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A colorful drawing of an angel holding an olive branch overtop of the earth.
"--and peace shall rule," illustration from Puck by Udo Keppler, v. 45, no. 1156, (May 3, 1899).

Peace on Earth: Thoughts from the Past

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During this time of year there are often hopes and wishes for “peace on earth.” However, aside from the sentiment on a holiday card, what does that mean? At a recent holiday service, I was reminded of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice” (Stride Toward Freedom, 1958).

As many of us hope for peace in our world, let’s take a look at how people of the past have considered peace and how to find it.

Presidential Peace

In almost every era, Presidents of the United States have had to address conflict, and therefore they often address peace. On Jan. 22, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed the U.S. Senate, urging the U.S. to join in a “World League to Enforce Peace” in the hopes of brokering a peace in what was then the “European war”:

“Only a peace between equals can last; only a peace the very principle of which is equality and a common participation in a common benefit. The right state of mind, the right feeling between nations, is as necessary for a lasting peace as is the just settlement of questions of territory or of racial and national allegiance.”

After the U.S. entered World War I, President Wilson would continue to push the U.S. to join with other nations for peace. He would even go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as founder of the League of Nations. Despite the President’s involvement in its creation, however, the U.S. never joined the League.

The U.S. did go on to join the United Nations, but even with international cooperation the recovery from World War II was a long and grueling process. Both President Harry Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower would face the lasting effects as they negotiated for peace throughout Europe and Asia. On Sept. 5, 1951, President Truman gave the opening address at the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference:

“There is no other way to bring lasting peace than this slow and patient progress, step by step, of mending and strengthening the cables of communication, of understanding between nations.”

Editorial cartoon by Jim Berryman, Evening Star (Washington, DC), April 17, 1953.

President Eisenhower faced a world in an arms race. In his speech on April 16, 1953 to the Society of Newspaper Editors, he called out the new Soviet government for trying to gain power through amassing weapons and called for actions toward disarmament rather than words. “We welcome every honest act of peace. We care nothing for mere rhetoric.” He went on to describe what peace should be:

“The peace we seek, founded upon decent trust and co-operative efforts among nations, can be fortified—not by weapons of war—but by wheat and by cotton; by milk and by wool; by meat and by timber and by rice.

These are words that translate into every language on earth.

These are needs that challenge this world in arms.”

Four former U.S. Presidents have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.

Leaders of Peace
Black and White photograph of Dr. King standing at a podium surrounded by microphones with an American flag visible behind him.
Martin Luther King Jr., World Journal Tribune photo by Don Rice, 1967. Prints and Photographs Division.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke often about peace in the context of non-violent protest. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who was inspired by Henry David Thoreau, King and other leaders of “civil disobedience” and nonviolent protest did not speak about a restful peace but peace with purpose. In his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, published in full in the New York Times December 19, 1964, King described a “peace offensive” in which peace is an active movement:

We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say “We must not wage war.” It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but the positive affirmation of peace.

I will leave you with the words of another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nelson Mandela, whose fight for equality and peace in South Africa defined his life. Mandela was arrested in August 1962 and sentenced to life in prison for his actions fighting against apartheid. After being released in 1990, he went on to become South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. In his inaugural address, published in full by the New York Times on May 11, 1994, he expressed his hopes for the future of his country:

Let there be justice for all.

Let there be peace for all.

Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.”

Additional Reading

A Letter from Birmingham City Jail: King’s Explanation of Non-Violent Approach,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), June 16, 1963.

The Nobel Prize: All Nobel Peace Prizes

Remarks on Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Barack Obama.

Resistance to Civil Government,” Henry David Thoreau. Aesthetic Papers, 1849.

If you are able to visit the Library, the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room currently has an exhibit on the Christmas Truce that took place in WWI. Come by to take a look! You can also read more about the Christmas Truce in our previous blog post about it.

A photograph of two newspapers, one book, and two comic books in a display case.
Exhibit case, Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room, December 2023.

Be sure to search for additional articles on the figures mentioned here in our Chronicling America* historic newspapers collection!

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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  1. Such a thought-provoking read by Malea Walker! The exploration of peace through the lens of historical figures like Presidents Wilson, Truman, and Eisenhower adds a rich layer to the concept of ‘peace on earth.’ The idea that ‘True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice’ resonates deeply, especially in today’s world. The historical context provided, from Woodrow Wilson’s call for a ‘World League to Enforce Peace’ to the complexities faced by Truman and Eisenhower post-World War II, highlights the ongoing pursuit of lasting peace. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s perspective on peace as an active movement and Nelson Mandela’s vision for justice, peace, work, and basic needs for all further amplify the article’s message. It’s a reminder that peace is not passive; it requires positive action and a commitment to justice. Truly insightful and timely reflections for the season and beyond! 🕊️🌍

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