Dayton: An Unlikely Center for Peace
When one thinks of sites where major international peace conferences would normally be held, the usual suspects would be cities such as Paris, Geneva, and New York. Yet in November 1995, the global community turned its attention to the most unlikely destination of Dayton, a city of 150,000 in southwestern Ohio, for a crucial dispute resolution to bring an end to some of the most violent fighting of the latter half of the twentieth century, even though the fighting was taking place thousands of miles and an ocean away. By the end of that year, the Dayton Accords were in place, officially ending the War in Bosnia. So when I found out last month that I would be spending time in Dayton, I knew the main things I wanted to seek out there were places relevant to this historic event.
Throughout the early 1990s, the Balkan Region of Europe was gripped by the worst violence seen on the continent since World War II. A domino effect started in 1991 when Slovenia declared independence from an increasingly Serbian-led Yugoslavia. Tensions throughout the region soon boiled over, and the area then known as Yugoslavia became embroiled in myriad conflicts (though, ironically, the war in Slovenia was over within two weeks). Serbs were fighting Croatians and Bosniaks, Croatians were fighting Serbs and Bosniaks, Bosniaks were fighting Serbs and Croatians… it was a total mess (and that’s not even mentioning the conflict in Kosovo that would come a few years later, or Macedonia, which was granted independence in 1991 without violent resistance from Belgrade).
Reasons and background information for the Yugoslavian conflicts are far too numerous to delineate here in this brief article; if you want more information, I strongly suggest reading Laura Silber’s wonderful book Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation. The main point, though, is that in the Balkan Wars, it is widely accepted that there were no truly innocent parties and that war crimes and atrocities were committed by all competing sides. Places like Vukovar, Sarajevo, and especially Srebrenica became infamous for the ethnic cleansing massacres that took place there. Within a few years, over 100,000 people were killed, and over two million people were displaced.
In late summer and early autumn of 1995, the “Contact Group” – an informal union of France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – took measures to bring the three warring sides in the Balkans to peace negotiations. One of the key things to figure out was where to hold the meetings. Of all the possible locations… why Dayton, Ohio?
American dignitaries wanted a quiet place away from the influence and distraction of the world’s media and press. They figured the sixth-largest city in Ohio – which also happened to be home of the largest Air Force base in the United States – was a good enough spot. For three weeks, leaders, diplomats, and a staff of thousands converged onto Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for the event. Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, Croatian president Franjo Tuđman, and Bosnian president Alija Izetbegović were some of the key Balkan leaders who traveled to the quiet Ohio city. The negotiations were led by diplomats from the U.S., the E.U., and Russia, including American Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Other key American figures involved in the process included Richard Holbrooke – the chief architect of the actual peace agreement – and General Wesley Clark.
Holbrooke would later describe the time spent in Dayton in his memoirs. He said that Dayton was “a charming Ohio city,” one who’s “citizens energized us from the outset.” He praised Dayton’s residents as “proud to be part of history,” a sentiment that he felt would not be as prominent in larger cities like New York, Moscow, or Paris. He went on:
Large signs at the commercial airport hailed Dayton as the “temporary center of international peace”. The local newspapers and television stations covered the story from every angle, drawing the people deeper into the proceedings. When we ventured into a restaurant or a shopping center downtown, people crowded around, saying that they were praying for us. Warren Christopher was given at least one standing ovation in a restaurant. Families on the air base placed “candles of peace” in their front windows, and people gathered in peace vigils outside the base.
After three weeks of negotiations, the warring parties agreed to a resolution on 21 November 1995. Bosnia and Herzegovina was to be a complete, federal state – not a confederation – though the two components of it (the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska) would remain very much decentralized. A central government was put in place, with a rotating presidency, bank, and court. The agreement was formally signed the next month in Paris by relevant Balkan leaders and other prominent heads-of-state, like Jacques Chirac (France), John Major (United Kingdom), Helmut Kohl (Germany), Viktor Chernomyrdin (Russia), and Arkansas’ own Bill Clinton (United States) at an official ceremony.
The Dayton Accords ended the war in Bosnia… or at least the violent conflict. The resolution of splitting up control of Bosnia and Herzegovina remains quite controversial. Some point out that the violence has indeed stopped, successfully replaced by a sensitive power-sharing agreement. Others counter that the results ensure that a small spark is all it will take for conflict to erupt again. Some allege that Bosnia has no real sovereignty and is controlled by more powerful states. There are worries that none of the factions (Serbs, Croats, or Bosniak Muslims) were truly satisfied with the Accords, and further violence is just being postponed, not prevented (similar, one might say, to German reaction to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which one French leader called “a twenty-year armistice”). Only time will tell how successful the Dayton Accords ultimately were.
Regardless, Dayton gained newfound international recognition. The city’s prior claim to fame was its role in the aviation industry. Orville and Wilbur Wright owned a bicycle shop in Dayton; it was here they developed the principles that led to the airplane. The Wright-Patterson Air Force Base – home to some 28,000 employees and, as mentioned earlier, the largest Air Force base in the United States – was named in part for them. On the base is the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the world’s largest and oldest military aviation museum, an attraction that draws 1.3 million visitors each year. Many aviation-related research and development institutions and companies – including the National Air and Space Intelligence Center and the Air Force Research Laboratory – are based in Dayton, and one of the country’s largest air shows takes place at Dayton International Airport each July.
Other than aviation, Dayton is also known as a center of college basketball. Dayton is the home of the “First Four” games of NCAA’s “March Madness” college basketball tournament every year. When I was in town, Dayton was once again in the international spotlight, as U.S. President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron were attending the First Four event at the University of Dayton Arena.
However, Dayton will now likely always be known – at least internationally – for its namesake peace settlement that led to a ceasefire in the terrible conflict in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. Here, in a medium-sized city in the heart of the American Midwest previously known mainly for aviation and college basketball, one can now reflect on the horrors of genocide and war at the Dayton International Peace Museum. When one visits the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base or the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force – Dayton’s main attractions – there are reminders that, seventeen years ago, it was at this most unlikely location that the vicious Yugoslavian Wars came to an end. Additionally, various monuments, markers, and banners throughout the city celebrate Dayton’s role in ending the war. Perhaps there was nothing “temporary” about Dayton’s role as a center of international peace after all.
By the way: In 1999, Sarajevo became one of Dayton’s Sister Cities.
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