[An examination of Linus Pauling’s activism against the Vietnam War. Part 3 of 7.]
“The continuation of the savagery of the Vietnam War is unworthy of the dignity of man.”
-Linus Pauling, 1965
In 1964, Linus Pauling’s colleague in anti-Vietnam War activism, Corliss Lamont, sent a copy of his 1962 open letter against Vietnam to President Lyndon Johnson. Pauling added his support to Lamont’s action, expressing his agreement with Lamont’s plea that the new President change course and disengage from a policy of military escalation had already “deteriorated almost beyond belief.”
President Johnson did not change course, however. Under his administration, U.S. involvement in Vietnam swelled, as did the corresponding antiwar movement around the world. It was in this atmosphere that Linus and Ava Helen Pauling elevated their own activities and became outspoken opponents of the conflict.
From 1961 to 1964, U.S. troop levels in Vietnam rose precipitously from just over 3,000 to more that 23,000 soldiers in country. Meanwhile, the ranks of the National Liberation Front (or Viet Cong) grew at a decidedly more rapid pace, from around 5,000 fighters in 1959 to approximately 100,000 by the end of 1964. Nonetheless, the total Allied military presence in the region dwarfed the numbers compiled by the Viet Cong. By the time of the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident on August 2, 1964, more than 600,000 men had been mobilized on behalf of the south, the ARVN being the main contributor.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident involved the exchange of fire between the USS Maddox and several Vietnamese vessels, which took place while the Maddox was engaged in an intelligence mission along North Vietnam’s coast. A second attack was reported two days later in the same area, but the circumstances surrounding both engagements remained unclear. In fact, an undated National Security Association publication that was declassified in 2005 revealed that the August 4th skirmish did not actually take place at all.
Nonetheless, this second “attack” prompted the U.S. Congress to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Signed by President Johnson, this piece of legislation gave the President of the United States the power to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without declaring war (and thus without Congressional approval). Although Johnson denied that the resolution amounted to a full-scale declaration of war, the new powers did grant the President the authority to launch unilateral full-scale attacks if he deemed it necessary. Not coincidentally, Chinese military and financial aid began to pour into North Vietnam that same year.
By 1965, Linus Pauling was responding to the intensifying geopolitical climate in southeast Asia by offering his time to a number of anti-war conferences and events. One such event, which was fairly typical, came about when the University of British Columbia invited him to come to campus to speak on the responsibilities of scientists in bringing about disarmament. Pauling traveled to Canada that fall and, while there, he met with the Vancouver Ad Hoc Committee to End the War in Vietnam and also conducted an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation outlining his views on peace.
A few months before traveling to Vancouver, Pauling had helped to write and circulate the “Appeal by Recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize,” that we discussed in the first post of this series. Around the same time as his visit to Canada, Pauling released replies to the appeal that had been authored by Secretary U Thant of the United Nations, Pope Paul VI, and representatives of the governments of the United States, Great Britain, France, Australia, the Soviet Union, and North Vietnam. No response ever came from South Vietnam or from the People’s Republic of China.
The Nobel laureates’ appeal had called for an immediate cease-fire, to be followed by negotiations between all parties involved. The responses to this call were often addressed directly to Pauling and his fellow co-signatories, and their contents varied dramatically depending on the author and their role in the war.
From the perspective of Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, it was clear that the United States was unnecessarily victimizing a small country that was in the midst of fighting for its freedom. Like the South Vietnamese citizens who had written to Lamont and Pauling in the years prior, Kosygin held that peace could only be granted by observance of the Geneva Accords, which the United States and the Diem regime had both ignored. This position was echoed by Mai Van Bo, a representative of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and by Secretary U Thant of the United Nations.
However, no response resonated so forcefully as that issued by Ho Chi Minh himself, who wrote to Linus Pauling on November 17th 1965. In his five-page letter, he made it clear that the only viable route to peace was to embrace the four-point solution espoused by the 1965 Statement of the South Vietnam National Liberation Front. The four requirements listed were: the reaffirmation of the basic national rights of the Vietnamese people; a return to the provisions of the 1954 Geneva agreements; allowing the people of South Vietnam to settle South Vietnam’s internal affairs without interference; and allowing North and South Vietnam to pursue reunification without interference.
These broad imperatives were, in places, backed up with a few details for the sake of clarification, but mostly seemed to be purposely vague. For Pauling, this indicated that the conditions for entering into negotiations would be readily met if the United States showed itself to be serious about pursuing a cease-fire. From the perspective of many within the American government however, Ho Chi Minh’s request seemed disingenuous. The NLF, they believed, was merely a front for the activities of North Vietnam, and North Vietnam had no honest intentions of negotiating peace with the south or allowing a fair election.
Ho Chi Minh’s perspective, as relayed in his letter to Pauling, was straightforward in its assumption that the American presence in the region was not interested in the well-being of South Vietnam at all. If this were the case, the letter pointed out, the U.S. would not have supported a regime as brutal as that of Diem’s. For Minh, North and South Vietnam had both struggled to implement the 1954 Geneva agreements only to be thwarted by U.S. imperial aspirations that propped up a fascist dictatorship in the south and intentionally impeded the peaceful unification of Vietnam into an independent and democratic nation. In Minh’s estimation, the American rationale for this was not only to prevent the spread of communism generally, but also to use South Vietnam, “as a springboard for war activities in Laos and for daily provocations in the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
“They are using our Southern compatriots’ life to test…new types of modern weapons and means of warfare,” Ho Chi Minh continued. “At present, most barbarous means of warfare such as napalm bombs, phosphorous bombs, toxic chemicals, poison gas etc. are being used by the U.S. aggressors to massacre our compatriots in South Viet Nam.” These methods of combat were being tested in Vietnam, Minh believed, because of U.S. military interest in using them around the globe to suppress popular communist revolutions in a variety of developing nations from Southeast Asia to Africa to South America. The grand vision, Minh believed, was a U.S. military presence deployed to ensure global economic hegemony in favor of Western democratic capitalist nations, and in particular the United States.
His perspective shared, Ho Chi Minh ended his letter to Linus Pauling with an appeal of his own; this one to the anti-war protesters in America:
This war besmears the honor and good name of the United States. It is precisely for that reason that, recently, many progressive sections of the American people…have courageously come out against the Johnson Administration’s war of aggression…expressing their resolute refusal to join the army and take part in the massacre of the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese people highly value this struggle of the American people, and are deeply moved by the valiant sacrifices of Mrs. Helga Hertz and of the other peace fighters, the late Mr. Norman Morrison, the late Mr. Roger Laporte and Mrs. Jankowski. I take this opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to the American people who are resolutely struggling against the U.S. imperialists’ war of aggression in Viet Nam. I also wish to convey to the martyrs’ families the love and admiration of the Vietnamese people.