A Cold War Division Chair: Pauling Under Investigation

[Pauling as Administrator]

As Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, Linus Pauling was obligated to deliver an annual report each year to Institute President Lee DuBridge. As he compiled these reports, Pauling solicited comments from members of the division that focused primarily on their research progress over the previous year.

In 1952, using the Division of Biology’s report as a model, Pauling added some specifics to his usual request for comment. This time around, he needed information about funding sources; a 100-500 word description of work completed that would be accessible to the general reader; and a list of awards received and publications authored. These extra details painted a generally positive portrait of the division, though they did not always reflect the budgetary strains being felt across the unit.

While Pauling oversaw an influx of funding that allowed the division to expand, the money on hand never seemed to be quite enough. As a result, Pauling needed to keep a close watch on the division’s budget, tracking staff salaries, fellowships, supplies, and special funds. In doing so, Pauling sometimes uncovered what appeared to be frivolous spending in unexpected places.

In 1951 for example, Pauling asked division staff to be careful about publishing in journals that charged page fees for article reprint orders. That year, Pauling noted, the division had spent $2,500 on reprints, including $700 for covers alone. Going forward, Pauling asked that, unless absolutely necessary, reprints be ordered without covers; a small sacrifice to conserve resources.


While modifying reprint ordering practices promised to save the division a bit of money, Pauling’s own activities outside of the division began to impact the division’s budget in a far more substantial way. By 1951, Pauling’s work as an anti-nuclear activist had been targeted for suspicion by external forces as well as Caltech’s own administration. That same year, a tangible outcome of this suspicion hit the division’s bottom line hard when the United States Public Health Service denied Pauling a $40,000 grant on the basis of his alleged communist ties.

Around this time, with Red Scare fears intensifying, Caltech decided that all individuals serving on the Institute’s Contracts Committee be required to pass a low-level security clearance, to be administered by the Industrial Employment Review Board (IERB). In part because it was meant to be a routine, low-stakes review, this directive was something that should have posed no complications for Pauling. However, problems did indeed arise after Pauling’s name was erroneously (and accidentally) included on a list of upper level administrators connected to Project Vista, a top secret hydrogen bomb research program with which Pauling, in actual fact, had no affiliation.

As a scientist, Pauling’s IERB case was to be evaluated by a military panel. At the beginning of August 1951, Pauling received notice from Lieutenant Colonel W. J. King that he had been denied a security clearance due to his being a “member of” and a “close associate” of the Communist Party since 1943. In backing this claim, King cited as evidence Pauling’s support of “known Communists,” a likely reference to the fundraising effort that Pauling had helped lead for Sidney Weinbaum’s defense the previous year. Pauling adamantly denied the charges, calling anyone who accused him of being a communist a “liar.” Pauling did concede that he may have defended communists in the past, but also maintained that he had the right to defend those who “deserve to be defended.”


King informed Pauling that he could submit evidence in his own defense before a final decision was made, at which point Pauling turned to his scientific colleagues, asking them to vouch for him through character reference letters. In making this appeal, Pauling sent out a form letter describing how he had signed the Espionage Act several times over the previous eleven years, a period during which he had carried out war work that made use of large amounts of classified information. The letter also stressed that Pauling wanted to continue working on similar research as a “service to the Government,” but that he would not be able to do so without approval from the IERB. The letter concluded with Pauling’s feeling that his own political actions to “help improve our national politics and to prevent and rectify injustices to individuals” should not be held against him.

One supporter, Frank Aydelotte of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, told the IERB that Pauling was definitely not a communist. In his letter of reference, Aydelotte wrote

Professor Pauling is a liberal; he is a man of great personal courage who would not hesitate to defend anyone whom he believed to be the victim of injustice, but he is at the same time a man of complete integrity and proven loyalty to the United States Government.

But not all of the colleagues solicited by Pauling gave their unconditional support. One of them, Karl Compton, the Chairman of the Corporation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asserted that Pauling’s scientific and personal character were admirable, but also pointed out that he had never spoken with Pauling about communism and so could not say whether or not Pauling was a communist.

Caltech President Lee DuBridge also agreed to write a letter of support for Pauling, but added that he was not surprised by the decision that the IERB had reached, an admission that shocked Pauling. For DuBridge, the issue was mostly a headache that he wanted settled “one way or another.” As Pauling’s activities had come under increasing scrutiny, some of the Institute’s trustees had threatened to leave the board, and DuBridge himself was in danger of being replaced if he could not find a way to keep Pauling in line.

By the end of September, it appeared that the letters of support had fallen on deaf ears when Pauling’s clearance was once again denied. Following Pauling’s immediate appeal, another month passed until the Project Vista clerical error came to light. And while this revelation led to a momentary lessening of tensions, problems related to Pauling’s public persona would only continue to interfere with his duties at Caltech and within his division.

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