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Nobel's legacy

In Oslo the air is always heavy with gossip about the Nobel Peace Prize until long after prize day, which is Dec. 10. In 1973, when Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (the latter declined) were the winners, gossip assumed the proportions of scandal. Left wing lambasted right; two members of the Nobel Committee resigned; its president faced the wrath of her own Labor Party; and angry youth threw snowballs on prize day, while the press chattered about ''doves in armor.''

This year the griping will be concentrated in the capital of the winner and in points east. In Warsaw as well as in Oslo and Western capitals, Lech Walesa's prize will be enthusiastically approved.

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The origins of the Nobel Prizes were no less stormy than the subsequent debates over the winners. When the Swedish inventor of dynamite died in 1896, he left a will that was simple but legally defective.

The bulk of his estate was to be invested in blue-ribbon securities, the annual income to be divided in five equal parts: three as awards for discoveries in physics, chemistry, and medicine, and the fourth for ''idealistic'' literary work. Swedish orgnizations were to award the first four. (In 1948 the Swedish Riksbank established an economic prize to commemorate its tercentenary; although it is billed as a Nobel Memorial Prize, it does not stem from the inventor's own testament.)

But Nobel left the fifth prize to the Norwegian parliament. Each year a five-member committee chosen by the Storting was to select the person who had done the most ''for fraternity among nations, for abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.''

It is difficult at this distance to imagine the hard feelings that flowed from these quaint terms and from Nobel's generosity. First, it took legal genius and downright cheating to remove to Sweden an estate of $9 million scattered across eight countries, each eager to impose fiscal hospitality. Then there was the family: The recluse of San Remo had never married, but his nieces and nephews set up a hue and cry in the courts against the philanthropy of their misanthropic uncle, especially after they unearthed his previous will and saw how he had cut his private bequests.

Only one nephew, Emanuel Nobel, defended his uncle's wishes, and he and the executors had to struggle against reluctant dragons in the Swedish academies, who foresaw no reward for their chores except complaints from losers. Only the Norwegians leaped to the bait, but because Norway was struggling to separate itself from the Swedish crown, Nobel's compatriots were inflamed by his gesture toward the ingrates of Oslo. Even the King of Sweden was wheeled up to remonstrate with Emanuel. ''Your uncle,'' said King Oscar, ''has been misled by peace fanatics, and particularly the women.''

Since Nobel had designated no administrators, the executors had to create an artificial legatee, the Nobel Foundation, to enforce the prize rules and supervise the institutes, which administer and investigate. Not until 1901 - five years after Nobel's death - was the way open to hand out the first awards.

In the autumn of the year preceding its award, the Peace Prize committee circularizes the nominators designated in the statutes: its own members past and present, advisers of the Nobel Institute, and a host of officials and parliamentarians, domestic and foreign, together with university professors and a slew of international bodies, some of them antedating even the League of Nations. Former prizewinners may also sponsor candidates.

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The books close early in the new year, and by late summer the institute has assembled dossiers on some 40 candidates and sent the whole caboodle to the peace prize committee. After a period of wrestling behind closed doors, the committee makes the great announcement, usually in October. Prize Day, both in Stockholm and Oslo, is Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death.

The Norwegians try to shield their deliberations from the glare of publicity. In the old days even the names of losers stayed locked in the collective bosom of the committee. Over the years the members have relaxed somewhat, but they still limit themselves to telling why they made their choice and not how.

Like other Nobel awards, the Peace Prize can be split among candidates. Institutions are also eligible: The committee has given three awards to the International Red Cross and two to the Office of the UN High Commissioner For Refugees, as well as UNICEF, the ILO, and Amnesty International. This helps to dampen controversy, but sometimes deadlock is unbreakable, and no award is given. Since 1901 the committee has abstained 19 times, including during wartime , when, as the institute's director once explained with true Norwegian restraint , the members ''had gone abroad.''

Before World War I, in the era of grand illusions, when Kaiser Wilhelm corresponded with Czar Nicholas II, and dynamite paid for peace congresses and Carnegie steel for the Peace Palace in The Hague, the prize went mostly to elderly pacifists and jurists whose names now adorn obscure streets in Europe. The only names from this period that ring bells in the corridors of history are American: In 1906, the committee that strained at the gnats of the peace movement swallowed the imperialist camel and chose Theodore Roosevelt for his mediation of the Russo-Japanese conflict.

In the period between the two world wars, the prize went first to Woodrow Wilson, although ironically the Senate rejected the League of Nations three weeks before Prize Day. The card castles constructed by other winning statesmen, both European and American, during this period proved even flimsier. The Americans were Charles Dawes of the German Reparations Plan, Frank Kellogg and Nicholas Murray Butler, who promoted the Pact to Outlaw War, and Jane Addams of the Women's League for Peace and Freedom.

After World War II, as the cold war developed, the committee found the paths of laymen's pacifism less slippery than the heights of officialdom. Only one-quarter of the winners since 1945 have been national statesmen, and, of these, only three American: Cordell Hull, George Marshall, and Henry Kissinger. The committee has leaned toward international bodies (Amnesty International, Red Cross, Friends' Service), or subsidiaries of the UN, or UN officials such as Dag Hammarskjold and Ralph Bunche. Lay winners are often special or controversial: Albert Schweitzer, on whose racial biases the committee apparently turned a blind eye; Linus Pauling, the only recipient of awards from both Stockholm and Oslo; Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams of Northern Ireland. Only three winners have come from the third world: Albert Luthuli, the Zulu leader from South Africa; Anwar al-Sadat; and Mother Teresa. How Gandhi slipped through the net has never been explained.

Some of the more controversial figures - Andrei Sakharov, Martin Luther King Jr., and now Lech Walesa - must have required a pretty loose construction of Nobel's will, but the committee has always been ready to pull a long bow when it comes to freedom fighters, especially the nonviolent.

Except in literature, the United States figures at the top of all nationalities on the Nobel lists in Stockholm and Oslo, with a total of 170 winners through 1983 (not counting the 11 winners of the Riksbank's economics prize). In the sciences, the American record is sensational: 144 winners out of 355 in all three categories. The high proportion since World War II probably owes less to European refugee scientists than to the expansion of American research and development under the impulsion of hot and cold warfare, an ironic echo of Nobel's own dictum: ''My explosive factories may make an end to war sooner than your peace congresses.''

The Soviets have won only 13 prizes in all categories since 1917: one in chemistry, seven in physics, four in literature. This meager crop probably reflects the impossibility of outside investigation in a closed society. Of the four literary winners, Bunin was an emigre, Sholokhov a demi-imposter, and Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were forbidden to accept. The only Soviet winner of the Peace Prize is dissident Andrei D. Sakharov. The imperialists have fared better: Seventeen of the 82 Peace Prize winners are American.

On Dec. 10, the vast Munch murals will again be lighted at the Aula of Oslo University, and the seats will be fully occupied. The absence of the winner himself may sadden the atmosphere, but at least the Norwegians will not have to forgo the event, which, even though created by a Swede, makes their cheeks glow almost as much as the annual ski contest at Homenkollen. Despite abstention and verbal sniping, the apotheosis of Lech Walesa will do the world at large no harm , either.

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