Politics & Policy

A Nobel for the Peace Corps?

A modest proposal

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which gives the Nobel Peace Prize, loves an anniversary. The U.S. Peace Corps has never won the award, and is a natural winner of it. The 50th anniversary of the Corps is this year. Someone, or someones, should nominate the Peace Corps for the prize. The deadline is fast approaching: February 1.

#ad#In October 1960, John F. Kennedy introduced the idea of the Peace Corps, while campaigning at the University of Michigan. He made his speech at 2 a.m. Bill Clinton was not the only lover of late-night campaigning. The Corps was established very quickly after JFK’s swearing-in: on March 1, 1961. The first director was Sargent Shriver, who has just passed away at 95.

Since 1961, more than 200,000 Americans have volunteered in the Peace Corps, serving in nearly 140 countries. The Corps says that, today, it is “more vital than ever.” That is a standard and predictable claim. It is no less true for that.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has given quite a few anniversary awards. In 1963, it honored the Red Cross on its hundredth anniversary. In 1969, it honored the International Labour Organization on its 50th. In 1981, it honored the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on its 30th. In 1995, it honored anti-nuclear activists — Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash Conferences — on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan, and the 40th anniversary of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto (the grand anti-nuclear declaration of the age).

There was an anniversary award of sorts in 1992 as well: That was the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of, or “encounter with,” America. The committee gave the award to the best-known aboriginal in all of the Americas, and all the world: Rigoberta Menchú Tum of Guatemala.

Through the decades, the U.S. Peace Corps has been passed over as a laureate. It is not the only entity or individual to be passed over. Most famously, Gandhi did not receive the prize. Neither did Andrew Carnegie, who devoted much of his fortune to peace causes. (True, he didn’t need the prize money.) Another non-winner was Herbert Hoover, who “fed Europe,” as people said, during World War I and after. Another was Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman who rescued thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II.

All of these people were heavily nominated.

In more recent times, Václav Havel, the Czech democracy hero, might have won the peace prize, but did not. The same is true of Pope John Paul II, and of Corazon Aquino, the heroine of Philippine democracy.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee is known for an “expansive” definition of peace. The award has gone to freedom fighters (such as Poland’s Lech Walesa). It has gone to humanitarians and saints (Mother Teresa). It has gone to “microlenders” (Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank). (These are people who give very small loans to very poor people.) It has gone to global-warming campaigners (Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).


Yet Alfred Nobel, in his will, has a primary criterion for his peace prize: “fraternity between nations.” He also says that his prize must go to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work” during “the preceding year,” but that’s a different issue, maybe for another time.

The U.S. Peace Corps meets Nobel’s criterion of “fraternity between nations” very nicely. The agency has three stated goals: to help the nations served; to promote a better understanding of Americans; and to promote a better understanding, by Americans, of other peoples. Few contend that the Corps has failed in the meeting of those goals.

#ad#It’s true that the Nobel Committee likes to award the U.N. and its agencies. It likes to do that even more than it likes to mark anniversaries. And the committee might balk at awarding a national agency, such as the Peace Corps. Also, the committee has recently honored America, in a way, with the 2009 prize to President Obama. Maybe the men and women in Oslo would regard it as too soon for another “American” award.

Still, it’s worth a shot: A 50th anniversary is a golden opportunity.

Who can nominate persons or institutions for the Nobel Peace Prize? A great many can. Among the eligible nominators are “members of national assemblies and governments.” A group of congressmen — bipartisan — should nominate the U.S. Peace Corps. They have until February 1 to do it. Many less deserving institutions and persons have won the prize; many more will win in the future.

— Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review who has written a history of the Nobel Peace Prize, forthcoming from Encounter Books.

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