The SISS Ordeal: Background to a Trying Time

Pauling testifies before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, 1960.

[Ed Note: June 21, 2010 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Pauling’s first appearance before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.  We are marking the occasion with a five-part series that tells the story of this important and traumatic experience.]

[Part 1 of 5]

In 1956 and 1957, Linus Pauling helped organize a petition which protested against above-ground nuclear bomb testing by the world’s nuclear powers. The project was first endorsed only by American scientists, but became an international appeal shortly after the completion of a robust initial release.

Though many found the display inspirational, others questioned the petition’s motives and organization. Pauling was not alone in crafting the document, but much of both the praise and the criticism that it generated was directed at him. The petition remained a contentious issue into the following decade, as Pauling became entangled with members of the United States Senate over questions concerning the petition’s distribution.

As was the standard for him after World War II, Linus Pauling was kept busy in the late 1950s by a frenzied mixture of research, public speaking and social demonstration. He remained actively engaged in academia, but was directing more and more attention to nuclear non-proliferation issues.

Pauling’s main concern at the time was the tepid response from public officials and the Atomic Energy Commission to what he viewed to be a major problem – radioactive fallout from atomic bomb detonations. After conferring with two scientific colleagues, Barry Commoner and Edward Condon, it was concluded that, because of their insight and technical knowledge of the dangers involved, the nation’s scientists bore a special responsibility to speak out about nuclear testing.

As a result, Pauling and several associates began circulating a petition. Copies were distributed to individual scientists across several states, and soon large swaths of scientists from several universities and institutions began responding en masse. The petition’s purpose was made very clear from the outset of its introduction:

We, the American scientists whose names are signed below, urge that an international agreement to stop the testing of nuclear bombs be made now.

The initial document, “Appeal by American Scientists to the Government and Peoples of the World,” came back to Pauling adorned with over two-thousand signatures, including those of several prominent members of the scientific community. After a short interlude, the petition was supplemented by an international version, ultimately raising the total to a tally of more than 13,000 signatures.

The endeavor was seen as a huge success by advocates, but it also instigated a new movement against Pauling, one propelled by several public agencies and officials. In particular, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) began focusing more attention on Pauling, though it was not the first time he had found a place on their agenda. In 1955 the SISS released a tract titled “The Communist Party of the United States of America: What It Is, and How It Works.” Linus Pauling’s name was on a list of individuals said to be among the most active participants and supporters of communist fronts.

Similarly, when Pauling and his associates released their nuclear test ban petition in June 1957, they were met with substantial criticism from a wide variety of opinion makers. Initially Pauling’s scientific authority on the issue was the primary in question. Soon enough though, Pauling was being accused of communist conspiracy, and was subpoenaed by the SISS to discuss the potential role of communist organizations in the petition’s distribution. Pauling expressed his willingness to appear before the subcommittee, but unforeseen senatorial politics eventually interceded, forcing a temporary delay of his compulsory appearance in Washington, DC.

The SISS itself was essentially the Senate version of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), having served similar purposes in the past. Indeed, in 1960 the committee was composed of many staff members recycled from past HUAC activities. Most notably, Senator Thomas Dodd, chairman of the Subcommittee at the time, conferred regularly with former HUAC investigator Benjamin Mandel. Senator Dodd and others were also working periodically with the FBI in a joint effort against suspected communist subversion.

Before they refocused on Pauling, Dodd and the SISS were popularly credited with instigating the dissolution of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), a collection of locally oriented anti-bomb protest groups. Dodd worked discretely with SANE’s national leadership in providing the organization with an ultimatum:  either cull itself of alleged communist membership or risk a prolonged investigation by federal authorities. SANE’s leadership chose to impose loyalty oaths, a move that split the entire organization, leaving the severed parts largely incapacitated. After the subcommittee’s apparent victory, Dodd and his counsel were emboldened enough to focus their full attentions on Pauling.

Following a speech given to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in the spring of 1960, Pauling was handed several fliers, a poem, some news clippings and other random papers while answering people’s questions. That night, after returning to his hotel room, he found a subpoena addressed to him within the clutter.

Subpeona issued to Linus Pauling by the Internal Security Subcommittee of the United States Senate. June 20, 1960.

The subpoena adjured his appearance before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee on June 21st, two days from then, to address:

Communist participation in, or support of, propaganda campaign against nuclear testing, and other Communist or Communist-front activity with respect to which you [Pauling] may have knowledge.

Abraham Lincoln Wirin, a lawyer who had helped Pauling through an earlier dispute, flew directly to Washington, DC the next day. The duo discussed Pauling’s options and decided to utilize the press as much as possible, a tactic that had proven fruitful for Pauling in the past. Though Pauling was given very short notice, he and Wirin were able to devise what seemed to be a simple but promising broader strategy. They decided to make the entire affair as public as possible, cooperate to whatever extent was appropriate, and maintain the integrity of Pauling’s constitutional rights. Though he was alarmed, Pauling felt reasonably prepared for the engagement ahead of him.

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