Let There be Peace

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   April 26, 2018

What is peace? Two millennia ago, the Roman historian Tacitus quoted an enemy leader as saying of the Romans, “They make a desert and call it peace.”

But total destruction is not the preferred method of peacemaking, and various alternatives continue to be tried – one of which is mediation, whose success depends in part on the skill of the mediator. 

As a horrible example, it is said that during one of the interminable conflicts between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East, a United Nations official who’d been sent to mediate and managed to get representatives of the two sides to sit down together, began the meeting by saying “Now gentlemen, can’t we just settle all this like Christians?”

You might think that peace should be the normal state of affairs. And in former times, there was at least usually a pretty clear distinction between being at peace and being at war. But nowadays, things have become much more complicated. There used to be such a thing as a formal declaration of war, without which you couldn’t really have one. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, it was considered outrageous that they hadn’t declared war first. Actually, they had intended to deliver such a declaration 30 minutes before the attack. But the Japanese embassy in Washington took too long to decode the message. Not that 30 minutes would have made much difference – but it would have been, at least technically, observing the niceties.

Since those days, however, a different mindset has overtaken international relations. When fighting broke out on the Korean Peninsula in 1950 and American troops were involved, President Truman was asked by reporters if we were at war, and he replied that it was a “Police action.” Countries have become increasingly hesitant to use the word “war” to characterize their policies. 

In past centuries, after lengthy periods of devastating war, there have been grand conferences at which, after negotiations that might go on for months (since these were also important social occasions), a settlement was reached that was formally known as a “Peace.” For example, there was the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which actually ended two European wars, one of religious in-fighting, mainly in Germany, called the Thirty Years War, and one which had lasted an incredible 80 years, between Spain and her former possession, now the Dutch Republic.

(Speaking of the Dutch, there was also a peace treaty at Vereeniging, a town in South Africa which in 1902 ended what was called the Boer War by the British, whose government had been challenged for years by stubborn Dutch settlers who wanted no part of it. In a compromise settlement, the Boers grudgingly accepted British sovereignty in exchange for self-government. Remarkably, this was a successful peace, and there has never been another war in South Africa.)

But much earlier, there was the famous Peace of Vienna of 1814-15, which effectively put an end to the long series of Napoleonic Wars, and whose work, though much criticized, did actually prevent another widespread European war for nearly a century.

We might also mention the Peace of Ghent (in Belgium), a treaty which theoretically ended what we call the War of 1812, between Britain and the United States. Unfortunately, news of this settlement didn’t get across the Atlantic in time to prevent the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. However, there were few regrets over here, since that battle was almost the only American victory of the war (and it made general Andrew Jackson a national hero).

But the last great attempt at an all-embracing peace settlement took place a century ago at Versailles, outside of Paris, in the wake of what would be known as the Great War (until it became World War I). Because of the Treaty’s punitive provisions, it was never accepted by the losing side – the Germans – and only 20 years later, it could be seen as just the preamble to a longer, even more terrible, conflict. 

Since that seven-year catastrophe ended in 1945, with a first use of nuclear weapons, it doesn’t seem likely that there will ever again be a great conference bringing about a great peace. And conflicts of varying magnitude in numerous places have now, for generations, been a staple of our daily news. 

But “World peace,” as an ideal, continues to inspire humanity. And, until it somehow becomes a reality, most of us are, thankfully, able to enjoy relatively secure and peaceful lives. 


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