Philip Noel-Baker’s Acceptance Speech, on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, December 10, 1959
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Mr. Chairman, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:
How can I fulfill what must always be the first duty of every man or woman who stands where I stand now?
Perhaps I can do it most simply, but most adequately, by saying that there is none in the world with whom I would exchange my place today.
There has come to me what I have always counted as the greatest of the honours which men bestow; it has come to me in the lovely capital of a beloved country, mantled now in Christmas snow; it has come by the decision of your Nobel Committee of wise and most distinguished men.
What more could any man or woman ask of Fate?
May I also express my deep gratitude for the generous hospitality with which Your Majesty, and Norway, have received me since I arrived? There is nothing in the world like a Norwegian welcome.
I am much embarrassed by the fact that after so many months as a guest in Norway over so many years, I cannot answer Mr. Gunnar Jahn in the Norwegian tongue. It is true that my friend, Toralv Öksnevad, in a dark hour of the war, not once, but twice and even thrice, made me broadcast in Norwegian to his captive compatriots at home. Desperate things are done in war-time.
But if I tried now, I should have to use the words of Sir Winston Churchill when he spoke to 100 000 Frenchmen in the streets of Paris after the City had been liberated in 1944. “Prenez garde”, he said; “I am about to speak to you in French. It is a formidable undertaking, which will impose a heavy strain upon your friendship for Great Britain”.
How heavy the strain could be, he once showed in an early conversation with General de Gaulle, soon after the General had raised the Free French flag in London. “Mon General”, he is reported to have said, “si vous m’opposerez, je vous liquidaterai”.
My excuse for speaking English now is the reason why I have never been able to learn Norwegian: I have never had the chance to try, for everyone in Norway seems to me to speak English at least as well as, and often rather better, than I do myself.
But it would be easy in any language to extol the merits of the Founder of the Nobel Prize. Alfred Nobel was, by every test, one of the great men of his own day; but the recognition of his greatness is more universal now, than when he died; we know now that he had all the passion and the vision which the world required in his time, and which it still so urgently requires today.
Nobel was a chemist; a leader in a magical new science then forging rapidly ahead; like other scientists and inventors, he discovered, without the slightest premonition on his part that it would be so, that the products of his genious could be used for war.
The General Staffs seized eagerly upon his high explosive, and used them to increase the fire-power, and the offensive power, of their armies and their fleets. Watching this rapid and competitive expansion of the military forces which the Governments maintained, Nobel sought consolation in the hope that his explosives might prove to be the “great deterrent” that would end all war.
But he had a doubt; a doubt that many people feel about our modern “great deterrent” now. He knew he could not be certain that, by increasing the slaughter and the devastation caused by war, his explosives would bring armed conflict to an end.
Before most of his generation, he perceived that, historically, war was already long out-of-date; that science and engineering had destroyed the barriers of time and space; that the Arms Race by creating distrust and fear, must obscure the peoples’ understanding of where their true interests lay; that War, if it should come, might imperil, or indeed destroy, the great achievements, in literature, in medicine, in science, which our Western civilization had begun to show.
With this magnificent conception of human glory in his mind, he devoted his great fortune to promote the pursuit of knowledge, of beauty, and of wisdom, and which should combat what he thought the deadly foolishness of war.
What a superb example to others of his generation; how tragic that these others did not follow where he led!
Suppose that Krupps, and the Hugenberg Konzern, and the Comité des Forges and others had combined with Nobel to use their power to promote the cause of peace: how different the course of history might have been!
But in Scandinavia, at least, Nobel’s victory was complete. I remember, with grateful admiration, how, year by year, Norwegian delegations to the League of Nations, led by Fridtjof Nansen, and with Mr. Hambro, Dr. Christian Lange, Mr. Koht, Dr. Worm-Müller, Ambassador Andvord, Ambassador Skylstad and many other eminent leaders who are gone, came to Geneva to stand with splendid courage for the principles in which Alfred Nobel had believed; how, year by year, their cooperation with the Swedish and the Danish delegations, with Branting and Östen Undén, grew ever closer; how, year by year, the influence of the Scandinavian bloc increased.
If the League of Nations came close to full success, as history will record it did, it owed very much to that cooperation, which Alfred Nobel first inspired.
Now the excitement and the early vision may seem less, but the Scandinavian work still faithfully and persistently goes on; now its doctrines are declared by the leading rulers of the world.
It was President Eisenhower who said that: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”
That was the essence of what Alfred Nobel believed three-quarters of a century ago.
Surely we may hope that this grotesque and tragic paradox may be ended soon.
I have been ten years a Minister of the British Crown, in peace and war; I know the heavy forces of inertia which must be moved, to carry even the smallest of reforms. But I still believe in the saving power of human wisdom. And Norway, to its lovers, is not only a land of romance, of mystery and beauty; it is a land of democratic inspiration and of world-wide hope. May there be born in Norway a great new tidal movement of opinion, with perhaps some modern Nobel, which will bear the nations forward to the salvation they so ardently desire.
Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.