Why a Nobel Peace Prize Was Once Rejected

3 minute read

With the announcement Friday morning that the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet will be the latest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the number of Peace Prize laureates will tick up to 129. That figure doesn’t match up with the number of years the prize has been given, as some years have multiple honorees and others–historically times of war–have none. But it also wouldn’t match up with the number of prizes announced.

That’s because in 1973 Le Duc Tho became the first and only person ever to voluntarily refuse a Nobel Peace Prize. The prize had been awarded jointly to Tho, a North Vietnamese politician and diplomat, and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for their work negotiating a ceasefire in the Vietnam War.

As TIME reported, the Nobel committee’s decision “aroused an unprecedented storm of criticism”:

Only at the White House was the announcement greeted with unguarded praise. Kissinger was unabashedly delighted; President Nixon, who might have hoped to win it himself, said that the award gave “deserved recognition to the art of negotiation itself in the process of ending a war and laying the groundwork for peace.” Hanoi, however, was resoundingly silent, lending substance to rumors that Tho would not accept the prize.

The biggest reason for the controversy was the obvious one: despite Tho and Kissinger’s work, the war in Vietnam continued (as it would for more than a year after the Nobel announcement). And many argued that Tho and Kissinger had been just as responsible for creating war, not stopping it. One TIME reader wrote in to say that “The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho is like granting Xaviera Hollander (the Happy Hooker) an award for extreme virtue.”

Though Tho would probably not have agreed with the second half of that argument, he did agree that Vietnam was not at peace—and, further, as the Nobel Committee puts it, “his opposite number had violated the truce.” He declined to accept the prize. He said that he might reconsider if peace were restored to his country eventually, but his decision stood.

But, as TIME noted in 1978 when Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin controversially received the prize, lasting peace was obviously not a prerequisite. Past winners included “Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann, the French and German statesmen who won the 1926 prize for the ill-fated Locarno peace treaties, in which Belgium, France and Germany agreed never to fight again” and “American Diplomat Frank Kellogg, who was the originator of the utopian Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, in which 15 powers, including Germany and Japan, agreed to renounce war as an instrument of national policy.”

Read more: The Tragic Nobel Peace Prize Story You’ve Probably Never Heard

See the 20 Most Famous Nobel Peace Prize Laureates

President Obama speaks on healthcare and the Affordable Care Act
Barack Obama, 2009 "For his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples"Brooks Kraft—Corbis
03/25/2006. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Dortmund.
Mohamed ElBaradei, 2005Shared with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) "for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way"Patrick Piel—Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Aspen Institute Holds Awards Dinner
Jimmy Carter, 2002"For his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development"Mario Tama—Getty Images
Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan, 2001Shared with the United Nations "for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world"Courtney Kealy—Getty Images
Portrait Of Shimon Peres
Shimon Peres, 1994"To honour a political act which called for great courage on both sides, and which has opened up opportunities for a new development towards fraternity in the Middle East"Thomas Imo—Photothek/Getty Images
Yitzhak Rabin, 1994"To honour a political act which called for great courage on both sides, and which has opened up opportunities for a new development towards fraternity in the Middle East"MENAHEM KAHANA—AFP/Getty Images
File picture of PLO chairman Arafat speaking during the ceremony of the sixth anniversary of the Palestinian declaration of independence
Yasser Arafat, 1994"To honour a political act which called for great courage on both sides, and which has opened up opportunities for a new development towards fraternity in the Middle East"AHMED JADALLAH—Reuters
Nelson Mandela, 1993Shared with Frederik Willem de Klerk "for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa"TREVOR SAMSON—AFP/Getty Images
(FILES) Photo dated 23 May 1996 shows My
Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991"For her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights"EMMANUEL DUNAND—AFP/Getty Images
Mikhail S. Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev, 1990"For his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community"Diana Walker—The TIME & LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama, 1989"In his struggle for the liberation of Tibet [he] consistently has opposed the use of violence. He has instead advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people."Chris Langridge—Sygma/Corbis
Various Writers and Journalists
Desmond Tutu, 1984"[A] renewed recognition of the courage and heroism shown by black South Africans in their use of peaceful methods in the struggle against apartheid"David Levenson—Getty Images
Elie Wiesel at Nobel Peace Prize Press Conference
Elie Wiesel, 1986"His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief... based on his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler's death camps"Robert Maass—CORBIS
Mother Teresa, 1979"The loneliest, the most wretched and the dying have, at her hands, received compassion without condescension, based on reverence for man"Jean-Claude FRANCOLON—Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Anwar Sadat
Anwar Sedat, 1978"For the Camp David Agreement, which brought about a negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel"Sahm Doherty—The TIME & LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger, 1973"For the 1973 Paris agreement intended to bring about a cease-fire in the Vietnam war and a withdrawal of the American forces"Diana Walker—Getty Images
Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964"First person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence"Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
Jane Addams, American reformer and feminist
Jane Addams, 1931"[F]or her social reform work" and "leading the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom"Universal History Archive/Getty Images
President Woodrow Wilson in the Oval Office
Woodrow Wilson, 1919"[F]or his crucial role in establishing the League of Nations"Bettmann/Corbis
Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt, 1906"[F]or his successful mediation to end the Russo-Japanese war and for his interest in arbitration, having provided the Hague arbitration court with its very first case"Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com