“The invasion of Nicaragua by the United States, either by sending in the Marines or by use of forces financed and directed by the United States, would be a disgraceful action that would remain a blot on our record forever. The American people must insist that our government stop dominating and exploiting our Latin American neighbors, and instead adopt a policy of assistance and collaboration.”
-Linus Pauling, November 11, 1983.
Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Linus Pauling’s participation in the Peace Ship project. Supported by the Norwegian government and organized by Nobel laureates Adolfo Perez Esquival and George Wald, the project enlisted the support of two additional Nobel Prize-winners – Betty Williams and Pauling – in fulfilling its mission to deliver some 13,000 tons of newsprint, fertilizer, food and medicine to the Nicaraguan people.
El Barco de la Paz, which was technically the Norwegian cargo ship M.S. Falknes, arrived in Corinto harbor during an exceedingly difficult time in Nicaraguan history. Five years removed from the overthrow of the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the nation was enveloped in a brutal civil war in which the left-leaning Sandinista ruling group struggled to hold power over the U.S.-backed guerrilla corps collectively known as the Contras. By some estimates, more than 30,000 people died in this conflict, which lasted for all of the 1980s.
For Pauling, the trip was a whirlwind of sights and sounds, most of which served to confirm, and even radicalize, his existing feelings about the dire situation in this small Central American country.
As detailed in his own fascinating account of the trip, Pauling and Wald were driven around the country by Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega himself, “with machine guns on the floor of the car because they expect action from the Contras who often carry out assassinations.”
The Nobel laureates received glimpses of a nascent socialist heath care system, wherein “most doctors do private practice and also work for the national health system,” a situation which Pauling, in a later interview, judged to be an improvement over past arrangements. In Pauling’s view, “before the Sandinista fighters won…the poor people just didn’t get much in the way of health care or physician services. Now they do.”
Pauling also learned something of the Sandinistas’ mixed approach to creating markets for agricultural goods. His notes include mention of a visit “to one of the privately owned big farms,” where he “talked to the owner about his relationships with the government and how, when crops were poor a couple of years ago, the government had helped him. The government sets prices but the owners make a profit.”
Always on his travels, there existed the specter of on-going civil war: “We met another large land owner, Gladys Volt, whose husband had been kidnapped and killed by the Contras just eight days before.”
The trip likewise included a certain amount of lighter fare – Pauling seemed, in particular, to enjoy a trip to a volcano – as well as the usual formal receptions, lectures (mostly on vitamin C) and honorary awards that one would expect to be extended to a figure of Pauling’s stature. And throughout it all, Pauling’s evince a theme of cautious optimism for the future.
Current conditions, however, were desperate. Following a visit to a medical school, he reflects that “my high school chemistry class in 1913 was better equipped than this college,” and defining his entire tour is an overwhelming sense of “a miserably poor country. I felt about as bad concerning conditions there as I had about India…[in 1973].”
Pauling’s transit home was marked by a stark reminder that there is sometimes a price to be paid for acting in opposition to official government policy. In transit from Nicaragua to California, via Mexico City, Pauling’s passport was confiscated for six hours. After a period of confusion, the passport was returned to Pauling- though not until he arrived at his final destination. Pauling believed, perhaps from hard experience, that he was being sent a message.
I think that an order was issued to take my passport away from me. George [Wald] and I had sent President Reagan a telegram from the ship and said we were on this ship taking material from Norway to Nicaragua. So I started thinking, this is what’s happening. They are taking my passport and I won’t get it back and I wondered what to do. Should I call Meet the Press, or Face the Nation?
When we got to San Francisco and after I stepped off the plane, the stewardess came with an envelope and gave it to me. It contained my passport and I went through customs without any trouble. I think that some higher official in the U.S. government had decided that it was better not to take my passport (which had, of course, been denied me from 1952 until 1954, when I was given the Nobel prize in chemistry.)
For more on Linus Pauling’s legacy of peace activism, see Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.