Peace Magazine: In Memory of Hanna Newcombe (1922-2011)

Peace Magazine

In Memory of Hanna Newcombe (1922-2011)

By René Wadlow • published Jul 01, 2011 • last edit Jun 27, 2011

Hanna Newcombe, who with her husband Alan, was a leading Canadian peace researcher, died on 18 April 2011. In Memoriam I would like to highlight some aspects of her work. Hanna and Alan were long time friends and colleagues in the world citizen/world federalist movement and in efforts at conflict resolution.

Hanna was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1922 but fortunately went with her parents to Canada in 1939 as the war clouds were gathering. Much later Hanna and I were in Prague together at a World Federalist Council meeting when the “hot issue” in the country was the possible split of the State, and she was rediscovering the city. Both of us were pushing for a federalist approach that would have allowed Czechoslovakia to stay together, and we had visited together some of the important figures on the political scene. As is so often the case, advice comes too late in the day, and the State split into two but without the sort of violence which later manifested itself in the break up of Yugoslavia.

In Canada, Hanna started university studies in chemistry and received her PhD from the University of Toronto in 1950. During her studies she met Alan who was also studying chemistry and they married while still students in 1946. Alan was already active in the peace movement and joined the World Federalists in 1947. They quickly had three children, and while Alan worked in the chemical industry, Hanna did abstracting for a journal of chemical abstracts and started a translation service of chemical articles so that chemists in Europe would know what was going on in the USA and Canada and vice versa.

Both Alan and Hanna were impressed by reading a mid-1950s book; Theo F. Lentz Towards a Science of Peace: Turning Point in Human Destiny (New York: Bookman Associates, 1955, 194 pp.) Lentz was a US psychologist whose professional work was largely on the formation of attitudes. His theme in the book was that science “yet may do as much for our harmony as it has done for our power…One of our dangers is that men will cling too long to values whose survival function is no longer adequate.”

Lentz was very concerned with the nuclear arms build up in the mid-1950s and the amount of money and “brain power” of scientists involved in this arms race. He called for a scientific approach to peace with an emphasis on the exercise of rationality. “The sudden creative insights from the mystic’s mountain are useless unless and until translatable to the many…we dare leave no stone unturned. All aspects of human behavior must be scrutinized—political, religious, economic, artistic, emotional, intellectual— all human processes and institutions must come under survey.”

I had met Lentz shortly after his book was published when I was a graduate student in International Relations at the University of Chicago. Although I am more at ease on the mystic’s mountain, we stayed in touch for a number of years. As I was active in efforts against the development of nuclear weapons, I was happy to see others coming to the same conclusions from other directions.

Becoming peace researchers

The Newcombes, however, took his advice more literally. As Alan told me, what had struck him at the time was that there was very little cumulative development in writing on peace, little building on what others had already done. In contrast, as with Hanna’s work of abstracting, if he wanted to know something about the reaction of a particular chemical, he would look up the name of the chemical in the abstracts, and he would find a list of numerous articles dealing with that particular chemical. Likewise, in chemistry, he could look up easily the list of PhD theses written on a particular problem which had not yet been published as books.

Thus, what the peace movement needed were abstracts of articles and books and the speedy publication of PhD-level studies in an inexpensive format. In his book Lentz had stressed that peace research needed to be funded and researchers must be salaried. “War preparations cost hundreds of billions and war itself trillions. Why should we expect peace at the price of a few paltry millions or less?…No other bottleneck to peace research is at once so clear and realistic as the financial.” While the idea is obvious, financial issues remain a bottleneck.

With three children to raise, it was not until 1961 that Alan was able to give up working in industry to become a full-time peace researcher and Hanna could shift from abstracting and translating chemical texts to working on peace literature. They first worked with the physicist Norman Alcock in the Canadian Peace Research Institute, and later, so they could work from their home, they created their own institution in Dundas. Thus, Peace Research Reviews—largely drawn from PhD thesis findings—and Peace Research Abstracts Journal were born. Both Alan and Hanna kept a good deal of their chemistry study approach in their own peace writings. The quotation on their Peace Research Institute-Dundas letterhead was from the Greek Epictetus: “Observe, this is the beginning of philosophy—a recognition of the conflicts among men, an inquiry into their causes, the discovery of a standard of judgment and a condemnation of mere opinion.”

Hanna had two major concerns: one was to build upon earlier research. The first published Peace Research Review Vol. 1, N°1, 1967 was “Alternative Approaches to World Government” where she analyzed 15 alternative approaches (although some are overlapping). There is, as became the pattern, an extensive bibliography. A later issue—Vol. IV, N°4, 1972—in the same spirit was “Alternative Approaches to Peace Research.”

Her other major concern was the analysis of events with objective criteria. Much of her early peace research concerned bloc voting in the UN General Assembly—which countries voted together and how often. Later, the UN moved basically to a “consensus” approach, and votes had much less significance. The Lebanese-American sociologist Edward Azar worked with the Newcombes trying to build frameworks for the analysis of international events. The proper analysis of events—are they real? Are they meaningful?—is at the heart of the American psychologist Charles E. Osgood’s Graduated and Reciprocated Initiatives in Tension-reduction (GRIT) of which Alan was a champion.

A World Citizen

Much of Hanna’s analysis is brought together in Hanna Newcombe Design for a Better World (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983, 362pp.). Her own writings along with those of friends in the world citizen-disarmament movement are found in Hanna Newcombe (Ed.) Hopes and Fears: The Human Future (Toronto: Science for Peace, 1992, 195 pp.)

Although born the same year as Hanna, Alan died several years earlier. Alan was the more outgoing, an organizer and a networker, particularly active in the peace work of the Canadian Quakers and one of the founders of Peace Brigades International.

Hanna was more quiet, perhaps shy. She would let others speak and would always find something useful in what had just been said. While some of her writings were the analysis of events now become history, her stress on values and for the need for strong yet flexible world institutions are an inspiration.

René Wadlow is Representative to the UN, Geneva, for the Association of World Citizens.


Metta Spencer has an obituary of Hanna Newcombe on the Peace Magazine website; look for the link on the July 2011 issue page. You are also encouraged to visit the website, which collects 400 of Hanna’s articles on spiritual, scientific, and political issues, gathered into five volumes (e-book versions are available for Kindle and other tablets, computers, and smartphones).

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.27, No.3: Jul-Sep 2011
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