Washington — It's a long way in time and historical space from the signing of the Declaration of Independence by Benjamin Rush to Room 6226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building this fine April of 1982.
History has it that Dr. Rush, a prominent physician and opponent of slavery in the newly independent American colonies, was the first to propose a national ''peace office.'' Now, more than two centuries later, the US Congress has moved very close to following through on that suggestion.
It's not that the idea of a US peace academy, as it now is called, has been forgotten. There have been at least 100 similar proposals and more than 140 proposed pieces of legislation over the years. But until now, as longtime advocate Sen. Jennings Randolph (D) of West Virginia says, the issue has been ''loved to death.''
However, there is now a likelihood that an academy to study and foster conflict resolution at last will be established.
Ground Zero Week, Southern Lebanon, and the Falkland Islands were on everyone's mind at a Senate hearing last week on a bill to establish such an academy. So too was the unusual amount of support the current bills have gathered. A majority of the Republican-controlled Senate -- 53 members -- are formal cosponsors. In the House, 109 representatives have signed on and the number is growing.
Ronald Reagan has not personally spoken out on the proposal, but a presidential assistant 10 days ago notified senators that the administration at this point opposes the bills ''because of current severe budgetary restraints.'' Supporters find this ironic if not somewhat incredible since funds sought for start-up and two year's operating expenses at a peace academy -- $31 million -- are spent by the Pentagon every hour and 29 minutes. It is the cost of a single F-18 fighter or one-third of the annual bill for all military bands.
''I think bands are important,'' says Rep. Dan Glickman (D) of Kansas, author of the House bill. ''But I've never known a Soviet tuba to be a threat to the United States.''
Drawing principally on existing schools and other institutions, the bills would establish a federal vehicle to direct and promote research, education, and training in peacemaking skills. Private contributions and gifts would supplement the grants and contracts awarded by the US Academy of Peace. (The House version adds ''and Conflict Resolution'' to the title.)
In a letter to the President, 27 House and Senate Republican cosponsors reaffirmed their belief that ''the military power of the United States must be preserved.'' But, they added, ''We are convinced that such an academy . . . would work together with a crafted defense policy to enhance the over-all security of our nation and the world.''
Opposition comes not only from budget cutters in the White House, but from some in the diplomatic establishment. Some officials in the State Department get nervous when they perceive turf encroachment. So do those who train future diplomats.
Jeffrey A. Sheehan, assistant dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, argues that a national peace academy would ''create unrealistic expectations . . . would not be cost-effective . . . and would run contrary to the American tradition of pluralism in education.''
''Peace and conflict resolution,'' he wrote in this newspaper recently,''are elusive and will always be so.''
Elusive they may be, but that only convinces many people that something new should be tried.
This hearing did not draw the usual television cameras and battalion of lobbyists, but several hundred people who looked like they might have gathered for a town meeting. Many were from church groups.
If he is faced with overwhelming congressional support, President Reagan may find it impossible to veto anything as attractive as a peace academy. Advocates have not discounted the possibility, however, and subsequent congressional hearings are sure to be well attended.
For the mood this clear spring day reminded one of what Dwight Eisenhower once said: ''I think people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of their way and let them have it.''