The Corner

Satire and History

All of our lives, we have read two things (among others): The Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger was absurd, and Tom Lehrer, the satirist, quit his career because of it. Those two things are repeated in a Telegraph post today.

The 1973 Nobel Peace Prize is indeed an interesting one. The committee in Oslo honored Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. Those are the two who had inked the Paris Peace Agreement in January 1973. The terms of Alfred Nobel’s will say that prize committees are to award work done in the recent year. (That stipulation is often honored in the breach, as we know.) The Norwegian committee was hoping, futilely, that the Paris agreement would bring to an end a war that had lasted for more than a decade. The North Vietnamese co-winner, Le Duc Tho, refused his share of the prize. He is the only recipient of the prize ever to turn it down. The Nobel committee still considers him a recipient.

Allow me to quote from my history of the peace prize:

Everyone says that the 1973 award is the “most unpopular” Nobel award ever, and that is probably true. But the nature of the unpopularity is worth pondering. The critics mainly objected to the half of the prize going to Kissinger, not the half going to Le Duc Tho. They 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. It is legend that Tom Lehrer, the American musician-satirist, gave up his career after Kissinger won the peace prize. That is not true: He had bowed out before. But he did say that “political satire became obsolete” when Kissinger won.

There is a coda to the ’73 award. The below paragraph refers to Ralph Bunche, the American U.N. diplomat who won the prize in 1950 for negotiating a general armistice between Israel and its Arab attackers:

As the Bunche-mediated armistice was shot to hell, so was the Paris Agreement: North Vietnam conquered the South in April 1975, uniting [the Vietnams] under Communism. Kissinger wrote to [the Nobel committee chairman], returning his gold medal, his diploma, and the money. He said he felt “honor bound” to do this. “I regret, more profoundly than I can ever express, the necessity for this letter. But the anguish and tragedy that have been inflicted upon millions who sought nothing more than the chance to live their own lives leave me no alternative.” The committee would not accept Kissinger’s gesture (or medal, or diploma, or cash): The Nobel Peace Prize is not returnable. The committee explained that events in Vietnam in no way reduced their “appreciation of Mr. Kissinger’s sincere efforts to get a ceasefire agreement put into force in 1973.”

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