Anti-Japanese Sentiment and the Rise of Pauling the Peace Activist

“I do not know who is responsible for this un-American act. The people in Pasadena and the surrounding region are, in general, intelligent and patriotic. I have, however, come in contact with a few people who do not know what the Bill of Rights is and what the Four Freedoms are and what the principles are for which the United Nations are fighting. I suspect that the trespass on our home was carried out by one or more of these misguided people who believe that American citizens should be persecuted in the same way that the Nazis have persecuted the Jewish citizens of Germany and the conquered territories.”

– Linus Pauling. “Vandals Victimize Scientist’s Home Where Nisei Employed,” Pasadena Independent. March 7, 1945.

Linus Pauling, now known as one of the twentieth-century’s foremost crusaders for peace, spent much of the first half of his life as a relatively apolitical individual. Up to the early 1940s, Pauling’s politics trended to the center-right — when asked, he typically labeled himself a “Roosevelt Republican.” In the main, however, science was Pauling’s passion and world affairs didn’t enter his thoughts too often. As with many Americans though, a series of events related to World War II dramatically shifted Pauling’s perspective.

After the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese and Japanese-Americans living on the United States’ west coast were moved to internment camps by the federal government. This action was deemed necessary as a means of protecting both American interests as well as the well-being of loyal Japanese Americans.

Ava Helen Pauling reacted strongly to the internment program, volunteering at the local ACLU chapter to raise awareness of a policy that she felt to be brazenly racist. Her husband’s chief response was a series of unsuccessful attempts to secure east coast fellowships for a number of Caltech graduate researchers, most notably an immunochemistry researcher named Carol Ikeda.

For the most part though, Pauling’s primary focus during World War II was an ambitious program of research related to a number of military applications supporting the war effort — an oxygen meter for airplanes and submarines, a blood plasma substitute, rocket propellants and invisible inks. Three years after the war’s conclusion, Pauling would receive the Presidential Medal for Merit in recognition of his efforts on behalf of the Allied cause.

Pauling’s political inclinations remained relatively mild until March of 1945, when the family hired a Japanese-American gardener for a brief period prior to his scheduled reporting for duty in the U.S. Army. A few days following the gardener’s hire, the Paulings were shocked to find anti-Japanese graffiti scrawled on their garage and mailbox. A series of subsequent hate letters and death threats were the chilling work of the Paulings’ neighbors:

“We happen to be one of a groupe [sic] who fully intend to burn your home, tire [sic] and feather your body, unless you get rid of that jap….the more publicity you give this matter, the sooner we will take care of you just like Al Capone did some years ago… [signed] A neighbor.”

Pauling, still deeply engaged in his scientific war work, was outraged that his loyalties might be questioned and his family threatened. With aid from the ACLU, he was able to prod the unsympathetic local sheriff into providing a guard to protect his wife and children against violence. While none of the threats were carried out, the “Japanese Gardener Incident” proved to be an important event in Pauling’s life, as it provided an eye-opening glimpse of the intolerance that would become a hallmark of the McCarthy Era.

The leftward shift in Pauling’s political thinking was finalized by the horrible carnage left in the wake of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan at the end of the war. Encouraged by Ava Helen, who had been deeply troubled by reactionary currents in mainstream American culture well before her husband, Linus Pauling quickly emerged as one of the world’s most prolific activists in support of peace.

Read more about this story on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement.”

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