To the members of a women's group in Fairmont, Minn., it seemed like a simple idea: The United States has a Department of State, which promotes America's interests overseas. And it also has a Department of Defense, which fights for them. So why not create a Department of Peace, to promote creative ways to avoid conflicts?
A national coalition of human rights groups has been campaigning for the idea, which has been around in some form since the days of America's founding fathers. There's currently a bill before Congress that would create such an agency. When the Fairmont Peace Club learned of the campaign last year, they decided to help. Instead, they triggered fears in their community about the very survival of America.
Fairmont, surrounded by farm fields and red barns, is the government seat of Martin County, population 10,000; it's among the top 10 pork-producing counties in America. The area is 97 percent white, and a large majority of residents usually vote Republican.
Fairmont has also been home, since the early 1960s, to the Peace Club.
Last November, the club persuaded the five members of Fairmont's city council that the Department of Peace was a good idea; the council unanimously passed a resolution endorsing it, without any debate.
"I didn't think it was controversial," said club member Ruth Draut. "I thought everybody wanted peace."
The backlash started the next morning. When Vietnam veteran Jerome Kortuem read about the resolution in the newspaper, he was dumbfounded.
"I just couldn't believe it," Kortuem said. "These communists are trying to do it again."
City council members say they were immediately barraged by phone calls. They called another hearing two weeks later to consider overturning the resolution they had just passed.
As critics walked to the podium, one by one, there was little connection between what they claimed the Peace Department would do and what the congressional bill actually says.
One of the biggest fears voiced by critics was that the Peace Department would give the United Nations power over the United States.
"The frightening thing about this whole thing is, it's a humongous push to get the United Nations' foot in the door. And their total goal, if you study up on it all, is to take away our sovereignty," warned resident Peet Moeller.
When the hearing was over, the council voted 3-2 to rescind its earlier resolution supporting the Department of Peace.
Residents Neil Breitbarth and Duane Roloff were convinced that the Department of Peace would send a dangerous message to America's enemies: that the United States is weak and afraid to fight.
Kortuem, who served as a Navy bomber pilot in Vietnam, worried that if Congress were to create a Department of Peace, Americans would become "a bunch of wusses," he said.
Kortuem and other townspeople in Fairmont who oppose the Department of Peace probably need not worry. Dozens of Democrats in Congress have endorsed the latest bill to create such an agency, but the party's leaders have ignored it. So the idea might stay where it has for more than 200 years: in limbo.
The History of an Idea: U.S. Department of Peace
When people hear about the campaign to create a U.S. Department of Peace, they often laugh, raise their eyebrows or smirk.
In fact, the idea dates back to the birth of the nation. Benjamin Rush, one of the Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, wrote a famous and controversial essay, "A Plan for a Peace Office for the United States."
Rush, who was widely viewed as a gadfly, argued that a secretary of peace would help balance the impulses of the War Office (renamed the Department of Defense in 1949).
Then, between the 1930s and 1960s, dozens of members of Congress revived the idea; most were Democrats, but some prominent Republicans, including Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen –- who was a strong backer of the Vietnam War — supported the concept, too.
As the bill describes it, the department would be part of the president's Cabinet, funded at 2 percent of the Defense Department's budget.
It would research and develop sophisticated approaches to "conflict resolution," and recommend ways to use these strategies to try to reduce violence, both in the United States and around the world.
Judi Poulson, a member of the women's Peace Club in Fairmont, Minn., says one of her favorite parts of the bill is the section that would create a counterpart to West Point. But the new "Peace Academy" would train armies of mediators.
"Peace is strategy, just like war," says Poulson. "But it takes a lot of hard work and skillful people that have been trained. This is not a Pollyanna idea. It's a great idea."
It turns out that many local-government officials across the nation agree. The city councils in nearly 20 communities — including Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago and Newark, N.J. — have passed resolutions supporting the Department of Peace.