The Nobel Follies

On Jay Nordlinger's incisive, engaging new history of the Peace Prize.

The news rocked Norway – well, rocked a good portion of the Norwegian elite, anyhow.  The Swedish Nobel Foundation, reported the newsweekly Ny Tid on February 1, was investigating the Norwegian Nobel Committee.  The question: was the committee awarding the Peace Prize in accordance with Alfred Nobel's intentions?

For at least one influential person in Sweden, Fredrik Heffermehl, author of a recent book, Nobel's Peace Prize: The Vision that Disappeared, the answer was a resounding no.  Why did this matter?  Because even though Nobel, who died in 1896, had instructed in his will that the Peace Prize be awarded by a committee chosen by the Norwegian Parliament (the other Nobels are all awarded by Swedish institutions), it turns out that under Swedish law, the committee's authority can be revoked if it can be demonstrated that the testator's intentions are not being carried out.  What alarmed official Norway, in short, was the possibility that, if the Swedish Nobel Foundation bought Heffermehl's argument, it would wrench away from the Kingdom of Norway its single biggest claim to international fame.

Fortunately for Norway, it dodged that bullet: on March 8, the Swedish Nobel Foundation cleared the committee of any wrongdoing.  Was it correct to do so?  What kind of a job have the Norwegians done in selecting Peace Prize winners?  That's the question posed by Jay Nordlinger in his new book Peace, They Say, a critical history of the prizes that is at once highly judicious and deliciously readable.

What should a peace prize be?  Does the idea even make sense?  In 1901, many people thought it did.  One way to understand the prize, indeed, is as the relic of a time when pacifism seemed, to many reasonable people, a realistic proposition – a time before World War I exposed the terrifying depths of brutal irrationality to which even “modern” and “advanced” people could sink, and before the rise of Communism and Nazism showed the susceptibility of “modern” and “advanced” people to totalitarian ideologies which simply had to be resisted military.  All of which would make it clear, at least to people of a non-utopian bent, that “making peace” is a far more complicated business than simply holding peace conferences and signing peace accords.

To be sure, even back then not everyone was naïve – not even all Peace Prize laureates.  Take Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, who won in 1906 for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.  “Peace is generally good in itself,” he said in his Nobel speech, “but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness...No man is worth calling a man who will not fight rather than submit to infamy or see those that are dear to him suffer wrong.”  Wise words.  “Very, very seldom has a Nobel peace lecture sounded this way,” Nordlinger underscores, noting that TR's speech “has stuck in the craws of many peace-prize devotees.”  Indeed, many people who take the prize seriously can still get down in the dumps about the thumbs-up to TR, whom they consider the very archetype of the American imperialist warmonger.

Of course, in the annals of the Nobel Peace Prize the Teddy Roosevelts are far outnumbered by idealistic naifs like German diplomat Gustav Stresemann (1926), who won for his role in securing the Locarno Treaty, which, he asserted, meant “lasting peace on the Rhine, guaranteed by the formal renunciation of force by the two great neighboring nations.”  And how about Frank Kellogg (1929), who won for the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a multilateral peace treaty that promised to outlaw war?  (“Maybe illegalization would not stop war,” says Nordlinger, by way of explaining the treaty's logic.  “But it would make it...well, illegal.”)

Yes, the Nobel committee has made some admirable choices.  As Nordlinger rightly observes, Albert Schweitzer (1952) was “[o]ne of the golden men of the 20th century” and Andrei Sakharov (1975) “one of the noblest human beings of his age.”  The selection of the “heroic and defiant” Carl von Ossietzky (1936), a German pacifist who was a Nazi prisoner at the time of the award, was gutsy – a deliberate affront to Hitler.  Then there was General George C. Marshall (1953), who won for the Marshall Plan, and who, echoing TR, warned in his Nobel lecture of the danger of demilitarization, describing the military as a “vast power for maintaining the peace.”   (Nordlinger suggests, persuasively, that Marshall is perhaps “something like the ideal peacemaker” – a man who, after winning the war, went on to strengthen the peace.)  Nordlinger esteems anti-apartheid activist Albert John Lutuli (1960), saying that “[i]f freedom champions are to have peace prizes, the Nobel prize for 1960 is one of the best the committee has ever bestowed.”   And Nordlinger tells a story about Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964) that I hadn't heard: Coretta King wanted to save some of the prize money for the kids' college fund, but King insisted it all “be poured into the cause.”

Reading about the winners of the Peace Prize, one is struck by the alternation between terrible choices and terrific ones – and by how the egomania of so many of the fools, knaves, and mediocrities contrasts with the humility of so many of the greats.  Marshall is a prime example of the latter.  Nordlinger tells how, not long before winning the prize, Marshall attended Queen Elizabeth's coronation.  As he walked into Westminster Abbey, he noticed that the whole congregation was rising to its feet.  The modest general “looked around to see who had entered.  It was he.”  Nice story.

In Norway and elsewhere, one of the most controversial prizes remains the one awarded for the Vietnam peace accords to Henry Kissinger (1973), who was honored jointly with Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam.  “The critics,” as Nordlinger pungently notes, “thought it outrageous that the American secretary of state had won the Nobel prize, not so much that the representative of a totalitarian and mass-murdering dictatorship had done so.”  Here's an admirable detail about Kissinger: when the peace agreement failed and the North Vietnamese overran the South, he shipped his gold medal, diploma, and prize money back to Oslo, saying he felt “honor bound” to return them.  But the Norwegians wouldn't take their stuff back.  Kissinger has expressed embarrassment about his prize ever since, writing to Elie Wiesel (1986): “I  was not proud of my Nobel, but I am of yours.”

Kissinger's chagrin over winning his prize contrasts estimably with the conduct of many other winners (including some of the most famous) who have campaigned shamelessly for it.  Then there are the “professional...laureates,” whose prizes made them famous and have milked them for all they're worth, jet-setting from one lucrative speaking gig to another.  “Often,” notes Nordlinger, “Nobel peace laureates come to be seen as all-purpose, global gurus.”   And then there are the winners whose post-prize behavior has hardly done the Nobel name proud.  Betty Williams (1976) has said more than once that she'd like to kill George W. Bush.  Argentinian human-rights Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (1980) gave a Nobel speech that was “beautiful, balanced, pointed, and wise” – then devolved into “an activist of the hard Left” who “is the type to be invited to Castro's birthday parties.”  (Nordlinger wonders: “What would Perez Esquivel say to Cuban prisoners of conscience, if he ever faced them?”)  Desmond Tutu's (1984) Nobel lecture was “eloquent,” but he has since become a “harsh critic of Israel” and equated Bush with bin Laden.  Rigoberto Menchú (1992), a purported human-rights activist, is another one who “has been staunchly supportive of Castro and his dictatorship.”  Mandela, likewise, has “heaped praise” on Castro and Qaddafi, “strengthening them with his moral authority.,” even though “[o]ne word from him, in behalf of Libya's political prisoners, or Cuba's, could have done a world of good.”

It's rather astonishing that although the Peace Prize has been awarded to dozens of dubious characters and organizations, it retains immense prestige – and power.  The prize to the Dalai Lama (1989) put the Tibet cause on the map.  The Nobel for Liu Xiaobo (2010) “gave China's democracy movement a big boost.”  The cause of Burmese democracy “is known because of the Nobel prize” to Aung an Suu Kyi (1991).  Lech Walesa (1983) says that his prize “blew a strong wind into our [Solidarity's] sail.”  But why, Nordlinger asks, has there been no Peace Prize for a champion of Cuban democracy, such as Armando Valladares?  Alas, Fidel Castro is more likely to win a Peace Prize than is any Cuban anti-Communist.  Of the nod to Gorbachev (1990), Nordlinger says – truthfully – “There have been worse prizes.”  But, he goes on to ask, why no laurels for Solzhenitsyn, Havel, John Paul II?  If Gorbachev, why not Yeltsin?  (I'd have preferred Yeltsin, but he was too low-rent for the Nobel folks.)  What about Ronald Reagan, who played no small role in ending Soviet Communism?  Or the U.S. armed forces, which have been the chief guarantors of international peace since the end of World War II?  (Even Obama, in his Nobel remarks, pointed out that the U.S. “has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”)  But no one, of course, has ever seriously expected either Reagan or the U.S. military to win a Nobel Peace Prize.  NATO?  Sorry. Norway's not about to quit NATO – but neither is the Nobel committee about to pay it tribute.

No, the committee's international organization of choice is the UN.  Peace Prizes have gone to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (1054, 1981), UN Secretary-General Dag Hammerskjöld (1961), UNICEF (1965), the UN Peacekeeping Forces (1988), the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (2005) and the UN itself, along with Secretary-General Kofi Annan (2001).  The reality of the UN – its staggering levels of corruption and incompetence, the acts of mass rape committed by its “peacekeepers,” the impotence of the blue helmets at Srebenica, etc., etc. – none of it has yet to make a dent in official Norway's reverence for the idea of the UN.  In much the same way, the Nobel committee didn't really care about the reality of the “peace” that came to Vietnam after the end of the war – a “peace” that, of course, involved the systematic murder of about a million people.  “Nobel peace laureates were not apt to talk about these things,” Nordlinger laments, “or issue 'appeals' concerning them.”

Nor was the Nobel committee.  During the Cold War, it repeatedly crowned laureates – such as Alva Myrdal (1982), the proudly non-aligned “doyenne of Scandinavian social democracy” – who “were proud to occupy” the “middle ground between the Free West and the Soviet Union,” positioning themselves at what Nordlinger calls “the exquisite center.”  In 1986, the New York Times reported that the committee deliberately sought to “balance” its awards – pleasing the Kremlin one year, the White House the next.  Then there is the particularly egregious case of Evgeny Chazov, co-founder of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (1985). After the announcement of the IPPNW's prize, it emerged that Chazov was one of a group of Soviet scientists whose denunciation of Sakharov had “launched the official campaign of persecution” against the great physicist and human-rights activist.  The Nobel committee was – or pretended to be – nonplussed by this information, taking the line that (in Nordlinger's paraphrase) “[s]ome things are more important...than human rights for individuals, and IPPNW is concerned about the survival of the whole planet.”

More than a few laureates have been useful idiots for the Soviets.  Emily Greene Balch (1946), a Quaker pacifist, called Lenin a “democrat.”  Arthur Henderson (1934), “the human symbol of disarmament efforts,” said in his Nobel lecture that the USSR “is devoted to peace, abhors war, and sincerely believes in the ideal of world union and world cooperation.”   As Nordlinger notes, Henderson “represents the cast of mind that has often won the peace prize – right up through the present day.”  (Briefly put: disarmament good, armies bad.)  No fewer than three Nobel Peace Prize winners also won – and gladly accepted – the Soviets' s0-called Lenin Peace Prize.  Linus Pauling (1962) was nothing less than a Soviet “darling” who, reports Nordlinger, “was prouder of the award from the Soviets than he was of the award from the Nobel Committee,” and who, on his many visits to Mother Russia, “gave no indication” to his Kremlin buddies “that he was troubled by being in a country with a vast system of slave-labor camps,” even though “[a] little fuss from Pauling would have been huge.”  In Oslo, Irish nationalist Séan MacBride (1974) extolled the USSR: “You would never know from this Nobel lecture,” writes Nordlinger, “that the Soviet Peace Council and its congress were shams.”  Nelson Mandela (1993), accepting his 1990 Lenin Prize in 2002, openly lamented the fall of the USSR.  As Nordlinger puts it, there's something wrong with supposed heroes of peace taking awards “from an unelected government dedicated to controlling human beings by violence.”  (Interesting statistic: while the Peace Prize has been presented three times to anti-apartheid activists, it's been awarded to “[o]nly two persons in the general anti-Soviet struggle” – Sakharov and Walesa.)

Throughout his book, Nordlinger is judicious yet generous, bending over backwards to find kind things to say about one less-than-golden winner after another.  Though criticizing Betty Williams, he credits her with being “noble” and “very, very brave.”  While dismissing Réné Cassin's (1968) Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he says that Cassin, “in a variety of ways, was a great man.”   As for Amnesty International (1977), Nordlinger plainly shares Salman Rushdie's exasperation over its “moral bankruptcy” and its inability “to distinguish right from wrong,” but declares that “it still accomplishes some good.”  He is even kind to Obama (2009), whose prize he manifestly recognizes as absurd but whom he praises for his “graceful handling of an awkward situation.”

For generations now, the inefficacy – the sheer, dangerous folly – of things like unilateral disarmament, nuclear freezes, and hard-core pacifism has been proven again and again.  And yet the scales have never quite fallen from the eyes of the Norwegian Nobel committee.  When Tony Blair set off to the Middle East to try to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, he said to George W. Bush: “If I win the Nobel Peace Prize, you will know I have failed.”  A canny comment: Blair knew that so many Nobels go to pretty words, to “peace agreements” that are nothing but words on paper.  Indeed, Nordlinger notices an interesting, and amusing, detail in a comment recorded in 1947 by the then chairman of the Nobel committee.  Rationalizing the fact that he and his colleagues had not bestowed the prize upon Gandhi that year (Gandhi would die in 1948, before another chance to honor him came around), the chairman confided to his diary that “we have to bear in mind that Gandhi is not naïve.  He is an excellent jurist and a lawyer.”  The obvious implication here, as Nordlinger wryly points out, is “that naivety is an asset for a Nobel peace candidate.”  And who, after reading Nordlinger's incisive, engaging book, could disagree?

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Tags: Peace, Norway