From the AALS Panel on The Concept of Peace in Law, Culture and Society:
The Concept of Peace During the Cold War
Petra Goedde, Department of History,Temple University
In 1967, Dial Press published what looked like a report commissioned by the US government on the “possibility and desirability of peace.” In the foreword, Leonard C. Lewin explained how a co-author of the report, who insisted on anonymity, asked him to publish it. The report determined that social stability in the United States rested on the so-called “war system, ” in which all basic political, economic, and social functions of American society were built on the assumption of being at war or preparing for war. Therefore, the report advised, a general state of peace was thoroughly undesirable for the United States, since it would produce widespread social instability and economic hardship. After outlining the non-military functions of the war system in stabilizing domestic society, the report went on to suggest ways in which these essential functions could be replicated in the event of general peace. Those included massive spending on education, health, and space to replicate the “waste” economy of the war system. It also suggested creating alternative “enemies” to ensure continued political stability(remember the “war on poverty” “ war on drugs?”). It also included a more outlandish proposal to re-introduce a modern form of slavery in order to replicate the social regulatory function of military service. The published book became a bestseller while speculation ran high whether this was an authentic report as the foreword claimed, or a well-placed hoax. A New York Times book review speculated (correctly) that it was a hoax, but many, especially those working in government, continued to believe in the report’s authenticity. Even after Lewin publicly announced in 1972, that he had made it all up, some die-hard politicos refused to believe it.
Even though the report was a fabrication, several aspects about it should give us reason to take it seriously. The first is the fact that so many political officials believed it to be authentic. The second is the report’s basic premise that instead of war being the conduct of diplomacy by other means (as postulated by Clausewitz), peace was now to be seen as the continuation of war by other means. Both reveal the warped nature of thinking about peace and war in America at the time. For much of the early cold war official government rhetoric on the subject of peace mirrored eerily the findings in the report. That rhetoric included the following: the best assurance for peace was a well-prepared military apparatus; peace could be accomplished only through strength; and peace advocacy represented a threat to national security. Ideas of war and peace were turned upside down.
Several historians have already revealed the prevalence of war in American domestic social and economic politics during the cold war. They have talked about the emergence of the garrison state (Michael Hogan), and explored the militarization of American society (Michael Sherry). More recently Mary Dudziak investigated the changing meaning of wartime in American history. Once thought of as a “time” of exception, over the course of the last half-century it was increasingly regarded as the norm with serious legal and political implications. Together these scholars made clear that for much of the cold war, Americans lived in a perpetual state of war preparedness. The nation’s social, economic, and political activities were geared toward the conduct of war and not the pursuit of peace.
And yet, despite the prevalence of a wartime sentiment in American society and culture, the rhetoric of peace was ubiquitous particularly in the 1950s and 60s. This rhetoric did not come only from those in opposition to the cold war arms build-up. It also pervaded much of the political discourse within the United States and the diplomatic exchanges between the principal cold war adversaries. Moreover, this rhetoric was not exclusively aspirational. Both sides maintained that war preparedness was an essential aspect of their peace policy. The concept of peace became an essential political tool in the conflict between East and West.
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The Soviet Union took an early lead in utilizing peace as a powerful political weapon. It actively encouraged and financially supported the formation and proliferation of new international peace organizations, co-opting the idea of peace in order to gain the international moral high ground. One of them, the World Peace Council, quickly abandoned its non-partisan origins to engage in critiquing exclusively the West’s policy of nuclear deterrence and its alleged neo-imperialist tendencies while ignoring Soviet acts of aggression in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere.
The Soviets’ advocacy for peace did much to discredit the concept among Western cold warriors. In the United States, national and international peace organizations came under federal surveillance and were often accused of having ties to communist parties. For instance, the Chairman of the House Un-American Activities committee, Clyde Doyle, charged at a hearing in 1962 that it was “a basic Communist doctrine to ‘fight for peace.’” He further warned that “peace propaganda and agitation have a disarming effect on those nations, which are intended victims of communism. Excessive concern for peace on the part of any nation impedes or prevents adequate defense preparation, hinders effective diplomacy in the national interest, undermines the will to resist, and saps national strength.” He made these remarks at the opening of hearings to determine whether the organization “Women Strike for Peace” held ties to communists. Peace no longer represented a neutral and universal idea but an ideological weapon in the East-West confrontation.
While cold war politicians targeted peace proponents in their anti-communist campaigns, they were acutely aware that being categorically against peace was damaging America’s reputation in the world. It seemed to confirm the Soviets’ charge of American imperialist aggression. U.S. defense strategists thus began to make liberal use of “peace” in their public statements about cold war policies, for instance, by selling NATO as “a force for peace. ” According to a1950 CIA memorandum, W. Averell Harriman suggested to make liberal use of the term “peace” in all official and unofficial communications in order to reclaim the peace mantle from the Soviets. In 1953 Eisenhower launched his “Atoms for Peace” initiative with an international exhibit organized by the United States Information Agency, publicizing abroad the American efforts to utilize atomic energy toward peaceful ends. Kennedy’s “Peace-Corps” seven years later followed the same purpose: to convince the world that Americans actively worked in the service of peace. All of these initiatives occurred as the United States was engaged in the most expansive military build-up the world had ever seen.
Peace thus became the first casualty of the cold war. This is somewhat ironic because throughout its duration, the two major enemies, the Soviet Union and the United States (as well as the Europeans) avoided war with each other. But the avoidance of war did not mean “peacetime,” to invert Mary Dudziak’s term. While the First and Second World constantly prepared for war with each other, they engaged in actual wars mostly in the non-aligned Third World. The concept of peace was fundamentally turned inside out, as both the Soviet Union and the United States proclaimed their heartfelt desire for world peace while mobilizing for nuclear war.
The Report from Iron Mountain, though fictitious, called attention to this fundamental absurdity of building a society on the foundation of war and looking on the advent of peace as a “contingency, ” a potential catastrophe for the United States that demanded putting in place certain safeguards to maintain the economic, social and political elements of the war system. The report revealed the central paradox of the early cold war: neither peace nor war seemed to be viable options in international affairs.