Pauling’s Tumultuous Year as President of the American Chemical Society

[An analysis of Linus Pauling’s tenure as President of the ACS, published on the seventy-year anniversary of his holding the office. This is part 1 of 4.]

Linus Pauling was elected future president of the American Chemical Society in December 1947. In that capacity, he served as the society’s president-elect for 1948 – during which time he was living in England as a visiting professor at Oxford – and officially took up his post as president in 1949. He formally assumed office on January 1, 1949, with Ernest H. Volwiler serving as the president-elect for the year.

The news of Pauling’s election as ACS president was widely publicized in early 1948, with one short announcement reading:

Chemist’s Chief – Dr. Linus C. Pauling, chairman of the division of chemistry and chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, has been elected president of the American Chemical Society. One of the world’s leading theoretical chemists, he was chosen in a national mail ballot of the society’s 55,000 members.

This same account was used in multiple newspapers with only slight variations. Chemical and Engineering News, one of the ACS’s signature publications, released a slightly longer announcement in 1949 describing Pauling’s achievements in the field, including his academic positions past and present, and his laundry list of awards and honorary degrees.

News of his election was initially well-received by scientists both within the society and outside of it, and Pauling received letters of congratulation from many of his new constituents expressing their excitement at being led by a chemist of such high ability and international renown. However, as seemed to always be the case with Linus Pauling, his political stances quickly became a point of contention between himself and others within the ACS.

While many members wrote to Pauling expressing their joy at the election of a political liberal (one correspondent, Bernard L. Oser of Food Research Laboratories, Inc., wrote that “The ACS has done honor unto itself by handing the gavel to a great liberal as well as a great chemist”) a larger and more vocal group of society members quickly withdrew their support. Indeed, Pauling’s liberal politics and anti-war work would keep him under near-constant scrutiny for the duration of his presidential year.

Henry A. Wallace

In November 1948, near the end of Pauling’s stint as president-elect, the first of the political controversies arose. In this instance, the catalyst was a pamphlet featuring Pauling’s name at the top of a list of sponsors endorsing presidential candidate Henry Wallace. Wallace had served as vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt and ran in the 1948 election as the Progressive Party nominee.

When he learned of the pamphlet, Henry C. Wing, the chairman of the ACS Board of Directors, wrote a letter to Pauling reprimanding him for publicly supporting Wallace, who had been accused of displaying Communist sympathies. In the letter, Wing suggested that “…your action has impaired the high position of our Society in the eyes of Congress and the nation, as it is impossible for you to separate your actions as an individual from that of the President of the Society.” Wing then warned that “There can be no question concerning the loyalty to the United States of the vast majority of the members of the Society…” and notified Pauling that his behavior would be discussed at the next section meeting.

Other ACS members wrote to the Board expressing similar concerns. One member, R.H Sawyer, summed up the views of others in asserting that, although Pauling’s name on the pamphlet was in no way overtly connected to the ACS (his professional associations were not listed), it still reflected badly on the society to have its members endorsing such politics. Sawyer then theorized that perhaps Pauling’s name had been used without his consent and called upon Pauling to confirm or deny his endorsement of Wallace. “Should [Pauling] fail or refuse to do so,” Sawyer warned, “I call upon the American chemist to repudiate as a political crack-pot the man they have honored as a scientist by election to the office of President Elect of the American Chemical Society.”

A different ACS member, M.L. Crossley, offered a similar complaint, explaining that:

…I shudder to think of what some of the radio commentators may do with the information that the President of the American Chemical Society is a sponsor of the Wallace-Marcantonio brand of politics. I register now and ever the strongest protest against any action by an officer of the American Chemical Society which may be used to convey the impression that I as a scientist and a member of the American Chemical Society subscribe to such a brand of dangerous, fanatical philosophy of government. I am a true American, believing in the principles of the philosophy of our democracy which has made this country the greatest land of freedom and opportunity the world has ever known.

While Sawyer and Crossley wrote to members of the ACS administration, others chose to address Pauling directly. These letters of criticism complained about his political views and expressed surprise that a man as intelligent as himself would be so liberal. The correspondents also requested that he release a statement clarifying his political views, and some even called for his resignation as president-elect.

Dr. Louise Kelly was one such author, lamenting to Pauling that “Having in the past had a high regard for your intellectual ability…” she was appalled to receive the pamphlet and find out that he was a Wallace supporter. Kelly continued,

I can understand why certain types of individuals, whose mental processes (I refuse to employ the word “thinking”) are as confused as those of Mr. Wallace, have been converted into followers of his, but I am at a loss to comprehend your position.

Pauling did not deign to accommodate requests for his resignation or to issue a public statement on his views, but he did reply to the letters that were sent directly to him. Confident as ever, Pauling answered Dr. Kelly’s letter by requesting that she re-evaluate her refusal to use the word “thinking” in conjunction with Wallace supporters, writing “I assume that you consider me to be a reasonably clear-headed fellow.” He finished by assuring her that there was no need to be shocked and appalled – his political leanings had never been a secret, and he promised that “I haven’t changed much in recent years, except that my health is not so good as it once was, my hair is getting thin on top, and my social conscience has grown a great deal.”

Dr. Joel Hildebrand had also written directly to Pauling critiquing his political views, portraying Wallace as an idiot and a wannabe-dictator, and insulting Pauling’s intelligence for supporting him. Although Wallace ultimately accumulated just a small share of the popular vote in the 1948 election, Democrat Harry S. Truman’s victory over Thomas Dewey informed Pauling’s somewhat sarcastic response to Hildebrand. “The presidential election was great fun,” Pauling quipped. “I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed anything more than the upset of the Republicans.” Pauling concluded his letter by casually informing Hildebrand that Ava Helen had broken a bone in her ankle.

Although the ACS was officially a non-political organization, the bulk of its membership seems to have been politically conservative. The response that Pauling received to his endorsement of Henry Wallace is illustrative. In reality, Wallace’s platform was not Communist, but forward-thinking and focused on social justice. Wallace called Truman’s government war-mongering and hypocritical for pushing universal military training and a draft system while veterans returned from war were rendered homeless and unemployed. Wallace also believed that war profiteering on Wall Street was a source of the country’s increasing militarism. Wallace likewise viewed the Marshall Plan as a tool for the U.S. to cement political and economic control of Western Europe; he encouraged aid for Europe but wanted to work through the United Nations to insure that support was provided with “no political strings attached.”

Wallace campaigned for world peace and civil rights for minority communities, and his platform included calls for desegregation and anti-lynching laws, outlawing the poll-tax, and providing federal inspections of polling places to ensure fair voting conditions. He also pushed for a fair employment practices act, desegregation of the government and armed forces, and the withdrawal of federal aid from any institution engaging in discriminatory practices. He advocated for the end of Jim Crow legislation and sought to eliminate discrimination against African Americans, Jews, and “citizens of foreign descent.”

Pauling strongly believed that his actions as an individual remained separate from his role as ACS president so long as he did not leverage his position in order to support his political views. To this end, he made a point of not listing his academic or professional affiliations whenever he allowed his name to be used for political ends. He pointed out that he had never kept his views a secret and that his election had nothing to do with his politics.

In their exchange of letters, R.H. Sawyer retaliated that most of the society members who voted for Pauling would not have done so had they known of his political affiliations. Whether or not Sawyer was right, the Wallace affair was the first taste of a continuing conflict between Pauling and the ACS that would taint his entire presidential year.

The California State Investigating Committee on Education

Senator Donnelly: I think a good many taxpayers of the state of California feel perhaps we can get along without some of the higher education better than we can by having our children indoctrinated with communism and the professors in a subtle way instilling it into the minds of the children when they are in a formative stage.

Linus Pauling: Yes. You believe it is not right to adhere to the principles of democracy.

Senator Donnelly: No, I did not say anything such as that. I don’t believe any such thing.

Pauling: The right decision to be made is from the average decisions of all people without precluding those whom you would suppress because of their opinion and political beliefs.

Senator Donnelly: That is entirely a different manner, for a person to have an opinion and then to take a position of trust such as teachers have. As one of the…I don’t think it is necessary to have that kind of teacher.

Pauling: Good. Then if you have any case of a teacher of that sort, why not bring them before the board and present evidence?

-Excerpt from State of California’s Ninth Report of the Senate Investigating Committee on Education, 1950.

In 1950, the same year that his associate Sidney Weinbaum was convicted of perjury, Linus Pauling became increasingly involved with the controversy surrounding loyalty oaths for educators in the state of California. Specifically, Pauling spoke out against individual state and institutional policies where loyalty oaths were involved, and wrote letters of support to those who had been victimized by the process. He also made critical public statements about the composition of the University of California Board of Regents, the governing body of the California university system, comments that received ample attention in the media.

On the morning of November 13, in the midst of this activity, Pauling received a subpoena to appear before the California State Investigating Committee on Education (CSICE).

The CSICE committee was rooted in the California Fact-finding Committee on Un-American Activities. This committee (nicknamed the Tenney Committee because of the renowned tenacity of then-chairman Senator Jack Tenney) was the California equivalent of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was itself a subcommittee formed out of the more general Research Committee of the California State Senate. It conducted investigations of organizations operating in California – such as the John Birch Society – considered to be radical or controversial.

In conjunction with its other investigations, the committee began building a file on Linus Pauling during the late 1940s. The file contained newspaper reports and speech transcripts that seemingly cast doubt on Pauling’s loyalty, and was frequently shared with the FBI as well as members of the anti-communist press. The Tenney file became a useful accessory for legislators and other parties harboring an interest in pursuing Pauling’s purported association with communists and communism.

Pauling was ordered to appear before the CSICE a few hours after being served his subpoena, leaving him practically no time to prepare for the engagement. On his way to the hearing, Pauling reasoned that he was being called to act as an expert witness in relation to loyalty oaths. The committee had recently held investigations examining the effects of loyalty oaths on public educators, and Pauling’s opposition to the oaths was explicit and a matter of public record.

To Pauling’s surprise however, he was questioned for roughly two hours about his views on general political topics. Following this initial session, there was then a recess for lunch, after which the tone and subject matter of the committee’s questioning changed and narrowed. After being asked several related questions, Pauling shared his view that communists should not be allowed to teach in public schools.

However, as part of the same argument, he claimed that keeping communists out of schools was not the intention of loyalty oaths. A real communist, Pauling insisted, would simply lie and take the loyalty oath to avoid detection by authorities. He was then asked if he had been aware of any suspicious activity at Caltech. After answering that he hadn’t, the committee reminded Pauling of his association with Sidney Weinbaum.  Later threads of questioning focused on his criticism of United States government policies and his support for Henry Wallace‘s presidential campaign.

Henry Wallace, 1940s.

Pauling had been a vocal supporter of Wallace during his presidential run in 1948.  Wallace had served as Secretary of Agriculture and then Vice President under Franklin D. Roosevelt before making his run for executive office as a candidate nominated by the Progressive Party. His platform advocated friendly relations with the Soviet Union, an end to the Cold War, an end to segregation and full voting rights for blacks as well as universal government health insurance.

During the campaign it was charged by many, including influential pundits H.L. Mencken and Dorothy Thompson, that Wallace and the Progressive Party were under covert control by communists. The Wallace campaign was in fact endorsed by the U.S. Communist Party, among many non-communist organizations, and Wallace controversially refused to publicly disavow the communist support. Wallace eventually lost the election to Democratic incumbent Harry S. Truman, and in the wake of his unsuccessful campaign, support for Wallace was at times used to establish one’s association with communists or the Communist Party.

After discussing his controversial associations, the Committee at last came to their final question. Pauling was asked if he was then currently a member of the Communist Party, an unsettling inquiry into what Pauling believed were his personal political beliefs. In response, he offered the following justification in preparation for his answer:

It seems to me that as I was thinking about my colleagues at the University of California who were cut off one by one – after thousands of them had voted in opposition to the loyalty oath, they were cut off one by one by the successive advocation of threats that they would lose their jobs and were required to give up their principles as good American citizens, their beliefs – that this was political pressure being imposed, as I have thought about them. Finally, there were left just this little residue of the original number that were finally fired, a hundred or thereabouts. And as I have thought about them, I have tried to decide how long I would stick to my principles about the loyalty oath. I wasn’t able to decide how much strength of character I would have. You never know what you will do until the time arrives for you to do it. I saw man after man, who had spoken strongly against this loyalty oath, sign it when it became evident that he would lose his job if he did not sign it. Now, I feel that the same principle applies here, and I find it hard to decide myself whether to subject myself, perhaps legalistically, just because of a principle, to the difficulties that might arise.

Pauling chose to not answer the committee’s question, on the grounds that the preservation of democracy required him to refuse to answer questions about his personal political beliefs and affiliations without his consent.

Pauling viewed the Communist Party as a political organization, and felt that being forced to admit or disavow involvement with the organization violated his constitutional rights. Perhaps more importantly, Pauling suggested that answering such questions endangered every citizen’s rights to freely choose a political association without fear of reprisal from authority. He was consequently threatened with contempt, but still he refused to answer. The hearing was recessed, and Pauling’s fate was left in a state of limbo.

In fear of the possible contempt citation, Pauling wrote to a friend after the trial who offered him a relatively simple solution, which Pauling quickly acted upon. A statement was written to then Caltech President Lee DuBridge, in which Pauling disavowed involvement with communism or the Communist Party. Pauling also wrote that he did not disagree with the concept of loyalty oaths in general, only those that involved inquiry into political beliefs.

After writing the letter, Pauling read the voluntary statement out loud at a second hearing before the Committee on Education, storming out when he had finished. Afterwards, he received several letters of support and offers for help from friends and general admirers. It seems, however, that Pauling considered the matter closed. In response to a letter that offered testimony and protest on his behalf, Pauling wrote the following:

I am writing to thank you for your letter of December 8.  I thank you especially for indicating a desire to be of help. I am glad to say that I think there is no need for anything to be done, and that I shall not have any more trouble with this committee.

An interesting distinction to note is that Pauling’s main objection to the hearing proceedings was a feeling that he was being forced, unjustifiably, to publicly divulge personal information. It was not the particular content of the committee request, but rather the principle behind the inquiry that instigated his defiance.

Pauling’s experience before the California State Investigating Committee on Education also bears a striking resemblance to the ordeal he would endure nearly ten years later with the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS). As with his future appearance before the SISS, Pauling was given suspiciously little time to prepare for his hearing after being delivered his subpoena. Pauling’s association with communism and the Communist Party was likewise a key point of controversy in both hearings, and in both sets of instances he boldly refused to submit to committee member requests.

In the end, it seems that his appearance before the California committee would set the tone for Pauling’s future involvement with government officials tasked with revealing the extent or existence of U.S. communist infiltration. If nothing else, the hearing provided Pauling with a practice run for the trying events that awaited him.