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AFSC in History - Nobel Peace Prize Curiosities

AFSC in History - Nobel Peace Prize Curiosities

Published: March 30, 2010

In 1947, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Quakers, as represented by their two best known relief organizations, the British Friends Service Council and the American Friends Service Committee. The Prize recognized 300 years of Quaker action directed at healing rifts and opposing war. In particular, it named the work done by the two recipient Quaker organizations during and after the two World Wars to feed starving children and help Europe rebuild itself.

However, as sometimes happens through the years when an important award of this sort is bestowed, certain myths, legends, and misconceptions accumulate about it.

One of these pertains to the formal attire worn by Henry Cadbury, who received the prize on behalf of the AFSC. Henry did not have a long-tailed coat, the expected form of dress at the award ceremony. Knowing of the eclectic clothing collection in the AFSC's warehouse, he decided to see if a proper coat in his size might be in it. At the time, the AFSC was collecting formal wear for the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, which needed such attire for a concert it planned in London. A coat was found for Henry Cadbury, which he borrowed and wore to the award ceremonies in Oslo. When he returned to the United States, the coat went back to the warehouse. It did not, as some have suggested, appear on the back of a waiter somewhere in Europe!

Another myth about the AFSC's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize regards use of the prize money, slightly more than $40,000, which was shared equally by the two Quaker organizations.

Clarence Pickett, then executive secretary of the AFSC, made a speech at Yale University announcing that the Service Committee would use its share of the prize money to try to improve Soviet-American relations. A few days later, two representatives from a Soviet trading corporation presented themselves at the AFSC office, indicating they had come to receive the AFSC's gift! After the initial surprise, the trade representatives indicated tuberculosis was a serious health threat in the Soviet Union and might be successfully treated by a new drug called streptomycin. It was decided the money would be spent on purchase of the drug, but funds collected for an AFSC project in the Ukraine were used instead.

In the end, the Nobel Prize money was used to make a film and publish Quaker proposals for peace between the Soviet Union and the United States. The influence of the award goes much further than the dollar value, however. Today this incredible recognition stands as a reminder of the courage shown by those who went before us and a challenge to live up to their example, not simply in the kind of work we do but the Spirit in which we do it. In Henry Cadbury's acceptance speech in Oslo forty-four years ago, he summed it up this way:

"The common people of all nations want peace. In the presence of great, impersonal force, they feel individually helpless to promote it. You [addressing the Nobel Prize Committee] are saying to them here today that common folk-not statesmen, nor generals, nor great men of affairs, but just simple, plain men and women like the few thousand Quakers and their friends-if they devote themselves to resolute insistence on goodwill in place of force, . . can do something to build a better, peaceful world."

"The future hope of peace lies with such personal sacrificial service. To this ideal, humble persons everywhere may contribute."

Written by Jack Sutters