The Pauling-Teller Debate: Coming Face-to-Face

 

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.

[Part 3 of 5]

An informed citizen is a good citizen.  This was a belief held by both Linus Pauling and Edward Teller.  As scientists the two likewise believed that the information they presented to the public must be specific and stripped of rhetoric. On the same token, it was also their obligation to spell out to the public their sense of the threats that loomed during the Cold War and to motivate their audience to respond to those threats. Perhaps most importantly, both men believed it imperative that the information that they provided be up-to-date and reflective of the idea that science is the most reliable source of information for the public.

In many respects then, Pauling and Teller were operating from principles that would seem to have been very close to one another. That the two men would present such differing viewpoints from such a similar basis of belief is illustrative of the confusion that prevailed in American society concerning fallout and nuclear weapons at the time of the Pauling-Teller debate.


The one and only televised debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller was held in San Francisco on February 20, 1958, and broadcast live by KQED television, a public broadcasting station located in the city. From the get-go, Pauling had a hard time.

As the debate commenced, Pauling opened with a plea to prevent nuclear war, and emphasized the pressing need that prevention start now.  Pauling’s speech was stilted and awkward though, and he stumbled over his words despite appearing to have been well-rehearsed.  For whatever reason, in his opening statement, Pauling did not come across like a man who was used to speaking in front of others about these ideas, although he gradually appeared more relaxed as the debate progressed.

Edward Teller and Linus Pauling with members of the media and a television crew at their 1958 debate.

Teller also began his opening statement in a staccato cadence similar to that used by his opponent, though he quickly warmed up to the audience and began to speak more candidly.  Teller also succeeded in letting his emotions show more clearly than did Pauling. Although this is not how most scientists of the era would think to present themselves, the display of emotions likely came across as more appealing to the debate audience.

One of the main points that Pauling tried to emphasize in the debate was that the cessation of nuclear development and testing would require the agreement of many people, both inside and outside of the U.S.  Pauling called for a collective effort “to solve international disputes by the application of man’s power of reason in a way that is worthy of the dignity of man.” He went on:

We must solve them by arbitration, negotiation, the development of international law, the making of international agreements that will do justice to all nations and to all peoples and will benefit all nations and all people

This process naturally would require large amounts of work on behalf of many people. Indeed, in order to achieve peace and stability, Pauling argued that levels of resources equivalent to those committed to create nuclear weapons needed to be expended in support of coming to an agreement. A commitment, in other words, “comparable to that of the forty billion dollars a year that we put into armaments.”  Pauling also pointed out that the Soviets had already proposed a cessation in nuclear weapons testing and an end to weapons stockpiling, so neither idea was too radical or forward thinking.

A lasting agreement would also have to transcend political systems.  Pauling saw no problems with coming to terms with the Soviet Union, or any other nation, regardless of politics and policies.  On the contrary, he believed “that we need to have different kinds of political systems…[and] that the way to settle the problem of the differences is not to kill off most of the people in the world, or a large fraction of the people in the world with these terrible nuclear weapons.”

Though Pauling mostly spoke in positive and inclusive tones, he often strayed from this approach to criticize Teller, at times going line-by-line through one or another of Teller’s articles. And while an important part of Pauling’s strategy appears to have been to attack Teller’s previous public statements, he failed to expand beyond this tactic to address certain of the larger issues at hand, such as radioactive fallout or a nuclear weapons test ban.


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San Francisco Chronicle, February 21, 1958.

As the debate moved forward, it was Teller who became more and more precise on the topic of harm from fallout, though this would seem to have been a point of rhetoric favoring Pauling’s point of view. It was at this point that Teller was able to take firm command of the proceedings. As he outlined his arguments, he did not try to discredit or attack Pauling, but instead worked to align himself with his opponent by focusing on their similarities instead of their differences, by characterizing their differences as misconceptions, and by emphasizing the ambiguities in the data they were both using.

Conversely, throughout the evening Pauling painted Teller as a warmonger, quoting him as saying “we must meet the Russians wherever they choose to attack.”  Pauling interpreted this statement as an expression of need to prepare for nuclear war. Teller countered that he supported the development of a wide range of weapons as a means to stave off any possibility of attack.  If the U.S. had developed weapons to deal with any possible scenario, Teller’s logic went, the Soviets would be too afraid to ever attack.

Teller also argued that no one could possibly know for sure what potential harm might arise from nuclear weapons tests, a counterpoint diametrically opposed from Pauling’s dire warnings of negative health impacts from radioactive fallout. Teller pointed out that nuclear weapons had not been around long enough for adequate research to be conducted and that, just as researchers were only then starting to evaluate the results of industrialization, only time would tell what to make of the nuclear age.

For Teller, the threat of a potential attack was a bigger deterrent to a test ban than were the possible threats of continued testing. Likewise, as its military strength improved, the U.S. would become stronger and the world more stable.  Teller agreed with Pauling’s position that the world needed to strive for peace based on mutual understanding.  However, as Teller put it

Peace based on force buys us the necessary time. And in this time we can work for better understanding, for closer collaboration, first with the countries which are closest to us, which we understand better, our allies, the Western countries, the NATO countries, which believe in human liberties as we do.  Then, as soon as possible, with the rest of the free world, and eventually, I hope, with the whole world, including Russia, even though it may take years to come.

Teller concluded the debate by reflecting on the situation in his native Hungary, his own love of liberty, and his belief that continued testing was an exercise of democratic freedom.  His very last line, “I am talking for my freedom, for his [Pauling’s] freedom, and for the freedom of all of us,” emphasized the collective nature of his stance.  So ended the televised debate between Pauling and Teller, but their public engagement with one another was far from concluded.

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