Pauling and the Moon

Herblock editorial cartoon published in the Washington Post, November 1963.

Herblock editorial cartoon published in the Washington Post, November 1963.

[Post 2 of 2 marking the centenary of Jerome Wiesner’s birth]

When Linus Pauling traveled to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1963, he stepped off the plane and was filled with indignance. At first he couldn’t be sure, but after a few minutes it was clear: contrary to well-established convention, no representative of the U.S. government had arranged to meet him at the airport.

Pauling participated in the ceremonies as scheduled, but he did not forget this slight. On December 13th, two days after he delivered his Nobel lecture, Pauling wrote to his friend, Jerome Wiesner

The Nobel Ceremonies were fine. They were marred only by the boycott by the American Embassy. Usually the ambassador of the country of the Laureate is at the airport to greet him, at the prize ceremony, at the banquet, and at the Nobel Lecture. Day before yesterday Director Gunnar Jahn, the chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament, told me that a member of the U.S. Embassy staff had come to see him (about another matter), and that he (Jahn) had said, ‘You go back and tell your Ambassador that his behavior this year has been an affront to the Norwegian Nobel Committee.’

Wiesner had just concluded a three-year stint as Chairman of the President’s Committee on Scientific Affairs (PSAC) and Pauling thought that Wiesner might possibly have access to information about the government’s failure to acknowledge Pauling’s prize.

Wiesner, however, could only offer a guess that the government officials were too busy with other affairs to greet Pauling at the airport, a notion that Pauling had already dismissed out of hand. Rather, Pauling was convinced that the embassy simply chose not to acknowledge his efforts to promote world peace because these activities often led him to denounce the government’s projects and ambitions.


North Mankato (Minnesota) Free Press, May 6, 1963.

North Mankato (Minnesota) Free Press, May 6, 1963.

Regardless of the justifications that Pauling was given regarding this incident, it is interesting to note that he had a friend in the White House during some of the most tumultuous years of his public life. The year 1963 was one during which Pauling both received perhaps the highest-profile award that an individual can receive – the Nobel Peace Prize – and also decided to end his tenure of over four decades at Caltech, all due to resistance to his political views and activism.

And while he was recognized around the world as an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons testing and proliferation, Pauling also made headlines in 1963 for a reason that is less well-known to most: his failure to support space exploration. It is thus ironic that one of the few people who agreed with him was precisely Jerome Wiesner, a high-level advisor serving in the White House that Pauling so commonly criticized.

Indeed, Wiesner and Pauling’s friendship was centered on policy issues of mutual interest; despite the fact that each lived on opposite sides of the country, they kept in contact primarily through sharing ideas on nuclear weaponry and space exploration. Both Pauling and Wiesner believed the two issues to be of paramount importance. And while each man had slightly different reasons for taking this shared position, both also strongly believed that the federal government needed to change course.


One of Jerome Wiesner’s core beliefs was that the national government should place an emphasis on providing a robust funding infrastructure – post-graduate fellowships, for instance – for scientific minds to pursue their own research agendas as they progressed through their careers. Doing so, Wiesner felt, would secure the importance of scientific endeavors and technological advances in the United States.

Pauling agreed with Wiesner’s position, but as an activist not formally affiliated with the government, he was much more free to parse the details of where the money was going. He could see, for example, that there were benefits to be gained by exploring outer space and developing nuclear technologies, but he was very uncomfortable with the fact that these technologies would being developed for use in war. Likewise, he took issue with the fact that the federal government continued to spend money on weapons that put the public at further risk, when that same money could be used to fund research that, in his view, would improve quality of life for many.

bio6.008.440-1

In October 1963, news reporters across the country published articles describing one of Pauling’s more public declarations of opposition to the U.S. space program. During a lecture commemorating the National Academy of Sciences’ 100th anniversary, Pauling stated that “Something is wrong with our system of values when we plan to spend billions of dollars for national prestige.”

Pauling’s comment referred to the common understanding that a driving force behind American space exploration was a perceived need to match and surpass the Soviet Union’s achievements. In this, Pauling expressed agreement with Wiesner’s own criticisms of the moonshot efforts. Both believed that the moon project alone was absorbing too much money and that, although useful, these efforts would not provide the same volume of proportional benefits that other forms of scientific research could.

Pauling couched his criticism of the space program by emphasizing his opinion that the U.S. government needed to reject the perceived need to match or stay ahead of the Soviets’ technological advances. Instead, the U.S. should focus on decreasing human suffering, a core principle of Pauling’s own belief system. Pauling’s personal interest in medicine also led him to state, perhaps hyperbolically, that it would be possible to “answer 1,000 interesting and important questions about the human body for every one question answered about the moon.” News reporters further noted that, at the National Academy of Sciences celebration, Pauling had suggested that scientists had the knowledge to combat many diseases but simply lacked the money to test their ideas.

bio6.008.440-2

It is both important and interesting to note that Pauling’s critique of the moonshot at the NAS celebration was actually a very small detail of his evening. In fact, Pauling’s talk, which was on chemical structure, did not mention the moon initiative at all, though he did bring it up immediately following the conclusion of his formal remarks. Nonetheless, reporters focused on the critique and rapidly disseminated Pauling’s ideas. And after his talk, Pauling was chided by NAS President Frederick Seitz, who told Pauling in a private meeting that the event was “a birthday party and not a forum for a political discussion.”

As with Wiesner before him, Pauling’s stance on the moon project was met with significant criticism. And, of course, the U.S. did continue to move forward with the project, famously landing an astronaut on the moon’s surface in July 1969. Their criticisms of the space program proved to be another instance in which Wiesner and Pauling were forced to accept the government’s decisions. But this disappointment did not stanch either man’s desire to make their ideas known as both pursued public platforms for their activism for the remainder of their lives.

Remembering Jerome Wiesner

Science Advisor Jerome Wiesner sits in his office, 1 February 1963.  Photograph by Cecil Stoughton in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Scanned from original 2 1/4" neg.

Science Advisor Jerome Wiesner sits in his office, 1 February 1963. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton. Original held in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

[Marking the one-hundredth anniversary of Jerome Wiesner’s (1915-1994) birth. Post 1 of 2]

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy spoke at a joint session of Congress to request funds for sending an American to the moon. During his memorable speech, the president stated his belief “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” In an era of heightened patriotism, the president received staggering support from Congress and the people of the United States alike.

Kennedy’s speech was delivered at the height of the Cold War, a time during which the Soviet Union’s own ambitions to explore outer space were making many Americans uncomfortable. For the most part, Americans believed that it was necessary to match and surpass the Soviet Union’s achievements in space in order to secure the United States’ geopolitical power.

In addition to staying ahead of the Soviet Union’s efforts, Kennedy also hinted that there could be additional benefits to the United States’ space program even beyond Cold War positioning.  The President went so far as to state that space exploration could very well be “the key to our future on Earth.”


Jerome Wiesner, Joseph McConnell, John F. Kennedy and Harlan Cleveland in the Oval Office. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton. Original held in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Jerome Wiesner, Joseph McConnell, John F. Kennedy and Harlan Cleveland in the Oval Office. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton. Original held in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Kennedy’s remarks added fuel to an already heated debate over the proper relationship between science and federal policy. Following a trend that had begun during the First World War, Cold War scientific efforts had become particularly linked to national defense and, in Kennedy’s words, science had “emerged from a peripheral concern of government to an active partner.”

In 1951, well before Kennedy was known to most Americans, President Harry S. Truman had set up the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) to provide counsel on issues regarding science and technology. The committee was charged with conveying a refreshed scientific perspective to the top levels of political decision-making, but its members sometimes found themselves in an awkward position if they disagreed with the established views of those in office.

In February 1961 President Kennedy appointed Jerome Wiesner to the PSAC chairmanship. Wiesner was unique among the roster of past committee chairmen in that many of his ideas proved incongruous both with politicians in Washington and with many Americans at large. Of particular importance, and contrary to the President’s optimistic vision for the future of space travel, Wiesner was not at all convinced that sending a man to the moon would yield great advantages for the U.S., be it in terms of technological development or national defense.

Wiesner agreed that sponsoring technological development was a key to the success of the nation. However, he suggested that a more efficient and more effective mechanism for the government to adequately support science and technology was to provide stipends for post-graduate education. A more educated society, Wiesner argued, would be better equipped to meet its own scientific and technological needs.

The Cold War, however, developed within its own unique historical context, one defined in part by widespread anxiety. One outcome of this pervasive fear was an acceleration by which technologies could be advanced. Beginning with the instruments of war developed during World War II – most notably the atomic bombs – the perceived needs of national security propelled the creation of new technologies at a rate never seen before.

The Soviet Union’s launch into orbit of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957 racheted the levels of American cultural insecurity to new heights. With Sputnik, the American public peered into the night sky and literally saw tangible proof that its main enemy had created technologies that would allow it to surveil the country like never before. The seemingly endless possibilities of this breakthrough convinced many that a failure on the part of the U.S. to invest in science and technology would put the nation at grave risk. This fear ultimately created the cultural context by which it proved possible for President Kennedy to allocate an unprecedented amount money for the Apollo Space Program, now estimated to have cost over $170 billion in contemporary U.S. dollars.

Although the President and a significant portion of the American public were convinced that the space program was key to national security, Wiesner and others held firm in their belief that there existed better alternatives for protecting the nation from potential Soviet threat. Nonetheless, as chair of the PSAC, Wiesner was compelled to accept Kennedy’s determination to pursue the moonshot, and continued to advise the chief executive on other issues of science and technology.


Portraits of participants in the Second Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, March-April, 1958. Jerome Wiesner is depicted at bottom.

Portraits of participants in the Second Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, March-April, 1958. Jerome Wiesner is depicted at bottom.

It was at this time that Wiesner turned to an old friend, Linus Pauling, to inquire into the development of his opinions regarding issues of peace and world affairs.

Wiesner was especially interested in receiving Pauling’s counsel on the issue of nuclear testing. Like Pauling, Wiesner was an advocate of a test ban treaty and he wished to use his committee chairmanship to shade President Kennedy thinking in favor of an international agreement of this sort.

Indeed, Wiesner’s unique position gave him powerful influence over federal science policy for the years of his chairmanship, 1961-1963. These years happened to coincide with a period during which Pauling’s main professional focus was his peace activism, and having a strategically placed ally in the White House proved very beneficial to his many causes.

In corresponding with Wiesner, Pauling articulated his argument that the radiation released by nuclear weapons tests was a clear threat to the environment and to human health. Moreover, on a humanitarian level, Pauling felt strongly that the nuclear arms race, if left unchecked, would inevitably lead to new tragedies on the scale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if not worse. Through their exchange of letters, Wiesner and Pauling thus built a relationship rooted in discussion of issues that interested them: both believed in nuclear disarmament and both were interested in sharing their scientific and political arguments with broader audiences.

Page one of a handwritten letter from Linus Pauling to Jerome Wiesner, March 17, 1962.

Page one of a handwritten letter from Linus Pauling to Jerome Wiesner, March 17, 1962.

Once his formal involvement with the PSAC concluded (he was relieved of his position not long before Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963) Wiesner became more vocal in his opinions. In 1965 he published a series of essays, titled Where Science and Politics Meet, that were written during his tenure in the White House and that serve as evidence of Wiesner’s strong belief in nuclear disarmament, among other topics. Later, in the 1980s, Wiesner turned to the media and once again laid out his ideas on disarmament in two articles published in The New York Times.

Pauling and Wiesner continued to discuss the issues that they valued through letters and over the phone well into the 1980s. And while they did not ever formally join efforts – each lived on opposite sides of the country – the documentary evidence indicates that they kept one another in mind. At one point, Pauling even nominated him for an award, the Family of Man Award, because he thought of Wiesner as having played a key role in President Kennedy’s signing the partial test ban treaty, an act which directly led to Pauling’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963.

Colleagues and friends for many decades, Linus Pauling and Jerome Wiesner died within months of one another. Pauling passed away on August 19, 1994 and Wiesner died just over two months later, on October 21st.

The Pauling-Teller Debate: Fear and Loathing

Annotations by Linus Pauling, 1963.

Annotations by Linus Pauling, 1963.

[Part 5 of 5]

Once his televised debate with Edward Teller was concluded, Linus Pauling stated that the two would never meet again in a format of this type, as Pauling “considered [Telller’s] debating methods improper.”  And though the two would indeed never again confront one another in public, tensions continued to build, if mostly on the side of Pauling.

In the lectures that he gave over the decades that followed, Pauling would regularly make a point of countering Teller’s arguments.  Seeking to circulate his opposing viewpoint as widely as possible, Pauling likewise often wrote published responses to Teller’s articles and penned just as many (or more) unpublished letters to the editors of various journals that had printed Teller’s work.

In marginalia notes written on a 1963 New York Times article titled “Teller Test-Ban Warning,” which Teller published nearly five years after the debate took place, Pauling’s animosity toward his opponent is perfectly clear. Reacting to Teller’s statement, “I hope that patriotic Congressmen of both parties will resist the pressure of a public frightened by crisis and misled by the mirage of peace,” Pauling expresses himself with an uncommon level of vitriol.

HERE THE DEVIL IS SPEAKING, THE PERSONIFICATION of EVIL, THE FOE of MORALITY & GOODNESS, THE ENEMY of HUMANITY.


Program for an event sponsored by the New York chapter of SANE, 1959. Pauling has annotated: "We will all fry together when we fry/Three billion sizzling platters"; "We will all go together when we go/I dedicate this song to the man who has done so much to make the golden dream a reality - Dr. Edward Teller"

Program for an event sponsored by the New York chapter of SANE, 1959. Pauling has annotated: “We will all fry together when we fry/Three billion sizzling platters”; “We will all go together when we go/I dedicate this song to the man who has done so much to make the golden dream a reality – Dr. Edward Teller”

After the debate, Pauling pursued his activist platform in much the same vein as in his encounter with Teller, continuing to make the same points of contention and state the same facts.  But in doing so, he not only countered points made by Teller, he also began to argue against essentially anyone who spoke out positively on issues of nuclear weapons development or a future nuclear war.

In one such instance, his article “The Dead Will Inherit the Earth,” published in Frontier in November 1961, Pauling attacked prevailing arguments made in favor of fallout shelters and their ability to save large percentages of American lives.  Where Life magazine had suggested that fallout shelters might lead to survival rates as high as 95%, with Teller pegging the number closer to 90%, Pauling placed his own estimate at 0% within one year of hostilities. Such was Pauling’s estimation of the magnitude of any nuclear war that might be waged using the weapons that had been stockpiled and mobilized at that time.


Detail from "Enforcing an Atom Test Ban: Scientists Testify Before Joint Atomic Energy Comittee," Science, April 29, 1960. Annotation by Pauling.

Detail from “Enforcing an Atom Test Ban: Scientists Testify Before Joint Atomic Energy Comittee,” Science, April 29, 1960. Annotation by Pauling.

Indeed, the late 1950s were a unique moment in world history, a time period during which the future was uncertain both in terms of geopolitics as well as the continued health and well-being of humanity. At the heart of these tensions resided, of course, the development of weapons far more powerful than anything ever seen before. While, during World War II, nuclear devices were initially viewed as symbols of strength and as a hope for peace, for many they quickly came to embody all that is negative in human society after they were used in Japan.

Though their viewpoints on nuclear weapons clearly resided on polar opposites of this dichotomy, a singular menace lay at heart of much of Teller and Pauling’s rhetoric: the threat of a third World War, one which would be far worse than any previous war, potentially resulting in the elimination of human life from the planet.  This potential for crisis was a key factor in the escalation and continuation of the Cold War.

Both Pauling and Teller used these Cold War fears to bolster their arguments – clearly their positions would have carried far less weight without them.  In doing so, both men attempted, in their own specific ways, to use data and statements of fact to alleviate public ignorance surrounding nuclear technologies.  On the same token, both men also relied on a lack of conclusive data to make assumptions that would further support his point of view.


Summing Up

The 1958 debate, coupled with the books that both Pauling and Teller wrote later that year, demonstrate the broad diversity of ideas and tensions that surrounded the development and testing of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.  Likewise, the story of the confrontation that emerged between these two men is central to understanding arguments over the continuation or cessation of weapons testing and development, and the emotional nature of the Cold War era.

Teller professed a desire to believe in Pauling’s position that the U.S. could maintain peace through international cooperation, but he was never able to arrive at this point.  On the contrary, Teller, hardened by his own personal experiences as a Hungarian national, felt that the Communist bloc could not be trusted and that the U.S. ultimately had to keep the upper hand in nuclear technologies to keep its enemies in check. Teller viewed this tactic as the only route to avoiding a third World War. Deterrence, of course, required more weapons, and in order for new weapons to be developed, nuclear tests needed to continue.

As vehemently opposed as they were to one another’s perspectives, Pauling and Teller shared much in common. Their stances both emanated from their their views on the leading role that science should play in daily life, the need for scientists to be involved in the development of public policy, and the importance of developing policy through public dialogue.

Both men were also essentially arguing for the same, or similar, outcomes: the education of the public on scientific matters and a quick end to tensions with the Soviet Union.  Pauling and Teller likewise attempted to reach their rhetorical goals through a “translation” of science into language that laymen could understand. And although both hoped to change the minds of the public using reason and a better understanding of the facts at hand, each man ended up playing on fears in order to get their points across.

Though they went about it in very different ways, Linus Pauling and Edward Teller were both trying to prevent a third World War. Both agreed that war brings out the worst in humanity and that the next World War portended dire consequences.  But as the debate unfolded, their vastly different perspectives brought emotions to the surface, at times revealing personal beliefs on nuclear weapons and on each other. For Pauling, the animosity that he felt remained consistent throughout his life, as he continued to be publicly critical of Teller’s work and role in the development of the hydrogen bomb.

 

The Pauling-Teller Debate: Two Books That Followed

nuclear-future

Our Nuclear Future: Facts, Dangers and Opportunities. 1958.

[Part 4 of 5]

In the months following their televised 1958 debate, Linus Pauling and Edward Teller both published books that they believed would serve to educate the public on the real dangers associated with atomic development and testing.  And though their formal debate had long since passed, both men continued to spar with one another through their writings. As Ralph E. Lapp put it in his review of Pauling’s book,

Any meaningful review of Mr. Pauling’s No More War! must be related not only to the U.N. Report on Atomic Radiation but also Mr. Teller’s Our Nuclear Future published earlier this year.  As a matter of fact, No More War! might well be subtitled ‘A Reply to Edward Teller.’

Each book worked hard to couch its arguments in terms that readers, no matter their background, could understand.  Both books also sought to help citizens differentiate between “imaginary dangers,” “risks which are more real,” and risks that had been most neglected.  The two books likewise made use of Cold War fears over a potential war with the Soviet Union and pointed out that a future war of this sort would be far worse than anything experienced to date. In this, just as had been the case with their television appearance, Pauling and Teller alike used similar approaches to argue for very different points of view: Pauling emphasizing the need for disarmament and cooperation, Teller arguing in favor of peace assured through military might.


"No More War!" 1958.

“No More War!” 1958.

A primary goal of Edward Teller and Albert Latter’s book, Our Nuclear Future: Facts, Dangers and Opportunities, was to outline the science behind the development of nuclear weapons, as articulated for a lay audience. Teller felt a book of this sort was the best way to combat rising fear in the culture, and that it would allow readers to both understand the nature of radioactivity and to rationally assess the risks (relatively benign ones, in Teller’s view) posed by nuclear tests.

Conversely, throughout his book, No More War!, Linus Pauling discussed the harm that would befall current and future generations as a direct result of continued nuclear testing.  He also emphasized the idea of a single global community and the need to think responsibly about the entire world. This approach is clear from the outset, as Pauling writes in his preface

We are living through that unique epoch in the history of civilization when war will cease to be the means of settling great world problems…It is the development of great nuclear weapons that requires that war be given up, for all time…that from the giant of the kiloton nuclear bomb to the megaton monster…we can see for ourselves that our own future and the future of the human race depend upon our willingness and ability to cooperate, to work together in a worldwide attack on the great world problems.

Pauling’s emphasis on the need for humanity to remain united and to work together courses through the entire book.


Figure comparing estimates of wordwide fallout, as included in No More War!

Figure comparing estimates of wordwide fallout, as included in No More War!

Indeed, increases in the mutation rate and the threats that they posed to the human race comprised Pauling’s central argument in favor of ceasing nuclear tests.  Pauling believed that there was no safe threshold amount of radiation that a person could receive; any amount could prove harmful and potentially lead to leukemia, bone cancer, or other diseases linked to radiation. Conceptualized in this way, radiation was likened by Pauling as something worse than a poison.  For Pauling, a person could not receive a small, harmless dose of radiation like they could with certain poisons that are only dangerous in large quantities taken at one time.  Rather, radiation is a cumulative toxin and the lower values measured as fallout from nuclear tests were potentially just as damaging as high exposures, just not as immediately apparent.

At the other end of the spectrum, Teller downplayed the risks of fallout, basing his argument on the fact that environmental radiation is nothing new.  On the contrary, it has existed since the beginning of the Earth, meaning that every human, plant, and animal in existence is subjected daily to radioactivity and always has been and always will be.  In formulating his argument, Teller placed additional emphasis on the number of ways that environmental radiation can be taken up by the body and how geographic location influences these processes.  He also stressed that radiation could be acquired from seemingly trivial man-made sources as well, sources that most people thought little about.  Teller stated these man-made sources, such as medical x-rays or even wristwatches with illuminated hands, were more harmful than was the radioactivity from testing fallout.


Pauling's annotated copy of  Our Nuclear Future, with a New York Times review of the book tipped in.

Pauling’s annotated copy of Our Nuclear Future, with “a very poor” New York Times review of the book tipped in.

In writing No More War!, one of Pauling’s major objectives was to dispel any notion that there was wide disagreement among scientists as to the actual effects of radiation on humans. In doing so, he pointedly sought to discredit Teller and the Atomic Energy Commission as holding fringe opinions. When discussing Teller, he was especially critical, not only of his calculations and scientific acumen, but also of his views on democracy and education of the citizenry, views which Pauling claimed to be “out of place.”

Partly to combat increasing fears about environmental radioactivity, Teller suggested ramping up research and development of so-called “clean weapons” – i.e., weapons that did not produce radioactive fallout upon detonation. Teller believed clean weapons to be necessary and potentially very useful for purposes far beyond application in war.  A clean weapon might be used, for instance, to build a harbor.  Throughout Our Nuclear Future, Teller is clear in his advocacy of developing new weapons and testing them to make sure that they work.

Pauling strongly disagreed with Teller’s ideas concerning the development of a clean bomb, which Teller identified as a top reason why testing needed to continue.  Pauling likewise took offense at the use of the word “clean,” pointing out that so-called clean weapons still held the potential to kill millions of innocent people.  Furthermore, these new weapons were only promoting the culture of continued testing and thus, further radioactive fallout.


Though neither Our Nuclear Future nor No More War! pretended to be a cool analysis of fact, both used similar techniques, often based in scientific analysis, to try and persuade readers toward one of two very different points of view.  Both books also might be viewed as an extension of the debate that had been televised between Pauling and Teller in February 1958, with the two scientists continuing to jockey for position through a different public forum.

And while it is clear that Pauling and Teller were never going to agree on the fundamental nuclear issues of the time, both of their books made an impact. The New York Times placed both volumes on its list of outstanding books for the year and, in a different article, named both as among the necessary books with which to acquaint oneself in seeking to understand the nuclear debate.

The Pauling-Teller Debate: Coming Face-to-Face

 

Linus Pauling debating Edward Teller on the topic of nuclear fallout: “The Nuclear Bomb Tests…Is Fallout Overrated?” KQED-TV, San Francisco. February 20, 1958.

[Part 3 of 5]

An informed citizen is a good citizen.  This was a belief held by both Linus Pauling and Edward Teller.  As scientists the two likewise believed that the information they presented to the public must be specific and stripped of rhetoric. On the same token, it was also their obligation to spell out to the public their sense of the threats that loomed during the Cold War and to motivate their audience to respond to those threats. Perhaps most importantly, both men believed it imperative that the information that they provided be up-to-date and reflective of the idea that science is the most reliable source of information for the public.

In many respects then, Pauling and Teller were operating from principles that would seem to have been very close to one another. That the two men would present such differing viewpoints from such a similar basis of belief is illustrative of the confusion that prevailed in American society concerning fallout and nuclear weapons at the time of the Pauling-Teller debate.


The one and only televised debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller was held in San Francisco on February 20, 1958, and broadcast live by KQED television, a public broadcasting station located in the city. From the get-go, Pauling had a hard time.

As the debate commenced, Pauling opened with a plea to prevent nuclear war, and emphasized the pressing need that prevention start now.  Pauling’s speech was stilted and awkward though, and he stumbled over his words despite appearing to have been well-rehearsed.  For whatever reason, in his opening statement, Pauling did not come across like a man who was used to speaking in front of others about these ideas, although he gradually appeared more relaxed as the debate progressed.

Edward Teller and Linus Pauling with members of the media and a television crew at their 1958 debate.

Teller also began his opening statement in a staccato cadence similar to that used by his opponent, though he quickly warmed up to the audience and began to speak more candidly.  Teller also succeeded in letting his emotions show more clearly than did Pauling. Although this is not how most scientists of the era would think to present themselves, the display of emotions likely came across as more appealing to the debate audience.

One of the main points that Pauling tried to emphasize in the debate was that the cessation of nuclear development and testing would require the agreement of many people, both inside and outside of the U.S.  Pauling called for a collective effort “to solve international disputes by the application of man’s power of reason in a way that is worthy of the dignity of man.” He went on:

We must solve them by arbitration, negotiation, the development of international law, the making of international agreements that will do justice to all nations and to all peoples and will benefit all nations and all people

This process naturally would require large amounts of work on behalf of many people. Indeed, in order to achieve peace and stability, Pauling argued that levels of resources equivalent to those committed to create nuclear weapons needed to be expended in support of coming to an agreement. A commitment, in other words, “comparable to that of the forty billion dollars a year that we put into armaments.”  Pauling also pointed out that the Soviets had already proposed a cessation in nuclear weapons testing and an end to weapons stockpiling, so neither idea was too radical or forward thinking.

A lasting agreement would also have to transcend political systems.  Pauling saw no problems with coming to terms with the Soviet Union, or any other nation, regardless of politics and policies.  On the contrary, he believed “that we need to have different kinds of political systems…[and] that the way to settle the problem of the differences is not to kill off most of the people in the world, or a large fraction of the people in the world with these terrible nuclear weapons.”

Though Pauling mostly spoke in positive and inclusive tones, he often strayed from this approach to criticize Teller, at times going line-by-line through one or another of Teller’s articles. And while an important part of Pauling’s strategy appears to have been to attack Teller’s previous public statements, he failed to expand beyond this tactic to address certain of the larger issues at hand, such as radioactive fallout or a nuclear weapons test ban.


bio6.007.084

San Francisco Chronicle, February 21, 1958.

As the debate moved forward, it was Teller who became more and more precise on the topic of harm from fallout, though this would seem to have been a point of rhetoric favoring Pauling’s point of view. It was at this point that Teller was able to take firm command of the proceedings. As he outlined his arguments, he did not try to discredit or attack Pauling, but instead worked to align himself with his opponent by focusing on their similarities instead of their differences, by characterizing their differences as misconceptions, and by emphasizing the ambiguities in the data they were both using.

Conversely, throughout the evening Pauling painted Teller as a warmonger, quoting him as saying “we must meet the Russians wherever they choose to attack.”  Pauling interpreted this statement as an expression of need to prepare for nuclear war. Teller countered that he supported the development of a wide range of weapons as a means to stave off any possibility of attack.  If the U.S. had developed weapons to deal with any possible scenario, Teller’s logic went, the Soviets would be too afraid to ever attack.

Teller also argued that no one could possibly know for sure what potential harm might arise from nuclear weapons tests, a counterpoint diametrically opposed from Pauling’s dire warnings of negative health impacts from radioactive fallout. Teller pointed out that nuclear weapons had not been around long enough for adequate research to be conducted and that, just as researchers were only then starting to evaluate the results of industrialization, only time would tell what to make of the nuclear age.

For Teller, the threat of a potential attack was a bigger deterrent to a test ban than were the possible threats of continued testing. Likewise, as its military strength improved, the U.S. would become stronger and the world more stable.  Teller agreed with Pauling’s position that the world needed to strive for peace based on mutual understanding.  However, as Teller put it

Peace based on force buys us the necessary time. And in this time we can work for better understanding, for closer collaboration, first with the countries which are closest to us, which we understand better, our allies, the Western countries, the NATO countries, which believe in human liberties as we do.  Then, as soon as possible, with the rest of the free world, and eventually, I hope, with the whole world, including Russia, even though it may take years to come.

Teller concluded the debate by reflecting on the situation in his native Hungary, his own love of liberty, and his belief that continued testing was an exercise of democratic freedom.  His very last line, “I am talking for my freedom, for his [Pauling’s] freedom, and for the freedom of all of us,” emphasized the collective nature of his stance.  So ended the televised debate between Pauling and Teller, but their public engagement with one another was far from concluded.

The Pauling-Teller Debate: Speaking Science to the Public

Linus Pauling speaking at a peace march in Westlake Park. Beverly Hills, California. 1960.

[Part 2 of 5]

The debate over development versus disarmament of nuclear weapons was not black and white during the Cold War era. For both arguments pro and con, there existed many gray areas that both Edward Teller and Linus Pauling – standard bearers for pro and con respectively – wished to clarify for the sake of the public, as they both felt that the government was not delineating nuclear issues as clearly as it should.

Numerous government agencies were established beginning in the 1940s to investigate all manner of nuclear issues, from reactors to fallout. These agencies, though all part of the apparatus of the federal government, often disagreed with one another and offered differing findings to the public. This extra layer of confusion created an additional obstacle with which both Pauling and Teller were forced to contend in their encounters with the public and with each other.  The ways in which they interpreted and presented the data differed markedly from one another and only served to heighten the conflict between the two men as the date of their televised debate approached.


Linus Pauling became involved in the anti-nuclear movement at an early point in its history. Less than two months after the atomic attack on Hiroshima, he wrote to a friend:

I feel that, in addition to our professional activities in the nuclear field, we should make our voices known with respect to the political significance of science.

Indeed, this was a principle that would guide much of Pauling’s activity for the remainder of his life.

In speaking out against nuclear testing and weapons proliferation, Pauling was not arguing against the scientific research that scientists had completed per se, but instead focused his criticism on how the research was handled, applied and furthered. “I deny that scientists have been guilty in making their discoveries,” he wrote. “They have, however, failed in some part to do their duty as citizens.”

As the U.S. amped up its program of nuclear tests, Pauling began to speak out more forcefully against the government’s behavior, arguing that its actions were devastating international relations and that peace could never be achieved in a world with nuclear weapons.

Although Pauling was well-versed in many scientific disciplines, as he became more deeply involved in the peace movement he quickly found that his grasp of international relations was far less strong.  It took him only one poorly planned and unconvincing speech, delivered in 1945, to realize that he would need to devote far more effort toward researching nuclear issues before he could be considered an expert.  Reflecting in the 1980s on this incident – “an episode that would change my life” – he recalled his wife Ava Helen telling him,

I think that you should stop giving lectures about atomic bombs, war, and peace.  When you talk about a scientific subject you speak very effectively and convincingly… But when you talk about the nature of war and the need for peace, you are not convincing, because you give the audience the impression that you are not sure about what you are saying and that you are relying on other authorities.

Spurred to action, Pauling began to pore over newspapers and dedicated himself to arguing for disarmament for the rest of his life, spending half of his time on these issues and no longer devoting his “whole-hearted efforts in teaching science and carrying on scientific research.”


Teller's Los Alamos identification badge, ca. 1943.

Teller’s Los Alamos identification badge, ca. 1943.

It took Edward Teller longer to involve himself directly in politics. And from the outset his position was more convoluted than was Pauling’s, though in some respects, he and Pauling did not broadly differ in their points of view.

Unlike Pauling, Teller was directly connected to the work conducted at Los Alamos that resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb.  He argued that this work was crucial to ending the threat of the Axis powers during World War II.  But despite his pro-nuclear stance, he agreed with Pauling’s position that scientists should facilitate discussion of nuclear issues and that they bore a responsibility to disseminate knowledge of nuclear science.  Like Pauling, Teller saw that scientists were too often underrepresented in nuclear discussions and he believed that their voices needed to be heard.

Teller likewise believed that there needed to be better communication between those who were conducting science and those who made nuclear policy decisions.  He also felt that the power to make decisions about nuclear affairs should not be held solely by government officials, but rather should involve the public as well. For Teller, the U.S. government would ideally exist as a vehicle to deliver the wishes of its people.  Ultimately, the public, scientists, and politicians needed to work together to come to an educated decision that aligned with what the people desired.

Of course, Teller’s views on the morality of nuclear weapons differed completely from Pauling’s anti-nuclear stance. In keeping with his position on the role of government, Teller wrote

It is not the scientist’s job to determine whether a hydrogen bomb should be constructed, whether it should be used, or how it should be used. This responsibility rests with the American people and with their chosen representatives.

This noted, Teller personally believed that the only way to pursue continued peace was to guarantee that a nuclear war
would never break out, which meant that continued development and innovation was necessary. He likewise felt that virtually every situation required its own unique weapon, and these could only be developed through continued testing. Doing so would also insure that a portion of the American nuclear arsenal would remain viable and in close proximity in case of an attack, and guaranteed that the Soviet Union would not benefit from making the first strike in a nuclear war.

Later in life, in his memoirs, Teller emphasized his belief in this point, writing

Since the end of World War II, nuclear weapons have served their purpose extremely well. That purpose is deterrence. The hydrogen bomb, it should be remembered, has never been used in combat and there is reason to hope that it never will be…Yet, following World War II, I knew of no one in nuclear weapons research
who did not believe that the purpose of his or her work was to prevent the use of such weapons by assuring the strength of our deterrent forces.


teller-time

Public discussion of nuclear testing reached a crescendo in 1954 with the Bikini Atoll tests and again in 1957 when distress over the potential dangers of continued testing was inflamed by the launch of Sputnik.  The successful launch of the Sputnik satellite into orbit was a prime example of Soviet skill in rocketry – and in science in general – and with it the Soviets seemed to be ahead of the U.S., thus rendering the Cold War ever more real and relevant to the American public.

As the tide of the Cold War appeared to shift in favor of the Soviets, the U.S. government responded by escalating its schedule of weapons testing.  And with this change in Cold War politics, the emotional climate stateside became more fearful. A majority of the public now seemed to favor Teller’s objectives, and the scientist himself was featured on the cover of a mid-November 1957 issue of Time Magazine.

Now on the defensive, Pauling became even more alarmed when Edward Teller and Albert Latter, a fellow physicist, published an opinion piece, “The Compelling Need for Nuclear Tests,” in the February 10, 1958 issue of LIFE.  The article outlined Teller and Latter’s arguments in favor of further weapons testing, and especially the need to develop “clean weapons” that produced little or no radioactive fallout. The piece also sought to discredit Pauling and the 9,000 scientists who had signed his petition to halt nuclear weapons tests. The issues that Teller and Latter presented in their article were a preview of the topics that Pauling and Teller would confront in their debate later that month and in their books later that year.

Examples of annotations made by Pauling to his copy of

Examples of annotations made by Pauling to his copy of “The Compelling Need for Nuclear Weapons Tests.”

Looking at Pauling’s copy of the LIFE article, one is struck by his desire to get at the math and understand Teller’s calculations for risk.  His notes also demonstrate his disagreement (and occasional agreement) with statements that Teller and Latter make. He also identifies questions needing clarification, and responses to these questions when he received them. Although it is evident throughout that Pauling did not agree with Teller, as he headed toward the televised debate he clearly desired to understand the claims that Teller was making.

The Pauling-Teller Debate: Setting the Stage

Portrait of Edward Teller by Dmitri Vail. June 1965.

Portrait of Edward Teller by Dmitri Vail. June 1965.

[A detailed examination of the 1958 Pauling-Teller nuclear fallout debate. Post 1 of 5]

Linus Pauling and the Hungarian-American Edward Teller were well-acquainted with one another, both because of their research backgrounds in quantum mechanics and because, by the late 1950s, each was commonly recognized to be one of America’s premier scientists. On February 20th, 1958, the two men came face-to-face in a televised debate about nuclear weapons testing and fallout for the first and only time. Pauling would say afterward that he would never debate Teller again. Later that year, both men also published books that furthered their stances on the topics of nuclear fallout and weapons testing, while simultaneous engaging each other’s views.

World War II came about while both men were at similar places in life. In the mid-1940s, both Pauling and Teller were in the early stages of their careers and were establishing themselves as leaders within their fields of discipline.  However, the choices that the two made in the face of war were radically different – as were the projects that they pursued – with both men making decisions shaped by personal motivations and principles.

Although Pauling was asked to work on the Manhattan Project, he declined to do so, partly because he did not want to disrupt his family life, but also out of a desire to continue on his own war work projects uninterrupted.  With the onset of war, Pauling made an abrupt shift to support the Allied effort, transitioning his work from a focus on immunology to more practical problems, including finding a substitute for blood serum and devising an oxygen meter for use in submarines and aircraft.

On the contrary, when asked to assist with work on the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project, Edward Teller replied that he could not say no, due largely to his abhorrence of Hitler and Mussolini and the havoc that they were causing in his native Europe.  A recent arrival to the United States, Teller felt a strong obligation to protect the freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of his new home, of which he too became a citizen in 1941. Teller likewise believed that it was his job as a scientist to help science progress, a belief that only strengthened post-war, as it became clear that the Soviets had developed their own nuclear weapons in 1949, much earlier than anticipated.

Indeed, World War II and the role that technology played in winning the war both elevated science into the spotlight and expanded capacities for public and political criticism of science. According to Pauling, applied science could be used for evil just as easily as it could be used for good, and sometimes the line between the two was hard to discern.

One outcome of this was that scientists now held greater power in politics, and especially in the military. Nonetheless, after the war ended, many scientists simply aligned themselves with the US government, and its objectives, in part to secure support and funding for their projects.  A smaller number, Pauling and Teller included, actively sought to shape government policy with their influence and prestige.

1960i.11-600w

Following the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a long stream of questions and concerns came to dominate the public discourse over nuclear weapons, with many demanding instant action to control the use and further development of these powerful new instruments of war.  In the years immediately following the war, Teller agreed with Pauling that a universal government could, and should, control the knowledge that had resulted in the production of a nuclear device – trying to keep the information secret was unscientific and would likely only make the geopolitical situation worse.

Teller continued to believe in this course of action until finally deciding that the solution was not realistic, especially in the face of mounting tensions with the Soviet Union over their rapidly developing technologies.  Teller stated publicly that he wished he could side with Pauling’s position that the US could help to maintain peace through international cooperation.

But instead, Teller believed that the US ultimately had to keep the upper hand with respect to nuclear technologies and that doing so necessitated further weapons development. Deterrence, Teller felt, required more weapons, and in order for new weapons to be developed, nuclear tests needed to continue. Teller argued that this was the only path to avoiding a third World War. Pauling, on the other hand, believed that the West needed to learn to get along with the Communists and he sought to include them in his peace activities.

The 1958 debate, and Pauling and Teller’s stances, encapsulate many of the diverse ideas and tensions that surrounded the development and testing of nuclear weapons in the Cold War period. The two scientists approached the dangers of the Cold War and the associated arms race from very different perspectives, due in part to their different disciplinary backgrounds in chemistry and physics respectively. Nonetheless, their tactics and approach were similar in key respects, in part because each man shared an enthusiasm for speaking to large lay audiences.

Both men also sought to educate the American public about the current geopolitical situation and the future of nuclear development, and both strove to present their views in language that the public could understand.  Pauling was extremely rational in his thinking and he sought to use his scientific background to educate others so that they could draw their own conclusions concerning nuclear testing and fallout.  In this, Teller was similar to Pauling as he too sought to educate the lay public as a means to establish his argument.  Both men also believed that it was their duty to educate the public because of their unique positions as scientists, consultants, and citizens.

But the discussion between Pauling and Teller was not merely one of whether or not nuclear weapons should continue to be developed, but ultimately how peace with the Soviet Union could be maintained.  For Pauling the dialogue was framed as a battle for disarmament that would lead to peace; for Teller, it was deterrence against future Soviet acts of aggression.  Both men played on the fears of ordinary Americans, drawing from the very real tensions of the time, and each fought for the attention of politicians who could enact the policies that they, as scientists, could not.  As we will see, the result of all this was a sometimes messy battle over calculations, predictions, and interpretations.

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