The Oslo Conference

Group portrait of participants at the Oslo Conference. 1961.

[Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Oslo Conference. Part 2 of 2]

In early spring of 1961, Linus Pauling and his wife Ava Helen, along with a committed group of friends and volunteers, were busy preparing for their conference against the spread of nuclear weapons, scheduled to take place in Oslo, Norway, from May 2-7. As practical necessities for the conference such as travel and lodging were gradually accounted for, an expressed priority for Pauling and other planners was the need to shape perceptions of the event with greater heed to its larger political context. In their correspondence, the planning group continually stressed that the conference itself was to be non-political, since, in Pauling’s words, “the spread of nuclear weapons is a non-political problem, really a problem of danger to humanity and civilization as a whole.”

The list of individuals invited to the event was thoughtfully organized in order to limit potential (and anticipated) claims of politicization by critics of non-proliferation. The title of the event, the “Conference to Study the Problem of the Possible Spread of Nuclear Weapons to More Nations or Groups of Nations,” was likewise crafted with diligent care and focus, albeit without regard to practical length.  In time, however, to conference planners, attendees and future references, the gathering would simply be known as the “Oslo Conference.”

Shortly before the conference was to take place, the Paulings and their associates received word from the Norwegian Nobel Committee that permission had been granted to hold their event at the Norwegian Nobel Institute. The general plan for the conference entailed studying the spread of nuclear weapons as a problem over several days of seminar-style gatherings, and then to form a scholarly statement about the problem which would be issued to the public. No organizations were allowed to directly sponsor the conference – another safeguard to repel claims of politicization – and attendees were advised that they had been selected as participants because of their expertise, knowledge and experience, rather than their professional positions, status or affiliations.

In the run-up to Oslo, a number of people wrote to the conference planners asking whether or not the event would be open to the public, as many wished to witness the discussions and conference discourse, even if they were barred from participating directly. Though Pauling and other planners were grateful for the interest expressed in such inquiries, they ultimately decided to hold a closed conference. According to Pauling, the meetings were to be kept private so that

Participants might have the greatest possible freedom to discuss the important questions that will be taken up, from every point of view, and to reach some conclusions on which they could all agree, without being hindered by public knowledge of preliminary and perhaps contradictory statements made in the course of discussion.

Pauling let it be known to interested parties that public participation would take place after the drafting of the statement, most likely at the University of Oslo, and following the culmination of the conference. But even with these pronouncements, Pauling was compelled during the conference to reiterate this point. Though spouses of participants were allowed to attend, several attendees brought friends during the first day of the conference and were rebuked accordingly.

Just as the image of the conference was carefully shaped in the weeks and months preceding it, so too were the themes and perspectives that were planned to guide the event’s proceedings. Though they had around five days to do so, creation of the final conference statement was carefully planned from the outset of the gathering. The process was structured such that suggestions for material that participants wanted to see incorporated into a preliminary draft of the conference statement were to be given to members of a Drafting Committee at the beginning of the conference. After this was done, there were to be several days of presentations and discussion, during which an initial draft of the conference statement would be composed and reviewed. The final day of the conference was set aside for concluding remarks, discussion, last minute changes, and voting for approval or rejection of the final statement.

A segment of the crowd gathered for the Oslo demonstration, May 1961.

As it turned out, the statement was approved unanimously by the conference-goers on May 7th, and presented that evening to a gathering of the public at the University of Oslo. After reading the statement, those present conducted a peaceful demonstration through the streets of Oslo in recognition of the collective effort toward the furtherance of world peace.

While the statement discusses several themes relating to the issue of disarmament from various perspectives, the final statement lists five points meant to synthesize the final conclusions of the conference:

  1. Each addition to the numbers of nations armed with nuclear weapons drives its neighbors toward acquiring similar arms.
  2. As nuclear weapons pass into more hands, the chance increases that a major war will be started by some human error or technical accident.
  3. The spread to more nations increases the chance of deliberate initiation of nuclear war.
  4. Increase in the number of nuclear powers would further increase the difficulty of achieving disarmament.
  5. After it obtains nuclear weapons, a nation becomes a more likely target in any nuclear war.

Shortly after returning to the United States, Pauling appeared at the Conference of Greater New York Peace Groups, and discussed the results of the Oslo Conference in front of a large audience at Carnegie Hall. He stressed the wide range of opinions and perspectives brought forth by each conference participant, and the difficulties encountered and overcome in achieving unanimous approval of the statement. While Pauling strongly supported the results of the conference, as well as the feasibility of the final statement’s goals and recommendations, he clarified that achieving these goals would easily require ten years, but likely more. Through all his idealism, Pauling seems not to have suffered from delusions about the difficulty of this task, reminding his audience that “we must work; but we have a hard job!”


Pauling’s words turned out to be prescient as, in the wake of the conference, a number of developments took place that infuriated him and temporarily dampened his resolve. For one, as part of more complicated international political maneuverings, the Soviet Union announced plans to resume testing of nuclear weapons, followed shortly thereafter by similar stated intentions from the United States. Pauling subsequently set about writing letters to Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy, imploring them not to resume testing; he received no answer from the Kennedy administration, and was delivered a largely apologetic reply from Khrushchev. In his letter to Pauling, Khrushchev suggested that the decision to resume testing was a painful one, but necessary due to the movement into European waters of American Polaris submarines and nuclear missiles.

Pauling became nearly distraught when the Soviet government detonated a 50-megaton atomic bomb, an action that Pauling had implored, with particular emphasis, the Soviet government not to pursue. The fallout from such an explosion, Pauling reasoned,

…could cause damage to the pool of human germ plasm such that during coming generations, several tens of thousands of children would be born with gross physical or mental defect, who would be normal if the bomb test were not carried out.

After the detonation of the 50-megaton bomb, followed by a number of additional less-substantial but still extremely powerful explosions, Pauling began criticizing the Soviet Union at a level that was virtually unparalleled in his previous approach to internationally oriented dialogue. The U.S. also was not spared from similar denunciations by Pauling, but he was particularly disturbed by the magnitude of the Soviet endeavor after years of seemingly productive discussions towards disarmament in Geneva.

Though Pauling became extremely disillusioned by the decision of both nations to resume testing, he was eventually rewarded for his sustained efforts. In 1963, following resumed negotiations, the United States and Soviet Union signed a partial test ban treaty that halted the testing of nuclear weapons in the ocean, in space and in the atmosphere. Pauling’s impact on this development was formally recognized several weeks later when he received word that he had been chosen as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

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