Another Nobel Controversy

November 1, 2009

Wittner_Lawrence_smartstuffby Lawrence S. Wittner

The swirling controversy over President Barack Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize brings to mind another controversy that began in October 1985, when the Norwegian committee announced that that year’s prize would go to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).

Soviet-American Cooperation

This global physicians’ movement was initiated in 1979 by Dr. Bernard Lown, a prominent American cardiologist deeply concerned about the spiraling nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union and what it portended for the future.  Approaching the distinguished Soviet cardiologist, Evgenii Chazov, with whom he had had previous professional contacts, Lown sought to convince Chazov that they should build an international physicians movement that would alert the world to the nuclear peril.  Chazov was initially reluctant to involve himself in this venture, for it seemed likely to lead to the sacrifice of the modern hospital he was building and, worst of all, engage him in political difficulties with the Soviet authorities.  Even so, he succumbed to Lown’s pleas and, in late 1980, a small group of U.S. and Soviet physicians laid the groundwork for IPPNW, with Lown and Chazov and co-chairs.

Riding the wave of antinuclear protest during the early 1980s, IPPNW grew dramatically.  By 1985, it had affiliates in 41 nations, with a membership of 135,000 physicians.  Its U.S. affiliate was Physicians for Social Responsibility, which claimed some 37,000 members. As doctors were figures of considerable prestige, the reports, conferences, speeches, and lobbying by IPPNW, its affiliates, and its members on behalf of nuclear disarmament had considerable credibility and impact.  As Chazov feared, he did draw a sour response from Soviet party conservatives.  But he was shielded from their wrath thanks to his role as the personal physician to aging and ill Soviet government officials.

Conservatives Attacked Then Too

In October 1985, when it was announced that IPPNW had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the status of this global physicians’ movement soared.  Irate at this turn of events, conservative parties and portions of the Western communications media launched a blistering attack upon it, charging that Chazov and other Soviet doctors were agents of the Kremlin and that Western doctors were hopeless dupes. In an editorial headed “The Nobel Peace Fraud,” the Wall Street Journal claimed that the Nobel committee had “hit a new low.”  Forbes magazine — which advertised itself as “Capitalist Tool” — charged that “these medicine men are more eager to pounce on Uncle Sam than on the Red Bear.”  It concluded:  “The Norwegian Nobel committee blew it; this year they should’ve taken a powder.”  A headline in the New York Daily News proclaimed “Soviet Propaganda Wins the Prize,” while the Detroit News assailed “Nobel Lunacies.”  Chazov, particularly, was charged with everything from torturing Soviet dissidents to inventing the AIDS virus.

The conservative governments of a number of NATO countries weighed in against IPPNW, with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl appealing to the Nobel Committee to rescind the prize.  When Jakob Sverdrup, the secretary of the Nobel Committee, was asked on German national television if a government had ever before urged that the award be rescinded, he responded affirmatively.  In 1935, he noted, Adolf Hitler had issued an appeal against giving the award to a German pacifist, Carl von Ossietzky, then imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.  Deeply embarrassed, the West German government dropped the issue.

Object Lesson

IPPNW leaders defended the organization’s integrity, but the best rebuttal occurred at the Nobel ceremonies that December.  Lown and Chazov were doing their best to respond to hostile questions at a crowded press conference when a Soviet journalist tumbled to the floor, felled by a cardiac arrest.  Immediately, Lown, Chazov, and other doctors raced to the stricken man’s side, taking turns pounding on his chest and giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  Ultimately, they saved his life.  When the press conference resumed, Lown, shaken but quick-witted, said:  “What you have just seen is a parable of our movement.  When a crisis comes, when life is in danger, Soviet and American physicians cooperate. . . .  We forget ideology, we forget our differences.”  And “the big issue confronting humankind today is sudden nuclear death.”

This dramatic incident rallied support for IPPNW, which pressed forward with its antinuclear campaign — a campaign that made a significant contribution to subsequent nuclear disarmament treaties signed by the major powers.  By late 1988, IPPNW had grown to a federation of physicians’ groups in 61 countries, with over 200,000 members.  It continues its efforts today, as does its U.S. affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility.

With this incident in mind, we should be wary before assailing the considered judgment of the Nobel Committee today, as it once again presents an award to a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament. Indeed, we might ask the conservative critics of awarding the prize to Obama what they have done for peace lately.  And, if they have done nothing — or worse — we might well question their motives. Φ

Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany.  His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

Photo courtesy of: www.albany.edu/history/wittner/

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