One thing lacking in the special issue dedicated to John Wheeler (Physics Today, April 2009) is any comment on why he did not receive the Nobel Prize. I think the explanation is political: Wheeler was a supporter of the Vietnam War. In 1967, while working on my thesis at Princeton University, I was stunned when Wheeler began one of our morning meetings by gleefully telling me that he had spent a good part of the night slinking about campus with a spray can to paint pro-war messages over peace symbols and other antiwar graffiti. I had the impression that he wanted credit for his act of civil disobedience and that he was hoping for repercussions. At the time I did not know how to react to that escapade, but I now think that Wheeler may have had a point—the Vietnam War certainly provided plenty of blame to share among all the participants.

The Swedish government fervently opposed the war, so much so that the prime minister denounced the bombings of Hanoi as crimes comparable to those of Guernica, Oradour, Babi Yar, Katyn, Lidice, Sharpeville, and Treblinka. It is easy to imagine that this stance put considerable pressure on the Nobel Committee not to award the prize to Wheeler. Political influence has often played a role in the literature prizes—not to mention the peace prizes, for which political influence is the name of the game. Political influence in the physics prizes is less obvious, but we can occasionally see a hint of it in the adroit splitting of the prize among several nationalities.

Wheeler has been described as the cleverest physicist of his generation not to receive a Nobel Prize. I recall the disappointment that I felt in the 1970s and 1980s when his name failed to appear in the annual announcements. Of course, Wheeler was probably too much of a gentleman to entertain such thoughts, but I can’t help suspecting political motivations.