Dr. Isabel V. Hull speaks at Lore Kephart Lecture Series

Eric Bellomo

On October 9, 2014, Dr. Isabel V. Hull, the John Stambaugh Professor of History at Cornell University, presented her research in a talk entitled “Reinterpreting the First World War Through the Lens of International Law.” 

Doctor Paul Rosier, chair of the University’s History department, introduced Dr. Hull to an audience that filled the Villanova Room and included Reverend Kail Ellis, PhD. and the Dean of the University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Dr. Adele Lindenmeyr. 

In 2009 the Lore Kephart Distinguished Historians Lecture Series was established in honor of Lore Kephart who passed away on Dec. 30, 2006. 

Kephart graduated from the University in 1986 as her class valedictorian with a double major in political science and history, despite sustaining a life-changing accident in 1977. 

While at the University, Kephart founded the Student History Journal and worked closely with the Foreign Policy Association. 

Amongst her most prolific accomplishments were the publication of her books, “Paths to Prayer–A little Book of New Testament Devotions” and “Continuing Paths to Prayer—A little Book of Old Testament Devotions.” 

Today, the Lore Kephart Lecture Series endeavors “to continue Lore’s life-long dedication to providing vehicles through which people can better appreciate past times and events that shaped the world in which we currently live.”

The first topic of discussion for Dr. Hull was the inherent imperfection of international law. 

She argued that international law, especially in its infancy early in the 20th century, wasn’t a black letter law, but rather, it was, and still is, subject to argument and interpretation. 

A corollary to this statement, and something we saw during and after the War, is that a breach in international law can yield a change in the law itself. 

In other words, it was impossible for the architects of international law to anticipate everything that they would encounter and, consequently, they had to adapt. 

At the onset of the First World War, not even the most macabre observer could have imagined the use of poisonous gas or unrestricted submarine warfare, and it was thus impossible to account for such a reprehensible act. 

Hull went on to articulate that how and why a state breaks a law, in addition to the intensity of the breach itself, is needed to evaluate the severity of the transgression. More specifically, one must measure the conduct of the transgressor in war against the war itself. 

The German actions within the first three months of the fighting immediately foreshadowed serious malfeasances, including: the violation of Belgian neutrality, the commencement of unrestricted submarine warfare and the use of lethal gas. 

Germany, essentially, signaled through its actions that it had a different interpretation of the law then the rest of Europe. 

Additionally, Germany’s actions could be interpreted as acts of self-preservation; in order to immediately preserve the state, and to ensure its future prosperity, Germany was able to justify its actions. 

Continuing to dive deeper into the philosophical underpinnings of war, Hull first described “military necessity” as the idea that war is inevitably going to erupt, and under such circumstances, soldiers are neither murderers nor vandals. 

By extension, “military realism” posits that during a war, unlimited, unbridled force will be exerted on each side by its opponent and it is not the state who makes the laws of war, but the war itself. 

The final term she explored was “weapon positivism,” which essentially states that the nature of the weapon determines its uses and customs on the battlefield. 

Implicit in weapons positivism is that there are law free zones as far as technological development is concerned, because during the development and initial use of a certain weapons there are pockets of time where there are no customs on the acceptable use of said weapon. 

For example, with the revolutionary development of the submarine, there had not yet been any discourse as to its working rules, and the only way we could determine what was legal and illegal was through experimentation. 

Although one could easily argue there are ethical laws, which can be as binding as material laws, to manage its deployment, they instead circumvented any ethical obligations they may have had. 

When Hull juxtaposed the Allied and German actions, she observed a critical difference. 

Although the Allies made ethically questionable decisions, it was the events preceding the execution of the action that separated them from their opponents. 

When the Allies decided to impose their blockade, for example, there was little question as to whether or not the blockade itself was unethical, but what justified their actions was that they sought to prevent any German advance. 

Instead of acting impulsively, and with an intent of destruction, as the Germans did, the decision making process of the Allies was quite thorough. 

Extensive internal discussion on the merits of the blockade took place and the Allies were aware of their public perception and how the blockade would be received. 

Additionally, when the blockade was imposed, it was gradually imposed so as to signal to the neutral states what they needed to prepare for. 

Essentially what separated the Allies and their opponents was how thoroughly they evaluated their actions, the true purpose of the actions and the nature with which they imposed their will. 

Before Hull finished her presentation, she briefly discussed her thoughts on two topics: the Allied actions during post-World War One reconstruction and if Germany prevailed, whether or not it would they have been able to establish a working world order. 

While the world was still smoldering, the Allies tried to create an international order for peace, but unfortunately, the League of Nations never fully materialized and was without a leader. 

The world was left to its own devices to resurrect itself as best as possible. 

Finally, Hull argued that Germany would have been unable to establish a working order because of their dynamism and sensitivity to change. 

She argued that they had established a precedent by undermining international law and whatever order they established would be equally as vulnerable.  

Hull’s fascinating presentation portrayed the philosophical exploration of one of the most transformative periods in human history. 

Her expertise and mastery of the subject matter was evident from the moment she stepped onto the stage until she exited to rousing applause, undoubtedly fulfilling the mission of the Lore Kephart Distinguished Historians Lecture Series, and undoubtedly set a positive example for future speakers in the series.