“Our ultimate end must be precisely what Dr. Pauling says, peace based on agreement, upon understanding, on universally agreed and enforced law. I think this is a wonderful idea, but peace based on force buys us the necessary time, and in this time we can work for better understanding, for closer collaboration.”
-Edward Teller. “Fallout and Disarmament: A Debate Between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller,” KQED television, San Francisco, California. February 20, 1958.
Throughout the 1950s Linus Pauling’s work to emphasize the dangers of nuclear weapons testing was publicly contradicted by, among others, a cadre of opposing scientists. Pauling argued that radiation released into the atmosphere, most pressingly those amounts unleashed by nuclear weapons testing, could cause widespread birth defects and subsequently increase levels of human suffering, especially in children.
Pro-militarization scientists including physicist Edward Teller, argued that the negative effects of radiation were negligible, at least as compared to the utility of nuclear stockpiles in maintaining the global balance of power. Suggesting that “to my mind, the distinction between a nuclear weapon and a conventional weapon is the distinction between an effective weapon and an outmoded weapon,” Teller was perhaps the leading scientific opponent of Pauling’s anti-bomb position.
Pauling argued that Teller’s claims were blatantly false. He attacked Teller in the media for his use of “dishonest and incomplete information.” Teller, known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” responded in kind, disputing the statistics that Pauling used to support his claims.
Pauling’s approach was typical of his writing. Relying upon published statements, scientific data and a lengthy defense of his own record against those who had already questioned the validity of his position, Pauling attempted to provide a reasoned argument that might educate the viewing public:
“There are every year seventy-five million children born in the world. Two percent of these children are seriously deficient because of heredity…the bad genes that are in the pool of human germ plasm, partially due to the natural radioactivity, and cosmic rays, and now being increased by fallout….One percent increase in this is fifteen thousand seriously defective children each year….We can say, accordingly, that the man who gives the order to test a single large superbomb with high-fission yield is dooming fifteen thousand seriously defective children to be born in later generation.”
Teller’s tactics, on the other hand, were steeped in the highly-effective Cold War rhetoric of the era:
“Peace cannot be obtained by wishing for it….It has often been said, and I think with some justification, that the first world war was brought on by a race in armament. I believe that the second world war was brought on by a race in disarmament. The peace-loving nations disarmed, and when the Hitler tyranny armed, inertia was too great…he got away with his army and he almost conquered the world. Next time when a tyranny arms and we don’t, we might not be so fortunate.”
Perhaps most galling to Pauling’s sensibilities was Teller’s rather flippant refutation of his opponent’s statements concerning the potential for genetic damage caused by radioactive fallout:
“We know enough about the mechanism of heredity to be sure that changes will be made in the germ plasm, just as Dr. Pauling has said, and many, very many, probably the great majority of these changes will be damaging. Yet without some changes, evolution would be impossible.”
As the debate wore on, Teller’s approach threw Pauling increasingly off-balance. By the end, many neutral observers came away from the event feeling that the physicist had maintained a greater degree of poise and had, in fact, “won” the debate. After the evening had concluded, a frustrated and angered Pauling refused to debate with Teller again, feeling that his adversary was neither interested nor willing to engage in a formal, educational discussion.
The two did, however, continue to trade barbs in various public arenas — much of Pauling’s 1958 book No More War! was written in direct response to Teller’s own publication titled Our Nuclear Future. Accusations, points and counterpoints would continue to be made over the years, in dozens of speeches and articles. Admirers of one another’s scientific achievements, Pauling and Teller remained life-long nemeses on subjects of war and peace.
Read more about the Pauling vs. Teller debate on the Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement website, or watch extracts from the event itself by clicking on the multimedia link below.