The Paulings Down Under

[Part 1 of 2]

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling journeyed to Australia and New Zealand three times across the span of three different decades. They visited for scientific and political reasons, and grew to admire many aspects of the region; in particular the people, their peace movement and the scenery. But the couple’s feelings toward the Australian government were decidedly mixed.

In November 1959, the couple ventured to the southern hemisphere for the Australian and New Zealand Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament and Festival of the Arts, held in Melbourne from November 7-14. The gathering was a high-profile and mildly controversial event, sponsored by people from many different professions: professors, lawyers, scientists, writers, doctors, church leaders, Australian labor party activists and trade unionists. By day the congress consisted of meetings and conferences, while at night members traveled to different town halls around Melbourne to do promotional work.

Cold war tensions ran rampant throughout the Congress as, at the time, the Australian government was wading through its own period of McCarthyism. Trade unions, whose leadership positions were widely held by Communist Party members, were represented by large numbers and heavy influence at the Congress.  Due to consequent perceptions of communist influence, the Australian government had officially denounced the Congress prior to its start. Asked by the press for his views on the issue, Pauling framed the government’s actions as “politically rational but morally irrational.” One of the few additional foreign guests at the conference, British writer J.B. Priestly, who was actually well-known for his socialist views, threatened to walk out if the conference was dominated by communists.

For her part, Ava Helen found the sentiment ridiculous. She wrote in her journal

I made a statement in most of the talks that I gave that I saw no use whatsoever in holding a conference to discuss peace unless communists were present; we have communists in this world and it is with them that we must come to some agreement about the world in general.

Despite the controversy, many international figures lent their names in support of the conference, including such major figures as Eleanor Roosevelt and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mark Oliphant.

An especially controversial member in attendance was Sir Mark Oliphant, an Australian physicist known for his role in the creation of the atomic bomb and a friend of the Paulings. (Following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oliphant, like Linus Pauling, became a peace activist and a harsh critic of nuclear weapons.) Oliphant created quite a stir when he withdrew his sponsorship midway through the Congress. This action understandably led members to assume that the withdrawal was due to some lack of belief in the peaceful goals espoused by the Congress.

However, in later correspondence, Oliphant revealed his motivations as being both more nuanced and ambivalent. His concern centered on the fact that the focus of the Congress was to create momentum to pressure governing bodies to disarm. During the proceedings, Oliphant was disappointed that more tangible solutions were not being discussed, but later came to agree with the goals of the Congress and expressed regret over his withdrawal. Later their trip, the Paulings made a point of visiting Oliphant in Canberra at the Australian National University, where he was director of the School of Physical Sciences – clearly there were not hard feelings between friends.

After the week-long Congress came to a close, the Paulings left, buoyed by a feeling of optimism. Ava Helen hoped that another congress would happen very soon, and that the next time around an actual plan could be put in place.

Their obligations completed, Linus and Ava Helen ventured on to other cities in Australia: Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Newcastle, and Wollongong. While travel plans often revolved around her husband, Ava Helen had her own agenda for the trip. In her diary she noted, “While I am here in Australia for five weeks, I want particularly to learn as much about Australian women as I can.” Viewed in this light, Ava Helen, who worked for the US National Board of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, deemed the trip a success. In particular, she took the opportunity to speak to various women’s groups while her husband was delivering his usual chemistry lectures at high schools and universities.

While traveling about, the Paulings were particularly impressed with the Australian labor movement. They had visited coal mines, gas and electric plants and railroads, and met with the leaders of various unions. As it turned out, Australia’s trade unions were huge proponents of the peace movement. Ava Helen noted,

The broad support of the Congress by the labor unions both officially and by individual members is one of the chief reasons it was so successful… We became well acquainted with many aspects of Australian life because of meeting many people in these various cities, and we were particularly impressed with the labor movement in Australia. As far as we could tell, most of the trade unions in Australia definitely want world cooperation and peace and are willing to work for it. They feel that the cold war is detrimental and that it should be stopped.

When not busy fulfilling their commitments as scientists and peace delegates, the couple took in the famously lush scenery of the countryside. Drives along the coast and mountaintop picnics were worked into the itinerary. After making their way through Australia, the pair moved on to New Zealand, where they made stops in Wellington (and had lunch with the Prime Minister), Christchurch, Timaru, Dunedin, and Auckland. All the while, they promoted their message of peace from the congress.

After a five-week long adventure, the Paulings embarked on the long trip back to the States.  It would be five more years before they made a return trip to Oz.

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