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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The Globe-Democrat Suit

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Linus Pauling’s involvement in the peace movement, and particularly his circulation of what is now know as the United Nations bomb test petition, made him doubly famous: he was no longer just a scientist, but a humanitarian as well. This fame came at a price though, as his peace efforts did not always receive the positive acclaim afforded much of his scientific work. In an era of McCarthyism and Cold War fear of communism, his activities were sometimes viewed as a threat. Despite Pauling’s attempt to foment nonpartisan promotion of peace, any efforts to curb US armament was seen by many as de facto communist collaboration.

Pauling was monitored by the FBI and questioned twice by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), a committee that was very suspicious of Pauling’s peace activities, especially the petition against nuclear bomb testing. The subcommittee subpoenaed him in June 1960 and demanded to see the names of all those who had helped gather signatures for the petition in 1957 and 1958. Pauling refused to provide this information as he felt a moral obligation to protect others from the types of governmental investigation that he himself was experiencing. The group subpoenaed Pauling again in October, but when he once more refused to produce the names the group backed down and he did not suffer any legal consequences.

On October 10, 1960, the day prior to Pauling’s second hearing before the subcommittee, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat published an editorial on the proceedings titled “Glorification of Deceit.”  The piece was written in the context of support having been expressed for Pauling by professors at Washington University, which is based in St. Louis. The editorial besmirched the reputations of two specific Washington professors, Edward Condon and Barry Commoner, and contained incorrect information regarding the June SISS proceedings.  Its author wrote

The Senate subcommittee called Pauling to testify as to who helped him collect the petitions. Pauling contemptuously refused to testify and was cited for contempt of Congress. He appealed to the United States District Court to rid him of the contempt citation, which that court refused to do. The appeal from the lower court’s affirmation of contempt is expected to be handed down by the Supreme Court today.

In fact, while Pauling did refuse to release the names of the people who helped him to collect signatures, he was never cited for contempt of Congress.

(Globe-Democrat publisher Richard H. Amberg defended the piece by suggesting that the Washington Post had run an editorial stating that Pauling had been cited for contempt of court, and that this information had been used in composing the St. Louis paper’s editorial.  However, no one was able to produce a copy of the original Washington Post text.)

The piece went on to pretty clearly imply that Pauling was, at best, not a patriot.  It concluded

Much is made of the fact that Pauling is a Nobel Prize winner. That is no guarantee of anything more than proficiency in chemistry. It certainly is no guarantee of either patriotism or correctness in foreign policy. It above all does not cloak him with an immunity to defy the Senate and to decide on his own prerogative what is best for America.

A great St. Louis institution is being badly used, nor is it the first time, by a group which glorifies deceit and evasion in the outrageous guise of freedom of speech and conscience.


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Pauling  was infuriated and, on October 15, wrote to Richard H. Amberg, the Globe-Democrat’s publisher, in protest:

Your completely untrue statements have without doubt greatly damaged my reputation and impaired my integrity in the minds of your readers in the St. Louis district and of others who may have seen them in your paper or possibly in other publications where they may have been quoted from your paper…I protest against your imputation that I am lacking in patriotism, and I demand that it be retracted.

Pauling’s letter was sent along with a letter from his lawyer, A.L. Wirin, insisting that both Pauling’s letter and a retraction be published.

Not suprisingly, many others in St. Louis – in particular, a number of Washington University faculty – were outraged by the Globe-Democrat’s opinion piece. Several people wrote letters to the editor condemning the editorial, the paper was deluged with phone calls, and a protest was staged at the university. Although some of the outraged letters were published, the negative response was mostly underplayed. In particular, the protest event received little news coverage and the article’s dissenters were subsequently dismissed in later editorials.

The Globe-Democrat published Linus Pauling’s letter on October 24th but offered only a very mild retraction, so Pauling decided to sue the paper for $300,000, claiming damages to his reputation. He immediately secured the services of at least three lawyers, who pretty quickly encountered an unforeseen problem: the court involved in Pauling’s libel suit demanded that he produce the names of the people who had helped to collect signatures for the nuclear bomb test petition. This was the very information that he had worked so hard to protect during the SISS hearings. The request presented him with a moral dilemma, one spelled out in a letter that he wrote to his lawyer in December 1960.

Most of these 59 American scientists are people of such established reputation that it might be thought that no reprisals could be visited against them. However, the fact that I have suffered through being subpoenaed by the Internal Security Subcommittee and through the issuance of damaging statements about me by the Acting Chairman of the Subcommittee shows, I think, that I cannot by any means be assured that reprisals would not be visited against these scientists, despite their established reputations….The attack on me by Senator Dodd and the Internal Security Subcommittee has continued even after the hearing, and I feel that I cannot turn over names to the Subcommittee or make the names public in such a way that the subcommittee would come into possession of them.

After receiving a letter from his lawyers urging him to change his mind, Pauling replied in January 1961.

Senator Dodd did not overrule my objection and direct me to produce the names. In view of this fact, I believe that I am justified in continuing to keep these letters of transmittal confidential.

His counsel then advised him:

I am afraid that the matter becomes rather different when you are asked to produce them in a libel suit which you yourself have filed. The Court may very well say ‘You may keep the letters of transmittal confidential if you desire, but the defendant has a right to see them to make any possible defense to this suit. If, therefore, you refuse to produce them, the Court has no alternative but to dismiss your suit.’

In the meantime, the Globe-Democrat continued to publish articles attacking Pauling. In March the paper wrote an editorial titled “Pauling Rebuked” that spoke to a report that had recently been issued by SISS. The SISS publication stated that the world communist movement had applauded Pauling’s 1958 petition. The Globe-Democrat surmised

Men, like Pauling, who should know better, and the many in St. Louis and elsewhere who immediately leaped to his defense, have wittingly or unwittingly—and we believe they knew what they were doing—played the Communist game.


Barry Commoner, ca. 1960s.

Wrestling with his moral dilemma, Pauling decided to write to some of the people who had helped to circulate the bomb test petition to see how they would feel about him releasing their names in the context of his libel suit. He wrote to Barry Commoner, one of the men who helped him to formulate the idea of the petition and who collected many signatures for it. Commoner replied that he would like to know more about how the information would be used and expressed a wish to speak to Pauling about it directly over the phone. In August 1961, Pauling wrote back:

I think that it is my duty to make a decision about the letters still in my possession from American scientists who communicated the signatures of themselves and other scientists to the Appeal….Of all of the approximately 60 Americans whose letters I have, you are the one who is most closely connected with the Appeal, other than myself….Your close connection with the Appeal is of course on the public record….I think accordingly that the difficulty that you have found in deciding how to respond to my request, and have expressed in your two letters to me, provides the answer to the question that was on my mind.

Commoner replied to Pauling later that month:

I believe, as you do, that those of us publicly associated with the Appeal have a moral duty to protect from harassment the others who helped in this work….I would regard any demand for details regarding the circulation of the Appeal as a serious threat to academic freedom, and I would consider it my duty as a member of the academic community to resist such a demand….My own judgment is that I could find no justification for giving the Globe-Democrat attorneys answers which I would refuse to give the government agency. In general, I do not understand why my letter is relevant and necessary in order to establish that the Globe-Democrat made false and damaging statements about you. Further, it seems to me that the suit could – regardless of who wins it – have the effect of bringing about a violation of the principles for which you have fought so hard, and in the local circumstances it may precipitate the kind of harassment of our colleagues that is so repugnant to all of us.

While Commoner’s letter built a case against making the letters of transmittal public, another signature gatherer, Charles Coryell, did give permission for his name to be used in court and did not seem concerned about the consequences. After much thought on the matter, Pauling ultimately decided to release the names for the lawsuit.


Editorial cartoon published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, September 12, 1961.

Editorial cartoon published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, September 12, 1961.

Meanwhile, Pauling’s lawyers were becoming more and more concerned about how his case might fare were it to go to a jury, due mostly to the barrage of negative commentary being released about him. In a letter between two of Pauling’s representatives, A. L. Wirin wrote to John Green:

It is Dr. Pauling’s considered view that the suit should be filed. We realize fully that it may not be possible to obtain for Dr. Pauling the public vindication which he deserves, as you put it so well. But we feel that good conscience is on Dr. Pauling’s side; good conscience should prevail in the courts; and Dr. Pauling is willing to take the chance that it may not.

Amidst this backdrop, the Globe-Democrat continued to publish opinion pieces that chipped away at Pauling’s standing. On September 12, 1961, the paper released an editorial titled “No Thunder on the Left,” which pointed out that

The Soviet Union has violated its nuclear test pledge openly now – for almost two weeks….We have waited, though without baited breath, for bitter protest from the Pauling galaxy of scientists who raised such a furor in America,  demanding absolute ban against nuclear tests of all kinds….[Pauling] seemed immensely more concerned to get the United States and other free countries to prohibit nuclear tests – with no mention made in his proposals for inspection or controls

The piece also reiterated Pauling’s status as portrayed in the March SISS report: “A subcommittee of the Senate last March found that Dr. Pauling had ‘displayed a significant pro-Soviet bias.'”

The editorial further frustrated and angered Pauling, in part because inspection of testing programs in other countries was clearly mentioned in the 1958 petition. Pauling also regularly spoke out against testing in all of the era’s nuclear nations.

By this point, Pauling’s support system was starting to erode. Barry Commoner, in particular, now found himself in active opposition to Pauling’s lawsuit.  Though he remained Pauling’s friend and certainly was in line with most of his activism, he was worried about Pauling’s decision to turn over the names of those who circulated the petition. His hope was that Pauling would drop the lawsuit to mitigate further risk to his and others’ reputations, especially in St. Louis.


Pauling's notes on the Globe-Democrat jury trial, following its conclusion. March 1964.

Pauling’s notes on the Globe-Democrat jury trial, following its conclusion. March 1964.

In March 1964, Pauling’s libel suit faced a jury trial in St. Louis and was defeated.  Pauling filed many libel suits in the early 1960s and most of them were lost due to an important United States Supreme Court ruling, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, that established a higher standard of proof for libeling public figures. Interestingly, Pauling lost the Globe-Democrat case before this new paradigm had been established. It may well be that Pauling’s lawyers’ fears had been justified; that his case had gone down in flames largely because of the negative public sentiment engendered by its defendant, the Globe-Democrat.

Embattled and in a stubborn frame of mind, Pauling decided to appeal for a re-trial, but the following year his request was rejected. His lawyers appealed a second time and in 1966 they received an opinion from the United States Court of Appeals denying the claim, based on the New York Times ruling. Pauling then filed a writ of certiorari, but that too was dismissed in 1967.  And so it was that the Globe-Democrat debacle finally came to a conclusion, nearly seven years after it began.

Barry Commoner, 1917-2012

Barry Commoner, ca. 1960s.

On September 30, 2012, Barry Commoner, an important environmentalist and key collaborator with Linus Pauling on the famous United Nations bomb test petition, died in Manhattan.

Commoner, born on May 28, 1917 in Brooklyn, was interested in science from a young age, spending hours examining life through the lens of a microscope. He worked his way through college and earned his bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Columbia University in 1937. From there he took his Ph. D. in cellular biology from Harvard University in 1941.

After receiving his doctorate, Commoner taught for a few years at Queen’s College, to which he would return later in life. He served in the Naval Air Corps during World War II and moved on to teaching at Washington University in St. Louis shortly after war’s end. In 1966 he became the founding director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, a research institute that continues to this day to investigate and remedy occupational and environmental threats to public health.

Commoner was not just an influential scientist, but a noteworthy grassroots activist as well. He has been called “the Paul Revere of Ecology” and the “father of the environmental movement” for promoting awareness of key environmental issues such as radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing, the consequences of nuclear energy, waste management and recycling, and the overall environmental impact of human existence.  He strongly believed in the importance of democracy and the need to empower informed choice through the free dissemination of scientific information. He advocated for scientific collaboration on key issues which affect the global population.


Original sponsors of the United Nations Bomb Test Petition.

Commoner’s first major activity as an activist was thrust upon him following Linus Pauling’s famed anti-nuclear speech at Washington University on May 15, 1957. Directly after the lecture, Pauling, Commoner and a fellow professor, Edward Condon, met in Commoner’s office to draft the “Appeal by American Scientists to the Governments and Peoples of the World,” a petition demanding the cessation of nuclear bomb testing worldwide. The three scientists were inspired by mounting evidence of negative health consequences caused by radioactive fallout from nuclear tests conducted in Earth’s atmosphere. This petition was immediately signed by about 100 scientists at Washington University.

Within a week, Commoner had formulated a plan to collect the signatures of scientists nationwide by sending out Pauling’s finalized petition to contacts a multiple universities. By the end of June, 2,000 signatures had been obtained and Commoner and Pauling began to spread the petition all over the world. “We were all as pleased as you must have been to discover how many signatures had been obtained on the Appeal,” Commoner wrote to Pauling at the time. “We are all quite convinced that the Appeal expresses a very widely held view among scientists.”

He was right: by January 13, 1958 the petition had been signed by 9,235 people and by July 3, 1958 it had been signed by 11,038 people from 49 nations.

Linus Pauling sent copies of the massive petition to President Dwight Eisenhower and United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, but initially received little support from either the federal government or the UN.  Congressional hearings on nuclear fallout held contemporary to the petition did not yield sufficient evidence to stop the United States’  testing program, leaving the community of activists to continue their fight.


Time magazine cover, February 2, 1970.

Barry Commoner was a vocal proponent of the widespread dissemination of scientific information to the public. He believed that as many people as possible should be involved in the dialogue over moral decisions, such as the hazards of fallout and the political necessity of nuclear bomb testing. In a speech given at a symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Committee on the Social Impacts of Science, held in Indianapolis on December 29, 1957, Commoner advocated for continued research on nuclear testing and for open communication about this research.

What appears to trouble the public is not that political opponents have disagreed on the nuclear test issue, but that the opinions of scientists have been marshaled on both sides of the debate. This appears to violate science’s traditional devotion to objectively discernible truth…In this situation the available facts are often not sufficient conclusively to support or contradict a given explanatory idea, and therefore opposing ideas will for the time flourish together…The remedy is apparent if not easy: more research…What we call a scientific truth emerges from the scientists’ insistence on free publication of their own observations. This permits the rest of the scientific community to check the data and evaluate the interpretations so that eventually a commonly held body of facts and ideas come into being…The development of a scientific truth is a direct outcome of the degree of communication which normally exists in science…The public must be given enough information about the need for testing and the hazards of fallout to permit every citizen to decide for himself whether nuclear tests should go on or be stopped…scientists must take pains to disclaim any special moral wisdom on this matter [because]…a public informed on this issue is the only true source of moral wisdom that must determine our nation’s policy on the testing – and the ultimate use of – nuclear weapons.

In February 1958, Commoner began to organize The Citizen’s Committee for Atomic Information to educate the people of St. Louis about the realities of radioactive fallout. This committee, along with two St. Louis area dental schools, went on to conduct the Baby Tooth Survey, which investigated the concentrations of Strontium-90 found in the human body as a result of nuclear fallout.  This philosophy of promoting grassroots direct democracy would guide Commoner’s environmental efforts for the rest of his life.

Although the United Nations Bomb Test Petition did not affect immediate policy change, it did yield important lasting effects. In 1963, Linus Pauling won the Nobel Peace Prize for his nuclear test ban petition efforts. The prize came in the wake of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited above-ground nuclear explosions and was signed to by the governments of the U.S., U.K. and U.S.S.R. This treaty was influenced both by the bomb test petition and by the Baby Tooth Survey.

Barry Commoner spent the rest of his life advocating for social justice in many areas, including environmental pollution, war, and racial and sexual inequality – all of which he believed were interconnected issues. He wrote five books about the intersection of environmental causes and social politics and ran for U.S. President as the head of his own Citizen’s Party in 1980, receiving 234,000 votes. Commoner advocated a prevention-based approach to environmental sustainability that never fully caught on politically in the U.S., but which a growing number now believe may be a key to solving many of the economic and environmental problems that we face today.

The Baby Tooth Survey

On January 1, 2011, Louise Reiss, a physician best known for having directed a project called the Baby Tooth Survey, died in her Florida home at the age of 90. Reiss, a New Yorker born Louise Zibold, received her medical degree from the Women’s College of Pennsylvania (now part of the Drexel University College of Medicine) in 1945. During her residency at Philadelphia General Hospital, she met the man who would become her husband, Eric Reiss.  The couple moved to St. Louis in 1954 where Eric worked in the medical school at Washington University and Louise as an internist at the City Health Department.

Beginning in 1959, the Reiss’ began collaborating with a local group that included Washington University biologist Barry Commoner to found the Greater St. Louis Citizen’s Committee for Nuclear Information. Later in the year, the committee, along with two St. Louis area dental schools, initiated the Baby Tooth Survey.

The mission of the Baby Tooth Survey was to demonstrate that nuclear bomb testing was increasing the concentrations of Strontium-90 found in the human body. Strontium-90, one of the components of radioactive fallout, can make its way into the human food chain through cow’s milk. As a result of its chemical similarities to calcium, it is readily incorporated into human bones and teeth, where it remains for the rest of its long half-life, emitting radiation that damages the surrounding tissue and increasing one’s chances of developing cancer.

Over the twelve years that the Baby Tooth Survey ran, more than 300,000 teeth were collected from the St. Louis area and analyzed in the project’s laboratories. The results of the project were profound, if not entirely unexpected. Chemical analysis showed that the teeth of children born in 1950 – before most of the bomb testing had taken place – contained about fifty times less Strontium-90 than did the teeth of those born in 1963. The study clearly indicated that the effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing were trickling down to humans.

CNI newsletter, ca. 1960, which includes an update on the Baby Tooth Survey.

In mid-1963, Eric Reiss presented the to-date results of the Baby Tooth Survey to a Senate committee, and although the data at the time didn’t come across as forcefully as the statistic mentioned above, they still proved to be significantly persuasive. Later in 1963, after years of negotiation, a Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed by the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain.

This was a major victory for the Reiss’ and the rest of the Committee for Nuclear Information, but they weren’t the only ones who were pleased. As has been well-documented on this blog, Linus Pauling had taken a strong anti-bomb stance after the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, and had been protesting nuclear weapons testing for several years before the Baby Tooth Survey was conceived.

As increasingly powerful bombs – especially the hydrogen bomb – were developed in greater quantities, Pauling’s concern grew accordingly. In 1955 he signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which spoke out against the dangers of nuclear war; one of many anti-nuclear petitions that Pauling supported during this time. However, Pauling wasn’t content to only protest war; he also wanted to put a complete stop to the testing of nuclear bombs.

In May 1957, after a period filled with many speeches exposing the possible health issues that bomb testing could create not only in the United States, but all over the world, Pauling, his wife Ava Helen, and two other scientists decided to circulate a scientists’ petition to stop atmospheric nuclear testing. One of those original scientists was Barry Commoner, the same man that would collaborate with the Reiss’ to found the Baby Tooth Survey two years later. Commoner worked closely with Pauling to distribute the petition, and within a few weeks they had already gathered signatures from about two thousand scientists.  By the end of 1957, that number had grown to over nine-thousand signatures.

Tally of petition signatures by country, 1958.

Although Pauling’s petition didn’t lead directly to a nuclear test ban, it was – along with the CNI’s Baby Tooth Survey – undoubtedly instrumental in getting the Partial Test Ban Treaty signed. After the signing of the treaty in 1963, the Baby Tooth Survey continued to run, eventually ending in 1970. Final analysis of the data gathered by the survey indicated that Strontium-90 levels in the teeth of children born in 1968 were fifty-percent lower than were the levels in the teeth of those born in the immediate wake of the treaty’s signing five years earlier. Pauling liked to state in his anti-testing speeches that “the only safe amount of Strontium-90 in the bones of our children is 0,” and although the treaty couldn’t achieve this, it was undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Louise Reiss, 2003.

The SISS Ordeal: Background to a Trying Time

Pauling testifies before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, 1960.

[Ed Note: June 21, 2010 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Pauling’s first appearance before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.  We are marking the occasion with a five-part series that tells the story of this important and traumatic experience.]

[Part 1 of 5]

In 1956 and 1957, Linus Pauling helped organize a petition which protested against above-ground nuclear bomb testing by the world’s nuclear powers. The project was first endorsed only by American scientists, but became an international appeal shortly after the completion of a robust initial release.

Though many found the display inspirational, others questioned the petition’s motives and organization. Pauling was not alone in crafting the document, but much of both the praise and the criticism that it generated was directed at him. The petition remained a contentious issue into the following decade, as Pauling became entangled with members of the United States Senate over questions concerning the petition’s distribution.

As was the standard for him after World War II, Linus Pauling was kept busy in the late 1950s by a frenzied mixture of research, public speaking and social demonstration. He remained actively engaged in academia, but was directing more and more attention to nuclear non-proliferation issues.

Pauling’s main concern at the time was the tepid response from public officials and the Atomic Energy Commission to what he viewed to be a major problem – radioactive fallout from atomic bomb detonations. After conferring with two scientific colleagues, Barry Commoner and Edward Condon, it was concluded that, because of their insight and technical knowledge of the dangers involved, the nation’s scientists bore a special responsibility to speak out about nuclear testing.

As a result, Pauling and several associates began circulating a petition. Copies were distributed to individual scientists across several states, and soon large swaths of scientists from several universities and institutions began responding en masse. The petition’s purpose was made very clear from the outset of its introduction:

We, the American scientists whose names are signed below, urge that an international agreement to stop the testing of nuclear bombs be made now.

The initial document, “Appeal by American Scientists to the Government and Peoples of the World,” came back to Pauling adorned with over two-thousand signatures, including those of several prominent members of the scientific community. After a short interlude, the petition was supplemented by an international version, ultimately raising the total to a tally of more than 13,000 signatures.

The endeavor was seen as a huge success by advocates, but it also instigated a new movement against Pauling, one propelled by several public agencies and officials. In particular, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) began focusing more attention on Pauling, though it was not the first time he had found a place on their agenda. In 1955 the SISS released a tract titled “The Communist Party of the United States of America: What It Is, and How It Works.” Linus Pauling’s name was on a list of individuals said to be among the most active participants and supporters of communist fronts.

Similarly, when Pauling and his associates released their nuclear test ban petition in June 1957, they were met with substantial criticism from a wide variety of opinion makers. Initially Pauling’s scientific authority on the issue was the primary in question. Soon enough though, Pauling was being accused of communist conspiracy, and was subpoenaed by the SISS to discuss the potential role of communist organizations in the petition’s distribution. Pauling expressed his willingness to appear before the subcommittee, but unforeseen senatorial politics eventually interceded, forcing a temporary delay of his compulsory appearance in Washington, DC.

The SISS itself was essentially the Senate version of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), having served similar purposes in the past. Indeed, in 1960 the committee was composed of many staff members recycled from past HUAC activities. Most notably, Senator Thomas Dodd, chairman of the Subcommittee at the time, conferred regularly with former HUAC investigator Benjamin Mandel. Senator Dodd and others were also working periodically with the FBI in a joint effort against suspected communist subversion.

Before they refocused on Pauling, Dodd and the SISS were popularly credited with instigating the dissolution of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), a collection of locally oriented anti-bomb protest groups. Dodd worked discretely with SANE’s national leadership in providing the organization with an ultimatum:  either cull itself of alleged communist membership or risk a prolonged investigation by federal authorities. SANE’s leadership chose to impose loyalty oaths, a move that split the entire organization, leaving the severed parts largely incapacitated. After the subcommittee’s apparent victory, Dodd and his counsel were emboldened enough to focus their full attentions on Pauling.

Following a speech given to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in the spring of 1960, Pauling was handed several fliers, a poem, some news clippings and other random papers while answering people’s questions. That night, after returning to his hotel room, he found a subpoena addressed to him within the clutter.

Subpeona issued to Linus Pauling by the Internal Security Subcommittee of the United States Senate. June 20, 1960.

The subpoena adjured his appearance before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee on June 21st, two days from then, to address:

Communist participation in, or support of, propaganda campaign against nuclear testing, and other Communist or Communist-front activity with respect to which you [Pauling] may have knowledge.

Abraham Lincoln Wirin, a lawyer who had helped Pauling through an earlier dispute, flew directly to Washington, DC the next day. The duo discussed Pauling’s options and decided to utilize the press as much as possible, a tactic that had proven fruitful for Pauling in the past. Though Pauling was given very short notice, he and Wirin were able to devise what seemed to be a simple but promising broader strategy. They decided to make the entire affair as public as possible, cooperate to whatever extent was appropriate, and maintain the integrity of Pauling’s constitutional rights. Though he was alarmed, Pauling felt reasonably prepared for the engagement ahead of him.