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WWII Conscientious Objector Leads Plan For Peace Institute

August 10, 1989

GREENSBORO, Vt. (AP) _ Peter Watson resisted war when it was neither chic nor acceptable. He thought World War II was a terrible mistake and became a conscientious objector.

Now, he’s attacking war by financing peace.

The 64-year-old real estate investor has pledged $1 million to the University of Rochester in New York to establish a center to study peace.

″We have three good academies teaching people how to wage war,″ Watson said, referring to West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy. ″We need to have institutions of higher learning teaching people how to wage peace.″

America was already at war when Watson entered Harvard University as a freshman. He saw many of his classmates and his two brothers go off to fight, but he simply believed war was meaningless and wrong.

So, after being drafted in 1942, he opted for alternative service. He eventually volunteered for the ″guinea pig unit,″ a group of conscientious objectors who were used to test the body’s tolerance to high altitude, extreme temperature and different proteins.

One of his duties was to test the limits of his body under desertlike conditions. He rode a stationary bicycle in a room heated to a sweltering 120 to 130 degrees for eight hours without water. The salt water solution he was given at the end of the day was ″delicious.″

Watson said his guinea pig years were fulfilling, so he thinks it only fitting to give the money to the Rochester, N.Y., university - the site of the experiments.

Dr. Carl Honig, a researcher at the University of Rochester, said the work in respiratory study saved the lives of soldiers stationed in the Aleutian Islands and North Africa, and thousands of others since then.

″Those studies have prolonged the life and added to comfort of patients with any type of respiratory disease, whether it’s emphysema, or asthma or lung cancer,″ Honig said.

No one died during any of the Rochester experiments, but at least two men perished during ″guinea pig″ exercises elsewhere, Watson said.

″It’s important for every generation to have some (people), however visionary and impractical at the time, stand for something, stand for the abolition of war,″ Honig said. ″Those people did it at great risk.″

Watson got a medical discharge after developing ulcers during nutritional experiments aimed at trying to avert starvation following the war. He went back to Harvard’s medical school for two years before dropping out to volunteer for more research, and to conduct research himself.

In 1962, seeing an opportunity, he moved to Vermont and invested in real estate when land could be had for $1 an acre.

But after suffering a stroke in 1979, Watson found himself with time on his hands. He sought information on the results of his unit’s wartime research and eventually talked to Honig about a center that could unite various academic disciplines - including history, philosophy and political science - in the study of peace.

″Peace is breaking out all over the world,″ he said. ″Let’s nudge it along a little bit.″

Rochester officials proposed the Peter D. Watson Center for The Study of International Peace and Cooperation and agreed to raise $5 million for it.

Watson seems more the successful capitalist than the long-haired peacenik. A prominent stained-glass window with an American eagle motif hangs beside the balcony of his home overlooking Greensboro’s Caspian Lake, and he keeps rifles that have been in a family that has gone to war since the American Revolution.

But Watson said the window is not there to show patriotism. He just liked the design. And the weapons, well, they seem to serve as reminders of a history that need not be repeated.

″Peace has to be made reputable and war disreputable,″ Watson said.

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