Reporter: “Do you deserve the Nobel Peace Prize do you think?”
President Trump: “Everyone thinks so, but I would never say that.”
Judging by two U.S. presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Barack Obama, and one secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who have received Nobel Peace Prizes, President Trump’s might well be within shouting distance. Full disclosure: Woodrow Wilson was the third sitting president to receive a Nobel and his credentials for war criminal status are almost as impeccable as the other two. However, space and time limit us to the worst-case examples. In a later post, we may examine how President Wilson stacks up in the presidential war criminal sweepstakes.
Let’s start by answering the question—What is the Nobel Peace Prize and where did it come from? The prize was probably the mea culpa of its creator Alfred Noble. After making his fortune inventing dynamite, blasting caps and other more powerful explosives, holding over 300 patents on weapons of war, building a ton of armament factories, hearing himself dubbed the “merchant of death,” he apparently had an “oopsy-daisy” moment. To the horror and dismay of his relatives, he reserved 94% of his estate to endow annual prizes for excellence in six disciplines (a seventh was added in 1968). The Nobel Peace Prize has remained the most publicized and prestigious of the Nobels honoring those who have “done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
As befits an exceptional nation, American recipients are in the forefront of awards given to the unworthy. In a different world where peace and brotherhood reigned, the three Americans laureates might find themselves on a different podium, answering for their crimes at the International Criminal Court. (Wisely, the U.S. has refrained from either signing or ratifying the statute setting up the Court.)
At odds with the sanctimonious posturing of Peace Prize announcements are the actual deeds of the chosen. Theodore Roosevelt, the first American to win the Peace Prize in 1906, believed that “fraternity among nations” lay at the end of a metaphorical “big stick” by which to knock sense into nations that interfered with American interests (usually business interests). In 1903, in a U.S-inspired revolution, the Panamanian Isthmus separated itself from Colombia taking the Suez Canal with it. Panama now a weak and vulnerable nation turned to its good friend Mr. Roosevelt who offered protection in exchange for control over the Suez Canal — a big boon for American business. Years later, Al Capone would use a variant of Roosevelt’s “protection racquet” to enrich himself and his cronies.
The worst was yet to come. In 1973 the Nobel Prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger whose interpretation of “fraternity among nations” is revealed in his boast reported in the Washington Post “the illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer.” As presidential assistant to Richard Nixon, Kissinger oversaw the destruction of two sovereign nations, Laos and Cambodia. He crowned that holocaust with his support of the Khmer Rouge resulting in the deaths of two million Cambodians. If replicating murderous policies is the mark of a great U.S. statesman, Kissinger stands head and shoulders above the competition. Although he is reputed to have told government officials in 1965 after returning from his first trip to Vietnam that “we couldn’t win,” that didn’t stop him from conspiring with Richard Nixon to continue the fighting and dying in Vietnam for five long years. The bloody toll of that monstrous deception —21,000 dead Americans (a total of 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam during the administrations of Johnson and Nixon) and over one million Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese.
Kissinger’s government career left its grisly imprint on many nations outside Southeast Asia. He supported apartheid regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia, condoned the military coup which overthrew a democratically elected government in Chile and supported the bloody dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. (Is it psychopaths who feel no shame or empathy?) Kissinger’s rationale for that support: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.” Echoes of Roosevelt who in his State of the Union speech in 1904 articulated the U.S. role as global policeman in similar terms: “Chronic wrongdoing [among nations] …may force the United States to the exercise of an international police power…if it became evident [to the U.S.] that their [other nations] inability or unwillingness to do justice at home or abroad had violated the rights of the United States…”
Kissinger’s road to the Nobel was a rocky one. Le Duc Tho, his counterpart negotiator for the North Vietnamese at the Paris Peace Accords, became the first and only winner to decline the prize declaring that “such bourgeois sentimentalities” were not for him and that peace in Vietnam was not yet a reality (In 1975, the North Vietnamese overthrew the South Vietnamese government and marched into Saigon effectively ending the war). Time magazine reported that the Nobel Committee’s decision “aroused an unprecedented storm of criticism.” Songwriter Tom Lehrer pronounced the final benediction: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize.”
By a strange irony, thirty-six years later, the selection of Barack Obama, nine months after taking office, aroused similar criticism. Noam Chomsky’s shot went right to the heart of the controversy — “In defense of the committee… the achievement of doing nothing to advance peace places Obama on a considerably higher moral plane than some of the earlier recipients.” Amen to that. According to a Gallup Poll conducted days after the announcement, 61% of American adults did not believe Obama deserved the prize. The LA Times put the final nail in the coffin — “the committee didn’t just embarrass Obama, it diminished the credibility of the prize itself.”
History will support the accuracy of those dissents. Obama’s contribution to “fraternity among nations” included deploying American Special Operations forces (aka American mercenaries) in 135 countries (69% off all the world’s countries), expanding the Global War on Terror (although he banished the term) to seven countries, increasing the number of “exceptionally precise and surgical [drone] strikes that weren’t surgical or precise enough to keep families, wedding parties, funeral processions, old women collecting firewood, and kids playing soccer from being incinerated. The Bureau of Investigative Reporting has identified 400-800 innocent civilians killed by U.S. “pinpoint” bombing raids. As Richard Armitage (Bush’s Deputy Secretary of State and a dedicated war hawk) mused “[for all we know] they [drone victims] could be cooks.”
In light of this pitiful record of accomplishment, the Nobel committee’s reasoning “[Obama’s] extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between nations,” sounds hollow indeed. Obama himself in his Nobel Lecture (acceptance speech) made no bones about his commitment to a realpolitik, foreign policy, “fraternity of nations“ appearing to be relegated to a “quaint” but no longer applicable notion: “There will be times when nations —acting individually or in concert —will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified… To say that force may sometimes be necessary …is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
The concept of force as a necessary, even inevitable part of statehood occurs frequently in presidential declarations of America’s peaceful intentions. Here’s Teddy Roosevelt in his Nobel acceptance speech nattering about a League of Peace complete with a familiar caveat: “It will be a masterstroke if those great powers bent on peace would form a League of Peace not only to keep peace but to prevent by force if necessary its being broken by others.”
Little did Roosevelt dream when he laid out what must have seemed a utopian fantasy —a League of Peace —that forty-three years later, a league, codenamed NATO, would be spawned out of the jaws of the Cold War. A sinister cabal with global dominance delusions remarkably close to Roosevelt’s description of a League of Peace, NATO is an offensive military alliance with bases in a large chunk of the world’s nations whose “humanitarian” interventions have resulted in untold numbers of civilian deaths and the destruction of whole countries. Ask the Libyan people how NATO’S humanitarian rescue of their country turned out. Teddy Roosevelt would have been proud.
Henry Kissinger has to be crowned primus inter pares (first among equals) for his dishonorable actions. In the Kissinger lexicon, peace was like a game of chicken. Roosevelt’s big stick morphed into the threat of nuclear war. Here is his horrifying RX for world peace: “limited nuclear war seems a more suitable deterrent than conventional war.” Hard to square with the Nobel Committee’s announcement in 1973 celebrating a man (two actually but one declined) whose “talents and goodwill … brought a wave of joy and hope for peace…”
Nobel Peace Laureates come and go. Some like Jane Addams are justly celebrated. Others like Roosevelt, Kissinger and Obama self-destruct on their way to Norway. Perhaps their failure is more institutional than personal. At the top rungs of leadership in the U.S., moral force is overtaken by the commitment to retain global military superiority, crush dissent at home and abroad, and use excuses like “responsibility to protect” to dominate and control weaker nations.
Far better to enshrine in our memories the words of another American Nobel Peace Laureate. In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted his Nobel in a short but unforgettable speech. Here’s a snippet — “this award…is the answer to…the need for man to overcome violence and oppression without resorting to violence and oppression…Sooner or later all the people of our world will have to live together in peace…I refuse to accept the view that mankind is bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
Time is getting short to make that dream a reality. To trade in our worn-out justifications for war and violence for a commitment to negotiation and compromise. Will present or future U.S leaders be emboldened to change the way we view the world and our place in it? Will the American people, brutalized and intimidated by a history of belligerence and conflict, be able to accept peace, liberty and justice for all, not just for (some) Americans? It’s like looking through the wrong end of the kaleidoscope — a topsy-turvy world marching to the beat of the rich and powerful encircled by a mighty military colossus. Maybe Dr. King hit the nail on its head fifty-one years ago: “The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve.” In a world where war criminals are celebrated as humanitarians, and the use of force a measure of the world’s instinct for self-preservation, hope for peace and justice will not survive the savagery of our present path.
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