The Paulings and the Kennedys

White House Dinner Menu, April 29, 1962.

White House Dinner Menu. April 29, 1962.

Mrs. Kennedy said, ‘Dr. Pauling do you think that it is right to march back and forth out there in front of the White House carrying a sign and cause Caroline to say, Mummy, what has Daddy done wrong now?’ I thought that was pretty clever.
-Linus Pauling. NOVA Interview. June 1977.

The “thousand days” of the John F. Kennedy administration were surely among the most turbulent of the twentieth century. The Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the escalation of the Vietnam War, among other historically important events, served to heighten the sense of emergency that had been fomenting in mainstream American culture since the conclusion of the second World War.

The sense of turmoil, international tension and cultural conflict that characterized JFK’s presidency is encapsulated by a series of highly-emotional communications between Linus Pauling, Ava Helen Pauling, John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, from the President’s inauguration in 1961 to his assassination in 1963.

As was the case with many Americans, Pauling greeted Kennedy’s election with a sense of optimism and hope. Shortly after the President’s inauguration, Pauling sent Kennedy a short note:

“I am happy to join in welcoming you and congratulating you. You are our great hope for peace in the world.”

The Paulings’ positive attitude toward their country’s new chief executive would not last long. In July of 1961, Ava Helen sent a letter to Mrs. Kennedy explaining the dangers of Strontium-90 and its effects on children. This opened a steady (if one-sided) line of communication between the Kennedys and the Paulings which would continue for the better part of the next three years.

Linus Pauling’s early letters were rather technical in tone, outlining the scientific argument against nuclear weapons testing and urging the President (“with all the intensity that I can muster”) to avoid threats of violent conflict at all cost. Later letters, dating from January and March of 1962, through early 1963, convey a similar message, but grow increasingly angry in their wording. To wit, this extract from Linus Pauling to President Kennedy, written on March 1, 1962 and later made public, arguing vehemently against the broadening of the nation’s Cold War-era nuclear weapons testing policies:

“President Kennedy: Are you going to give an order that will cause you to go down in history as one of the most immoral men of all time and one of the greatest enemies of the human race?…Are you going to be guilty of this monstrous immorality, matching that of the Soviet leaders, for the political purpose of increasing the still imposing lead of the United States over the Soviet Union in nuclear weapons technology?”

The Paulings’ public response (issued October 22, 1962) to the developing Cuban Missile Crisis was similarly aggressive in tone:

“Your horrifying threat of military action on shipping on the high seas and possible massive retaliation by nuclear attack to any resistance places all the American people as well as many people in other countries in grave danger of death through nuclear war.”

(click the thumbnail below to view the entirety of this document)

Telegram from Ava Helen and Linus Pauling to President John F. Kennedy, October 22, 1962.

Perhaps the most famous of the Paulings interactions with the Kennedys occurred in April 1962 when Linus and Ava Helen were invited to a White House dinner in honor of all the nation’s Nobel Prize Winners. The couple attended, unabashed that only hours before, Linus had been picketing in front of the White House against the policies of the Kennedy administration.

(click on the video link below for more on this event)

Picketing the White House

In the late summer of 1963, as the United States and the Soviet Union moved closer to toward confirming the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the Paulings’ attitude toward the White House began to soften. This shifting dynamic made Kennedy’s assassination an especially bitter pill for the famous activists to swallow — an event that, indeed, shook the Paulings to their core. Two days after the President’s murder, Linus sent a short note to the widowed Mrs. Kennedy, expressing his and his wife’s sadness:

“My wife and I send you our heartfelt sympathy. As are hundreds of millions of other people, all over the world, we are stricken with grief by the death of our great President, John F. Kennedy.”

In the months and years that would follow, the Paulings grew increasingly interested in the wide swath of suspicion that surrounded the official explanation of Kennedy’s assassination. The Pauling Papers now include a folder of materials (Folder 198.4) collected by the Paulings that are specifically related to the events of November 22, 1963. In addition, the Pauling Personal Library contains ten books (Beginning with call number E842.9 .A5) specifically devoted to varying explanations of the killing of the nation’s thirty-fifth President.

Read more about the relationship between the Paulings and the Kennedys on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.”

3 Responses

  1. […] shooters” theories. [For more on Pauling’s interactions with President Kennedy, see our earlier blog post on the […]

  2. […] the Presidency itself.  The other two posts focus on Pauling’s complicated interactions with John F. Kennedy, and with his own brief flirtation with the idea of running for the office […]

  3. […] Helen in organizing the Oslo Conference again nuclear testing, and continued to dialogue with both John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev about matters of nuclear weapons policy.  The next year saw more of the […]

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