Pauling and the Presidents

rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. January 26, 1984

Notes re: rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. January 26, 1984

I respectfully request that you grant me an appointment in order that I may talk with you for a short while about the present opinion that scientists hold about the testing of nuclear weapons, and related questions, and about the petition urging that an international agreement to stop the testing of nuclear weapons be made, as a first step toward a more general disarmament.”
– Linus Pauling. Letter to Dwight D. Eisenhower. February 19, 1958.

Linus Pauling felt the international peace movement to be the single most important cause of its time. As a result, he believed peace work to be deserving of the attentions of political and social leaders around the globe, none more so than that of the U.S. Presidents who controlled the most powerful military in the world.

Over the course of his life as an activist, Pauling had occasion to correspond with every U.S. President from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. Pauling’s requests were often ignored and his letters unanswered, but his convictions demanded that the leaders of his country understand the need for peace.

Pauling believed that, as members of a democratic nation, American citizens had the right to maintain discourse with their nation’s leaders. As a result, Pauling often addressed open letters to public officials as a means of bringing the public into the discussion.

The earliest example of this approach is the “Open Letter to President Truman,” issued on February 9, 1950, in which Pauling and his co-authors state that the President’s “decision to manufacture the hydrogen bomb has thrown a shadow of horror across the homes and minds of all Americans.”

More than forty years later, “An Open Letter to President Bush,” (January 18, 1991), written solely by Pauling, reached a similar conclusion about the ongoing hostilities of Operation Desert Storm

“The war in the Middle East is getting out of hand. It may become a great war, fought not only with high explosives but also with poison gas, bacteria and nuclear weapons. It may liberate worldwide radioactive fallout, damaging the whole human race.”

Pauling also wrote a great deal of private correspondence to his nation’s chief executive, including a series of unsuccessful appeals to President Eisenhower for an Oval Office appointment to discuss the United Nations Bomb Test Petition, (Pauling later concluded that Eisenhower had been a dupe of Edward Teller) and a similar request to President Johnson regarding the Vietnam War.

(Pauling likewise wrote a number of emotionally-charged letters to President John F. Kennedy, the nature of which will be discussed in a future post on this blog.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pauling did not harbor a great deal of goodwill for President Nixon, attacking him (in biographer Tom Hager’s words) “for everything from the bombing of Cambodia to his policy in Pakistan – then [telling] reporters that Nixon should take more vitamin C.” Pauling also assumed, with much justification, that Nixon himself had twice denied Pauling the National Medal of Science, despite the recommendations of the President’s own advisory group. Not until the second year of the Ford administration would Pauling be granted this highly prestigious decoration.

Of all the American Presidents, Pauling seemed to most enjoy pillorying Ronald Reagan, a fellow Californian whose career Pauling had closely followed over three decades. These excerpts from a series of untitled notes written in the 1980s are characteristic of Pauling’s attitude toward the fortieth U.S. President.

“President Reagan. I’ve wondered what his problem is. When I was his age, my hair was white. I saw him on TV saying that we had to increase our nuclear destructive power. He didn’t have a single gray hair. He seems to have a simple problem. I think that he is a case of arrested development…”

It is important to note that Pauling did not limit his communications to leaders within the United States. At various points in his life, he corresponded with the likes of North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh and Nikita Khrushchev, former premier of the Soviet Union. In his mind, global solutions required a global dialogue and, with varying degrees of effectiveness, Pauling pursued this end for most of his life.

Read more about Pauling’s relationships with world leaders on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement.”

The SISS Investigations

It was difficult for me to decide that I would refuse to give the names of the people who had returned signatures to me….I had about two hours to think about this matter…during the lunch period. I thought about the fate of the people who had invoked the First Amendment in refusing to conform to the demands of investigating committees, and of the possibility that I would go to jail….I finally decided that I had to decide in such a way as to permit me to keep my respect for myself.
– Linus Pauling. Letter to Chauncey Leake. September 29, 1960.

After the public release of his “Appeal by American Scientists to the Government and Peoples of the World,” an international petition seeking to ban the testing of atomic weaponry, Linus Pauling was labeled by many as “un-American,” and even received several death threats. In the midst of this growing concern about his loyalty, Pauling was subpoenaed and required to appear before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) — the United States Senate’s version of the House Un-American Activities Committee — where he was grilled on the details of his peace activism.

During the investigation, which lasted from June to October 1960, Pauling’s political affiliations were questioned with particular emphasis placed on his associations, real or assumed, with leftist — specifically Communist — organizations. Pauling was also ordered to produce the names of those individuals who helped to circulate the bomb test petition. The scientist refused this request, arguing that such a demand would result in repercussions for the signers and was an infringement on the American public’s right to free speech. Even in the face of contempt of Congress threats, Pauling remained steadfast in his unwillingness to release the names of those who assisted him in circulating the petiion.

Listen: Pauling expresses his hope that the United States can become a world leader in morality

Having conducting two investigative hearings on Pauling and facing the momentum of a building press campaign in favor of Pauling, the Senate committee was forced to desist as public opinion turned toward the scientist. The era of McCarthyism, in which Pauling and his fellow activists had been continually harassed, began to dissipate with the election of President John F. Kennedy shortly after Pauling’s second SISS hearing. Nonetheless, Pauling was outraged by his treatment at the hands of the Senate committee and, in response, released multiple statements decrying the actions of the committee and its chairman, Thomas J. Dodd, and even seriously considered writing a book about the experience. It was a summer of great strain for the Pauling family.

Learn more about this conflict on the Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement website, or by clicking on the multimedia thumbnail links below.


The SISS Investigations: An Act of Conscience

The Bomb Test Petition

I say that hundred of thousands of people have had or will have their lives cut short by perhaps ten years, twenty years because of the bomb tests that have already been made.”
– Linus Pauling. “Linus Pauling Address,” Jimmy Jones Recording Studios. June 4, 1957.

During the 1950s, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling were extremely active in educating the public on the dangers of radioactive fallout caused by nuclear weapons tests, delivering hundreds of speeches all around the world. As Cold War anxieties increased and the United States and Soviet Union increased military production, the Paulings condemned the production of atomic weapons and encouraged their audiences to join them in speaking out against the arms race.

In May 1957, following a well-received speech at Washington University, Linus Pauling, Edward Condon and Barry Commoner decided to appeal directly to the scientific community. They drafted the “Appeal by American Scientists to the Governments and Peoples of the World,” a petition, signed by scientists, advocating against the testing of atomic weapons. Within a week, they had begun a large scale campaign, the three men and Ava Helen Pauling mailing copies of the petition to members of the American scientific community.

Having gathered the signatures of over 2,000 scientists, Linus Pauling released the petition on June 3, sending copies to the United Nations and U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower. Ignoring a series of attacks on his character and loyalties, Pauling expanded his mailing program, acquiring signed petition forms from scientists in dozens of additional countries. By early 1958, the Paulings had received more than 9,000 signatures, making international headlines in the process. Those in support of the petition included some of the most prominent scientific personalities of the era: Salvador Luria, Albert Szent-Györgyi, Harold Urey and Max Delbrück to name just a few of the Nobel laureates who joined the effort.

(One of the lesser-known Nobel Prize winners to sign, William P. Murphy (Medicine, 1934), is of particular interest in that, circa 1905, he and Pauling lived in the same small eastern Oregon farming community of Condon, a town of perhaps 1,000 residents that would produce three Nobel Prizes.)

Partly as a result of the momentum generated by Pauling’s petitioning, in August 1963 the Partial Test Ban Treaty prohibiting above-ground nuclear explosions was signed by Soviet Premiere Nikita Khruschev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Dr. Pauling was awarded the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in prompting this accord.

Listen: Ava Helen discusses the importance of a testing ban

Read much more about this fascinating tale at the Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement website. Or click on the thumbnail below for a direct link to video related to the Bomb Test Petition.


Ava Helen discusses the circulation of the U.N. Bomb Test petition