Pauling and Environmental Justice

Promotional flyer for Linus Pauling's Verve recording on fallout and nuclear warfare. 1960.

(Ed. note: Toshihiro Higuchi of Georgetown University, a 2009 Pauling Resident Scholar award winner, spent a month in Oregon State University’s Valley Library this past summer working with the Pauling Papers. The following is excerpted from his final research report.)

Archival research is always full of unexpected discoveries about the past, and my project at OSU was no exception. Of particular surprise was Linus Pauling’s deep involvement in environmental justice through the Fallout Suits, twice attempted in 1958 and in 1962.

While the courts of justice have always marked turning points in the history of racial and gender justice – Brown v. Board and Roe v. Wade, to name but a few – “an appeal to law” has been long underappreciated among scholars in their studies of peace activism and environmentalism. Pauling’s Fallout Suits, indeed, are usually considered as a sideshow overshadowed by his more famous worldwide petition campaign among scientists.

Two archival boxes in the Pauling papers regarding the Suits, however, revealed the judicial aspect of Pauling’s risk knowledge and grassroots activism regarding the danger of radioactive fallout.

brochure

Fallout Suits brochure, 1958.

While both the executive and legislative branches adopted a “wait and see” policy in hope of ascertaining the nature and extent of fallout hazards, Pauling and other “risk entrepreneurs,” acting against the inertia in the majority opinion and the pressure of time, found the judiciary branch as the only untried venue of power. The courts of justice alone could establish a legal fact about hazards and link it to an immediate action – injunction. This unique character of the judiciary power was believed to break the impasse in the other branches because of the inconclusiveness of scientific proof.

The legal recourse, however, was by no means simply tactical. The plaintiffs identified the legal source of the fallout problem – it was the conflict of interest and the absence of due process of law which placed the atomic energy agencies of all three nuclear powers above the rule of law in the name of national security. In the course of the legal fight, the plaintiffs in the Fallout Suits also posed a fundamental challenge to court jurisprudence. The unprecedented nature and scope of risk involved in nuclear fallout pointed to a new direction of jurisprudence beyond the traditional tort law.

The Fallout Suits, in short, aimed at no less than a sweeping legal groundwork for environmental justice at the time when there was no National Environmental Protection Act. Indeed, some archival findings revealed an unknown parallelism between the Fallout Suits and the DDT litigation, both intending to bring about a groundbreaking change in court jurisprudence.

autoradiograph

Autoradiograph used to measure radioactive fallout, 1953.

My study in Corvallis also points to a promising direction of future research: the life-long association of Linus Pauling with litigation. Without doubt, many remember such an association as an unnecessary burden upon Pauling, as most cases related to libel and defamation.

As the case of the Fallout Suits vividly shows, however, Pauling was far from a passive victim in the courts. Indeed, Pauling successfully threatened to bring the case to court at the same time that the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee was using the tactics of red-baiting in its attempt to force him to disclose the names of those who collected signatures for the United Nations Bomb Test petition.

In the course of his involvement in numerous legal cases, Pauling became extremely well-versed with legal resources and approaches. Indeed, the Pauling papers include a vast amount of material relating to Pauling’s legal cases. Further research on this legal dimension of Pauling’s life and career would promise fruitful results.

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