Pauling, Kennedy and Khrushchev: Other Letters

Pauling’s handwritten drafts of letters to John F. Kennedy and U Thant during the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 27, 1962

[Part 3 of 4]

Though his private correspondence John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev focused primarily on matters related to nuclear testing, Linus Pauling also initiated conversations with the two leaders on several other issues.

As with many Americans, Pauling was deeply concerned by the Cuban Missile Crisis and also expressed alarm at the way that American communists were being treated. So too was Pauling troubled by the treatment of the Jewish population in the Soviet Union, as evidenced in his letters to the Soviet Premier. These “remainder” topics from the Pauling correspondence with these two crucial figures is the subject of today’s post.


In October 1962, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Pauling sent a letter of admonishment to the American President. In it, Pauling wrote that he believed that the mere “threat of military action” was liable to create a Soviet “retaliation by nuclear attack,” a reaction that would put all Americans in “grave danger of death through nuclear war.”

One week letter, Pauling drafted by hand an even more forceful letter to Kennedy, in which he “vehemently urge[d] that for the sake of the reputation of the United States as a peaceful, moral, and law-abiding nation, you refrain from ordering the invasion of Cuba.” Notably, on the same piece of paper, Pauling also penned a draft letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations urging him to use his powers to prevent the “great immorality and illegality of an armed invasion of Cuba.”

Earlier that same year, Pauling wrote a different letter to Kennedy urging him to pardon the leader of the Communist Party of the United States, Junius Scales, who had been imprisoned. Pauling argued that Scales’ incarceration was unjust and that his sentencing had weakened the First Amendment of the Constitution. Kennedy offered no reply of consequence – an assistant responded that the President was “glad to have the benefit” of Pauling’s views on the case – but did ultimately commute Scales’ sentence in late 1962.


In addition to issues of nuclear testing and disarmament, Pauling pressed Nikita Khrushchev on the treatment of Jews within the Soviet Union. This communication was prompted by a letter on the topic that Pauling received in early 1963 from his friend, Bertrand Russell, the noted mathematician, philosopher and human rights advocate.

After corresponding with Russell several times to get his input, Pauling finally sent his letter to Khruschev in late 1963. In it, he outlined allegations of imprisonment (and even execution) of Jews for practicing their religion, and attempted to appeal to Khrushchev’s humanity in pushing for change. In doing so, Pauling stressed that his appeal was “one of concern and not of condemnation,” and that a “true test of friendship is the ability to speak frankly without fear of being taken for enemies, or of being misunderstood.” While it does not appear that Khrushchev issued a reply, the number of preliminary drafts that Pauling authored, and the thought that he devoted in approaching the matter, indicate the extent to which the issue was important to Pauling.


Pauling’s private relationship with Kennedy and Khruschev was in many ways quite similar. Pauling condemned both men for their roles in continuing their country’s nuclear testing program, and he held both accountable in bringing the programs to an end. And though his approach to non-nuclear issues with the two men differed a bit, he felt consistently emboldened to take a direct path in expressing his concerns.

In his public relationship with these two individuals, Pauling’s approach at times bordered on the theatrical. Pauling wanted action to be taken, and he knew that the best way to achieve that was to be bold and to make people notice. Our next post will explore this in greater detail.

The Paulings and the Kennedys

White House Dinner Menu, April 29, 1962.

White House Dinner Menu. April 29, 1962.

Mrs. Kennedy said, ‘Dr. Pauling do you think that it is right to march back and forth out there in front of the White House carrying a sign and cause Caroline to say, Mummy, what has Daddy done wrong now?’ I thought that was pretty clever.
-Linus Pauling. NOVA Interview. June 1977.

The “thousand days” of the John F. Kennedy administration were surely among the most turbulent of the twentieth century. The Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the escalation of the Vietnam War, among other historically important events, served to heighten the sense of emergency that had been fomenting in mainstream American culture since the conclusion of the second World War.

The sense of turmoil, international tension and cultural conflict that characterized JFK’s presidency is encapsulated by a series of highly-emotional communications between Linus Pauling, Ava Helen Pauling, John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, from the President’s inauguration in 1961 to his assassination in 1963.

As was the case with many Americans, Pauling greeted Kennedy’s election with a sense of optimism and hope. Shortly after the President’s inauguration, Pauling sent Kennedy a short note:

“I am happy to join in welcoming you and congratulating you. You are our great hope for peace in the world.”

The Paulings’ positive attitude toward their country’s new chief executive would not last long. In July of 1961, Ava Helen sent a letter to Mrs. Kennedy explaining the dangers of Strontium-90 and its effects on children. This opened a steady (if one-sided) line of communication between the Kennedys and the Paulings which would continue for the better part of the next three years.

Linus Pauling’s early letters were rather technical in tone, outlining the scientific argument against nuclear weapons testing and urging the President (“with all the intensity that I can muster”) to avoid threats of violent conflict at all cost. Later letters, dating from January and March of 1962, through early 1963, convey a similar message, but grow increasingly angry in their wording. To wit, this extract from Linus Pauling to President Kennedy, written on March 1, 1962 and later made public, arguing vehemently against the broadening of the nation’s Cold War-era nuclear weapons testing policies:

“President Kennedy: 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?…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 weapons technology?”

The Paulings’ public response (issued October 22, 1962) to the developing Cuban Missile Crisis was similarly aggressive in tone:

“Your horrifying threat of military action on shipping on the high seas and possible massive retaliation by nuclear attack to any resistance places all the American people as well as many people in other countries in grave danger of death through nuclear war.”

(click the thumbnail below to view the entirety of this document)

Telegram from Ava Helen and Linus Pauling to President John F. Kennedy, October 22, 1962.

Perhaps the most famous of the Paulings interactions with the Kennedys occurred in April 1962 when Linus and Ava Helen were invited to a White House dinner in honor of all the nation’s Nobel Prize Winners. The couple attended, unabashed that only hours before, Linus had been picketing in front of the White House against the policies of the Kennedy administration.

(click on the video link below for more on this event)

Picketing the White House

In the late summer of 1963, as the United States and the Soviet Union moved closer to toward confirming the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the Paulings’ attitude toward the White House began to soften. This shifting dynamic made Kennedy’s assassination an especially bitter pill for the famous activists to swallow — an event that, indeed, shook the Paulings to their core. Two days after the President’s murder, Linus sent a short note to the widowed Mrs. Kennedy, expressing his and his wife’s sadness:

“My wife and I send you our heartfelt sympathy. As are hundreds of millions of other people, all over the world, we are stricken with grief by the death of our great President, John F. Kennedy.”

In the months and years that would follow, the Paulings grew increasingly interested in the wide swath of suspicion that surrounded the official explanation of Kennedy’s assassination. The Pauling Papers now include a folder of materials (Folder 198.4) collected by the Paulings that are specifically related to the events of November 22, 1963. In addition, the Pauling Personal Library contains ten books (Beginning with call number E842.9 .A5) specifically devoted to varying explanations of the killing of the nation’s thirty-fifth President.

Read more about the relationship between the Paulings and the Kennedys on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.”