Updated: May 23, 2019
There are voices now, as in 1931, eager to tell us what to be afraid of and who to blame. “Be afraid! Be afraid!” they say as seeds of distrust are scattered. And now, also as in 1931, there are people willing to listen.
The leaders of the Rotary Club of Keokuk, Iowa,
in 1931 had a different idea after attending the Rotary International Convention in Vienna, where they heard Rotarian leaders from many nations share concerns of the nationalism that was sweeping their lands. In the long tradition of Rotary – an organization that since its founding in 1905 has built communities and bridged continents – their vision was to invite Rotarians worldwide to smoke the symbolic pipe of pea- ce in the tradition of the great Native American leader who was the namesake of their city, Chief Keokuk. This was achieved with “peace letters” mailed to 496 Rotary clubs in 65 countries.
It is altogether fitting that the message of peace is revived 88 years later via the letters received in response to the 1931-32 project, which have been remarkably preserved and are presented here. The winds of “Be afraid! Be afraid!” are swirling again, and Rotary’s message again needs to be, “Be informed! Be informed!”
People who break bread together do not drop bombs on one another. “Peace cannot be kept by force,” said Albert Einstein. “It can only be achieved by understanding.”
That has been Rotary’s message from the be- ginning: A world of friends is a world of peace. Our founder, Paul Harris, said: “The way to war is a well-paved highway, and the way to pea- ce is still a wilderness ... ignorance is a menace to peace ... Rotary believes that the better the people of one nation understand the people of other nations, the less likelihood of friction, and Rotary will therefore encourage acquaintance and friendships between individuals of different nations.”
Rotary’s record, compiled by historian David Forward, shows that those are not idle words:
In 1917, amidst “the war to end all wars,” RI President Arch Klumph said, “It seems imminently proper that we should accept endowments for the purpose of doing good in the world.” Thus was born The Rotary Foundation whose programs provide the building blocks for peace everywhere.
In 1940, Rotary organized a convention in Havana, Cuba, and adopted a resolution calling for the respect of human rights. This became the framework for the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted in 1948.
During World War II, Rotarians convened ministers from 21 countries to plan how cultural and educational exchanges after the war might lead to better understanding of the peoples of the world. This led to the formation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Or- ganization, UNESCO. Rotarians helped write the constitution.
In 1945, world leaders gathered in San Francisco to form an organization to replace the fai- led League of Nations. Forty-nine of the 800 de- legates were Rotarians and Rotary helped write the United Nations Charter.
In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Paul Harris’ death, Rotary put in motion a plan to open the
Paul Harris Centers, later named the Rotary Centers for Peace and Conflict Resolution. Since the Centers opened in 2002 at six universities world- wide, more than 1,000 graduates have received master’s degrees in peace and conflict resolution. They are changing the world, one small step at a time. My wife, Linda, and I have witnessed this whenever we have interacted with Peace Scholars at Conferences and Conventions.
Because Linda and I see the Peace Centers as one of Rotary’s best investments, we have made them our preferred charity with an endowment to The Rotary Foundation. The Peace Pipe Letters project of 1931-32 and its renewal in 2019 seeks to achieve the same goal: Better understanding among the people of the world. We owe them our deep gratitude for their inspired efforts!
The question that confronts us today is the same as in 1931-32: Do our leaders have the capacity to reach beyond their grasp, to challenge us to seek the higher angels of our nature, to choose “Be informed! Be informed!” rather than “Be afraid! Be afraid!”
In the end, however, we know that world peace is too important to be left in the hands of our leaders. Peace starts in our own back yards when we speak out for understanding where there is disharmony, food security where the- re is hunger, health care where there is disease, education where there is illiteracy, conservation where there is environmental harm, sustainable development where there is poverty ... and when we write letters across borders to build goodwill and better friendships.
Organizations like Rotary provide opportunities for individuals like me, a country publisher in Iowa, to find our voices, to resist the pleas of those who tell us to “Be afraid!”, to resist looking inward and turning our backs to the world. That is nationalism, and it is not Rotary, whose name is Rotary INTERNATIONAL. The delegates at Vienna 88 years ago knew that, and the Peace Pipe Letters call us to this higher vision. The choice then is ours: Hope, or fear.
Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
Like William Fulton who penned the Peace Pipe Letters in 1931-32, I choose hope. Will you?