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By Sebastien Roblin, War Is Boring
A declaration of war is usually a pretty serious matter. Sometimes, however, it’s just for show. In those cases, at-war status can linger in legal limbo for decades or even centuries, long after any pretext for actual combat has evaporated.
Consider the following case studies of declared war … and undeclared peace.
In May 1918, as German troops engaged in a last-ditch offensive they hoped would reverse their country’s fortunes in World War I, a new player threw its support behind the Allied cause — Costa Rica!
The small Central American country’s president, Federico Tinoco Granados, had come to power in a coup the year before and was eager to receive diplomatic recognition from the United States, along with the foreign aid such recognition might secure for his impoverished country.
In return for his declaration, Granados received a proverbial pat in the back from U.S. president Woodrew Wilson for “supporting the cause of liberty.” And that’s it.
The United States refused to recognize Granados’s repressive dictatorship and barred his government from attending the peace talks at Versailles. Granados resigned in 1919 — but the declaration of war remained in place, lasting conveniently all the way through World War II, when Costa Rice did contribute to the Allies by taking in Jewish refugees, allied ships and Axis prisoners of war.
Costa Rica finally made peace with Germany after the latter’s surrender in 1945.
Likewise, the Principality of Andorra was an ally of the Entente powers — Russia, France and Great Britain — at the very beginning of World War I. But Andorra didn’t send any of its 10 part-time soldiers to the front. Nor was it a signatory to the Treaty of Versailles.
In other words, for the tiny country of then roughly 5,000 people, the war never ended.
Andorra hastily corrected that diplomatic oversight in 1939 as German chancellor Adolf Hitler’s army began its campaign of conquest across Europe. This did not prevent the Nazis from occupying Andorra in 1942.
In 1651, England was nearing the end of a nine-year civil war pitting the Parliamentarian Roundheads — who espoused democracy and stern, puritanical religious fanaticism — against the Royalists, whose Cavaliers became synonymous with dandified aristocrats sporting amazing hair.
Supported by the Dutch navy, the Parliamentarians were mopping up coastal Cornwall, one of the last Royalist strongholds. The Dutch sided with the Protestant factions because they, in turn, had long aided the Dutch in their own struggle against Spanish occupation.
Royalist privateers based on the isles of Scilly — an archipelago 28 miles off of the Cornish coast which today has a population of just 2,300 — had harried Dutch ships. The Parliamentarians had captured the isles back in 1647 after a long siege, but the garrison mutinied, reverting the isles to Royalist control.
An irritated Dutch admiral, Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp, sailed a 12-ship fleet up to Pendennis on March 30, 1651 and demanded reparations for the pirated goods.
When the islanders refused, Tromp declared war on just Scilly — because the rest of Britain was under Parliamentarian control. But before any fighting occurred, Roundheads under the command of Robert Blake seized the islands — and The Netherlands never bothered declaring peace with Scilly.
The Scillonians did remember, however, and when a 1985 inquiry meant to dispel the “legend” of the declaration of war in fact proved it to be real, the Dutch and Scillonians decided to organize a special ceremony on April 17, 1986 in order to formally end the 335-year war.
Dutch ambassador Rein Huydecoper joked that the islanders must have been nervous that the Dutch “could have attacked at any time.”
Some dismiss the conflict on the grounds that war can only be declared by one state upon another. Another criticism is that Tromp lacked the authority to declare war on behalf of The Netherlands — and that he did so merely as an attempt at intimidation.
Now consider the town of Huéscar in the province of Granada, Spain. Huéscar declared war against Denmark in 1809 because the Scandinavian country had allied with French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, whose troops occupied Spain during the Peninsular War.
An historian discovered the forgotten declaration 172 years later in 1981. Spain convened a meeting with the Danish ambassador in order to sign an armistice.
In 1904, according to many accounts, the Kingdom of Montenegro declared war on Japan. The tiny state was more than 9,000 kilometers distant from its Pacific adversary.
Montenegro had been born out of pan-Slavic uprisings against centuries of Turkish occupation that succeeded in no small part due to Russian support. So Montenegrins felt a lot of sympathy for Russia when Moscow’s forces in China came under a Japanese surprise attack in 1904.
In fact, Montenegrin historian Novak Raznotovic disputes that there was any official declaration of war. According to Raznatovic, Prince Nikola of Montenegro had earlier been given a purely honorary colonel’s commission in a Russian regiment, and the prince simply made a statement exhorting his regiment to victory when it deployed against the Japanese.
But whether war was officially declared or not, a lot of Montenegrins volunteered to fight alongside the Russians, including Prince Arsen Karadjordjevic, who commanded a regiment of Cossack cavalry at the Battle of Mukden. Maj. Gen. Jovan Lipovac led up to 14,000 soldiers in several major battles, and there is even an account of one Montenegrin volunteer defeating a Japanese soldier in a sword duel on horseback.
Despite the Montenegrins’ sword-fighting skills, Russia suffered a series of humiliating defeats, culminating in a rout at the Battle of Mukden. U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt helped negotiate a peace settlement. Montenegro did not participate.
Fourteen years later in 1919, Montenegro ceased to be a sovereign state when it formally joined the new kingdom of Yugoslavia. However, Yugoslavia tragically disintegrated in a civil war between 1990 and 1995, and Montenegrins later voted in favor of independence on May 31, 2006.
One of the first official acts of Montenegro’s new government was a joint declaration of peace with Japan. Today Japan is the Balkan state’s 12th-largest trading partner.
The previous cases reflected anomalies and breakdowns in diplomatic machinery. However, there have also times where remaining officially at war was politically convenient, even after any real fighting had ended.
For example, the United States remained officially at war with Germany until the declaration of an “end of state of war” on Oct. 19, 1951 — more than six years after Germany’s surrender. Maintaining the state of war had provided the legal basis for the Allies to occupy Germany — until new paperwork could be drafted.
One hyper-literal interpretation maintains that the state of war persisted until the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany in 1990, which reunified West and East Germany and ended outstanding claims related to World War II.
As this argument goes, the problem was that the war had transformed Nazi Germany from a single state into two states, West Germany and East Germany. The conflict could not end until the two Germanys reunited.
Likewise, in 1991 the United Kingdom conducted military operations against Iraq under U.N. resolutions 678 and 687. The conflict ended in a “ceasefire” rather than a formal termination of hostilities. British prime minister Tony Blair cited this technicality as the legal justification for the United Kingdom’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003.
It’s a questionable argument, however, as the resolutions authorized military force for the purpose of liberating Kuwait, not ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.
The history of diplomatic mishaps shows how war, in addition to being horrible, can also be a sort of social fiction that governments invoke for all kinds of reasons. Countries declare war to show solidarity with friends, to reap the glory of a victory they didn’t actually earn or to satisfy inconvenient legal requirements.
This piece was originally published in 2016 by War Is Boring.