Blessed Are the Nobel Prize Winners?

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More than a hundred persons have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the world's most coveted award, and Jay Nordlinger says something interesting about all of them in the new history Peace, They Say (Encounter Books, 459 pages, $27.99). Nordlinger, a senior editor of National Review, has an agreeable writing style. Although he has strong and at times iconoclastic opinions, he doesn't beat you over the head with them.

An opening chapter offers an intriguing mini-biography of Alfred Nobel and explains how he came to create the prizes named after him. Nordlinger demolishes various myths associated with creation of the Peace Prize, notably that Nobel was atoning for inventing dynamite. (Nobel did not feel any necessity of apologizing for this useful invention.) Nordlinger uses Nobel's intentions as a measuring rod for examining the worth of various laureates. He shows how the standards of the Nobel selection committees have changed over the years and how they have been influenced by politics and Norwegian culture. Into this story Nordlinger weaves a history of the early peace movement, largely demolished by the horrors of what we now call World War I.

Who are the genuine peacemakers? That is the question that the Nobel committees have wrestled with and that Nordlinger wrestles with as well, sometimes with surprising results. Yasser Arafat is a case in point. Nordlinger concludes that there was a strong case to be made for Arafat, who shared the 1994 peace prize with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, despite Arafat's past and subsequent record of terrorism.

Nordlinger does not go overboard; he writes that he would not himself have voted to give Arafat the peace prize. Nor does Nordlinger give other bloodstained laureates a pass. He unblinkingly exposes the phony alternative "peace prizes" such as the Stalin (later Lenin) prize. It's more than a bit depressing to learn how many laureates see moral equivalency between flawed democratic societies (mostly the United States) and communist, fascist and other monster states that routinely engage in mass murder. Interesting, the tolerance of many of these laureates toward totalitarian societies does not extend to Israel. Several of them have used their Nobel acceptance speeches and other forums for hymns of hate against the Jewish state. Nordlinger fairly describes this phenomenon; I wish he'd also analyzed the reasons for this enmity toward Israel.

One of the many strengths of this book is its excellent profiles of the laureates, including famous people such as George Marshall and Elie Wiesel and people of whom I knew next to nothing, such as Shirin Ebadi and Wangari Maathai. Nordlinger makes a persuasive case that the Nobel committee often does its best work when it gives the prize to the obscure (who soon become non-obscure by virtue of the award) rather than the well known and celebrated. He reproduces paragraphs from acceptance speeches that are alternatively inspiring (Theodore Roosevelt, Marshall, Martti Ahtisaari), poignant (the Italian pacifist Ernesto Moneta, Fridtjof Nansen, Kim Dae-jung) and annoying (Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Mohammed ElBaradei). I liked the comment of Al Gore, who said he wrote his own Nobel speech "with the help of Mr. Google." It turns out, according to Nordlinger, to have been a pretty good speech.

Nordlinger is particularly thoughtful about the more controversial Nobel awards. He is understanding of Theodore Roosevelt, mildly skeptical of Jimmy Carter, more gracious than I would have been to Henry Kissinger, and properly generous to Barack Obama, who didn't need anyone to tell him that he hadn't done anything to warrant the prize. But the Nobel Committee was, as gamblers would say, "betting on the come," and the award to Obama may look better down the historical road than it did at the time.

On the other hand, in a nitpick that may reflect my own prejudices, I wish Nordlinger had displayed empathy for Sean MacBride, a leader of the Irish Republican Army when the IRA was not a gang of thugs but the legitimate representative of the aspirations of Irish Catholics. (MacBride's father participated in the Easter 1916 rising and was executed by the British when his son was 12.) True, MacBride embarrassed himself and the Nobel committee by accepting the Lenin Prize in 1977, but to judge from the evidence of this book, he had plenty of company among Nobel laureates in parroting Soviet propaganda.

Nordlinger acknowledges that every reader will have favorites among the Nobel laureates and will be inclined to judge the merit of particular awards based on his opinion of the recipient. Nevertheless, in admirable defiance of his own biases, Nordlinger does his best to apply objective standards -- Nobel's standards, when possible -- in deciding whether a particular recipient is deserving. He is convincing more often than not. By their nature all Peace Prize awards are to some degree controversial; the Nobel landscape is vast and many find discomfort navigating in its outer reaches.

Some have also been discomforted by the failure of the Nobel committee to award the Peace Prize to persons who deserved it, especially Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian nationalist leader and premier apostle of non-violence. As Nordlinger explains it, Gandhi was a victim of politics and timing. His best chance to win was probably 1948 when Gandhi did his best to calm murderous violence between Hindus and Muslims that had been ignited by the partition of India, but he was assassinated that year and the Nobel committee did not then give posthumous awards. It has departed from this policy only once, to award the prize to United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold after he was killed in a plane crash in 1961.

This is a delightful book with something of value on every page. It at once entertained me and enriched my knowledge. How many books do that? If you pick it up, I defy you to put it down until you've finished it.

Lou Cannon is an editorial advisor and columnist for the State Net Capitol Journal.

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