We are living in an Age of War. The US conflict in Afghanistan is now the longest war in American history. US war planes are dropping record amounts of bombs on Iraq and Syria. The Senate just approved a $700 billion military budget.
In the tumultuous White House, some of the president’s most trusted and enduring advisors are those in the military. Meanwhile, Trump is calling Kim Jong-un “Little Rocket Man” over Twitter and threatening North Korea with “fire and fury.”
A US war with North Korea is now a clear possibility. James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, puts the likelihood of a conventional war with North Korea at 50-50, and the chance of a nuclear war at 10%.
“We are closer to a nuclear exchange than we have been at any time in the world’s history with the single exception of the Cuban missile crisis,” Stavridis said.
All of this makes the 224-year-old demand for a Department of Peace in the US government seem unrealistic.
Besides, Trump has recently shown how powerless certain government offices are in the face of presidential power. And the US military-industrial complex, based on entrenched capitalism and a lust for war, is less likely to be dismantled by a Department of Peace than by a mass movement in the streets.
Yet a look back to the history and political vision of the demand for such a department offers methods for transforming our militaristic culture, and provides a political toolbox for peace rather than perpetual war.
“Pruning-hooks made out of swords”
The idea for a Department of Peace dates back to the early years of the United States when Benjamin Rush, a signer the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, advocated for the establishment of a Peace Office. Rush argued that such an office would help provide a check on the power of the War Office, later named the Department of Defense in 1949.
In his 1793 essay “A Plan for a Peace Office for the United States,” which was well-known in its day, Rush argued for the establishment of “an office for promoting and preserving perpetual peace in our country.” While Rush called for the Secretary of Peace to be a “sincere Christian,” said the office should distribute Bibles to every American, and failed, in this essay, to directly condemn the “war with the Indians,” some of the principles of his request for a Peace Office are relevant to today.
For example, Rush pointed out the ways in which the show, titles, and dress of military order distracted from the blood and gore of battle. “[M]ilitary dresses and military titles should be laid aside,” he wrote, arguing that such structures “tend to lessen the horrors of a battle by connecting them with the charms of order.”
“[W]ere there no uniforms, there would probably be no armies,” he wrote, “military titles feed vanity, and keep up ideas in the mind which lessen a sense of the folly and miseries of war.”
He called for a Peace Office adjoining the federal hall, in which there should “be a collection of plough-shares and pruning-hooks made out of swords and spears…”
The paintings and symbols of peace he requested for this office were to be contrasted with that of the War Office, whose true colors, Rush argued, should be on display.
In order to “more deeply to affect the minds of the citizens of the United States with the blessings of peace, by contrasting them with the evils of war” he asked that the following inscriptions be painted on a sign hanging over the door of the War Office
1. An office for butchering the human species.
2. A Widow and Orphan making office.
3. A broken bone making office.
4. A Wooden leg making office.
5. An office for the creating of public and private vices.
6. An office for creating a public debt.
7. An office for creating speculators, stock jobbers, and bankrupts.
8. An office for creating famine.
9. An office for creating pestilential diseases.
10. An office for creating poverty, and the destruction of liberty, and national happiness.
“In the lobby of this office,” Rush concluded, “let there be painted representations of all the common military instruments of death, also human skulls, broken bones, unburied and putrefying dead bodies, hospitals crowded with sick and wounded soldiers, villages on fire, mothers in besieged towns eating the flesh of their children, ships sinking in the ocean, rivers dyed with blood, and extensive plains without a tree or fence, or any object, but the ruins of deserted farmhouses. Above this group of woeful figures, — let the following words be inserted, in red characters to represent human blood, ‘NATIONAL GLORY.’”
“The positive aggressiveness of peace”
Dozens of social justice leaders and members of Congress have taken up the demand for an Office or Department of Peace since Rush wrote this essay.
In 1925, Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters, called for a cabinet-level Department of Peace. She once announced, according to her biography Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life, that “War will disappear from the earth when women decide the time has come.”
“Give the new peace institution some of the eighty-two cents per dollar now going to the war institution,” Catt said of the Department of Peace, “and set up as lively a publicity section for arbitration as there is for a big navy. Keep the building going until confidence in the positive aggressiveness of peace produces in all the advanced countries the sense of security, as it certainly will.”
A number of Senators and members of Congress introduced legislation for the creation of a US Department of Peace throughout the 20th century. In 2001, Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) introduced a bill to create such a department.
“Is war inevitable?”
The concept of a Department of Peace first came to Kucinich when he witnessed the bombing of Serbia by the US military under the Bill Clinton administration.
“I began to study war,” Kucinich told Walter Cronkite in a 2005 interview. “I learned that over a hundred million people perished in the 20th century in wars, most of them civilians, non-combatants. I began to look at the philosophy behind war, and the worldviews behind war, and individual views behind war and got to that question: Is war inevitable? And if it’s not inevitable can we create structures in our society that can help us avert conflict before the conflict really starts?”
One of Kucinich’s answer to that question was a Department of Peace. A bill proposing the department was introduced by Kucinich and his colleagues in each session of Congress from 2001-2012, when Kucinich left Congress.
The bill stated that the Department of Peace would: “hold the cultivation of peace as a strategic national policy objective; reduce and prevent violence in the United States and internationally through peacebuilding and effective nonviolent conflict resolution; strengthen nonmilitary means of peacemaking; work to create peace, prevent violence, prevent armed conflict, use field-tested programs, and promote best practices in nonviolent dispute resolution; take a proactive, strategic approach in the development of policies that promote national and international conflict prevention, nonviolent intervention, mediation, peaceful resolution of conflict, and structured mediation of conflict.”
The department would work with all levels of the federal government for nuclear disarmament, and develop peaceful resolutions to international and national conflicts.
While the bill never passed, Kucinich believes the proposal is “very practical.”
“The Department of Peace is a highly structured approach that puts a permanent place for peace in our national discussion.” Kucinich said upon leaving office. “This is an idea whose time is coming.”