PEACE, THEY SAY: A HISTORY OF THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE, THE MOST FAMOUS AND CONTROVERSIAL PRIZE IN THE WORLD
By Jay Nordlinger
Encounter, $27.99 459 pages
What on Earth has happened to the Nobel Peace Prize, which once was easily the world's most prestigious award? Consider that in 1953, Albert Schweitzer and Gen. George C. Marshall were honored on the same day (with Winston Churchill winning the prize for literature, incidentally). Then fast-forward four decades to the 1990s when it was won by Yasser Arafat and Rigoberta Menchu Tum, the Guatemalan who supported murderous Communist guerrillas and has been accused of fabricating parts of her autobiography.
In the 2000s it's gone to Jimmy Carter, Mohamed ElBaradei (the IAEA chairman who consistently underplayed the Iranian nuclear threat), Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and - absurdly prematurely - to President Obama in the very first year of his presidency. Why has the Nobel Committee in earlier generations rewarded genuine achievement, while in ours it merely genuflects toward political correctness?
In an absorbingly well-researched, well-written and thoughtful history of the Peace Prize, the distinguished National Review senior editor and New Criterion writer Jay Nordlinger looks with a critical but not jaundiced eye at the laureates who have been feted in Oslo, Norway, every December since 1901, and has come up with a number of remarkable conclusions. In the course of his deliberations he has thought deeply about what genuinely constitutes peace, and whether several of the laureates have genuinely fulfilled the stipulation in Alfred Nobel's will that the committee should find "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." Al Gore, anybody?
There has been an identifiable trend of anti-Americanism in recent years, or at least anti-Republican Americans. When once it was awarded to Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root, Charles Dawes, Frank Kellogg and Henry Kissinger, by the 1980s a deep strain of leftist assumptions had taken root. Instead of awarding the Peace Prize to President Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II for their part in the destruction of Soviet Communism, the most vicious system of oppression to besmirch the face of humanity since the Nazis, in 1987 the Nobel Committee apparently told Costa Rican President Oscar Arias that they were giving him the prize as a weapon against Ronald Reagan.
"At one time," said Yelena Bonner, the widow of the 1975 winner Andrei Sakharov, "the Nobel Peace Prize was the highest moral award of our civilization. But after December 1994, when Yasser Arafat became one of the three new laureates, its ethical value was undermined." Yet still the world pays lip service to the prize of which Kissinger said: "There is no comparable honor."
The speeches the winners give are sometimes uplifting. But more often, in Clare Booth Luce's term, they're "globaloney." Some can be both at the same time. In Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1964 speech, which was full of uplifting sentiments and powerful oratory, there was a despicable paragraph of quite stupefying viciousness about the recently defeated Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater:
"The American people revealed great maturity by overwhelmingly rejecting a presidential candidate," King said of the blameless classical-liberal Goldwater, "who has become identified with extremism, racism and retrogression. The voters of our nation rendered a telling blow to the radical right. They defeated those elements in our society which seek to pit white against Negro and lead the nation down a dangerous fascist path." Look up this speech on the Nobel Prize's own website, and you'll find that paragraph mysteriously missing.
Blessed are the peacemakers, but in an era where two of the most powerful bastions of political correctness are Scandinavia and leftist ex-politicians, you cannot expect the real peacemakers to be identified by Scandinavian leftist ex-politicians, who make up the majority of the ultimate decision-makers. Even back in 1945 they failed to award it to Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, so what possible chance do they have of choosing sensibly today? Alfred Nobel should have stipulated that the prize be chosen by the first 100 people who appear in the Oslo telephone directory, sooner than the Nobel Committee, which is chosen by the (usually Labor Party-dominated) Norwegian parliament, the Storting.
Although Henry Kissinger - who himself had to share his own 1973 prize with the totalitarian Vietnamese Foreign Minister Le Duc Tho - was right about there being "no comparable honor," there ought to be, and the best alternative is obvious. For there is already a prize that has been awarded to Pope John Paul II, Irving Kristol, Neil Armstrong, Vaclav Havel, Norman Schwarzkopf, Omar Bradley, Ronald Reagan, Paul Johnson, George Shultz, Stephen Hawking, Aung San Suu Kyi, Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Edward R. Murrow, Mother Teresa, John Howard, Jimmy Doolittle and many other equally splendid and deserving champions of liberty and achievement. It's the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the discerning person's Nobel Prize.
• Andrew Roberts is the author of "The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War" (Harper).