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The Nobel Peace Prize 1937
Robert Cecil

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Nobel Lecture

Nobel Lecture*, June 1, 1938


Listen to an Audio Recording of Robert Cecil's Nobel Lecture (paragraph 1-13)**
9 min.

The Future of Civilization

When I received the information that the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament had done me the great honour of awarding me the Nobel Peace Prize for 1937, I learned that, by the Statutes of the prize, I was to have the opportunity and duty of giving a lecture within six months of the award; and I am now here to discharge that obligation. In the first place, let me express once again my warmest gratitude to the Nobel Committee for the award. At any time I should have received it with great gratification; but coming, as it did, at a time when all workers for peace needed the utmost encouragement, it was doubly acceptable.

I heard of it when I was in New York, and the news happened to arrive at the very time when the Columbia University was kind enough to give me an honorary degree. The result was that the coincidence of these two events secured for them both a very large measure of publicity which, I trust, was to the advantage of the cause of peace. Certainly, it gave me an opportunity of explaining to many journalists and others the principles of the cause for which I was working and in respect of which the award was made.

I owe also a deep debt of gratitude to those who, in your country, have confirmed the decision of the Nobel Committee and expressed their approval of it. In particular, I trust I may be allowed to express my deep obligation to their Majesties, the King and Queen of Norway, for their kindness in being present today and on the day of the solemnity on the tenth of December.

If I may be allowed to say so, the close connection between the British Royal Family and that of Norway makes their Majesties' action the more gratifying to a British citizen like myself.

I also wish to express my thanks to my old friend, Dr. Lange, who was good enough, on that occasion, to pronounce an oration about myself which I found deeply interesting, though far too flattering. As to much of what he said, I can only say that I hope - though I do not believe - that I deserve it.

One comment I should, however, like to make. He was good enough to emphasize that at the time I began working for the League and for peace, I belonged to what he called an "old aristocratic and Conservative family", and he intimated that he thought it added to my merit that, coming from such surroundings, I should have taken up the cause of peace. May I just say this: I was brought up from my earliest youth to believe in the enormous importance of peace. I have often heard my father, the late Lord Salisbury, say that, though he did not see how it was possible under the then existing circumstances to avoid wars altogether, yet he had never been able to satisfy himself that they were in principle morally defensible.

Indeed, particularly in the latter part of his life, he made more than one speech in which he expressed the hope that, by some international combination, wars could in the future be prevented. He did not hesitate to express his belief that some such organization as we have since then attempted and erected in the League of Nations might furnish the solution of what he conceived to be the terrific evil of war. For instance, in 1897, in a speech in which he had been defending the concert or, as he preferred to call it, the Federation of Europe, he went on to say:

"This Federation of Europe is the embryo of the only possible structure of Europe which can save civilization from the desolating effects of a disastrous war. You notice that on all sides the instruments of destruction, the piling up of arms, is becoming greater; the instruments of death are more active and more numerous, and they are improved with every year; and each nation is bound for its own safety's sake to take part in this competition. The one hope that we have to prevent this competition from ending in a terrible effort of mutual destruction which will be fatal to Christian civilization - the only hope we have is that the Powers may gradually be brought together in a friendly spirit on all questions of difference which may arise, until at last they shall be welded in some international constitution which shall give to the world, as a result of their great strength, a long spell of unfettered and prosperous trade and continued peace."

I think my audience will agree with me that that is rather a remarkable prophecy of what actually happened and what we are trying to bring about at the present time.

You will notice that the speaker referred more than once to the danger that threatened civilization. I am afraid there is no doubt that that danger still continues. He referred to the armaments race which no one could avoid taking part in and which was, in itself, a great danger to peace. That also is unhappily true: ten times more true now than it was in his days.

He finally referred to an international constitution which was, on the one hand, to satisfy the unsatisfied longings of different nations, and on the other, by its great strength, to prevent them from destroying civilization by war.

I thought it right just to say those few words of comment on Dr. Lange's speech. But apart from that I have, I need not say, nothing but gratitude to him and to the people of Norway.

And this is by no means the first occurrence for which I owe a debt of gratitude to the Norwegian people. Indeed, it was my good fortune, during the early stages of the League of Nations, to cooperate closely with one of the greatest Norwegians of modern times - I mean, of course, Dr. Nansen1. Many are the occasions on which his clear-sighted courage pointed the way by which the Geneva institution might best achieve peace. Indeed, his influence on the Assembly of the League was very remarkable. Representing, as he did, a state which, though it had very many claims to the respect of mankind, yet certainly was not militarily one of the most powerful nations in Europe, he nevertheless had far more influence than some of those who represented more powerful countries. I have felt, during the last few years, how deeply we have missed his inspiring leadership.

Nor did he stand alone. During the earlier years of the League we were fortunate in having many statesmen of outstanding ability who were convinced supporters of international cooperation under the League Covenant. In my own country there was the late Lord Balfour, who was at the zenith of his reputation as a national and international statesman and whose singularly acute intellect enabled him, on many occasions, to perceive the practical way of advance. Then there was Aristide Briand - a man of immense personal charm and eloquence, profoundly devoted to peace, who at the end of his life achieved in his own country a position of unrivaled authority in foreign affairs. Nor must I forget Dr. Stresemann who, though he was not long at Geneva, yet impressed his personality very remarkably on his colleagues in that institution. Then, too, there was your neighbour, Dr. Branting - a solid pillar for peace, who had that most valuable of all gifts, that of inspiring confidence. And finally - for I must not detain you with a long list of names - let me mention one who is still with us and is still in the forefront of the struggle for international peace and good order; I mean the very distinguished President of Czechoslovakia, Dr. Eduard Benes, a profound lover of peace and a man of infinite resource2.

I could easily extend this list of names by adding to them those who are still taking an active part at Geneva. But to do so might perhaps become invidious. It is enough to say that under the leadership of those great men the first ten years of the League of Nations was a period of almost unbroken prosperity. The League moved from strength to strength. It established its organization and its Secretariat - a very remarkable achievement which has worked extremely well. Then, too, came the Permanent Court of International Justice, which has also been a very marked success and which, I trust, will establish ultimately the rule of law in all international affairs. And at Geneva there was created a network of standing committees to deal with all sorts and kinds of social and humanitarian subjects, ranging from finance and transportation to opium and the white slave traffic.

I must not take up your time in recounting all the many achievements of those early years. I need not remind you of the great work done in non-contentious matters, except that I would just like to mention two - slavery, where a great step forward was taken in order to extirpate that great evil amongst human affairs; and the protection of racial, linguistic, and religious minorities in various countries. In Europe a great deal was done. And the reason I mention these is because they are two of many subjects in which Dr. Nansen did such remarkable work for the cause of humanity.

Still less need I recall the many spectacular successes in settling international disputes. When the history of the League comes to be written with impartiality, I think these ten years will stand out as perhaps the most remarkable period of international progress that, up till now, the world has ever seen.

In 1932 when the Disarmament Conference3, after many years of preparation, at last assembled, it really looked as if we were approaching something like stabilized conditions in the world. I am still convinced that with a little more courage and foresight, particularly among those who were directing the policy of the so-called Great Powers, we might have achieved a limitation of international armaments, with all the enormously beneficial consequences which that would have given us. And may I, as a personal matter, remind you in this connection of the work of a man who has perhaps been too much forgotten - I mean my friend Henri de Jouvenel4, who did very remarkable work for disarmament in its early stages. No doubt the work has not succeeded; but I like to believe that it has not been altogether lost. We have laid a foundation on which, ultimately, we may build something in the nature of reform. And I am perfectly satisfied that the attempt to limit and reduce armaments by international action must be resumed and the sooner the better, if the world is to be saved from a fresh and bloody disaster.

When one comes to try and analyse why the League succeeded so well in its first ten years of existence, no doubt the chief reason must be found in the immense horror which the War of 1914 had created amongst the human race. Almost all those engaged in the work at Geneva had personal knowledge of the vast slaughter and destruction which the war had produced. Many had been face to face with what looked like a vivid danger of relapse into barbarism in their own countries, and there was a tremendous urge to discover some effective prevention of future wars. It was under the impulse of these feelings that we worked in those days and that we made our appeal, not in vain, for the support of the public opinion of the world.

In my own country, and perhaps in some others, the workers for the League of Nations are sometimes reproached with attaching too much importance to collective security and the forcible prevention of war. That only shows how short people's memories are in political affairs. As a matter of fact, during the first ten years of the League very little was said about these subjects. We dwelt on the social and humanitarian sides of the League. We urged disarmament and treaty revision. Great reliance - particularly in England - was placed not upon forcible action but upon public opinion. We preached - and, I am glad to say, preached successfully - the enormous importance of publicity in the actions of the League, so that the world might know not only what was being done but why it was being done at Geneva. We attached perhaps even too great importance to the conception that no nation would be so rash or so wicked as to set itself against the public opinion of the world. And it was not till we found, in the Manchurian dispute5, that there was at any rate one nation which seemed to be utterly regardless of such considerations that we began to advocate the utilization of those other weapons which the League had placed in the hands of the peace-loving nations of the world.

Unfortunately, the Manchurian crisis arose at a time when those nations who might have been expected to have perceived most clearly the necessity of preventing aggression were themselves in a condition of great internal difficulties owing to the financial crisis of those days. You may perhaps remember that we in England were in a grave political crisis arising from economic conditions, and that crisis was only solved ultimately by the abandonment of the gold standard. And perhaps it was inevitable in such circumstances that our people should take little interest in any foreign questions.

It was partly for these reasons, no doubt, that the conquest of Manchuria and the other northern provinces of China came to be consummated, and all the ambitious statesmen of the world were given an object lesson of how, in spite of the League and in spite of the Covenant, the old military policies could be successfully carried out.

And may I venture to emphasize at this point a lesson which must never be forgotten: how much one problem in international affairs affects the whole conduct of those affairs. It was no doubt the failure of the League to check aggression in the Far East which first struck a blow at the whole system which we were trying to establish and which facilitated even greater attacks on international security.

The Italian invasion of Abyssinia6 which followed was, perhaps, even more indefensible internationally than the invasion of China by Japan, and unhappily it was equally successful. Here, there was no excuse for the peace-loving powers. They had unquestionably the strength and the opportunity to have stopped that defiance of the principles of the supremacy of law in international affairs, and they declined to use them.

I need not remind you of the very distressing events which have followed these two great breaches in the barrier against war, which were made by Japan and Italy. We have seen their consequences in the forcible reoccupation of the Rhineland provinces7, the intervention by many nations in the affairs of Spain8, and the absorption of Austria by Germany9. And last, and perhaps more serious, the renewed and more intense invasion of China10.

We see the world as it is now, after these defeats of the League, and we can compare it with what it was six or seven years ago. The comparison is certainly depressing; the contrast is terrible. And we have not yet reached a time when we can estimate the full material losses and human suffering which have been the direct result of the ambitions of one set of powers and the weakness of the others. Nor is there any purpose in attempting to do so. Let us, rather, examine where we now stand and what steps we ought to take in order to strengthen the international system and thrust back again the forces of reaction.

In the first place, let us admit that the first ten years of the League were in a sense unnatural. The horror of war to which I have already alluded was necessarily far more vivid than it can be expected long to remain. That tremendous argument for peace, the horror of war, was a diminishing asset. Most of us, at that time, were, I think, quite well aware that unless we could get the international system into solidly effective working order in the first ten years, we were likely to have great difficulties in the succeeding period, and so it has proved. In a sense, the so- called failures of the League, of which we hear so much today, were to be expected in the natural course of human events, for in such human events there is always an undulatory action, a period in which the crest of the wave is followed by the trough, and up till late in 1930 or 1931, we were undoubtedly on the crest of the peace wave.

Militarism had been stunned by the disasters which had been brought upon the world in the Great War. One saw not only the terrible suffering the war had caused, but also the fact that even the victors had gained little or no advantage; and, as has often happened before, the overwhelming feeling amongst the peoples of the world was that whatever happened we must never again allow the structure of human society to be so imperilled. But militarism, though stunned, was not dead; it was bound to revive, and it has revived. Its immense traditions, its picturesque features, the attraction of military ritual and even military music and all that goes with it, besides the illusion of strength which military preparations give to those who indulge in them - all these things appeal to great elements of human nature which, I suppose, will always exist and which it is our business to keep in check. Then I must add, myself, that these natural tendencies to glorify material power and strength have been greatly helped by the existence of gigantic organizations in many countries commanding vast financial strength and having at their disposal all the means of modern propaganda. I mean the great armaments undertakings of the world.

There can be little doubt that the armament interests were comparatively quiescent during the earlier years of the League. It was only when they were directly threatened by the effort to limit armaments that they became active in their effort to destroy the institution which was responsible for this attack on their financial prosperity. I do not mean to exaggerate the power of the armament firms, but I have no doubt that they have contributed to the difficulties of the League.

So too, and much more, has the resistance of the old school and old traditions of diplomacy. It is very easy to underrate the resisting power of the diplomatic bureaucracy. It has all the strength given to it by considerable ability; great and long traditions; the belief, carefully fostered, that foreign affairs are a subject on which only those who have long been trained in them can form a safe judgment; and, let me add, the disinterested though mistaken patriotism by which our diplomatic friends are commonly moved. Don't think that I underrate the very great debt we owe to the old diplomacy. Before the new system came into existence, diplomacy was the only protection we had against war; and its achievements were of the utmost importance and value to the human race. But perhaps it is natural that, with rare exceptions, the whole strength of this very powerful organization has been against the new ideas and new principles at Geneva. The old diplomat liked to move with deliberation, in secret, following well-established traditions and working through what he loved to describe as "the usual channels". To him, the open debate carried on, not by professional diplomats, but by politicians and statesmen having little regard for the use of the technical phraseology of diplomacy and intent merely on reaching results which would make diplomacy unnecessary, was offensive to all his instincts.

I am anxious not to be thought to be making an attack on the diplomatic profession as such. What I say is equally true of all professionals. Take, for instance, the profession of medicine. Is it not true that if you take its history, it has been opposed to a great number, if not all, of the more valuable discoveries? So it is with the scientific profession. From the days of Galilei up to the present time, the scientific world has been commonly resistant to new ideas. I was reading only the other day the life of Madame Curie11 and was struck by the great difficulties which she and her husband had to meet and overcome before they were able to obtain the assent and approval of the scientific world for their discoveries. And to show at any rate that I am not unfair, I will take my own profession, the profession of the law. I have an immense admiration for our English lawyers and, I doubt not, the same is due to foreign lawyers also. They are great people, very high-minded, but in all the many legal reforms we have carried out in the last century in my country - and they have been very many and very important - I believe it would be true to say that we have found the majority of the lawyers always opposed to each reform. It is not anything particularly wicked, but it is natural that men who have been brought up in a profession believe that the principles in which they have been brought up and which they have been taught to trust are the right principles and that any change in them is hazardous and probably pernicious.

Therefore professional opinion is almost inevitably against changes. It has been the operation of these and similar influences which has brought about, as I fear, a return to the old conception of what is called power diplomacy. To these conceptions, it is not too much to say, the idea of the complete opposition of war and peace was really foreign. That may seem rather a strong observation. Let me explain what I mean. I remember reading in an article by one who utterly rejected the League and all it stood for, that in his view war was merely intensified peace. He regarded the normal condition of international affairs as one of rivalry between the nations, growing ultimately to war. That was, as he saw it, what might be reasonably looked on as the usual condition of international life. No doubt he thought diplomacy was useful in order to postpone the actual outbreak of war as long as possible, but that was the limit of its possibilities. It never could prevent war, and the conception that war could be prevented was mere baseless ideology.

During all the period before 1914, Europe and, in a degree, the whole world lived under the perpetual shadow of war, as we are doing, I am afraid, at the present time. No doubt after it had been going on for a certain time, people became callous. They thought war had been so often avoided that it would continue to be avoided. But nevertheless, all international policy was carried on on the basis that sooner or later war might and probably would have to be faced. This has again become true, and it casts its shadow over every form of human activity. The civil life of every nation is deformed and weakened and obstructed by this threat of war. We are wasting gigantic sums, sums far greater than we have ever wasted before, on preparations for war, because war has again become a very present possibility and, at the same time, its horrors and dangers are enormously greater than they were before 1914. And so the world is spending some three or four thousand million pounds sterling every year on preparations for what we all know will be, if it comes to pass, a tremendous danger to the whole of our civilization, whoever wins and whoever loses. And again we see rising up as the active principle of policy the idea that might is right; that the only thing that counts in international affairs is force; that the virtues of truth and mercy and tolerance are really not virtues at all, but symptoms of the softness and feebleness of human nature; and that the old conception of blood and iron is the only thing that is really true and can really be trusted. Accompanied by and causing this kind of revival of reaction, we see the revival of that extreme form of nationalism which believes not only that your own nation is superior to other nations but that all other nations are degenerate and inferior, and that the only function of the government of each country is to provide for the safety and welfare of that country, without regard to what may happen to other countries, adopting the ancient, pernicious, and devilish text: "Everyone for himself and the devil take the hindmost."

At present these doctrines have not been accepted by the great majority of the peoples of the world. And even in those countries where they have most acceptance, they are put forward with a certain hesitation and coupled with the advocacy of peace - but, alas, peace based on the triumph of nationalistic ideas.

The great question that must be agitating all our minds now is whether this revival of the old ideas is going to make its way amongst the nations of the world.

Do not let us underrate the danger. It threatens everything we care for. For if it does succeed, it will not only bring us back to 1914 - in itself bad enough - but to something far worse even than that. For instance, it is now apparently part of the normal doctrine of those who advocate this system that no distinction can be made between combatants and non-combatants, and that a perfectly legitimate and indeed necessary method of warfare will be the wholesale destruction of unfortified cities and their inhabitants. No doubt there will be countervailing efforts to prevent such things happening; but there is, at any rate, one section of military thought which believes that the only way to stop the bombardment of the cities belonging to one belligerent will be the bombardment of the cities belonging to the other.

That is an example of the kind of danger that lies before us. I need not dwell on it longer because most of my hearers have no doubt considered it and are fully as much aware of the danger as I am myself. It is more to the purpose to ask whether we can prevent it.

Well, let me say that in my view it is quite certain that we can prevent it. I have myself no doubt on that point at all. The vast majority of the peoples of the world are against war and against aggression. If they make their wishes known and effective, war can be stopped. It all depends on whether they are willing to make the effort necessary for the purpose. For, that it will require an effort, no one who considers the history of the world on these subjects can doubt. Indeed, even lately when much has been done to discourage the hope for peace by international action, we have seen two very recent instances of what courageous cooperative action can accomplish. It is only a few months since, at Nyon, the powers concerned in the Mediterranean met and decided that what was justly called piracy in connection with the conflict in Spain must be brought to an end and that, if it proceeded, each of the powers there represented would take whatever measures were necessary to stop it by force. From that day it has practically disappeared, and one Great Power whom many suspected, rightly or wrongly, of being concerned in the piracy, declared its readiness to join in the effort to put it down12.

Still more recently, we have seen that what appeared to be a serious threat to the integrity and independence of Czechoslovakia was arrested by a stern warning that any action against that country would be met by overwhelming force on the other side13.

It is true that these things were neither of them done through the League, for reasons which I do not myself pretend to understand. But they show, at any rate, that collective effort can produce collective security and that if such effort is not made, it is because the will and the courage to make it are not there. It is therefore still more important than it ever was to realize that the real choice before us in this matter is: are we going to permit uncontrolled nationalism to dominate civilized Europe, or are we going to say that the European countries (I don't deal with the whole world, but it applies to that, too) are really part of one community with a common interest in international peace?

No doubt there is a good deal that is attractive about the nationalist idea. It has a great history and it has a great deal of appeal to sentiment in itself admirable. But if we examine what it leads to, I do not doubt that we shall all agree that it must be rejected as a guiding principle of the nations of the world. For it necessarily leads to an exaggeration of the authority and dignity of the state to an extent which practically destroys individual action and individual responsibility. Nationalism leads to totalitarianism, and totalitarianism leads to idolatry. It becomes not a principle of politics but a new religion and, let me add, a false religion. It depends partly on a pseudoscientific doctrine of race which leads inevitably to the antithesis of all that we value in Christian morality.

On the other hand, if we accept the view that all nations are interdependent, as individuals in any society are, we get precisely the opposite result. Such a principle leads to friendliness and good neighbourhood and, indeed, it is not too much to say that it leads to everything that we have hitherto understood as progress and civilization.

I hope I have not exaggerated in this antithesis between the two doctrines. The acceptance of the principle of international cooperation is of immense importance for all states. Even the states which are most tempted to believe that they can stand by themselves have very much to gain by such cooperation. And for the smaller states - the weaker states - it is vital to all their hopes of liberty and justice.

It is necessary, when we say all this, to remind ourselves that the difference between uncontrolled nationalism and international cooperation does not necessarily depend on the form of government prevailing in the different states. It depends on the spirit in which those governments operate. There have been autocracies which have shown themselves liberal and just, even to other countries. There have been democracies which have been inspired, apparently, by feelings of bitter hatred for all foreigners.

In some states of society it may even be that a form of dictatorship is necessary. No doubt in the hands of an able man it may possibly be more efficient than a democratic form of administration. But in the end, I am confident that a free government is best for free people. The old phrase, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people"14, represents a true ideal. It is best for the people as a whole. It is even more clearly the best for the development of the individual man and woman. And since in the end, the character and the prosperity of the nation depend on the character of the individuals that compose it, the form of government which best promotes individual development is the best for the people as a whole.

That, at any rate, is the view of the country from which I come. We have a long history of constitutional progress. Many of our conceptions date from a long-past age, some going back even to the time when England was invaded and subjugated by Norse conquerors. They brought us some of the ideas we still have, and then the people of the country contributed theirs. We have gained very much from foreign sources and even from foreign immigration. The modern conception of keeping out all alien immigrants may be an economic necessity, but I am satisfied it is a psychological evil. The democratic principle is just as important in international as in national affairs.

That, then, is what we stand for; and that is one of the great reasons, no doubt, why we support the League of Nations.

I like to think that, in this principle, we had the active help of such a man as your great statesman, Dr. Nansen, and we look - not in vain, I am convinced - to the race to which he belonged to keep alight the torch of freedom and progress.

That these ideas will ultimately triumph, I have no doubt. Nor is it open to question that by the combined efforts of the peace-loving peoples they can be made to triumph now, before Europe has been again plunged into a fresh bloodbath.

May Heaven grant that the statesmen of the world may realize this before it is too late and, by the exertion of the needed courage and prudence, restore again to the position of authority which it had only a few years ago, that great institution for the maintenance of peace on which the future of civilization so largely depends. I mean, of course, the League of Nations.




* The laureate delivered this Nobel lecture in the auditorium of the University of Oslo. The text is taken from Les Prix Nobel en 1937. No title was given to the lecture by the laureate; the one used here comes from the last paragraph of the lecture.


1. Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), peace laureate for 1922.

2. Gustav Stresemann (1878-1929), peace co-laureate for 1926. Eduard Benes (1884- 1948), Czech statesman; foreign minister (1918-1935), premier (1921-1922), president (1935-1938; 1939-1945 in exile; 1945-1948). The other names are identified in fns. to Lange's presentation speech.

3. For details, see Arthur Henderson, peace laureate for 1934, pp.177-203.

4. Henri de Jouvenel (1876-1935), French journalist and statesman, who was long a member of the French delegation to the League.

5. In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria; in Feb., 1933, the Assembly adopted the investigative report of the Lytton Commission despite its rejection by Japan; in March, 1933, Japan gave notice of her withdrawal from the League.

6. Began on Oct. 3, 1935.

7. On March 7, 1936.

8. In the Spanish Civil War beginning in July, 1936, Italy and Germany supported the Insurgents, Russia the Loyalists.

9. On April 10, 1938.

10. In 1937, Japan intensified the campaign against China, seizing Peking in July, Shanghai in Nov., and Nanking and Hangchow in Dec.; fighting was going on at the time of this lecture.

11. Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934). Polish-born, French chemist and physicist, Nobel co-laureate in Physics for 1903 and laureate in Chemistry for 1911.

12. In the summer of 1937 unidentified submarines harassed neutral shipping in the Mediterranean suspected of carrying cargoes to the Spanish Loyalists. The Nyon Conference and Agreement of Sept.9, 1937, to which the Mediterranean and Black Sea powers were invited (Germany and Italy declining), adopted a system of patrol zones; thereafter Italy adopted the agreement.

13. A second German-Czech crisis, which developed in the weeks following the laureate's lecture, ended in the Munich Agreement of Sept.29, 1938.

14. Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" (1863).

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1926-1950, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972

 


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