Pauling’s Peace Prize

On October 10, 1963, Linus Pauling received notice that he was to be history's first recipient of two unshared Nobel Prizes.

On October 10, 1963, Linus Pauling received notice that he was to be history’s first recipient of two unshared Nobel Prizes.

Like many other Nobel Prize winners, Linus Pauling discovered that he had been awarded the Peace Prize in a dramatic way. The news was announced on October 10th, 1963, while Pauling was at his Big Sur ranch – an intentionally secluded space lacking a telephone to say nothing of a television. He, Ava Helen and some friends had already planned on celebrating that morning, as October 10th would also mark the formal beginning of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which put an end to above-ground nuclear tests among the world’s major nuclear powers. As he wrote in his research notebook:

Ava Helen and I had come to the ranch with Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Durr. We had bought a bottle of champagne, which we planned to drink to celebrate the treaty. At 8:15am, as we were sitting down to breakfast, the forest ranger, Ralph Haskin, came to the cabin. He said that Linda had telephoned and had asked that Ava Helen and I both come to the ranger station and telephone her. I asked if he knew what was the matter, and he said that he thought that it wasn’t serious. (Linda had told him and asked him not to tell us.) We finished breakfast, drove to the station, and telephoned Linda. She said that I had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1962. (She first asked me if I had heard the news. I said no.) I spent most of the day at the station, answering the telephone and giving interviews. We forgot to open the champagne. On 11 October, we drove to Carmel. Ralph Atkinson had champagne at hand. It’s our first celebration.

The fact that Pauling received the 1962 prize in 1963 is extremely telling. As Pauling wrote in a confidential note to self:

On the morning of Tuesday 13 Nov., Gunnar Jahn [then chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee] telephoned me at the Bristol Hotel, Oslo, and asked us to come to his office at 11 A.M. There he said to Ava Helen and me, in the presence of his secretary, Mrs. Elna Poppe, “I tried to get the Committee…to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 1962 to you; I think you are the most outstanding peace worker in the world. But only one of the four would agree with me. I then said to them ‘If you won’t give it to Pauling, there won’t be any Peace Prize this year.'”

And indeed there was not.


Life magazine, October 25, 1963.

Life magazine, October 25, 1963.

Jahn’s conflict with his colleagues was symbolic of the differing attitudes with which news of Pauling’s Peace Prize was greeted, especially in America. While the public and many of Pauling’s friends sent him a flood of congratulatory letters and telegraphs, pro-nuclear scientists, much of the mainstream media and official agents of the U.S. government were unhappy about Pauling’s accolade.

Perhaps most famously, on October 25th, 1963, Life Magazine published an editorial titled “A Weird Insult from Norway,” which, as one might imagine, criticized the Nobel committee’s decision. The critique attacked Pauling’s prize from two directions. First, the editors pointed out that the recognition of Pauling’s peace work by the Norwegian committee was, in effect, a condemnation of contemporary research on nuclear science. The magazine argued that if efforts to ban nuclear tests were deemed worthy of respect, then efforts to promote nuclear research were conversely discredited. By this logic, Pauling’s Nobel Peace Prize was presumed to be an insult to other scientists engaged in nuclear weapons research.

Second, the Life editorial sought to undermine Pauling’s importance to the nuclear disarmament movement. The magazine stressed that the real reason why the Partial Test Ban Treaty came into being was not because Pauling’s famous 1958 appeal finally changed the minds of governments, but rather because President Kennedy’s firm stance against the construction of missile bases in Cuba during October of the previous year had, to a large degree, helped shape sentiment in favor of disarmament on a global scale.

While Pauling received many letters of support from those who were outraged by the editorial, few were quite so colorful as that penned by his friend Ernst Scharrer. Scharrer, at the time a faculty member at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, began by dismissing as folly the logic behind Life‘s critique. From there Scharrer compared the editors’ published opinion to Adolf Hitler’s response to Carl von Ossietzky’s 1935 Peace prize. As Hitler secretly began rearming Germany, in the process ignoring the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Ossietzky revealed the news to the world by publishing details of the militarization. When this effort won Ossietzky the Nobel Peace Prize, Hitler declared that, henceforth, German citizens were forbidden to accept Nobel prizes. Though of lesser consequence, Scharrer’s point was that Life‘s critique was similarly unjustified, partisan and petty.


Linus Pauling debating Edward Teller on the topic of nuclear fallout: “The Nuclear Bomb Tests…Is Fallout Overrated?” KQED-TV, San Francisco. February 20, 1958.

What explains the divergence of views over Pauling’s peace efforts? To answer this, it helps to go back to the central questions of the nuclear test debate.

Opposing viewpoints on these questions were summed up in a televised debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller titled “Fallout and Disarmament” and broadcast on San Francisco’s KQED-TV in 1958. Teller spoke for the pro-nuclear camp in first explicitly stating that, as with Pauling, peace was his goal. The focus of the controversy, then, was how best to bring about a world in peace. The conflict centered on whether the process should involve nuclear weapons. The still somewhat unknown side effects associated with the manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons also made this in an issue of pitched debate. It was known that nuclear bombs could crush islands into dust and spread them into the atmosphere over the course of a few seconds. What’s more, rare, toxic elements were also clearly created alongside the release of large amounts of radiation. But no one knew exactly what might happen to our bodies when exposed to regular, if lower, levels of these atomic-era materials.

Faced with this uncertainty, the two sides came into conflict on the question of what the development of nuclear weapons might bring to American society. Edward Teller thought them beneficial in that the ability to manufacture these massive weapons meant that the U.S. could match and possibly overcome the Soviet Union in terms of military strength. It was this balance between the two military superpowers, Teller claimed, that would guarantee peace. In the absence of this dynamic, war was presumed to be inevitable, with the side that failed to develop a matching nuclear capacity finding itself at a distinct disadvantage. For Teller, the arms race necessitated the testing of nuclear weapons. The real stake was military strength – peace was based on force. In addition, and of major consequence to his position, Teller maintained a very optimistic view on the health effects of prolonged exposure to fallout levels of radiation. He even pointed out the possibility that increased mutations resulting from fallout could be regarded as a source for enhanced evolution of species.

Pauling couldn’t have disagreed more vehemently. He thought the construction of nuclear weapons to be a bane of world society and emphasized the environmental and health costs imposed by the development of such weapons. Morality was another of Pauling’s weapons with which to attack Teller’s arguments. If it was understood that developing weapons to strengthen national security came at the cost of decreases in public health and environmental stability, the effort, even if well-intentioned, was morally corrupt and ought to be brought to a close as soon as possible. Furthermore, as a fundamental principle, world conflicts should be settled at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield. Pauling also expended much energy in compiling evidence on the ill effects of increased environmental radiation. One example that he often cited was the increase in the incidence of children born with birth defects after World War II and its nuclear conclusion. By directing his audience’s attentions to the impact of atomic gamesmanship on future generations, Pauling stressed the seriousness of the issue and re-emphasized the morality of his argument.


Editorial cartoon published in the York Gazette and Daily by Walt Partymiller, September 20, 1962.

The crux of the Pauling-Teller debate was still in play by the time that Pauling received the 1963 prize. While Life magazine was criticizing the decision of Norway’s Nobel committee to reward Pauling’s peace work, his emphasis on moral action was being enthusiastically supported by his friends and many others in the public arena. In particular, Pauling’s concern over the harmful health effects of atmospheric radiation on future generations gained a lot of attention among the public. This positive response was reflected in many letters of congratulation from ordinary people who wholeheartedly endorsed Pauling’s appeals. Typical was an October 13th, 1963 letter, written by a widow with two boys:

To me you have been vindicated in the eyes of the world. These stupid, loud-mouthed patriots, as they consider themselves, should have to eat their words. I am not a college educated person, and I do not pretend to know what the ultimate outcome of this testing program would be, but I have read enough to make me very fearful as you are. I think we all should consider the future generations – not just ourselves, as you did. But few would be as brave and heroic as you, and would ‘stick our necks out’ as you did. You are a truly great American and a great humanitarian, which is more important! Someday people will speak of you as the great man you really are. I feel so relieved that you have won this prize, as I have been very bitter over the criticism of you. I have resented it so much, but now I feel people will change in their opinion of you…if they don’t, these few ‘screwballs’ you should not care. Most of us are as happy as if we won that prize ourselves. I know I am! Usually it seems, they wait until you die to relent and say a person is truly great and deserves the highest honor. So I feel so grateful that this was done while you still can appreciate the fact that you are considered by many a hero, if there ever was one!

The contrast between the critique of Pauling’s peace prize from Life and the support that he received from much of the public displayed again the pivot point of the nuclear test debate, an issue whose resolution was still many years in the future.  For the remainder of 2013, as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of Pauling’s second Nobel award, we will explore his preparation for Oslo throughout the months of November and December 1963 as he continued to speak and write, often at great personal cost, during a turbulent time in world history.

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