A New Petition and Preparations for Oslo

Linus Pauling holding a copy of the 1961 appeal.

[Ed Note: May 2011 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Oslo Conference Against the Spread of Nuclear Weapons.  The is Part 1 of a two part series devoted to the Oslo Conference.]

“Can there be any rational goal other than general and complete disarmament? Is it reasonable to plan to attempt to survive the catastrophe of megaton war? Is it sensible or even possible to entertain the idea of making international agreements to abolish megaton weapons and to fight ‘limited’ wars with only conventional or kiloton weapons? Would the world be safe under a permanent ‘balance of terror,’ reached by international agreement about ‘arms control’ rather than disarmament – two great arrays of rockets, with megaton warheads, ever poised, ready to achieve the destruction of their allotted halves of the world, the death of their allotted hundreds of millions of human beings?”

– Linus Pauling. Opening Address, Conference Against the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, Oslo, Norway, May 2, 1961.

At the beginning of 1961, Linus Pauling was pictured on the cover of Time magazine, one of several U.S. scientists collectively chosen as Time’s men of the year. John F. Kennedy had just defeated Richard Nixon for the U.S. presidency, and only three months had passed since Pauling’s final confrontation with Senator Thomas Dodd and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.

Pauling’s troubles with SISS had centered largely on his efforts, three years prior, to circulate an international petition to halt the testing of nuclear weapons, a document that was eventually submitted to the United Nations with the signatures of around 11,000 of the world’s scientists. The petition contributed substantial momentum to a temporary international test ban treaty signed by the U.S. and Soviet Union, which was followed by approximately three years of seemingly productive international negotiations in Geneva, Switerland, the focus of which was the negation of nuclear testing.

While Pauling felt that great progress had been made following the November 1958 decision to temporarily halt nuclear weapons tests, he grew uneasy with the rise of new developments around the world.  In particular, Pauling was alarmed by what he saw as a renewed and calculated domestic campaign to resume atomic testing in the United States. Likewise, in the aftermath of the test-detonation of a nuclear weapon by the government of France, serious discussions about the sharing of U.S. nuclear weapons with NATO nations began to hasten in earnest.

Around the beginning of January 1961, Pauling and his wife Ava Helen decided – as Linus put it in a later speech – to “take whatever action [they], as individual human beings, could take toward the achievement of permanent and true peace in the world.” Because of the success that the couple had enjoyed with their first international petition three years prior, the Paulings felt that another attempt was merited, and set about writing and circulating a second petition. This document, an “Appeal to Stop the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” was initially addressed to both the United Nations and to the individual governments of the world.  It warned

The world is now in great danger. A cataclysmic nuclear war might break out as the result of some terrible accident or of an explosive deterioration in international relations such that even the wisest national leaders would be unable to avert the catastrophe. Universal disarmament has now become the essential basis for life and liberty for all people.

The new petition focused on the increased difficulty of effecting universal disarmament, as new nations or groups of nations came into possession of nuclear weapons. The document likewise urged the era’s nuclear powers to reject the transfer of nuclear weapons to other nations or political alliances, and encouraged non-nuclear nations to voluntarily refrain from seeking them. Lastly, the petition called upon all nations, whether they possessed nuclear weapons or not, to “increase their efforts to achieve total and universal disarmament with a system of international controls and inspection such as to insure to the greatest possible extent the safety of all nations and all people.”

The new petition was sent out to scientists that had supported the previous effort, and Pauling promptly received over 700 responses within one month, including replies from thirty-eight Nobel Prize winners and 110 members of the National Academy of Sciences. Pauling turned over his collection of responses to Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations, on February 16th, 1961.

While the Paulings were happy with the initial response to their appeal, they sought more support from people worldwide, using a series of subsequent press releases to spread the word. The petition was printed in various newspapers around the country and circulated among several nations around the world. While the document was initially signed by 700 people from 40 different nations, with renewed efforts, the the total number of signatories quickly began to approach 10,000.


During the writing and initial circulation stages of the 1961 appeal, the Paulings admitted to harboring many peace- and disarmament-related questions that they wished to see considered with more vigor. In light of their experiences with the Pugwash Conferences, the couple decided that non-proliferation was a topic worthy of its own event, ideally one where “scientists and other informed people from many countries [would] meet to study and analyze some aspects of the present great world problem.”  In actuality though, Pauling and his wife thought of their efforts as a supplement to the Pugwash meetings, rather than a gathering of its own.

Geneva was the first city considered as an ideal location to hold the conference, but after some thought the Paulings decided that it was more of a place for negotiations between nations, and eventually settled on Oslo, Norway instead. Oslo maintained worldwide significance as an International City of Peace, home to the Norwegian Nobel Committee since 1901 and the Norwegian Nobel Institute since 1905.  Moreover, a very important additional determinant for the location was the substantial amount of practical support that was extended to the Paulings in advance by their friend, Professor Otto Bastiansen, along with a good number of other Norwegian volunteers involved with a Norwegian group known as “the Thirteen.” As for the timing of the meeting, it fell into a convenient niche between the 6th Pugwash Conference in Moscow and the 7th Pugwash Conference in the U.S.  Even more importantly, the conference was set to culminate on the day before a major NATO meeting was to take place in Geneva.

Otto Bastiansen. Portrait by H. Stenstadvold / BONO 2010

The NATO meeting, a spring gathering of the Ministerial Council lasting from May 8 to 10, was the first meeting directed by a new Secretary-General of NATO, Dirk U. Stikker. The principle theme of the meeting was reportedly “the general awareness of the global character of the communist threat,” but particular focus was given over to aid for poorer nations, and the potential transfer of five Polaris nuclear missile submarines and eighty Polaris nuclear warheads to NATO forces in Europe. A final goal of the meeting was to address efforts to achieve disarmament with the Soviet Union, in particular the need to ensure policy consistency among NATO allies. While all topics were generally relevant to their aims, it was this last goal in particular that Pauling and his associates hoped to influence with their conference in Oslo.

After several weeks of intense planning and coordination, the Paulings managed to find twenty-five individuals from fifteen different countries who were willing to help sponsor the event and cover most expenses. As the conference drew near, planners extended invitations to scientists and other people with applicable special knowledge – in all, sixty scientists (both physical and social) from fifteen nations agreed to attend.

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