At the outset of the present century there emerged in the United States, England, and other parts of northern Europe a vigorous movement for strengthening and consolidating world peace, primarily by the developing of new legal codes of international behavior. The movement was given a significant fillip when Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in 1899 issued a call for an international conference on disarmament. This curious initiative, largely the product of the immature dilettantism of the Tsar himself and elaborated by the characteristic confusions of the Russian governmental establishment of the time, was not a serious one. But it was at once seized upon with enthusiasm by adherents of the peace movements and had consequences the Tsar himself had not anticipated. Of those, the most important were the two Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, resulting in a modernization and renewed codification of international law and in a significant elaboration, in particular, of the laws of war.
Beyond that there was, especially in the United States, a marked surge of interest in and enthusiasm for the negotiation and adoption of treaties of arbitration and conciliation. And these governmental efforts were supported by a number of private institutional initiatives, of which one of the most lasting and notable was the founding, in 1910, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That institution was only one of the several creative initiatives of Andrew Carnegie on behalf of world peace, another being the erection of the great “Peace Palace” at the Hague.
It is both sad and ironic to reflect that these so far-seeing and commendable efforts on behalf of international peace were proceeding simultaneously with the intensive pursuit by the great European powers of what were, whether so intended or otherwise, preparations for the First World War. As recently as 1894 the French and the Russian general staffs had linked the fates of their countries in a secret treaty of alliance, so worded as almost to ensure that there could be no further minor complication in European affairs that would not lead to wider hostilities among the great powers. It was in 1898 that there had been inaugurated, for the first time in earnest, the unnecessary and dreadfully misguided effort of Kaiser Wilhelm Il’s Germany to compete with Great Britain in the development of naval power. And throughout all of it the great powers were busy with other military preparations that, however defensively conceived, simply diminished whatever small possibility of avoiding a general conflagration might still have existed.
In the face of all the preparations, the strivings and enthusiasms of the peace movement of those first years of this century might appear, in retrospect, unrealistic, naive, and pathetic. But they were, in addition to being—as we see today—profoundly prophetic and well justified in the concerns they reflected, deeply, almost desperately, believed in by those who experienced them. And they were not wholly without justification. Nearly a hundred years had then elapsed since the last great all-European military conflagration, that…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.