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Peace, They Say

by Jay Nordlinger
Some thoughts on a slippery word and concept

What is this thing called love?” goes an old song. In the same spirit, we might ask, “What is this thing called peace?” Everyone wants it, everyone talks about it, everyone lauds it. But what is it, exactly? The Norwegian Nobel Committee must determine what peace is, and who has furthered it — furthered it enough to merit the world’s most prestigious prize.

There is probably no subject on which it is easier to be glib than that of peace. In 2010, The National Interest had a cover bearing a photo of Neville Chamberlain and the word “Appeaser!” The cover then described “appeaser” as “the Most Abused Word in History.” I would say that “peace” is by far the more abused. (“Love,” of course, is the most abused word of all time.)

In 1988, the U.N. Peacekeeping Forces won the peace prize, and the secretary-general, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, gave the Nobel lecture on their behalf. He said something wise: “‘Peace’ is an easy word to say in any language. As secretary-general of the United Nations, I hear it so frequently from so many different mouths and different sources that it sometimes seems to me to be a general incantation more or less deprived of practical meaning.”

We can confidently say what peace is not: It is not the mere absence of war, as President Kennedy noted, and as countless others have noted. And yet, peace is not war either. “I hate war,” said FDR, in that incomparable voice of his. Well, who doesn’t? Who doesn’t hate war, except for psychopaths, some of whom rise to power? And the man who said “I hate war” waged it, in Europe, in the Pacific, and wherever else he found it necessary.

When people debate whether their country should go to war, they are divided into “pro-war” and “anti-war” camps (and we speak here of democratic countries, because, in non-democratic countries, there is no real debate). Those labels are more than a little unfair; they are at the least bothersome. Are those who conclude that war is necessary, or just, or the lesser of two evils, really pro-war, and not anti-war?

There are people who think that nothing is worse than war, that war is the worst thing in all the world. Said Benjamin Franklin, “There was never a good war or a bad peace.” In 1938, Clive Bell, the Bloomsbury figure, said, “A Nazi Europe would be, to my mind, heaven on earth compared with Europe at war.” As a rule, peace is better than war, sure. But it can get a little tricky: Which is worse, genocide in Sudan (or elsewhere) or some war whose purpose is to put an end to it? But then you might say, a condition of genocide is not a condition of peace in the first place.

You are familiar with the slogan, “War is not the answer.” But it is the answer to some questions, of course — as when it put paid to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Emerson said, “Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.” A fine sentiment, but unfortunately not true — or not strictly true. Again, the Second World War is instructive. And you might say that understanding can lead a person, or a nation, to see that violence is the only way to put down a threat, and thereby keep or attain peace.

In Salzburg one summer, I encountered a graffito. It said (in English), “Fighting for peace is like f***ing for virginity.” (There were no asterisks.) I later learned that this is a well-known line, in some circles — but I first encountered it scrawled under a bridge. And the concept of fighting for peace can be difficult; it can even seem perverse. But it gets less difficult, and less perverse, when you think of the neighborhood bully, and the necessity of dealing with him, so that the neighborhood can be at peace.

Allow me a walk a long way down Memory Lane. I was a child during the Vietnam War, growing up in Michigan. And there was a poster in my parents’ kitchen. It was an immensely popular poster at the time, the product of a group called Another Mother for Peace. The poster said, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” That is unquestionably true as a generality. But later I got to thinking: What about Anne Frank and the other children in the camps? What was “not healthy” to them — war or tyranny? War or the fact that liberating armies were not reaching so many of them in time? And this, of course, relates to my comment on Sudan, above.

Years after those Vietnam days, when I was in graduate school, I heard General Vernon Walters speak. He was the longtime soldier, diplomat, and CIA man who ended his career as ambassador to Germany — the first American ambassador to a reunited Germany. This particular night, he said something arresting about war and peace. He said (and I paraphrase), “For over ten years, bombs rained down on every village and hamlet in South Vietnam, and no one budged. It took the coming of a Communist ‘peace’ to send hundreds of thousands of people out into the South China Sea, on anything that could float, or might float, to risk dehydration, piracy, drowning . . .”

The churchman Beilby Porteus said, “War its thousands slays, peace its ten thousands.” Then there is the classic, “They made a desert and called it peace.” And, of course, it always pays to beware the talker about peace — the mere talker about peace.

Bob Dylan has a song called “Man of Peace” — a rather tart and cynical, but not unreasonable, song. “He got a sweet gift of gab, he got a harmonious tongue, / He knows every song of love that ever has been sung. . . . He’s a great humanitarian, he’s a great philanthropist. . . . You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.” That is the song’s refrain: “You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.” And if Dylan’s not your bag, you might consider a line from Psalms — the 28th Psalm — which talks of “the workers of iniquity, which speak peace to their neighbours, but mischief is in their hearts.”

Move now to the America of 1917. President Wilson is standing before Congress, giving his historic war address — asking the country to cross the ocean and enter the world war. He says, “It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts.” The right is more precious than peace. This is one of the most famous and important things ever said about peace. But is it true? It is sometimes true, is the inevitable answer. How do you define “right”? How do you define “peace”? It can all be very slippery, very tricky, very hard.

No one enjoys a greater reputation than peacemakers — “Blessed are the peacemakers,” goes the Beatitude, “for they shall be called the children of God.” There are “peace concerts” everywhere, and no “war concerts” (although there have been events in support of general “war drives”). Has there ever been a “freedom concert”? If so, it has been an anomaly. You have heard the great, clichéd line in beauty pageants. The contestant is asked what she most wants. She answers, “World peace.” Has a contestant ever said, “World freedom”? That would shake up the judges.

Every now and then, there is a tension between peace and freedom — and people confront a choice. New Hampshire has a blazing motto, “Live free or die.” Yet how many people would live, or die, by these words? William F. Buckley Jr. once observed that big moral questions can sometimes be boiled down into bumper-sticker language: “Better red than dead”; “Better dead than red.” This is terribly simple, even crude and embarrassing, language — but it can concentrate the mind. Eisenhower said, “We seek peace, knowing that peace is the climate of freedom.”

During the Cold War, those words, peace and freedom, were used a lot — more than in most eras. Soviet officials were very, very big on “peace.” If Western countries called themselves “freedom-loving nations,” the Soviets referred to themselves and their bloc as “peace-loving nations.” Touché! The World Peace Council was one of the most prominent Communist fronts. The Soviets named their space station “Mir,” meaning Peace (and also World). What the Americans had was Space Station Freedom — which after the collapse of the Soviet Union evolved into the International Space Station, in which Russia collaborated.

In 1949, Stalin or the Soviet government — was there a difference? — created the Stalin Peace Prize, more formally the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace among Peoples. This was the Kremlin’s answer to the Nobel Peace Prize. One of the earliest winners was Howard Fast, the American novelist. He received his award from the hand of an even more celebrated American, W. E. B. Du Bois. In his acceptance speech, Fast lamented that neither this prize nor “the name it bears” — Stalin’s — was “greatly honored by the men who govern my country.” But “peace is honored and beloved of millions of the American people, indeed, of almost all of them.” Fast also said, “If I had no other cause for honoring the Soviet Union, I would honor it greatly and profoundly for giving prizes for peace.” (A quick reminder: The Soviet state killed about 20 million people.)

As the Cold War progressed, few wanted to be seen as a disturber of the peace. If you brought up human rights behind the Iron Curtain, you might have been met with, “Do you want to start a war? Won’t you give peace a chance?” That was a great slogan of the time: “Give peace a chance.” In the 1970s and ’80s, if you made noises about human rights, you might have been met with another slogan, or very common phrase: “poisoning the atmosphere of détente.” You were “poisoning the atmosphere of détente.” President Reagan was the poisoner-in-chief: an enemy of peace, many thought, or at least an obstacle to it. He talked of human rights and freedom — even calling the Soviet Union and its satellites an “evil empire.” As many of us see it, the firmness of his first term in office led to historic dealmaking in his second.

At the end of that first term, the first lady, Nancy Reagan, had a tête-à-tête with the Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko. He said to her, “Does your husband believe in peace or war?” (Note the choice — very narrow.) Mrs. Reagan answered, “Peace.” “You’re sure?” he said. Mrs. Reagan said she was. Later on, Gromyko said to her, “Whisper ‘peace’ in his ear every night.” She rejoined, “I will. I’ll also whisper it in your ear.”

It was widely thought that Mrs. Reagan wanted her husband to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in the worst way. And this had some Cold Warriors alarmed — worried that the president would make harmful concessions, in order to curry favor with “world opinion.” Indeed, “trying for the Nobel Peace Prize” became an expression of scorn and concern in hawkish circles. For some, a “Nobel” kind of peace meant, and still means, a paper or superficial peace, not a real one. As he commenced his diplomacy in the Arab–Israeli conflict, Tony Blair said to George W. Bush, “If I win the Nobel Peace Prize, you will know I have failed.” That is maybe the most stinging criticism of the Norwegian committee ever made.

One of Blair’s predecessors, a Cold War leader, was most impatient with cries of peace. Margaret Thatcher said, “We speak of peace, yes, but whose peace? Poland’s? Bulgaria’s? The peace of the grave?” And I give you a leader from a much earlier period, Hungary’s Kossuth: “I am a man of peace — God knows how I love peace. But I hope I shall never be such a coward as to mistake oppression for peace.”

Consider, now, the question of deterrence — a doctrine dismissed and detested by some, viewed as inarguable by others. The classic expression is, Si vis pacem, para bellum — “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Peace people — or “peace” people — like to turn this on its head. They say, Si vis pacem, para pacem, or, “If you want peace, prepare for peace.” Einstein, in a line similar to the one from Emerson, quoted above, said, “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.” That sounds more like something that ought to be true than like something that actually is.

The first American president was a deterrence man. “To be prepared for war,” said Washington, “is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” A much later president, Kennedy, said, “We prepare for war in order to deter war.” Reagan once put it more simply yet: “No one ever picked a fight with Jack Dempsey” (heavyweight boxing champion in the 1920s). A Reagan conservative, Jack Kemp, liked to say he was a dove — but “a heavily armed dove.”

In the Reagan years, there was a missile called the “Peacekeeper” — and this was a name that caused many to gag. A missile? “Peacekeeper”? In 1984, Reagan campaigned for reelection on the slogan “Peace through Strength.” That caused its share of gagging, too. And how about the slogan of the U.S. Strategic Air Command? “Peace Is Our Profession.” There could hardly be a balder proclamation of the deterrence doctrine. Also bald was something Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography: “The most important service that I rendered to peace was the voyage of the battle fleet around the world.” Nobel peace laureates are not supposed to talk that way. (TR won the prize in 1906, mainly for his mediation in the Russo–Japanese War.)

Once, the magazine that Bill Buckley founded, National Review — to which Reagan was a charter subscriber — quipped editorially that, every year, the Nobel Peace Prize should go to the Pentagon. Why? Because the U.S. military was the world’s foremost guarantor of peace.

Earlier, I quoted Ben Franklin on how there was never a good war or a bad peace. But he is also quoted as saying that “even peace may be purchased at too high a price.” George Herbert had a neat formulation: “One sword keeps another in the sheath.” And speaking of swords, there is a lovely passage in Kipling’s Kim. An old soldier is guiding the old lama to a particular destination. The soldier has a sword. And the lama, a man of peace, says, “What profit to kill men?” The soldier answers, “Very little — as I know; but if evil men were not now and then slain it would not be a good world for weaponless dreamers.”

We should also think about the place of justice with peace. Thatcher liked a slogan: “Peace — with freedom and justice.” Engraved on the tombstone of Ludwig Quidde, a 1927 Nobel laureate, is, “I have loved justice.” He did not say, “I have loved peace” (which he did). “No justice, no peace!” That’s a slogan that can be heard in American streets, from black militants and others. It is a slogan, yes — but also a threat: Unless you meet our demands, there will be no peace. In a sense, you put a gun to society’s head. The International Labour Organization — winner of the peace prize for 1969 — has a motto: Si vis pacem, cole justitiam, or, “If you desire peace, cultivate justice.” The ILO’s constitution begins with the assertion that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.” Sure, but what is social justice — besides one of the slipperiest terms in our language? And people will always have grievances, legitimate or not. When is peacebreaking justified?

These are questions to wrestle with, and we may also recall the closing sentence of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which speaks of a “just and lasting peace.” Could anything be more desirable? “A just and lasting peace.”

Lincoln liked the Bible, and it pervaded his speech (and thought). That is a highly interesting book, on peace as on other subjects. The Bible contains some 400 references to “peace.” I have already quoted Psalms, and will continue in it: “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” That is from Psalm 34. A later psalm, 120, ends with a bitter complaint: “My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace. I am for peace: but when I speak, they are for war.” How many nations and persons, throughout time, have shared this complaint? In Jeremiah, there is that famous cry against a false peace: “They have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.” Those words have been quoted more than a few times by people unhappy with a Nobel-committee choice.

Jesus was terribly interesting — and perhaps surprising — on the subject of peace. He said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” Those words are recorded in Matthew — and they speak of a great convulsion. In Luke, we find similar words: “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division.” And yet Jesus spoke that Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers . . .” And, shortly before his departure, he said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.”

Return to the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, for a final passage. Isaiah contains one of the most memorable sentences of the whole Bible: “And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever.”

The Nobel committee has been mulling the question of peace since 1901, when the prize, and the other Nobel prizes, began. There are many “paths to peace,” the committee likes to say: That’s why the prize can be won by either Mother Teresa or Yasser Arafat. The committee has given its prize to an agronomist (Norman Borlaug), a microbanker (Muhammad Yunus), a global-warming campaigner (Al Gore), and many others who might not be thought of as peacemakers, strictly speaking. And even those naturally thought of as peacemakers: Are they?

In 1947, the committee gave the prize to two Quaker relief organizations: the Friends Service Council in London, and the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia. They had done splendid work during World War II — humanitarian work — and now they were helping to rebuild Europe. At the prize ceremony, the committee chairman quoted a Norwegian poet, Arnulf Øverland: “Only the unarmed can draw on sources eternal. / To the Spirit alone will be the victory.” Wonderful, who can argue? But we might ask, cheekily, Who will defeat the Nazis? Anyone? Who will put the barbarians down? General Patton would never have won a peace prize. But whose contribution to the peace of Europe was greater: his or the Quakers’?

Peace! If you hear about it enough, and hear the word abused enough, you might think that peace is meaningless, and, worse, a scandal. “Peace” can even be a fighting word! Spend enough time immersed in the world of peace and peaceniks — “peace cranks,” General MacArthur called them — and the very mention of “peace” might cause you to roll your eyes, or simply to tune out. Yet peace — real peace — is meaningful. Real peace is worth a prize, of at least $1.5 million, which is what the Nobel gets you now. On General Grant’s monumental tomb in New York, it says, “Let us have peace.” So many died in that war — over 600,000.

George Orwell had a line in his novel Coming Up for Air. His narrator says, “Before the war,” meaning World War I, “and especially before the Boer War, it was summer all the year round.” The very next line is, “I’m quite aware that that’s a delusion.” But still: peace as permanent summer. How perfect.

– Mr. Nordlinger is an NR senior editor. This essay is fashioned from his new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World (Encounter).

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