The peace activism of Linus and Ava Helen Pauling reached its crescendo in the late 1950s and early 1960s, beginning with the submission of their Bomb Test Petition to the United Nations in 1958 and ending with Linus Pauling’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1963. As the turbulent 1960s moved forward, the weary Paulings reduced, however incrementally, their profiles as peace activists. That is not to say, however, that the duo completely exited the public stage — far from it, in fact. Two important events in U.S. history — one before Ava Helen’s death and one after — prompted first the duo, and later Linus alone, to raise their voices anew in support of their beliefs.
“I am ashamed of my country, the United States of America. My country is the richest country in the world. It is the most powerful country in the world. My country now leads the world in militarism, and leads the world in immorality.”
-Linus Pauling, Note to Self, May 2, 1967.
The increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the mid-1960s infuriated much of the American public, Linus and Ava Helen included. As a result, the two activists set out on yet another peace campaign, doing their best to gain the attentions of the political world.
As an attempt at mediating the conflict, Linus began to correspond directly with Ho Chi Minh, while simultaneously seeking (with limited success) to involve Lyndon Johnson in the communications. Pauling and seven other Nobel Peace Prize recipients, including Dr. Martin Luther King and Albert Schweitzer, also drafted an appeal to the U.S. government, advocating a peaceful resolution of the war in Asia. Linus and Ava Helen attended rallies and gave speeches in support of military de-escalation in Asia and U.S.-Soviet peace talks. Unfortunately, the Paulings’ strategies were largely ignored at the administrative level, leading the couple to seek out alternative methods.
In addition to his speaking campaign, Pauling began to publish anti-war articles. He wrote pieces enumerating the need for peace and the possible long term effects of the Vietnam War. Most astonishingly, in May of 1972, the Paulings went so far as to volunteer to become “peace hostages” as a means of mediating the violent situation, agreeing “to spend at least two weeks in Northern Vietnam until all the bombing of that area of the country stops and until all American military personnel and materiel are removed from Indochina.”
The Paulings’ calls for peaceful negotiation were never embraced by the Johnson administration. At the same time, the increasingly-radical American youth instead garnered the attention of both the media and the Oval Office. The petitions and marches of the 1950s and early 1960s had been overtaken by the activities of college-age protesters, in the process moving the Paulings further and further toward the margins of an international peace movement to which they had once been so important.
The Persian Gulf War
“In a war you have opposing forces that fight and there are deaths on both sides, and finally one side wins. In the old days perhaps this was a demonstration of the democratic process — the side with the biggest number of fighters won. [The Persian Gulf War] wasn’t a war. This you could call a massacre or a slaughter, perhaps even murder.”
-Linus Pauling, “Reflections on the Persian Gulf ‘War,’” April 6, 1991.
After Ava Helen’s death in 1981, Linus Pauling continued the struggle for international peace, in part as a tribute to the ideals of his late wife. An opponent of President Reagan’s policies, he spoke out against the administration’s increasingly militaristic approach to international politics, campaigning in particular against the implementation of weapons systems like the “Star Wars” program, which Pauling viewed to be an utter waste of resources. It was in this vein that Pauling would continue to act, making hundreds of public appearances in support of numerous peace causes.
However, few events in his later years fully galvanized Pauling on the level of the Persian Gulf War, initiated in August 1990. Horrified by reports of extreme carnage, Pauling, nearing his ninetieth birthday, undertook a vigorous protest of Operation Desert Storm as his final stand as a figure for peace.
With the directness that had come to typify his peace work, Pauling sent letters to General Colin Powell and to President George H. W. Bush, demanding an end to the fighting. His letter to President Bush declared “TO KILL AND MAIM PEOPLE IS IMMORAL! WAR IS IMMORAL!” While Pauling may have aged and his body weakened since his fight against the Vietnam War, his convictions remained unchanged.
In 1991 Pauling released “Reflections on the Persian Gulf ‘War’,” a brief yet thorough list of concerns and grievances with both world politics and U.S. leadership. The document discussed the tactics and rationale for the war, the specific problems existing within the Persian Gulf region and, of course, the immorality of war as an institution. As unassuming as this small document was, it embodied the passions of a man who had dedicated more than half a century to the achievement of peace.
Read more about the Paulings’ Vietnam and Gulf War peace activism on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement.”
Filed under: Documentary History Websites, Peace Activism Tagged: | Albert Schweitzer, Ava Helen Pauling, Colin Powell, George H.W. Bush, Ho Chi Minh, Linus Pauling, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., Noam Chomsky, Operation Desert Storm, peace activism, Persian Gulf War, Strategic Defense Initiative, Vietnam War