Mary Mitchell, Resident Scholar


Mary Mitchell

Mary Mitchell, a doctoral candidate in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, recently completed her term as Resident Scholar in the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Center.  Mitchell is the first of the 2014-15 class of Resident Scholars to complete her work here in Corvallis.

Mitchell’s research subject was the Fallout Suits, a topic that has been examined by two previous resident scholars, Toshihiro Higuchi (2009) and Linda Richards (2011).  However, where Higuchi examined this chapter of Pauling’s activism through the lense of environmental impact and Richards viewed the case as an instance of early human rights intervention, Mitchell, who has a background in law, is interested in the broader socio-legal milieu that surrounded the Paulings and their allies as they pursued their objectives.

The Fallout Suits can trace their origin to March 1st, 1954, when the United States tested the most powerful bomb ever to be exploded. The site for test Castle Bravo was Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, then a U.S. territory. The blast came from a hydrogen bomb and was seen over 100 miles away. Radioactive debris from the test exploded high into the atmosphere and spread across the Pacific Ocean, carried by wind and water and causing damage to fisheries and ecosystems across the region.

"Castle Bravo," the first hydrogen bomb test, March 1, 1954. (U. S. Dept. of Energy photograph)

“Castle Bravo,” the first hydrogen bomb test, March 1, 1954. (U. S. Dept. of Energy photograph)

The strength and destructive power of the blast far exceeded the expectations of the scientists who developed the bomb and quickly became an issue of international attention, mainly due to concerns over the spread of radioactive debris – fallout – which resulted from the test. Activists who saw radioactive fallout as a threat to the health and well-being of the public began to protest the continuation of these tests, leading at one point to a series of lawsuits filed against the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain.

This bundle of litigation, which sought to obtain judicial restraint to end nuclear weapons tests, quickly became known as the Fallout Suits.  The American plaintiffs were Linus Pauling, Karl Paul Link, Leslie C. Dunn, Norman Thomas, Stephanie May and William Bross Lloyd Jr.  This group was joined by several additional plaintiffs from Japan and Great Britain.

Mitchell’s research indicates that, during this chapter of the Cold War, Pauling was able to voice his opinions in a more successful way than was the case for lower-profile scientists of the time. While Pauling was indeed tracked by the FBI, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and other U.S. government entities hellbent on sussing out communist activities, Mitchell suggests that Pauling’s celebrity was both “his sword and shield” throughout the struggle. Pauling’s receipt of the Nobel Prize for chemistry and the fame that came with it protected him, at least to a degree, from being quieted as easily as was the case for other citizens at the time. Yet Pauling could not argue alone; in his fight against government policy he would need the support of other scientists to provide not only their opinion, but also their research, showing that nuclear testing is a threat to the public.

According to Mitchell, this strategy in Pauling’s fight against nuclear testing stemmed from his belief that democracy was only complete when citizens are given complete information in order to participate in the politics of their nation. As a scientist, Pauling knew that while nuclear testing could strengthen the military power of the United States, there were much broader consequences to this practice. He believed that the public should be informed about the dangers of nuclear testing and that the citizens of the United States should have a voice in determining whether or not these tests should continue. Pauling was especially firm in his belief that, as citizens, scientists should participate in public affairs by providing the public with information that would help individuals to make informed decisions when exercising their democratic rights.

Fallout Suits brochure, 1958.

Fallout Suits brochure, 1958.

Though they gained the support of other scientists, the plaintiffs behind the Fallout Suits lost without even getting a trial; the courts took a stance on issues of justiciability (limitations on issues over which a court can exercise its authority) and standing (appropriateness of a party initiating a legal action) in dismissing the lawsuits. Additional Marshallese lawsuits were dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiffs were not U.S. nationals, even though the Marshall Islands were a territory of the United States.

Mitchell concluded her Resident Scholar talk by noting that, despite their ineffectiveness in compelling immediate government action to reduce nuclear testing, the Fallout Suits led to “new forms of participatory democracy, stretching trans-nationally across the Pacific Ocean,” forms of democracy which “had risen from the ashes of America’s testing program.”  Moving forward, Mitchell will continue to dig into the research that she conducted at OSU as she develops her dissertation on legal challenges to atmospheric testing.

For more on the Resident Scholar Program, now in its seventh year, please see the program homepage and our continuing series of posts on this blog.

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Linda Richards, Resident Scholar

Linda Richards.

Linda Richards, doctoral candidate in the history of science at Oregon State University, is the first individual to have completed a term as an OSU Libraries Resident Scholar in 2012.  Steeped in the tradition of the activist-scholar, Richards has been discussing nuclear history, environmental justice and non-violent conflict resolution for over twenty-five years.  During her residency, Richards continued her investigations into these themes using the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, the History of Atomic Energy Collection and the Bart and Sally Hacker Papers.

Titled “Starfish, Fallout Suits, and Human Rights,” Richards’ Resident Scholar presentation started from the premise that “how nuclear history is told matters.”  In exploring this idea, Richards introduced her audience to a number of events important to the history of nuclear energy that were likely unknown to most in attendance.

One such incident is the United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock uranium mine contamination, the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history, which occurred in New Mexico on the Navajo Reservation in July 1979.  The disaster badly contaminated the reservation’s scarce water supply with radioactive pollutants flowing some seventy miles down the Puerco River.  The event took place just a few months after the Three Mile Island accident, but is far less well known to the general public.  As Richards noted

What I have found so far in my research confirms, as Gabrielle Hecht suggested, that radiation health safety is more a reflection of the value of what is being irradiated than how dangerous a substance is….I have [also] found nuclear history is most often told as a technocratic saga of nation states pursuing nuclear weapons superiority and energy independence. This narrative is incomplete because it not only separates the glitz of modern reactors from the rocks and dirt of uranium mines hiding what is polluting and harmful about nuclear technology, but it is missing the dimension of lived human experience, particularly of indigenous peoples’ physical and cultural interaction with nuclear technology.

In her discussion of Linus Pauling’s activism in opposition to atmospheric nuclear testing (including his involvement in the Fallout Suits) Richards likewise introduced a number of historical events that do not typically make their way into the shorthand version of nuclear history.

For example, in May 1958 James Van Allen announced his finding that the Earth is surrounded by belts of high-energy particles that are held in place by magnetic fields – the so-called “Van Allen Belts.”  That very same day, Van Allen signed an agreement to work with the military to test nuclear weapons high in space for purposes of studying the disruption of the belts and of military communication during the event of a nuclear war.  Historian James Fleming was later quoted, “this is the first occasion I’ve ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up.”

The most intensely disruptive and longest lasting of these tests was the 1.4-megaton Starfish Prime explosion, which occurred on July 9, 1962. The artificial extension of the Van Allen belts created by the test could be seen across the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand, lighting up the night sky. The test damaged six satellites that all failed within six months. The explosion also created an electromagnetic pulse that blew out transformers on Hawaii and disrupted the electricity grid.

Richards also recounted, in alarming detail, the extent to which nuclear testing in the 1960s became increasingly extreme.  The largest nuclear device ever detonated was the Soviet’s Tzar Bomba, a 50-megaton bomb tested some eight months before Starfish Prime.  A graphic presented by Richards illustrated the magnitude of this detonation in stark terms.

The impact of the release of radioactive toxins into the environment was a source of great concern to Linus Pauling and is still being studied today.  By some estimates, radioactive fallout will cause around 430,000 fatal cancers by the end of this century.

And it is this human element that, Richards argues, must be included in contemporary historical writing on the nuclear age.  “My dissertation,” she concluded “is premised on the belief that including a human rights dimension into the nuclear narrative destabilizes the disempowerment of an inaccessible technocratic narrative while raising the questions that need to be asked of history.”

For more on the Resident Scholar Program, now entering its fifth year, please see the program homepage and our continuing series of posts on this blog.

Pauling and Environmental Justice

Promotional flyer for Linus Pauling's Verve recording on fallout and nuclear warfare. 1960.

(Ed. note: Toshihiro Higuchi of Georgetown University, a 2009 Pauling Resident Scholar award winner, spent a month in Oregon State University’s Valley Library this past summer working with the Pauling Papers. The following is excerpted from his final research report.)

Archival research is always full of unexpected discoveries about the past, and my project at OSU was no exception. Of particular surprise was Linus Pauling’s deep involvement in environmental justice through the Fallout Suits, twice attempted in 1958 and in 1962.

While the courts of justice have always marked turning points in the history of racial and gender justice – Brown v. Board and Roe v. Wade, to name but a few – “an appeal to law” has been long underappreciated among scholars in their studies of peace activism and environmentalism. Pauling’s Fallout Suits, indeed, are usually considered as a sideshow overshadowed by his more famous worldwide petition campaign among scientists.

Two archival boxes in the Pauling papers regarding the Suits, however, revealed the judicial aspect of Pauling’s risk knowledge and grassroots activism regarding the danger of radioactive fallout.


Fallout Suits brochure, 1958.

While both the executive and legislative branches adopted a “wait and see” policy in hope of ascertaining the nature and extent of fallout hazards, Pauling and other “risk entrepreneurs,” acting against the inertia in the majority opinion and the pressure of time, found the judiciary branch as the only untried venue of power. The courts of justice alone could establish a legal fact about hazards and link it to an immediate action – injunction. This unique character of the judiciary power was believed to break the impasse in the other branches because of the inconclusiveness of scientific proof.

The legal recourse, however, was by no means simply tactical. The plaintiffs identified the legal source of the fallout problem – it was the conflict of interest and the absence of due process of law which placed the atomic energy agencies of all three nuclear powers above the rule of law in the name of national security. In the course of the legal fight, the plaintiffs in the Fallout Suits also posed a fundamental challenge to court jurisprudence. The unprecedented nature and scope of risk involved in nuclear fallout pointed to a new direction of jurisprudence beyond the traditional tort law.

The Fallout Suits, in short, aimed at no less than a sweeping legal groundwork for environmental justice at the time when there was no National Environmental Protection Act. Indeed, some archival findings revealed an unknown parallelism between the Fallout Suits and the DDT litigation, both intending to bring about a groundbreaking change in court jurisprudence.


Autoradiograph used to measure radioactive fallout, 1953.

My study in Corvallis also points to a promising direction of future research: the life-long association of Linus Pauling with litigation. Without doubt, many remember such an association as an unnecessary burden upon Pauling, as most cases related to libel and defamation.

As the case of the Fallout Suits vividly shows, however, Pauling was far from a passive victim in the courts. Indeed, Pauling successfully threatened to bring the case to court at the same time that the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee was using the tactics of red-baiting in its attempt to force him to disclose the names of those who collected signatures for the United Nations Bomb Test petition.

In the course of his involvement in numerous legal cases, Pauling became extremely well-versed with legal resources and approaches. Indeed, the Pauling papers include a vast amount of material relating to Pauling’s legal cases. Further research on this legal dimension of Pauling’s life and career would promise fruitful results.

Toshihiro Higuchi, Resident Scholar

Toshihiro Higuchi

Toshihiro Higuchi

Toshihiro Higuchi is the second individual this year to conduct research in Special Collections under the sponsorship of our Resident Scholar Program.

Originally from Japan, Higuchi first attended the University of Tsukuba on the Japanese island of Honshu. In 2002 he graduated with an M.A. in International Political Economy, after which he again entered the University of Tsukuba, this time in the Ph. D. program. During his second year as a doctoral candidate, Higuchi received a Fulbright award that presented him with the opportunity to study in the United States, something he had always wanted to do. In August of 2005, he enrolled at Georgetown University, where he is now in his fifth year as a Ph. D. candidate in the History department.

The research that Higuchi is conducting here in Special Collections is related to a portion of his dissertation work, a primary focus of which is the evolution of environmental consciousness in the United States and around the world. Higuchi’s thesis is that the fierce debate in the 1950s over the effects of radioactive fallout generated by nuclear weapons tests  (tests which presented the first instance of measurable global contamination and thus the first global environmental crisis) helped to inform later attitudes underlying not only peace activism, but also the environmental movement.

The Fallout Suits

One key aspect of Higuchi’s research in the Pauling Papers has been a study of a lesser-known component of Pauling’s peace work: the Fallout Suits. Filed in 1958, the Fallout Suits sought to utilize the court systems of the three nuclear powers (the U.S., Great Britain and the U.S.S.R.) to compel each nation to cease their nuclear weapons tests programs. The plaintiffs in these cases included well-known figures such as Pauling, Bertrand Russell and Canon L. John Collins, as well as an American housewife and three Japanese fishermen, all of whom were meant to represent differing perspectives on the dangers of radioactive fallout.

Having retained the council of lawyers Francis Heisler and A. L. Wirin, the backers of the Fallout Suits had three goals in mind. First, they sought to obtain court orders that would compel the governments of the nuclear powers to release secret information detailing the hazards of nuclear weapons tests. Using this information, they hoped that the courts would, either directly or indirectly, redefine the risk consensus associated with nuclear testing, which would then lead to new directives meant to address these risks. The ultimate goal was a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons tests.

Philosophically, the plaintiffs argued that weapons tests were, in fact, illegal, because government agencies such as the Atomic Energy Commission had been granted powers that effectively rendered them autonomous and unaccountable to the rest of the democratic process. Furthermore, because tests were conducted without the express consent of the world’s population, and because the presumably harmful effects of testing (the plaintiffs argued that there was no safe dosage of radiation as it pertained to any potential impact on the pool of human germ plasm) clearly spread beyond the borders of nations, nuclear testing violated the constitutional and human rights of all individuals.

The U.S. government, acting as defendant in the U.S. filing, responded by admitting to certain of the plaintiffs facts regarding the potential effects of weapons tests, but also by submitting that the plaintiffs had no legal standing to sue. The defense argued that the question of weapons testing was not judiciable and that testing, like war, was in fact protected by the constitution.

The Fallout Suits did go to trial in the U.S. and the U.K., and in both instances the courts sided with the defense. In the U.S. the judges ruled according to a narrow interpretation of tort law; in simplest terms, because none of the individual plaintiffs could prove that they themselves had been harmed by nuclear weapons tests, none of those individuals had a right to sue. (A group of Marshall Islanders, on the other hand, who had been manifestly harmed by tests in the south Pacific, were not allowed to sue because of their status in the U.S. as non-resident aliens.) A similar interpretation was upheld in Great Britain and the Suits never made it to trial in the Soviet Union.

Higuchi with Judith and Peter Freeman, sponsors of the Resident Scholar Program.

Higuchi with Judith and Peter Freeman, sponsors of the Resident Scholar Program.

Though the Fallout Suits did not succeed, Higuchi argues that they did help establish a template for later successful activism. In a literal sense, Vietnam War-era litigation concerning the harmful effects of Agent Orange did gain traction as did other efforts carried out by the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. Furthermore, in terms of constructing a narrative powerful enough to grasp the imagination of large groups of people, Higuchi points out that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, just four years after the Fallout Suits were filed, draws many comparisons between the deleterious effects of DDT and earlier claims regarding nuclear fallout issued by Pauling and others.  Clearly, while the Suits themselves did not meet with success, their impact was felt for many years to follow.

To learn more about the Fallout Suits, read this draft press release announcing the suits, as included on our website Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.  A profile of Dr. Burt Davis, an earlier recipient of the Resident Scholarship, is available here.