Medals of Honor

When Alfred Nobel directed that after his death, annual prizes should be awarded for outstanding achievement in various fields, he couldn’t have known that the fulfillment of his wishes would translate into such a highly respected and coveted family of awards.

The Nobel Foundation will officially mark the 100th anniversary of the first Nobel awards ceremony in December this year, when the 2001 prizes are presented.

Among those planning to attend the celebrations is Irwin Abrams, widely considered the foremost expert on the history of one of the awards, the Nobel Peace Prize. Abrams is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he taught European history and International Studies for more than 30 years. He is author of The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates, 1901–1987 (published in 1988; revised and updated centennial edition to be published before December this year), The Words of Peace: Selections from the Speeches of the Nobel Prize Winners of the Twentieth Century (2000), and Nobel Peace Lectures, 1971–1995 (1999). He recently spoke with Vision contributor Rebecca Sweat about this most prestigious award.


RS What are the aims of the Nobel Peace Prize?

IA In his will, Alfred Nobel stated that he wanted the capital from his estate to be invested. Each year, Nobel said, the interest from these investments was to be divided among the five individuals who, during the preceding year, “shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” One of the five prizes, of course, was the peace prize, which Nobel directed to be given to the person who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The Nobel Prize Committee took this phrase, “the best work for fraternity between nations,” and broadened it to include almost anything that is happening for brotherhood among peoples. So that’s why in recent years recipients of the peace prize have included the first director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and a scientist who worked on methods to increase agricultural production. The committee realized that you can’t have a peaceful world if you have hunger.

RS The Nobel Peace Prize has been in existence for 100 years. Have the goals of the prize been modified or expanded over the decades to reflect the concerns we face in our present world?

IA Yes. There’s a lot more emphasis on human rights. This is something that was not mentioned in Alfred Nobel’s will, but just as you can’t have world peace if there is hunger, you also can’t have peace on earth without social justice. So that’s why, in the last 40 years, the committee has awarded a number of prizes for human rights. In just the last 10 years the peace prize has been given to such individuals as Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese human rights activist; Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a Mayan Indian in Guatemala who has campaigned for human rights for indigenous peoples in that region; and Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta, human rights activists in East Timor who were being oppressed by the Indonesian government.

RS Do you see the Nobel Peace Prize as a success in terms of influencing the cause of world peace?

IA The goal of the prize isn’t just to end conflict. There have been a lot of conflicts in the world in the past century. If you judge the prize by how many conflicts were ended, you might have a few positive outcomes, but you wouldn’t have many. You could point to the prize they gave to Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 for mediating between Russia and Japan and helping to end the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. But the failures have been much greater in number. Look at the 1994 peace prize, which was given to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin for the Oslo Accord. Rabin and Arafat shook hands, and there was great hope for peace in the Middle East. But just a few months later Rabin was murdered, peace negotiations broke down, and violence escalated.

If you judge the prize by how many conflicts have ended, you might have a few positive outcomes but you wouldn’t have many.” 

Irwin Abrams

Another example would be the prize given in 1998 to John Hume, a Roman Catholic, and David Trimble, a Protestant, for what they were trying to do in Northern Ireland. They’ve never been able to convince the Irish Republican Army to give up its weapons, and it’s still a bad situation. There have been other cases, too, where the prize was given for a political agreement, but peace did not follow.

RS If not to help end conflict, how would you evaluate the Nobel Peace Prize’s impact on the world?

IA I believe you need to look at the individuals who have been the peacemakers—those who have worked for peace in so many different ways—rather than just at the award itself. There are laureates who, by their life’s work, have given us examples of what human beings can do. This is how I see the prize having an impact on civilization.

Take the 2000 award, which was given to Kim Dae Jung, a man who has dedicated his life to working for peace and reconciliation between North and South Korea. Whether or not he is able to win such reconciliation, I feel that Kim Dae Jung is entirely worthy of this award. In the days when North Korea was run by a very authoritarian, militaristic government, he was put in jail, convicted and sentenced to death, and at one point he was even abducted by secret agents who bound him, gagged him, took him to their boat and were going to throw him into the ocean. Here is a man who was persecuted, who was dealt with very severely because of his ideals of reconciliation and peace. Now he’s been elected president of his country, enabling him to work on his “Sunshine Policy” with North Korea. Even if his policy fails, though, I think he will still stand out as a wonderful example to us all.

RS If the Nobel Peace Prize doesn’t actually help end conflict, can it at least support peace efforts?

IA The awarding of the prize will often draw the world’s attention to the prize winner and the work he or she is doing. For instance, when the Nobel Peace Prize went to Bishop Belo and José Ramos-Horta in 1996, the Norwegian Nobel Committee in effect gave East Timor worldwide publicity so that we all came to realize what was happening there. Many of us may not even have known where East Timor was before this award was given. But now we know. And now independence is being established there, and I believe the peace prize has been a big factor in helping make that happen.

Now independence is being established [in East Timor], and I believe the peace prize has been a big factor in making that happen.” 

Irwin Abrams

RS Of the 100-plus peace prize recipients, which laureates stand out in your mind?

IA Probably Aung San Suu Kyi, whom I already mentioned, as well as Ralph Bunche, Linus Pauling, Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa.

Ralph Bunche [1950 laureate] was a Howard University professor before becoming a United Nations official and key peace negotiator in the conflict between the Arab states and Israel. Later he was the UN official concerned with the transition of many African nations from European colonialism to independence. But he had very humble beginnings. He was born into poverty and was actually the great-grandson of slaves. His grandmother encouraged him to stay in school when a lot of his Afro-American peers were dropping out. He worked his way through college at UCLA and later got an advanced degree at Harvard.

Linus Pauling [1962 laureate] was a brilliant scientist at the California Institute of Technology. But as much as he liked science, he had a very strong commitment to peace. He thought the bomb was horrible, so he spent the last years of his life campaigning to prevent its use. He helped work on a treaty to prevent atomic tests, the fallout of which was jeopardizing the health of children all over the world.

Albert Schweitzer [1952 laureate] is a wonderful example of someone who could have done any number of things with his life. He was a talented organist, an authority on Bach, a theologian, a writer. He came from a rather well-to-do family, and one summer when he was home from the university, he realized just how much better off he was than some of the young people with whom he’d been going to school. So he decided to dedicate his life to working for the impoverished and needy people of Africa. He actually studied medicine so he could go there and be a doctor.

Mother Teresa [1979 laureate] had a similar story. She had been teaching upper-class Indian girls at a rather posh school in Calcutta, and one day she just felt it was her calling to go back and work with the people on the streets and help them.

RS Do all the Nobel laureates have certain characteristics in common?

IA Yes, they have all been committed to the goal of peace and have had the courage necessary to pursue that goal. Linus Pauling, for example, was working on his antinuclear policy at the same time as the Soviet Union was developing a treaty to halt bomb tests, and so Pauling was publicly accused of being procommunist.

There are others, too, who worked for an unpopular policy and were publicly persecuted for their stands. So they had to have a strong conviction, a deep commitment and a great deal of courage to overcome the obstacles they faced. Martin Luther King Jr. died for his convictions. Then there was Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated; and a German named Carl von Ossietzky, an antimilitarist whom Hitler threw into a concentration camp; and, of course, there was Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed. These people were all martyrs for peace.

[The Nobel Laureates] had to have a strong conviction, a deep commitment and a great deal of courage to overcome the obstacles that they faced.” 

Irwin Abrams

RS Certainly we can learn some valuable lessons from many of the peace laureates and be inspired by what they did with their lives. Is that why you decided to write your books—to share their stories with the world?

IA Yes, but in particular, I wanted to get the attention of young people. Several years ago, at a conference, we were presented with the results of a survey of American teenagers who had been asked who their heroes were. Now, when I was growing up, I would have said Charles Lindbergh or perhaps my father. But the names these teens gave were all of rock and roll stars. I was appalled by this and felt that we really needed to set before young people an array of the kind of people who have won the Nobel Peace Prize. That is actually what helped motivate me to write my first book, and that is what I feel the prize does best: to provide positive role models for our society—especially for young people.

RS You mentioned earlier that there have been a number of peace “failures” in the past century. Clearly the 20th century was one of the most violent the world has known. What do you see for the years ahead? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about world peace in the 21st century?

IA I’m both. It’s clear that there is some advance in the human rights situation, due in large part to the efforts of organizations like Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights. I think one can take some encouragement from the advance in human rights. There is also some advance in giving help to those in need in some of the developing countries. Look at the outreach for the AIDS victims in Africa, for example.

But there has also been growth in nationalism and ethnic conflict in various regions of the world. The news of all the wars and the terrible holocausts in the last century has been discouraging. Have people learned the lessons of war? I would find that hard to say. I don’t think, though, that we should just look at the dark night of holocausts and wars that we’ve been through. There have been some advances even though there have been these terrible wars.