Struggling to Find Common Ground


George W. Ball and President Lyndon Johnson, ca. 1965. Image credit: George W. Ball Papers, Princeton University.

[Pauling and the Vietnam War, Part 4 of 7]

Almost as soon as he had received it, Linus Pauling sent a copy of Ho Chi Minh’s letter of November 17, 1965 to U.S. President Lyndon Johnson. While the letter contained some “strongly worded” rhetoric about the United States, Pauling wrote, these were to be expected from the leader of a small country that was undergoing significant aerial bombardment from a world power.

In Pauling’s view, the more loaded statements made in the letter were relatively unimportant. Rather, Pauling highlighted Ho Chi Minh’s aspirations for peace as the crux of his response, pointing out that his four-point prescription for resolution was not described as a prerequisite for the initiation of negotiations. Indeed, Pauling took pains to note (perhaps with some measure of concern) that Minh had not called for negotiations as a means to achieve a peaceful resolution at all. Nonetheless, he believed that the Vietnamese leader’s hopes for peace in his country could prevail if the United States initiated negotiations for strategic withdrawal and cease-fire.

The response from Washington to Pauling’s letter came not from President Johnson himself, but from the administration’s Under Secretary of State, George W. Ball. Ball’s stated position was much the same as that conveyed to Pauling and Corliss Lamont by McGeorge Bundy in 1962. Ball wrote that, in its dealings with the North Vietnamese, the United States government had given its support to “every one of the many efforts to open the way to unconditional negotiation.”

In this, Ball implied that the inability to negotiate a cease-fire was not the fault of the US, but rather the doing of the National Liberation Front, or perhaps the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi. Pauling questioned this implication, arguing instead that since the United States did not view the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam as a legitimate political entity and viable negotiating partner, the U.S. shared at least some culpability in perpetuating the war.

Though addressed by George Ball, Pauling responded directly to President Johnson:

The possibility that this belief is correct is supported by the last paragraph in the letter sent to me by Under Secretary Ball, which reads as follows: ‘We give the same support to your appeal. We hope it may help to persuade the government of Hanoi and the government of Peking that this conflict should be moved to the conference table.’ I am accordingly writing to ask you the following question: Does the United States government refuse to negotiate with all of the governments and parties concerned in the war in Vietnam, including the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, or is the government of the United States willing to negotiate with all of the governments and parties concerned in this tragic conflict?

The response to Pauling’s letter came, once again, from George Ball, and he did not directly answer Pauling’s question. Rather, Ball replied that the National Liberation Front was “exactly what its name connotes,” a front for North Vietnamese aggression against South Vietnam. From the perspective of the White House, the NLF held no standing under international law, enjoyed only coerced support from the people of South Vietnam, and had no ability to survive except as a tool of the regime in Hanoi.

“To this day, Hanoi is directing its activities and supplying it with essential men and materiel,” Ball lamented, adding that, “if the North Vietnamese regime were to decide to negotiate in good faith on an unconditional basis, it would find no difficulty in making a place for representatives of the Liberation Front on its own delegation.”

For the United States, the key term that might lead to negotiations was that the revolutionaries leading the resistance in South Vietnam speak at the negotiating table solely through the established leadership of the North Vietnamese government. Crucially, the American government claimed that it was willing to respect the conventions of the Geneva Accords, which both North Vietnam and the NLF also wished to see respected. Since both sides seemed to agree on this and yet no cease-fire had come about, Pauling concluded that the United States was not being honest in stating its support for a return to the 1954 accords.

Fellow Nobel Peace laureate Philip Noel-Baker, a member of the House of Commons in England, concurred. Noel-Baker wrote to Pauling to say that he “warmly” agreed with Pauling’s view that the point to be cleared up was whether or not Ho Chi Minh was making pre-conditions for the discussions about a cease-fire – such as a demand for the withdrawal of American troops – for negotiations to begin. Like Pauling, Baker and others in the British government believed that Hanoi and the NLF were more than willing to come to the table if they were allowed to do so. He concluded that it was “disingenuous of your Government and mine to throw doubt on the point.”


Ho Chi Minh in his study.

In December 1965, Pauling responded to Ho Chi Minh and reported that his letter of November 17th had been interpreted in a variety of ways. Depending on the point of view of the reader, different conclusions could be reached from the letter on the crucial point of whether or not the North Vietnamese were actually willing to enter into negotiations unconditionally. Pauling pressed his correspondent for more details:

I accordingly now write to ask you the following question: Is the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Vietnam willing to begin negotiations that would lead to a cease-fire and a peaceful settlement of the Vietnam War without making any conditions as prerequisites to the beginning of the discussions?

As indicated in his exchange with Philip Noel-Baker, the core issue for Pauling was whether North Vietnam would require that American troops withdraw entirely, or require that all the conditions of the Geneva Accords of 1954 be upheld, before negotiations began.

In February 1966, another letter arrived from Hanoi. After apologizing for delays in his response due to difficulties in North Vietnam with communications, Ho Chi Minh addressed Pauling’s question:

The way to peace is: The United States must stop their aggression. It must strictly respect the fundamental national rights of the Vietnamese people as recognized by the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Viet Nam. That is the way which has been clearly pointed out by the March 22, 1965 Statement of the South Viet Nam National Liberation and the four-point stand of the Government of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam… If the U.S. Government really wants a peaceful settlement, it must recognize the four-point stand of the government of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam…it must end definitively and unconditionally the air raids and all other war acts against the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam.

Another telegram, this one arriving in May 1967, reaffirmed this stance. The Vietnamese people, Minh declared, had produced their “Four Point Stand,” which embodied the main principles and provisions put forth by the 1954 Geneva Accords on Vietnam. “In my reply to U.S. President Johnson I made clear our goodwill and charter serious path to talks between DV and USA,” Minh communicated in the telegram. “USA must unconditionally stop bombing and all other war acts. But US Authorities do not want peace, and are intensifying war in both zones of Vietnam.”

Crucial Correspondence


[An examination of Linus Pauling’s activism against the Vietnam War. Part 3 of 7.]

“The continuation of the savagery of the Vietnam War is unworthy of the dignity of man.”

-Linus Pauling, 1965

In 1964, Linus Pauling’s colleague in anti-Vietnam War activism, Corliss Lamont, sent a copy of his 1962 open letter against Vietnam to President Lyndon Johnson. Pauling added his support to Lamont’s action, expressing his agreement with Lamont’s plea that the new President change course and disengage from a policy of military escalation had already “deteriorated almost beyond belief.”

President Johnson did not change course, however. Under his administration, U.S. involvement in Vietnam swelled, as did the corresponding antiwar movement around the world. It was in this atmosphere that Linus and Ava Helen Pauling elevated their own activities and became outspoken opponents of the conflict.

From 1961 to 1964, U.S. troop levels in Vietnam rose precipitously from just over 3,000 to more that 23,000 soldiers in country. Meanwhile, the ranks of the National Liberation Front (or Viet Cong) grew at a decidedly more rapid pace, from around 5,000 fighters in 1959 to approximately 100,000 by the end of 1964. Nonetheless, the total Allied military presence in the region dwarfed the numbers compiled by the Viet Cong. By the time of the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident on August 2, 1964, more than 600,000 men had been mobilized on behalf of the south, the ARVN being the main contributor.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident involved the exchange of fire between the USS Maddox and several Vietnamese vessels, which took place while the Maddox was engaged in an intelligence mission along North Vietnam’s coast. A second attack was reported two days later in the same area, but the circumstances surrounding both engagements remained unclear. In fact, an undated National Security Association publication that was declassified in 2005 revealed that the August 4th skirmish did not actually take place at all.

Nonetheless, this second “attack” prompted the U.S. Congress to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Signed by President Johnson, this piece of legislation gave the President of the United States the power to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without declaring war (and thus without Congressional approval). Although Johnson denied that the resolution amounted to a full-scale declaration of war, the new powers did grant the President the authority to launch unilateral full-scale attacks if he deemed it necessary. Not coincidentally, Chinese military and financial aid began to pour into North Vietnam that same year.


Linus Pauling, 1965.

By 1965, Linus Pauling was responding to the intensifying geopolitical climate in southeast Asia by offering his time to a number of anti-war conferences and events. One such event, which was fairly typical, came about when the University of British Columbia invited him to come to campus to speak on the responsibilities of scientists in bringing about disarmament. Pauling traveled to Canada that fall and, while there, he met with the Vancouver Ad Hoc Committee to End the War in Vietnam and also conducted an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation outlining his views on peace.

A few months before traveling to Vancouver, Pauling had helped to write and circulate the “Appeal by Recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize,” that we discussed in the first post of this series. Around the same time as his visit to Canada, Pauling released replies to the appeal that had been authored by Secretary U Thant of the United Nations, Pope Paul VI, and representatives of the governments of the United States, Great Britain, France, Australia, the Soviet Union, and North Vietnam. No response ever came from South Vietnam or from the People’s Republic of China.

The Nobel laureates’ appeal had called for an immediate cease-fire, to be followed by negotiations between all parties involved. The responses to this call were often addressed directly to Pauling and his fellow co-signatories, and their contents varied dramatically depending on the author and their role in the war.

From the perspective of Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, it was clear that the United States was unnecessarily victimizing a small country that was in the midst of fighting for its freedom. Like the South Vietnamese citizens who had written to Lamont and Pauling in the years prior, Kosygin held that peace could only be granted by observance of the Geneva Accords, which the United States and the Diem regime had both ignored. This position was echoed by Mai Van Bo, a representative of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and by Secretary U Thant of the United Nations.


Concluding sentence and signature from Ho Chi Minh’s letter to Linus Pauling of November 17, 1965.

However, no response resonated so forcefully as that issued by Ho Chi Minh himself, who wrote to Linus Pauling on November 17th 1965. In his five-page letter, he made it clear that the only viable route to peace was to embrace the four-point solution espoused by the 1965 Statement of the South Vietnam National Liberation Front. The four requirements listed were: the reaffirmation of the basic national rights of the Vietnamese people; a return to the provisions of the 1954 Geneva agreements; allowing the people of South Vietnam to settle South Vietnam’s internal affairs without interference; and allowing North and South Vietnam to pursue reunification without interference.

These broad imperatives were, in places, backed up with a few details for the sake of clarification, but mostly seemed to be purposely vague. For Pauling, this indicated that the conditions for entering into negotiations would be readily met if the United States showed itself to be serious about pursuing a cease-fire. From the perspective of many within the American government however, Ho Chi Minh’s request seemed disingenuous. The NLF, they believed, was merely a front for the activities of North Vietnam, and North Vietnam had no honest intentions of negotiating peace with the south or allowing a fair election.

Ho Chi Minh’s perspective, as relayed in his letter to Pauling, was straightforward in its assumption that the American presence in the region was not interested in the well-being of South Vietnam at all. If this were the case, the letter pointed out, the U.S. would not have supported a regime as brutal as that of Diem’s. For Minh, North and South Vietnam had both struggled to implement the 1954 Geneva agreements only to be thwarted by U.S. imperial aspirations that propped up a fascist dictatorship in the south and intentionally impeded the peaceful unification of Vietnam into an independent and democratic nation. In Minh’s estimation, the American rationale for this was not only to prevent the spread of communism generally, but also to use South Vietnam, “as a springboard for war activities in Laos and for daily provocations in the Kingdom of Cambodia.”

“They are using our Southern compatriots’ life to test…new types of modern weapons and means of warfare,” Ho Chi Minh continued. “At present, most barbarous means of warfare such as napalm bombs, phosphorous bombs, toxic chemicals, poison gas etc. are being used by the U.S. aggressors to massacre our compatriots in South Viet Nam.” These methods of combat were being tested in Vietnam, Minh believed, because of U.S. military interest in using them around the globe to suppress popular communist revolutions in a variety of developing nations from Southeast Asia to Africa to South America. The grand vision, Minh believed, was a U.S. military presence deployed to ensure global economic hegemony in favor of Western democratic capitalist nations, and in particular the United States.

His perspective shared, Ho Chi Minh ended his letter to Linus Pauling with an appeal of his own; this one to the anti-war protesters in America:

This war besmears the honor and good name of the United States. It is precisely for that reason that, recently, many progressive sections of the American people…have courageously come out against the Johnson Administration’s war of aggression…expressing their resolute refusal to join the army and take part in the massacre of the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese people highly value this struggle of the American people, and are deeply moved by the valiant sacrifices of Mrs. Helga Hertz and of the other peace fighters, the late Mr. Norman Morrison, the late Mr. Roger Laporte and Mrs. Jankowski. I take this opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to the American people who are resolutely struggling against the U.S. imperialists’ war of aggression in Viet Nam. I also wish to convey to the martyrs’ families the love and admiration of the Vietnamese people.

The Paulings’ Later Peace Activism: Vietnam and the Gulf War

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling. San Francisco, California. 1960s

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling. San Francisco, California. 1960s

The peace activism of Linus and Ava Helen Pauling reached its crescendo in the late 1950s and early 1960s, beginning with the submission of their Bomb Test Petition to the United Nations in 1958 and ending with Linus Pauling’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1963. As the turbulent 1960s moved forward, the weary Paulings reduced, however incrementally, their profiles as peace activists. That is not to say, however, that the duo completely exited the public stage — far from it, in fact. Two important events in U.S. history — one before Ava Helen’s death and one after — prompted first the duo, and later Linus alone, to raise their voices anew in support of their beliefs.


I am ashamed of my country, the United States of America. My country is the richest country in the world. It is the most powerful country in the world. My country now leads the world in militarism, and leads the world in immorality.”

-Linus Pauling, Note to Self, May 2, 1967.

The increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the mid-1960s infuriated much of the American public, Linus and Ava Helen included. As a result, the two activists set out on yet another peace campaign, doing their best to gain the attentions of the political world.

As an attempt at mediating the conflict, Linus began to correspond directly with Ho Chi Minh, while simultaneously seeking (with limited success) to involve Lyndon Johnson in the communications. Pauling and seven other Nobel Peace Prize recipients, including Dr. Martin Luther King and Albert Schweitzer, also drafted an appeal to the U.S. government, advocating a peaceful resolution of the war in Asia. Linus and Ava Helen attended rallies and gave speeches in support of military de-escalation in Asia and U.S.-Soviet peace talks. Unfortunately, the Paulings’ strategies were largely ignored at the administrative level, leading the couple to seek out alternative methods.

In addition to his speaking campaign, Pauling began to publish anti-war articles. He wrote pieces enumerating the need for peace and the possible long term effects of the Vietnam War. Most astonishingly, in May of 1972, the Paulings went so far as to volunteer to become “peace hostages” as a means of mediating the violent situation, agreeing “to spend at least two weeks in Northern Vietnam until all the bombing of that area of the country stops and until all American military personnel and materiel are removed from Indochina.”

The Paulings’ calls for peaceful negotiation were never embraced by the Johnson administration. At the same time, the increasingly-radical American youth instead garnered the attention of both the media and the Oval Office. The petitions and marches of the 1950s and early 1960s had been overtaken by the activities of college-age protesters, in the process moving the Paulings further and further toward the margins of an international peace movement to which they had once been so important.

The Persian Gulf War

Linus Pauling in Corinto, Nicaragua. July 26, 1984

Linus Pauling in Corinto, Nicaragua. July 26, 1984

In a war you have opposing forces that fight and there are deaths on both sides, and finally one side wins. In the old days perhaps this was a demonstration of the democratic process — the side with the biggest number of fighters won. [The Persian Gulf War] wasn’t a war. This you could call a massacre or a slaughter, perhaps even murder.”

-Linus Pauling, “Reflections on the Persian Gulf ‘War,'” April 6, 1991.

After Ava Helen’s death in 1981, Linus Pauling continued the struggle for international peace, in part as a tribute to the ideals of his late wife. An opponent of President Reagan’s policies, he spoke out against the administration’s increasingly militaristic approach to international politics, campaigning in particular against the implementation of weapons systems like the “Star Wars” program, which Pauling viewed to be an utter waste of resources. It was in this vein that Pauling would continue to act, making hundreds of public appearances in support of numerous peace causes.

However, few events in his later years fully galvanized Pauling on the level of the Persian Gulf War, initiated in August 1990. Horrified by reports of extreme carnage, Pauling, nearing his ninetieth birthday, undertook a vigorous protest of Operation Desert Storm as his final stand as a figure for peace.

Paid New York Times advertisement by Linus Pauling.

Paid New York Times advertisement by Linus Pauling.

With the directness that had come to typify his peace work, Pauling sent letters to General Colin Powell and to President George H. W. Bush, demanding an end to the fighting. His letter to President Bush declared “TO KILL AND MAIM PEOPLE IS IMMORAL! WAR IS IMMORAL!” While Pauling may have aged and his body weakened since his fight against the Vietnam War, his convictions remained unchanged.

In 1991 Pauling released “Reflections on the Persian Gulf ‘War’,” a brief yet thorough list of concerns and grievances with both world politics and U.S. leadership. The document discussed the tactics and rationale for the war, the specific problems existing within the Persian Gulf region and, of course, the immorality of war as an institution. As unassuming as this small document was, it embodied the passions of a man who had dedicated more than half a century to the achievement of peace.

Read more about the Paulings’ Vietnam and Gulf War peace activism on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement.”

Pauling and the Presidents

rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. January 26, 1984

Notes re: rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. January 26, 1984

I respectfully request that you grant me an appointment in order that I may talk with you for a short while about the present opinion that scientists hold about the testing of nuclear weapons, and related questions, and about the petition urging that an international agreement to stop the testing of nuclear weapons be made, as a first step toward a more general disarmament.”
– Linus Pauling. Letter to Dwight D. Eisenhower. February 19, 1958.

Linus Pauling felt the international peace movement to be the single most important cause of its time. As a result, he believed peace work to be deserving of the attentions of political and social leaders around the globe, none more so than that of the U.S. Presidents who controlled the most powerful military in the world.

Over the course of his life as an activist, Pauling had occasion to correspond with every U.S. President from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. Pauling’s requests were often ignored and his letters unanswered, but his convictions demanded that the leaders of his country understand the need for peace.

Pauling believed that, as members of a democratic nation, American citizens had the right to maintain discourse with their nation’s leaders. As a result, Pauling often addressed open letters to public officials as a means of bringing the public into the discussion.

The earliest example of this approach is the “Open Letter to President Truman,” issued on February 9, 1950, in which Pauling and his co-authors state that the President’s “decision to manufacture the hydrogen bomb has thrown a shadow of horror across the homes and minds of all Americans.”

More than forty years later, “An Open Letter to President Bush,” (January 18, 1991), written solely by Pauling, reached a similar conclusion about the ongoing hostilities of Operation Desert Storm

“The war in the Middle East is getting out of hand. It may become a great war, fought not only with high explosives but also with poison gas, bacteria and nuclear weapons. It may liberate worldwide radioactive fallout, damaging the whole human race.”

Pauling also wrote a great deal of private correspondence to his nation’s chief executive, including a series of unsuccessful appeals to President Eisenhower for an Oval Office appointment to discuss the United Nations Bomb Test Petition, (Pauling later concluded that Eisenhower had been a dupe of Edward Teller) and a similar request to President Johnson regarding the Vietnam War.

(Pauling likewise wrote a number of emotionally-charged letters to President John F. Kennedy, the nature of which will be discussed in a future post on this blog.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pauling did not harbor a great deal of goodwill for President Nixon, attacking him (in biographer Tom Hager’s words) “for everything from the bombing of Cambodia to his policy in Pakistan – then [telling] reporters that Nixon should take more vitamin C.” Pauling also assumed, with much justification, that Nixon himself had twice denied Pauling the National Medal of Science, despite the recommendations of the President’s own advisory group. Not until the second year of the Ford administration would Pauling be granted this highly prestigious decoration.

Of all the American Presidents, Pauling seemed to most enjoy pillorying Ronald Reagan, a fellow Californian whose career Pauling had closely followed over three decades. These excerpts from a series of untitled notes written in the 1980s are characteristic of Pauling’s attitude toward the fortieth U.S. President.

“President Reagan. I’ve wondered what his problem is. When I was his age, my hair was white. I saw him on TV saying that we had to increase our nuclear destructive power. He didn’t have a single gray hair. He seems to have a simple problem. I think that he is a case of arrested development…”

It is important to note that Pauling did not limit his communications to leaders within the United States. At various points in his life, he corresponded with the likes of North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh and Nikita Khrushchev, former premier of the Soviet Union. In his mind, global solutions required a global dialogue and, with varying degrees of effectiveness, Pauling pursued this end for most of his life.

Read more about Pauling’s relationships with world leaders on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement.”