Jane Addams: Peace, War, and World Order

1919 Zurich Conference

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The Zurich Conference in Session

            Since its first meeting in Paris, in 1878, the International Congress of Women have gathered women from around the world to discuss and advance issues related to women’s rights and their social, economic, and political empowerment.  Prior to the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, the congress met in London (1899), Berlin (1904), Amsterdam (1908), Toronto (1909), and Stockholm (1911).  At The Hague conference (1915), delegates from Europe and North America adopt resolutions calling for the end the war and to advance the rights of women.  They also launch the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace (ICWPP) and elect Jane Addams president.

            The Zürich Peace Conference takes place from May 12 - 19, 1919.  It involves 146 women delegates from 15 countries. Among them are 23 American delegates, 23 British delegates, and 27 German delegates (the French government barred the French delegation from attending).  Conducted mostly in English and German, the Zürich Congress coincides with the latter sessions of the Paris Peace Conference.  (The signing of the Treaty of Versailles, on June 28, 1919, formally ended World War I between the Allied powers and Germany.)

            The Zürich Congress opens on Monday, May 12th with a welcoming address by Addams.  She describes the Congress as an alternative to the “traditional conventions” of state-centric and male-dominated international relations playing out in Paris.  From The Hague to Zürich, she represents the wartime peace advocacy of the women as a “great spiritual awakening in international relations” (Addams, 2002: 88).  She honors women from both sides of the conflict who, because of their opposition to the war, had faced harassment and approbation from their governments and fellow citizens, which, she says, “produced a certain fellowship” among the women and revealed “that the war methods” of government espionage against pacifists “are identical in all nations.”  Though separated from one another because of the “artificial barriers of war,” these women, Addams continues, “had revelations of the strength of moral scruple, of the searchings [sic] of heart…”  Concluding, Addams calls upon the delegates to share with one another their wartime experiences, their hopes for the future, and to chart how they will advocate for post-war social reform in their home countries (Addams, 2005: 197-98).   

            The delegates adopt a variety of resolutions. Addams explains that the purpose of the resolutions is to achieve “permanent arrangements that justice shall be rendered and peace maintained” among countries (Addams, 2002: 90).  One resolution, presented by the English delegate Pethwick Lawrence, deals with the unfolding famine in Europe and calls for the immediate end to the Allied naval blockade that was preventing the delivery of food, medicine, and other goods to Germany and her war-time allies.  Among other things, the resolution also advocates for creating an international institution to mobilize the world’s resources – “food, raw materials, finance, transport” (Addams, 2002: 92) – to end the famine and deadly diseases afflicting war-weary people.  The women telegraph the resolution to the various national delegations at the Paris conference. President Woodrow Wilson, admired by the women, replies and, while he expresses his sympathies for the resolution, he informs them that their petition for the immediate end of the blockade would not be taken up at Paris.    

            The delegates also respond to the newly released public draft of the Versailles Treaty.  They condemn the treaty, claiming its terms are at odds with “the principles upon which…a just and lasting peace can be secured, and which the democracies of the world had come to accept” (WILPF Resolutions).  Delegates also object to the treaty’s acceptance of the secret treaties negotiated between the victorious countries during the war; the denial of self-determination of those subject to the Allies’ colonial rule and the League’s system of mandates; the provisions limiting disarmament to only the vanquished powers; and the system of reparations that the Zürich delegates concluded would “create all over Europe discords and animosities, which can only lead to future wars” and would doom “a hundred million people of this generation in the heart of Europe…to poverty, disease, and despair which must result in the spread of hatred and anarchy in each nation” (WILPF Resolutions). The women perceptively conclude that the Treaty of Versailles has established the conditions for another devastating and deadly European-wide conflict. The treaty is a recipe for revolutionary upheaval and widespread deprivation in Central and Eastern Europe as well as a legal mechanism for the Allied powers to exact revenge on Germany.  The women also telegraph another resolution to the country delegations in Paris, urging them to amend the peace treaty and bring it “into harmony with those principles first enumerated by President Wilson” (Addams, 2002: 93).

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American Delegation to the Zurich Conference

            Recalling that they had endorsed the establishment of an international organization “to represent the will of the people and promote international cooperation” (WILPF Resolutions) at their previous meeting in The Hague, in 1915, the delegates at the Zürich Congress give their support to the Covenant’s inclusion of principles that 1.) call for international mechanisms for international arbitration and conciliation, 2.) will help combat disease and improve human health, 3.) end the secret treaties that imperil international peace, 4.) reduce armaments, and 5.) open international transit and equal trading opportunities among countries.  Nevertheless, they determine that the League Covenant does not contain “[e]ssential [c]onditions” for lasting peace, which includes principles like the right of open membership for all states (the Covenant excluded the Central Powers), the immediate reduction in armaments, and the end to military conscription among all member states. The Zürich delegates also propose a set of progressive principles to help strengthen the League’s handling of international security matters.  They call for “total disarmament (land, sea, and air)” and the means to enforce the League’s directives other than either “military pressure” or food blockades.  They affirm the rule of international law by endorsing the annulment of all treaties not registered with the League.  The delegates also insist that all treaties ought to be ratified by democratic means (i.e. an “elected legislative body”) and that the people ought to elect their country’s executive representative on the League of Nations.  On the matter of basic civil liberties and civil rights, the delegates called for the prohibition of government censorship, “full and equal suffrage and the full equality of women with men politically, socially, and economically,” and basic rights for minority groups.  As for economic affairs, they endorse free trade, a strategy for providing basic human needs to all (i.e., the “production and distribution of the necessities of life at the smallest cost”), and the end of both child labor and the practice by countries of intervening in each other’s affairs to protect the foreign investments of their nationals.  Finally, the delegates reaffirm their unwavering support for national self-determination and the economic and political development of people subject to the League’s mandate system (WILPF Resolutions).

            The delegates also call upon the countries at the Paris Peace Conference to adopt a Woman’s Charter to promote women’s education and open new opportunities for women in society.  Among the various principles of this agreement the Zürich delegates include women’s suffrage; equality for women in marriage, education, and job training; the end of slavery and the sex trade; and economic security for women and children (WILPF Resolutions).  

            Additionally, the delegates rename their organization the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and designated Geneva as its global headquarters.  (The Treaty of Versailles established Geneva as the location of the League of Nations.)

            Addams formally closes the conference on May 17.  In her remarks, she calls upon the delegates to “believe in spiritual power” and, by cultivating and utilizing “moral energy,” “put a new sort of force into the world…that will heal the world and bring it back into a normal condition.”  She applauds this small group of women from belligerent and neutral countries for coming together at a critical moment in history – “in genuine friendship and understanding” – and represents their work as a model for what might be achieved “on a larger scale.”  “So I bid you go forth to this great task, and we shall all know that we have this sisterhood and comradeship together,” she concludes.  “Whether we fail or not, we know we have the clue, and the military way will have to come to an end, if only because it has tried to do what could not be done except by spiritual power, and so has ruined itself” (Addams, 2005: 202).