Why This 1973 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Was Called The “Worst” Pick Ever

The Nobel Peace Prize awarded 50 years ago to then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho remains one of the most controversial Nobels ever.

Oslo, Norway: The Nobel Peace Prize awarded 50 years ago to then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho remains one of the most controversial Nobels ever. One of the laureates declined the prize, the other didn’t dare travel to Oslo to collect it, and two of the five committee members quit in an uproar.
“A total fiasco,” in the words of Norwegian Nobel historian Asle Sveen.

“It’s the worst prize in the entire history of the Nobel Peace Prize,” he told AFP.

The announcement sent shockwaves around the world on October 16, 1973: the Norwegian Nobel Committee had awarded the prize to Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, North Vietnam’s chief peace negotiator, “for jointly having negotiated a ceasefire in Vietnam in 1973”.

On January 27 that year, the pair had signed the Paris Peace Accords calling for an armistice in Vietnam.

“It wasn’t a peace agreement but a truce that rapidly started to crack,” Sveen said.

Perhaps above all, it was an opportunity for America to withdraw its troops from the quagmire in Vietnam, amid vehement anti-war sentiment at home.

The prize sparked instant controversy.

Two disgruntled members of the Nobel committee resigned, a first in the prize’s history.

In the United States, the New York Times published an editorial about the “Nobel War Prize”, while Harvard University professors wrote to the Norwegian parliament criticising a choice that was “more than a person with a normal sense of justice can take”.

American satirical singer Tom Lehrer said that with the prize, “political satire became obsolete”.

Kissinger, now 100, was a particular target of criticism, accused of causing the war to spill over into neighbouring Cambodia and ordering massive bombings of Hanoi to ramp up the pressure at the negotiating table.

He was also under fire for having backed Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile against democratically elected President Salvador Allende.

‘A bad decision’

Less well-known, Le Duc Tho was also a hardliner who was already laying the groundwork for the invasion of South Vietnam two years later, in 1975.

He is to this day the only person to decline the Nobel Peace Prize.

“When the Paris agreement on Vietnam is respected, guns are silenced and peace is really restored in South Vietnam, I will consider the acceptance of this prize,” he wrote in a telegram to the Peace Prize committee.

Meanwhile, fearing he would be met by angry protests, Kissinger insisted he had to attend a NATO meeting and was unable to pick up the prize in Oslo.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, he tried to send his prize back to the committee, which refused it.

According to the current head of the Nobel Institute Olav Njolstad, the committee’s archived deliberations, recently declassified after 50 years, suggest it hoped the prize would provide the impetus for a lasting peace.

Furthermore, that peace in Vietnam would ease East-West tensions in the rest of the world and help thaw the Cold War.

But, Njolstad admits, “I tend to think it was a bad decision. Usually it’s not a good idea to give prizes to people who have been in charge of war.”

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