Alfred Nobel's will, written in 1895, left funding for a prize to be awarded 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 first such prize, awarded in 1901, went to Jean Henry Dunant and Frédéric Passy, two men who held and promoted peace congresses, two peace activists, two men who were not elected officials. Nor were they war makers who had exercised restraint in some instance or other. In 1902, again, the peace prize went to two peace activists. In 1903 the prize went to a member of the British Parliament, but one who had worked for peace and not for war. In 1904, the laureate was what we would now call an NGO, but one that had worked for peace and not for war. In 1905, a woman who had played a role in the creation of the prize, an author and a peace activist, someone who indeed held and promoted peace congresses, was the first female winner. And then came 1906.
In 1906, the Nobel prize for peace was awarded to a lover of war by the name of Theodore Roosevelt. He had up to that point done, and would continue until his death to do, more to promote war than peace. Was it possible that he had nonetheless done the most or the best work for international fraternity, demilitarization, and peace congresses? Frankly, no. He was prominent. He was a president of a rising empire. Those, and his negotiating a peace between two other nations, were not sufficient qualifications. A disastrous trend had begun in the very mixed history of the peace prize.
The next year, two peace activists took the prize. The year after that two peace activists who were former government officials. The year after that two government officials. But everyone who took the prize, right up through 1913, had at least worked for peace and against war. During World War One, no prizes were awarded. And then came 1919 and a laureate remarkably similar to that of 2009.
In 1919, a prize for peace went to Woodrow Wilson who had needlessly dragged his own nation into the worst war yet seen; who had developed innovative war propaganda techniques, conscription techniques, and tools for suppressing dissent; who had used the U.S. military to brutal effect in the Caribbean and Latin America; who had agreed to a war-promoting settlement to the Great War; but who had promoted a league of nations and on whom were projected the fantasies of peace-loving but character-lacking people around the world.
From that moment to this, the Nobel peace prize has been heavily, but by no means entirely, dominated by elected officials. In 1929, for example, the winner was Frank Kellogg, the U.S. Secretary of State who had negotiated the Kellogg-Briand Pact. (Aristide Briand had already won in 1926.) But not recognized were the leaders of the peace movement that had made the Kellogg-Briand Pact happen. Kellogg had cursed peace activists in 1927, done their bidding in 1928, and would die without ever understanding them.
There were some excellent choices through the years, including some elected officials. And there were some real peace activists among the winners. The choice of Jane Addams as co-recipient in 1931 still looks like a particularly wise one, as does Norman Angell in 1933, and as do some organizations, such as the Red Cross in 1944 (and again in 1963) and the American Friends Service Committee in 1947. Why even more principled war opponents didn't qualify and why Gandhi was never deemed worthy are questions worth asking. But then came 1953.
In 1953 the prize for peace went to General George Marshall. In 1973 a co-laureate was none other than Henry Kissinger. Whatever their merits, these were major makers of war who would almost certainly have also won the Nobel War Prize, were there such a thing.
This insanity competed, however, with another trend, that of bestowing the prize on leaders who were not holders of high office, not necessarily born to wealth, and not only opponents of war but also advocates of the use of nonviolent resistance to violence and injustice. The peace prize, thus, went in 1964 to Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1976 to Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, in 1980 to Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, in 1983 to Lech Walesa, in 1984 to Desmond Tutu, in 1991 to Aung San Suu Kyi, in 1992 to Rigoberta Menchú Tum, etc.
Both of these paths, the Kissinger style "peace" laureate, and the MLK type, moved away, as the world did, from the holding and promotion of peace congresses on the 19th century model. But one was the path of peace activists who dedicated their careers to international fraternity and demilitarization or at the very least did not actively work against those goals. The other was the path of powerful figures and makers of war who had either shown some restraint in a particular instance or had appeared (accurately or not) to have acted on behalf of peace in a particular situation.
Honoring both nonviolent human rights advocates and mass murderers has moved the prize away from advocacy for the elimination of standing armies. There is very little room in respectable corporate-controlled discourse these days for advocating the elimination of standing armies. Many people would consider the idea insane or treasonous. But that can't change the words in Nobel's will or the early tradition of awarding the prize to true advocates of peace.
Still, the winners have all had a few things in common and to their advantage. They have all had at least some tenuous, even if inverted, relationship to peace. At least until recently. In 2006 and 2007, Muhammad Yunus and Al Gore took home peace prizes for work with at best an indirect connection to peace. (Can you even imagine Al Gore working for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses?)
From 1901 to 2008 no peace prize was given to anyone who had neither done nor even pretended to do anything significant for peace nor done any other good and significant thing that some people might believe would indirectly contribute to peace. From 1901 to 2008, no prize was given to anyone who had just been placed in a position of great power promising to expand the world's largest military, to escalate a war, and to launch strikes into other nations without any war declarations. From 1901 to 2008, no peace laureate showed up to collect the winnings and gave a speech justifying and praising war. From 1901 to 2008, no laureate gave an acceptance speech rejecting a previous laureate's speech as too peaceful. All of these streaks would end in 2009.
The 1980 peace laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel has just written a letter to the 2009 laureate, President Barack Obama. The letter includes these words:
"I believe, Barack, that after following your erring way, you find yourself in a maze, unable to find the exit and you are burying yourself more and more in violence, devoured by the domination of power, and you think you possess all the power anyone could have, and that the world is at the feet of the USA. So large are the atrocities committed by different US governments in the world... It is a sad reality, but there is also the resistance of peoples who do not capitulate before the powerful. Bin Laden, alleged author of the attack of the Twin Towers, has been made the devil incarnate who terrorised [sic] the world, identified as the ‘axis of evil’ and this has served you to wage the wars that the military industrial complex needs to place its products of death…
"… I am not in any way defending bin Laden, I am against all terrorism, by both these armed groups and the terrorism of the State which your government exercises in various parts of the world, supporting dictators, imposing military bases and armed intervention, using violence to maintain yourself via terror at the hub of world power. Is there only one ‘axis of evil’? Peace is a practice of life in relations between persons and among peoples; it is a challenge to humanity's consciousness. Its path is difficult, daily and hopeful; where people build from their own lives and their own history. Peace can't be gifted, it is built. And this is what you're missing lad, courage to assume the historical responsibility with your people and with humanity. You cannot live in the labyrinth of fear and control, ignoring international treaties, pacts and protocols of governments which are signed and then transgressed once and again. How can you speak of peace if you don’t want to honour [sic] anything, except in the interests of your country? How can you talk about freedom when you keep innocent people in the prisons of Guantanamo, in the USA, in Iraq and in Afghanistan? How can you speak of human rights and the dignity of peoples when you perpetually violate them and block those who don’t share your ideology and must endure your abuses? How can you send military forces to Haiti after a devastating earthquake, instead of humanitarian aid to that suffering people? How can you speak of freedom if you massacre the peoples in the Middle East and foster endless conflict which bleeds the Palestinians and Israelis?"
Now Stockholm's County Administrative Board, which supervises foundations and trusts in the city where the Nobel Foundation is based, has formally asked that foundation to respond to allegations that the peace prize no longer reflects Nobel's will. The Associated Press reports that,
"The move comes after persistent complaints by Norwegian peace researcher Fredrik Heffermehl, who claims the original purpose of the prize was to diminish the role of military power in international relations. 'Nobel called it a prize for the champions of peace,' Heffermehl [said] … 'And it's indisputable that he had in mind the peace movement, the movement which is actively pursuing a new global order ... where nations safely can drop national armaments.' … 'Do you see Obama as a promoter of abolishing the military as a tool of international affairs?' Heffermehl asked rhetorically."