Ava Helen, Linus, and the Push for Federal Union

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[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.


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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.


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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.

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Clarence Streit

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[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.


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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

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[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.


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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.

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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.