At last - why not a school for peace?

It was first proposed at the close of the Revolutionary War. Some historians attribute the idea to Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

It is known that George Washington advanced a similar idea.

Neither plan for a federal ''Peace Office'' was implemented, and it wasn't until 1935 that someone finally introduced a bill in Congress that would have established such an agency.

Now a majority of the Senate thinks it is an idea whose time has come.

A bill introduced recently by Sen. Spark Matsunaga (D) of Hawaii, and cosponsored by 52 of his colleagues, would establish a US Academy of Peace - an academic center that would provide an intellectual and philosophical counterpoint to West Point.

In a Senate that has just given President Reagan more than he requested for defense spending, the support for Matsunaga's bill is nothing short of remarkable. He hopes to convince the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold hearings on the measure early next year.

Rep. Dan Glickman (R) of Kansas introduced a companion bill in the House, where it received 55 cosponsors. He says a peace academy would acknowledge ''the fact that growing world tensions cannot be controlled by military might alone.''

The proposed center would serve leaders in government, private enterprise, and voluntary associations. It would perform three major functions:

* Research on peacemaking techniques such as negotiating and enforcing cease-fires and mediating disputes through United Nations offices;

* Education and training, including graduate and postgraduate credits, short-term courses for government and private personnel on negotiation, mediation and arbitration of international conflicts, and one-day conferences on topics such as negotiation and international terrorism;

* Information services - disseminating research findings through newsletters and pamphlets, establishing links with local libraries, and perhaps publishing a scholarly journal.

The facility would be a federally chartered nonprofit corporation located in or near Washington. Its core budget would come from federal funds, but it would also solicit supplemental private funding.

The academy would not intervene in international conflicts or attempt to set national policies. It is designed to provide a ''coordinated national commitment to peace learning,'' which its supporters say is necessary to increase the effectiveness of our foreign and defense policymaking.

Senator Matsunaga, who earned the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts in World War II, noted in a speech to the Senate that the cost of establishing the academy and running it for the first three years would be $31 million, less than one-tenth the price tag of a single B-1 bomber, based on moderate cost estimates.

The Pentagon already spends more than $10 billion a year to teach the arts of war; it runs three service academies, five military war colleges, and five more similar schools for its officers.

Humanity's tragic propensity to rely on the most primitive and counterproductive form of defense - violence or the threat of it - has endured since prehistory, but it now threatens the species.

This is not to say that the Soviets or our other adversaries are really peace-loving sheep in wolves' clothing. It is to say, however, that too little time and effort has been spent on serious study of alternatives to Armageddon.

American foreign-policy makers have not been able to adjust to a more complex world in which control of natural resources is shifting to the third world and many of our allies are faced with internal unrest. They tend to approach these economic and political currents as military problems, attacking complex problems with a blunt object.

We owe it to ourselves to find a better way.

Such a center would not have to plow totally new ground. It would draw on the science of conflict resolution and evaluate and disseminate information on the numerous unheralded examples of successful peacemaking around the world.

The National Peace Academy Campaign likes to quote the late Gen. Omar Bradley , the former US Army chief of staff and World War II hero: ''We have become a nation of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we do about peace, more about killing than we do about living.''

Today a peace academy should be an even more compelling idea than it was to the founding fathers.

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