Letters to Asimov


Isaac Asimov

[Part 1 of 2]

If you were to explore Linus Pauling’s extensive personal library, which covers everything from ancient philosophy to the life and times of Joseph Priestley to novels authored by John Grisham, you would find a large and dog-eared section dedicated to science fiction. Pauling was an avid reader of the genre and one of his favorite authors was Isaac Asimov, whose Foundation Trilogy and Pebble in the Sky were left a little weak in the binding by Pauling from repeated reads. Pauling was so taken with these and other sci-fi works that he even briefly considered writing a novel himself, though he never found the time amidst all of his other pursuits.

Pauling’s connection to the world of science fiction remained especially tied to a periodical called Fantasy and Science Fiction, which he read thoroughly and often, and in which Isaac Asimov frequently published. Initially through this joint association with the periodical, Pauling and Asimov developed a robust correspondence that lasted for many years. The duo’s relationship evolved accordingly, with Pauling often serving as a volunteer editor, a sometimes royal “pain in the Asimov,” and always a steadfast friend.


Ever watchful and equipped with a critical eye, Pauling regularly expressed qualms with multiple science fiction writers, including some of his favorites, like Asimov. Pauling’s correspondence with Asimov began in 1959 with a fan letter of sorts, which Asimov later praised for, “the gracious way in which [it] referred to my work,” as well as the pride that it had bestowed upon him to feel that he had, “however tangentially and distantly,” been an inspiration to Linus Pauling.  Asimov considered Pauling to be one of the greatest scientists alive, and in 1963 he listed him in Fantasy and Science Fiction as being among the top 72 scientists of all time.

Naturally, Pauling was pleased to be viewed in this way and quickly wrote to Asimov to thank him for the plaudit. However, being something of a perfectionist, he also suggested a slightly altered description of his work for increased accuracy, in the event that Asimov might use the sketch for future publications.

Pauling’s “first round of edits” on Asimov’s work didn’t stop there, as he had noticed a far more egregious error in Asimov’s list of great scientists: namely, quantum theorist Louis de Broglie was listed as having died, but Pauling assured Asimov that de Broglie was most definitely still alive. In his reply, Asimov identified the source of his error: he had accidentally looked up Louis’ brother Maurice, who had died in 1960, in a careless perusal of Webster’s Biographical Dictionary. “I am quite embarrassed at having mistakenly killed poor de Broglie,” Asimov wrote, adding, “I can assure you that I have unkilled him.”

Their correspondence continued, and a year later Pauling wrote with more corrections on some calculations that Asimov had published concerning the mass of electrons replacing the sun and the mass of electrons replacing the Earth – proportional to the true masses of the sun and the Earth – required to produce a force of electrostatic repulsion equal to the gravitational force of attraction between the sun and the Earth at the same distance. Pauling explained that, upon review, he found the two masses that Asimov had given to be rather a bit too small:

The factor needed to correct each of them is a large number: it is 1 followed by 21 zeros. From time to time teachers and students write to me to point out errors in my books College Chemistry and General Chemistry. So far, I think, no one has reported an error in these books quite so large as this one.

Asimov replied that the figures had seemed small to him as well but that, in writing the original piece, he had gone over the mathematics and, believing the reasoning to be sound, had convinced himself that common sense and intuition on the matter were irrelevant. He admitted

when I got your letter, my heart sank for I knew I was wrong if you said I was. Thank you, Professor Pauling, for taking the trouble and time to save me from my own stupidity… For heavens’ sake, please don’t stop reading my articles. I need someone to catch these points.


In retrospect, it would appear that Asimov had opened Pandora’s Box as, after inviting Pauling to pay close attention to his science fiction writing, the letters correcting his work became far more frequent.

A characteristic example came about by way of a 1978 submission to Fantasy and Science Fiction. In it, Asimov claimed that the French scientists Guillaume Amontons and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac had observed that if a gas at the freezing point of water was decreased in temperature to -1 C, then both the volume and the pressure of the gas would decline by 1/273 of the temperature. Pauling declared in no uncertain terms that, “This statement and the rest of the discussion on this page are wrong.”

What Asimov should have said, Pauling explained, was that if the volume is constant, the pressure decreases by 1/273. Likewise, if pressure is kept constant, then volume decreases by 1/273. As such, “if for some reason the fractional decrease in volume were kept the same as the fractional decrease in pressure, each of them would be 1/546.”

Asimov responded courteously. “It is always with mingled pride and apprehension that I realize you have your eye on me,” he wrote. “You remain my favorite scientist, and may you continue to flourish for seven more decades at least.”

Pauling did indeed continue to flourish, and even as he neared the twilight of his life the letters to Asimov still showed up. To wit: in a 1986 piece, Asimov had claimed that the curvature of the Earth was 0.000012 miles to the mile. This, Pauling alerted him, would make curvature dimensionless. “The usual definition of curvature is that it is the reciprocal of the radius of curvature, which for the earth is 4,000 miles,” he corrected. “Accordingly, the curvature of the earth is 0.00025 reciprocal miles.”

The quantity that Asimov gave for the curvature, according to Pauling, yielded the correct answer only by ignoring his error in dimensions and only at a distance of 3.3 miles from a given point on the surface of the Earth, but not at any other distance. Asimov replied with dismay: he had done some “quick back of the envelope calculations and was, of course, egregiously wrong.”

The Resident Scholar Program at OSU Libraries: Now Accepting Applications

The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC) is pleased to announce that applications are once again being solicited for its Resident Scholar Program.

Now in its tenth year, the Resident Scholar Program provides research grants to scholars interested in conducting work in SCARC. Stipends of $2,500 per month, renewable for up to three months (for a total maximum grant award of $7,500), will be awarded to researchers whose proposals detail a compelling potential use of the materials held in the Center. Grant monies can be used for any purpose.

Researchers will be expected to conduct their scholarly activities while in residence at Oregon State University. Historians, librarians, graduate, doctoral or post-doctoral students and independent scholars are welcome to apply. The deadline for submitting proposals is April 30, 2017.

It is anticipated that applicants would focus their work on one of the five main collecting themes of the Special Collections and Archives Research Center: the history of Oregon State University, natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, multiculturalism in Oregon, the history of science and technology in the twentieth century and/or rare books. Many past Resident Scholars have engaged primarily with the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, though proposals can address use of any of the SCARC collections.

Detailed information outlining the qualifications necessary for application, as well as the selection process and the conditions under which awards will be made, is available at the following location (PDF link): http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/residentscholar.pdf

Additional information on the program is available at the Resident Scholar homepage and profiles of past award recipients – some of whom have traveled from as far away as Germany and Brazil – are available here.

Remembering Jack Roberts


Jack Roberts

On October 29, 2016, John D. “Jack” Roberts, renowned scientist, professor, and pioneer in organic chemistry, died of a stroke at the age of 98. Roberts was a colleague of Linus Pauling’s at Caltech during the 1950s and early 1960s, and a friend until Pauling’s death in 1994. During a career at Caltech that spanned more than sixty years, Roberts served as chairman of the chemistry department as well as Institute vice president, provost, and dean of faculty. As a scientist, Roberts pioneered techniques in organic and physical chemistry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR). He also expanded the range of interdisciplinary study within the chemical sciences, focusing in particular on the application of experimental techniques of physical chemistry to organic molecules.

Jack Dombrowski Roberts was born in 1918 in Los Angeles, “where the freeways cross,” as he said in a 2007 interview. He developed an interest in science at an early age, and was particularly captivated by Einstein’s theory of relativity, taking advantage of his location to attend open houses held at Caltech while Einstein was a visiting professor. These events, as well as the opportunity to see Caltech’s impressive high voltage lab, made a deep impression on him growing up. Thus inspired, he and a cousin conducted frequent experiments in a home-built lab, sometimes resulting in accidents or explosions that warranted a visit to the doctor.

Although he wanted to attend Caltech, Roberts chose UCLA because of financial considerations. Even so, he worked six days a week at a bakery to pay for his tuition up until his sophomore year, when he accepted a research position. Because UCLA didn’t have a Ph.D. program in chemistry at the time, Roberts was enlisted to work as a lab assistant, a position that would have ordinarily gone to a doctoral candidate. (As a sophomore, Roberts learned the techniques of glass blowing so that he could make his own equipment.) In later years, Roberts reflected on this time fondly, recounting with a laugh some of the eccentricities of his lab mates, classmates, and UCLA professors. Indeed, he attributed most of his future success to the unique opportunities and relationships with faculty that he enjoyed during this time. Of particular note was his connection with Professor William G. Young, who became a close friend, and for whom Roberts wrote a biographical memoir when Young died in 1980.

Following a brief foray into graduate work at Penn State, the attack on Pearl Harbor called Roberts to return to UCLA. Once back, he worked on war projects related to oxygenation and deoxygenation.  On July 11, 1942, he eloped with his high school sweetheart, Edith Johnson, and the pair settled happily in L.A. Edith had attended UC Berkeley for one and a half years before going into the insurance business to help support her family. While he was working on his thesis, Jack would wake up early with Edith and usually be the first person in the lab. Often Edith would come to his lab after work and fix dinner over a Bunsen burner. They were married for sixty-eight years, until Edith’s death in 2010


Jack and Edith Roberts

After completing his thesis in 1944, Roberts began lecturing at UCLA as a post-doc and pursuing his own research projects on cyclopropyl chloride. He enjoyed the position and the opportunity to exchange ideas with colleagues and students alike. One particular colleague, Paul Bartlett, made such a strong impression on him that he applied for and received a year-long National Research Council Fellowship to work with Bartlett at Harvard University. While there, Roberts continued his work on cyclopropyl chloride and began a new inquiry into metalation.

Roberts accepted a position at MIT after his fellowship, buoyed by the support of Arthur Cope, chair of the MIT Chemistry department. As chair, Cope was intent on changing the dynamic at MIT by inviting new professors to the campus and reinstating a strong research focus. Once settled, Roberts immersed himself in resonance theory and quantum chemistry. By then, Roberts had realized that quantum mechanics was slowly outranking more classical research practice, and he wanted his classes to reflect this shift, despite his relative inexperience with the subject. In order to do so, he taught himself the basics almost overnight, thus challenging himself nearly as much as his students.

While he was at MIT, Roberts also worked as a consultant for DuPont and became involved with research on molecular orbital theory, on which he published a few papers as well as a successful book. He incorporated these ideas into his lectures as well, and his students responded enthusiastically. Importantly, a colleague, Richard Ogg, introduced the concept of NMR to Roberts while he was affiliated with DuPont, but it was a few more years before the ideas really took told for Roberts.

Roberts recalled his time at MIT as fruitful, yet troubled. While he won more space for the chemistry department and enjoyed the motivated students with whom he worked, the department’s older faculty – those who dated to the era before Arthur Cope had become chair – held both Cope and Roberts in low regard. As such, when Ernest Swift offered him a job at Caltech in 1952, Roberts was quick to accept. Once arrived, he became acquainted with a number of extraordinary scientists, including Linus Pauling. Friends and former colleagues of Roberts expressed concerns that Pauling tended to overshadow the scientists with whom he worked, but Roberts and Pauling quickly established a mutual respect for one another. Roberts especially appreciated Pauling’s multidisciplinary exploration and his attention to teaching and inclusivity.

Their shared commitment to that last characteristic was demonstrated by the case of Dorothy Semenow, the first female graduate student at Caltech, whose enrollment Pauling and Roberts were instrumental in bringing about. In his later years, Roberts said that this milestone in Caltech’s history, was “clearly the best thing I have done at Caltech in the sixty years I’ve been here.” Semenow received her degree in chemistry and biology in 1955 and, after her admittance, Caltech relaxed its policies regarding gender, agreeing to accept female students who exhibited “exceptional” aptitude and who could prove that they were of the same high caliber as the Institute’s male students. Caltech went completely co-ed in the 1970s.


Roberts in lecture, 1962.

As he became more deeply involved with spectroscopy, Roberts garnered support from Pauling to bring NMR technology to Caltech, arguing that the the investment would give Institute chemists a powerful new structural tool to study organic compounds. Roberts had clearly chosen the right ally; not only did Pauling secure funding, he also assigned space for Roberts and his team to work in the newly constructed Church lab. In addition to the research that he conducted using the machine, Roberts was also responsible for maintaining it and expanding the scope of its use, tasks which proved alternately frustrating and rewarding.

Later on, space arose as a different sort of issue, when a disagreement arose over laboratory allocations for Pauling’s orthomolecular research. In 1963, newly appointed as chairman of the chemistry department, Roberts approached Pauling about giving up two of his rooms in order to fulfill promises that the department had made to newly appointed faculty. The issue was debated for weeks, with Pauling pushing for a different approach in which he would give up one room and share others, thereby yielding the same square footage while, in his view, using the spaces that he did have more efficiently.

Roberts rejected some of Pauling’s suggestions and accepted others in what he later remembered to be a reasonable and civilized resolution. Pauling saw the matter differently, claiming that Roberts had expressed little regard for his orthomolecular research. Though the issue of space allocation was ultimately passed on to a committee that came to a compromise requiring Pauling to give up less space than initially proposed, the conflict was one of many reasons why, at the end of 1963, Pauling ultimately decided to seek opportunities elsewhere.

When Pauling decided to leave Caltech, Roberts was the second person that Pauling told, the first being Ava Helen. Shortly after Pauling resigned, Roberts offered him an honorary position of sorts, as a research associate. Pauling accepted, with the caveat that he not have an office, a salary, or duties. But Pauling’s continuing involvement with Caltech was important to Roberts, who valued Pauling’s scientific legacy and never took issue with the political stances that had led to soured relationships with so many others in Pasadena. Reflecting specifically on Pauling’s work as an activist, Roberts said

It seems to me that, in the long run, you do better to be known as a bastion of integrity than as a weather vane, responsive only to the directions whence the money winds blow.

Though no longer close scientific colleagues, Pauling and Roberts continued to exchange letters and Christmas cards for the rest of Pauling’s life.


Roberts family holiday card, with accompanying diagram. 1993.

Meanwhile, Roberts was writing extensively. In 1959, he published Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, an influential text which included his own color illustrations. In 1977, he and Marjorie Caserio, one of his post-doctoral fellows, co-authored Basic Principles of Organic Chemistry, the manuscript of which Pauling had helped to edit. Roberts spoke with pride of sending his four children to Stanford by giving them the copyright to another successful book, Organic Chemistry: Methane to Macromolecules, which he co-authored with Ross Stewart. Roberts was also very active with the National Science Foundation, evaluating projects and grant proposals.

In 1980, Roberts received the Linus Pauling Medal from the Puget Sound and Oregon sections of the American Chemical Society, a distinction rewarding contributions to chemistry that have attracted national and international recognition. In 1987, Roberts received an even more prestigious decoration, the Priestley Medal, which is the highest honor bestowed by the American Chemical Society and an award that Pauling himself had received three years prior. In his acceptance speech, Roberts praised Caltech as having been “the ideal place” for him to pursue his scientific career. He likewise affirmed Pauling’s scientific work and his political activism as well, stating

I am glad that Linus is also associated with Priestley, not only for his contributions to chemistry, but even more for his adherence to the same high moral and social principles. Chemistry – indeed the world – needs more men and women with not only the ideas of Priestley and Pauling, but also with the same willingness to work to establish those ideals in a far-from-perfect world.

From 1980-1983, Roberts served as Caltech’s provost, vice president, and dean of faculty. He officially retired in 1988, but continued to mentor students well into his nineties as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship at Caltech, providing the same inspiration and encouragement that he himself had received at the Institute’s open houses during his youth. Roberts also reveled in the achievements of his children and his students, writing, in his autobiography, “One does not achieve in a vacuum—people are needed, not only to help, but to appreciate. 

At the time of his death, Roberts had taught at Caltech for over sixty years and had earned honorary degrees from the University of Notre Dame, the University of Munich, and Temple University. In 1998, he was named one of the seventy-five most influential chemists of the last seventy-five years. He later received the National Academy of Science Award for Chemistry in Service to Society (2009) and the American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal (2013). He will be remembered as a pioneer in physical organic chemistry, an extraordinary scientist, and an invaluable mentor.

The Nixon Doctrine and the End of the Vietnam War


An image of the April 24, 1971 March on Washington, as held in the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers. The Paulings participated in a companion march held in San Francisco that same day.

[Pauling and the Vietnam War, Part 7 of 7]

“The American people are now learning the truth about the war…our entry into it on a great scale without even a request from South Vietnam…the corruption, the complete absence of a rational and moral goal…and the American people are now determined to bring this madness to an end.”

-Linus Pauling, 1969

In September 1969, Ho Chi Minh died at the age of seventy-nine and was replaced by Premier Pham Van Dong. At this same time, the anti-war movement was gaining considerable strength in the United States. In October, a “Vietnam Moratorium Day” was declared, during which students and faculty alike walked off of campuses across the country to talk about the war with members of their community.

At Stanford University, Linus Pauling, who had recently taken a position there as a visiting lecturer, was a central figure in this event. On the evening of the moratorium, he delivered a speech in which he proclaimed that the American people were finally learning the truth about the Vietnam War and the United States’ “cold blooded” ambition to retain control of Southeast Asia as part of a Western capitalist “economic sphere.” He delivered a similar message a month later in a talk given at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. A story on the event, published in the Montgomery Advertiser, quoted Pauling as follows:

We – you and I and the majority of Americans – who are going to stop this war, are now face to face in opposition to the small group of rich and powerful people who are using their power to keep the war going, year after year: the people who benefit from the war, the military-industrial complex, the Pentagon and the war contractors who get the 15 billion dollars per year of excess profits on the guns, bombs, Napalm, planes and other instruments of war; and also the politicians, such as President Nixon, who are indebted to them.

The United States’ new President, Richard Nixon, had begun the troop withdrawals that he had promised on the campaign trail the year before. His plan, dubbed the
Nixon Doctrine, was to build up the Army of South Vietnam to the point where they could take over the defense of their own country. This policy came to be known as “Vietnamization.” Meanwhile, China and the Soviet Union continued to supply the North Vietnamese – and by extension the National Liberation Front – with aid. By 1970, Nixon announced that 150,000 U.S. soldiers would be withdrawn over the next year, thus reducing the American troop presence by about 265,500 people from the time when he had entered office.

However, at the same time, Nixon ordered a massive increase in bombing along the Vietnam-Cambodia border, and likewise redeployed many of the withdrawn troops to areas along the coast or just outside of Vietnam. These actions incited huge protests by those outraged by the President’s apparent subversion of his promise to de-escalate the war effort.

Pauling was among those who protested, speaking out in particular against the bombing incursions into Cambodia.  While attending a benefit in support of the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment to End the War, Pauling also declared that it had made him “sick” when Nixon stated before Congress that he would draw down troop numbers, and then, “five days later,” sent aircraft and ground troops to Cambodia. In response, Pauling suggested that everyone in the Bay Area “get sick” and take a week off of work. He explained his rationale as such:

When everyone is sick, the work stops, the economy is slowed down. If there is such an epidemic here, during the next week, it might spread over the whole country! Let our slogan be, “We’re sick of the war.”

Illness of another sort was also on Pauling’s mind. Around the same time that he proposed calling in sick to work, Pauling also recorded a radio address for KPFK-FM in Los Angeles on the subject of defoliant use in Vietnam. By 1968, he explained, 500,000 acres of cropland had been destroyed in Vietnam through the use of herbicides, some of which contained arsenic compounds. Not only did this action purposely lead to the starvation and death of civilians – especially the young and elderly – but Pauling attested that four scientists returning from South Vietnam with samples of food, hair, mother’s milk, and other substances had found them to be contaminated by these highly toxic herbicides.

Moreover, some of the herbicides being used in the war effort were not only very lethal but also very stable, and Pauling emphasized that these poisonous compounds would remain in the ecosystems of Vietnam for many years. Pauling further pointed out that several of the herbicides had been developed deliberately for the purpose of crop destruction as a tool of war by E.J. Kraus, the chairman of the Botany department at the University of Chicago. Pauling saw this as a violation of the proper role of university research, and cast aspersions upon the influence that the military and corporate war profiteers alike were gaining with respect to his academic colleagues’ research agendas.


The Paulings at an unidentified peace rally, possibly the April 24, 1971 San Francisco companion event to the March on Washington.

As these and other horrors of the Vietnam War gained increasing media traction, the anti-war movement, and the concurrent withdrawal of troops, continued. In 1971, Australia and New Zealand withdrew their complements of soldiers, and the American troop count was likewise further reduced to 196,700, with the return of an additional 45,000 troops promised for 1972. But even as this significant drawdown in ground forces was underway, significant U.S. naval and air might remained in the Gulf of Tonkin, as well as in Thailand and Guam.

From Pauling’s perspective, the major problem now hampering on-going peace talks in Paris was President Nixon’s continuing support of Generals Thieu and Ky of South Vietnam, political figureheads who had been put into power following a United States-sanctioned coup that had resulted in the assassination of the previous leader, President Diem. Both the North and many citizens of South Vietnam now refused to acknowledge these men as representatives of the provisional government of South Vietnam, and negotiations predictably suffered as a consequence.

In May 1972, a group based in Ann Arbor, Michigan and calling itself Hostages for Peace organized an extraordinary measure in an attempt to curb the violence in Southeast Asia. The group circulated a pledge which read as follows:

We, the undersigned American citizens, declare our willingness to go to Hanoi and Haiphong, and to declare ourselves Peace Hostages to protect Vietnamese citizens and American prisoners of war from American bombing. We each agree to spend at least two weeks in northern Vietnam until all the bombing of the area of the country stops and until all American military personnel and meteriel are removed from Indochina.

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling signed this pledge, agreeing to use themselves, effectively, as human shields against further American bombardment of North Vietnam. It was a courageous and potentially deadly commitment that the couple would, thankfully, not be called upon to realize.


“Hostages for Peace Pledge.” May 6, 1972.

On January 15, 1973, just weeks after a major bombing offensive had decimated what remained of North Vietnam’s economic and industrial capacity, President Nixon ended all military action against the North. The Paris Peace Accords were signed twelve days later, officially ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. A cease-fire was subsequently declared across North and South Vietnam, and U.S. prisoners of war were released. The agreement guaranteed the territorial integrity of Vietnam and, like the Geneva Conference of 1954, called for national elections in the North and the South.

In other words, the conditions that Ho Chi Minh had made clear to Linus Pauling in 1965, and which Pauling had argued in favor of for the past eight years, had now been codified as an international agreement. In that time, it is estimated that anywhere from 800,000 to just over a million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on all sides were killed, in addition to 200,000 Cambodians and 60,000 Laotians. Over 58,000 U.S. soldiers also lost their lives, with more than 1,500 still missing in action.

Tragically, like the Geneva Accords before them, the Paris Peace Accords were quickly broken. In 1974, the Viet Cong resumed military operations, and South Vietnam’s President Thieu declared that the Paris agreement was no longer in effect.

But this time, no American help arrived. In 1975, President Gerald Ford requested that Congress fund the re-supply of South Vietnam to defeat the National Liberation Front, who were now aided by a formal North Vietnamese invading force that was well-equipped, in large part, by other communist countries. Ford’s request was refused, and on April 27th, 100,000 North Vietnamese troops encircled Saigon, shelling the city while American helicopters evacuated vulnerable South Vietnamese citizens until the North’s tanks finally breached the lines of the South Vietnamese Army and captured the city.

In July 1976, North and South Vietnam were merged to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and, over the next ten years, more than one million South Vietnamese were sent to reeducation camps, with as many as 165,000 dying as a result.

After the war’s end, Linus Pauling carefully filed away the letters, the posters from various protests and anti-war lectures, and the memories of a long and bitter conflict. Included in these papers was correspondence concerning the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s 26th celebration of nationhood in 1971. Though he was not in Hanoi for the event, Pauling had been in contact with a group that was, National Peace Action Coalition representatives Judy Lerner, David McReynolds, James and Patricia Lafferty, Joseph Urgo, and Ruth Colby.

The group had been met by the Peoples’ Coalition for Peace and Justice of North Vietnam, which hosted their visit. At the birthday celebration, where Premier Pham Van Dong declared the regime of the south fascist and called for the peoples of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to unite to gain, “freedom, independence, peace and friendship, happiness and prosperity” for all of Indochina, the Americans were invited to make a statement of their own. Taking the stage, they articulated their feelings as best as they could:

No words of ours can fully express how deeply we have been moved by the way in which we have been received. We, citizens of a nation that has brought such terrible suffering to the peoples of Indochina, have been received as friends. The people of Vietnam understand that it is the rulers of the United States and not its citizens who are the enemy of the Vietnamese. One of our members is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and it would have been natural if he had been received with hostility. Instead, the guide in the War Museum embraced him with tears in his eyes – a simple human encounter which lifted both men above the level of being Vietnamese or American, to the level of brothers who suffered together in this, the most tragic war America has ever waged.

As North Vietnam celebrated its independence – an independence that had never been gained by South Vietnam – the American delegation in Hanoi affirmed again that, as the anti-war movement in the United States continued to swell, they would do everything in their power to end the conflict. This was a cause to which Linus and Ava Helen Pauling likewise devoted considerable energy over a full decade, and one that ultimately – through the pressure placed upon the governments involved by many such individuals throughout the world – played an important role in ending the Vietnam War.

Sharpening Rhetoric, Sad Conclusions


Flyer for a joint Chomsky-Pauling presentation, Montreal, 1967

[Pauling and the Vietnam War, part 6 of 7]

As the 1960s moved forward, Linus Pauling’s interest in contributing to an academic circle that resolutely rejected the Vietnam War continued to strengthen. A participant in several past petitions, Pauling co-authored another such document in June 1967, a “Scientists’ Appeal for Vietnam,” signed by a collection of scientific all stars including Nobel laureates Pauling, Lord John Boyd Orr, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Alfred Kastler, André Michel Lwoff, C.F. Powell, Bertrand Russell, R.L.M. Synge, and Albert Szent-Györgyi. Additional signatories included Pauling’s close friend J.D. Bernal, an influential x-ray crystallographer and peace activist; neurologist and president of the Association of Scientific Workers Harry Grundfest; Soviet biochemist Alexander Oparin; and an Indian scientist and activist, S. Hussain Zaheer.

The Scientists’ Appeal decried escalating American violence in Vietnam, pointing out that U.S. aggression was being mounted in direct opposition to strong world opinion against the war. In addition to publicly denouncing American foreign policy in Southeast Asia, each of the appeal’s signatories also reaffirmed their commitment to international science by donating one day’s salary to help buy books for the University of Hanoi and to support the continued functioning of scientific laboratories in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

About a month before the appeal was released, Pauling attended a second Pacem in Terris conference, held this time in Geneva, Switzerland. Working through the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a Santa Barbara-based international think tank where he was a fellow, Pauling helped to coordinate the convocation.

One of the more pressing agenda items on the conference planner’s wishlist was the need to highlight the Vietnamese viewpoint on the war and, if possible, to bring National Liberation Front delegates to the podium for European and American participants to see and hear. In pursuing this, the World Council of Peace acted as intermediary, handling letters between Linus Pauling and the Vietnam Peace Committee. However, citing an inability to travel due to the escalating conflict in North and South Vietnam, neither representatives from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam nor from the National Liberation Front attended the event.


Pauling note to self, May 2, 1967

By the time that Pauling arrived in Geneva, he had established himself as a leading academic voice against the Vietnam War. Perhaps most notably, in an anti-war mobilization that took place in New York in mid-April 1967, Pauling and his wife joined a huge march to the United Nations Plaza, where Pauling then delivered an address to an audience estimated at 300,000 people. In a note to himself written a couple of weeks later, Pauling paraphrased his remarks as follows:

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. My country is waging an evil and savage war on the other side of the world, against a small, poor country. We are using jet bombers, napalm, and other cruel weapons to kill and maim the poor people of this country who believe that they are fighting for their freedom and homes against the foreign oppressor. I want to be proud of my country. I want my country to lead the world in morality, not immorality. I hope that this wicked war will soon be brought to an end.

Around the same time, Pauling made another strong statement, this time to the Students for a Democratic Society:

It is the duty of every American to oppose the policy of military aggression in Southeast Asia that is being followed by our government, the government of the United States…We are now waging an immoral and inhumane war, with use of chemical defoliating, nauseating, and lachrymatory agents, phosphorous bombs, and other terrible weapons, against the people of an underdeveloped country who are fighting for freedom and self-determination. Our government has initiated an attack on North Vietnam that may grow into a nuclear catastrophe that would destroy our civilization.

Similarly, in an advertisement published in The New York Review of Books titled “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority,” Pauling offered his support for the “moral outrage” of young men who found that the American war in Vietnam was so offensive that they could not contribute in any way. It read, in part

Some are resisting openly and paying a heavy penalty, and some are organizing more resistance within the United States and some have sought sanctuary in other countries…We believe that each of these forms of resistance against illegitimate authority is courageous and justified.

The notice was signed by over 100 public figures, Noam Chomsky, Allen Churchill, Allen Ginsberg, Jane Fonda, Ronald Dellums, and Linus Pauling included.


The McMaster University Silhouette, October 20, 1967

As his views about the war sharpened and his rhetoric grew equally pointed, Pauling’s anger at the present situation became increasingly palpable. Speaking on multiple occasions at universities and elsewhere, Pauling made clear that he had abandoned the search for negotiations that had marked his public stance two years prior. In its place was an increasingly polarized viewpoint that had shifted from a hoped for solution to a complex problem, to abject condemnation and disgust.

This point of view was on clear display in August 1967, at a Hiroshima Day demonstration held in Los Angeles. Speaking there in observance of the nuclear attack on Japan some twenty-two years earlier, Pauling took the opportunity to focus on Vietnam.

The crime of Hiroshima was excused by President Truman as needed to save the lives of American soldiers. This is false. It was an act of the Cold War against the Soviet Union….Friends, fellow citizens of the United States of America, my fellow Americans: We are criminals, you and I, the members of Congress, President Lyndon B. Johnson—we are all criminals….If President Johnson had to kill – shoot, burn to death – ten Vietnamese women and children every morning before breakfast, the war would soon end.

But the public did not see the true victims of the war, the war in its totality, nor the cost on both sides, and this, Pauling contended, was one of the many great lies that kept it going.

Moreover, Vietnam was only one part of a bigger picture that Pauling now begged the public to recognize. Rich nations – the United States being chief among them – had profited tremendously from the suppression of human rights campaigns, with profits from investments in poor and underdeveloped countries doubling over the past ten years.

This continuing state of affairs, Pauling argued, was enforced by the might of a United States military that now spanned the globe. Likewise, the U.S. had tactically distributed $48 billion in munitions to militant proxy groups in numerous countries over the past sixteen years.

In short, the scope of the problem was not limited to Vietnam. Rather, Pauling now felt that Vietnam was merely the most tragic and horrific example of what the United States had become in the Cold War Era: a economic and military empire willing to arm groups around the world that were beholden to American interests or, as needed, unleash its own military directly.


Launching an Offensive Against the War


[Pauling and the Vietnam War, Part 5 of 7]

“If President Johnson had to kill – shoot, burn to death – ten Vietnamese women and children every morning before breakfast, the war would soon end.”

-Linus Pauling, 1967

By early 1965, convinced that the United States government was the primary obstacle to initiating a cease-fire and subsequent negotiations in Vietnam, Linus Pauling increasingly began to go on the offensive against the war.

In February, he delivered a major public address at the Pacem in Terris convocation, which was held in New York City, stating that, for thousands of years, throughout “the entire period for which we have historical knowledge,” war was one of the principal causes of human suffering. “I believe that we have now reached the time in the course of the evolution of civilization when war must be abolished from the world,” Pauling thundered from the podium. Armed conflict must be replaced by a system of world law, he added, one “based upon the principles of justice and morality.”

Pauling returned to New York in March to participate in a peace parade and rally, walking with fellow protesters from 5th Avenue to the Central Park mall, where he delivered another speech decrying the war as both immoral and illegal.


Dean Rusk

Developments in Vietnam made it increasingly important that those who opposed the war speak out forcefully. By the summer of 1965, the American ground war had been authorized by President Johnson, an action that marked a profound departure from the administration’s previous insistence that the government of South Vietnam bear the responsibility for defeating the National Liberation Front (NLF). Due to continued losses by and falling enrollment within the army of South Vietnam, U.S. ground troops were deployed in a new strategy that had now switched from defensive to offensive.

This drastic change was deemed necessary as the NLF was seen by U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk, as a front for North Vietnamese hostilities and nothing more. Moreover, the the North’s aggression was not meant to unify the nation under a democratic regime, but represented instead a policy of communist expansion that enjoyed at least tacit support from China and Russia.

Rusk’s premise was one that Pauling had specifically rejected. In particular, Pauling pointed out that Rusk’s opinion on the plausibility of negotiations either distorted or, at times, ignored the actual position of the NLF, a stance that had been made clear in August 1965 and which made headlines in Europe, if not the United States.

The crucial detail that the Rusk and the American media had failed to communicate was that the NLF’s Five Point Declaration – a document based on the four-point plan that Ho Chi Minh had earlier communicated to Pauling and to the world – did not stipulate that U.S. troops be withdrawn as a precondition to negotiations. In fact, it called only for a freeze in the build-up of American troops, for a concurrent cease-fire, and for American agreement that the NLF to be brought to the negotiating table as a direct party or state entity. The NLF’s end goal for any ensuing negotiations would be a return to the 1954 Geneva Accord, an agreement that Washington had once purported to support as well.

The failure to act on or even move toward this opportunity was, for Pauling, a clear indication that the United States was not interested in ending the conflict. In December, Pauling wrote a statement to this effect, which was divided into two parts and aired on WPTR radio in Albany, New York. In the broadcast, Pauling reiterated these beliefs in an attempt to correct the broad American assumption that the North Vietnamese were not inclined to enter negotiations.


McGeorge Bundy

Prior to 1965, some of the most prominent academics commenting on the war were doing so in support of the war effort. Among them were McGeorge Bundy, William Bundy and W.W. Rostow, each of whom was an academic who held a position of influence on foreign policy in Vietnam. With the deployment of American troops in 1965, an equal and opposite cohort of thinkers had coalesced, and Pauling got the idea of calling for a meeting between representatives of this group, of which he was a part, and the Bundy group.

Pauling’s argument against the Bundy point of view was that a war could not be fought without clear enemies and allies. Assuming this, and based on the United States’ stated policy as well as the targets that it had already struck, it was unclear how enemy was being discriminated from ally. Indeed, insurgent groups were being attacked at undisclosed targets in not only South Vietnam, but also North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, a fact that was largely hidden from public view in the United States.

Likewise, the United States was increasingly acting as a lone military force: though Washington encouraged its allies to contribute troops, and while Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines had all agreed to do so, major allies including Canada and the United Kingdom had declined the request

Meanwhile, the political situation in South Vietnam was becoming increasingly unstable. Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky and a figurehead Chief of State, General Nguyen Van Thieu, had risen to power following the assassination of President Diem and a series of internal coups that followed. Further complicating matters was the face that war in Vietnam was never declared, and Pauling argued forcefully that, as such, American military action continued to be undertaken, in effect, unconstitutionally.

The issue of legality extended to international law as well, with the U.S. acting in apparent violation of the charter of the United Nations, which required members to refrain from the use of force until all attempts to settle a dispute were exhausted. Likewise, the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which defined crimes against humanity, and the Geneva Accords of 1954 all seemed to have been violated by the United States’ entry into the conflict.

Pauling’s position against the war was encapsulated in a a personal letter that he sent to McGregor Bundy in April 1965. If the real reason that a cease-fire was not possible was the communist aspiration for victory by force, Pauling asked, then would the United States in fact support free elections in Vietnam even if doing so resulted in a democratically elected and unified communist Vietnam?

If an answer came, it does not remain extant. Regardless, by the middle of the 1960s, Pauling had increasingly come to agree with the point of view that the war in Vietnam was principally being fought to contain communism and to protect American economic interests.

If this were true, then the American government, under both Kennedy and Johnson, had deliberately misled the American people – a suspicion that was confirmed for Americans in 1971 with the unsanctioned release of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Pauling’s shifting perspective and his increasingly vocal activities during this time displayed his growing lack of confidence in his country’s leadership, another example of the broken trust that many other Americans were feeling as the 1960s moved forward.

Struggling to Find Common Ground


George W. Ball and President Lyndon Johnson, ca. 1965. Image credit: George W. Ball Papers, Princeton University.

[Pauling and the Vietnam War, Part 4 of 7]

Almost as soon as he had received it, Linus Pauling sent a copy of Ho Chi Minh’s letter of November 17, 1965 to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. While the letter contained some “strongly worded” rhetoric about the United States, Pauling wrote, these were to be expected from the leader of a small country that was undergoing significant aerial bombardment from a world power.

In Pauling’s view, the more loaded statements made in the letter were relatively unimportant. Rather, Pauling highlighted Ho Chi Minh’s aspirations for peace as the crux of his response, pointing out that his four-point prescription for resolution was not described as a prerequisite for the initiation of negotiations. Indeed, Pauling took pains to note (perhaps with some measure of concern) that Minh had not called for negotiations as a means to achieve a peaceful resolution at all. Nonetheless, he believed that the Vietnamese leader’s hopes for peace in his country could prevail if the United States initiated negotiations for strategic withdrawal and cease-fire.

The response from Washington to Pauling’s letter came not from President Johnson himself, but from the administration’s Under Secretary of State, George W. Ball. Ball’s stated position was much the same as that conveyed to Pauling and Corliss Lamont by McGeorge Bundy in 1962. Ball wrote that, in its dealings with the North Vietnamese, the United States government had given its support to “every one of the many efforts to open the way to unconditional negotiation.”

In this, Ball implied that the inability to negotiate a cease-fire was not the fault of the US, but rather the doing of the National Liberation Front, or perhaps the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi. Pauling questioned this implication, arguing instead that since the United States did not view the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam as a legitimate political entity and viable negotiating partner, the U.S. shared at least some culpability in perpetuating the war.

Though addressed by George Ball, Pauling responded directly to President Johnson:

The possibility that this belief is correct is supported by the last paragraph in the letter sent to me by Under Secretary Ball, which reads as follows: ‘We give the same support to your appeal. We hope it may help to persuade the government of Hanoi and the government of Peking that this conflict should be moved to the conference table.’ I am accordingly writing to ask you the following question: Does the United States government refuse to negotiate with all of the governments and parties concerned in the war in Vietnam, including the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, or is the government of the United States willing to negotiate with all of the governments and parties concerned in this tragic conflict?

The response to Pauling’s letter came, once again, from George Ball, and he did not directly answer Pauling’s question. Rather, Ball replied that the National Liberation Front was “exactly what its name connotes,” a front for North Vietnamese aggression against South Vietnam. From the perspective of the White House, the NLF held no standing under international law, enjoyed only coerced support from the people of South Vietnam, and had no ability to survive except as a tool of the regime in Hanoi.

“To this day, Hanoi is directing its activities and supplying it with essential men and materiel,” Ball lamented, adding that, “if the North Vietnamese regime were to decide to negotiate in good faith on an unconditional basis, it would find no difficulty in making a place for representatives of the Liberation Front on its own delegation.”

For the United States, the key term that might lead to negotiations was that the revolutionaries leading the resistance in South Vietnam speak at the negotiating table solely through the established leadership of the North Vietnamese government. Crucially, the American government claimed that it was willing to respect the conventions of the Geneva Accords, which both North Vietnam and the NLF also wished to see respected. Since both sides seemed to agree on this and yet no cease-fire had come about, Pauling concluded that the United States was not being honest in stating its support for a return to the 1954 accords.

Fellow Nobel Peace laureate Philip Noel-Baker, a member of the House of Commons in England, concurred. Noel-Baker wrote to Pauling to say that he “warmly” agreed with Pauling’s view that the point to be cleared up was whether or not Ho Chi Minh was making pre-conditions for the discussions about a cease-fire – such as a demand for the withdrawal of American troops – for negotiations to begin. Like Pauling, Baker and others in the British government believed that Hanoi and the NLF were more than willing to come to the table if they were allowed to do so. He concluded that it was “disingenuous of your Government and mine to throw doubt on the point.”


Ho Chi Minh in his study.

In December 1965, Pauling responded to Ho Chi Minh and reported that his letter of November 17th had been interpreted in a variety of ways. Depending on the point of view of the reader, different conclusions could be reached from the letter on the crucial point of whether or not the North Vietnamese were actually willing to enter into negotiations unconditionally. Pauling pressed his correspondent for more details:

I accordingly now write to ask you the following question: Is the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Vietnam willing to begin negotiations that would lead to a cease-fire and a peaceful settlement of the Vietnam War without making any conditions as prerequisites to the beginning of the discussions?

As indicated in his exchange with Philip Noel-Baker, the core issue for Pauling was whether North Vietnam would require that American troops withdraw entirely, or require that all the conditions of the Geneva Accords of 1954 be upheld, before negotiations began.

In February 1966, another letter arrived from Hanoi. After apologizing for delays in his response due to difficulties in North Vietnam with communications, Ho Chi Minh addressed Pauling’s question:

The way to peace is: The United States must stop their aggression. It must strictly respect the fundamental national rights of the Vietnamese people as recognized by the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Viet Nam. That is the way which has been clearly pointed out by the March 22, 1965 Statement of the South Viet Nam National Liberation and the four-point stand of the Government of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam… If the U.S. Government really wants a peaceful settlement, it must recognize the four-point stand of the government of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam…it must end definitively and unconditionally the air raids and all other war acts against the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam.

Another telegram, this one arriving in May 1967, reaffirmed this stance. The Vietnamese people, Minh declared, had produced their “Four Point Stand,” which embodied the main principles and provisions put forth by the 1954 Geneva Accords on Vietnam. “In my reply to U.S. President Johnson I made clear our goodwill and charter serious path to talks between DV and USA,” Minh communicated in the telegram. “USA must unconditionally stop bombing and all other war acts. But US Authorities do not want peace, and are intensifying war in both zones of Vietnam.”