Ava Helen, Linus, and the Push for Federal Union


[Part 3 of 3]

Soon after its publication in 1939, Clarence Streit’s thought-provoking book, Union Now, became a popular topic of discussion nationwide. As we’ve described in the previous two posts, the book proposed the forming of a federal union of democratic republics in order to protect democracy from being overrun by totalitarian dictatorships. Chapters of the Federal Unionist Club were founded in cities across the country at a rapid pace; by 1941, sixty cities had established a local division of the club and many more were in the midst of starting up. In Pasadena, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling joined the city’s chapter of the club, which was dedicated not only to discussion among members, but also to working towards the goals established in Union Now.

Linus and Ava Helen’s decision to join the Federal Unionist Club was made in direct reaction to the events leading up to World War II. Raised in a large and politically engaged family, Ava Helen had seemingly always been a peace activist at heart. As the mother of four children however, Ava’s time for direct involvement was limited, and her membership in the Unionist club marked an important beginning of her public activism.

Linus, on the other hand, could have happily remained a research scientist for the rest of his days. But gradually he came to realize, with his wife’s help, that his scientific work would prove far more worthwhile if it served the public, and his involvement with the unionist cause likewise served as a first step in pursuing this aim.

By the late 1930s, the dynamic between scientists and world affairs had changed in such a way that Linus could not ignore the negative effects of political issues in the world. In particular, as the persecution of Jewish populations became more widespread, Jewish scientists were discharged from their positions and Linus began to receive pleas from Jewish colleagues in Europe, asking about any available positions at Caltech.

In the midst of changing times, Ava encouraged Linus to read Union Now, which he did. Linus quickly found himself coming into agreement with his wife, and concluded that taking action in favor of Streit’s proposal was – at least for the time being – a better option than passivity. In a letter to Professor Arthur Compton of the University of Chicago, Linus wrote that the state of current events was such that “I can not subscribe to such a policy of nonresistance.” Linus and Ava Helen thus became active in the struggle for peace.

The cover of Ava Helen Pauling's Union Now scrapbook.

The cover of Ava Helen Pauling’s Union Now scrapbook.

As members of the Federal Unionist Club, Ava Helen and Linus played various roles. Ava Helen was more directly a leader, serving as the Pasadena chapter’s treasurer and historian. As such, she amassed the club’s financial records and kept track of their budget, which was mostly used to organize public debates and to purchase books and pamphlets summarizing Streit’s proposal. She also created a scrapbook consisting mainly of newspaper clippings that documented a great many club appearances in the press.

For Linus, club membership came with a less active but still important role, at least in the context of his own biography. Since the time of his graduation from Oregon Agricultural College, Pauling had felt the need to fashion his work in service to the general public. As a chemist in the post-World War I era, Linus was aware of the dangers that could arise when science was used for warfare, and thus had intended to stay tuned to events where his knowledge as a scientist could help prevent the use of chemistry for harm.

Now that a second world war loomed on the horizon, Ava Helen’s involvement with and care for the issues being discussed at club events offered Linus the chance to initiate his own involvement in world affairs. As we have pointed out earlier in this series of blog posts, the Pasadena Chapter of the Federal Unionist Club served as a forum for Linus to deliver his first important non-scientific speech, one in which he publicly stated his support for federal union and came prepared to answer questions regarding specific implications of Streit’s proposal.

Map of Clarence Streit's proposed federal union.

Map of Clarence Streit’s proposed federal union.

Though Linus and Ava Helen, in the minds of some, may have appeared to be supporting an unusual idea, Union Now was an unequivocal hit. The book received numerous positive reviews, including one published in The New York Times, which later listed Union Now as a best-seller.

Given its success, it is interesting to note that Clarence Streit had been forced to hold off on publishing Union Now until the eve of World War II. Prior to 1939, publishers had been unwilling to consider any sort of public release of the book – not only did they believe that it would not sell but they also feared that their presses would lose repute if Streit’s political ideas were interpreted as too controversial.

By 1939 however, the immediate threat of war had created an opportunity for the publication of Union Now, and the book was picked up by Harper & Brothers. Later that year, Time Magazine devoted an article to Union Now that suggested that the western world’s failure to accept Streit’s proposal would inevitably bring about war. Clearly his ideas has entered into the mainstream.


As copies of Union Now continued to be sold at a rapid clip, its proposal grew to be widely and passionately debated. Pamphlets and articles from the period reveal an interesting discursive battle between pro and anti-unionists, each side arguing against the other’s ideals and main proponents.

One prominent anti-unionist, Lillian Scott Troy, published a pamphlet titled “Union Now…Treason!” in which she stated that the true purpose of Union Now was to bring the United States back under British domination. This argument arose partly in the wake of Streit’s second book, Union Now With Britain (1941), in which he suggested that a smooth transition to federal union could begin with a union of Britain and other English-speaking democracies.

Though discredited by some foes as un-American, Federal Unionists thought of themselves as continuing the legacy of the founders of the United States, largely because they intended to extend the tenants of the U.S. Constitution to Britain, rather than bringing the U.S. under British rule. Troy’s arguments, in particular, were easily dismissed by Federal Unionists because of her questionable reputation. An American citizen, Troy had been deported from Britain for allegedly securing the release of Baron Louis von Horst, a convicted German spy.

That is not to say that unionists did not have contentious figures supporting their side. One such individual was Fyke Farmer, a close follower and supporter of the movement who, much like Troy, was surrounded by controversy. A Tennessee lawyer, Farmer came under national scrutiny in 1953 when he decided to defend Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two Americans who were ultimately executed for treason, having been accused of sharing information about the U.S. nuclear program with the Soviet Union. Like Lillian Troy, Fyke Farmer was considered by his detractors to be a potential threat to the nation.

In spite of the negative press that sometimes appeared, Federal Unionists remained focused on their primary tactics – public discussion and distribution of print materials – to continue spreading the word of Streit’s proposals. This collective effort of Federal Unionist chapters around the country helped to repel the cries of opposition to unionism that sometimes arose.


While the public clearly engaged deeply with the viability of the ideas presented in Union Now, the historical record would seem to indicate that the United States federal government, and international governments as well, paid little attention to the proposal. Nevertheless, Linus and Ava Helen’s records relating to the Federal Unionist Club offer unique insight into the beliefs and ideals of a collection of citizens who took action in the hopes that their efforts could change the fate of the nation and the world.

Clarence Streit


[Part 2 of 3]

The idea of a unifying world government may seem difficult to imagine, yet political thinkers have considered the possibility at different moments throughout history. One such moment came about during World War II, when the unity and mutual support of nations was seen as essential to both the Allied and the Axis powers.

Earlier, in 1920, the League of Nations was created in Geneva as a conservative acknowledgement of the need for an international governing authority. The League, however, quickly lost its footing after a brief period of promise in the 1930s.

In Europe to report on the weakening of the League was an American journalist, Clarence Streit. Though he served as a first-hand witness to the failure of an international political organization, the experience only inspired Streit to develop a new plan for an alternative international authority. Ultimately, after ten years working as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, Streit gave up his position in favor of devoting his energies, full time, to becoming one of the United States’ leading advocates for a world government.

Born in 1896 in the city of California, Missouri, Clarence Kirschmann Streit received an early jumpstart to his career as a journalist when, in 1911, he and his family moved to Missoula, Montana. It was there that he founded Konah, the Sentinel High School newspaper, which to this day stands as one of the nation’s leading high school news publications, in addition to being one of the oldest. Later on, Streit earned a bachelor’s degree from what is now Montana State University, where he continued to pursue journalism as editor of the college newspaper.

In 1917 Streit volunteered for war service – joining some of the first Americans to land in Europe during World War I – and his involvement with both the media and the military led him to think more deeply about socio-political affairs. He was later awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, which allowed him to pursue a graduate degree in History at Oxford University. His work as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times marked the beginning of Streit’s professional career as a journalist. And as he reported on the issues that brought about the crumbling of the League of Nations, Streit began planning his own proposal for an international governing force.


The vehicle for spreading Streit’s ideas was a book, Union Now, first published 1939. Written amidst the run-up to World War II, Streit’s book urged the United States government and its people to consider a union of interdependence between the United States and the United Kingdom. The text couched this idea in the context of patriotism, arguing that the plan’s primary aim was to protect the United States from the spread of totalitarianism and to promote peace throughout the world.

Union Now specifically proposes extending the principles of the U.S. Constitution to all of the world’s democracies, including British dominions and French colonies. Streit argued that the immediate threat of Hitler’s invasion of Britain represented a threat to the United States as well. Streit believed that if Britain were to be overtaken by Hitler’s forces, the United States would become Germany’s next target. Based on these premises, Streit proposed that the United States needed to join forces with Britain and to form a single government; one based not on nationalism but on the protection of democracy.

Interdependence was Streit’s key word when promoting this idea; he believed that each nation could maintain its national identity while supporting its sister democracies. As such, the union of the United States and Britain would not undo the efforts of the founders of the United States. Rather, it would represent a protection and prolongation of democracy.

Union Now further points out that, although interdependence had never been tested before, it was not out of the question. Prior to the year 1776, Streit notes, a federal union of former British colonies would have seemed a bizarre idea, but eventually that very community became a successful government. Streit felt that a federal union of interdependent democratic states would work equally as well and could become a means to prevent the tragedies of war. In this, worldwide federal union would protect democracy abroad while serving as an extension of the work of the founders of the United States.

Although radical, Streit’s proposal was well-received by many. Not long after the book’s publication, chapters of the Federal Unionist Club began appearing throughout the U.S., its members dedicated to discussing and promoting Streit’s proposal of interdependence. Chapters across the country collected membership fees to organize national conferences and to distribute pamphlets, again pushing to spread the word of Streit’s ideas on interdependence. The Club itself offered its members and leaders alike the chance to get involved in efforts to make sure that President Roosevelt was aware of Streit’s proposal. Not surprisingly, the increase of Federal Unionist Club chapters correlated with the increase of Union Now copies mailed to the Roosevelt family.

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling were among the supporters of Streit’s proposal and both were members of the Pasadena chapter of the Federal Unionist Club. During a visit to their alma mater, Oregon State College (OSC), the Paulings likewise encouraged the college community to start a chapter of the Federal Unionist Club in Corvallis. Correspondence suggests that the Paulings further discussed the idea with various professors and students after their visit, though the club never did make it to the college campus.

Rear free end paper of the OSU circulating copy of Union Now.

Rear free end paper of the OSU circulating copy of Union Now.

Streit’s proposal, however, was certainly well known at OSC. In September 1939, just a few days after the start of the Second World War, the college library’s copy of Union Now was checked out for the first time and was rarely seen back in the stacks for more than three years. A charging slip, still in the book today, indicates that between 1939 and November 1942 the book was persistently checked out. It appears that the book’s circulation was impacted only by American entry in the war, for it regained its original popularity in the fall of 1945, soon after the war officially ended.

Though it did not come to pass in the way that he envisioned, Clarence Streit’s proposal caused people across the country to both reconsider the limits of the United States Constitution and to ponder whether other republics could benefit from it. For their part, the Paulings’ involvement in the dissemination of Streit’s ideas marked an important first step of their public involvement in world affairs.

Indeed, World War II was a period that drove many Americans – including Streit and the Paulings – to become more politically proactive. For Linus and Ava Helen, this was also a time when they began to discover the extent to which their participation could influence broader decisions being made by the politicians of their time.

Union Now


[Part 1 of 3]

The onset of World War II drastically changed the course of Linus Pauling’s career. As was characteristic of much of 20th century warfare, the Second World War took place not only on the battlefield but also in the world’s scientific laboratories, as national governments invested their hopes and resources in the work of scientists and engineers supporting the war effort.

In the early 1940s, Pauling’s focus accordingly shifted from molecular structure towards a broad program of war-related research, including work on a substitute for blood serum and the development of an instrument capable of detecting the partial pressure of oxygen. The war wound up affecting Pauling’s career in many positive ways, but it also complicated the relationship between his personal views and his profession as a scientist.

Until 1940 Pauling had been fairly conventional in his world view; he limited his work to the objective processes of the scientific method and allowed politicians to deal with public affairs. At the suggestion of his wife Ava Helen, however, Linus began to read political theorists and joined organizations that aimed to engage their members in conversations about the issues facing society.

Pauling quickly found himself influenced by the authors that Ava Helen suggested. Interested in presenting his opinions, Pauling took a significant step forward in 1940 by speaking to the Federal Unionist club, an organization that aimed to promote the ideas proposed in Clarence Streit’s book, Union Now, published in 1939.

The talk, which Pauling delivered at a Pasadena junior high school on July 22, 1940, was the first important non-scientific presentation that Pauling had given during his professional career. In many respects, the lecture marked the beginning of Pauling’s public life as an activist.


Clarence Streit’s book proposed that the spread of totalitarian regimes was inevitable unless the world’s democracies – by which he primarily meant English-speaking republics – joined forces to protect their mutual concerns. As such, at a time when it was far from clear that the U.S. would enter into combat, Streit argued that it was in the best interest of the United States to support Great Britain’s struggle against Adolf Hitler in order to protect itself from Hitler’s increasing power.

Moving forward, Streit believed that the world’s democracies would likewise best be served by uniting under one federal government that operated under a “Declaration of Interdependence” and was charged with continuing to insure the collective good of its constituents. Federalist Union clubs, such as the one with which the Paulings were aligned as members, sprung up around the country with the goal of sparking discussion of Streit’s proposals.

Linus and Ava Helen were chief members of the Pasadena Chapter of the Federal Unionist Club and they encouraged the opening of new chapters elsewhere, including at their alma mater, Oregon State College.  In many ways, the Federal Unionist Club provided an ideological haven for the couple.

However, even after becoming a member, Linus remained quiet about his political opinions; mainly because he thought of himself as a physical chemist rather than a political thinker. Furthermore, Pauling understood the need to be cautious on matters of public policy – Caltech and Pasadena were both relatively conservative communities at the time, and Streit’s ideas on collective action and, ultimately, world government, were considered liberal by most and radical by some.


Pauling’s 1940 lecture marked a turning point in his public persona. Titled “The Immediate Need for Interdemocracy Federal Union and Mr. Streit’s Proposed Declaration of Interdependence,” the talk was delivered to members of the local Federal Unionist club. The presentation was significant for many reasons: not only did it mark his first non-scientific lecture as a Caltech professional, it also served as the first political statement that he had made before a larger audience.

Previously, Pauling had deemed politics too arbitrary and charged with personal interpretation to present in any objective or even purely informative manner. A scientist first and foremost, Pauling was used to and comfortable with presenting scientific data to his audiences rather than more personal opinions. Ava Helen’s interest and involvement in social and political movements, however, combined with changing times to slowly steer her husband towards a more active role in these types of activities.

Excerpt of Pauling's preparation for his Union Now talk, July 1940.

Excerpt of Pauling’s preparation for his Union Now talk, July 1940.

Standing in front of his audience at McKinley Junior High School may have evoked in Linus memories of his experiences in college oratory. During his junior year at Oregon Agricultural College, Pauling was chosen as class orator and the following year he delivered the senior class oration, an opportunity that he seized to urge his fellow classmates to take responsibility for the knowledge that they had acquired and to use it for the improvement of society.

This sense of responsibility shone through in his involvement in the Federal Unionist club, an environment which put Pauling in a position to think more deeply about World War II. The war was rapidly becoming the driving force behind his research and it was impossible for Pauling to ignore the political implications of his work. Unlike his past experiences with science-based lectures, the lecture given to the Federal Unionist club allowed Pauling to express his passion for a different type of subject and served to jumpstart a career defined by both scientific research and political involvement.

Union Now was not the only text that influenced Pauling’s shifting attitudes towards political affairs; he had also read The Social Function of Science, authored by his good friend, the English crystallographer and biologist J.D. Bernal. This text helped to further develop Pauling’s ideal of scientists as citizens who are also active contributors to the public’s understanding of science and technology. The engaged scientist as public citizen, Pauling believed, would make an important contribution to the citizenry’s ability to understand and analyze the widespread conflict and political turmoil that developed as a consequence of World War II.

Pauling prepared for his speech well in advance – an extant manuscript dated three and a half months before the lecture suggests that he invested a significant amount of time to thinking and writing about Union Now. And while much of the talk is devoted to a discussion of the details of Streit’s book, Pauling incorporates rhetoric of his own throughout. Near the beginning of the piece, he writes

Now there is being waged a great war between democracy and totalitarianism, to decide between the free way and the slave way. And this war may well determine, as Hitler says it will, the course of the world for the next thousand years. Through the development of methods of transportation and of technology in general, the world has effectively become so small that world rule is to be expected soon. The great decision which will be made before many years – surely during the present century, and possibly within the coming decade – is whether the world will be ruled by totalitarian masters or whether it will be a free democratic state.

When Pauling finally stood before the audience of the Federal Unionist Club and explained Streit’s proposals, it became clear that, through the influence of Ava Helen and the authors that she had introduced, Linus had at last become the scientist that he was indeed destined to be – not just an educated researcher, but also an active citizen. As we continue to explore this idea over the next two posts, we’ll learn more about Clarence Streit the man, as well as Ava Helen Pauling’s active involvement with the Federal Unionists.

Ain’t Misbehavin’

The Paulings, 1976.

The Paulings, 1976.

Creative nonfiction by Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet

Big Sur, 1976-1977

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling are in the kitchen of their home on the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, California. A film crew follows their activities. Ava Helen ladles soup from a large pot on the stove and puts the bowl onto Linus’s plate. Ever careful and meticulous, Linus adjusts the bowl, squaring up its handles so they point directly to his right and left.

Linus Pauling is considered one of the most influential and controversial scientists of the 20th century. Even before becoming the sole winner of two unshared Nobel Prizes – one in chemistry and the other Peace – he was a public and political figure agreeing to interviews, debates, tapings, and photographs.

Pauling had little interest in politics until he met Ava Helen. Growing up in a politically active family, she was familiar with debates around the dinner table. She followed her humanitarian values into activism for civil rights, women’s rights, and peace. In early 1940, she joined the American Civil Liberties Union, working to raise awareness about the internment of Japanese Americans.

She inspired Linus’s entrance into the peace movement. After one of his public lectures in the mid-1940s, Ava Helen voiced a concern to her husband. “I think that you should stop giving lectures about atomic bombs, war, and peace. When you talk about a scientific subject you speak very effectively and convincingly. It is evident that you are a master of the subject that you are talking about. But when you talk about the nature of war and the need for peace, you are not convincing, because you give the audience the impression that you are not sure about what you are saying and that you are relying on other authorities.”

What shall I do? Pauling wondered. I want to earn and keep Ava Helen’s respect. I don’t want her to think I am a coward. And, I have my own self-respect to consider. I won’t be cowed by Communist witch hunts. When other scientists pulled back, Linus didn’t. He attributed his perseverance to his wife. He did it to retain her respect.

“Of course it’s important that you do your scientific work. But if the world were destroyed then that work would not be of any value,” Ava Helen continued, feeling a little guilty. He gets great and deep pleasure from his scientific work, she thought to herself, and he’s so competent and enthusiastic in it. But he must realize that there is a need for people to know and understand the different means of waging war.

Torchlight procession in Oslo, December 1963.

Torchlight procession in Oslo, December 1963.

Ava Helen’s remarks changed the course of Linus’s life. He learned about international relations, international law and the peace movement. He began speaking about the dangers of atomic weapons always keeping his presentations up-to-date with the latest scientific advances and political developments. Linus, who tended to make sense of things through calculations, estimated that he spent half of his time on scientific questions and half on political activism during the 1950s.

Linus and Ava Helen also worked together on many specific political efforts. In 1957, she helped him distribute a petition that gathered 9,000 signatures from scientists worldwide. It was the largest organized political movement among scientists in a decade. Together, they delivered the petition to the United Nations.

During the 1950s and 1960s, she worked with Linus on peace and nuclear disarmament. She accompanied him to peace conferences around the world. Ava Helen also continued her own public life, organizing protests and speaking to women’s groups about peace and ending weapons tests.

Often Linus and Ava Helen faced harsh criticism for their efforts. Pauling’s scientific career suffered as a result of his activism. In 1952 the U.S. State Department denied him a passport and the next year he received notice that his large U.S. Public Health Service grant would not be renewed. Undaunted, they both continued their activism, following their shared humanitarian convictions, despite the consequences from their perceived political misbehavior.

The Paulings, 1977.

The Paulings, 1977.

The filmmakers are creating Linus Pauling: Crusading Scientist, a 1977 documentary that describes Pauling’s scientific achievements and political activism.

The interviewer turns his attention to Ava Helen asking, “Is he hard to live with?”

She wears large, round, dark rimmed glasses with lightly tinted lenses. Her short hair is gray and white. She looks from the interviewer to her husband before responding.

“Yes, he is.” She nods and gazes at Pauling.

Pauling looks at her. “What?” he chuckles.

Ava Helen is laughing and smiling, too, still gazing at her husband who sits between her and the camera.

There’s a long pause. Pauling turns back to his wife, who is wearing a loose sea green turtleneck under a colorful, earth-toned poncho.

Ava Helen looks at her husband and says, matter-of-factly, “I said yes he is.” She smiles at him. The love and admiration they have for one another is evident, even after 55 years of marriage.

“Hard to live with?” Pauling feigns disbelief, turning from his wife to the interviewer. “I thought I was just about the easiest-going person that there was in the world.” He crinkles his nose, squints his eyes, and lifts his shoulders while looking at the camera. It’s his silent way to say, perhaps I exaggerate. He leans down to his bowl of soup and sups two spoonfuls.

“That could be true, too, but still be hard to live with.” She tells him while she watches him eat.

He wipes his mouth with a napkin and responds in a more serious voice. “In a sense I think you are hard to live with.” He leans forward and looks at her before sitting upright and focusing on the cameraman again. “Your principles are so high. Your standards are so high that I have to behave myself all the time,” he says with mock exasperation while playfully rolling his eyes.

Ava Helen laughs. “And that’s a great burden, I’m sure. Well now, you tell me the next time you want to misbehave.”

“O. K.” Pauling laughs tossing his head back slightly and wearing a big grin. “It will be with you though.”

The Peace Prize

At Deer Flat Ranch, 1964.

At Deer Flat Ranch, 1964. Arthur Herzog, photographer.

Creative Nonfiction by Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet

Big Sur and Pasadena, October 10, 1963

There was a knock at the door. Linus Pauling, the 1954 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, got up from the breakfast table to greet a forest ranger from the nearby Salmon Creek station in Big Sur, California. The weather was pleasant, typical for fall on this Thursday morning of October 10, 1963.

“Good morning,” said the freshly shaven Pauling. White hair curled around his ears and at the nape of his neck. It had starting thinning at the temples years ago, and now at the age of 62, his receding hairline left the top of his head practically bald.

“Good morning Dr. Pauling,” the ranger said. “Your daughter called the station. She would like to speak with you.”

Pauling and his wife, Ava Helen, cherished the remoteness and wildness of their second home along the rugged coast of central California. Deer Flat Ranch was a 122-acre parcel of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean that they had purchased with the award money from Pauling’s Nobel Prize. With no electricity and no telephone, it was where they went to slow down from their usually hectic lecturing and travel schedules.

“Do you know what about?” Fear flickered in Pauling’s usually twinkling blue eyes.

The ranger tried to allay his concern. “It’s not serious.”

The ranger knew why Linda had called and he had promised not to ruin the surprise. Pauling likely relayed the news to Ava Helen when he returned to the table where she sat eating breakfast with their two guests.

A head taller than his petite wife, Pauling had found a match in determination and devotion when they’d met as undergraduate students in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1922. For the 40 years of their marriage, they’d lived in Pasadena. In his first 15 years there, Pauling had transitioned from Ph.D. student to chairman of the chemistry department at the California Institute of Technology. While he focused on his research and career, Ava Helen raised their four children. Now their children had families of their own.

The car jostled as they drove the mile of bumpy dirt road between their home and the ranger station. It was unusual for one of their children to try to contact them in Big Sur, and they likely tried to figure out why Linda had called.

“Daddy, have you heard the news?” Linda asked excitedly, when Pauling returned her call.

“No. What news?”

Ava Helen looked on through cat-rimmed glasses.

“You’ve been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize!” Pauling, stunned and unable to talk, passed the phone to his wife.

Pauling with Gunnar Jahn, ca. 1960s.

Pauling with Gunnar Jahn, ca. 1960s.

Linus Pauling, and his wife, Ava Helen, arrived at the Norwegian Nobel Institute for their 11:00 AM meeting with Gunnar Jahn. Pauling was likely dressed in a suit and tie. His hair curled around his ears and at the nape of his neck, and at 61 years of age, it had been thin on top for some time now. The petite Ava Helen stood a head shorter than him. Her spirit and conviction matched her husband’s and over thirty-nine and a half years of marriage they had come to see eye to eye on many civil rights and human rights issues.

A year and a half had passed since the 1954 Nobel Prize winning chemist had visited in spring of ’61 to deliver the opening address for the Conference against the Spread of Nuclear Weapons. Gunnar had become a good friend of the Paulings in recent years. The two men held similar views about nuclear disarmament and Linus appreciated his words of encouragement.

The couple was met by Gunnar’s secretary and taken to his office. As Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, he was one-fifth of the panel who determined the recipients for the Nobel Peace Prize each year.

Everyone exchanged greetings before sitting down. Gunnar seemed to speak and move a little more slowly with each passing year.

Eventually Gunnar explained why he had called them to his office. “Dr. Pauling, I tried to get the Committee to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 1962 to you.” Ava Helen and Linus were likely surprised to hear such confidential information.

Gunnar continued, his admiration evident. “I think that you are the most outstanding peace workers in the world. But only one of the four would agree with me. I told them, ‘If you won’t give it to Dr. Pauling, there won’t be any Peace Prize this year.'”

Perhaps Gunnar Jahn slowed down at two months shy of 79, but he still had moxie. During 1962 the Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded.

Celebrating in Pasadena, 1963.

Celebrating in Pasadena, 1963.

Nearly a year had passed between the day that the Paulings sat in Gunnar Jahn’s office and Pauling received his daughter’s phone call and learning that in 1963 he was being awarded the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize.

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling were planning to celebrate that day, but for a different reason. More than 200 nuclear tests by the United States and Soviet Union during 1961 and 1962 had forced the countries’ leaders into diplomatic talks about prohibiting nuclear weapons testing, finally facing an issue that had been in the public debates for decades. The product of those talks, the Limited Test Ban Treaty, went in to effect that same October day in 1963. The treaty allowed underground testing of nuclear weapons, yet outlawed testing in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater.

Pauling was one of many scientists who had been involved in the public debates around nuclear weapons testing, and he had worked for more than fifteen years to seek an international agreement of disarmament. Enacting the Limited Test Ban Treaty was a first step toward the peaceful world that Pauling envisioned, and the Norwegian awards committee recognized his ceaseless political efforts with the Nobel Peace Prize.

The phone at the ranger station in Big Sur rang with frequent calls, and Pauling responded to reporters’ questions about the prize for the next several hours.

“It is recognition of the work I and other scientists have been doing in educating people about the need for a treaty to end nuclear testing.”

“I have regretted the necessity of taking time from my scientific work for activities in the direction of world peace. But I have no doubt whatever about the correctness of my decisions. I’m glad I’ve done what I have done. I have no regrets.”

“I have no doubt that I shall continue to express my opinion publicly about any issue I feel is important and about which I feel I have something to say.”

He and Ava Helen drove back to their ranch to collect some of their things and then decided to drive the roughly 300 miles to their home in Pasadena. In their rush to get home, they forgot the bottle of champagne they had planned to drink that night to celebrate the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

Reporters went to the Pauling’s home in Pasadena. Not finding him there, many waited, ready to take pictures and ask questions.

Pauling arrived ready too. Hours of interviews at the Salmon Creek Ranger Station, along with the long drive home, had given him time to craft responses to the questions reporters asked most.

“Which of your two Nobel Prizes do you consider more significant?” asked a reporter from the Associated Press.

“Today’s, I think, perhaps because I feel so strongly about the need for peace and an end to human suffering from wars,” Pauling responded. “There may be another reason, too. Perhaps it’s because I view today’s prize as a reward for conscience and duty – the earlier prize came as a result of work that I enjoy so much. I have made many sacrifices over the years for the cause of peace. I would have been happier – except for the dictates of my conscience – to work solely in scientific fields.”

Following his curiosity and conscience Pauling achieved high public recognition as both a scientist and political activist. His two unshared Nobel Prizes – the 1954 prize in chemistry and 1962 peace prize – attest to this as do the many other accolades he received throughout his life.

Dinner and a Dance

Creative Nonfiction by Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet

The White House, April 29, 1962

It had been pleasant weather in Washington DC all day. The air was still warm at 8:00 PM when Linus and Ava Helen Pauling arrived at the White House that evening. Ava Helen wore a floor-length cape over her formal dress, and white gloves covered her arms almost to the elbow. Pauling sported a traditional tuxedo.

Pauling and Ava Helen arrived just before the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had been the lead scientist of the Manhattan Project. Many heads turned toward the two controversial scientists as they waited in the receiving line to greet their hosts, the President and First Lady, John and Jacqueline Kennedy.

Pauling approached President Kennedy. They stood practically eye-to-eye.

“I’m pleased to see you,” the President said. “I understand you’ve been around the White House a couple of days already.”

Pauling likely grinned and nodded, thinking back to earlier that day when he marched with other protesters in front of the White House, holding a sign that read “Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Macmillan, We Have No Right To Test!” Pauling, the 1954 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, had spent the better part of the past decade and a half as an outspoken activist for ending nuclear weapons testing.

He shifted to greet the next person in the receiving line. Jacqueline’s pale mint silk evening gown and bouffant hair defined fashion. She flashed Pauling a large smile and extended her elegantly gloved hand. “Dr. Pauling, do you think it’s right to march back and forth out there where Caroline could see you?”

A hush fell over those nearby. Pauling didn’t quite know how to respond.

“She asked me, ‘Mummy, what has Daddy done wrong now?'” People nearby laughed and the tension broke. Clearly, Pauling’s message had reached the occupants of the White House, from the family’s patriarch to his young daughter.

Side-by-side for most of the evening, Ava Helen and Pauling, like all couples at this dinner honoring Nobel laureates, were seated at different tables for the meal. She approached her table to find she would be eating with many distinguished scientists, one of whom, Willard Libby, held opinions different from her husband and herself. She immediately decided to refrain from talking to him about politics and peace.

Ava Helen took her seat, and the historian and critic Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. sat down next to her, pulling his chair onto her chiffon skirt. It possibly occurred to her that this was going to be a long meal.

As they conversed, Ava Helen found Schlesinger to be antagonistic and unfriendly.

“Do you hold the same opinions as your husband?” he asked.

“I do for the most part,” Ava Helen responded. Last summer, she urged Jacqueline Kennedy, speaking mother-to-mother, to keep her children and the world’s children safe by pushing for a continuance of the moratorium on testing nuclear weapons.

“Can I ask you a question?” Schlesinger asked. Without waiting for her response, he continued: “How can your husband accept an invitation to the White House after what he said to the President?” Schlesinger’s question referred to Pauling’s sharply-worded telegram, sent March 1, 1962, a little less than two months earlier.

In the telegram, Pauling asked the President, “Are you going to give an order that will cause you to go down in history as one of the most immoral men of all time and one of the greatest enemies of the human race?” Ire probably fumed from Pauling as he drafted the telegram. He couldn’t believe that President Kennedy was contemplating breaking his 1960 presidential campaign promises to not test nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.

Pauling’s note continued by referring to the Soviets’ detonation of several nuclear weapons in the atmosphere above Siberia. “In a letter to the New York Times, I state that nuclear tests duplicating the Soviet 1961 tests would seriously damage over 20 million unborn children, including those caused to have gross physical or mental defects and also the stillbirths and embryonic neonatal and childhood deaths from the radioactive fission products and carbon-14.”

Hoping to give President Kennedy some perspective about his decision, Pauling asked in his note, “Are you going to be guilty of this monstrous immorality matching that of the Soviet leaders for the political purpose of increasing the still imposing lead of the United States over the Soviet Union in nuclear technology?”

Throughout dinner, Ava Helen remained good-natured with Schlesinger. “There is nothing personal in either the invitation or the acceptance – Just the President of the U.S. having dinner with a Nobel Laureate.”

Looking tall, thin, and handsome in his tuxedo, Pauling likely approached her table after the meal ended, asking “How was your dinner?”

“Arthur Schlesinger is a clout and a boor!” Although she may not have told her husband this in this moment, she wrote down the exchange and her thoughts of Schlesinger after the evening ended.

Pauling would have smiled and thought to himself how lucky he was to have Ava Helen in his life. It was something he expressed aloud many times. He loved her for her pluckiness and devotion, among many other reasons.

The Air Force Strolling Strings played a lively Latin rhythm as the couple made their way after dinner across the main lobby to the East Room for three dramatic readings by the actor Fredric March. Rather than passing by the band, Pauling asked Ava Helen for a dance. Taking her into his arms he deftly guided her across the checkered floor. Her dark, short hair framed her face in waves and her chiffon dress whispered as she moved across the dance floor. Soon other guests joined them, setting aside political controversies for a little fun.


The Petition

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling working on “An Appeal by American Scientists to the Government and Peoples of the World”. 1957.

Creative Nonfiction by Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet.

St. Louis, March 15, 1957

Sun streamed in through a stained glass window of the chapel at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri on a pleasant and sunny Wednesday afternoon in mid-May 1957. About 1,000 people listened to Linus Pauling, the 1954 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, deliver a fiery speech urging an end to nuclear weapons testing. The years of political activities were taking their toll on 56-year-old Pauling. His white hair was thinning and deep wrinkles lined his forehead, yet he still dressed smartly in a suit and tie.

“If you explode a bomb in the upper atmosphere, you can’t control it,” Pauling explained to the rapt crowd. “The fallout radiation, Strontium-90, and similar things, spread over the world, drop down,” he noted with sing-song, rapid delivery. “Everybody in the world now has Strontium-90 in his bones, radioactive material, AND NOBODY had it…15 years ago…10 years ago. Strontium-90 did not exist. This is a new hazard to the human race, a new hazard to the health of people, and scientists need to talk about it.”

Strontium-90 was a particularly insidious component of fallout particles because it behaved like calcium in the body, seeping into bones and teeth and emitting radiation for decades. Scientists knew that large doses of radiation damaged human DNA and caused cancer. However, little research had been done on the health impacts of long-term exposure to low levels of radiation released by fallout. That left scientists concerned about the potential for genetic mutations due to fallout radiation, but they were unable to make definitive statements about health effects should innocent people be exposed to the radioactive particles.

Pauling, however, was confident that there was enough information to support what his conscience already knew: nuclear weapons tests were not worth the risk to one person, let alone humanity.

The assembly greeted Pauling’s message with an uproarious standing ovation. Some people filed out of the chapel. Others lingered. “What can I do?” “What actions can we take?” asked several of the students and faculty members.

These questions got Pauling thinking about a conversation he’d had the day before with Barry Commoner, a fellow activist and professor of biology at the university. Like Pauling, Commoner was outspoken about the need to stop testing nuclear weapons. The men had discussed writing a petition and getting it signed by American scientists. They hoped a public pronouncement would bring attention to the issue by revealing that many scientists agreed about the dangers of fallout. If thought leaders were forced to discuss the matter, then action, preferably ending weapons tests, might be possible.

Sitting around the dinner table at Barry Commoner’s home on the evening after Pauling’s speech, the conversation again turned to what scientists could do. Pauling suggested writing an appeal, sending it to American scientists asking them to sign it.

After eating, some scribbled phrases and others wrote paragraphs for the petition. Pauling turned their ideas into a short statement of 248 words that called for an international agreement to stop the testing of nuclear bombs between the three main powers, the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain.

The message proved timely. The next day most major American newspapers announced on their front page: Britain Explodes Its First Hydrogen Bomb in Pacific. These “dirty” bombs were 1,000 times more powerful than the first atomic bombs. They also released a greater amount of radioactive fallout. As of that day—May 15, 1957—all three nations addressed in the petition had tested hydrogen bombs.

Back in St. Louis, the scientists agreed on the final text of their appeal. They mimeographed it, attached a cover letter, and mailed copies of the petition to colleagues with similar politics and passions. Within one week, Pauling received several signed petitions at his house in Pasadena, California.

He prepared more copies of the petition, this time including the names of the first 25 signers. With the help of his wife, students and others at Caltech, they mailed out many copies of the petition, each with the names of the first twenty-five signers.

Envelope after envelope arrived at the Paulings’ house. It’s possible the mailbox overflowed with them because within ten days Pauling and his wife, Ava Helen, had signatures from more than 2,000 American scientists. The response overwhelmed them (and likely the mailman too!). Each envelope contained a petition with one, five, ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty or more, signatures. Sheets of paper piled up on the Paulings’ desk.

In early June, Pauling sent a copy of the petition with a list of the 2,000 signatures to Chet Holifield, a California congressman and chairman of the subcommittee studying the hazards of fallout. The press picked up the story, reporting it widely.

The petition also found support overseas. European scientists crossed out “American” in the title and first sentence of the petition, signed the altered version, and returned it to Pauling. Forty Belgian scientists of the Free University of Brussels signed a proclamation declaring their support for the petition.

Pauling and his wife, Ava Helen, hired a secretary to expand the campaign sending about 500 more letters and petitions to scientists around the world. Their effort more than quadrupled the number of signees.

In mid-January 1958, just eight months after his speech in St. Louis, Pauling and Ava Helen traveled to New York City to present the petition to the head of the United Nations. The next day the front page of New York Times reported “9,000 Scientists of 43 Lands Ask Nuclear Bomb Tests Be Stopped.” Linus Pauling with lots of help from family and friends had converted the passion sparked by one speech into the largest organized political movement among scientists in a decade.


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