Friends, I’ve been talking about the Nobel Peace Prize, before various audiences. The reason: I have a new book on the subject: Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World.
In Impromptus this week, I’m going to offer some nuggets — some impromptus, actually — concerning the prize and its history.
People have asked, “Why did you write the book?” Well, the subject is terribly interesting — quite apart from my book and its qualities, whatever those may be. The subject is so good, a writer can only mess it up.
When you study the prize, you revisit the 20th century, because the prize begins in 1901. You go through World War I, the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, apartheid, environmentalism, the War on Terror, the Age of Obama . . .
The Nobel Peace Prize has its finger in almost every pot.
Plus, the cast of characters is vast and fascinating. I’m speaking of the laureates, mainly — some 120 of them. As I was writing my book, some people said to me, “Concentrate on the interesting ones. Skip over the uninteresting ones.” Truth is, there are no uninteresting ones. Dullards don’t win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Finally, you have to confront some of the biggest issues: concerning war and peace, freedom and tyranny, disarmament and armament, etc.
The Nobel Peace Prize is a feast, I found — often vexing, but a feast.
The subtitle of my book calls the Nobel Peace Prize “the most famous and controversial prize in the world.” I’m certainly comfortable with the “controversial” part: Almost every peace-prize selection stirs controversy, and the question of peace is a slippery one: What is peace, anyway, and who deserves to be crowned a “champion of peace”? The world’s foremost one, at that!
But the “most famous” business — that may be a bit of a fudge. The truth is, the Nobel Peace Prize might be tied with, or even a little surpassed by, the Oscar. I’m not sure how you’d measure this on a global scale.
And in one year — 2007 — one man won both prizes: both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Oscar. That was Al Gore. That’ll never happen again, almost surely.
If you have to lose the presidency in such a hard and awful way, the Nobel and the Oscar provide some solace. Gore said as much, in his Nobel lecture.
The Nobel Peace Prize can be a weapon — oh, yes. Giving the prize to Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias in 1987, the committee told him that they were handing him a weapon to use against President Reagan. Some years later, Arias commented to Robert Kagan, “Reagan was responsible for my prize.”
Lech Walesa told me that, without the Nobel, his Solidarity cause in Poland could never have succeeded. “There was no wind blowing into Poland’s sail. . . . The Nobel prize blew a strong wind into our sail.”
Alfred Nobel, the testator — the writer of the will — was a formidable man. As a chemical engineer, he was brilliant, possibly a genius. Over the course of his career, he amassed 355 patents. He could have had many more, if he had devoted full time to inventing.
His most famous invention is dynamite. But, according to the experts, that is not his most impressive, scientifically.
He was also a brilliant entrepreneur and manager. He presided over an empire of 90 factories and other facilities, traveling between them constantly. Victor Hugo called him “Europe’s wealthiest vagabond.”
Moreover, Nobel was a superb writer — maybe no Hugo, but superb. He carried on one of the most prolific correspondences of the age. He wrote and spoke in any number of languages, fluently and idiomatically. He almost always wrote to a person in that person’s native tongue.
You will hear, “Nobel established his peace prize out of guilt over his invention of dynamite. He wanted to atone.” Don’t believe them. Nobel was proud of his achievements in the area of explosives. Those explosives built what today we call “infrastructure.”
Also, Nobel was a very firm believer in deterrence — in the power of terrible weapons to prevent, even eliminate, war. In fact, he was too firm a believer in deterrence.
(There’s much more to say about these matters, obviously. I am serving up only nuggets here. A book is something else.)
He wrote his will — his final will — in 1895. In it, he arranges for his five prizes: in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.
There are three surprising things about the will — surprising to me, at least.
First, there is no econ prize. That is not a Nobel prize — not a proper Nobel prize. It was created by the Central Bank of Sweden in 1968. It piggybacks on the Nobel prizes. Its formal name is “The Central Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.”
Now, they won’t care too much if you call it a Nobel prize. I doubt they’ll correct you. But they themselves don’t call it that, because it’s not one.
The second surprising thing about Alfred Nobel’s will: The literature prize? It’s not meant to go for any literature. It’s meant to go for literature “in an ideal direction” — literature that uplifts or edifies or somehow improves mankind.
Let’s say the best writer in the world is a master of nihilism. Fine. He should win every literature prize there is — except the Nobel prize, which is intended for something else.
Last, the Nobel prizes, all of them, are supposed to go for work done “during the preceding year.” These are not supposed to be lifetime-achievement awards — golden handshakes at the end of golden careers. They are meant to sustain people as they go about their discoveries and whatnot.
Anyway . . .
Alfred Nobel asked the Norwegian parliament, the Storting, to elect a committee of five, to administer his peace prize. Such a committee has done so since 1901.
The will does not require that committee members be Norwegian. But they always have been, right from the beginning.
You could say this: The Norwegian people elect the parliament. The parliament elects the peace committee. Therefore, the Nobel Peace Prize is a reflection of the Norwegian people and their political culture.
Which, of course, is strongly social-democratic . . .
From 1901 to the present, 101 individuals have received the prize, and 20 organizations. One individual has received the peace prize plus another Nobel prize: That was Linus Pauling.
He won the chemistry prize in 1954 and the peace prize in 1962. (To be accurate, he won the peace prize for 1962 in 1963. Sometimes they “reserve” it for a year.)
Pauling also won the Lenin Peace Prize, from the Soviet government — but that’s another story.
More laureates have come from the U.S. than from any other country: 21. The next most laureate-rich nations are Great Britain and France, with eight each.
The youngest person to receive the prize? Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, one of the three winners last year. She was 32.
The oldest? Joseph Rotblat, who was 87 when he won in 1995. Rotblat was a British physicist and anti-nuclear activist — a man in the Pauling mold, really.
Ladies and gentlemen, I imagine we’ve had enough for today. See you tomorrow? To get my book direct from National Review, with a signature and an inscription, if you like, go here. If you’re interested in having me speak before your group, just let me know.
In any event, I’ll keep nugget-izing. (An ugly word to end on, but there you go.)