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The Big One : Checking In With the Three Living American Winners of the Nobel Peace Prize

October 13, 1985|DAVID DEVOSS

On a warm afternoon in the late summer of 1963, more than 200,000 people from throughout the United States marched to the base of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. One of them, Martin Luther King Jr., had a dream.

"We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one," he said in the dramatic cadence of his Southern Baptist heritage. "We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi can't vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

King's appeal for human dignity carried far beyond our borders. And on Oct. 14, 1964, 21 years ago Monday, the 35-year-old preacher from Atlanta who believed that nonviolence was the avenue to black equality became the youngest man ever to receive the world's highest honor: the Nobel Peace Prize.

The search for peace has been an elusive quest. Though a century seldom passes without some attempt to assure tranquility, violence usually prevails. Following World War I, diplomats negotiated numerous pacts "outlawing" war in perpetuity. That the guarantees fell short of the goal was not lost on skeptics such as Thomas Hardy, who dismissed the much-touted Locarno Treaty, which guaranteed the territorial integrity of its seven European signatories, in the doggerel "Christmas, 1924":

"Peace upon earth!" was said. We sing it

and pay a million priests to bring it.

After two thousand years of mass

We've got as far as poison gas.

The dichotomy between the actions of man and his professed aspirations was embodied in Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite and blasting gelatin. Nobel spent most of his life selling arms and explosives. His life changed in 1888, however, when his brother Ludwig died and a French newspaper, confusing the two, published Alfred's obituary beneath the headline: "The Merchant of Death."

So aghast was Nobel at the prospect of carrying that moniker through eternity that he vowed to change his image by rewriting his will. Nobel's new legacy would be a series of prizes, funded by the interest earned on his $9-million estate, that each year would reward those who "have conferred the greatest benefits on mankind in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace."

Blessed with the wisdom that occasionally attends the 11th hour of one's life, Nobel realized that progress toward peace would be more difficult to measure than scientific advancement. To insure against its diminished value, he ordered that the Peace Prize should be awarded only when justified, and then only by Norwegians, since they among all Europeans--even his fellow Swedes, who were charged with administering the other four prizes--had proved the most adept at avoiding armed conflict.

Over the past 84 years, 70 persons have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Sixteen have been Americans, and of that number three--chemist Linus Pauling, plant geneticist Norman E. Borlaug and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger--are still living.

In retrospect, some of America's Peace Prize winners seem inappropriate. Theodore Roosevelt, most often remembered as a bellicose President who prided himself on strategic application of "the big stick," was honored for his role in negotiating an end to the 1905 Russo-Japanese war. President Woodrow Wilson received a Nobel in 1919 for his part in creating the League of Nations--an ultimately ineffectual organization that was almost immediately dismissed as "a declaration of love without the promise of marriage" by German Adm. Alfred Von Tirpitz. But easily the most controversial Nobel decision occurred in 1973 when U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese Politburo member Le Duc Tho were jointly awarded a $160,000 Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Vietnam War. Tho immediately declined the award; Kissinger accepted, although the war was still being fought and had never been officially declared.

Kissinger's reaction to the Nobel seemed ambivalent. He didn't travel to Oslo to accept the award. He donated his prize money to a fund for the education of children of servicemen killed in Vietnam. Following the fall of Saigon in April, 1975, he even tried to return the prize. "There's no doubt the Nobel is the highest and most satisfying award a political figure active in the field of foreign policy can achieve," Kissinger says. "In my particular case the subsequent circumstances were rather tragic, and that obviously has to affect my recollection of it."

Writing in his memoirs of the award to Tho, Kissinger expressed surprise that "a representative of a country that had invaded all neighboring countries could win a peace prize for making a cease-fire that even then it was violating in every provision." Today, he believes that the legacy of Watergate and a divided Congress were the main factors contributing to the U.S. defeat.

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