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A Little History Contribution for the International Day of Peace

Things You Should Ask Your History Program to Tell You about Peace (or if you’re shaping a program, things you should be sure to include).

There are two related problems in urging more attention to the history of peace. First, the risk of seeming naïve or unrealistic; nothing much to do about that, just grit your teeth. As Gandhi noted, peace often requires more courage than the alternative. Second, the inevitable derisory remark, “it must be a really short course”; that one can be disproved.

It is true of course that the history of peace is a fairly unusual topic, compared to the history of war. But it is a topic – the point of this brief note – and it is particularly desirable at a time when the United States has been so often at war, when we’re dealing with a generation of students who may think that war (conveniently remote war, to be sure), is a standard condition, when we have politicians vying to prove who can rattle the saber the loudest and most unrealistically.

So first: peace is historically more normal than war. Admittedly, some societies encounter peace simply from temporary exhaustion, a pause as leaders prepare for the next round of conflict – as with Louis XIV’s France. But there are other periods of peace as well. War is a result of failure, as Sun Tzu noted long ago, which means that we should be spending some time tracing alternatives. The causes of peace deserve at least as much attention as those of war (see 3-5 below). An explicit history of peace, or deliberate peace components in other history work, may in themselves serve as a corrective to facile assumptions about the inevitability of war.

History encourages exploration of other societies, and how they may approach choices for peace. Historical analysis should help us grasp why some societies react in ways we don’t expect or welcome – not necessarily to accept their goals, but at least to improve the possibility of constructive reaction. We ultimately learned in the Cold War, for example, that we did not have adequate understanding of Russians motives and anxieties, and that we often exaggerated responses as a result.

There are more specific targets as well – five in fact, though they admittedly overlap.

1. History must remind us of the horrors of war. This was a point recently emphasized in Japanese gatherings on the occasion of the atomic bomb’s 70th anniversary: only 20% of current Japanese were alive when the nation was last at war, and there may be some risk of forgetting war’s devastation. The French troops and crowds that marched gaily off to war in 1914, expecting an exciting alternative to daily routine and a quick, victorious conclusion had forgotten a dreadful experience just 33 years before – and of course they would be brutally disillusioned. History must contribute to reality checks.

2. History, as is often noted, helps people learn from mistakes – even if the old bromide about repeating the past is a bit simplistic. Americans now largely agree that invading Iraq in 2003 was a mistake; can we take this to the next step (not in partisan fashion; that’s not the point), and analyze a bit more directly how the mistake occurred (amid substantial public support) and how it might be avoided in future? European Resistance leaders belatedly learned from their continent’s bloody history, and deliberately constructed institutions after World War II that have so far changed that region’s course. Anyone today interested in the future of Chinese-American relations would do well to ponder the mistakes made in German-British relations, another case where an established power was dealing with a rising aspirant, that led to what we now realize was an eminently avoidable war in 1914. The examples go on.

3. Shading off from learning from mistakes, history should help us explore why some arrangements for peace work better than others. Comparing Vienna, in 1815, to the disastrous arrangements in Versailles, a century later, is a case in point: Vienna was not perfect, but it involved processes and deliberate decisions that deserve consideration. It’s better to include an enemy than to exclude, better not to insist on abject surrender than to try to make an entire nation feel guilty. More recent history obviously provides its own list of relatively successful options, particularly in the area of post-conflict reconciliations.

4. History can allow us to pay more attention to leaders and movements that deliberately sought peace. Of course, none ultimately has succeeded in entirely reshaping conflict, but many provide both inspiration and some explanation of how periods of peace can emerge. My list would include Ashoka, Akbar (the second Mughal emperor, whose ideas about peace and tolerance are truly interesting), and the wave of peace movements that developed from the late 18th century into the 19th, and that have been almost entirely lost from active memory. These movements included a strong United States presence (it was an American statesman, Benjamin Rush, who first ever proposed a cabinet ministry for peace, in 1796), but also important strivings in Western Europe, in Russia (ultimately including Tolstoy), in Iran.

5. And finally history should really be used to explore regions that enjoy or have enjoyed unusual appreciation of peace. Like Latin America, where conventional war has been surprisingly unusual; or southeast Asia at many points including post-Vietnam; or much more recently, since apartheid, southern Africa. Understanding why and how many regions largely avoid war may not always provide replicable lessons, but they certainly merit consideration.

Ultimately of course we must hope to do better than history, to improve the human capacity for
peace beyond precedent — and there are actually some contemporary factors to consider in this light. But we can move beyond precedent only if we gain better understanding of what the past already suggests concerning peace options and motivations. So let’s put some pressure on history programs, casting about for relevance right now in any event, to give peace a fuller play, for there are crucial parts of the past that we underappreciate to our detriment.