The Soviet Resonance Controversy: Outside Views

[Part 7 of 7]

Even though the resonance controversy was largely one contested between Soviet scientists and Linus Pauling, many outside members of the scientific public, as well as the media, weighed in on the dispute. By and large, the reaction was quite supportive of Pauling, with most commentators coming to his defense.

One scientist who definitely fit this bill was George W. Wheland, a colleague of Pauling’s who worked with him to develop resonance theory. In a letter to the editor of Chemical and Engineering News dated August 4, 1952, Wheland denounced the Soviet attack on resonance as being driven by a “patriotic, political, and ideological invective, which from the Western viewpoint, has no scientific content.”

Moyer Hunsberger, a chemist from the University of Chicago and Fordham University, felt similarly, and in 1952 he delivered a series of lectures meant to thwart “the Russian chauvinistic ideological approach” to scientific inquiry. In them, Hunsberger labeled the Soviet position and its steadfast support of A.M. Butlerov an “extremely obvious exaggeration of [his] contributions to organic chemistry.” Likewise, “the intensity and crudeness” of the Soviet condemnation of Pauling’s ideas “appear[ed] to be without parallel in the annals of chemistry.”

Other scientists added their voices in concert. Notably, Harvard University president James Bryant Conant argued that,

If the Russians continue to attempt to force science to follow along a path determined by politics, Russia is sure to grow weaker. If Russians are not allowed to use the resonance theory or are deprived of scientific freedom in any other direction, Russian science will fall behind western science and Russian technology will suffer. I think that Syrkin and Diatkina and other Russian chemists who have been criticized for using the theory are among the most able in Russia today. Their book, The Chemical Bond and the Structure of Molecules is an excellent work. It is based almost entirely on resonance theory – and I think there is no substitution for that.


But scientists weren’t the only ones who came to Pauling’s defense. Many media outlets also published articles about the controversy and, as with the academics, they were strongly in support of Pauling and his resonance theory.

Perhaps the first mention of the controversy in the stateside media appeared in a July 15, 1951 New York Times article titled, “Soviets Dispute a Chemical Theory.” In the article, the author impugns the Soviets for not acknowledging the centrality of resonance theory and even asserts that the Soviet atomic bomb projects were necessarily informed by the work. As such, it was clearly hypocritical for the theory to be described as “bourgeois mysticism” when it had been so important to advancing goals fundamental to the national interest.

Shortly thereafter, on September 1, 1951, the California Institute of Technology News Bureau released a bulletin about the controversy that sought to summarize the Soviet attack and defend the importance of Pauling’s ideas. “The theory is now an accepted part of chemistry,” the News Bureau wrote, “at least in the Western world. It is taught in general and organic chemistry textbooks and has contributed to the simplification of the science.”

These early analyses in hand, other newspapers began to report on the controversy, with some even drawing comparisons between the Soviets’ stance and actions taken by the U.S. government a year prior. In particular, a Seattle Times piece from September 2, 1951 compared the resonance controversy to accusations made by the House Un-American Activities Commission a year earlier, wherein Pauling was branded a communist. By recognizing and naming the similarities between the two controversies, the author of the Seattle Times piece put forth both an exoneration of Pauling’s political activities in the U.S. as well as the perception of his science in the USSR.

That same day, the Washington Star published its own article containing a very similar sentiment, and the steady flow of support continued from there. As the year moved forward, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Time, and the Pasadena Independent were among those publishing popular articles that upheld resonance theory and denounced the Soviet position.


In 1952, the New York Times published a second article investigating the topic. The piece sought to explain resonance theory in basic terms that “every schoolboy” could understand while also responding to lingering objections from Soviet scientists.

According to the article, scientists in the U.S.S.R. had recently reaffirmed their denouncement of resonance theory, calling its ideas “mere illusions, senseless structures.” These critics continued that

Pauling and his like are said to cherish perverted concepts which are typical examples of bourgeois thinking. The man to follow is A.M. Butlerov, who has a more materialistic concept of chemical structures.

This established, the Times article then put forth a clarification. “It may be that resonance structures are illusory,” the author wrote, but “That is not the point. A theory is not a statement of absolute truth. It is an invention, a tool. […] So far, the theory of resonance explains what cannot be explained by older theories of valence.” The piece concludes of resonance theory, “Benighted Western chemists will continue to apply it.”


But not all outside observers were entirely behind Pauling, and one figure in particular deserves mention. In 1977, two years after his passing, a biographical memoir was written of Robert Robinson, the former president of the British Royal Society. In this piece, it was revealed that Robinson did not at all agree with Pauling’s ideas on resonance.

Robinson and Pauling had known one another for over two decades and were clearly friends. When Robinson received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1947, Pauling wrote to convey his “heartiest congratulation,” and at nearly the same time Robinson helped Pauling to secure his Eastman fellowship at Oxford University. When Robinson’s wife died in 1954, Pauling reached out to express his “deep affection.” Some years later, Robinson’s daughter gave Pauling a portrait of her father from 1955, which Pauling later put on his desk as a reminder of the times they had shared together “sitting on stools at the little eating house after the Royal Society Meeting” and their “boat trip down the St. John’s River.”

But despite this close personal connection, Robinson differed on the issue of resonance theory. In the biographical memoir, Robinson was quoted as having referred to Pauling’s resonance work as “very misleading” and an “unfortunate contribution” to science. Pauling was upset by this revelation, so much so that he wrote a response in which he argued that Robinson’s beliefs were “based entirely on misunderstanding or incompleteness of knowledge of the nature and early history of the theory of resonance.”

The late Robinson’s critique stood as an outlier though and, upon final reflection, it appeared that Pauling’s experience with the Soviets did not leave a lasting mark. In a Royal Society paper about resonance theory that he wrote in 1977, Pauling addressed the controversy just once, and in it he did not even specifically mention the Soviets. Rather, Pauling’s text indicated that resonance theory had been “rather strongly attacked…because of the failure of critics to understand it.” And with that, he seems to have summarized his feelings about the Soviet resonance controversy in as succinct a manner as possible.

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