opinion in all countries so that when a judicial decision was handed down, moral reason, not military force, would ease tensions. He was consistent in opposing force to keep peace. Like his outlawry competitors, moreover, he argued that the proposal’s effectiveness depended on the “plighted word” of all nations: “The alternative to war is simple, common, ordinary honesty. That is all. Unless all men and governments are liars, national policies will, without delay, be adjusted to the new international life that has been so gratefully brought into being.“46 This was a noble belief. But such a virtue as honesty means little in the eyes of a nation’s own perception of its national security.

Nevertheless, Butler was one of the prime movers behind the formulation of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, signed on August 28, 1928. He was responsible for arousing American support for French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand’s overture to the American government calling for a treaty to renounce war. No one is absolutely sure which camp got the better of the deal in their struggle for a warless world; but we are certain that Butler’s international contacts, a result of his association with the Carnegie Endowment, made it easier for such a proposal to be brought forth in the United States.47 When the idea finally did catch hold, Butler pushed the proposal through letters, speeches, and all the resources he could muster at the Carnegie Endowment. For example, between September 4, 1927, and April 28, 1928, he delivered numerous major addresses on the Kellogg-Briand Pact in New York, St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and many other cities.“48 Even after the pact had been ratified, he was the prime sponsor of Senator Arthur Capper’s resolution seeking to strengthen the pact by defining an aggressor during times of international crises.49

Congress paid little attention to the senator from Kansas’s resolution. A military appropriations bill seemed more pressing at the time. As Butler correctly concluded in a letter to Edwin Mead:

We shall make no progress until we keep admirals and generals out of the discussions, and turn these over to representatives of enlightened and progressive public opinion. . . . These gentlemen constantly tell us that they do not make wars, but only fight them to speed conclusion when made by politicians. Therefore, if politicians agree to renounce war as an instrument of national policy, the cooperation of military men will not be needed in arranging the details of international procedure.50

Unfortunately, it made no difference. The rise of fascism in Europe and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria tipped the scales in favor of the militarists. For all intents and purposes the pact was dead. But this did not discourage Butler, in the 1930s, from discussing issues such as disarmament, war debts, and international legalism for peace. Through the Carnegie Endowment he again pushed ahead by arranging conferences, traveling abroad, and calling on experts to prevent another world war.

During the interwar years Butler was adamantly opposed to any military buildup. His private letters, speeches, and writings indicated this. “Disarmament,” he stated, “will never come by pressure from without a nation, but only by pressure from within. . . . The reign of peace will cause armaments to atrophy from disuse. Disarmament will follow peace as an effect, not precede it as a cause.“51 Clearly, an armaments race brings with it serious domestic consequences:

There can be no doubt that a competitive race in armaments is an economic and moral disorder that has the gravest consequences, but the way in which to cure that disorder is to strike at causes and not merely at its symptoms. Its causes lie deep in human nature and in national pride and ambition. There is no practical way to lessen the likelihood of international war and to insure a consequent steady diminution in military and naval armaments except one which will bring the public opinion of the great nations of the world . . . to the support of the principle that international differences may and should be judicially examined and determined.52

Using the mechanism of the Carnegie Endowment, Butler began publicizing the problem of armaments. On Christmas Eve of 1930, for example, he asked Shotwell to provide him with “a reasonably accurate statement in round numbers of the amount being spent by the leading governments in armaments and in preparation for war. Several more or less responsible European public men have said that the amount was annually between five billion and six billion dollars. I do not want to quote or refer to this statement without first justifying it.“53 Armed with “facts” he then proposed a worldwide broadcast over the National Broadcasting Network in 1932 “To Arouse and Inform Public Opinion Regarding Problems Before Coming Disarmament Conference.” It called for fifteen- to twenty-minute speeches beginning on January 24 on “successive Sundays at noon New York Time.“54 It never materialized because the situation in Europe worsened.

Sadly, by the mid-1930s the realities of militarism had replaced the idealism of peace. In a, letter to peace advocate and friend Lucia Ames Mead, Butler commented on the growing tide of militarism in the United States: “The great and wholly unnecessary navy which the government of the United States has been maintaining is and must always be a temptation to its use and that use cannot be entered upon without rendering insecure the life of everyone who stands in any relation, direct or indirect, to the undertaking.” And at Columbia’s one hundred eighty-first commencement, Butler’s resignation at the turn of events clearly showed:

Had the Allies who dictated the Treaty of Versailles kept their word in the matter of reduction of armaments which they voluntarily and clearly pledged, Germany would have been deprived of the invitation to enter upon the amazing course of action which has recently been hers, to the dismay and disturbance of the whole world. . . . When sixty odd nations, including our own quickly ratified the Pact of Paris by which war was renounced as an instrument of national policy, and then immediately entered upon a huge increase in their appropriations for all the instruments of war, they did as much to bring about, to deepen and to prolong the worldwide economic depression as any single force or influence could possibly have done. They absolutely destroyed confidence in their plighted word.55

The world economic crisis that began in 1929 also compounded the iniquities of Versailles. The Depression, coupled with inter-Allied war debts, Butler feared, had polluted the climate of international relations.56 He believed that the collection of war debts unnecessarily provoked bitterness and saddled future generations with an enormous charge on productivity.57 He agreed with financier John Henry Hammond, who informed him that “to permanently improve the economic situation, I believe that tariffs must be reduced, commodity price levels raised, War debts and reparations suspended for years—and cancelled, if possible—and the danger of war averted. We must visualize an era of justice, good will and cooperation and work toward it, if world problems are to be solved.“58

During frequent trips to Britain, Butler also expressed his opinions on war debts. In 1932, in London, in an address sponsored by the Dunford House Association, Butler’s Cobden Memorial Lecture entitled “War Debts and the World Crisis” appealed for a conference to remove tariffs, quotas, and prohibitions. “It is our own interest,” he proclaimed, “to take the lead with our debtor nations-in sitting down with the rest of the world, and saying, what we are going to do. It is perfectly useless for us to say, legalistically, that there is no connection between Reparations and governmental War Debts, when really the two are so intertwined that a surgeon cannot separate them.“59 Three years later, through the Carnegie Endowment, he sponsored the Chatham House Conference in London. There citizens of ten nations—sixty businessmen, statesmen, and academicians (a throwback to his elitist belief of “enlightened entrepreneurs” working for peace through economic stabilization)—suggested easing the burdens of debtor nations and lowering tariffs resulting from the Great War. Among the proposals suggested at the conference were efforts to strengthen the League, establish a court of international justice and arbitration, check the growth of armaments, increase the effectiveness of the Pact of Paris through a regular method of consultation, and cooperation among nations for raising the standard of living.60 Throughout these years he kept arguing that “international monetary stabilization and the lowering of barriers to international trade are essential to that return of confidence upon which alone cooperating action by men or nations can be built.“61

During the same period Butler, along with Shotwell, helped organize a mass-action campaign for peace. Prodded by the defeat of the World Court bill they set up a committee in the spring of 1935 that worked out a statement that included world economic cooperation (expressly noting that the status quo must be altered), American association with the League (without any obligation involving the use of armed force), and an oblique reference to negative cooperation with collective sanctions. It included also matters much in the public mind—control of arms traffic, war profits, and disarmament.62 The committee concluded the statement with a recommendation that further meetings be held in the fall.

On October 3, 1935, forty-four persons gathered at Columbia University; most came from the upper crust of society. President Butler was empowered to create a committee and to arrange a program of action, and appointed Newton Baker chairman. What emerged from this meeting and subsequent ones was the formation of the National Peace Conference with Butler as an honorary president.63 Subsequently, the National Peace Conference merged with other peace groups to form the broad-based coalition known as the Emergency Peace Campaign; this new coalition later evolved into a public campaign that supported collective security in the face of the fascist threat.

Yet opposing as he did military expenditures, Article X of the League of Nations Covenant, and entangling alliances, though half-heartedly supporting collective security, all Butler could do by the late 1930s was call for a revision of the Pact of Paris to define aggressors as well as tell the people that what the world needed was another Alexander Hamilton.64 Although many of his speeches contained renewed references to collective security and an international police force—absent from his analysis was the least effort at reconciling this proposal with his objections to Article X—he never discussed the nature and extent of “police actions, ” the coordination of international forces with American troops, or the financial wherewithal to carry out their responsibilities.65

Butler kept believing that it was possible for nations to act like principled gentlemen. His high-minded elitism remained intact. In a speech delivered in London, he held firm to his moral conviction that mankind could judge right from wrong: “The most searching question before mankind then is: Can man be moral? Can he put human service above self-seeking, or must he be held in place and made to do so by a force which is essentially non-moral and in highest degree compulsory?“66 Yet he quietly confided to Shotwell that  “conditions in Germany, I look upon as distinctly psychopathic. How long it will take for that mania to run its course, or what the cure may be, I do not know. But surely while it lasts, it eliminates Germany from the list of important progressive nations. After all that the German people have accomplished during the past two and one-half centuries, this is a downfall which no one could have ventured to predict.“67

By 1940, Butler once more supported the call to arms. Although the situation had changed, his convictions for a world free from militarism and dictatorship had not. In his annual Armistice Day Statement the president of one of the most influential peace organizations in the world declared: “So it is that the appeal on this Armistice Day must be to the free peoples of the world to unite their influence and their achievements, their power and their ideals, not only to resist and to repel invasion and overthrow by the rule of force, but to serve as an example and a heartening encouragement to those oppressed peoples which, we may be certain, will one day insist on being once more set free.“68 A year later the suit of armor had been properly fitted to slay the dragon of totalitarianism. “The warning by destiny,” Butler solemnly said, “must inspire in the highest authorities and the humblest citizens, reverent understanding of the formidable task that America has assumed, and must impose the resolve to work, produce, feel, fight without hesitations and restrictions, with all forces and determination, bravely and to the end.“69

In conclusion, what lessons can be learned from Butler’s association with the peace movement? Was he merely a lifelong Anglophilic interventionist who spoke the internationalist vocabulary? And was this almost quintessential Victorian liberal able to come to terms with changing American reform practices and the concurrent breakup of twentieth-century global politics?

First, Butler represented the breed of internationalist characteristic of the nineteenth-century Kantian approach to peace; this may have been Butler’s most important contribution to the peace movement. Balance-of-power diplomacy no longer could prevent wars. What was needed was the development of legal machinery for the peaceful settlement of disputes. Judicialists, like Butler, sought to universalize the principles of the American judicial system. They contended that the foundation of the American constitutional system lay in the power of the Supreme Court to adjudicate vital differences among sovereign states. Influenced by their own domestic setting, they argued that the Supreme Court successfully applied the rule of law among rival states without applying physical force. The Butler-type internationalist believed that a world court could civilize the natural aggressiveness of mankind, and that rivalrous relations of nations could have a peaceful evolution.

This assumption rested heavily on the elite, peace-through-internationalism approach that was very much establishment-oriented. With Kant as his guide, Butler, the educator, never abandoned his noble commitment to morality as an instrument for creating an enlightened public opinion. He believed that man was a rational being, and that those fit to lead would protect human freedom and the sacredness of the individual. If moral decisions are possible, he asserted, the individual must be free to choose and act. The job of the educator as societal leader is to elevate humanity and assist in carrying “forward that complex of ideas, acts, and institutions which we call civilization.”70

But can mankind’s intellect and rationality move civilization forward by caging up the dogs of war? Although Butler was by no means a devout and committed militarist, his support of both wars does appear to be a contradiction to his lifelong struggle for peace. It is possible to argue correctly that he attributed to war the very values for which he had worked prior to the conflagration. Yet the search for international equity, law, and order somehow became submerged under the muddy waters of hyperpatriotism. Butler’s unwillingness to criticize his own government’s policies when necessary and his inability to differentiate between individual loyalty to one’s conscience and group loyalty to national government, as evidenced by his own censorship of the Columbia faculty during wartime, indicates how easily morality and idealism can be swayed in favor of national conformity. David Starr Jordan, Stanford University president, seemed to recognize this when he wrote in later years:

It is plain that while the people of every country generally abhorred war, their pacifism was often only skin deep, overlying international hatred and dominated by false patriotism which regards all other nations as Potential enemies . . . this opportunist pacifism was not devoted to peace and its constructive possibilities; it was merely nationalism sweetened, tempered and enfeebled—a thin veil drawn across nationalism.71

Had Butler been a strict pacifist this charge would not have applied. Yet there is a central dilemma that peace groups, pacifist and nonpacifist alike, have been unable to resolve. Since peace, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder, any challenge or crisis may send peace advocates scurrying in different directions. That is exactly what happened to Butler in 1917 and the subsequent two decades. The war shook the peace movement to its foundations and no one was exactly sure in what direction it should move. Within the ranks of peacemakers, compromise replaced continuity as internationalists such as Butler attempted to bring divergent coalitions together in the name of lasting peace.

Still, his journey from a prewar judicialist and critic of Wilson’s League of Nations into a postwar promoter of cooperation with the League and, by the 1930s, of the notion of collective security does not represent an abandonment of his basic Kantian commitment to the elitist, peace-through-internationalism approach. Rather it indicates his own efforts to unite his views with other postwar peace factions over the elements of organization—the terms on which nations would be related to one another.

From an organizational viewpoint, however, the postwar peace movements continued to develop from the separate experiences of the pacifists who had opposed World War I and the internationalists, like Butler, who had supported it. Neither wing formed a unified political whole. Each represented a loose and shifting coalition; and even though both advocated some of the same alternatives, they remained, for a generation at least, distinct and occasionally conflicting movements. Thus the Outlawry of War and the World Court, compatible in theory, politically came to have alternative priorities. Internationalists were unable to form a working coalition to secure them both, and isolationists used each alternative to weaken the other. The outlawry idea was disembodied in the Kellogg-Briand Pact without visible means of enforcement. The World Court did not even pass a U.S. Senate vote in 1935. During the 1930s leading internationalists, against the backdrop of rising totalitarianism and disintegrating international relations, sought to organize a more effective political coalition. Initially they designed it to support disarmament negotiations and liberal economic policies abroad, but the new coalition was soon converted to the cause of collective sanctions against aggressor states. Inevitably it came into confrontation with a well-developed pacifist coalition, thereby rendering ineffective any campaign for peace.

In the final analysis the complex and alternative strategies of the peace movement caused this politically effective and respected operator to become an ineffectual advocate in the campaign for an internationally organized peace. Clearly, the dilemma facing reform movements that for an extended period of time straddled commitments to both world community and unilateral nationalism characterized the interwar American peace movement and Nicholas Murray Butler’s involvement in it. The dilemmas of the peace groups and Butler’s leadership of one such group remain both a source of inspiration and a wellspring of frustration.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 85 Number 2, 1983, p. 291-313 ID Number: 873, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 11:31:31 AM

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