Peace, They Say
Some thoughts on a slippery word and concept

<I>Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World</I> (Encounter)


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.”

April 2, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, No. 6

  • Mitt Romney, the Mormons, and those who hate them.
  • Claims that the GOP is fighting a war on women’ can be made to backfire.
  • It is far from unthinkable that we will have one.
  • Some thoughts on a slippery word and concept.
Books, Arts & Manners
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Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
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Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .