Throughout its history, the United States has sought to project an image of dedication to peace and to peacemaking. George Washington, in his Farewell Address in 1796, exhorted Americans to avoid "overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty," and urged Americans: "Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all." Nearly two centuries later, President John F. Kennedy was obliged to acknowledge that, far from "cultivating peace and harmony," the United States found itself "caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle in which suspicion on one side breeds suspicion on the other and new weapons beget counterweapons"; nevertheless, he too exhorted Americans to turn their attention to "the most important topic on earth, world peace":
What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace … not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.
But the record of the behavior of the United States in regard to both "peace in our time" and "peace for all time" has been ambiguous at best.
Certainly there have been strong traditions of antimilitarism, internationalism, and pacifism in American society. The history of peace movements in the United States, reaching back at least to the formation of the New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio Peace Societies in 1815, is long and rich, and can lay claim to having influenced the peace settlements in a number of wars or other conflicts, most prominently in World War I. On the level of governmental action, the long-term peacemaking efforts of the United States have focused on the development of international legal and institutional instruments for pacific settlement of disputes and peacekeeping by international organizations. The Rush-Bagot Convention (1817) established a lasting basis for disarmament on the long border between the United States and Canada, and the Treaty of Washington (1871) provided for the resolution of other outstanding issues (boundary and fisheries questions, and the Alabama Claims) by a court of arbitration.
The United States has also given strong support to the formulation of treaties of arbitration, both voluntary and compulsory, though the Senate has as strongly resisted acceptance of compulsory arbitration without significant reservations. The United States has also shown itself willing and even eager to extend its services as mediator, and has had some success in this role—for example, in mediating the Russo-Japanese peace settlement of 1905. In the protracted conflicts that troubled many parts of the world in the late twentieth century, the efforts of the United States to serve as mediator, as in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and the former Yugoslavia, have had mixed success and have elicited charges of bias, hypocrisy, and even direct military aid to preferred parties in the conflicts.
Finally, the United States has sometimes adopted the role of peacemaker on a global scale, taking the initiative in the establishment of the Permanent Court of International Justice and the League of Nations. Although the United States never joined the league and even declined to become a party to the Statute of the Permanent Court, it later played a major role in the establishment and development of the United Nations, and has accepted (though with major reservations) the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice as reconstituted under the United Nations Charter.
There has also been strong interest in the United States in the development of techniques of peacekeeping and other approaches to conflict resolution. On the governmental level, United States involvement in "peacekeeping" or "peace enforcement" operations has unfortunately been associated with the large-scale use of military force, especially in Korea, the Persian Gulf, and the former Yugoslavia.
Nevertheless, on the level of independent citizen action and professional research, there has been widespread interest in peacekeeping without the use of military force and in nonviolent modes of conflict resolution at international as well as domestic and interpersonal levels. The decades since World War II have witnessed the establishment of numerous peace studies programs, research institutes and centers, journals and professional associations devoted to peace and peacemaking, in the United States and around the world. In 1978 a citizen campaign in the United States led to the appointment by Congress of a commission to consider the establishment of a national academy of peace that would carry out and support research about international peace and peacemaking; educate and train persons from government, private enterprise, and voluntary associations about peace and peacemaking skills; and provide an information service in the field of peace learning. In 1984 legislation to create the United States Institute for Peace was passed by Congress, providing for an agency to support research but not to serve as a teaching and training academy. Since that time, Congress has increased funding and other forms of support for the institute's programs, including grants and fellowships, conferences, publications, library resources, and other activities, and has designated a tract of land for the institute's permanent headquarters, "in recognition of the Institute's accomplishments and the heightened relevance of its work in a dangerous and uncertain world."