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Why Le Duc Tho refused his Nobel Peace Prize

On Friday, the BBC’s website published the very surpising claim that in 1973 Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho rejected his Nobel Peace Prize “without explanation”.

It’s surprising because Le Duc Tho wrote to the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee at the time giving clear and precise reasons for rejecting the prize and these reasons were widely reported. I had thought this was common knowledge, but since it apparently isn’t I’ve transcribed (without permission) a New York Times article which included an unofficial translation of Le Duc Tho’s letter.

The decision to give the 1973 prize to Henry Kissinger (along with Tho) was probably the most controversial in the Norwegian committee’s history - two of its members resigned in protest. My own view is that it was akin to a serial killer saying that sometime in the near future he will stop killing people in Iowa. Instead of being arrested for murder, he is given a million dollars and a special award for saving lives. Just before the money and award are presented, he kills a whole load of people in Oregon - after all, he never said he wouldn’t kill anyone there - and, over the next few years, continues to commit mass murder in various other states.

Incidentally, this year’s winner, Liu Xiaobo, has cited the Vietnam War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq as two of the many positive examples of the United States’ idealism and support for freedom around the world.

So here is the New York Times article from October 1973 giving Le Duc Tho’s reasons for rejecting his Nobel prize, followed by an Op-Ed (also copied without permission) by Bronson P. Clark, of the American Friends Service Committee.

Usually I disapprove of posting entire articles (translations are a different matter), but in this case I think the two pieces deserve to be taken out from behind their paywall and made more widely available.

Tho Rejects Nobel Prize, Citing Vietnam Situation
By Flora Lewis

Special to the New York Times

PARIS, Oct. 23—Le Duc Tho has rejected the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him jointly with Secretary of State Kissinger for the Vietnam agreement they negotiated, Hanoi announced today.

He said that “peace has not yet really been established in South Vietnam.” “In these circumstances,” he added, “it is impossible for me to accept” the prize.

Hanoi’s chief negotiator said, “I will be able to consider” acceptance only when the Paris accord “is respected, the arms are silenced and real peace is established in South Vietnam.”

The decision and the explanation were disclosed in a letter from Le Duc Tho to Mrs. Aase Lionaes, president of the Norwegian Parliament’s Nobel Prize Committee.

Careful Decision Seen

Two members of the committee have resigned in protest against the award, an extraordinary gesture since custom forbids any disclosure of how the prize decision was reached, how committee members voted and whether the outcome was based on unanimity.

Mr. Tho’s reaction clearly reflected a careful decision of the North Vietnamese leadership. There had been no comment on the subject from Hanoi from the time the prize was announced until the publication of his letter, but the rejection was not surprising to observers familiar with North Vietnam’s view of the war and of existing conditions.

There was no mention of Mr. Kissinger at any point in the letter, nor that the prize offered to Mr. Tho was to be shared with Hanoi’s former enemy.

Hanoi’s View of Accord

The North Vietnamese have consistently taken the position that the Paris agreement was not a compromise settlement but a victory over the United States. They could not, therefore, have been expected to be pleased at equal honors granted to their representative and that of the belligerent they feel that they defeated, Mr. Kissinger

Further, they maintain that the United States holds responsibility for continuing violation of the cease-fire and failure to implement any of the accord’s political clauses. Hanoi has invariably considered the Government of South Vietnam as a puppet of the United States, and therefore insists that the United States should account for Saigon’s deeds.

Mr. Tho’s letter made these points explicitly:

“During the last 18 years, the United States undertook a war of aggression against Vietnam.

“American imperialism has been defeated. The Paris agreement has been signed. It is a very great historic victory of the Vietnamese people and the peace-loving and just people of the world.

“Since the signing of the Paris agreement, the United States and the Saigon Administration continue in grave violation of a number of key clauses of this agreement. The Saigon Administration, aided and encouraged by the United States, continues its acts of war.”

A note after the letter said coolly that Mr. Tho had also replied to personages at the United Nations, heads of government, politicians, writers and foreign journalists who had congratulated him on the prize. “He thanked them and gave them his point of view,” it said.

It was not at all clear whether Mr. Tho was suggesting that the prize would be acceptable once South Vietnam was actually at peace.

The phrase saying, “I will be able to consider” the prize when that day comes may have represented a compromise between divergent opinions in Hanoi on whether the award should be rejected because there is no peace, or whether in any circumstances it would conflict with Hanoi’s assertion of victory over an aggressor.

Hanoi’s decision posed a dilemma for the Nobel committee. It could leave Mr. Kissinger as the sole recipient of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, but that would violate the balance that had clearly been intended in the joint award.

Or the committee could meet again to reconsider the initial decision. There was no immediate indication of how the Norwegian panel would react.

Following is the text of Mr. Tho’s letter, in unofficial translation from the French version supplied by the Paris office of the Hanoi press agency:

“During the last 18 years the United States undertook a war of aggression against Vietnam. The Vietnamese people have waged a tenacious and heroic struggle against the United States aggression for independence and freedom. All of progressive humanity approves and supports this just cause.

“American imperialism has been defeated. The Paris agreement on Vietnam has been signed. It is a very great historic victory of the Vietnamese people and peace-loving and just peoples of the world. It is an important contribution by the Vietnamese people to the movement for national independence and to the cause of the peoples of all countries.

“The unvarying position of the Vietnamese people and of the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam resolutely and seriously and at the same to time to demand that the other signatory parties do the same in order to maintain a durable peace in Vietnam and to contribute to the safeguarding of peace in Southeast Asia and in the world.

“However, since the signing of the Paris agreement, the United States and the Saigon administration continue in grave violation of a number of key clauses of this agreement. The Saigon administration, aided and encouraged by the United States, continues its acts of war. Peace has not yet really been established in South Vietnam In these circumstances it is impossible for me to accept the 1973 Nobel Prize fo Peace which the committee has bestowed on me. Once the Paris accord on Vietnam is respected, the arms are silenced and a real peace is established in South Vietnam, I will be able to consider accepting this prize. With my thanks to the Nobel Prize Committee please accept, madame, my sincere respects.”

The following article (original here) was published on December 10, 1973. The writer, Bronson P. Clark, was executive secretary of the American Friends Service Committee. Much of it is as relevant three decades later as it was then. The names and places change but the principles are the same.

War Is Not Peace
By Bronson P. Clark

There is a truly astonishing projection of 1984 about the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. Orwell warned us that the dreadful day would come when war would be called peace and peace, war. The Nobel Peace Prize committee’s homage to the “talents and goodwill” of Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger for their skillful negotiations lasting more than three years led us at the American Friends Service Committee to wonder if it should be called the “Nobel Negotiating Prize.” But Peace Prize?

The mind goes back to former recipients. Ralph Bunche, Albert Schweitzer, Philip Noel-Baker, Chief Luthuli, Dag Hammarskjold, Linus Pauling, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the names lift our hearts. these were people of high principle and persistent idealism, dedicated to peaceful resolution of conflict. The organizations that have won the prize–the International Red Cross , the Friends Service Council of Britain and the American Friends Service Committee, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF–are deeply devoted to the value of human life and the critical human need for a world at peace.

The 1973 recipients themselves saw the difference from the past. Le Duc Tho said he would not accept because there is no peace in Vietnam. Henry Kissinger, almost as if peace had come, stated that the award represents “a recognition of the central purpose of the President’s foreign policy.” He gave thanks to the President for the conditions which made it possible to bring the negotiations to a “successful conclusion.”

What were those conditions? They included the myth that the President was seeking peace with honor. They included the unleashing of one of the most savage bombing raids in the bloody history of war, only last Christmas. They included the relentless bombing, secretly and then brazenly, of Laos and Cambodia. They included the hidden intent, after the negotiations, to recognize the Thieu Government as the sole legitimate government in South Vietnam, even though the accords, which Henry Kissinger helped write and the United States signed, were to recognize two governments in South Vietnam.

What was the “successful conclusion” of the negotiations? Even today, although United States soldiers and airmen are out of Vietnam, American technicians, working for American corporations, planes, bombs, guns and dollars are still there, fueling a war that President Thieu won’t stop and cannot wage without United States weapons and money. I.T.T. and Lear - Siegler are performing training and operational functions for Thieu’s air force. The accords called for freeing the civilian prisoners, but in Thieu’s jails and prisons–and in exile–are the thousands of Buddhists, Catholics and neutralists who would help to restore peace to Vietnam. The accords called for democratic liberties in South Vietnam and the repression has never been so harsh as now. United States dollars and advisers help to maintain the odious national and prison system that has imprisoned democratic hopes. The Quaker center that treats civilian war victims in South Vietnam is as crowded as ever with newly maimed peasants. No end to the tragedy is in sight.

Ironically peace can come ot Vietnam. Henry Kissinger can help bring it. He can work for implementation of article 4, chapter II of the accords, which reads, “the United States will not continue its military involvement or intervene in the internal affairs of South Vietnam.” He can oppose the flow of United States dollars that finance President Thieu’s war budget. He can demand that the Vietnamese stop sluicing local funds, generated by the sale of United States Food for Peace, to Thieu’s military. He can urge that our Government stop paying for Thieu’s police and prisons. He can call for even-handed recognition of the two South Vietnamese governments that were party to the accords that the United States signed. If the United States honors the accords, he can press President Thieu to honor them and initiate democratic liberties in South Vietnam.

If these things are left undone, how can peace come to Vietnam? How can the Nobel Peace Prize, which will be presented today, be given and accepted in good conscience unless they are done.


  1. G. wrote:

    And this year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to someone who is unjustly imprisoned. He is also a person who has consistently supported all US wars—from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink
  2. G. wrote:

    I wrote to the BBC and they simply ignored me. I wrote to them again, and then they changed it: “Le Duc Tho rejected the prize as there was no peace agreement at the time.” This is not quite what Lê Đức Thọ actually said, but it’s an improvement.

    Saturday, January 8, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

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  1. Friedensnobelpreis 2011 für Wikileaks? | Erbloggtes on Thursday, February 3, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    […] Die Verleihung 1973 an Henry Kissinger, den einzigen seither ausgezeichneten Republikaner, gilt als der vielleicht schwerste Fehler in der Geschichte der Nobelpreise. Nach Kissingers Ehrung wegen Beteiligung an der Aushandlung des Friedensvertrags zur Beendigung […]

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