Peace Academy: old idea finds new public, congressional support

''On earth peace, good will toward men'' may seem particularly elusive this Christmas season, what with the heightened struggle for freedom in Poland, more trouble in the Mideast, continuing suppression in Afghanistan, and new violence in El Salvador and Zimbabwe.

But a bright spot is the growing movement to establish an ''United States Academy of Peace'' that would help resolve such conflict.

A presidential commission recently recommended that such an academy be founded ''as a living symbol and practical instrument for the nation's dedication to international peace.'' More than 100 members of Congress (including a majority of all senators) are sponsoring legislation. Membership in the private group pushing for the academy has increased fivefold in the past nine months.

While polls show that most Americans support the Reagan administration's goal of ''rearming America,'' there is also a strong feeling that more peaceful efforts should be made. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans by a 4-to- 1 margin would support the President if he were to propose to the Soviet Union that both countries reduce their stock of nuclear weapons by one-half.

While the President has not taken a public stand on the proposed peace academy, supporters hope the public's desire for peace and arms reduction will prompt administration approval.

The proposal for a peace academy dates back to George Washington, who suggested the concept. Presidents as different as Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter have supported the idea. Some balance is needed, it is thought, for the four military academies and five war colleges in the US.

''I have long felt that carefully organized study and support of the processes that strengthen world peace can be of broad and lasting value,'' a retired West Point superintendent, Lt. Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, has said.

The proposed legislation would start a modest program funded at less than the cost of a single B-52. The idea is not to establish something as large as the service academies, but to set up a nonprofit corporation supported by private as well as government money. The facilities and staff of existing private universities and public agencies (including the Departments of Defense and State) would play a major role.

Conflict resolution, mediation, conciliation, and negotiation would be researched and taught to those directly involved in peacemaking efforts. Students would include diplomats, law-enforcement officials, and military personnel.

''Unless the federal government exercises its leadership in this area, peace will not flourish fully, despite its profound basis in our nation's heritage,'' says Sen. Spark Matsunaga (D) of Hawaii, who chaired the presidential commission.

The proposal has long languished without action, despite its relative general popularity. Some see it as a wasteful ''do-gooder'' idea. Others within the government bureaucracy see their domains threatened.

But many Americans apparently feel otherwise. Says the Rev. George Hill, chairman of the National Peace Academy campaign, ''The United States needs to give at least as much attention to strengthening its peacemaking arsenal as to assuring its military power.''

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