There was no field of peace studies when Charles Chatfield got involved in it.
Now there is.
And a dozen years into retirement, the Wittenberg University history professor realizes how much his own life was driven by the “rhythmic relation of dissent and protest” he studied and that’s ingrained in American life.
Chatfield, 78, was honored in December as one of the Dayton International Peace Museum’s Peace Heroes of 2012. The award comes five years after he received the Peace History Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Such honors were few and far between in the late 1950s when Chatfield proposed writing his doctoral dissertation the history of the pacifist movement.
He remembers his adviser at Vanderbilt University leaning forward and asking: “Was there a pacifist movement?”
Chatfield, who arrived at Wittenberg in 1961, had wanted to study pacifism because it was part of the Progressive Era, his favorite. It also met his other requirements: it involved a reform movement and organizations and it had an international dimension into which he thought American historians urgently needed to expand.
Just as Chatfield and others were were doing the foundational work in American peace history, they found themselves swept off their feet by the headlong rush of the subject they were studying: history.
“We’re talking about the mid-60s now,” he said. “The country gets into a war in Vietnam, and that is accompanied by a protest movement, an anti-war movement. Where did that come from?”
It was as they had awakened one day in a living laboratory of peace history.
But instead of being among re-enactors, they were among actors.
“The war just picked us up and moved us,” Chatfield said. “Some of us found ways to be active in that period. Others of us built scholarship.”
“It was so exciting, and still is to think on,” he said.
“You’re building professional organizations, you’re reaching out and making connections,” he said. “The issues are relevant, and you’re asking new questions. You’re building a field from its journals and courses and meetings.”
And it was happening at a time when the peace movement was sharing front page space with the war.
As exciting to him was the cadre he was sharing it with.
“It’s a field which attracts people with a real sense of values,” Chatfield said. “I got excited both by the people and the passions we were studying and by the people and passions we studied with.”
As a scholar, he worked different plots of ground, writing a book about the Vietnam War, a foreword to the collected writings of peace activist Devere Allen, an essay that introduced a book-long collection of thoughts on Gandhi, and, in retirement, a chapter in “The Long War,” an overview of pacifism in the Cold War and beyond.
In all those areas, he wrote with energy.
The preface to his book on Allen takes his readers to Wilton, Conn., and walks them to the front door: “A short street led us from a cluster of stores to a rutted drive up and around a wooded knoll know as Little Forest. In a small clearing at the top we found ourselves behind three frame buildings, home and working space since 1920 for Devere and Marie Allen ….”
In contrast to tracts that seem to portray Democracy as an orderly, logical process, his essay in “The Long War” gives us this: “Recurrent dissent and organized protest was an undulating counterpoint to official policy — two parts of the single, complex process of policy making.”
His work also helped him connect the dots between peace and justice movements, showing how Gandhi’s work in India against British imperialism was studied by scholars at the University of Chicago, where James Farmer then experimented with them in social protest actions.
“So when Martin Luther King Jr. comes on the scene and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee starts its protest movement, there is a body of experience and literature at hand.”
Chatfield said this kind of collected information and the organizations that, year in and year out stand for peace, show that “peace can be institutionalized.”
“You have law, which institutionalizes behavior designed to suppress violence. The same thing with psychology and religion, although that can go either way. So human institutions can be built, supportive of either warfare or peace as a solution to conflict.”
Chatfield said that when confronted with the question of whether there can be peace, his late friend, the author and economist Kenneth Boulding, answered with another question: “Do you know anywhere where there is peace?”
“He then said, ‘Whatever is, is possible.’”
“What challenged me about the peace movement and the anti-war movement was they were trying to get people to believe in our capacity to institutionalize alternatives to violence,” he said.
“We don’t think we have an alternative, which is another way of saying we don’t believe in ourselves.”
One area institution he helped to establish is the Abrams/Chatfield Peace Library at the Dayton International Peace Museum.
“But the history of peace and the study of peace applies to groups like the Springfield Peace Center,” he said, “and the people like Debbie Copeland and Nancy Keller and others who are working with kids, teaching mediation in the schools.
“They are as much peace activists as any anti-war protesters we’ve had,” he said, and may deserve all the more to be celebrated.
Institutions like the Peace Center and the people who work at them become “carriers of those values, peace values,” Chatfield said. “Then, every so often, international or community conflicts generate (constituencies) who can hear that.”
“When the war was over, the pubic constituencies tended to break up, listening to other issues.”
Then the peacemakers then continue on alone, re-emerging when another conflict arises.
“I think that’s what happens,” Chatfield said.
It’s certainly what he saw happen early in his academic career, long before people used the words “peace” and “heroes” next to one another.
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