Pauling’s “Immoral Man”: Nuclear Testing, the Nature of Leadership, and Letters to the Kennedys

[This is post 3 of 3 originally authored by SCARC Student Archivist Ethan Heusser for the Rare@OSU blog.]

For internationally renowned scientist and activist Linus Pauling, the early 1960s represented a time of feverish peace work that matched the dangers and necessities of an ever-escalating international crisis. One of the most interesting (and complicated) examples of his correspondence to world leaders during this time was to President John F. Kennedy.

Most of Pauling’s communications with JFK happened during his tenure as President of the United States between 1961-63. (Pauling, meanwhile, was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1963.) The topics of their letters varied widely between nuclear disarmament, nuclear test bans, international peace treaties, and even the Cuban Missile Crisis itself.

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Though Pauling’s letters frequently asserted an authoritative tone, the two did not always maintain the level of peership this might imply; many of Pauling’s letters went unanswered, and those that did get replies were sometimes written by others on Kennedy’s behalf.

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Pauling was often vehemently critical of President Kennedy’s policies and public relations efforts regarding the cold war and nuclear disarmament, attacking his moral character for failing to take strong enough action to de-escalate rising nuclear tension.

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It’s also worth noting that Ava Helen Pauling played a similar role in advocacy to the Kennedys; she wrote Mrs. Kennedy with a similar message about the threat of nuclear weapons, albeit focusing specifically on the impact this might have on her own children. The Paulings’ two-pronged approach is emblematic of their larger team effort.

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Nevertheless, Pauling’s lengthy diatribes and urgings to the Kennedys ended abruptly after the infamous assassination in 1963. Of particular significance is a brief letter written to the First Lady three days later, within which Pauling expresses remorse over the death “of our great President, John F. Kennedy.”

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The tone of that letter is hard to interpret due to its pithiness, but the typically stoic manner in which Pauling writes reveals here a brief moment of vulnerability. For all his “urgings” and his attacks on Kennedy’s moral character, Pauling clearly also had a certain amount of faith in Kennedy’s ability to listen to reason, make compassionate decisions, and lead the nation through moments of immense political pressure. Not only that, but as someone familiar with death threats due to activism, it’s hard to imagine Linus Pauling seeing November 22nd as anything other than a sobering and uncertain experience. The long and difficult relationship between them was snuffed out, but the legacy of the work, unfortunately, needed more than ever to be continued.

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