Profile

The search for peace in a world of war

Val Ross September 15 1980
Profile

The search for peace in a world of war

Val Ross September 15 1980

The search for peace in a world of war

Profile: Norman Alcock

Val Ross

Norman Zinkan Alcock is a small, frail 62-year-old scientist who earns $4,300 a year and a fair bit of ridicule for heading the Canadian Peace Research Institute (CPRI), a nonpartisan and emphatically nonprofit research and publication organization located in Oakville, Ont. If Alcock were a masochist with a taste for black humor, one could more readily see why he has devoted his past 19 years to the apparently thankless job of trying to promote peace through reason and research. Are not human bloodlust and folly eternal? “The record is frustrating,” Alcock agrees gently of his predecessors’ efforts. The world’s first international disarmament talks opened in the Hague in 1899 to fervent telegrams, poems and petitions 300,000 pacifist signatures strong. Yet this was the generation whose children marched to the trenches in 1914. Then the League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 (which

renounced war as an instrument of policy) were answered by the Second World War. And now SALT talks coexist with ever-escalating global arms expenditures exceeding $1 billion a day. As for the world’s peace activists—the international network of Mennonites, Ghandiites, Pugwash Conference academics and concerned folk such as the CPRl’s Norman Alcock and his wifewell, it’s a wonder they haven’t all died of despair.

“Peace movement workers have a special quality,” explains Ernie Regehr, research director of the interchurchsponsored disarmament and development group, Project Ploughshares. “They can focus unflinchingly on narrow parts of huge problems and not feel overwhelmed. They feel morally motivated, too; that’s why, to outsiders, they appear innocent.” Indeed, most of them are religiously inspired. Alcock’s hardworking wife, Pat, who edits the CPRl’s quarterly News Report, is a Congregationalist minister’s daughter, and many

of her co-workers are Quakers. It is Alcock’s fate, too, to be typecast as saint and then dismissed. His thick-lensed spectacles, glowing like two rose windows on the long, Gothic cathedral lines of his face, and his meek-militant Tommy Douglas smile fit that image; so does the modest white suit he wears to public functions such as the department of external affairs’ Disarmament and Arms Control meetings. “Alcock is regarded as naïve by most government officials,” says Geoffrey Pearson, External’s adviser on arms control. “That’s always true for visionaries and saints.”

Yet what keeps Alcock going is not piety but scientific curiosity: the same challenge of “Why does Man behave as badly as he does?” that has attracted other “hard” scientists such as René Descartes and Bertrand Russell. Alcock has avoided disillusionment to a large degree because, he says, “I’m a coldblooded research type.” He and his sister were brought up by a widowed mother he recalls for her “openmindedness and her refusal to be frightened.” As a young scientist, Alcock worked “without shame” on the electronics systems of Second World War bomber aircraft, as a nuclear researcher for the government and as vice-president of his own firm, Isotope

Productions Ltd. In 1957, at the height of the post-Suez cold war, Alcock’s firm was sold to American interests and shortly after he was offered the choice of moving to the United States or sending himself on sabbatical, at the age of 41, with severance pay. He chose to retire, and by 1961 had come up with his own challenge: taking a 75-per-cent drop from his professional salary level to do research that really concerned him. In starting the CPRI he simply bent his scientist’s mind to a new set of puzzles: who makes war, when and why?

Working out of a paper-crammed one-storey office, the Alcocks, with four underpaid CPRI staffers, friends, volunteers and affiliates, have produced more than 270 books, articles and research abstracts, many of which they print on the premises. Most are scholarly—A Diachronic Model of Civil Violence or An Empirical Measure of the Ideological Distance Between Nations— but “We’ll try anything,” Alcock grins, as he roots through cartons of CPRI publications to uncover its one venture into fiction, a science-fiction novel titled The Year of the Spiatnik.

The common theme of these works is best summed up in the title of one of Alcock’s books, The Logic of Love. Again and again CPRI labors to demonstrate that peaceable behavior pays off, that the happiest states, those in which economic and political justice prevail, have the most to lose in war—but is anybody listening? Well, the department of national defence subscribes to some publications, as does a United States National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA) policy officer who travelled from California to Toronto’s First Global Conference on the Future this summer to hear Alcock speak. The institute itself gets about 10 requests for its publications each week, about half of which come from outside Canada. “In Europe, the Alcocks’ work is highly regarded,” states Frank Barnaby, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute which, with its staff of 40 and its $2 million of funding from the Swedish parliament, is the world’s largest and most influential peace research organization. Barnaby adds, “Now, when the work of the institutes in Sweden, Norway and particularly West Germany is contracting, Canada’s efforts become especially significant.” Military men, such as George Lindsey, chief of operations, research and analysis for DND Ottawa, are skeptical of the CPRl’s attempts to “quantify warlikeness.” But its publications command a certain respect in some academic circles. Professor John Sigler, director of Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, notes: “Among ‘refereed’ journals—those to which articles are sub-

mitted anonymously to a panel of impartial academics—the CPRI appears more often than anyone else in Canada. Its scientific methodology is very sophisticated. The real debate isn’t between Alcock and the social scientists, but rather among academics who wonder how far scientific methods can be applied to human behavior.”

Lately, Alcock and the CPRI have been looking for clues that show what conditions cause violence. They have studied United Nations’ voting patterns, drug consumption, arms production, even church attendance habits (the computer indicates that mainstream churchgoers hold more bellicose views than stay-athome agnostics). Alcock has an astonishing willingness to go out on any limb, pursue any pattern, in the spirit of inquiry. “I know this sounds weird,” he gently warned the businessmen and academics who gathered to hear about his cycles research at the Global Future’s Conference, “but we are finding recurring patterns among pig-iron production, arms buying, civil disturbances and even sun spots.” His audience pondered Alcock’s scrupulous graphs and computer tables as he quietly admonished them, “Just because this smacks of astrology is no reason for a good scientist not to investigate it.”

The investigative excitement of these

hints and clues keeps Alcock at his work, but he works on a shoestring. Although the department of external affairs has just come through with its first grant to the CPRI ($7,500), donations from the “300 or 400 beautiful, foolish Canadians who think there may be some good in what we do,” as Alcock puts it, has fallen back with the economy. Curiosity and (as every middleclass liberal knows) a conscience are expensive luxuries to maintain. The Alcocks’ personal savings have been utterly drained by the institute, and they are now selling their last asset, their 10room home overlooking Lake Ontario.

The work inevitably drains morale, too. In 1978, Alcock served for five weeks as a consultant to the UN Special Session on Disarmament. “Trudeau, who in the early 1960s had been a member of our board, spoke with great compassion. Over and over all the world leaders stressed that the arms race was absurd. They knew. Yet not one nation announced concrete steps to peace.” Alcock admits he was literally traumatized because Reason did not triumph at the UN—because he realized for the first time that simply demonstrating the logic of love was just not enough. “For six months I hardly went into the office—I didn’t do anything.” Says Sigler: “The UN special session was Alcock’s first inside view of the difficulties of implementing policy, and the experience changed him.”

Yet today, the bespectacled scientist is still plugging away in the cramped office in Oakville. The CPRl’s annual budget of $41,000 remains a frustratingly small teardrop in the snow beside the nation’s $5 billion defence budget and Canada’s lucrative arms trade (consistently within the top 10 arms producers for the past decade). Meanwhile the CPRl’s tranquility, the rustle of pens on the page and papers being stuffed into boxes, is occasionally interrupted by a knock at the door. The RCMP is still perplexed by whether peace activists are subversives, pawns ... or what? They dropped by this spring after Alcock paid a fruitless visit to Ottawa to reason with the Soviet ambassador about Afghanistan. The Mounties were pleasant; they stayed to share the staff’s traditional break for 4 o’clock tea. To outsiders, these anecdotes underline the disheartening impotence of Alcock’s group. Surely it is futile to believe that visits with Mounties, the Soviet ambassador and the quarrelsome, cacophonous UN will accomplish anything? Alcock, once so keen to be scientifically objective, answers the question rather subjectively now. “I believe that all the world’s a stage; I may have only a small part to play—but if I don’t take it seriously, someone else may miss his cue.” fp