The Pauling-Teller Debate: Fear and Loathing

Annotations by Linus Pauling, 1963.

Annotations by Linus Pauling, 1963.

[Part 5 of 5]

Once his televised debate with Edward Teller was concluded, Linus Pauling stated that the two would never meet again in a format of this type, as Pauling “considered [Telller’s] debating methods improper.”  And though the two would indeed never again confront one another in public, tensions continued to build, if mostly on the side of Pauling.

In the lectures that he gave over the decades that followed, Pauling would regularly make a point of countering Teller’s arguments.  Seeking to circulate his opposing viewpoint as widely as possible, Pauling likewise often wrote published responses to Teller’s articles and penned just as many (or more) unpublished letters to the editors of various journals that had printed Teller’s work.

In marginalia notes written on a 1963 New York Times article titled “Teller Test-Ban Warning,” which Teller published nearly five years after the debate took place, Pauling’s animosity toward his opponent is perfectly clear. Reacting to Teller’s statement, “I hope that patriotic Congressmen of both parties will resist the pressure of a public frightened by crisis and misled by the mirage of peace,” Pauling expresses himself with an uncommon level of vitriol.

HERE THE DEVIL IS SPEAKING, THE PERSONIFICATION of EVIL, THE FOE of MORALITY & GOODNESS, THE ENEMY of HUMANITY.


Program for an event sponsored by the New York chapter of SANE, 1959. Pauling has annotated: "We will all fry together when we fry/Three billion sizzling platters"; "We will all go together when we go/I dedicate this song to the man who has done so much to make the golden dream a reality - Dr. Edward Teller"

Program for an event sponsored by the New York chapter of SANE, 1959. Pauling has annotated: “We will all fry together when we fry/Three billion sizzling platters”; “We will all go together when we go/I dedicate this song to the man who has done so much to make the golden dream a reality – Dr. Edward Teller”

After the debate, Pauling pursued his activist platform in much the same vein as in his encounter with Teller, continuing to make the same points of contention and state the same facts.  But in doing so, he not only countered points made by Teller, he also began to argue against essentially anyone who spoke out positively on issues of nuclear weapons development or a future nuclear war.

In one such instance, his article “The Dead Will Inherit the Earth,” published in Frontier in November 1961, Pauling attacked prevailing arguments made in favor of fallout shelters and their ability to save large percentages of American lives.  Where Life magazine had suggested that fallout shelters might lead to survival rates as high as 95%, with Teller pegging the number closer to 90%, Pauling placed his own estimate at 0% within one year of hostilities. Such was Pauling’s estimation of the magnitude of any nuclear war that might be waged using the weapons that had been stockpiled and mobilized at that time.


Detail from "Enforcing an Atom Test Ban: Scientists Testify Before Joint Atomic Energy Comittee," Science, April 29, 1960. Annotation by Pauling.

Detail from “Enforcing an Atom Test Ban: Scientists Testify Before Joint Atomic Energy Comittee,” Science, April 29, 1960. Annotation by Pauling.

Indeed, the late 1950s were a unique moment in world history, a time period during which the future was uncertain both in terms of geopolitics as well as the continued health and well-being of humanity. At the heart of these tensions resided, of course, the development of weapons far more powerful than anything ever seen before. While, during World War II, nuclear devices were initially viewed as symbols of strength and as a hope for peace, for many they quickly came to embody all that is negative in human society after they were used in Japan.

Though their viewpoints on nuclear weapons clearly resided on polar opposites of this dichotomy, a singular menace lay at heart of much of Teller and Pauling’s rhetoric: the threat of a third World War, one which would be far worse than any previous war, potentially resulting in the elimination of human life from the planet.  This potential for crisis was a key factor in the escalation and continuation of the Cold War.

Both Pauling and Teller used these Cold War fears to bolster their arguments – clearly their positions would have carried far less weight without them.  In doing so, both men attempted, in their own specific ways, to use data and statements of fact to alleviate public ignorance surrounding nuclear technologies.  On the same token, both men also relied on a lack of conclusive data to make assumptions that would further support his point of view.


Summing Up

The 1958 debate, coupled with the books that both Pauling and Teller wrote later that year, demonstrate the broad diversity of ideas and tensions that surrounded the development and testing of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.  Likewise, the story of the confrontation that emerged between these two men is central to understanding arguments over the continuation or cessation of weapons testing and development, and the emotional nature of the Cold War era.

Teller professed a desire to believe in Pauling’s position that the U.S. could maintain peace through international cooperation, but he was never able to arrive at this point.  On the contrary, Teller, hardened by his own personal experiences as a Hungarian national, felt that the Communist bloc could not be trusted and that the U.S. ultimately had to keep the upper hand in nuclear technologies to keep its enemies in check. Teller viewed this tactic as the only route to avoiding a third World War. Deterrence, of course, required more weapons, and in order for new weapons to be developed, nuclear tests needed to continue.

As vehemently opposed as they were to one another’s perspectives, Pauling and Teller shared much in common. Their stances both emanated from their their views on the leading role that science should play in daily life, the need for scientists to be involved in the development of public policy, and the importance of developing policy through public dialogue.

Both men were also essentially arguing for the same, or similar, outcomes: the education of the public on scientific matters and a quick end to tensions with the Soviet Union.  Pauling and Teller likewise attempted to reach their rhetorical goals through a “translation” of science into language that laymen could understand. And although both hoped to change the minds of the public using reason and a better understanding of the facts at hand, each man ended up playing on fears in order to get their points across.

Though they went about it in very different ways, Linus Pauling and Edward Teller were both trying to prevent a third World War. Both agreed that war brings out the worst in humanity and that the next World War portended dire consequences.  But as the debate unfolded, their vastly different perspectives brought emotions to the surface, at times revealing personal beliefs on nuclear weapons and on each other. For Pauling, the animosity that he felt remained consistent throughout his life, as he continued to be publicly critical of Teller’s work and role in the development of the hydrogen bomb.

 

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The Pauling-Teller Debate: Two Books That Followed

nuclear-future

Our Nuclear Future: Facts, Dangers and Opportunities. 1958.

[Part 4 of 5]

In the months following their televised 1958 debate, Linus Pauling and Edward Teller both published books that they believed would serve to educate the public on the real dangers associated with atomic development and testing.  And though their formal debate had long since passed, both men continued to spar with one another through their writings. As Ralph E. Lapp put it in his review of Pauling’s book,

Any meaningful review of Mr. Pauling’s No More War! must be related not only to the U.N. Report on Atomic Radiation but also Mr. Teller’s Our Nuclear Future published earlier this year.  As a matter of fact, No More War! might well be subtitled ‘A Reply to Edward Teller.’

Each book worked hard to couch its arguments in terms that readers, no matter their background, could understand.  Both books also sought to help citizens differentiate between “imaginary dangers,” “risks which are more real,” and risks that had been most neglected.  The two books likewise made use of Cold War fears over a potential war with the Soviet Union and pointed out that a future war of this sort would be far worse than anything experienced to date. In this, just as had been the case with their television appearance, Pauling and Teller alike used similar approaches to argue for very different points of view: Pauling emphasizing the need for disarmament and cooperation, Teller arguing in favor of peace assured through military might.


"No More War!" 1958.

“No More War!” 1958.

A primary goal of Edward Teller and Albert Latter’s book, Our Nuclear Future: Facts, Dangers and Opportunities, was to outline the science behind the development of nuclear weapons, as articulated for a lay audience. Teller felt a book of this sort was the best way to combat rising fear in the culture, and that it would allow readers to both understand the nature of radioactivity and to rationally assess the risks (relatively benign ones, in Teller’s view) posed by nuclear tests.

Conversely, throughout his book, No More War!, Linus Pauling discussed the harm that would befall current and future generations as a direct result of continued nuclear testing.  He also emphasized the idea of a single global community and the need to think responsibly about the entire world. This approach is clear from the outset, as Pauling writes in his preface

We are living through that unique epoch in the history of civilization when war will cease to be the means of settling great world problems…It is the development of great nuclear weapons that requires that war be given up, for all time…that from the giant of the kiloton nuclear bomb to the megaton monster…we can see for ourselves that our own future and the future of the human race depend upon our willingness and ability to cooperate, to work together in a worldwide attack on the great world problems.

Pauling’s emphasis on the need for humanity to remain united and to work together courses through the entire book.


Figure comparing estimates of wordwide fallout, as included in No More War!

Figure comparing estimates of wordwide fallout, as included in No More War!

Indeed, increases in the mutation rate and the threats that they posed to the human race comprised Pauling’s central argument in favor of ceasing nuclear tests.  Pauling believed that there was no safe threshold amount of radiation that a person could receive; any amount could prove harmful and potentially lead to leukemia, bone cancer, or other diseases linked to radiation. Conceptualized in this way, radiation was likened by Pauling as something worse than a poison.  For Pauling, a person could not receive a small, harmless dose of radiation like they could with certain poisons that are only dangerous in large quantities taken at one time.  Rather, radiation is a cumulative toxin and the lower values measured as fallout from nuclear tests were potentially just as damaging as high exposures, just not as immediately apparent.

At the other end of the spectrum, Teller downplayed the risks of fallout, basing his argument on the fact that environmental radiation is nothing new.  On the contrary, it has existed since the beginning of the Earth, meaning that every human, plant, and animal in existence is subjected daily to radioactivity and always has been and always will be.  In formulating his argument, Teller placed additional emphasis on the number of ways that environmental radiation can be taken up by the body and how geographic location influences these processes.  He also stressed that radiation could be acquired from seemingly trivial man-made sources as well, sources that most people thought little about.  Teller stated these man-made sources, such as medical x-rays or even wristwatches with illuminated hands, were more harmful than was the radioactivity from testing fallout.


Pauling's annotated copy of  Our Nuclear Future, with a New York Times review of the book tipped in.

Pauling’s annotated copy of Our Nuclear Future, with “a very poor” New York Times review of the book tipped in.

In writing No More War!, one of Pauling’s major objectives was to dispel any notion that there was wide disagreement among scientists as to the actual effects of radiation on humans. In doing so, he pointedly sought to discredit Teller and the Atomic Energy Commission as holding fringe opinions. When discussing Teller, he was especially critical, not only of his calculations and scientific acumen, but also of his views on democracy and education of the citizenry, views which Pauling claimed to be “out of place.”

Partly to combat increasing fears about environmental radioactivity, Teller suggested ramping up research and development of so-called “clean weapons” – i.e., weapons that did not produce radioactive fallout upon detonation. Teller believed clean weapons to be necessary and potentially very useful for purposes far beyond application in war.  A clean weapon might be used, for instance, to build a harbor.  Throughout Our Nuclear Future, Teller is clear in his advocacy of developing new weapons and testing them to make sure that they work.

Pauling strongly disagreed with Teller’s ideas concerning the development of a clean bomb, which Teller identified as a top reason why testing needed to continue.  Pauling likewise took offense at the use of the word “clean,” pointing out that so-called clean weapons still held the potential to kill millions of innocent people.  Furthermore, these new weapons were only promoting the culture of continued testing and thus, further radioactive fallout.


Though neither Our Nuclear Future nor No More War! pretended to be a cool analysis of fact, both used similar techniques, often based in scientific analysis, to try and persuade readers toward one of two very different points of view.  Both books also might be viewed as an extension of the debate that had been televised between Pauling and Teller in February 1958, with the two scientists continuing to jockey for position through a different public forum.

And while it is clear that Pauling and Teller were never going to agree on the fundamental nuclear issues of the time, both of their books made an impact. The New York Times placed both volumes on its list of outstanding books for the year and, in a different article, named both as among the necessary books with which to acquaint oneself in seeking to understand the nuclear debate.

The Pauling-Teller Debate: Coming Face-to-Face

 

Linus Pauling debating Edward Teller on the topic of nuclear fallout: “The Nuclear Bomb Tests…Is Fallout Overrated?” KQED-TV, San Francisco. February 20, 1958.

[Part 3 of 5]

An informed citizen is a good citizen.  This was a belief held by both Linus Pauling and Edward Teller.  As scientists the two likewise believed that the information they presented to the public must be specific and stripped of rhetoric. On the same token, it was also their obligation to spell out to the public their sense of the threats that loomed during the Cold War and to motivate their audience to respond to those threats. Perhaps most importantly, both men believed it imperative that the information that they provided be up-to-date and reflective of the idea that science is the most reliable source of information for the public.

In many respects then, Pauling and Teller were operating from principles that would seem to have been very close to one another. That the two men would present such differing viewpoints from such a similar basis of belief is illustrative of the confusion that prevailed in American society concerning fallout and nuclear weapons at the time of the Pauling-Teller debate.


The one and only televised debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller was held in San Francisco on February 20, 1958, and broadcast live by KQED television, a public broadcasting station located in the city. From the get-go, Pauling had a hard time.

As the debate commenced, Pauling opened with a plea to prevent nuclear war, and emphasized the pressing need that prevention start now.  Pauling’s speech was stilted and awkward though, and he stumbled over his words despite appearing to have been well-rehearsed.  For whatever reason, in his opening statement, Pauling did not come across like a man who was used to speaking in front of others about these ideas, although he gradually appeared more relaxed as the debate progressed.

Edward Teller and Linus Pauling with members of the media and a television crew at their 1958 debate.

Teller also began his opening statement in a staccato cadence similar to that used by his opponent, though he quickly warmed up to the audience and began to speak more candidly.  Teller also succeeded in letting his emotions show more clearly than did Pauling. Although this is not how most scientists of the era would think to present themselves, the display of emotions likely came across as more appealing to the debate audience.

One of the main points that Pauling tried to emphasize in the debate was that the cessation of nuclear development and testing would require the agreement of many people, both inside and outside of the U.S.  Pauling called for a collective effort “to solve international disputes by the application of man’s power of reason in a way that is worthy of the dignity of man.” He went on:

We must solve them by arbitration, negotiation, the development of international law, the making of international agreements that will do justice to all nations and to all peoples and will benefit all nations and all people

This process naturally would require large amounts of work on behalf of many people. Indeed, in order to achieve peace and stability, Pauling argued that levels of resources equivalent to those committed to create nuclear weapons needed to be expended in support of coming to an agreement. A commitment, in other words, “comparable to that of the forty billion dollars a year that we put into armaments.”  Pauling also pointed out that the Soviets had already proposed a cessation in nuclear weapons testing and an end to weapons stockpiling, so neither idea was too radical or forward thinking.

A lasting agreement would also have to transcend political systems.  Pauling saw no problems with coming to terms with the Soviet Union, or any other nation, regardless of politics and policies.  On the contrary, he believed “that we need to have different kinds of political systems…[and] that the way to settle the problem of the differences is not to kill off most of the people in the world, or a large fraction of the people in the world with these terrible nuclear weapons.”

Though Pauling mostly spoke in positive and inclusive tones, he often strayed from this approach to criticize Teller, at times going line-by-line through one or another of Teller’s articles. And while an important part of Pauling’s strategy appears to have been to attack Teller’s previous public statements, he failed to expand beyond this tactic to address certain of the larger issues at hand, such as radioactive fallout or a nuclear weapons test ban.


bio6.007.084

San Francisco Chronicle, February 21, 1958.

As the debate moved forward, it was Teller who became more and more precise on the topic of harm from fallout, though this would seem to have been a point of rhetoric favoring Pauling’s point of view. It was at this point that Teller was able to take firm command of the proceedings. As he outlined his arguments, he did not try to discredit or attack Pauling, but instead worked to align himself with his opponent by focusing on their similarities instead of their differences, by characterizing their differences as misconceptions, and by emphasizing the ambiguities in the data they were both using.

Conversely, throughout the evening Pauling painted Teller as a warmonger, quoting him as saying “we must meet the Russians wherever they choose to attack.”  Pauling interpreted this statement as an expression of need to prepare for nuclear war. Teller countered that he supported the development of a wide range of weapons as a means to stave off any possibility of attack.  If the U.S. had developed weapons to deal with any possible scenario, Teller’s logic went, the Soviets would be too afraid to ever attack.

Teller also argued that no one could possibly know for sure what potential harm might arise from nuclear weapons tests, a counterpoint diametrically opposed from Pauling’s dire warnings of negative health impacts from radioactive fallout. Teller pointed out that nuclear weapons had not been around long enough for adequate research to be conducted and that, just as researchers were only then starting to evaluate the results of industrialization, only time would tell what to make of the nuclear age.

For Teller, the threat of a potential attack was a bigger deterrent to a test ban than were the possible threats of continued testing. Likewise, as its military strength improved, the U.S. would become stronger and the world more stable.  Teller agreed with Pauling’s position that the world needed to strive for peace based on mutual understanding.  However, as Teller put it

Peace based on force buys us the necessary time. And in this time we can work for better understanding, for closer collaboration, first with the countries which are closest to us, which we understand better, our allies, the Western countries, the NATO countries, which believe in human liberties as we do.  Then, as soon as possible, with the rest of the free world, and eventually, I hope, with the whole world, including Russia, even though it may take years to come.

Teller concluded the debate by reflecting on the situation in his native Hungary, his own love of liberty, and his belief that continued testing was an exercise of democratic freedom.  His very last line, “I am talking for my freedom, for his [Pauling’s] freedom, and for the freedom of all of us,” emphasized the collective nature of his stance.  So ended the televised debate between Pauling and Teller, but their public engagement with one another was far from concluded.

The Pauling-Teller Debate: Speaking Science to the Public

Linus Pauling speaking at a peace march in Westlake Park. Beverly Hills, California. 1960.

[Part 2 of 5]

The debate over development versus disarmament of nuclear weapons was not black and white during the Cold War era. For both arguments pro and con, there existed many gray areas that both Edward Teller and Linus Pauling – standard bearers for pro and con respectively – wished to clarify for the sake of the public, as they both felt that the government was not delineating nuclear issues as clearly as it should.

Numerous government agencies were established beginning in the 1940s to investigate all manner of nuclear issues, from reactors to fallout. These agencies, though all part of the apparatus of the federal government, often disagreed with one another and offered differing findings to the public. This extra layer of confusion created an additional obstacle with which both Pauling and Teller were forced to contend in their encounters with the public and with each other.  The ways in which they interpreted and presented the data differed markedly from one another and only served to heighten the conflict between the two men as the date of their televised debate approached.


Linus Pauling became involved in the anti-nuclear movement at an early point in its history. Less than two months after the atomic attack on Hiroshima, he wrote to a friend:

I feel that, in addition to our professional activities in the nuclear field, we should make our voices known with respect to the political significance of science.

Indeed, this was a principle that would guide much of Pauling’s activity for the remainder of his life.

In speaking out against nuclear testing and weapons proliferation, Pauling was not arguing against the scientific research that scientists had completed per se, but instead focused his criticism on how the research was handled, applied and furthered. “I deny that scientists have been guilty in making their discoveries,” he wrote. “They have, however, failed in some part to do their duty as citizens.”

As the U.S. amped up its program of nuclear tests, Pauling began to speak out more forcefully against the government’s behavior, arguing that its actions were devastating international relations and that peace could never be achieved in a world with nuclear weapons.

Although Pauling was well-versed in many scientific disciplines, as he became more deeply involved in the peace movement he quickly found that his grasp of international relations was far less strong.  It took him only one poorly planned and unconvincing speech, delivered in 1945, to realize that he would need to devote far more effort toward researching nuclear issues before he could be considered an expert.  Reflecting in the 1980s on this incident – “an episode that would change my life” – he recalled his wife Ava Helen telling him,

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… 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.

Spurred to action, Pauling began to pore over newspapers and dedicated himself to arguing for disarmament for the rest of his life, spending half of his time on these issues and no longer devoting his “whole-hearted efforts in teaching science and carrying on scientific research.”


Teller's Los Alamos identification badge, ca. 1943.

Teller’s Los Alamos identification badge, ca. 1943.

It took Edward Teller longer to involve himself directly in politics. And from the outset his position was more convoluted than was Pauling’s, though in some respects, he and Pauling did not broadly differ in their points of view.

Unlike Pauling, Teller was directly connected to the work conducted at Los Alamos that resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb.  He argued that this work was crucial to ending the threat of the Axis powers during World War II.  But despite his pro-nuclear stance, he agreed with Pauling’s position that scientists should facilitate discussion of nuclear issues and that they bore a responsibility to disseminate knowledge of nuclear science.  Like Pauling, Teller saw that scientists were too often underrepresented in nuclear discussions and he believed that their voices needed to be heard.

Teller likewise believed that there needed to be better communication between those who were conducting science and those who made nuclear policy decisions.  He also felt that the power to make decisions about nuclear affairs should not be held solely by government officials, but rather should involve the public as well. For Teller, the U.S. government would ideally exist as a vehicle to deliver the wishes of its people.  Ultimately, the public, scientists, and politicians needed to work together to come to an educated decision that aligned with what the people desired.

Of course, Teller’s views on the morality of nuclear weapons differed completely from Pauling’s anti-nuclear stance. In keeping with his position on the role of government, Teller wrote

It is not the scientist’s job to determine whether a hydrogen bomb should be constructed, whether it should be used, or how it should be used. This responsibility rests with the American people and with their chosen representatives.

This noted, Teller personally believed that the only way to pursue continued peace was to guarantee that a nuclear war
would never break out, which meant that continued development and innovation was necessary. He likewise felt that virtually every situation required its own unique weapon, and these could only be developed through continued testing. Doing so would also insure that a portion of the American nuclear arsenal would remain viable and in close proximity in case of an attack, and guaranteed that the Soviet Union would not benefit from making the first strike in a nuclear war.

Later in life, in his memoirs, Teller emphasized his belief in this point, writing

Since the end of World War II, nuclear weapons have served their purpose extremely well. That purpose is deterrence. The hydrogen bomb, it should be remembered, has never been used in combat and there is reason to hope that it never will be…Yet, following World War II, I knew of no one in nuclear weapons research
who did not believe that the purpose of his or her work was to prevent the use of such weapons by assuring the strength of our deterrent forces.


teller-time

Public discussion of nuclear testing reached a crescendo in 1954 with the Bikini Atoll tests and again in 1957 when distress over the potential dangers of continued testing was inflamed by the launch of Sputnik.  The successful launch of the Sputnik satellite into orbit was a prime example of Soviet skill in rocketry – and in science in general – and with it the Soviets seemed to be ahead of the U.S., thus rendering the Cold War ever more real and relevant to the American public.

As the tide of the Cold War appeared to shift in favor of the Soviets, the U.S. government responded by escalating its schedule of weapons testing.  And with this change in Cold War politics, the emotional climate stateside became more fearful. A majority of the public now seemed to favor Teller’s objectives, and the scientist himself was featured on the cover of a mid-November 1957 issue of Time Magazine.

Now on the defensive, Pauling became even more alarmed when Edward Teller and Albert Latter, a fellow physicist, published an opinion piece, “The Compelling Need for Nuclear Tests,” in the February 10, 1958 issue of LIFE.  The article outlined Teller and Latter’s arguments in favor of further weapons testing, and especially the need to develop “clean weapons” that produced little or no radioactive fallout. The piece also sought to discredit Pauling and the 9,000 scientists who had signed his petition to halt nuclear weapons tests. The issues that Teller and Latter presented in their article were a preview of the topics that Pauling and Teller would confront in their debate later that month and in their books later that year.

Examples of annotations made by Pauling to his copy of

Examples of annotations made by Pauling to his copy of “The Compelling Need for Nuclear Weapons Tests.”

Looking at Pauling’s copy of the LIFE article, one is struck by his desire to get at the math and understand Teller’s calculations for risk.  His notes also demonstrate his disagreement (and occasional agreement) with statements that Teller and Latter make. He also identifies questions needing clarification, and responses to these questions when he received them. Although it is evident throughout that Pauling did not agree with Teller, as he headed toward the televised debate he clearly desired to understand the claims that Teller was making.

The Pauling-Teller Debate: Setting the Stage

Portrait of Edward Teller by Dmitri Vail. June 1965.

Portrait of Edward Teller by Dmitri Vail. June 1965.

[A detailed examination of the 1958 Pauling-Teller nuclear fallout debate. Post 1 of 5]

Linus Pauling and the Hungarian-American Edward Teller were well-acquainted with one another, both because of their research backgrounds in quantum mechanics and because, by the late 1950s, each was commonly recognized to be one of America’s premier scientists. On February 20th, 1958, the two men came face-to-face in a televised debate about nuclear weapons testing and fallout for the first and only time. Pauling would say afterward that he would never debate Teller again. Later that year, both men also published books that furthered their stances on the topics of nuclear fallout and weapons testing, while simultaneous engaging each other’s views.

World War II came about while both men were at similar places in life. In the mid-1940s, both Pauling and Teller were in the early stages of their careers and were establishing themselves as leaders within their fields of discipline.  However, the choices that the two made in the face of war were radically different – as were the projects that they pursued – with both men making decisions shaped by personal motivations and principles.

Although Pauling was asked to work on the Manhattan Project, he declined to do so, partly because he did not want to disrupt his family life, but also out of a desire to continue on his own war work projects uninterrupted.  With the onset of war, Pauling made an abrupt shift to support the Allied effort, transitioning his work from a focus on immunology to more practical problems, including finding a substitute for blood serum and devising an oxygen meter for use in submarines and aircraft.

On the contrary, when asked to assist with work on the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project, Edward Teller replied that he could not say no, due largely to his abhorrence of Hitler and Mussolini and the havoc that they were causing in his native Europe.  A recent arrival to the United States, Teller felt a strong obligation to protect the freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of his new home, of which he too became a citizen in 1941. Teller likewise believed that it was his job as a scientist to help science progress, a belief that only strengthened post-war, as it became clear that the Soviets had developed their own nuclear weapons in 1949, much earlier than anticipated.

Indeed, World War II and the role that technology played in winning the war both elevated science into the spotlight and expanded capacities for public and political criticism of science. According to Pauling, applied science could be used for evil just as easily as it could be used for good, and sometimes the line between the two was hard to discern.

One outcome of this was that scientists now held greater power in politics, and especially in the military. Nonetheless, after the war ended, many scientists simply aligned themselves with the US government, and its objectives, in part to secure support and funding for their projects.  A smaller number, Pauling and Teller included, actively sought to shape government policy with their influence and prestige.

1960i.11-600w

Following the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a long stream of questions and concerns came to dominate the public discourse over nuclear weapons, with many demanding instant action to control the use and further development of these powerful new instruments of war.  In the years immediately following the war, Teller agreed with Pauling that a universal government could, and should, control the knowledge that had resulted in the production of a nuclear device – trying to keep the information secret was unscientific and would likely only make the geopolitical situation worse.

Teller continued to believe in this course of action until finally deciding that the solution was not realistic, especially in the face of mounting tensions with the Soviet Union over their rapidly developing technologies.  Teller stated publicly that he wished he could side with Pauling’s position that the US could help to maintain peace through international cooperation.

But instead, Teller believed that the US ultimately had to keep the upper hand with respect to nuclear technologies and that doing so necessitated further weapons development. Deterrence, Teller felt, required more weapons, and in order for new weapons to be developed, nuclear tests needed to continue. Teller argued that this was the only path to avoiding a third World War. Pauling, on the other hand, believed that the West needed to learn to get along with the Communists and he sought to include them in his peace activities.

The 1958 debate, and Pauling and Teller’s stances, encapsulate many of the diverse ideas and tensions that surrounded the development and testing of nuclear weapons in the Cold War period. The two scientists approached the dangers of the Cold War and the associated arms race from very different perspectives, due in part to their different disciplinary backgrounds in chemistry and physics respectively. Nonetheless, their tactics and approach were similar in key respects, in part because each man shared an enthusiasm for speaking to large lay audiences.

Both men also sought to educate the American public about the current geopolitical situation and the future of nuclear development, and both strove to present their views in language that the public could understand.  Pauling was extremely rational in his thinking and he sought to use his scientific background to educate others so that they could draw their own conclusions concerning nuclear testing and fallout.  In this, Teller was similar to Pauling as he too sought to educate the lay public as a means to establish his argument.  Both men also believed that it was their duty to educate the public because of their unique positions as scientists, consultants, and citizens.

But the discussion between Pauling and Teller was not merely one of whether or not nuclear weapons should continue to be developed, but ultimately how peace with the Soviet Union could be maintained.  For Pauling the dialogue was framed as a battle for disarmament that would lead to peace; for Teller, it was deterrence against future Soviet acts of aggression.  Both men played on the fears of ordinary Americans, drawing from the very real tensions of the time, and each fought for the attention of politicians who could enact the policies that they, as scientists, could not.  As we will see, the result of all this was a sometimes messy battle over calculations, predictions, and interpretations.

Linus Pauling Receives the Nobel Peace Prize

The Pauling family anticipating Linus Pauling's Nobel lecture, December 11, 1963. (Photo credit: Aftenposten)

The Pauling family anticipating Linus Pauling’s Nobel lecture, December 11, 1963. (Photo credit: Aftenposten)

On December 10th, 1963, Linus Pauling accepted the belated Nobel Peace Prize for 1962. Attended by the Norwegian royal family and various government representatives, the ceremonies took place in Festival Hall at the University of Oslo in Norway – separate, as per tradition, from the other Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden. Pauling shared the ceremonies with the winners of the 1963 Nobel Peace Prize – an award split between the International Committee of the Red Cross and the League of Red Cross Societies in commemoration of the centennial of the founding of the Red Cross.

Gunnar Jahn, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, introduced Pauling before presenting him with the prize. In his remarks, Jahn reconstructed the advances and setbacks of the post-war peace movement in which Pauling had so prominently operated since the dropping of atomic bombs by the United States on Japan. Escalating Cold War tensions and the arms race soon rendered as unlikely any hopes for an immediate era of peace. The nascent post-war peace movement, according to Jahn, “lost impetus and faded away. But Linus Pauling marched on: for him retreat was impossible.”

While Pauling”s peace work was surely political in nature, Jahn drew attention to the importance of Pauling’s scientific attitude in researching and determining the effects that atmospheric radiation may have on future generations. Even critics of Pauling, including the physicist and nuclear weapons engineer Edward Teller, did not fundamentally disagree with him concerning the harmfulness of fallout from nuclear tests. Where Teller and Pauling did conflict centered more on questions as to whether or not these harmful effects outweighed the advantages that they provided to the United States with respect to the Soviets. Pauling thought they did; Teller disagreed.

Pauling and Gunnar Jahn, ca. 1963.

Pauling and Gunnar Jahn, ca. 1963.

Jahn then recounted how the public started paying close attention to Pauling in 1958 as he presented to United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld a petition signed by 11,021 scientists from fifty different countries calling for the end of above-ground nuclear weapons testing. Because of the petition, Pauling was called before Congress and questioned about alleged communist ties which, not for the first time, he denied. By Jahn’s estimation, the hearing only served to make Pauling a more popular and sympathetic character and he continued to speak out more and more.

For Jahn, Pauling’s 1961 visit to Moscow, during which he delivered a lecture on disarmament to the Soviet Academy of Science, illustrated Pauling’s importance in propelling the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which came into effect two years later. While there, Pauling unsuccessfully sought to meet with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Unbowed, he instead sent Khrushchev two letters and a draft nuclear test ban agreement. “In the main,” Jahn emphasized, Pauling’s

proposal tallies with the test-ban agreement of July 23, 1963.  Yet no one would suggest that the nuclear-test ban in itself is the work of Linus Pauling… But, does anyone believe that this treaty would have been reached now, if there had been no responsible scientist who, tirelessly, unflinchingly, year in year out, had impressed on the authorities and on the general public the real menace of nuclear tests?

Ultimately, for Jahn, it was as a scientist that Pauling helped move the world toward peace. Looking forward, Pauling’s proposed World Council for Peace Research would bring together bright minds from the sciences and humanities under the auspices of the United Nations in hopes of seeking out new institutional models and paths of diplomacy for a nuclear-armed world. Jahn closed by suggesting that “through his campaign Linus Pauling manifests the ethical responsibility which science – in his opinion – bears for the fate of mankind, today and in the future.”


Associated Press photo published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 10, 1963.

Associated Press photo published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 10, 1963.

After concluding, Jahn called Pauling to the stage; applause and a standing ovation from the crowd quickly followed. After the applause had died down and Jahn presented Pauling with the gold Nobel medal and a certificate, Pauling delivered a brief acceptance speech, calling the prize “the greatest honor that any person can be given.” But Pauling also recognized that his prize was likewise a testament to “the work of many other people who have striven to bring hope for permanent peace to a world that now contains nuclear weapons that might destroy our civilization.”

Pauling went on to draw similarities between himself, the first scientist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and Alfred Nobel, who endowed the Nobel Foundation. Both were chemical engineers interested in scientific nomenclature and atomic structure. Both owned patents on explosive devises – Nobel the inventor of dynamite and Pauling an expert on rocket propellants and explosive powders whose skills came to bear during World War II. And both expanded their interests into biology and medicine as well. Many had described Nobel as a pessimist, but Pauling wished to assure his audience that this was not the case and that, like himself, Nobel was an optimist who saw it as “worthwhile to encourage work for fraternity among nations”


Pauling, holding the case containing his Nobel diploma, being congratulated by Norwegian King Olav V. Image originally published in Morgenbladet, December 11, 1963.

Pauling, holding the case containing his Nobel certificate, being congratulated by Norwegian King Olav V. Image originally published in Morgenbladet, December 11, 1963.

The following day, December 11th, Pauling gave his Nobel Lecture, “Science and Peace.” In it he described how the advent of nuclear bombs was “forcing us to move into a new period in the history of the world, a period of peace and reason.” Development of nuclear weapons showed how science and peace were closely related. Not only were scientists involved in the creation of nuclear weapons, they had also been a leading group in the peace movement, bringing public awareness to the dangers of such weapons.

Pauling recounted how Leo Szilard – whose 1939 letter to President Roosevelt (and co-signed by Albert Einstein) had led to the Manhattan Project – urged Roosevelt in 1945 to control nuclear weapons through an international system, a plea that was issued before the first bombs had been dropped. While Szilard’s appeal fell flat, it was followed, in 1946, by the creation of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, a group overseen by Szilard, Einstein and seven others, including Pauling. Over the next five years, the committee warned of the potentially catastrophic consequences of nuclear war and advocated for the only defense possible: “law and order” along with a “future thinking that must prevent wars.”

Pauling's Nobel certificate, 1963.

Pauling’s Nobel certificate, 1963.

Other groups followed. For Pauling, the Pugwash Conferences, headed by Bertrand Russell from 1957 to 1963, were particularly influential in bringing attention to the harmful effects of nuclear testing and, ultimately, the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. It was during this time that nuclear fallout, the subject of Pauling’s 1958 petition, became of greater concern. The importance of fallout centered on the potential genetic mutations to which several generations would be exposed. Pauling quoted the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy to support his point: “The loss of even one human life, or malformation of even one baby – who may be born long after we are gone – should be of concern to us all.”

As matters stood in 1963, Pauling warned that the time to effectively control nuclear weapons was fast slipping away. The test-ban treaty was, Pauling lamented, already two years too late and had not prevented the large volume of testing that took place after the Soviets – who were quickly followed by the United States – had broken the 1959 testing moratorium in 1961. The failure to end testing outright before 1960 led to the explosion of 450 of the 600 megatons detonated during all nuclear tests.

Pauling's Nobel certificate case, 1963.

Pauling’s Nobel certificate case, 1963.

Because of the sheer number of nuclear weapons in existence (Pauling estimated some 320,000 megatons) limited war was not a feasible plan due to “the likelihood that a little war would grow into a world catastrophe,” both immediate and long-term. Abolishing all war was the only way out. But standing in the path of the abolition of war were people in powerful positions who did not recognize the present dangers and the need to end war. Pauling also saw China’s exclusion from the United Nations, which prevented the nation from taking part in any discussions on disarmament, as an additional roadblock to a lasting world peace.

To get around these blockades, Pauling proposed joint national and international control of nuclear weapons as well as an inspection treaty aiming to prevent the development of biological and chemical weapons, which could become a threat of equal measure to nuclear weapons. Additionally, Pauling felt that small-scale wars should be abolished and international laws established to prevent larger nations from dominating smaller ones.

The challenges of the era were great but Pauling ended optimistically:

We, you and I, are privileged to be alive during this extraordinary age, this unique epoch in the history of the world, the epoch of demarcation between the past millennia of war and suffering and the future, the great future of peace, justice, morality and human well-being… I am confident that we shall succeed in this great task; that the world community will thereby be freed not only from the suffering caused by war but also, through the better use of the earth’s resources, of the discoveries of scientists, and of the efforts of mankind, from hunger, disease, illiteracy, and fear; and that we shall in the course of time be enabled to build a world characterized by economic, political, and social justice for all human beings, and a culture worthy of man’s intelligence.


The Nobel medal, obverse.

The Nobel medal, obverse.

The response to Pauling’s speech by the American press was fairly tame. Most headlines simply issued variations on “Pauling Gets His Prize.” A handful of headlines delved into the substance of Pauling’s lecture, one noting “Pauling Accepts Award, Sees World without War in Sight.” Others emphasized the means by which he sought to end war, e.g. “Pauling Urges UN Veto Power on Nuclear Arms.”

The substance of the articles, most of which relied upon Associated Press copy, continued to focus on Pauling’s past controversies and suspected communism. From his lecture, the reports tended to highlight his homage to the late President Kennedy and the dollar amount of his prize. When Pauling’s policy proposals came up, mostly in larger papers that did not rely on the Associated Press, China’s admission to the United Nations and UN veto power over the use of nuclear weapons were seen as relevant and potentially controversial.

Absent from the press coverage was any discussion of the science of Pauling’s lecture. This included his claims concerning the harmful health effects of nuclear weapons as well as his descriptions of the increases in size and number of nuclear weapons. No article mentioned “genetic mutations” or “megatons” as Pauling had done in his lecture.

The Nobel medal, reverse.

The Nobel medal, reverse.

One bit of critical commentary, published in the Wall Street Journal, came out a week after Pauling’s speech. Author William Henry Chamberlin dismissed Pauling’s views on peace as both unpopular and overly simplistic. Pauling’s reasoning ran counter to the thinking of all US presidents since Truman – namely, that the only avenue to peace is to make as many weapons as the Soviets. Chamberlin noted that even scientists – specifically Edward Teller – agreed.

In Chamberlin’s estimation, Pauling was merely an alarmist. Further, Pauling had no impact whatsoever on the Partial Test Ban Treaty. The idea for the treaty had emerged out of the governments of the United States and Great Britain long ago and its delay in ratification was due solely to foot-dragging from the Soviets. Chamberlin also discounted Pauling’s claim to be a representative of a world-wide movement for peace by characterizing his efforts as “a one-man crusade.”

Pauline Gebelle as pictured in the Portland Oregonian, December 17, 1963.

Pauline Geballe as pictured in the Portland Oregonian, December 17, 1963.

Contrary to Chamberlin’s stance, on the same day the Portland Oregonian published a short article profiling Pauling’s freshman physiography teacher at Washington High School, Pauline Geballe. Pauling pointed to her as one who had helped to ignite his interest in science and the two had kept in touch over the years. Geballe herself, through the League of Women Voters, was also part of the peace movement. On behalf of the group, she had recently queried Pauling for insight into questions of disarmament. Pauling responded by sending her a copy of No More War! from which Geballe read aloud the next time the group met. Geballe and her colleagues seemed to evidence that, just as he had been stating for the previous two months and likewise in his Nobel acceptance speech, Pauling was merely a representative of a much larger movement, if still a polarizing and extremely prominent one.

Pauling’s Peace Prize

On October 10, 1963, Linus Pauling received notice that he was to be history's first recipient of two unshared Nobel Prizes.

On October 10, 1963, Linus Pauling received notice that he was to be history’s first recipient of two unshared Nobel Prizes.

Like many other Nobel Prize winners, Linus Pauling discovered that he had been awarded the Peace Prize in a dramatic way. The news was announced on October 10th, 1963, while Pauling was at his Big Sur ranch – an intentionally secluded space lacking a telephone to say nothing of a television. He, Ava Helen and some friends had already planned on celebrating that morning, as October 10th would also mark the formal beginning of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which put an end to above-ground nuclear tests among the world’s major nuclear powers. As he wrote in his research notebook:

Ava Helen and I had come to the ranch with Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Durr. We had bought a bottle of champagne, which we planned to drink to celebrate the treaty. At 8:15am, as we were sitting down to breakfast, the forest ranger, Ralph Haskin, came to the cabin. He said that Linda had telephoned and had asked that Ava Helen and I both come to the ranger station and telephone her. I asked if he knew what was the matter, and he said that he thought that it wasn’t serious. (Linda had told him and asked him not to tell us.) We finished breakfast, drove to the station, and telephoned Linda. She said that I had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1962. (She first asked me if I had heard the news. I said no.) I spent most of the day at the station, answering the telephone and giving interviews. We forgot to open the champagne. On 11 October, we drove to Carmel. Ralph Atkinson had champagne at hand. It’s our first celebration.

The fact that Pauling received the 1962 prize in 1963 is extremely telling. As Pauling wrote in a confidential note to self:

On the morning of Tuesday 13 Nov., Gunnar Jahn [then chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee] telephoned me at the Bristol Hotel, Oslo, and asked us to come to his office at 11 A.M. There he said to Ava Helen and me, in the presence of his secretary, Mrs. Elna Poppe, “I tried to get the Committee…to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 1962 to you; I think you are the most outstanding peace worker in the world. But only one of the four would agree with me. I then said to them ‘If you won’t give it to Pauling, there won’t be any Peace Prize this year.'”

And indeed there was not.


Life magazine, October 25, 1963.

Life magazine, October 25, 1963.

Jahn’s conflict with his colleagues was symbolic of the differing attitudes with which news of Pauling’s Peace Prize was greeted, especially in America. While the public and many of Pauling’s friends sent him a flood of congratulatory letters and telegraphs, pro-nuclear scientists, much of the mainstream media and official agents of the U.S. government were unhappy about Pauling’s accolade.

Perhaps most famously, on October 25th, 1963, Life Magazine published an editorial titled “A Weird Insult from Norway,” which, as one might imagine, criticized the Nobel committee’s decision. The critique attacked Pauling’s prize from two directions. First, the editors pointed out that the recognition of Pauling’s peace work by the Norwegian committee was, in effect, a condemnation of contemporary research on nuclear science. The magazine argued that if efforts to ban nuclear tests were deemed worthy of respect, then efforts to promote nuclear research were conversely discredited. By this logic, Pauling’s Nobel Peace Prize was presumed to be an insult to other scientists engaged in nuclear weapons research.

Second, the Life editorial sought to undermine Pauling’s importance to the nuclear disarmament movement. The magazine stressed that the real reason why the Partial Test Ban Treaty came into being was not because Pauling’s famous 1958 appeal finally changed the minds of governments, but rather because President Kennedy’s firm stance against the construction of missile bases in Cuba during October of the previous year had, to a large degree, helped shape sentiment in favor of disarmament on a global scale.

While Pauling received many letters of support from those who were outraged by the editorial, few were quite so colorful as that penned by his friend Ernst Scharrer. Scharrer, at the time a faculty member at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, began by dismissing as folly the logic behind Life‘s critique. From there Scharrer compared the editors’ published opinion to Adolf Hitler’s response to Carl von Ossietzky’s 1935 Peace prize. As Hitler secretly began rearming Germany, in the process ignoring the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Ossietzky revealed the news to the world by publishing details of the militarization. When this effort won Ossietzky the Nobel Peace Prize, Hitler declared that, henceforth, German citizens were forbidden to accept Nobel prizes. Though of lesser consequence, Scharrer’s point was that Life‘s critique was similarly unjustified, partisan and petty.


Linus Pauling debating Edward Teller on the topic of nuclear fallout: “The Nuclear Bomb Tests…Is Fallout Overrated?” KQED-TV, San Francisco. February 20, 1958.

What explains the divergence of views over Pauling’s peace efforts? To answer this, it helps to go back to the central questions of the nuclear test debate.

Opposing viewpoints on these questions were summed up in a televised debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller titled “Fallout and Disarmament” and broadcast on San Francisco’s KQED-TV in 1958. Teller spoke for the pro-nuclear camp in first explicitly stating that, as with Pauling, peace was his goal. The focus of the controversy, then, was how best to bring about a world in peace. The conflict centered on whether the process should involve nuclear weapons. The still somewhat unknown side effects associated with the manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons also made this in an issue of pitched debate. It was known that nuclear bombs could crush islands into dust and spread them into the atmosphere over the course of a few seconds. What’s more, rare, toxic elements were also clearly created alongside the release of large amounts of radiation. But no one knew exactly what might happen to our bodies when exposed to regular, if lower, levels of these atomic-era materials.

Faced with this uncertainty, the two sides came into conflict on the question of what the development of nuclear weapons might bring to American society. Edward Teller thought them beneficial in that the ability to manufacture these massive weapons meant that the U.S. could match and possibly overcome the Soviet Union in terms of military strength. It was this balance between the two military superpowers, Teller claimed, that would guarantee peace. In the absence of this dynamic, war was presumed to be inevitable, with the side that failed to develop a matching nuclear capacity finding itself at a distinct disadvantage. For Teller, the arms race necessitated the testing of nuclear weapons. The real stake was military strength – peace was based on force. In addition, and of major consequence to his position, Teller maintained a very optimistic view on the health effects of prolonged exposure to fallout levels of radiation. He even pointed out the possibility that increased mutations resulting from fallout could be regarded as a source for enhanced evolution of species.

Pauling couldn’t have disagreed more vehemently. He thought the construction of nuclear weapons to be a bane of world society and emphasized the environmental and health costs imposed by the development of such weapons. Morality was another of Pauling’s weapons with which to attack Teller’s arguments. If it was understood that developing weapons to strengthen national security came at the cost of decreases in public health and environmental stability, the effort, even if well-intentioned, was morally corrupt and ought to be brought to a close as soon as possible. Furthermore, as a fundamental principle, world conflicts should be settled at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield. Pauling also expended much energy in compiling evidence on the ill effects of increased environmental radiation. One example that he often cited was the increase in the incidence of children born with birth defects after World War II and its nuclear conclusion. By directing his audience’s attentions to the impact of atomic gamesmanship on future generations, Pauling stressed the seriousness of the issue and re-emphasized the morality of his argument.


Editorial cartoon published in the York Gazette and Daily by Walt Partymiller, September 20, 1962.

The crux of the Pauling-Teller debate was still in play by the time that Pauling received the 1963 prize. While Life magazine was criticizing the decision of Norway’s Nobel committee to reward Pauling’s peace work, his emphasis on moral action was being enthusiastically supported by his friends and many others in the public arena. In particular, Pauling’s concern over the harmful health effects of atmospheric radiation on future generations gained a lot of attention among the public. This positive response was reflected in many letters of congratulation from ordinary people who wholeheartedly endorsed Pauling’s appeals. Typical was an October 13th, 1963 letter, written by a widow with two boys:

To me you have been vindicated in the eyes of the world. These stupid, loud-mouthed patriots, as they consider themselves, should have to eat their words. I am not a college educated person, and I do not pretend to know what the ultimate outcome of this testing program would be, but I have read enough to make me very fearful as you are. I think we all should consider the future generations – not just ourselves, as you did. But few would be as brave and heroic as you, and would ‘stick our necks out’ as you did. You are a truly great American and a great humanitarian, which is more important! Someday people will speak of you as the great man you really are. I feel so relieved that you have won this prize, as I have been very bitter over the criticism of you. I have resented it so much, but now I feel people will change in their opinion of you…if they don’t, these few ‘screwballs’ you should not care. Most of us are as happy as if we won that prize ourselves. I know I am! Usually it seems, they wait until you die to relent and say a person is truly great and deserves the highest honor. So I feel so grateful that this was done while you still can appreciate the fact that you are considered by many a hero, if there ever was one!

The contrast between the critique of Pauling’s peace prize from Life and the support that he received from much of the public displayed again the pivot point of the nuclear test debate, an issue whose resolution was still many years in the future.  For the remainder of 2013, as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of Pauling’s second Nobel award, we will explore his preparation for Oslo throughout the months of November and December 1963 as he continued to speak and write, often at great personal cost, during a turbulent time in world history.