Hanna Newcombe, Pioneering in Peace Research

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 2005-01-01 12:00:00

Hanna Newcombe was in the midst of closing down the Peace Research Institute Dundas when I went to visit her. Her institute had occupied the basement of the Hamilton bungalow where she has lived for the past fifty years, but in November most of her books had already been shipped to an institute in Sweden. Perhaps, she speculated, without work to do she would soon get bored.

Hardly! Hanna is as smart as they come, and lots of her ideas have yet to be written down. Even in her eighties, she's still a faithful activist, traveling around on buses to peace gatherings. To be sure, you may have seen her a lot without noticing her brilliance. In person she's simple, bland, modest -- almost ego-less. You have to know her work to recognize the extraordinary richness of her mental life. So let me tell you a bit and show a sample essay.

She was born in Prague in 1922, the only child of a non-religious Jewish couple. In 1938, as Hitler was coming, her father was able to arrange immigration to Canada, on condition that his family become farmers. Living in Grimsby, Ontario, Hanna picked peaches and cherries every summer during her high school years, then went on to study chemistry at McMaster, where she met Alan Newcombe. He was not Jewish but, after dating several years, and over the objections of both his parents and hers, they married and moved to Toronto to pursue graduate work in chemistry.

"We were warned that we'd have trouble in a mixed marriage," she says. "But it worked."

They finished their Ph.D.s and started a family, with Alan working in a chemical firm and Hanna staying at home, bringing up the children. (Nora and George now are professors in the United States and Ian is a Hamilton lawyer.)

Then in 1961 they met Norman Alcock, a physicist who had decided to found a new organization: the Canadian Peace Research Institute (CPRI). They took part in his fund-raising campaign. "I think physicists and chemists felt guilty for having invented nuclear weapons," says Hanna. "Some tried to compensate by efforts for peace."

The Institute started operating in 1961. It was based first in Toronto, later Oakville. Hanna had been writing chemical abstracts at home. Peace research was like a new science, she thought, so why couldn't there also be peace research abstracts? Alcock accepted that notion. Alan quit his job, as Alcock had done, and from 1962 onward, both Newcombes were on staff of CPRI as editors of the journal.

"Despite the loss of family income, we didn't even consult the kids," she recalls. "They didn't know what to say whenever a teacher or another kid would ask, ´What does your daddy do?' since a peace researcher wasn't an accepted profession. They would say something like ´editor.' They had to sugar it up somehow. But we hired them for summer work and paid them for making abstracts from journals."

CPRI was shut down in 1975 because the Alcocks moved to Huntsville. They tried to operate from there but after a year they gave up, so Alan, Hanna, and Ruth Klaassen started Peace Research Institute Dundas in the Newcombe basement. They continued doing the same work as at CPRI, but with four paid employees. The last PRID staff member, Linda Carroll, was still working downstairs as I interviewed Hanna.

I began by asking how she had become a Quaker.

HANNA NEWCOMBE: Well, Alan did it first and brought me into it. I don't feel particularly Quakerly. I don't share the absolute pacifism. I believe in nonviolence under most conditions but I can think of exceptions. We started discussing that recently in a conversation about humanitarian intervention -- the "Responsibility to Protect." Some people think it's good because it will save lives of potential victims. Others say, "Intervention force? Force means violence!" I think a force could be nonviolent.

SPENCER: So you support the Responsibility to Protect policy?

NEWCOMBE: Yes. The booklet needs further development, but I support the basic idea.

SPENCER: That topic -- "R2P" -- comes up a lot now. It has focused our minds.

NEWCOMBE: Yes, but it's still too vague. It needs to be translated into international law that would be valid under certain carefully defined conditions. That hasn't been done yet.

SPENCER: The question is, who would authorize intervention? It ought to be the Security Council, but we can't trust them.

NEWCOMBE: No, the Security Council needs to be reformed. I just reviewed a book proposing a good rational scheme for Security Council reform. The way it is now, it's dominated by the Big Five. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appointed a panel of eminent persons to propose reforms. Their final report will be out next month, but it seems that they will recommend leaving the five veto powers alone. They don't dare suggest changing that because it wouldn't pass! Enlarge the Council and have a middle layer of large nations such as Brazil, India, Germany, Japan, and Italy. Get them in as semi-permanent, without the veto, and elected for five instead of the regular two years. It would be a three-layered council and would be maybe 25 members instead of the present 15. But that reform is not sufficient. It is still not representative enough. Even the General Assembly of the UN is not properly representative of the whole population because each country has one vote - China with its huge population and Vanuatu with a population the size of the city of Hamilton. But the Security Council is even worse. It's tilted toward Western Europe and North America. The UN doesn't have legitimacy with the world's people as a whole. Unfortunately, it's the only thing around with universal membership. It's the United States that doesn't want to follow the United Nations. I think it's a disaster that Bush got re-elected.

SPENCER: Tell me about Grindstone Island, the peace research summer school that you operated in the late sixties. It sounds like one of the greatest experiences that I missed. I heard about a famous role-playing fiasco.

NEWCOMBE: Yes. "Thirty-one Hours." The book was called that. Alan and I weren't there but the Pococks and Murray Thomson were there. The scenario was that there was a colony on the island that was going to be invaded. Hans Sinn was the leader of the invaders. There was supposed to be nonviolent resistance by the inhabitants. This was being acted out. It didn't end up well. The defenders did not succeed in defending the island. They tried to ring the bell as a gesture of defiance, and the invaders shot them. It was carefully simulated. According to the book, the victims actually felt that they couldn't move because they were shot. So it was a very intense experience but it didn't come out showing that nonviolent defence was very effective in this case. Alan and I thought that the problem was lack of discipline. The defenders argued among themselves, insisting that everyone was free to do as they liked. This was the sixties, when everyone could do their own thing. There was not enough coordination, so they didn't win. In Gandhi's campaigns there was discipline. Satyagrahis had to obey the orders of the leaders. But at Grindstone, the experiment had to end after three people simulated death.

SPENCER: It reminds me of that Zimbardo experiment - the Stanford Prison Experiment. They set up a jail on the campus of Stanford University and intended to simulate it for two weeks. The guards and prisoners were all normal students, and were all paid, but the guards became truly brutal and the prisoners started believing that they actually had to obey. After six days Zimbardo had to call the experiment off.

NEWCOMBE: Yes, I have heard of that. There is another one of a teacher who divided the class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed pupils. She tried to make them antagonistic toward each other. It worked all too well! There are troubling studies like this that show how easy it is to get into the role you're playing. Last weekend the Voice of Women put on a simulation where war was put on trial and in the end declared illegal. They had defendants and witnesses who said you have to keep the war option in case a Hitler arose. Another witness was pleading the Just War theory - that there are occasions when you have to have a war. So they did present the other side. But then they had even more witnesses showing the damage that wars have done medically, environmentally. There is an alternative - namely nonviolence.

SPENCER: Well, let's talk about nonviolence, though it didn't work at Grindstone. I believe democracy is enormously important and wherever there's a dictatorship, I would support nonviolence to help people get rid of it. But that's not by any means universally accepted by peace activists. What's your point of view?

NEWCOMBE: The classic argument against total nonviolence under all conditions comes from the Cold War - that there's a crazy pilot who's going to fly over Moscow and drop an atomic bomb. It would be an ethical imperative for our side to shoot him down so he doesn't do it. Now that's a violent solution, but what else would you do in a situation like that? That's the extreme example but there are others, such as a whole population under attack by a dictator, as is happening in Darfur. Or take the Rwanda genocide. In a situation like that, I think the important thing would be to save lives, not to stick to an abstract principle of never harming another human being. Harming the wrongdoers might be necessary. You just have to minimize it. That is what has to be so carefully defined in the Responsibility to Protect so it wouldn't be misused by someone who had different motives such as getting hold of oil wells, and just brought this up as a phony justification.

SPENCER: What do you feel about assisting nonviolent democratic opposition movements in a dictatorship, whether it's Iraq or Serbia or Nazi Germany, or Georgia? I think they are preparing for that in Ukraine now.

NEWCOMBE: Yes, I am very much in favor of that. Of course, you are putting people in danger, but they know about it and choose to do it.

SPENCER: And they do so as members of their own society; we wouldn't bring our people to do it for them. Would you feel all right about having our government assist them with funds and so on?

NEWCOMBE: Yes, I would.

SPENCER: If you're going to prevent a war by using nonviolent intervention, usually it takes a while and you need to start it early. You can't wait until genocide begins. You have to help them as soon as it looks ominous, but before the extent of the persecution is serious enough to justify a Responsibility to Protect military intervention.

NEWCOMBE: Yes. Prevention is much preferable if you can predict that the situation is going to develop that way. There are indicators (people have done the research) that enable you to predict reasonably well. The prevention should be done early. If it really comes to the crunch, as in Rwanda, you may have to send in a force that is not totally nonviolent, in order to stop the genocide.

SPENCER: The Responsibility to Protect document says to use all other possible means before resorting to military intervention, but it doesn't spell out what are alternative methods of prevention.

NEWCOMBE: Prevention might include education, debates --such things. But even the eventual intervention - let's not think of it as military but as police, because police are lightly armed and always instructed to minimize violence. The military are trained to kill. So let's make it a police intervention.

SPENCER: Sure. I like that. That's not how R2P reads now, but it could be changed. It could also state explicitly that other preventive measures -- development aid, moral suasion, mediation -- or in some cases support for nonviolent resistance (or "political defiance" as it is often called now) should be attempted, if possible, before the violence.

NEWCOMBE: Yes, and preventing the influx of arms. There is a huge small arms trade out there. Stopping that would be an effective preventive measure.

SPENCER: You founded the Canadian Peace Research and Education Association and you've read so much empirical research for the abstracts! Some discoveries must have impressed you as particularly valuable. If you were writing a book about it, how would you summarize the most significant insights?

NEWCOMBE: A bunch of things. There's the game theory that Rapoport developed, and the book by Axelrod showing that in a repeated series of Prisoner's Dilemma games it's better to cooperate than to defect. So that's one sort of lesson.

Another is the Robber's Cave experiment where there were two boys' camps. They were deliberately manipulated to get hostile to each other, and then attempts were made to reconcile them. The only thing that worked well was to have superordinate goals, like fixing the water supply for the benefit of both groups. They could get the water fixed only by cooperating. That's another lesson.

There's also a lesson from Richardson's arms race research. War preparedness doesn't deter, but stimulates the other side. He showed that if countries get into some initial state of competition, the rate of growth of the defence spending of each group is proportional to the actual spending by the competitor.

Another insight is Charles Osgood's notion of GRIT -- "gradual reduction in tension." Either side can initiate de-escalation without negotiation by making a small, unilateral concession to the other side while communicating the hope that this gesture will be matched with an equal response. If the opponent does so, the first party can then make another concession, creating a "peace spiral."

Oh, and another major point is the fact that democracies don't tend to fight with each other. They have to be studied as pairs of nations. Babst showed that democracies fight wars, but not against other democracies.

SPENCER: Yes, but I'm always coming up against people who won't believe that.

NEWCOMBE: I know! We had a graduate student here who didn't believe it. This is because US presidents want to export democracy to other nations and these peaceniks were opposed to US foreign policy and so they thought that it must be wrong. If the US is favoring democracies all over the world, that must be wrong! (We laugh.)

SPENCER: I've had that same conversation as recently as yesterday.

NEWCOMBE: I tell them, "It's an empirical finding!" But they don't know what that is. (We laugh.)

SPENCER: So far as you know, there's no methodological critique of that research that would disconfirm the conclusions?

NEWCOMBE: It really holds up well. There might be some argument about the definition of democracy -- the difference between a mature democracy and a transitional democracy. There might be some argument about the definition of war - you know, does it have to have 1,000 battle deaths, as David Singer defined it? If it's less than that, is it a war? What about civil wars? There are all sorts of things like that, but on the whole, empirically it stands up well.

SPENCER: The theory came from Kant.

NEWCOMBE: Yes, but he was just predicting. He didn't have empirical data. And he was calling it a republic, not a democracy. (Laughs.) There's a difference between Republicans and Democrats.

SPENCER: You've written some other books that aren't exactly standard peace research.

NEWCOMBE: Yes, science and religion books. I'm calling it How Things Come Together. I think it surprises people in the humanities because they don't know the physical science that I was using.

SPENCER. I had a copy of the first volume. Remarkably original!

NEWCOMBE: There are enough essays for four volumes.

SPENCER: I hope you'll put them onto your web site. And I want to publish at least one in the magazine [see page 13]. How o you see the connection between scientific thinking and religion?

NEWCOMBE: I don't believe in religious dogma but I have a certain spiritual perception and I've had experiences that feel as though God is talking to me - in signs, not in words. I've written one essay where I almost felt I was being dictated to. I don't believe the Bible or the Jesus story. It rubs me the wrong way to have somebody else, even the son of God, suffering for my sins. And I could never believe that a moral god would confine even the worst sinners to a place as horrible as eternal fire. I don't accept a god like that, so I had to make up my own.

SPENCER: What did you come up with?

NEWCOMBE: Somebody who was all good but not all powerful. He couldn't be both - otherwise there wouldn't be so much evil in the world.

SPENCER: But it's a creator? God was there before everything else was, and God brought everything else into existence?

NEWCOMBE: Well, I don't know what happened before the Big Bang. Some physicists think there was something before the Big Bang and that there are other universes besides ours. Now that's very tentative and I don't necessarily accept it. I don't accept all religion or all science because some of it is just hypothesis.

SPENCER: I'm glad you mentioned these experiences of being led or given insights. Can you say more about those thoughts that were given to you?

NEWCOMBE: It's just too complicated to say. Usually it was things that would be hard to explain by chance, even though it isn't excluded. For example, I kept a card near where I sleep that was sent to me by a man who knew I was trying to commit suicide. After I changed my mind about that, he sent a message on the card that said, "God loves you." One day it wasn't there. I said, "I guess God doesn't love me anymore." Then I discovered that the card was on the other side. How could it have moved? I decided I had forgotten about the message and God wanted to make sure that I noticed it again, so he did something spectacular like removing it and making me find it again. That sort of thing.

SPENCER: I'm still trying to imagine how you fit religion and science together.

NEWCOMBE: Both of them are trying to explain how things work in the universe. This was always my interest in science -- not trying to invent gadgets or make money out of patents. It was trying to find out how the world works. So religion and science have to have a relationship.

SPENCER: You show there's meaning in your life. Yet at one time you considered suicide.

NEWCOMBE: It was strange. I had made up my mind to do it, and I was carrying out the first steps. And then I thought, there's this conference going on so after I finish my suicide I want to go to the conference. Then I said to myself, "Wait a minute!" (We laugh.) That showed me that I was still attached to life. Before you actually do a suicide you have to detach from life.

SPENCER: Was it a lack of meaning that made you consider suicide?

NEWCOMBE: No, something had happened that I felt guilty about. It would be like a hara-kiri .

SPENCER: I think you've led such a magnificent life! The choices that you've made, the opinions you've formed, and the fact that you've taken account of a lot of things that most other people don't conjure with, I find amazing and inspiring. I feel pretty sure God's leading you!

NEWCOMBE: At least some of it was Alan's decision. He was a big factor in my life. He's been gone fifteen years.

SPENCER: In these books about religion and science, you had math formulas explaining systems.

NEWCOMBE: I wrote some about Chaos Theory. There's a certain equation that shows divergences - first into two, then four, then eight, then sixteen - and eventually chaos. I was trying to work out with certain parameters having to do with survival of species. The equation predicted the next generation. If you have a certain parameter, the next generation will be as full as can be - very successful. But the next generation after that leads to extinction. You've seen graphs like that - things going up and up and up very successfully - and then crash! Environmentalists say we're already exceeding the carrying capacity of the earth. I came to the mathematical result first, before the interpretation. But then I jumped right to applying it to population.

SPENCER: In that first volume, you even wrote about Tarot cards and Kabbalah and astrology! I was surprised.

NEWCOMBE: Yes, the Tarot is a sequential set of 12 cards in an arcana, so I interpreted each card as representing one phase in a lifetime. I wrote a story, trying to fit my life into it. It worked pretty well. I don't know whether it would work for other people. The astrological signs fit into that also. But of course I don't have blind faith in any of this.

SPENCER: Are you a Jungian?

NEWCOMBE: Yes, I enjoy that, but I don't take it seriously. I just play with it. It isn't so different from science. It's a search for knowledge.

SPENCER: What do you see as your legacy?

NEWCOMBE: I was looking for how to help the world survive the nuclear weapons but I haven't done very well on that.

SPENCER: Nobody has done well on that. If we want people to become aware of the problem, we have to propose what to do about it.

NEWCOMBE: Right now, I think the most immediate thing is to get away from the ballistic missile defence. The other thing is Alan Phillips's article about no launch on warning. That is a feasible thing that could be done unilaterally, without verification, to prevent accidental launch. People should spread their knowledge: "No Launch on Warning!"

Spencer is a retired professor of sociology and peace studies and editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2005

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2005, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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