Norman Alcock, 1918-2007: Grieving, Remembering and Celebrating

On 31 March this year, 150 people from places near and far in Ontario converged at Port Sydney to pay their final respects to Norman Zinkan Alcock, founder of peace research in Canada, engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, husband, parent, grandparent, brother-in-law, uncle and friend. Norman’s widow, Pat, was present, her sisters, the Alcock children, Stephen, Christopher, David and Nancy, their spouses and children, some other relatives and many friends. Chris Lind, a close friend of the Alcock children, was master of ceremonies for the memorial service. He summarized Norman’s characteristics beautifully when he said:

“The late 1950s, 1960s were a time of revolution and Norman Alcock was part of the vanguard party. If he wasn’t a revolutionary, he was certainly a rebel. I was trying to think of a single norm he didn’t challenge and couldn’t think of one. He challenged the norms of an academic career, of a business career, and of child rearing.

“Our generation [that of Norman’s and Pat’s children] were pretty tough on the [older] generations and we pushed a lot of adults away, but in the Alcocks’ split-level house at the end of Lakewood Drive, our energy, questioning and crazy dreams were nurtured and encouraged. It was magic! Our energy was even harnessed as we walked round the Institute table collating pages for the newsletter…

“The home that Pat and Norm made was one of creativity, of possibility, of boundary pushing and experimentation. Ideas were currency and everyone had a bank account. No one was prevented from haggling at the bazaar.”

A native of Edmonton, Alberta, Norman’s life took him to many places through many stages. He was highly successful in his early engineering studies, at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, graduating in 1940. He obtained an M.S. in Electrical Engineering at Cal. Tech. one year later, then worked with a select team on Radar during the war, first at the National Research Council in Ottawa, and later at the Telecommunications Research Establishment in Malvern, England. In 1949 he obtained a PhD in Physics at McGill University, followed by a period of employment at AECL, Chalk River. He next branched out to become an entrepreneur, exploiting the commercial possibilities of radioisotopes for medical or other peaceful purposes in Oakville, where he also developed some land for new housing and built the house on Lakewood Drive already referred to above.

Of special interest to members of Science for Peace must be the Alcocks’ decision to give up a prosperous life as entrepreneurs and enter the nascent field of peace research. It was a gamble and a huge risk for a family with young children, even in affluent Oakville, and Pat was fully involved in this.

The rationale for founding a peace research institute is given in full in Norman Alcock’s The Bridge of Reason (John Wilkes Press, 1961, 40 pp). This invaluable, groundbreaking text is available in the Toronto Public Library system only at the North York Library, in the stacks (call number 327.172A).

Norman’s rationale was that “the only feasible road out of our present dilemma [war and threats of war] is by the bridge of reason.” Secondly, “the bridge of reason must be based upon the concept of the critical few.”

The meaning to be given to these statements was essentially the assumption that science (in its broadest sense) could show the path of peace through a sufficient body of scientifically conducted peace research and thereby turn international affairs away from paths leading to wars. The research would require a substantial minimum of international effort, and hence Alcock’s use of the term “critical.” He was only too aware that the critical number of able peace researchers was unknown, but speculated it would exceed a couple of hundred, and could be in the thousands, spread between many institutes in many different countries.

It turned out, most sadly, that either these assumptions were insufficient, or that the critical number was not achieved, and is larger than could have been found and supported in those days. This question is better answered in his response to my 1986 letter – see below.

The Alcocks funded their institute initially from their own resources, living frugally and driving their old station wagon wherever they went, carrying a banner across its back that read:

People began to donate money. A Committee was formed, which they called the Communications Committee, with the purpose of raising the awareness of Canadians to the founding of the institute, and consisting largely of members of the CBC, Pat recalls. Another very fortunate circumstance at the outset was the almost simultaneous formation of The Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, known colloquially as Voice of Women, or VOW. This remarkable and important organization was seeking a project to cut its baby teeth, so to speak, and chose to raise funds for the Alcocks’ newly formed Canadian Peace Research Institute (CPRI) in Oakville. Funds were also raised by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and by the World Federalists. Making the Institute a reality was an example of what groups of diverse people of goodwill can achieve.

Money was soon forthcoming, and grants were obtained for specific projects. Over the next fifteen years or so, numerous people were hired by CPRI. Hanna and Alan Newcombe were among the early research staff, though they eventually, for convenience, chose to operate their own institute from their home in Dundas: the Peace Research Institute Dundas (PRID). But the two institutes collaborated. Others who were hired to staff CPRI included William Eckhardt, Anita Kemp, John Paul, Jerome Laulicht, Allison Lee and Gernot Köhler.

Over its 20 years of operation CPRI researchers published many papers and attended conferences. In addition the Institute created its own Press and published the following books, though I make no claim that the list is complete:

John Paul, Jerome Laulicht and George Strong, In Your Opinion (1968) 349 pp.;
Hanna and Alan Newcombe, Peace Research around the World (1969) 275 pp.;
Norman Z. Alcock, The Emperor’s New Clothes (1971) 177 pp.;
Norman Z. Alcock, The War Disease (1972) 238 pp.;
William Eckhardt, Compassion (1972, reprinted 1973) 238 pp.;
Matthew Melko, 52 Peaceful Societies (1973) 223 pp.;
Norman Z. Alcock, The Logic of Love (1976).

In the 1970s Norman’s interests began to shift in the direction of mysticism. This trend first showed itself in print in a little book entitled The Quest for Reality (93 pp.). He was a deeply spiritual man, and this was evident to me in all my dealings with him, not all of which are recounted here.

I first met Norman in 1976, when I was trying to decide whether to attend the Pugwash Conference that was to take place in Mühlhausen, East Germany, later that summer. The invitation was my first to any of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and I was hesitating, as these conferences represent a major commitment in time. Norman had attended six Pugwash conferences in the early 1960s and, after an interval, another one in 1967, but none since then. Pat, who went with him to two of the conferences, stated that Norm felt Pugwash had played a significant role in averting war at the time of the Cuban crisis. Norman’s Pugwash participation also coincided with the efforts to bring about the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), forbidding nuclear weapons tests from being made in the atmosphere, an endeavour in which Pugwash had also played a part. The PTBT had the effect of eliminating most fission fragments from nuclear explosions from entering the atmosphere, and thus brought about a significant improvement in public health worldwide. These two contributions from those early days undoubtedly played a significant part in the award to Pugwash and to Joseph Rotblat in 1995 of the Nobel Peace Prize.

By 1976, however, Norman had not participated in Pugwash international conferences for nine years, and he neither encouraged me to attend nor discouraged me from attending. Very characteristically, he left it entirely to me.

On that occasion, in 1976, we talked a good deal about the CPRI Press, and I remember purchasing a good many books, including the entire remainders of The War Disease, both in paperback and hard cover. The War Disease is a wonderful primer on war and its causes, and deserves to be reprinted again or to be updated and rewritten as a first-year text for all students of peace and conflict, as well as for the general public. Members of Science for Peace, especially those concerned with education, might do well to study The War Disease and consider producing a new version, updated, but having the same purpose.

It is also known that Norman advised Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau prior to the UN’s First Special Session on Disarmament, in 1978. Of the three Special Sessions on Disarmament, the first is generally regarded as having been by far the most successful.

My next memory of Norman stems from his participation in the telegram to Soviet President Brezhnev in early January 1980. On 27 December 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and, to quote a retired diplomat, “all hell broke loose at the UN in New York.” The late Bertrand Russell had more than once indulged in an exchange of telegrams between himself and a Soviet President in times of crisis. In the absence of Russell, it seemed to be Canada’s turn to follow suit, and I organized a telegram to be sent to the Soviet President, bearing as many distinguished Canadian signatures as possible. Norman was one of the signatories, and we made sure the telegram reached its addressee by having it go through the diplomatic channel, that is, the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. This achieved, we received a response about ten weeks later, in the form of an invitation to four of the signatories to attend a luncheon at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa. Norman was one of the four who accepted to attend, the others being John Hewitt (a nuclear engineer), Murray Thomson and me.

At that time, possibly the lowest point in East-West relations, very few highly placed people in Canada or the United States were willing to talk with Soviets, so low had the relationship sunk. Also, there was a Canadian trade embargo against the Soviet Union, so that the Ambassador explained, as Norman recounted to Pat, “you see, I have nothing to do, and can spend all the time you like with you.” The proof was that the drinks before lunch and the lunch itself lasted from noon until 5 p.m! Norman and Murray were the more experienced of us four at second-track diplomacy, and provided most of the conversation with the ambassador – Alexander Yakovlev. The Embassy’s Councilor, Alexei Makharov, a very deserving fellow as I later found, was also present, as well as a third Russian who claimed to be the Embassy’s press agent, but was clearly from the KGB. The latter had to be silenced several times by Yakovlev during the lunch, to prevent his version of Soviet orthodoxy from inundating us. Alexander Yakovlev was a historian by training and a man of some distinction. He later became a member of the Politburo and Gorbachev’s right-hand man on foreign policy in the Kremlin. The luncheon at the Embassy established a link between Soviet diplomats and Canadian Science, which served the peace movement well during the next few years.

At that time, Norman was also a member of the Ambassador for Disarmament’s Consultative Group. According to Geoffrey Pearson, then Ambassador for Disarmament, Norman knew more than anyone in the Group about arms control and disarmament, and was well liked and respected.

CPRI closed in 1981. Its archives are stored by the Province of Ontario at its Grenville Street address in Toronto. Those wishing to explore them should allow more than two hours, as they will need to surf the list of contents of the 34 boxes prior to getting their chosen box or boxes brought out to them.

Also in 1981, Science for Peace was formed, and Norman and Pat were among the early people to join. Not long after, members of its Board decided to hold a retreat, so as to plan useful action for the new organization. By that time the Alcocks had sold their property in Oakville and purchased Gryffin Lodge, jointly with Margaret Binns and Jean Hunter, Pat’s sisters, on Mary Lake, just south of Huntsville. The Lodge was operated as a tourist business for a time by Margaret and Jean and their brother, Barry Hunter, They invited us to come to Gryffin Lodge, where we were splendidly looked after by these good people, and held most fruitful discussions.

Though CPRI was now closed, PRID continued and, during Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s last Parliament, two things occurred which may well be traced partly to the influence of the two peace research institutes. First, Trudeau had been a Board member of CPRI prior to his heavy involvement in politics, indicating not only his sympathy with Norman’s basic ideas, but an inclination to seek peace through his own life and politics. Months only before retiring from politics, Trudeau, then Prime Minister, toured many capitals trying to persuade national leaders to join an international peace initiative. The peace initiative, though often regarded as unsuccessful, required long hours of preparation in high-level think tanks in Ottawa and this, in itself, was highly educational for the bureaucratic participants. Second, in the last hour of Trudeau’s very last day in Parliament, the Act was passed that brought into existence the Canadian Institute of International Peace and Security (CIIPS) – Trudeau’s very last political action as Prime Minister. The Institute functioned increasingly well for eight years, until it was closed by Order-in-Council by Brian Mulroney, as a petty expenditure-reducing move. CIIPS functioned at arms length from government, but was entirely funded by the Federal Government. Norman served on the Board of CIIPS in its early years.

Another task of Science for Peace should be to see how many of the useful functions of CIIPS could be taken up by existing nongovernmental groups, and to seek federal funding for these.

I next interacted with Norman in 1986 and 1987. Late in 1986, Jo Rotblat had asked me to write a paper on Peace Research for the Pugwash Conference in Gmunden, Austria, the next year. Having, at the time, only published about two papers that would qualify as peace research, I was somewhat at a loss on how to begin. I therefore wrote to the dozen best known peace researchers from the early days of that discipline, asking them a range of questions about what they considered peace research had set out to do and what of that it had achieved. Of the two best answers received, Norman’s was one, and is particularly noteworthy. In his view the purposes of peace research were to formalize the search for peace into a scientific discipline: “Widespread acceptance of this goal should lead to:

“(a) a compilation of war/peace facts which could be used as a support for the disarmament/arms control position;
“(b) scientific theories of the causes of war;
“(c) the legitimation of peace as a valid subject of study – peace education;
“(d) stimulation of the war-peace debate;
“(e) help for decision-makers through alternative directions;
“(f) elimination of the war system by showing its absurdity.

“Over the past two and a half decades it would seem that the first five of the above objectives have been achieved. The sixth, of course, is by far the most difficult and has not been achieved. In fact the new data, the theories, the debate and the alternative directions have if anything polarized the world economy. Why? Because peace requires more than the rational mental awareness of scientific research. It needs the motivation and deep social concern of peace action to a greater degree than exists at the present time. But especially the elimination of war will take an expanded awareness, on the part of individuals around the world, of the interdependence of life – of the oneness of the planet -a spiritual sense.

“We live in an era of transition toward an integral age. Peace is a goal but it is also a means which can only be achieved through an integration personally and in the larger social community of our mental, emotional, and spiritual nature. That is the nature of the task before us.”

Those few paragraphs, immediately above, are surely his epitaph.

In 1990, Norman was awarded a Fellowship at Ryerson University, a de facto honorary degree. It was awarded for pioneering peace research in Canada. In 2004, he was awarded the Order of Canada.

Norman moved away from the Huntsville area for a time, but was induced to return by his children, of whom Stephen, an entrepreneur and builder, constructed him an ecologically friendly house on Gryffin Lodge Road. My last few visits to see Norman were at that charming little house. It was there too I called briefly with two friends from France, whom I was introducing to Ontario. It was a delightful international meeting.

To conclude, we must all reconsider peace research and its role at this time. The Peace Research Institute Dundas closed at the end of 2004, so that Canada, a pioneer in this area, now has no peace research institute apart from Project Ploughshares, which cannot by itself cover the whole field. It would be an appropriate tribute to these brave pioneers to see their purposes reinstated and given a central role within Canada.

In the meantime, I grieve, remember and celebrate.

A Note from the Editor: As a last wish, Norman Alcock’s family suggested that donations might be directed to Science for Peace in Norman’s memory. Science for Peace thanks a large number of individuals who have donated to Science for Peace in memory of Norman. These donations will be used to fund the book and/or educational materials in the Militarism and the Environment Project, these materials dedicated to the memory of Norman Alcock.