Ralph Bunche

Nobel Lecture

Nobel Lecture*, December 11, 1950

Some Reflections on Peace in Our Time

In this most anxious period of human history, the subject of peace, above every other, commands the solemn attention of all men of reason and goodwill. Moreover, on this particular occasion, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Nobel Foundation, it is eminently fitting to speak of peace. No subject could be closer to my own heart, since I have the honour to speak as a member of the international Secretariat of the United Nations.

In these critical times – times which test to the utmost the good sense, the forbearance, and the morality of every peace-loving people – it is not easy to speak of peace with either conviction or reassurance. True it is that statesmen the world over, exalting lofty concepts and noble ideals, pay homage to peace and freedom in a perpetual torrent of eloquent phrases. But the statesmen also speak darkly of the lurking threat of war; and the preparations for war ever intensify, while strife flares or threatens in many localities.

The words used by statesmen in our day no longer have a common meaning. Perhaps they never had. Freedom, democracy, human rights, international morality, peace itself, mean different things to different men. Words, in a constant flow of propaganda – itself an instrument of war – are employed to confuse, mislead, and debase the common man. Democracy is prostituted to dignify enslavement; freedom and equality are held good for some men but withheld from others by and in allegedly “democratic” societies; in “free” societies, so-called, individual human rights are severely denied; aggressive adventures are launched under the guise of “liberation”. Truth and morality are subverted by propaganda, on the cynical assumption that truth is whatever propaganda can induce people to believe. Truth and morality, therefore, become gravely weakened as defences against injustice and war. With what great insight did Voltaire, hating war enormously, declare: “War is the greatest of all crimes; and yet there is no aggressor who does not colour his crime with the pretext of justice.”

To the common man, the state of world affairs is baffling. All nations and peoples claim to be for peace. But never has peace been more continuously in jeopardy. There are no nations today, as in the recent past, insistently clamouring for Lebensraum under the duress of readiness to resort to war. Still the specter of war looms ominously. Never in human history have so many peoples experienced freedom. Yet human freedom itself is a crucial issue and is widely endangered. Indeed, by some peoples, it has already been gained and lost.

Peoples everywhere wish and long for peace and freedom in their simplest and clearest connotations: an end to armed conflict and to the suppression of the inalienable rights of man. In a single generation, the peoples of the world have suffered the profound anguish of two catastrophic wars; they have had enough of war. Who could doubt that the people of Norway – ever peaceful, still deeply wounded from an unprovoked, savage Nazi aggression – wish peace? Who could doubt that all of the peoples of Europe – whose towns and cities, whose peaceful countrysides, have been mercilessly ravaged; whose fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, have been slaughtered and maimed in tragic numbers – wish peace? Who could sincerely doubt that the peoples of the Western hemisphere – who, in the common effort to save the world from barbaric tyranny, came into the two world wars only reluctantly and at great sacrifice of human and material resources – wish peace? Who could doubt that the long-suffering masses of Asia and Africa wish peace? Who indeed, could be so unseeing as not to realize that in modern war victory is illusory; that the harvest of war can be only misery, destruction, and degradation?

If war should come, the peoples of the world would again be called upon to fight it, but they would not have willed it.

Statesmen and philosophers repeatedly have warned that some values – freedom, honour, self- respect – are higher than peace or life itself. This may be true. Certainly, very many would hold that the loss of human dignity and self-respect, the chains of enslavement, are too high a price even for peace. But the horrible realities of modern warfare scarcely afford even this fatal choice. There is only suicidal escape, not freedom, in the death and destruction of atomic war. This is mankind’s great dilemma. The well-being and the hopes of the peoples of the world can never be served until peace – as well as freedom, honour and self-respect – is secure.

The ideals of peace on earth and the brotherhood of man have been expounded by philosophers from earliest times. If human relations were governed by the sagacity of the great philosophers, there would be little danger of war, for in their collective wisdom over the centuries they have clearly charted the course to free and peaceful living among men.

Throughout the ages, however, man has but little heeded the advice of the wise men. He has been – fatefully, if not wilfully – less virtuous, less constant, less rational, less peaceful than he knows how to be, than he is fully capable of being. He has been led astray from the ways of peace and brotherhood by his addiction to concepts and attitudes of narrow nationalism, racial and religious bigotry, greed and lust for power. Despite this, despite the almost continuous state of war to which bad human relations have condemned him, he has made steady progress. In his scientific genius, man has wrought material miracles and has transformed his world. He has harnessed nature and has developed great civilizations. But he has never learned very well how to live with himself. The values he has created have been predominantly materialistic; his spiritual values have lagged far behind. He has demonstrated little spiritual genius and has made little progress toward the realization of human brotherhood. In the contemporary atomic age, this could prove man’s fatal weakness.

Alfred Nobel, a half-century ago, foresaw with prophetic vision that if the complacent mankind of his day could, with equanimity, contemplate war, the day would soon inevitably come when man would be confronted with the fateful alternative of peace or reversion to the Dark Ages. Man may well ponder whether he has not now reached that stage. Man’s inventive genius has so far outreached his reason – not his capacity to reason but his willingness to apply reason – that the peoples of the world find themselves precariously on the brink of total disaster.

If today we speak of peace, we also speak of the United Nations, for in this era, peace and the United Nations have become inseparable. If the United Nations cannot ensure peace, there will be none. If war should come, it will be only because the United Nations has failed. But the United Nations need not fail. Surely, every man of reason must work and pray to the end that it will not fail.

In these critical days, it is a high privilege and a most rewarding experience to be associated with the United Nations – the greatest peace effort in human history. Those who work in and with the organization, perhaps inevitably, tend to develop a professional optimism with regard to the prospects for the United Nations and, therefore, to the prospects for peace. But there is also a sense of deep frustration, which flows from the knowledge that mankind could readily live in peace and freedom and good neighbourliness if there were but a minimum of will to do so. There is the ever present, simple but stark truth that though the peoples long primarily for peace, they may be prodded by their leaders and governments into needless war, which may at worst destroy them, at best lead them once again to barbarism.

The United Nations strives to be realistic. It understands well the frailties of man. It is realized that if there is to be peace in the world, it must be attained through men and with man, in his nature and mores, just about as he now is. Intensive effort is exerted to reach the hearts and minds of men with the vital pleas for peace and human understanding, to the end that human attitudes and relations may be steadily improved. But this is a process of international education, or better, education for international living, and it is at best gradual. Men change their attitudes and habits slowly, and but grudgingly divorce their minds from fears, suspicions, and prejudices.

The United Nations itself is but a cross section of the world’s peoples. It reflects, therefore, the typical fears, suspicions, and prejudices which bedevil human relations throughout the world. In the delegations from the sixty member states and in the international Secretariat in which most of them are represented, may be found individual qualities of goodness and badness, honesty and subterfuge, courage and timorousness, internationalism and chauvinism. It could not be otherwise. Still, the activities of all are within the framework of a great international organization dedicated to the imperative causes of peace, freedom, and justice in the world.

The United Nations, inescapably, is an organization at once of great weakness and great strength.

Its powers of action are sharply limited by the exigencies of national sovereignties. With nationalism per se there may be no quarrel. But narrow, exclusively self-centered nationalism persists as the outstanding dynamic of world politics and is the prime obstacle to enduring peace. The international well-being, on the one hand, and national egocentrism, on the other, are inevitably at cross-purposes. The procedures and processes of the United Nations as a circumscribed international parliament are unavoidably complex and tedious.

The United Nations was established in the hope, if not on the assumption, that the five great powers would work harmoniously toward an increasingly better world order. The existing impasse between West and East and the resultant “cold war” were not foreseen by those who formulated the United Nations Charter in the spring of 1945 in the misleading, but understandably jubilant, atmosphere of war’s triumphant end. Nevertheless, the United Nations has exhibited a fortunate flexibility which has enabled it to adjust to the regrettable circumstances of the discord among the great powers and to continue to function effectively.

Reflecting the hopes and aspirations of all peoples for peace, security, freedom, and justice, the foundations of the United Nations are firmly anchored, and its moral sanctions are strong. It is served by a fully competent international Secretariat which is devoted to the high principles and purposes of the organization. At the head of this Secretariat is the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Trygve Lie1, a great son of Norway, and a man whose name will be writ large in the annals of world statesmanship and peacemaking. No living man has worked more persistently or courageously to save the world from the scourge of war than Trygve Lie.

In its short but turbulent five years, the United Nations, until the past few weeks, at least, has demonstrated a comforting ability to cope with every dangerous crisis that has erupted into violence or threatened to do so. It has never been easily done nor as well as might be hoped for, but the fact remains that it has been done. In these post-war years, the United Nations, in the interest of peace, has been called upon to eliminate the threat of local wars, to stop local wars already underway, and now in Korea, itself to undertake an international police action which amounts to full-scale war. Its record has been impressive. Its interventions have been directly responsible for checking and containing dangerous armed conflicts in Indonesia, Kashmir, and Palestine, and to only a lesser extent in Greece2.

That the United Nations has been able to serve the cause of peace in this way has been due in large measure to the determination of its members to reject the use of armed force as an instrument of national policy, and to the new techniques of international intervention which it has employed. In each instance of a threat to the peace, the United Nations projects itself directly into the area of conflict by sending United Nations representatives to the area for the purpose of mediation and conciliation.

It was as the head of a United Nations mission of this kind that Count Folke Bernadotte3 went to Palestine in the spring of 1948. On his arrival in the Near East, he found the Arabs and Jews locked in a bitter, bloody, and highly emotional war in Palestine. He was armed only with the strong demand of the United Nations that in the interest of world peace the Palestine problem must be settled by peaceful means.

In one of the most brilliant individual feats of diplomatic history, Count Bernadotte, within two weeks of his arrival on the scene of conflict, had negotiated a four weeks’ truce and the guns had ceased firing. In order to supervise that truce, he requested of the Secretary-General and promptly received an international team of civilian and military personnel, numbering some seven hundred men and women. The members of this compact and devoted United Nations “peace army” in Palestine, many of whom were from the Scandinavian countries and all of whom were unarmed, under the early leadership of Count Bernadotte wrote a heroic chapter in the cause of peacemaking4. Their leader, Bernadotte himself, and ten others, gave their lives in this effort. The United Nations and the peace-loving world must ever be grateful to them.

We who had the privilege to serve under the leadership of Count Bernadotte revere his name. He was a great internationalist, a warm-hearted humanitarian, a warrior of unflinching courage in the cause of peace, and a truly noble man. We who carried on after him were inspired by his self-sacrifice and were determined to pay him the one tribute which he would have appreciated above all others – the successful completion of the task which he had begun, the restoration of peace to Palestine.

In Korea, for the first, and it may be fervently hoped, the last time, the United Nations processes of peaceful intervention to settle disputes failed. They failed only because the North Korean regime stubbornly refused to afford them the chance to work and resorted to aggressive force as the means of attaining its ends. Confronted with this, the gravest challenge to its mandate to preserve the peace of the world, the United Nations had no reasonable alternative but to check aggressive national force with decisive international force. This it has attempted to do, and it was enabled to do so only by the firm resolve of the overwhelming majority of its members that the peace must be preserved and that aggression shall be struck down wherever undertaken or by whom5.

By virtue of recent setbacks to United Nations forces in Korea, as a result of the injection of vast numbers of Chinese troops into the conflict, it becomes clear that this resolve of its members has not been backed by sufficient armed strength to ensure that the right shall prevail. In the future, it must be the forces of peace that are overwhelming.

But whatever the outcome of the present military struggle in Korea in which the United Nations and Chinese troops are now locked, Korea provides the lesson which can save peace and freedom in the world if nations and peoples will but learn that lesson, and learn it quickly. To make peace in the world secure, the United Nations must have readily at its disposal, as a result of firm commitments undertaken by all of its members, military strength of sufficient dimensions to make it certain that it can meet aggressive military force with international military force, speedily and conclusively.

If that kind of strength is made available to the United Nations – and under action taken by the General Assembly this fall it can be made available – in my view that strength will never again be challenged in war and therefore need never be employed.

But military strength will not be enough. The moral position of the United Nations must ever be strong and unassailable; it must stand steadfastly, always, for the right.

The international problems with which the United Nations is concerned are the problems of the interrelations of the peoples of the world. They are human problems. The United Nations is entitled to believe, and it does believe, that there are no insoluble problems of human relations and that there is none which cannot be solved by peaceful means. The United Nations – in Indonesia, Palestine, and Kashmir – has demonstrated convincingly that parties to the most severe conflict may be induced to abandon war as the method of settlement in favour of mediation and conciliation, at a merciful saving of untold lives and acute suffering.

Unfortunately, there may yet be some in the world who have not learned that today war can settle nothing, that aggressive force can never be enough, nor will it be tolerated. If this should be so, the pitiless wrath of the organized world must fall upon those who would endanger the peace for selfish ends. For in this advanced day, there is no excuse, no justification, for nations resorting to force except to repel armed attack.

The world and its peoples being as they are, there is no easy or quick or infallible approach to a secure peace. It is only by patient, persistent, undismayed effort, by trial and error, that peace can be won. Nor can it be won cheaply, as the taxpayer is learning. In the existing world tension, there will be rebuffs and setbacks, dangerous crises, and episodes of violence. But the United Nations, with unshakable resolution, in the future as in the past, will continue to man the dikes of peace. In this common purpose, all states, irrespective of size, are vital.

The small nations, which constitute the overwhelming majority in its membership, are a great source of strength for the United Nations. Their desire for peace is deep seated and constant. The fear, suspicion, and conflict which characterize the relations among the great powers, and the resultant uncertainty, keep them and their peoples in a state of anxious tension and suspense. For the relations among the great powers will largely determine their future. A third world war would quickly engulf the smaller states, and many of them would again provide the battlefields. On many of them, now as before, the impact of war would be even more severe than upon the great powers. They in particular, therefore, support and often initiate measures designed to ensure that the United Nations shall be increasingly effective as a practical instrumentality for peace. In this regard, the Scandinavian countries contribute signally to the constructive effort of the United Nations.

One legacy of the recent past greatly handicaps the work of the United Nations. It can never realize its maximum potential for peace until the Second World War is fully liquidated. The impasse between West and East has prevented the great powers from concluding the peace treaties which would finally terminate that last war6. It can be little doubted that the United Nations, if called upon, could afford valuable aid toward this end. At present, the United Nations must work for future peace in the unhappy atmosphere of an unconcluded great war, while precluded from rendering any assistance toward the liquidation of that war. These, obviously, are matters of direct and vital concern to all peace-loving nations, whatever their size.

At the moment, in view of the disturbing events in Korea and Indo-China7, the attention of a fearful world is focused on Asia, seeking an answer to the fateful question “peace or war?” But the intrinsic importance of Europe in the world peace equation cannot be ignored. The peace of Europe, and therefore of the world, can never be secure so long as the problem of Germany remains unsolved.

In this regard, those who at the end of the last war were inclined to dismiss Europe as a vital factor in reckoning the future security and prosperity of the world, have had to revise their calculations. For Europe, grievously wounded though it was, has displayed a remarkable resiliency and has quickly regained its place in the orbit of world affairs.

But Europe, and the Western world generally, must become fully aware that the massive and restive millions of Asia and Africa are henceforth a new and highly significant factor in all peace calculations. These hitherto suppressed masses are rapidly awakening and are demanding, and are entitled to enjoy, a full share in the future fruits of peace, freedom, and security.

Very many of these millions are experiencing a newfound freedom. Many other millions are still in subject status as colonials. The aspirations and demands of those who have achieved freedom and those who seek it are the same: security, treatment as equals, and their rightful place in the brotherhood of nations.

It is truer today than when Alfred Nobel realized it a half-century ago, that peace cannot be achieved in a vacuum. Peace must be paced by human progress. Peace is no mere matter of men fighting or not fighting. Peace, to have meaning for many who have known only suffering in both peace and war, must be translated into bread or rice, shelter, health, and education, as well as freedom and human dignity – a steadily better life. If peace is to be secure, long-suffering and long-starved, forgotten peoples of the world, the underprivileged and the undernourished, must begin to realize without delay the promise of a new day and a new life.

In the world of today, Europe, like the rest of the West, is confronted with the urgent necessity of a new orientation – a global orientation. The pre-war outlook is as obsolete as the pre-war world. There must be an awakening to the incontestable fact that the far away, little known and little understood peoples of Asia and Africa, who constitute the majority of the world’s population, are no longer passive and no longer to be ignored. The fury of the world ideological struggle swirls about them. Their vast numbers will prove a dominant factor in the future world pattern of life. They provide virgin soil for the growth of democracy, but the West must first learn how to approach them understandingly and how to win their trust and friendship. There is a long and unsavory history of Western imperialism, suppression, and exploitation to be overcome, despite the undenied benefits which the West also brought to them. There must be an acceleration in the liquidation of colonialism. A friendly hand must be extended to the peoples who are labouring under the heavy burden of newly won independence, as well as to those who aspire to it. And in that hand must be tangible aid in generous quantity – funds, goods, foodstuffs, equipment, technical assistance.

There are great issues demanding resolution in the world: the clash of the rather loosely defined concepts and systems of capitalism and communism; the radically contrasting conceptions of democracy, posing extreme views of individualism against extreme views of statism; the widespread denials of human rights; the understandable impatience of many among some two hundred million colonial peoples for the early realization of their aspirations toward emancipation; and others.

But these are issues which in no sense may be considered as defying solution. The issue of capitalism versus communism is one of ideology which in the world of today cannot, in fact, be clearly defined. It cannot be clearly defined because there are not two worlds, one “capitalist” and one “communist”. There is but one world – a world of sharp clashes, to be sure – with these two doctrines at the opposite ideological poles. In between these extremes are found many gradations of the two systems and ideologies.

There is room in the world for both capitalism and communism and all gradations of them, providing only that neither system is set upon pursuing an aggressively imperialistic course.

The United Nations is opposed to imperialism of any kind, ideological or otherwise. The United Nations stands for the freedom and equality of all peoples, irrespective of race, religion, or ideology. It is for the peoples of every society to make their own choices with regard to ideologies, economic systems, and the relationship which is to prevail between the state and the individual. The United Nations is engaged in an historic effort to underwrite the rights of man. It is also attempting to give reassurance to the colonial peoples that their aspirations for freedom can be realized, if only gradually, by peaceful processes.

There can be peace and a better life for all men. Given adequate authority and support, the United Nations can ensure this. But the decision really rests with the peoples of the world. The United Nations belongs to the people, but it is not yet as close to them, as much a part of their conscious interest, as it must come to be. The United Nations must always be on the people’s side. Where their fundamental rights and interests are involved, it must never act from mere expediency. At times, perhaps, it has done so, but never to its own advantage nor to that of the sacred causes of peace and freedom. If the peoples of the world are strong in their resolve and if they speak through the United Nations, they need never be confronted with the tragic alternatives of war or dishonourable appeasement, death, or enslavement.

Amidst the frenzy and irrationality of a topsy-turvy world, some simple truths would appear to be self-evident.

As Alfred Nobel finally discerned, people are never deterred from the folly of war by the stark terror of it. But it is nonetheless true that if in atomic war there would be survivors, there could be no victors. What, then, could war achieve which could not be better gained by peaceful means? There are, to be sure, vital differences and wide areas of conflict among the nations, but there is utterly none which could not be settled peacefully – by negotiation and mediation – given a genuine will for peace and even a modicum of mutual good faith.

But there would appear to be little hope that efforts to break the great power impasse could be very fruitful in the current atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and mutual recrimination. Fear, suspicion, and recrimination in the relations among nations tend to be dangerously self-compounding. They induce that national hysteria which, in its rejection of poise and rationality, can itself be the fatal prelude to war. A favourable climate for peaceful negotiation must be created and can only be created by painstaking, unremitting effort. Conflicting parties must be led to realize that the road to peace can never be traversed by threatening to fight at every bend, by merely being armed to the teeth, or by flushing every bush to find an enemy. An essential first step in a civilized approach to peace in these times would call for a moratorium on recrimination and reproach.

There are some in the world who are prematurely resigned to the inevitability of war. Among them are the advocates of the so-called “preventive war”, who, in their resignation to war, wish merely to select their own time for initiating it. To suggest that war can prevent war is a base play on words and a despicable form of warmongering. The objective of any who sincerely believe in peace clearly must be to exhaust every honourable recourse in the effort to save the peace. The world has had ample evidence that war begets only conditions which beget further war.

In the final analysis, the acid test of a genuine will to peace is the willingness of disputing parties to expose their differences to the peaceful processes of the United Nations and to the bar of international public opinion which the United Nations reflects. It is only in this way that truth, reason, and justice may come to prevail over the shrill and blatant voice of propaganda; that a wholesome international morality can be cultivated.

It is worthy of emphasis that the United Nations exists not merely to preserve the peace but also to make change – even radical change – possible without violent upheaval. The United Nations has no vested interest in the status quo. It seeks a more secure world, a better world, a world of progress for all peoples. In the dynamic world society which is the objective of the United Nations, all peoples must have equality and equal rights. The rights of those who at any given time may be in the minority – whether for reasons of race, religion, or ideology – are as important as those of the majority, and the minorities must enjoy the same respect and protection. The United Nations does not seek a world cut after a single pattern, nor does it consider this desirable. The United Nations seeks only unity, not uniformity, out of the world’s diversity.

There will be no security in our world, no release from agonizing tension, no genuine progress, no enduring peace, until, in Shelley’s fine words, “reason’s voice, loud as the voice of nature, shall have waked the nations”.

* The laureate delivered this lecture in the Auditorium of the University of Oslo. The text, taken from Les Prix Nobel en 1950, is that of the full version of the lecture; collation with the tape recording shows that it was considerably shortened in delivery.

1. Trygve Lie (1896-1968), prominent Norwegian lawyer and statesman; first UN secretary-general (1946-1953).

2. For accounts of these conflicts and of others in the early years of the UN, see Clark M. Eichelberger, UN: The First Fifteen Years (New York: Harper, 1960).

3. Count Folke Bernadotte (1895-1948), Swedish humanitarian, president of the Swedish Red Cross.

4. See Ralph Hewins, Count Folke Bernadotte: His Life and Work (London: Hutchinson, 1950).

5. North Korea invaded South Korea in June, 1950, and was declared an aggressor by the UN Security Council; UN troops (a unified command under the U.S.) were sent to repel the attack after North Korea ignored the UN call for a cessation of
hostilities; in November, 1950, Chinese Communists entered the war, which continued until an armistice was signed in July, 1953.

6. Nor have they been concluded as of 1971.

7. Indo-China’s struggle for emancipation from French rule, successful in 1954 had reached a critical stage at the time of the laureate’s lecture.

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

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