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The Nobel Peace Prize 1937
Robert Cecil

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Award Ceremony Speech

Presentation Speech by Christian Lous Lange*, member of the Nobel Committee, on December 10, 1937

Three statesmen who occupied leading positions during the World War were so deeply struck by the deprivation of human life and economic resources, by the futility of war as a social institution, and by its amorality, that they became convinced pacifists and throughout the rest of their lives spared no effort to prevent such a calamity from ever again overtaking mankind.

Two of the three are dead: Woodrow Wilson and Aristide Briand. The Nobel Committee has already honored them both with the Alfred Nobel Prize. Today the Committee takes pleasure in presenting the prize to the third, Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, perhaps better known by his original name, Lord Robert Cecil.

It can perhaps be said of Wilson and Briand that they had some points of contact with pacifist ideas: Wilson in his religious, puritan tradition; Briand in the radical socialism of his youth.

I doubt very much whether any parallel can be found in the case of Lord Cecil, either in his traditions or in his background, or in his prewar career. I am more inclined to believe that his revulsion to war was aroused only and entirely through his intimate contact with the war and his experiences as under-secretary of state for foreign affairs and minister of blockade1, and that it was these which first led him to consider the problem of the abolition of war, and so to devote all his efforts to bring nearer the solution which to him appeared to be the right one.

Think of his background and traditions! The Cecil family is one of the oldest and most distinguished among the English landed aristocracy. His father, the Marquess of Salisbury, was for nearly twenty years the leader of the Conservative Party, and for most of this time prime minister2. In foreign affairs he accepted the legacy of Disraeli3 and continued Britain's imperialist policy. In his early twenties the young Lord Robert Cecil became a private secretary to his father, at that time prime minister and foreign secretary. He fully shared his father's political and High Church views. It seems highly improbable that, either in Hatfield or in the circles in which Lord Robert moved in London, pacifism should at any time have been discussed, except perhaps with a shrug of the shoulders, for serious, realistic men cannot afford the luxury of such childish dreams!

Being a younger son, Lord Robert decided to earn a living by following a legal career. He developed into a skilled advocate, and in due course became a Queen's Counsel. In 1906, when he was in his early forties, he was elected to Parliament and took his place on the Conservative benches, under the leadership of his cousin Arthur Balfour4. Although his rise to prominence was not rapid, his reputation grew steadily and he won recognition as an able orator and jurist. But in 1915 when Asquith5, under the pressure of war, formed a coalition government, Cecil became under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office under Sir Edward Grey6. The following year, when Lloyd George7 succeeded in overthrowing his chief and created his war ministry with a program of «war to the bitter end», Cecil became minister of blockade, one of the most exposed positions in the government.

It was in the course of these war years, and especially during his collaboration with the wise and admirable Edward Grey, that Cecil first encountered the problem of pacifism. It presented itself in the special guise which it had at that time assumed - the question of a «League of Nations». The idea was old, but during the war it acquired a distinctive form, and Cecil had a large share in its shaping. He toiled over the question and no doubt had many a struggle with it before he could clearly grasp all its implications and consider himself fully and confidently master of the problem.

It is fascinating to follow Cecil's evolution as a pacifist and internationalist during the two decades between his wartime conversion and the present day. I deliberately use the religious term «conversion», for clearly Lord Cecil is of a fundamentally religious temperament - of the High Church Episcopalian stamp. Listening to him speak from the rostrum is often like listening to a venerable bishop preaching the revealed truth. But he also has other strings to his bow in addition to that of the preacher's; he is a skillful lawyer, a quick-witted debater, and, when the occasion demands, a shrewd tactician. His tall, now somewhat bowed figure is imposing. But, even when he jests and smiles, one can always sense an underlying earnestness of purpose. The conversion from his youthful indifference to the problem of peace, to the profound conviction of its central importance which he now holds in maturity has been perhaps the most momentous experience of his life.

What inhibitions and innate prejudices has he not had to conquer! For no man can ever completely cast off the influences of childhood and youth. The twenty years during which Cecil has fought for pacifism and for the League of Nations are marked by many instances when these inhibitions have emerged to lead him to a self-contradictory position. There is much truth in what a witty Irishman has said of him: «Lord Robert stands with one foot in the Middle Ages and the other in the League of Nations.»

But he has been true to his newfound conviction. That is the important thing. And this fact redounds doubly to his credit, precisely because he has had to resolve this conflict within himself.

If we examine his purely intellectual attitude toward the League of Nations problem, we cannot but marvel at the clarity with which he formulated the essential points of his program at the very outset, and at the consistency with which he has adhered to them despite storm and stress.

On November 12, 1918, the day following the Armistice, he spoke at the University of Birmingham about plans for a League of Nations. He rejoiced that the war was over and that victory had been won. But he strongly emphasized the responsibility which the victory imposed on the victors. This responsibility was to construct a lasting peace and to create an instrument for international cooperation which might safeguard the permanence of peace. He called upon the Allies to resist any temptation to exploit their victory to gain mastery for themselves, and appealed to them to create instead a League of Nations for all nations - a league of independent nations, not a superstate.

The principal foundation of this new League was not to be legal institutions such as courts of law or arbitration. These should be only the auxiliaries, the practical instruments sustaining the dynamic force upon which the League of Nations should rest: a vigilant and informed public opinion that would demand a peaceful solution of disputes by legal judgment or arbitration if possible, but in any case by negotiation and mediation. And this public opinion should be given every chance to speak out whenever dispute arose.

The crux of the whole system was therefore that the states should agree not to resort to arms, not to «go to war», as the new expression had it, but to bind themselves to delay and discussion under the watchful eye of public opinion. Cecil foresaw that governments would reserve the right to insist on unanimity in all decisions, that they would not relinquish their «liberum veto». But, he said, «Since the important thing is to secure delay and open discussion - that is to say, time to enable public opinion to act, and information to instruct it - this is not a serious objection to the proposal.» Here speaks an English parliamentarian who knows that such a system has preserved his country from revolution and has vouchsafed its peaceful development for well-nigh three centuries. He hopes that other nations will follow suit.

If a nation should break its promise by failing to delay action, thus preventing negotiation, or by going to war before allowing a reasonable respite, then the other nations must employ military and economic sanctions against it. Lord Robert, the minister of blockade during the war, attached particular weight to the economic weapon. He spoke of disarmament as a necessary measure, but at that time this decisive component of the system still lay in the back of his mind.

Rather, he strongly emphasized the importance of harmonious international cooperation which he, in complete accord with the ideas of his close friend General Smuts8, wished to entrust to the League of Nations in order to make the latter a permanent and working instrument.

And so, even then, we already have a clear formulation of Cecil's concept of the League of Nations' organization and of its possibilities. In the period which followed, he returned to these essential points again and again.

The first problem was to secure the acceptance of the Covenant of the new League by all the nations. He was in complete agreement with Wilson's conviction that the Covenant must form an integral part of the Peace Treaty itself. This was undoubtedly right. It would have been politically and psychologically unwise to leave the Covenant to be dealt with at some international conference specially called to establish the League. In that event we should not, in all probability, have got a League at all, certainly not a satisfactory one. But it was a high price to pay, for serious complications and setbacks followed. Unfortunately, we seldom get anything for nothing, and nowhere is this more true than in politics.

I shall not expatiate on Cecil's role in the drafting of the Covenant. Suffice it to say that he played a decisive part both as lawyer and as politician. I will only add in passing that his Conservative tradition came into play on just one occasion. He insisted that only the great powers should be represented in the Council of the League, its most important organ, especially with respect to political questions. He saw the League as a development and continuation of the old European Concert. But he soon allowed himself to be persuaded that this would be wrong, and he has since completely abandoned this view.

During the first three years of the League's existence, from 1920 to 1923, Cecil figured prominently in its activities. He had left Lloyd George's ministry immediately after the war and was not among the British delegates to these three assemblies. But General Smuts, who had become his close friend, asked him to represent South Africa in the Assembly. This was indeed fortunate, for he could act with a great measure of freedom. I wonder whether these three years were not among the happiest in Lord Cecil's political and international career.

It was quite clear to him from the very beginning that the League was not a perfect or immutable instrument. It had to be nursed, developed, and made to grow, both quantitatively in its membership and qualitatively in the efficiency of its operation. Lord Cecil stood in those early years at the head of the progressive wing of the League. It is interesting to observe how he systematically took up the points from the program outlined in his Birmingham speech of 1918 and tried to put them into practice.

Above all, he wanted to order the League's work in such a way that it would be pursued in the full light of publicity so that it could be followed, stimulated, and criticized by public opinion and by that most important disseminator of public opinion, the press. With the support of delegates from some of the smaller powers - not least, I am glad to say, the Nordic states, foremost among whose representatives were Hjalmar Branting and Fridtjof Nansen - he forced through the resolution that the Assembly should meet annually; that it should be a fundamental rule that the meetings, both plenary and in committee, should be held in public. Lastly, and most important of all, he managed to introduce something of an innovation in international politics: the Assembly's sessions were to begin each year with a general debate. This is a formal debate based on the secretary-general's annual report, but any subject whatsoever of an international character can be brought to discussion. The Assembly thus became a free tribune.

It is true that not always, indeed too seldom, does a debate lead to genuine understanding based on an exchange of views, with questions and answers; all too often the general debate deteriorates, as is also sometimes the case with debates on the speech from the Throne in our Parliament, to a series of unrelated declarations on various questions. But there have been times when the Assembly has suddenly been ignited by a spark which has brought real fire into the debate.

It was Cecil who, on the third day of the First Assembly, November 17, 1920, opened the general debate. His speech9 was truly notable and I should like to cite some of the points he made. He talked first and at length of the necessity to rouse public opinion to work with, for, and through the League. It was then that he coined a phrase which became not only a slogan but indeed a program: «Publicity is the very lifeblood of the League of Nations.»

But he then went on to speak of the fundamental moral principles which must govern the work of the League. The words he uttered are remarkable coming from a Conservative politician from one of the great powers; Unfortunately they were also prophetic: «Do not let us be afraid of our power. Let us go on from strength to strength. It is not by doing too much that the League is in any danger. The one danger that threatens the League is that it may gradually sink down into a position of respectable mediocrity and useless complication with the diplomatic machinery of the world... We must be ready to take a bold line in the great work of reconciliation and pacification that lies before us.»

He concluded his speech with a few personal words which no one who heard them is likely to forget. «I stand before you as a substitute of General Smuts. Think of that! General Smuts not so many years ago was one of the most redoubtable and successful commanders of the forces of the Boer nation when they were in arms against the British Empire, and I was the son of the Prime Minister who conducted the war on behalf of the British Empire. And yet it now comes about that the General of the Boers goes to the son of the British Prime Minister and asks him to appear before the Assembly of the League of Nations as the best exponent of the General's views on international subjects. How has that result come about? Not by timidity, not by shrinking from a bold action, but by a great act of trust in the Boer people, an act which, I do not hesitate to say, at the moment seemed to me rash and perhaps premature, but which has more than justified itself by its results.» (He is, of course, referring to Campbell-Bannerman's10 dissolution in 1906 of the emergency government imposed on South Africa after the war, and the granting of self-rule as a Dominion.)

«Surely», Cecil continued, «that is an example to us... Do not let us shrink from even strong measures of pacification and reconciliation. Believe me, they will justify themselves in the future. I will say to this Assembly with all the emphasis at my command, let their motto be: ‹Be just and fear not.› »

It would take much too long to review here Lord Robert's work in and for the League of Nations. Let us recall just one or two facts.

The League had in 1920 set up a Permanent Court of International Justice, in accordance with Article 14 of the Covenant, and the first panel of judges was named in 1921. Cecil took an active part in this work and, when it was completed, he reminded the League of the other «article of promise» in the Covenant, Article 8, which requires that disarmament be carried out by means of international agreements. «Disarmament», he said, «is the next great cause with which the League must concern itself.»

And to this cause he devoted great effort. He explored avenues which he thought might provide a short cut, but which sometimes turned out to be blind alleys. But at no time did he lose sight of the goal.

For ten years after joining the new Conservative government under Stanley Baldwin11 in 1923, he was the United Kingdom delegate both in the Council and in the Assembly, although with some interruptions, as for instance during the first Labor government in 1924, «the year of the Geneva Protocol»12. His official position now tied his hands and he no longer possessed the freedom of action which he had enjoyed as representative of his friend and ally General Smuts. He was not always able to sit on the disarmament commissions. It is no secret that he sometimes thought of leaving the Conservative Party, but the bonds which tied him to the party of his forebears proved too strong. He remained in its ranks, representing the British Empire - for example, on the preparatory disarmament commission charged with the study of the technical aspects of the disarmament problem.

Many times during those years he watched with dismay the undermining of the League by the policy supported by certain governments, including his own, which was reducing the League to that «respectable mediocrity» which was, as he had said in his first speech in the Assembly, what he feared most.

The weak policy of the great powers toward Japan in 1931-1932 was a step in this undermining policy, and the last time Cecil attended the Assembly in September, 1932, he delivered a memorable and dynamic speech on the question of disarmament, describing it as a touchstone for the will to peace. If disarmament were once carried through, he said, the international atmosphere would suddenly be transformed. The nations would have cast their ultimate vote for peace. If, on the other hand, they rejected disarmament, the world would sink back into the state of prewar days.

I am inclined to believe that Cecil intended this remarkable speech to mark his farewell to the policy of his party at home. In the House of Lords, where he had sat since he had become Viscount Cecil of Chelwood in 1923, he now took his place on the nonparty cross-benches. There he joined company with the bishops who, of course, hold themselves aloof from party allegiances.

He was again a free man.

Archimedes has said: «Give me a place to stand outside the earth and I will move the earth.»

From the very first, Cecil has worked to obtain a platform outside the League in order to keep it moving. That platform he has sought and found in public opinion. His initiative helped to establish the League of Nations Union13 in Great Britain, an influential organization which has some impressive achievements to its credit. Cecil remains its president to this day.

England's example has been followed in most other countries. Cecil has also been president of the International Federation of the League of Nations Societies14 for two years, the presidency of this organization changing in rotation.

The bitter disappointments of recent years have in no way succeeded in cooling Cecil's ardor. He has been the main instigator of two big attempts to mobilize public opinion in the fight against war and international anarchy.

The first of these was national in character, the so-called «Peace Ballot» of 1934, an unofficial referendum to sound public opinion on the League of Nations. Cecil had planned the program, directed publicity, and was himself an active participant. The optimists had hoped to receive four to five million replies to the five questions put. In actual fact no less than eleven and a half million questionnaires were returned, and it transpired that an overwhelming majority, eleven million, were in favor of the League of Nations, ten and a half million for disarmament, ten million for the use of economic sanctions against an aggressor, 6,780,000 for military sanctions.

The most valuable result of this endeavor was that not only those who had cast their votes but many others besides were led to consider the problem of peace and its solution through the medium of the League of Nations. At the same time public opinion had unmistakably expressed itself in favor of the League of Nations; so when the Baldwin government proclaimed a general election at a time when the Ethiopian crisis was becoming increasingly grave, it was forced to declare itself firmly in favor of the «collective system». We know, unfortunately, that once the election was over and once the government had won its victory, it retreated from the consequences: it chose to abandon the sanctions and to embark instead upon the most gigantic rearmament program that our time has known.

It is common knowledge that this was a painful blow to Lord Cecil. He was now seventy years old; anyone in his position might have been tempted to give up, and a private speech of his suggests that he had come close to losing his fighting spirit.

It is thus all the more admirable that he nevertheless decided to launch a new venture. He had shown that he had the support of British public opinion. Now he took on the difficult task of mobilizing international opinion: together with the French politician Pierre Cot he planned the International Peace Campaign15. It was, so to speak, a «quand même» from the old man.

The movement has achieved considerable success. The support which this new organization has obtained - ranging from conservatives like Cecil himself, his friend Lord Lytton, and other prominent conservatives all over the world, through liberals, radicals, the cooperative movement, and other nonpolitical groups, to socialists and communists - shows how alert public opinion has actually become to the danger of another war. It is the dictators' menacing attack upon world peace in Africa, Spain, and the Far East which has created the need for concentration. Unfortunately the membership of the Campaign is not as comprehensive as one would have wished, for no one living under the dictatorships can give it open support.

The International Peace Campaign does not seek to compete with any of the existing organizations; its object is to unite them in a common front to promote concentrated action. Its program is therefore very moderate. It works for the maintenance of what some years ago was thought to be a lasting basis for international cooperation and peace. It demands, for the strengthening of the «collective system», only two, but two very important, reforms, which in any case already form an integral part of the program set out in the League of Nations Covenant: international disarmament and «establishment within the framework of the League of Nations of effective machinery for remedying international conditions which might lead to war»16.

It is admirable and yet at the same time sad to note that Lord Cecil's last great effort is not only generally consistent with but practically follows word for word the thoughts expressed in his speech at the University of Birmingham nearly twenty years ago. Admirable, because it underlines the unity and continuity in his lifelong work for peace; sad, because it shows that, in the fearful winter which we are experiencing in our international life, it is unhappily necessary to rebuild everything from the ground up. The stone of Sisyphus!

But to the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this year, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, I think we should address the lines of a Danish poet about the hero Sisyphus:

Not the deed fulfilled, but tireless exertion
Shall hear you, O Man, into the ranks of the Heroes.


* Mr. Lange, former secretary-general of the Interparliamentary Bureau and himself a co-recipient of the Peace Prize for 1921, delivered this speech on December 10, 1937, in the auditorium of the Nobel Institute in Oslo. Because of important prior commitments, the laureate was unable to be present at the ceremony. This translation is based on the text in Norwegian in Les Prix Nobel en 1937.

1. Respectively, in 1915-1916 and in 1916-1918.

2. Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil (1830-1903), prime minister (1885-1886; 1886-1892; 1895-1902).

3. Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), prime minister (1868; 1874-1880).

4. Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930), who had been Conservative prime minister (1902-1905) and who was in 1906 the leader of the Opposition.

5. Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928), prime minister (1908-1916).

6. Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933), foreign secretary (1905-1916).

7. David Lloyd George (1863-1945), prime minister (1916-1922).

8. Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950), South African statesman and soldier, prime minister (1919-1924).

9. Original text in League of Nations: The Records of the First Assembly Plenary Meetings, Geneva, 1920, pp. 93-99.

10. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908), British statesman, prime minister (1905-1908).

11. Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947), prime minister (1923-1924; 1924-1929; 1935-1937).

12. The Geneva Protocol condemned wars of aggression and made provision for arbitration, security, and disarmament but was dropped by the League after its rejection in 1925 by the newly elected Conservative government of Great Britain.

13. Founded in 1915, with headquarters in London; Cecil was president from 1923 to 1945.

14. Founded in 1919, with headquarters in Geneva.

15. Founded in March, 1936, in London, with headquarters later established in Geneva; Cot and Cecil were its official presidents.

16. Cecil, A Great Experiment, p. 285.

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

 

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1937
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