Ava Helen Finds Her Voice

Ava Helen Pauling, 1950.

[Part 2 of 3; “The Atomic Awakening of Ava Helen Pauling,” by Ingrid Ockert]

The Dawning of the Cold War

While Ava Helen was busy volunteering for radical women’s groups in the 1940s and 1950s, she became a participant in another revolutionary group: the Atomic Scientists’ Movement. The bombing of Japan at the end of World War II left American physicists with very mixed feelings. Initially many American physicists were simply relieved to no longer be at war. I.I. Rabi, a scientist who served as the director of the defensive radar developments at MIT and worked on the Manhattan Project, remarked that he was “frankly pleased, terrified, and to an even greater extent embarrassed when contemplating the results of [my] wartime efforts.” A survey of physicists in September 1945 revealed that 66.5% of physicists approved of the government’s decision to bomb Japan.

Gradually however, these feelings of relief turned into remorse and anxiety. After all, as historian Alice Kimball Smith noted in her study of the physicists, “Scientists are for the most part human and sensitive, and if rationality served them well, it spared very few of them, sooner or later, from feelings of direct responsibility.” Even scientists like Linus Pauling, who had nothing to do with the construction of the bomb, felt in some way accountable for the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As historian Jessica Wang explains in her journal article. “Scientists and the Problem of the Public:”

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 provided a grim counterpoint to the elation with which Manhattan Project scientists had celebrated the Trinty Test a month earlier. Even as the war ended, scientists began to imagine the terrifying possibilities of the next great war.

As American soldiers returned from the battlefront, physicists returned to their pre-war duties within research laboratories. It took months for many of these physicists to process the full implications of the Manhattan Project. Feelings of guilt, anxiety, and fear began to ferment within the minds of American physicists. “As more information began to accrue about the real-world effects of the bomb, including the new threat of widespread radiation poisoning,” historian Thomas Hager summarized in his Pauling biography Force of Nature, “a sense of guilt spread across the scientific community – especially that portion involved in designing and building new weapons.” As the radioactive fallout of Hiroshima settled across the Pacific Ocean, American scientists started to take sides in the new Cold War.

The Awakening of Atomic Activists

A small group of plucky, prominent physicists, including Eugene Rabinowitch, H.H. Goldsmith, Harold C. Urey, Leo Szilard and Katherine Way advocated for international nuclear disarmament. They organized the Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS) in October 1945. The FAS united small pockets of concerned scientists, such as the Oak Ridge Engineers and Scientists and the Association of Los Alamos. The FAS intended to lead inquiries into the implications of atomic energy, shape national and international atomic policy, and raise national awareness of the potential dangers of nuclear energy. But members of FAS had an even larger ambition in mind. They sought to redefine scientists as “part of a larger public, within which [scientists] participated as equals, but offered their expertise for the purpose of information, consideration, and criticism.” Previously, scientists were isolated in laboratories and separated from the cultural implications of their technology. The FAS sought to forge a partnership between scientists and the general public. Scientists, they concluded, neither “could be or should be separated from the social and political ramifications of technological innovation.” And, by continuation, an informed public would be an empowered public that could wisely navigate through the emotional rhetoric that shaped atomic legislation.

The FAS facilitated the conciliation between scientists and the public through a strong public education campaign. The National Committee on Atomic Information, a subset of FAS that organized in November 1945, was the public face of the Atomic Scientists movement. The NCAI reached out to “labor movements, educational organizations, religious groups, and professional associations for cooperation and assistance in appealing to the public.” It connected local scientists at speaking engagements with youth groups, women’s clubs, and religious centers. The NCAI sponsored educational science fairs and distributed study kits, educational films, pamphlets, and moralistic plays. Atomic Information, the public mouthpiece for NCAI and FAS, was first printed in March 1945 and was sent out to 10 million addresses. It presented serious scientific articles alongside quirky cartoons and enthusiastic political commentary.

Charles Coryell and Linus Pauling, 1935.

The Paulings quickly became active participants of the Atomic Scientists Movement. Many of the scientists involved in the movement were good friends of the Paulings. Charles Coryell, one of the young men who founded FAS, was one of Linus’ former students. The Federation of Atomic Scientists recruited Linus as a high profile public speaker as it lobbied Congress for a civilian Atomic Energy Commission in the spring of 1946. That same spring, the director of the NCAI, Daniel Melcher, approached Albert Einstein with the idea of creating a fundraising society, chaired by scientific stars like Einstein, that would raise monetary support for the FAS directly from the American public. This society, the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, became incorporated in October of 1946. Linus Pauling eagerly accepted their invitation to join and raised money for the FAS’ public education campaign. The FAS’ successful public outreach campaign cultivated a national interest in the implications of atomic energy. The demand for scientists who could speak on atomic matters steadily increased.

Out of his own feelings of moral responsibility, Linus began accepting invitations for speaking engagements. Linus was a well-respected lecturer on scientific topics; his classroom lectures were engaging and humorous. But Linus’ first talks on the dangers of nuclear warfare were dry; he struggled to connect to a general audience over political and social issues. Fortunately, Ava Helen quickly understood what was going wrong. “You’re not convincing,” she confided to him after one lecture. “You give the audience the impression that you are not sure about what you are saying.” Working with organizations like the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union and Union Now had also taught Ava how to connect with ordinary citizens over political issues. Ava drew upon these skills as she helped teach Linus to establish a rapport with his audience. As biographer Thomas Hager describes,

Ava accompanied Pauling to almost all of his talks, sat in the front row of the audience, and listened carefully to his delivery. She also kept an eye on the room, saw what worked and what did not, and afterward critiqued his performance.

The Paulings also read up on the politics of atomic energy until Linus felt that he could confidently “speak on his own authority.” Under Ava’s watchful eye, Linus transformed from a college professor into a public scientist.

Ava Helen Finds Her Voice

Ava Helen Pauling speaking at Women Strike for Peace rally, San Francisco, August 1961.

But Ava Helen wasn’t going to let Linus have all of the fun. After years of working behind the scenes, Ava Helen finally began to give public speeches in 1957. Initially, Ava Helen gave speeches centering on the Paulings’ international travels. By the early 1960s, Ava Helen was regularly speaking to women’s clubs and religious groups on topics concerning peace, science, and women’s rights. Although Ava Helen didn’t receive the same high billing as Linus, she easily reached an audience that the FAS was eager to connect to: women. American women had become fierce cold warriors after World War II. As wives and mothers, they were expected to protect their own families and communities. The moral responsibilities of women grew during the 1960s to extend outside the home. Women needed to defend their community against any environmental hazards, like nuclear fallout or toxic pesticides. A 1962 poster advertising the group Women for Peace capitalized on these concerns, noting that fallout caused cancer in children and took money away from important social programs. A basic understanding of science became an integral part of a woman’s post-college education.

While she was initially booked for public events as “Mrs. Linus Pauling,” Ava Helen quickly developed her own persona as a public speaker. She spoke almost exclusively to middle class and educated women; commonly appearing at a luncheon for faculty wives or a tea for WILPF members. Ava Helen demurely called herself an “educated layman.” But this was certainly an understatement; Ava Helen had kept pace with her husband for many years. She enjoyed attending scientific conferences with her husband and learning about new scientific studies. Yet the lecture programs written for Ava Helen’s speeches only noted her background in chemistry, stressing her experience in laboratories. At first, it seems odd that Ava Helen would choose to downplay her education and highlight her practical experience. But most of the women who comprised her audience wouldn’t have had a formal scientific education. Some of them might have worked in scientific laboratories during World War II. Many had read articles about the importance of women in laboratories from popular magazine articles. By focusing on her practical experience, Ava Helen carefully aligned herself with her audience.

Rachel Carson.

Interestingly, Ava Helen’s public persona was similar to the persona of Rachel Carson, another successful popular science educator in the 1960s. Ava Helen deeply admired Rachel Carson and called her “fearless and brilliant.” Both Carson and Pauling promoted a “socially engaged understanding of natural sciences.” In David Hecht’s examination of Rachel Carson’s public image, he identifies her as one of the leading non-scientific icons of the environmental movement. Ironically, Hecht notes that Carson increased her scientific credibility among readers by portraying herself as a scientific outsider. As discussed above, Ava Helen had fashioned her self image in a similar way. In fact, both Carson and Pauling framed themselves not as scientists, but as “quiet teacher types.” Depictions of Rachel Carson in popular periodicals labeled her as “shy, courageous, … dutiful, ethical, or quietly farsighted [and] functioned as nonscientific elements in credentialing her as an authority.” Articles about Ava Helen ascribed the same feminine characteristics onto her. Journalists were intrigued by Ava Helen’s “quiet, mischievous strength.” They took great care to stress Ava Helen’s petite physical appearance, her devotion to family, and her supposed affinity for domestic tasks. They also emphasized her strong ethical feelings and earnest desire to educate other women. By stressing the femininity of their subjects, these articles made both women seem familiar, approachable, and trustworthy. Their non-scientific appeal allowed both Carson and Pauling to “bridge the relationship between science and its publics…and [show that] nonexperts could play actual roles in making science, not simply directing its use.”


The Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists

Group portrait of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, as published in the New York Times, November 18, 1946.

Perhaps my own work for world peace would not have been very effective if I had not been invited to become a member of the board of trustees of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists … Before then, I had made some public talks about nuclear weapons and nuclear war; but it was Einstein’s example that inspired my wife and me to devote energy and effort to pacifist activities.

-Linus Pauling, 1992

Largely as a result of efforts made by renowned physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, an organization was formed in 1946 to aid public understanding of pressing atomic issues. It was called the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS), and its main function ultimately was to raise and direct funds for public education.  Along with Einstein and Szilard, the group’s trustees included Harold Urey, Hans Bethe, Thorfin Hogness, Philip Morse, Victor Weisskopf and Linus Pauling.

Until two atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese cities, the American public had been essentially unaware of the unprecedented advances being made by atomic scientists. In light of this general gap in knowledge, members of the ECAS sought to inform the general public about international atomic policy and the magnitude of the danger that atomic weapons posed to human beings everywhere. With Einstein serving as its active chairman, and a well-known group of scientists backing him up, the committee launched its appeals for support.

From its beginning, the ECAS attempted to further understanding of the atomic era, rather than serve as a body which sought to either make or influence policy. As was often present in their solicitations and public releases, the committee listed a set of facts that they claimed were accepted by all scientists. As listed in the group’s “Statement of Purpose,” these facts included the following:

  1. Atomic bombs can now be made cheaply and in large number. They will become more destructive.
  2. There is no military defense against atomic bombs, and none is to be expected.
  3. Other nations can rediscover our secret processes by themselves.
  4. Preparedness against atomic war is futile and, if attempted, will ruin the structure of our social order.
  5. If war breaks out, atomic bombs will be used, and they will surely destroy our civilization.
  6. There is no solution to this problem except international control of atomic energy and, ultimately, the elimination of war.

Shortly after its formation, the ECAS became a working committee within the Federation of American Scientists, following the restructuring of the Federation in 1947. Aside from providing funding for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and its sponsoring Federation of American Scientists, the ECAS lent substantial support to the National Committee on Atomic Information. The National Committee on Atomic Information was a grouping of over 60 national organizations, and millions of members, who shared the common purpose of improving communications between atomic scientists and the public.

Promotional image for “Atomic Power!” a newsreel produced under the “March of Time” imprint, 1946.

Laden as it was with a distinguished membership, the ECAS enjoyed substantial coverage in the mainstream news, especially during the enthusiastic initial days of the committee’s establishment. As a result, the committee was provided with many opportunities to present carefully crafted platform statements in the form of press releases. The committee also produced several films and organized a number of conferences that advocated creation of a world government.  Their most common practice, however, remained the public release of materials that warned against nuclear war and the dangers of extreme nationalism.

The committee was officially disbanded in 1951, nearly five years after its formation. In his book No More War!, Linus Pauling wrote that the committee ceased to function in 1950, largely because of the strain it put on Albert Einstein. And though the burden placed on Einstein was likely a contributing factor, the demise of the organization was at heart more political and financial.

As donations in support of nuclear non-proliferation activism began to diminish, the committee found itself unable to provide support for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Even the costs of special committee meetings began to impose a great strain on the organization’s operating funds.

Perhaps more importantly, as the rift between the United States and the Soviet Union continued to grow, members of the committee found it increasingly difficult to reach consensus among themselves. In particular, many committee members harbored strong and opposing views concerning the U.S. government’s intention to develop and produce the hydrogen bomb. Likewise, while the committee agreed in general that some form of world government was necessary to prevent atomic war, opinions contrasted sharply on the question of how such a system should be organized and implemented.

In a letter marked August 16, 1951, Linus Pauling was asked for his signature to legally disband the committee, and the final meeting of the Board of Trustees was held on September 8.

After disbandment, Pauling continued to communicate with several former committee members, especially Albert Einstein. On November 16, 1954, not long after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Pauling made his final visit to Einstein in Princeton, New Jersey. According to notes made by Pauling after his visit, the two talked about a range of familiar topics, including atomic weapons, foreign policy and their former committee. Einstein also told Pauling that his one great mistake in life was signing a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, recommending that the United States proceed with the development of atomic weapons.

Though Pauling was, more often than not, absent from official committee meetings and functions, the lessons that he learned as a member of the ECAS stayed with him for the rest of his life.  So too, as it turns out, did a large cache of records created by the committee.  When Albert Einstein died in 1955, his personal ECAS files were turned over to Frank Aydelotte, an erstwhile head of Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study, when Einstein worked in his final years.  Upon Aydelotte’s death shortly thereafter, Einstein’s personal files were sent to Linus Pauling.  They are now part of the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers.

The Federation of American Scientists

Honorary Membership Card, Federation of American Scientists -- Los Angeles Chapter. 1962.

“We feel strongly that the university people of America must use their knowledge and their influence to assist in the formulation of sound international and national policy to give permanent security in progress and peace.”

– Charles D. Coryell, “To the Scientists who have endorsed the formation of the Federation of Atomic Scientists,” December 13, 1945

After two American atom bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945, the world was both shocked and intrigued by the destructive force that had been unleashed. At the same time, many of the atomic scientists that were involved with the creation of the bombs at Los Alamos were soon devastated. Though they had carefully formulated the destructive energy that was to be released by the bombs, actually seeing the ruin left in their wake was a different experience entirely. Certain of these scientists, many of whom had already been involved in discreet discussion about the impact of this new atomic science, decided that something had to be done. Their general goal was to educate the public about the effects and implications of this mysterious new technology.

The concerned scientists began their task in small steps. First, they held informal discussions about the potential peril of aggressive atomic policy and disseminated information to the public through speeches and written material. Out of this emerged the Federation of American Scientists, formed in 1945 – a loose association of sixteen member associations from around the country.

The scientists were soon forced into action, responding to a bill that was being deliberated by Congress. Under the controversial proposed legislation, titled the May-Johnson bill after its sponsors, it was argued that little would stop the military from dominating the affairs of atomic energy and science. The Federation of American Scientists, and a number of small discussion groups from around the country including the Association of Pasadena Scientists, joined together to inform the congressional debate and to influence the legislation.

A splinter group, the Federation of Atomic Scientists formed as a result in 1946.  Its main objectives were to hinder further use of atomic weapons and to establish a cooperative system of international control to safeguard world peace. Aside from basic moral objections, the group argued that the American monopoly over atomic technology would be fleeting, and that continued development of nuclear weapons would lead to a global arms race.

As debate raged on, the newly risen advocacy groups helped to create a bill in opposition to May-Johnson, called the McMahon bill, that would place civilian scientists in charge of atomic energy development in the U.S., and create an Atomic Energy Commission. Though consensus within the scientific community was split between the two bills, McMahon eventually won out and was made into law.

During the next couple of years, many scientists that had gotten involved with atomic politics began to focus once again on conventional research and experimentation. Having played its part in the defeat of the May-Johnson bill, the Federation of American Scientists and other groups saw an precipitous drops in membership levels. As funding sources dried up and agendas became less clear, the Federation of Atomic Scientists and a number of other associations, including the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, melded together under the banner of the Federation of American Scientists. This transformation allowed a number of loosely connected partnerships to be re-fashioned, and it was decided that the main group focus would be that of an educational organization.

Under its new structure, the Federation of American Scientists continued its advocacy and initiated publication of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, famous for its “Doomsday Clock.” During this process of revitalization, the Federation developed more cohesive guidelines and chartered a revised constitution. In a document released by the Federation in 1949, the aims and trajectory of the organization were explicitly detailed:

The Federation of American Scientists is formed to meet the increasingly apparent responsibility of scientists in promoting the welfare of mankind and the achievement of a stable world peace. . . The need for a more active political role of scientists has been brought into sharp focus by the atomic bomb. An immediate concern of the Federation must therefore be the problem of atomic energy.

The Federation continued to educate others about the biological effects of nuclear detonations, and served as a forum for concerned scientists. The group stood actively against the use of atomic weapons for destructive purposes, focusing in particular on radioactive fallout and the horrifying dangers inherent to nuclear conflict. The Federation also advocated for nuclear test-ban agreements, though its positions were often more moderate than the views expressed by Linus Pauling and others.

Though Pauling was typically in agreement with the general activities and agenda of the Federation of American Scientists, he spent very little time actually working with the organization. He maintained consistent contact with its members, was a sponsoring member of the Los Angeles chapter, and received the Federation newsletters. He was also a member of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists – which became a working committee of the overall organization under Albert Einstein – but he was rarely present for meetings or events. Pauling also read and kept several issues of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and remained connected to the organization in some form or another for most of his life.

As time went on however, there areas of substantial disagreement emerged between the man and the Federation, especially as Pauling became a more polarizing figure in American politics. In particular Pauling was at odds with the Federation of American Scientists and many within the scientific community, when a majority of scientists began to accept the re-escalation of atomic bomb testing in the 1960s.

As anti-communist sentiments and increased opposition to peaceful relations with the Soviet Union rose, the influence of the FAS began to diminish. As the years passed, the organization evolved and adapted to changing circumstances, undergoing a number of substantial changes. In the latter part of the 20th century, it was decided that the organization should become more multi-disciplinary, and associate with a number of organizations with similar aims. In its own words, the Federation of American Scientists now “provides timely, nonpartisan technical analysis on complex global issues that hinge on science and technology.” Though some focus remains on atomic weapons, the organization now tackles a myriad of issues, thus continuing a tradition started by concerned scientists over sixty years ago.

For more on the early development of the Federation of American Scientists, see the website Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.

Scientific Discussion Groups and the May-Johnson Bill

Leslie R. Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1940s.

We are all very busy here working against the May-Johnson bill. The men are pretty well organized and all of us are asked to give a lot of talks over the radio and to various organizations in the city. I have already given two this week and have to give two more, but these efforts seem to be bearing some fruit because it appears now as though Congress will not railroad this bill at least as had been originally planned by the War Department.

-Thorfin Hogness, letter to Linus Pauling, October 24, 1945

Shortly after the end of World War II in 1945, the future of America’s atomic policy was in the midst of formulation. Though the fate of atomic weapons programs warranted substantial attention, the future of atomic energy and research proved to be a far more contentious issue. In order to address needs that were becoming increasingly apparent, General Leslie R. Groves, overseer of the Manhattan Project scientists, helped the War Department draft a bill.

Under this bill, which attempted to satisfy both scientists and the military, development of atomic energy was to be put under the jurisdiction of a nine member panel, made up of scientists and military men, which would report directly to a permanent and full-time administrator. The proposal, called May-Johnson after its co-sponsors, appeared to include adequate mechanisms for civilian involvement, and several influential scientists lent it their support. Accordingly the bill passed through the House Military Affairs Committee very quickly and without much debate.

However, the lack of more comprehensive discussion for such important legislation caused a wave of alarm among many in the scientific community, certain of whom felt the idea to be deeply flawed. It was argued that little would keep the military from taking control of the nine member panel if it wished to do so, and it appeared that General Groves was being groomed for the position of panel administrator. Dr. Harold Urey, a Nobel Prize recipient, had a particular lack of fondness for the legislation, referring to it in a New York Times article as  “the first totalitarian bill ever written by Congress. You can call it a Communist bill or a Nazi bill, whichever you think is worse.”

Harold Urey, 1930s

Scientific discussion groups that had formed at Caltech began considering the subject more earnestly. The Association of Pasadena Scientists was formed around this time, “to meet the increasingly apparent responsibility of scientists in promoting the welfare of mankind and the achievement of a stable world peace.” The leaders of the group, and a substantial portion of its membership, were opposed to the May-Johnson legislation. As time went on, similar groups began sprouting up in the area, including the Northern California Association of Scientists in Berkeley.

Around the time that May-Johnson was being debated, a number of incidences occurred which cast doubt upon the military’s capability to responsibly direct post-war, non-military, scientific activities. Of particular concern to the fledgling discussion groups and to scientists on either side of the Pacific, was the destruction of several Japanese cyclotrons by American occupation forces. The devices had been built for strictly peaceful research purposes, and the decision to dismantle the devices fueled flames that were already growing against the May-Johnson bill.

As consensus coalesced between the different scientific discussion groups, they merged together and formed the Federation of American Scientists. Members of the new organization, and many other scientists, traveled to Washington where they lobbied public officials to fight against the bill. Another bill, which received input from the Federation of American Scientists during its formation, added a fresh element to the growing maelstrom. The new legislation, named the McMahon Bill after its sponsor, outlined a proposal for an Atomic Energy Commission that would be led by a panel of full-time, presidentially appointed, civilian scientists. Fierce debate over the two bills created many deep divisions within the scientific community.

May-Johnson was supported primarily by scientists and civilians who thought that sharing responsibility for atomic decisions with the military, private industry and government officials was reasonable as well as necessary. They seemed to agree that the bill could benefit from revision, but that, as currently written, it included adequate safeguards and representation for the public and the scientific community.

Supporters of the McMahon Bill were much more skeptical of significant military influence over the future of atomic science. Bell Telephone Laboratories head and National Academy of Sciences President, Frank Jewett, supported McMahon, as did some of the atom bomb’s developers. Linus Pauling also lent the bill his support.

As time went on, and both bills maneuvered through congressional committees, support for McMahon began to grow as lobbying pressure and concerns from the electorate gradually swayed the opinions of important political leaders. In the end, the McMahon bill was revised to include language that gave the military some input in the proposed Atomic Energy Commission, and the bill was passed by Congress. Members of the FAS, the APS and all of the McMahon bill’s supporters rejoiced after their victory.

With the bill’s passing it seemed that political leaders who had supported the bill were also beginning to support further cooperation with the Soviet Union. To many involved with the process, world peace appeared eminent. However, new pressures and perspectives were beginning to take hold of public discourse, and a number of opposing interests began to emerge. The environment that had allowed for open debate and defeat of the May-Johnson bill would soon be subject to dramatic change.

For more on the scientific community’s response to May-Johnson, see the website Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.