The “Peace Ship”

An Early Attempt at Citizen Diplomacy

One of the stranger stories to come out of World War I involved Hungarian feminist Rosika Schwimmer and American industrialist Henry Ford. Their effort was mocked as a quixotic quest, and it ended in failure, but what they did prefigured a major development of peacemaking work.

Press photo of the Oscar II Peace Ship with Capt. G. W. Hempel and Henry Ford

Press photo: Oscar II Peace Ship with Capt. G. W. Hempel and Henry Ford
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

In mediation, the involvement of national and international diplomats is called Track One diplomacy. This form of mediation is carried out by ambassadors, U.N. General Secretaries and such figures, and thus garners most of the news attention. But there is another type of mediation, Track Two, that has gained more attention and appreciation since the 1980s. Track Two diplomacy is carried out by people not affiliated with any particular government or trans-government agency. It is sometimes called citizen diplomacy. The “Peace Ship” was an early attempt at citizen diplomacy.

Photograph of Rosika Schwimmer

Rosika Schwimmer Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

As World War I was heating up into 1915, a number of European feminists lead by the Hungarian pacifist Rosika Schwimmer tried to create a traveling conference to explore common ground for a peace agreement between the belligerents. The European powers were stuck in trench warfare, grinding up a generation of young men. Schwimmer and the other pacifists thought that “peace ambassadors” might offer an alternative to the carnage.

They organized a women’s delegation to come to the United States, which was still neutral at that time, and seek support for their initiative. They had little success until they met with Henry Ford. Ford agreed to charter an old steam ship for the group. A cluster of religious leaders, journalists and others interested in peace joined Ford and the feminists. Ford spent much of his time in the engine room with the sailors. On deck the peace discussions were held in a rather chaotic fashion, bringing much scorn to the enterprise.

The “Peace Ship” sailed to various European neutral ports, including Copenhagen and Stockholm. At each port consultations were held about possible terms for a cease fire and peace agreement. Eventually they drafted a platform for peace, but it was met with disdain from all the warring governments. President Wilson of the United States also spurned the document, though the U.S. was not yet at war. The conglomeration of peace mediators became notorious for their own internal wrangling to the delight of their critics, and the initiative collapsed.

Though the venture of the “Peace Ship” ended in failure, their work found new life. Many of the ideas generated in the consultation and put into the peace platform found their way into President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the manifesto in early 1918 that outlined U.S. goals in World War I. His list included a commitment to transparent peace treaties that would not be entangled with private deals on the side, one of the visions set out by these early citizen diplomats. Though they did not succeed in what they hoped to achieve, these Track Two pioneers blazed the way for a type of peacemaking initiative that is very common around the world now and a source for some of the most creative thinking in conflict situations.

The Peace Ship leaving New York in December of 1915

The Peace Ship Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons