Nobel Prizes and Laureates

The Nobel Peace Prize 1959
Philip Noel-Baker

Share this:

Award Ceremony Speech

Presentation Speech by Gunnar Jahn*, Chairman of the Nobel Committee

Frequently when the storm clouds gather - perhaps for that very reason - the world is made aware of the forces of good, rallying to meet the threatened danger. The dark years of this century in Europe started in 1914 and are still with us. Throughout this span of time, for forty-five years, Philip John Noel-Baker has dedicated his efforts to the service of suffering humanity, whether in time of war or in the intervals between wars. But above all else, his efforts to prevent war breaking out have been tireless and ceaseless.

We saw Philip Noel-Baker as a young man serving in the Quaker Ambulance Unit in France and Italy during the First World War; we saw him, standing at Fridtjof Nansen's side during the latter's great work of relief in Russia and Greece. He continued after the Second World War to try to solve the refugee problem that the war had created. And throughout this time, ever since the armistice of 1918, we have heard him proclaiming the cause of disarmament and peace. What disappointments we have suffered since then; and yet, not for a moment did it occur to Noel-Baker to abandon hope that in the future it would be possible to find a solution to political conflicts, not by arms, but through negotiation.

Philip Noel-Baker is probably today the man who possesses the greatest store of knowledge on the subject of disarmament and who best knows the difficulties involved. In his latest book, published in 1958, The Arms Race, which he has called A Programme for World Disarmament, he has pointed out the way we should go.

We detect in Philip Noel-Baker scarcely a trace of ambition for himself. For him the cause, and it alone, matters. If that can be furthered, it is a matter of indifference to him who gets the credit.

So marked is this selfless and idealistic attitude that it is difficult to explain unless one knows something about the milieu in which he was brought up.

For generations his family has belonged to the Society of Friends, or Quakers. His father, Joseph Allen Baker, was born in Canada, where the family had emigrated from Ireland in 1819. In the late 1870's Allen Baker was sent by his father to England to take charge of a newly established branch of the family business. There he married the deeply religious Elizabeth Balmer Moscrip. Their son, Philip John, was born in 1889. Allen Baker's life in England helps to explain the milieu which must have been largely responsible for shaping his son's character and selfless, constructive attitude to life.

Inspired by the Quakers' feeling of responsibility for brothers in need and by their eagerness to help, Allen Baker devoted his time to a wide range of welfare activities in the London familiar to us after the end of the nineteenth century. He came into close contact with the London slums, establishing schools and even teaching personally those who could not read and write, as well as working for improved housing, temperance, and better traffic conditions. In the course of time this work led to his becoming a member of the London County Council. From 1900 to 1918 he was a member of Parliament where he was to be found in the radical wing of the Liberal Party. As a politician he devoted most of his time to work for peace. As the fatal year of 1914 loomed ominously near, he was indefatigable in his work to forge links between peace lovers in all countries. With his religious background and approach, he considered it essential that Christians in different countries should unite to oppose war, especially those in Germany and England. Allen Baker's efforts proved in vain, and 1914 arrived. Instead of giving way to doubts and dismay, he was inspired anew by Woodrow Wilson's idea of a League of Nations.

There is little doubt that the influence and inspiration of a cultured and harmonious family life, with father and mother working selflessly to help those in need, inevitably left their mark on the son's attitude to life.

Philip Noel-Baker had the advantage of an academic education, something his father had lacked all his life. His schooling commenced at a Quaker school in York. In 1906, at the age of seventeen, he studied at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and from 1908 to 1912 he was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. His major subject was international law, in which he has a degree. He also studied at the Sorbonne and in Munich during the year preceding the First World War. He was Cassel Professor of International Relations at London University from 1924 to 1929.

I have mentioned his education because his academic schooling was to have considerable influence on his later work. In all he has said and written he has never succumbed to the temptation of making a statement that was not well founded on meticulous documentation. He never brushes the arguments of his opponents aside, but submits them to an unbiased examination and criticism. He endeavors to understand those who do not agree with him; he does not censure their views; and only after he has proved that their position is untenable does he deliver judgment.

Noel-Baker was twenty-six years old when the First World War began. As a Quaker he was against taking an active part in the war. He formed the Quakers' Ambulance Unit and served in it himself behind the front lines in France. In Italy he served with the British Ambulance Unit under Trevelyan1.

Noel-Baker's entire bent of mind, his upbringing, his experience of war - all these things must inevitably have drawn him, as soon as the war was over, to the work directed at righting some of the wrongs created by the war. Above all he must have felt himself called upon to do everything in his power to prevent any new wars. It was therefore natural that he should seek association with the new international organization, the League of Nations.

Those who never knew the years after the First World War will find it hard to realize how many hopes were pinned to the League of Nations. For the first time an association of states had been formed, an institution whose aim was the prevention of war and the promotion of international cooperation in every possible sphere, especially in welfare, in health, and in the economic area. Many people saw in the League an instrument for creating a new age, even though such countries as Russia, Germany, and the United States were not members. The League, they believed, would realize a hope which most people at that time cherished, the hope that this had been the war to end war.

Soon after the cessation of hostilities, Noel-Baker was posted to the section of the Foreign Office dealing with plans for the League of Nations. In 1919 he accompanied Sir Robert Cecil as his secretary to the peace negotiations in Paris. He assisted in drafting the Covenant of the League of Nations and of the International Labor Organization. Shortly afterwards he was appointed head of the Mandate Section of the League of Nations.

In 1920 an important era in Noel-Baker's life began. This was the year his work with Fridtjof Nansen started, work which was to last as long as Nansen lived. There is no need for me to mention Nansen's tremendous humanitarian work in Russia, in Greece, and in Asia Minor. This is known to all of us. But I should like to emphasize that in all this work Noel-Baker participated, not only as a helper, but as Nansen's friend. I have had the opportunity of going through some of the correspondence between these two men during this period, and it sheds a great deal of light on the contribution made by Noel-Baker. He worked unobtrusively, away from the glare of publicity, continuing to act as Nansen's adviser during the years the latter represented Norway in the League of Nations. Writing to him in 1927, Nansen says:

My dear Baker,
   I feel ashamed. I should have written to you long ago to thank you with all my heart for your coming to Geneva and for the splendid help you gave me. You know well enough what it means for me, but it was always like that. I do not know how I could have got on without you. Of course, all I have done in the League has been done with you, and could not have been done without you, at least not in the manner it was achieved. And so it has been from the very beginning and till now. Oh dear friend, how much you have done for me and for the League during many years and how much time you have given to it.
   I only wish this work for others could give you more personal satisfaction. It is well enough to work unselfishly for high ideals, but still, as we live in this world, it would be gratifying, at least to others, to see the workers get their due.

Here in Norway we are too apt to think of Noel-Baker only as Nansen's assistant and friend. But this part of his life is only one of many chapters. From the time the letter I have quoted was written and up to the present, more than three decades have passed, years which for Noel-Baker have been filled with unflagging work for disarmament.

Although Noel-Baker spent a comparatively short time as an official of the League of Nations, he continued actively in the work of the League, first as Sir Robert Cecil's personal adviser at the meetings of the Council and in the Assembly, later in disarmament work as adviser to Arthur Henderson, and finally in the Disarmament Commission from 1931 to 1933. He also followed the work of the League of Nations in other fields.

He has recorded his experiences and his personal views on the major questions under discussion at that time, in his books The Geneva Protocol (1925), Disarmament (1926), The Coolidge Conference (1927), and The Private Manufacture of Armaments (1936).

Which of us today remembers the Geneva Protocol2 and the discussions it aroused? Then, as now, it was the fear of handing over any part of one's national sovereignty, as well as the misgivings of the experts, that killed the Protocol. The situation at that time was such that the Protocol might have laid the basis for arbitration and confidence, which in turn would have facilitated disarmament. As Noel-Baker himself writes: «Our generation must get rid of the militarization of the world, and above all of Europe, which the preceding generation thrust upon it. It is a deep-rooted and malignant disease for which palliatives do not suffice, and of which civilized society may die if it be not ended.»3

But the Protocol, which was truly a step in the right direction, was quietly shelved and left to molder with other documents, for, then as now, Noel-Baker's words applied: «Those who believe that international institutions can be made and have been made to work, want now to go forward. Those who doubt it, hesitate.»4 It was the latter who triumphed on this occasion.

In his book Disarmament, Noel-Baker discusses all the aspects of the question and expresses the view that international disarmament lies within the bounds of possibility. Being the realist that he is, however, he devotes considerable space to the difficulties which disarmament will encounter, chief among them being the acceptance of reciprocal control. He says: «It will no doubt be thought by many that such a scheme will never, in fact, be generally accepted, because it would involve a sacrifice of military liberty to which no Government in present-day conditions, can be expected to agree.»5

To those who hold this opinion he replies: «And are there not new overriding interests, which, for all Governments, now that a great new international policy is by their common consent to be adopted, should come before the old shibboleths of freedom and secrecy in military preparation-shibboleths which, so far, be it noted, have failed to bring us security from war?»6

In his book The Private Manufacture of Armaments, Noel-Baker has collected a wealth of material to reveal the role this industry has played. At that time a great many people believed that private ownership of the armaments industry was a material factor in provoking rearmament. They maintained that, once private ownership could be abolished and the armaments industry run by the state, one of the most important reasons for the armaments race would be removed. Developments have shown that the situation has hardly improved with the state as owner. But Noel-Baker's book points out that the reason the private armaments industry played as important a role as it did, was that it worked hand in glove with the government of the country. Then, as now, it was the policy of the state that proved decisive.

All that Noel-Baker has written reflects his tremendous depth of knowledge, and the soundness, shrewdness, and eminent common sense of his views give his books a value far beyond the age in which they were written.

And yet, it is not through his writing but in his personal activities that Noel-Baker has made his greatest contribution. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that he has had some share in practically all the work that has been carried out to promote international understanding in its widest sense, and this is true of him both as a private individual and as a representative of his country. It would be impossible to do full justice to his manifold activities in this connection without recapitulating in detail important sections of the history of the League of Nations and of international politics during the interwar years, a task that would make my speech interminable.

In 1929 Noel-Baker was elected to the House of Commons as a Labor member, and in the 1930's he was one of the Labor Party's foremost spokesmen in advancing the view that England, in her foreign policy, should follow the lines laid down by the League of Nations. This attitude was reflected, as on other occasions, in his bitter resistance to the suggestion that England should abandon her sanctions against Italy after Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia7. He was against England's policy of nonintervention in the Spanish Civil War8, and he criticized the vacillating attitude of the British government toward nazism. He was himself a member of a group, led by Churchill, which tried to organize resistance against Fascist and Nazi encroachment. In order to give moral support to threatened nations, he visited Czechoslovakia as a representative of the Labor Party, and subsequently Finland. In his own country, Noel-Baker helped to found the League of Nations Union and was one of the most active members of the peace movement, which enjoyed tremendous support in the 1930's.

But in the 1920's and 1930's, Noel-Baker's work was still focused in and around the League of Nations. Few, if any, have done so much to make the League of Nations known, and to get people to understand its significance and to support it. In his excellent little book The League of Nations at Work, published in 1926, he has provided a clear account of the idea behind the League of Nations, its organization and its work, and what it had achieved up to that time. He long sustained a hopeful faith in the League's importance for the future. He says: «It is fair to hope, then, that in the institutions of the League there is a sound foundation for whatever more complicated system of international government the future may require.»9 But he does not ignore the possibility that such hope may come to nothing: «But there is one doubt about the future of the League which may give pause even to the most hopeful of observers. It is this: Will its institutions be given a real chance to build up their strength before the catastrophe of a new world war sweeps them all away? Will the forces of international cooperation and of mutual confidence which the League is bringing into life be strong enough to hold in check the forces of militarism, hatred, suspicion, and revenge?»10

As we all know, the League of Nations was swept away by nazism and Hitler. There are many today who have forgotten the work of the League of Nations, and there are those who reproach the League for failing to hold in check the storm that was brewing in the 1930's. This has made them pessimistic and has robbed them of faith in the future. What's the use? they ask.

Noel-Baker has refused to give way to pessimism and despondency.

Although he was forced to watch so much that he had worked hard for during most of his adult years crumble away before his eyes, he has, since 1945, set out once again to do battle for the selfsame ideals that the League of Nations represented.

In 1942 he had been made a member of Churchill's government, and in 1945 he served under Attlee11. He was named British representative on the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations Organization. With his wealth of experience from the League of Nations, he exercised considerable influence on the form given to the recommendations which laid the groundwork for the organization of the United Nations and its various sections and of the separate organizations affiliated with it, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization. He also promoted the establishment of the International Refugee Organization (IRO), and submitted proposals for setting up a separate economic commission for Europe12 - to mention some of his more outstanding achievements.

During this period he acted as a member of the British government, but there is no doubt that he was personally responsible to a large extent for the wording and form of many of the proposals, and he must be credited with the fact that they were taken up by the British side.

His work as a member of the British government covers a great deal more than this. It was Noel-Baker who directed negotiations with India, Ireland, and Newfoundland, and it is widely accepted that he was largely responsible for the successful issue of negotiations with India, which probably constituted the most important of these problems.

It would be impossible to go into all the international missions Noel-Baker has had. Let me merely mention that he participated actively in the work of the relief organization UNRRA13, and that he represented the United Kingdom in work in the World Health Organization and in the UN Economic and Social Council.

When Attlee's government went out of office, Noel-Baker's work as a representative of his country's government was at an end. But as a member of the Labor «shadow cabinet» he has played an important role, proving to be one of the leading Opposition speakers on questions of foreign policy. We vividly recall his speech during the debate on the Suez action of 1956, which he strongly condemned, chiefly because the British government had acted on its own without having recourse to the United Nations14.

In 1958 appeared what I think we are justified in calling Noel-Baker's most important work, The Arms Race. In it he deals with every aspect of the disarmament problem. With its sound and expert reasoning and its carefully supported appraisals of the difficulties to be encountered in any attempt to solve the problem of disarmament, this book makes a profound impression. It is impossible in a few words to give an adequate idea of this work, of the author's vivid description of the arms race and of the arms of modern times, not only of those which go by the common name of nuclear weapons, but also of chemical and biological weapons.

He traces all the attempts that have been made to reach an agreement on disarmament since the First World War and describes the repeated efforts to find an effective system of control acceptable to all parties. He shows how all these attempts failed because of lack of trust and because no one was willing to accept outside supervision within his own country.

While Noel-Baker is of the opinion that up to 1955 the Soviet attitude was responsible for this failure, he is inclined to think that the West has subsequently proved too adamant in its demands. We should, he maintains, believe that the Soviet Union today is in earnest when it states that it is prepared to disarm.

Disarmament must be complete and must include all kinds of weapons if it is to be effective. In his book Noel-Baker deals with the possibilities that exist for carrying out effective control, and makes a number of definite and concrete proposals, not only for disarmament, but also for mutual control. Instead of dismissing the objections that are made, he counters them with pertinent facts. Above all he believes that we must accept the risk that a control system may not prove to be completely watertight, since this risk is a small one compared to that involved in merely drifting aimlessly along as we are doing today. Noel-Baker emphasizes the importance of developing any system of collective security through the United Nations. Nowhere in this book, or in explaining his views, does he fail to back up his statements with well-founded facts.

Noel-Baker repeatedly emphasizes that the arms race in itself is one of the main causes of war. If one country arms, the confidence of other countries is undermined, and their feeling of being in danger is increased. As a result, they, in their turn, proceed to arm, for no government dare jeopardize its country's safety by failing to take the necessary precautions which are a direct consequence of its neighbors' arming to the teeth. In this way the arms race is kept going in every country. Insofar as possible, he uses statistics to show how the tempo of this race has accelerated in recent years.

In view of the tremendous fund of experience he has gained from working with these very problems in the interwar years, it would be naive to believe that Noel-Baker is convinced that the problem of disarmament is easily solved. The main point is that he considers it within the realm of possibility.

As we all know, disarmament today depends primarily on whether West and East can agree to a control system. Noel-Baker believes that the possibility of this coming about is greater today than at any time since 1945. His optimism has been strengthened by conversations he had in 1958 in Moscow with Khrushchev and Mikoyan15. From them he received the impression that they are in earnest when they speak of disarmament. But he says: «Their sincerity can only be tested by offering them the detailed text of a controlled disarmament system that would translate into reality the measures which they say they will accept.»16

Some people have accused Noel-Baker of being too starry-eyed in his attitude to the disarmament problem. To such critics he says: «No one who has closely followed disarmament negotiations since 1919 is likely to be guilty of facile optimism about the prospect of success. But no one who understands the present arms race should be guilty of facile pessimism, which is by far the graver fault. Defeatism about the feasibility of plans for disarmament and ordered peace has been the most calamitous of all the errors made by democratic governments in modern times.»17

There will always be pessimists among us, people filled with misgivings.

These are seldom the people who improve the world. This can be done only if hope and faith stimulate men to new attempts when old attempts fail, and to new ways and means when old ways and means do not succeed.

Philip Noel-Baker is a man cast in this mold. Throughout his life he has been true to the high ideal of the Quakers - to help his fellowmen, without regard to race or creed; he has striven to build a world in which violence and arms are no longer necessary in the struggle for existence, either among men or among nations.

Throughout the years, despite disappointments and setbacks, Philip John Noel-Baker has never admitted defeat, but has looked steadfastly to the future, toward a new and better world.

* Mr. Jahn delivered this speech on December 10, 1959, in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo just before presenting the prize to the laureate, who responded with a brief speech of acceptance. The English translation of Mr. Jahn's speech used here is, with certain editorial changes and some emendations made after collation with the Norwegian text, that published in Les Prix Nobel en 1959, which also carries the original Norwegian text.

1. George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876-1967), well-known English historian and Cambridge professor, commanded a British ambulance unit in Italy (1915-1918).

2. The Geneva Protocol (1924), condemning aggressive war and providing for security as well as for arbitration in disputes, was dropped by the League of Nations after its rejection by Great Britain in 1925.

3. Noel Baker, The Geneva Protocol, p. 193.

4. Ibid.

5. Disarmament, p.322.

6. Ibid., p.323.

7. In 1935.

8. 1936-1939.

9. The League of Nations at Work, p. 128.

10. Ibid., p. 129.

11. Clement R. Attlee (1883-1967), British statesman and Labor Party leader; prime minister (1945-1951).

12. The Economic Commission for Europe (which includes all European members of the UN plus the U.S.), was established in 1947 by the UN Economic and Social Council as one of four regional economic commissions, the others being for Asia and the Far East, Latin America, and Africa.

13. United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (1943-1947 [until 1949 in China]) whose work was taken over by FAO and IRO.

14. Following Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal and an Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956, troops were sent by Great Britain and France to guarantee free passage through the Canal which, it was claimed, was threatened by the Arab-Israeli hostilities; the troops were removed shortly thereafter when the UN took action.

15. Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (1894-1971) and Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan (1895- ), Russian Communist leaders, were respectively Soviet premier and first deputy premier in 1958.

16. The Arms Race, p. 562.

17. Ibid.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1951-1970, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1959
Share this:
To cite this page
MLA style: "The Nobel Peace Prize 1959 - Presentation Speech". Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 17 Apr 2014. <>


Disarm the world with the help of peace doves!


On 27 November 1895 Alfred Nobel signed his last will in Paris.


All you need to know about the Nobel Peace Prize!