Len Johnson: A General for Peace

Ploughshares News

Author Ernie Regehr

The late Major-General Leonard V. Johnson served in the Canadian armed forces from 1950 to 1984. Upon his retirement he wrote a well-received memoire, A General for Peace (Lorimer 1987), and became a committed advocate for disarmament and new approaches to national defence. He served as Chair of the Board of Project Ploughshares from 1989 to 1994.

In his final military posting, Len Johnson was Commandant of the National Defence College. There he urged his students (mid-career military officers and civil servants as well as business leaders) to access as much critical research and analysis as possible and to openly challenge the well-worn security dogmas of the day. He was a voracious consumer of all NDC course materials, lectures, and debates. One guest speaker who made a lasting impression on him was Anatol Rapoport, the brilliant Russian-born mathematician who spent the latter part of his career at the University of Toronto developing game theory and demonstrating the utility of cooperation over competition—in international and security relations just as certainly as in the personal and national spheres (Johnson 2012). By his own account, he became a Rapoport disciple.

Upon his retirement, Len didn’t let the first-class education he gained at the NDC go to waste. He made sure his critical voice would be heard as a writer and speaker, and actively engaged with peace and disarmament organizations such as the international Pugwash movement and Project Ploughshares.

In 1996 he joined a particularly esteemed international group of Generals and Admirals, some still in service, to sign on to a highly regarded and widely circulated Statement by Generals and Admirals of the World Against Nuclear Weapons (1996). It declared that “the existence of nuclear weapons…constitutes a peril to global peace and security and to the safety and survival of people we are dedicated to protect.” It concluded that there is no alternative to the “complete and irrevocable elimination of nuclear weapons.”

Len became fully convinced that a transformation of public opinion and the nurturing of an informed electorate were key to building momentum toward both nuclear disarmament and ending the resort to war. In early 2003 he wrote optimistically that “people everywhere are withdrawing their consent to war” (Johnson 2003). He also believed that a commitment to disarmament and the abolition of war had to become “established in the elected people who respond to the voice of the people.” True to his word, he subsequently became a candidate for election to Parliament for the New Democratic Party in the riding of Kingston and the Islands.

On the Ploughshares Board he guided us through the early years of the post-Cold War period, encouraging us to draft credible and practical proposals for a new Canadian defence policy that would respond to the new realities and the twin objectives of the abolition of nuclear weapons and of war itself.

Leonard Verne Johnson was born in Ridgedale, Saskatchewan and died in Kingston, Ontario in November 2013. He is remembered with deep appreciation and affection.

Adapted from “On the Road to Peace with Len Johnson” by Ernie Regehr (co-founder of Project Ploughshares), available at the website for Peace Quest. Peace Quest is an initiative to “stimulate a nation-wide conversation about peace and our country’s role in peacemaking, reconciliation and social justice.”

References

Johnson, Maj-Gen (Ret.) Leonard V. 2012. Remembering Anatol, Five Years After. Peace Magazine, Oct-Dec.

—–. 2003. Escaping the War Trap. Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, 18 February 2003.

Statement by Generals and Admirals of the World Against Nuclear Weapons. 1996.

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