Post-War Nobel Laureates

This is the second article in a chronicle of the Nobel Peace Prize. Surprisingly little attention was given, after World War II, to the issue of détente

By Eric Walberg | 2002-07-01 12:00:00

Human Rights In The Post-war Period

With the rise of Hitler, the Nobel Peace Prize committee awarded the 1935 prize to Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist and pacifist who had spent two years in a Nazi concentration camp. It was a controversial decision, with two jury members resigning, fearing political fallout with the Nazis. Goering tried to pressure Ossietzky into refusing the award, and he was not allowed to collect it or send an acceptance speech. He died in prison in 1938 from mistreatment. Still, future human rights campaigners such as South African Albert Luthuli (1960), Martin Luther King Jr. (1964), Andrei Sakharov (1975), Argentinian Adolfo Perez Esquivel (1980), the Dalai Lama (1989), Aung San Suu Kyi (1991), and East Timorese Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta (1996) followed in Ossietsky's footsteps.

After the War the selection committee included members other than Norwegian politicians, and in 1977, parliamentarians were excluded The United Nations and other international organizations rceived awards (Dag Hammarskjold, the United Nations itself, UN peacekeeping forces, the UN High Commission for Refugees, the International Labour Organization, the Red Cross, the UN Children's Fund). Women, human rights activists, and Third World campaigners were increasingly awarded the prize.Ralph Bunche (1950) was the first non-white laureate. He negotiated the first peacekeeping observers between Israel and the Arab nations. Bunche, an academic and UN diplomat, was forced to take over the negotiations from the Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, who was assassinated by Israeli terrorists. Bunche managed to secure separate armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Syria, giving Israel all the territory it had conquered, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, and no state of Palestine. Only by Middle Eastern standards could these agreements be considered a success. Bunche's speech, riddled with diplomatic niceties, avoids mentioning why he was so unexpectedly thrust into the limelight, or that the truce was less than fair. Still, at a time when the US civil rights movement was gathering steam, this award carried an added message.


I wish to focus here on the glaring failure of the Nobel Peace Prize with respect to the great issue of the postwar world - détente. There is scarcely a word in any acceptance speech dealing with it. The most eloquent words I found were from an unlikely source - Lord Boyd Orr, head of the Food and Agriculture Organization from 1945-8, who was the laureate in 1949. He bucked the Cold War hysteria that had been unleashed in Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech. Orr too condemned Russia's gulags but insisted (remember, this is at the peak of the Stalinist police state) that we should be patient, that the excesses would inevitably end, and that confrontation would not lead to world peace.

Linus Pauling, the winner of two Nobel prizes (1954 Chemistry and 1962 Peace), was the next recipient who took détente seriously. He had been a member of Einstein's Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists from 1946 to 1950. Despite his prestige as a winner of the chemistry award in 1953, he was refused a passport by the US State Department in 1954.

In 1958, he presented to the United Nations the celebrated petition signed by 9,235 scientists in the world protesting nuclear testing. In that same year he published No More War!, a book opposing the use and testing of nuclear weapons and also war itself. It proposed a world peace research organization.

The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, outlawing all but underground nuclear testing, went into effect on October 10, 1963, the day it was announced that the Peace Prize reserved in the year 1962 was to be awarded to Pauling.

In his acceptance speech he said: "The world has now begun its metamorphosis from its primitive period of history, when disputes between nations were settled by war, to its period of maturity, in which war will be abolished and world law will take its place." He saw the test ban treaty as "the first of a series of treaties that will lead to the new world from which war has been abolished forever." (Contrast this with Orr's distrust of disarmament treaties.)

This was the high point of the postwar détente. The Cuban missile crisis was behind us, and President Kennedy, chastened by it and the Bay of Pigs scandal, looked ready to talk seriously with Chairman Khrushchev. If we believe the Oliver Stone school of thought, Kennedy was killed precisely because he was about to make a sea change in US foreign policy, embracing détente and making an about-face on Vietnam. But that, alas, was in Camelot.

Only two other laureates showed interest in promoting détente - Willy Brandt (1971) and Le Duc Tho (1973). The latter refused the award (the only time this has happened). Further recipients, such as Henry Kissinger (1973), Andrei Sakharov (1975), and Lech Walesa (1983), openly opposed the Soviet system itself.

Sakharov, to his shame, supported the war against Vietnam when awarded the prize. But by then, a dissident movement was growing in a paranoid Soviet Union, and President Reagan's arms race against the "Evil Empire" was pushing it into "the trash heap of history," as Reagan said.

Gorbachev's Consolation Prize

Mikhail Gorbachev (1990), Time Magazine's "Man of the decade," thought he could reinvent détente and trust hawkish Western leaders. His award was a consolation prize for losing the Cold War. He made no acceptance speech and within six months was ousted. Only one other Communist was nominated - Le Duc Tho, who refused it.

Orr, Pauling, and Brandt sought peace through detente, but the post-Soviet world is shaping up as one of permanent war. Reality echoes Orr's warning that the road to peace through disarmament treaties is "a vain hope." Now that the Soviet Union is defunct, Orr's plea that "the Western countries give full credit to what it had accomplished" is finding a voice. Historians are saying that the Cold War "was one of the most unnecessary conflicts of all time, and certainly the most perilous." [Andrew Alexander, The Spectator, 27/4/02]

Nobel prizes to détente enthusiasts could never have tipped the scales of history, though Orr, Pauling, Brandt, and Gorbachev were nonetheless given the nod. But there are the positive developments in Nobel Peace Prizes: the emphasis on human rights; the less white, male, Euro-American focus of the awards; and the recognition that the struggle for peace requires a global perspective.

Eric Walberg lives in Tashkent.


Some Excerpts from Orr's Acceptance Speech

On globalization:Empires won by conquest have always fallen either by revolt within or by defeat by a rival. We are now moving from conquest to union by consent, each state with a government controlling its own internal affairs but united by a central government, with laws to regulate interstate affairs and put an end to war within the union. As we have seen, the wireless and the airplane have made the world so small and nations so dependent on each other that the only alternative to war is the United States of the World.

On hopes for a disarmament treaty: This is a vain hope. When gunpowder was introduced, it was considered such a barbaric weapon that it was banned by the church except, of course, against heretics. That did not prevent the use of artillery....The only restraint is the fear of reprisals. In the last war the USA, which had no fear of reprisals, did use [the atom bomb].

On East-West Relations: The present tension cannot be relieved by propaganda of fear of hate. It might be relieved by a new approach, in which each power, beginning with the one which feels surest of its own position, would give full and even flattering credit to every worthwhile achievement in the other, ignoring, as far as they can be ignored, issues which cause disagreement.

Thus let our communist friends admit that the worst evils of a ruthless capitalism, which Karl Marx saw in England and rightly hated, have disappeared. The capitalist system is being transformed from within and is proving so successful in raising the standard of living, while at the same time enlarging the individual freedom of the workers, that there is little hope of people exchanging their way of life for an alien ideology. Foolish attempts to undermine it by propaganda of half-truths merely rally people to its support and alienate many friends of Russia. Let our friends in Russia give the democratic countries credit for the great advance they have made and realize that this course of peaceful evolution will be followed in all countries where the people are educated and have freedom to read what they like and to discuss and criticize governments.

On the other hand, let the Western countries give full credit to what the USSR has done in the face of appalling difficulties, including the hostility of capitalist countries, in the greatest expansion of technical education, in its public health work, in its astonishing agricultural and industrial development. The real evil of the Russian communist state is not communism. It is the secret police and the concentration camp.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2002

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2002, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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