Publication Date

November 1, 2009

Perspectives Section




During the December 1963 annual meeting of the American Historical Association, a group of historians moved by the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy and the beginnings of the Indochina War, decided to commit more effort and attention towards the study of peace. The AHA gathering was held in Philadelphia that year, and 50 historians interested in peace research attended a meeting at the Friends Meeting House, chaired by Merle Curti, one of the best-known historians of the time and a past president of the AHA. This group decided to form a special conference group within the AHA and to hold a joint session at the AHA meeting the following year. A continuing committee issued a call to join its efforts “to encourage the kind of research on the history of war, peace, violence and conflict that can clarify the causes of international peace and difficulties in creating it.”

These efforts resulted, in 1964, in the creation of the Conference on Peace Research in History, with Charles Barker of Johns Hopkins University as its first president. The organization kept the name Conference on Peace Research in History until 1994, when members chose to rename the organization the Peace History Society (PHS).

For more than four decades, PHS has prided itself on having a diverse membership. Although mostly composed of historians, PHS has attracted other scholars of international and military affairs, transnational institutions, nonviolence, movements for peace and social justice, scholars of religion, peace activists, and members of the general public. They have come not only from North America, but also from around the world. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the PHS, panels at PHS conferences have approached topics from many different angles. PHS members have been concerned with making peace research relevant to scholarly disciplines, policy-makers, and their own societies.

The Peace History Society has regularly sponsored panels at the meetings of the AHA, the Organization of American Historians, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the International Peace Research Association, and the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. It also has a long history of cosponsoring conferences and events with other organizations. In 2008, PHS co-hosted a conference with Historians Against the War entitled “War and Its Discontents: Understanding Iraq and the US Empire.” Besides serving as an affiliate of the AHA, PHS maintains nongovernmental organization status at the United Nations. PHS is also affiliated with H-Peace, an international electronic network that seeks to broaden understanding about historical and contemporary peace, justice, and disarmament concerns.

In addition, PHS has sponsored major conferences of its own on a biennial basis. The themes of the last two have been “Peace Activism and Scholarship: Historical Perspectives of Social, Economic, and Political Change” and “Historical Perspectives on Engendering War, Peace and Justice.” In October 2009, Winthrop University will host the latest PHS conference, with the theme, “Toward a Peaceful World: Historical Approaches to Creating Cultures of Peace.” Staughton Lynd, the longtime scholar and activist, will give the keynote address.

PHS has been particularly active in encouraging collective research and writing projects. An early example was The Garland Library of War and Peace, edited by Blanche Wiesen Cook, Sandi Cooper, and Charles Chatfield (New York, 1972–1977). Others include Berenice Carroll, Clinton Fink, and Jane Mohraz’s Peace and War: A Guide to Bibliographies (Santa Barbara, Calif., 1983); Charles DeBenedetti’s Peace Heroes in Twentieth Century America (Bloomington, 1986); and Melvin Small and William Hoover’sGive Peace a Chance: Exploring the Vietnam Antiwar Movement (Syracuse, 1992). Furthermore, individual members of PHS have produced a vast body of scholarly work. In recognition of the prolific scholarship in peace history, PHS awards the Charles DeBenedetti Prize for an outstanding article in peace history and the Scott Bills Memorial Prize for an outstanding first book or dissertation in this field. Both of these awards are named for distinguished peace historians and past presidents of PHS. In 2007, PHS inaugurated the Lifetime Achievement Award, and presented it to Charles Chatfield, one of the pioneering peace historians.

Since 1972, the PHS has publishedPeace & Change: A Journal of Peace Research, which remains the major journal in the field. Co-sponsored by the Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA), the journal is coedited by Robbie Lieberman of Southern Illinois University and Cynthia Boaz of Sonoma State University. PHS co-owns the journal with its publisher, Wiley-Blackwell, and Peace & Change reaches 2,232 libraries globally through the Wiley-Blackwell consortia sales program. Most recently,Peace & Change published a guest-edited issue on the Iraq War (37:2, July 2009). Additionally, PHS members receive news updates through a quarterly newsletter,PHS News.

The Peace History Society maintains modest annual dues: students, retired, or unemployed people pay $25, regular members $40, institutional members $45, and sustaining members $55. Lifetime membership is available for $500. All members receive four issues of Peace & Change each year, as well as PHS News. Membership is open to all people interested in the work of the society. The Peace History Society also maintains an elected board of directors and an international advisory board.

PHS officers for 2009–2011 are Virginia Williams (Winthrop Univ.), president; Doug Rossinow (Metropolitan State Univ.), vice president; E. Timothy Smith (Barry Univ.), secretary, and Christy Jo Snider (Berry Coll.), treasurer. Interested persons can go to the PHS web site at to read more about it, to acquire more information about its upcoming conference, and to become members.

For more than four decades, peace historians have helped to energize the field of history with works that have expanded the focus of the discipline from more traditional concerns to a new engagement with issues of peace, reconciliation, social movements, and those who lead them. Since that first group of historians gathered together in 1963 and resolved to become an organization, peace historians have believed that employing historical research and methods in the search for a peaceful world was not only possible, but necessary for global survival. We still believe that.

—Virginia Williams, an associate professor of history at Winthrop University, is the president of the Peace History Society. She received her PhD in history from Florida State University in 1993, and her area of research is in the history of US-Latin American relations.

Lawrence Wittner, professor of history at the State University of New York at Albany, and a longtime member of both the Peace History Society and the American Historical Association, provided some historical background information for this essay.

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