Pauling’s Early Development as a Peace Activist

Linus Pauling, 1940s.

Before America’s involvement in World War II, Linus Pauling was openly in favor of intervention to stop the spread of fascism, a menace that he considered dangerous to the stability of world peace. He was horrified by stories emerging from Europe, some pertaining to the treatment of well-respected scientists. He later received pleas from colleagues who were unable to attain visas and thus escape to the United States, and was disturbed and saddened by his inability to aid acquaintances that desperately sought his help.

Throughout the ensuing military engagement, the U.S. government financed research at levels unheard of in previous times. Linus Pauling and many others at Caltech gladly aided the war effort in their own way, and benefited greatly from generous war time funding in the process. Several divisions of the Institute changed dramatically as a result, responding to the growing needs of the armed forces.

Pauling oversaw the development of several devices and innovations, mostly medical in nature, that were meant to be used for the war effort. Near the beginning of the war, he co-manufactured an apparatus that could measure oxygen levels in submarines using a magnetic field. Towards the war’s end, he was developing an artificial substitute for blood plasma, which received substantial attention from the press. He also spent a considerable amount of time examining and testing combustible powders at Caltech’s rapidly expanding powder-research facilities. As the war was drawing to an end however, Pauling began shifting his research focus from federally funded war projects to Rockefeller-oriented protein work.

Though Pauling was mildly active in political affairs before the onset of the war, he tended to keep such views private. He was often too caught up in his work to spare much attention for such things, but he also valued principles of neutrality and objectivity, qualities that stemmed from his scientific research and academic training. Pauling began to change his mind however, when faced with a growing mix of racism, extreme nationalism and atomic peril. Among other stimuli, including countless discussions with Ava Helen, two particular events affected Pauling’s willful political silence during the course of the war.

The first incident involved a talented Japanese-American student. Caltech resided in a zone that required all Japanese and Japanese Americans within to move to internment camps. Realizing the seriousness of his plight, the student turned to Pauling for help. After a difficult search, Pauling finally found him a job on the east coast, but the injustice of the affair caused Pauling some discomfort.

A second event involved George H. Nimaki, a returned Japanese-American evacuee, who was temporarily employed by the Paulings as a gardener at their home. One morning in March of 1945, the Paulings woke up to graffiti on their garage door. Some one had painted, in bright red, “Americans die but we love Japs – Japs work here Pauling” alongside an image of the rising sun flag. Pauling was appalled, and equally appalled by subsequent threats made against him and his family after he spoke out in condemnation of the incident.

These two events began to shift Pauling towards a more active and open involvement in public affairs.  Another would soon cement this attitude.


On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki a few days later. Among other less apparent ramifications, the use of the bombs signaled the end of the war. The day after the first bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, a day he never forgot, Pauling read of the story in a local newspaper. He was immediately interested in the physics of the bomb, but did not share in the euphoria that was sweeping the nation.

During the war Pauling had been offered a spot at the chemistry division of the Manhattan Project, where the atomic bomb was developed, but he had had little personal interest in the opportunity. Following the bombings in Japan, groups of concerned scientists that had accepted the Los Alamos offer began discussing the effects of their work. The devastation which resulted from the use of atomic weapons began to weigh heavily on many of them. Consequently, they began distributing  information about the role that atomic weapons might play in a rapidly changing world.

Linus Pauling speaking in Tampa, Florida. 1950s.

Pauling received much of this material, and began to attend informal and formal meetings where issues, such as civilian control of atomic weapons and technology, were the main topic of discussion. As Pauling increased his involvement with the growing movement, his political views began to surface more readily. After hearing what many other scientists had to say, and reflecting on his own beliefs, Pauling became openly supportive of sharing atomic secrets with Russia, and of increased cooperation generally. While on a trip in September, Pauling wrote to Ava Helen about his growing concerns, noting that

[Samuel] Allison has made a strong public statement against keeping the A-bomb secret from Russia. . . I think that Union now with Russia is the only hope for the world.

Pauling learned more and more about the science of the bomb, and began giving talks around southern California, his first at the Rotary Club in Hollywood. As time went on, he began to incorporate international relations and politics into his talks, but most people found his non-science discourse dry and unconvincing. After one of these early speeches, Ava Helen told Pauling that he should stop discussing war and peace. He later wrote that her comments changed his life. Pauling struggled with the advice, plagued by inner turmoil.

I thought ‘What shall I do? I am convinced that scientists should speak to their fellow human beings not only about science, but also about atomic bombs, the nature of war, the need to change international relations, the need to achieve peace in the world. But my wife says that I should not give talks of this sort because I am not able to speak authoritatively. Either I should stop, or I should learn to speak authoritatively.’

From this point on, Pauling devoted half of his time to peace and the abolition of war. He began to read about international relations and law, treaties, history and other information related to the peace movement. Pauling tackled social science much the same way that he approached chemistry, focusing on function, frameworks and the interests that motivated different groups of people within certain circles of debate. His new speeches were often concerned with world union and peace with other nations. He shared Ava Helen’s opinion that a single world government would make war unnecessary, and thus safeguard against the use of nuclear weapons. He believed in the ability of basic human connections to overcome political disagreements, as can be seen in this excerpt from a speech that he gave to the Russian-American club in November 1945:

We must all strive for that great goal of world union – of perpetual unity between nations . . . all that remains now is for the final steps to be taken. The steps that lead to union of the great powers. And the world will be safe forever, and we shall see the beginning of a new era of continuing peace and happiness.

In the years following the end of the war, Pauling maintained a great faith in the possibility of world peace. As a result, he became involved with a number of organizations and issues that would later be subjects of  substantial controversy.

Early in his new-found political advocacy, Pauling enjoyed a minor victory in the form of the defeat of the May-Johnson Bill. According to its opponents, the bill would likely have given the military near-complete control over atomic weapons and technology, though ostensibly with the cooperation of scientists and civilian board members. The victory was short lived however. A fast-growing political movement that was both pro-nuclear and exceedingly anti-communist began to overwhelm members of organizations that valued peace and international cooperation. The following years would test Pauling’s commitment to the peace movement, as well as his personal and social convictions.

One Response

  1. […] for Nuclear Information, but they weren’t the only ones who were pleased. As has been well-documented on this blog, Linus Pauling had taken a strong anti-bomb stance after the two atomic bombs were […]

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