The best-informed opinion rated it joint favourite for the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps even just out in front. More than a century of service to the poor and the homeless, it seemed, was at last to receive the recognition it deserved.
The award was to be announced in Oslo at 11am. By tradition, the committee rings the winner in the hour beforehand. No call came. Then, at 11am, the news was announced: it was Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk. And it will be no consolation to the Salvation Army that we have little idea whether it was ever really close to winning. The truth is that we know very little about what goes on in the art nouveau committee room of the Nobel Institute in Oslo.
Nominutes are kept and any papers remain sealed for 50 years. The nominees - 120 this year - are never formally identified. The five members are sworn to secrecy, and we are not told whether they are divided or unanimous about a verdict. This year, the committee secretary, Geir Lundestad, even decided to forego the usual 10am call of warning to the winners, because he feared a leak at the other end.
The object of this secrecy is to protect the integrity of theselection process. If it is secret and private, it is less open to pressure and manipulation.
The prize originated as one of five created in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish scientist who made a fortune by mixing nitroglycerine with kieselguhr to make dynamite. Why it was placed in the control of the Norwegian parliament is not known - the others are awarded from Sweden - but it may be because of Norway's involvement at the time in mediation of international disputes.
The prize was first awarded in 1901, jointly to the founders of the Red Cross and the French Peace Society. An award has been made most years since then - world wars and availability of worthy candidates permitting - and it is, beyond doubt, the world's most famous prize, having acquired the power to influence events.
Lech Walesa and Desmond Tutu, in 1983 and 1984, both gained stature from the prize. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, has not have been freed from house arrest since she won in 1991, but her supporters say that the prize has given her security, brought hope to the Burmese people and driven the Rangoon regime paranoid.
There have been disasters, and none worse than in 1973, when Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho won the prize for negotiating peacein Vietnam, even though the war was still raging. Le Duc Tho refused the prize, furious protests prevented Mr Kissinger from visiting Oslo to accept it, and two committee members resigned. Anti- war placards outside the White House complained of the 'Ignobel Prize'.
When that award was made, the chairman of the committee declared that the peace deal worked out by the winners was 'only the first, but avery important step', and voiced the hope that the prize might encourage further steps.
Similar sentiments were expressed last Friday by the chairman of the current committee, Francis Sejersted, after he had named Mandela and De Klerk as winners. 'The Nobel Peace Prize for 1993 is awarded in recognition of their efforts and as a pledge of support for the forces of good, in the hope that the advance towards equality and democracy will reach its goal in the very near future.'
Mr Sejersted stressed that the committee had paid 'continuous attention' to the unending bloodshed in South Africa. 'The main reason for the choice was to acknowledge the achievements made up to now,' he said. 'We also want to give support to the process.'
It is in keeping with the modern traditions of the prize that itshould have to work for its keep. Before the Second World War, it was often given to distinguished peace activists at the end of their careers - George Bernard Shaw said this was like throwing a lifebelt to a swimmer who had already reached the shore.
No such criticism could be made today. Nobel's intentions have been stretched to the limit in the effort to use the prize as a force for good. His requirements were concise: the prize should go each year 'to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses'.
Modern committees do not waste much time trying to fit their choices into this framework. 'We define peace in the way we select our laureates,' says Mr Lundestad.
This has meant the emergence of a new class of winner. Before, there had been statesmen (Woodrow Wilson, Willy Brandt), humanitarians (Albert Schweitzer, the Red Cross), and peace activists and jurists (Philip Noel-Baker, Linus Pauling). But the new class is of oppositional figures, struggling for human rights.
First in this field was another ANC leader, Albert Lutuli, in 1960. The committee chairman in that year declared: 'Today we realise that peace cannot be established without a full respect for freedom.'
Martin Luther King won on those terms in 1964, andmany more have followed: Andrei Sakharov, Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina, Walesa, Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi and, last year, Rigoberta Menchu, campaigner for the rights of indigenous peoples.
Who makes these choices? The committee has five members, two of them women, and their average age is 67. One is a former prime minister, two are former MPs, a fourth is an author and journalist, and the fifth is Mr Sjersted, a history professor.
They are chosen by the parliament and, in the words of one foreign observer, are 'the ultimate in respectability in Norway'. If they were British, they would probably be respected members of the House of Lords.
Can they be influenced? In 1974, when Eisaku Sato, a former prime minister of Japan, won the prize,it was widely believed that this was the result of lobbying. Last year's widely welcomed award to Menchu followed two years of efforts by supporters to catch the committee's attention.
'Sure, you will find examplesof successful campaigns,' says Mr Lundestad, 'but it is easier to find examples of campaigns that have been counter-
productive.' The prize committee usually reacts badly to pressure. A couple of years ago, a petition containing 740,000 signatures was sent to the committee in support of one candidate. One of the 40 boxes was opened; the rest were sent back still sealed.
The system of selection is designed to filter out special pleading. Various categories of people may make nominations: members of international legal bodies, holders of the prize, present and past committee members, members of national parliaments and professors of law, history, politics and philosophy.
The list closes each February - this is why those involved in the Middle East peace deal were excluded this year - and the names are put before the committee, each with a brief resume, by Mr Lundestad. A shortlist is agreed and may vary from three to 15 names. The next eight months are spent discreetly gathering information and whittling down the list. The final choice, with which all members should feel comfortable, is made in early October.
This year's decision was made on 5 October. There followed 10 days of speculation, which may or may not have been informed, but which certainly led supporters of the Salvation Army astray. The Norwegian media, knowing the mindsets of the committee members, may have had more than the rest of us to guide them, but even they were still only guessing.
Geir Helljesen, of the television station NRK, is the acknowledged expert, but on the night before the award, he was still decidedly undecided. It could be Mandela and De Klerk, yes, but then there was all the bloodshed, and South Africa already has two prizes. The Salvation Army? Certainly a safer choice, but the committee does not like organisations, and in any case, the army had its best chance a couple of years ago when it was celebrating an anniversary. Not exactly odds- on stuff.
Mr Lundestad is very vigilant about secrecy, and likes to think that, until the last moment, only six people know who the winner is. On this occasion, it looks like he was right. Maybe next year will be the Salvation Army's year, but maybe not. The Middle East looks a likelier destination.