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Teaching Peace

by Richard J. Barnet - 1982

Information about nuclear weapons and their effects must be taught without imparting hopelessness and despair. Suggestions for teaching about the arms race from an historical perspective and about alternative security systems—international law, conventional weapons, nonviolent resistance—are given. (Source: ERIC)

The teaching profession has failed to prepare young people to live in the nuclear age. We do not have courses that explain the most important fact of our erathat ours is the first generation in human history with the theoretical capability to end human history. Only recently, in works such as Jonathan Schells The Fate of the Earth, has the general public had even an intimation that this stunning possibility sets our time apart from the rest of human history. So much official talk about nuclear war has a sedative purpose. It calms, placates, and immobilizes public opinion. The self-protective instincts of our species are numbed by nuclear-speak. Officials talk of megaton weapons almost as if they were bows and arrows, and our citizens are ill equipped to evaluate what they say, to ask the pertinent questions, and to respond.

Teachers of history and civilization have been unable to convey the special character of the time in which we live. Our young people do not see their generation within its historical context, and therefore they cannot grasp either the unique dangers or the unique opportunities of their own time. No one should enter high school without having had instruction on the characteristics of nuclear weapons and their effects. Citizens must have a realistic understanding of these weapons. But the information should be imparted in a way that does not breed hopelessness and despair. The only way this can be done, it seems to me, is to put the present security system based on the nuclear threat beside alternative security systems, for example, increased reliance on international law, conventional weapons, nonviolence, and so forth, so that students may encounter other visions of how collective security could be organized.

We also need courses on the history of warfare that would trace the evolution of weapons of mass destruction and the doctrines for their use. When and why did humankind embark on a project of reducing the cost of mass destruction of which the hydrogen bomb is the culmination? Why have we equated political power with the capacity for mass destruction? Is this development related to the emergence of modern democracy? Of mass-consumption culture? No one has a very good theory about this, but we are unlikely to get the theory to enable us to understand the destructive impulses of the species until we begin asking the pertinent questions at a deeper level.

We should be teaching diplomatic history as case studies of the war system in operation. Why has there been, so far, only one use of nuclear weapons in war? Why has the bomb not been used deliberately to incinerate people since Nagasaki? In what way has it been used for political purposes? Students should be familiar with the historical circumstances surrounding nuclear threats made by the United States in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Berlin Crisis, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and they should become familiar with Khrushchevs nuclear diplomacy. The historic turning points ought to be pondered. Why did the United States at the end of the war fail to implement either of the two strategies that might have avoided the arms race? It did not elect to carry out a preventive war on the USSR. Why not? Nor did it choose a serious disarmament strategy. What were the assumptions of our leaders behind their decision in effect to choose an inevitable arms race? Students should be encouraged to speculate on these matters. They need to think of the dilemma of their generation as the consequence of specific human decisions, not as a mysterious, inexorable historical process.

Case histories are important because the subject we are dealing with is political pathology. There is much evidence that leaders have chosen the disastrous course of the nuclear arms race with their eyes open. We ought to study the prophets of the nuclear arms race, beginning with the nuclear scientists themselvessuch as Leo Szilard, who predicted with remarkable accuracy what would happen in weapons development and what the impact on national security would be. It would be interesting to pit the predictions of the disarmament advocates against those of their adversaries. The record will show a consistent complacency among the latter group about the natural limits of the arms race, the possibilities of limiting nuclear war or winning it. There is a body of expert analysis and prediction over almost forty years to explain why unilateral restraint to stop the arms race was necessary and what the consequences would be if such action were not taken. The ignored counsel of James Franck, Leo Szilard, Henry Stimson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Herbert Scoville, Paul Warnke, and many others should be examined. Their picture of reality should be put up against the picture that prevailed. The evidence challenging the prevailing national security strategy is not known by most students.

The facts of the arms race must be taught. The few courses that deal with this material at all are inadequate on two grounds. First, they tend to emphasize the complexity of the arms competition rather than its essential simplicity. It is not hard to find the data about the numbers of warheads, missiles, tanks, that are available to the Soviet Union and to the United States and its allies. It is hard to know what to make of it. Young people are not being equipped to ask the essential simplifying questions about weapons inventories, military budgets, and posture statements that citizens must be able to ask if they are to exercise any control over military or national security policy. Increasingly in business courses students are being taught to read balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements with great sophistication. They are given the tools to protect them from being mystified by numbers. We ought to teach the defense budget in the same way, since for many of us it is our single biggest family investment. The basic questions about whether particular military spending increases or decreases security are quite simple. The popular instinct enough is enough that is behind the freeze campaign is healthy, but citizens need to be immersed sufficiently in the data and the tools for understanding the data to bring their intellectual understanding, their instincts, and their moral vision together. One must master enough complexity to understand the essential simplicity of the arms race.

The second inadequacy of the current national security courses I have encountered is that they teach nuclear strategy as if it were scholastic philosophy. Students are encouraged to enter the arcane world of the nuclear strategists and then to follow the debates within the system without questioning the premises on which the whole body of knowledge is based. It is legitimate to debate the relative virtues of credible first strike posture, minimum deterrence, superiority, parity, and the like, but not without examining the very assumptions behind deterrence theory or delving into its intellectual history. Two generations have grown up believing that something called deterrence is an inevitable basis of security without being conscious of the fact that the atomic bomb preceded deterrence theory. The way we think about weapons is influenced by the accidents of weapons development. We need to know more about where these ideas come from. How are they tested? Who benefits from them? Who loses? In other words, we should be using available intellectual tools such as the sociology of knowledge to help disenthrall ourselves from destructive myths of great power. Ideas about the achievement of security have greater impact on this society than does any other set of ideas. Most of our public money is spent implementing them. The peace of mind of our people depends on them. Yet we examine them little.

More and more the arms race is being fought on so-called psychological principles. Weapons are procured not so much to produce a physical impact, for more weapons are not needed to accomplish the theoretical end of everything, but rather for psychological effect. If the reality of falling behind is now meaningless, when a thousand missiles more or less make no difference, weapons procurement is defended as a way of changing perceptions of reality. If we have more weapons, we will not be so afraid to use our power. Military spending and deployment project national attitudes and these in turn elicit favorable behavior from the adversary. The psychological principles behind such official reasoning appear to fly in the face of much knowledge about human behavior learned from interactions at levels below interstate conflict. At the very least the citizen ought to be exposed to the psychological assumptions behind security strategy and have some basis for evaluating it. We have a great deal of experience with which to evaluate the bargaining chip theory of negotiationthat the more you scare the adversary with an arms buildup the more forthcoming he will be in arms negotiations. The evidence as I read it suggests that the theory is as silly as it sounds. But the contrary view should be taught too, along with the supporting evidence.

As important as it is to have a deeper understanding of the arms race as a technological and psychological phenomenon, it is insufficient for deepening our understanding without the study of the enemy. When I was at college the courses then taught on the Soviet Union were known popularly as "Know Your Enemy. The trouble was and is that such courses, taught from ideological bias, actually make it more difficult to gain understanding of the huge land empire with which we are fated to share the planet or blow it up. Studying the USSR in America in a cold-war climate is extremely difficult, just as studying the United States in Russia in a serious way is, to put it mildly, a formidable task. We need to provide information that will encourage empathy with the Soviet people, yes with Soviet leaders too, without falling into the trap of becoming apologetic or naive. There is a huge body of information to master. Soviet behavior in the arms race, which has been largely imitative of ours, is on the record and that record needs to be known. There is some information about the Soviet military-industrial complex and the role of the military in setting foreign policy. Comparisons of the institutions behind the arms race within the two societies are helpful. Americans need to acquire some sense of the evolution of Soviet society. How does the USSR differ in its foreign policy from czarist Russia? From the Russia of Stalins day? Where is the Soviet Union going? What impact does our policy have? What are the pressures on Soviet leaders? The more it is possible to study them as rational political figures seeking to juggle many conflicting interests to preserve their power, the more empathy can be developed for them. Without a certain empathy, practical policies of coexistence are not possible. That does not mean sympathy or support for outrageous policies, but increased understanding. For example, it makes a great deal of difference whether the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in a defensive reflex to stabilize their frontier or, as the Carter Administration publicly charged, as a first step in the march to the Persian Gulf. Completely different security strategies are dictated in the two cases.

The more we can learn about the Soviet Union, even its oppressive and dangerous policies, the better the prospects of coexistence. Even the facts of the gulag, espionage, repression in Poland, or other inflammatory information are less destabilizing of our relationship than the myths about Russia that have been internalized in our culture. Nothing has engendered more support for militarism in this society than the endless repetition of certain facts about the Soviet Union. Their ideology, like Hitlers, requires them to take over the world. Their leaders have threatened to bury us. They will lie, cheat, and steal for their goals because they have no morality. They never abide by their agreements. They cannot be trusted. This is not the place to argue with these facts, which, a variety of public opinion polls suggest, are after almost fifty years of repetition deeply embedded in the consciousness of our people. But they should be examined and set against bodies of knowledge available about the Soviet Union. Psychologically, we operate in two different planes. We gather objective information in an academic setting, but often it does not touch our prejudices. It is the task of good teaching to bridge this gap.

If I had been asked to write this article fifteen years ago, I would have included a similar discussion of China. Of course studying China is useful, but the intensity of feeling about China has disappeared in this country. Yet not so long ago China was more of an enemy than the Soviet Union. They were the poor, brutal, fanatical communists with whom, unlike the Soviet Union, we had fought an actual war in the nuclear ageand lost. (In the Korean War, it will be recalled, the Chinese chased General MacArthur from the Yalu River.)

The swift transformation of China from enemy into near ally suggests that not only must we study actual countries that are perceived as adversaries so that we can see them as human beings instead of devils but we must look at the concept of the enemy. The enemy is a classic political organizing principle about which Elias Canetti and others have written perceptively. Recently in the Falkland Islands war we have seen how marvelously useful instant enemies are to harried political leaders. The arms race is maintained as much by political myths that pacify and confuse the public as by the self-serving institutions of the military-industrial complex. In a democracy political leaders could not sell a crippling and hazardous arms race unless public attitudes supported it. It is in fact true that many congressional representatives have supported more militaristic policies than they personally liked because of a fear of being branded soft by a political opponent who could whip up public anxiety about the enemy. If we are to reverse the arms race, we need to understand better the mechanisms by which we are manipulated to support it.

To prevent nuclear war we need to have a better understanding of what I have called the roots of war. What are the forces inside our society and other societies that impel us toward arms races and military confrontation? Students need some insight into the psychological climate of bureaucracies that encourages toughness and makes the counseling of restraint a matter of personal and professional risk. The climate inside bureaucracies and deliberative bodies reflects that of the society as a whole. Why is it that there are men sitting in the U.S. Senate today who have counseled dropping the atomic bomb in the Korean and Vietnam wars who remain respected members of the community, while someone like Billy Graham, long on the most admired Americans list, must battle to save his reputation as a result of having come out for disarmament and peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union? There is not much good theory available with which to answer these questions. Citizens are going to have to develop some of the theory themselves, at least some working hypotheses. The important task of teachers is to get them thinking about the structures and the myths that are leading us to nuclear war. Perhaps the most powerful of these myths is patriotism. What constitutes a healthy love of country in a world that has outgrown the national state?

We also need to reflect on two important notions that emerged at the end of World War II. One was the idea that wars begin in the minds of men. The Cold War has been explained and justified as ideological warfare. Is the Cold War and the military confrontation with the Soviet Union really about freedom? Have we gained or lost freedom in fighting the Cold War? Or are we really fighting for the idea of private property? If so, what are the economic effects of permanent mobilization? There is growing evidence that the military economy distorts the job market, is far less able to generate jobs than almost any other alternative investment, and is inflationary. The emergence of the national security state has fundamentally changed the relationship between business and government. The simple notion that military spending is good for the economy or even good for business in general needs to be examined. We need some clarity about the ideas for which we are supposedly fighting. Much of the support for the arms race is generated by appeals to deep but vague feelings of citizens that in arming we are protecting something precious that we would otherwise lose. Deep anxieties about the collapse of civilization are being enlisted in the service of militarism, the greatest threat to civilization. The illusion that you can fight ideas with weapons is a very old one. Students ought to be introduced to some of the ideological crusades of the past and their consequences. They need to consider the costs of a permanent war economy and national security state in terms of the values that we seek to protect. The garrison state thesis of Laswell, for example, ought to be examined anew.

The second body of thought that ought to be revived is the doctrine of personal responsibility that was developed in the Nuremberg trials. Throughout history statesmen have been able to act out their power fantasies with relatively little personal risk. The gulf between private morality, in which individuals are punished for killing, and state morality, in which the most efficient killers reap the rewards of power, is immense. The idea behind Nuremberg was a practical notion that if leaders could be sure that they would feel the same disastrous consequences as their subjects they would not be so ready to start wars. I would personally favor an international criminal code that would make it a crime for any individual to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. But the issue of personal responsibility for participating in the arms race is a broader one. What are the obligations of scientists, businessmen, teachers, bureaucrats, and so forth, to eschew the short-term career rewards offered by the war system in order to play a role in ending it? What should the individual citizen do? How do we change the social climate so that individuals need not be heroes in order to confront the war system?

The most important function of teaching with respect to nuclear war is to enable men and women to confront that possibility and to participate in a historic process to change the war system. To communicate in such a way as to enable rather than to immobilize is an enormous pedagogical challenge. The two psychological attitudes that perpetuate the arms race are denial and resignation. The mechanisms of denial are protected by an exceedingly thin shell. The sharp increase in the flood of information about the consequences of nuclear war has for millions of people already broken through this psychological defense against horrifying reality. More people than ever know about the consequences of nuclear war and admit that they care.

But immobilization is a far more difficult problem. The very flood of statistics, sickening pictures of atomic victims, and recitals of the horrors of nuclear war that have been marshaled to combat official fantasies about survival have the effect of reinforcing deep feelings that nothing can be done. Once people outgrow the complacency of official wisdom they are often overcome by the sheer enormity of the forces that are propelling the world to disaster. It is important also to marshal the evidence that peoples actions can make a difference because they have made a difference in the past. Perhaps the closest historical analogy to the contemporary antiwar movement is the abolitionist movement that ended slavery. There too an obsolete institution that mocked the professed morality of the day and undermined the economic efficiency of society was supported by powerful interests and powerful myths, but in a relatively short time, as history is reckoned, slavery was ended by the intervention of ordinary men and women. We ought to spend more time studying the heroes of our civilization.

How can teachers speak to the problem of passivity? One way is to encourage students to dream creatively about building an alternative security system. Students should be encouraged to look at conflict areas of the world that could touch off a nuclear war and consider how those conflicts could be demilitarized. How do we broaden people-to-people contact so as to diffuse the image of the enemy? Ideas for promoting peace from Plato to Rant to Roosevelt ought to be studied in preference to the details of wars on which our students spend so much time.

Teaching peace requires familiarizing students not only with a range of practical disarmament ideas but also with the extensive literature on creative nonviolence. Nonviolent resistance has obvious limitations as a security strategy but it is, arguably, considerably less utopian than security strategies based on a nuclear suicide pact. Citizens, young and old, ought to have the opportunity to let their minds play with a range of more hopeful and less destructive security strategies, for the preservation of hope is perhaps the single most important contribution education can make to the preservation of peace.

Finally, a course of study to equip citizens to develop the moral and intellectual strength to participate in the historic movement to abolish the war system must encourage self-examination. The arms race and the war system are deformed answers to the genuine human need for security. There is a connection between feelings of personal insecurity and susceptibility to war propaganda. It takes a secure individual to be able to envisage a future different from that which the leaders are holding out. For a nation to choose peace, its citizens must become peacemakers. For a peace ethos to replace a war ethos, individual citizens need greater insight into their own aggression and greater awareness of the private uses of patriotism and nationalism. It has been said that the institution of war will not be eliminated until human nature is transformed. That is a hypothesis we cannot afford to test, for we do not have the time. The collective madness of war must be addressed at the level of social organization and at the level of the individual, for a nation cannot be secure until its citizens feel secure.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 84 Number 1, 1982, p. 30-37
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 828, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:44:42 AM

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About the Author
  • Richard Barnet
    Institute for Policy Studies, Washington D.C.
    RICHARD J. BARNET, Senior Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, Washing-ton, D.C., formerly served in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and is the author of Roots of War; The Economy of Death; The Lean Years; Real Security; and other books.
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