“A Disgraceful Act…”


[Part 3 of 3]

As Robert Oppenheimer’s loyalty hearing before the Atomic Energy Commission moved forward, the discussion surrounding Oppenheimer’s plight escalated, both within the scientific community and beyond. Linus Pauling joined with many other scientists in coming to Oppenheimer’s defense and actively spoke out against the actions that the government was taking.

Pauling’s disgust with Oppenheimer’s treatment, combined with the on-going nuclear tests being conducted at Bikini Atoll, prompted him to pen an article that was published on May 1, 1954 in The Nation.  In “A Disgraceful Act…,” Pauling argued against what he described as “atomic barbarism” and connected this issue with the need to take a stand for the freedom of the mind and the right for scientists to pursue their own work.

Pauling strongly believed that scientists bear a social responsibility that extends beyond their scientific work itself.  In his work and actions, Oppenheimer certainly toed the line between being a scientist, citizen, and government employee.  This role was complicated at times and was a position with which Pauling was intimately familiar.

In describing Oppenheimer in “A Disgraceful Act…,” Pauling’s broader feelings are evident:

The conclusion that Dr. Oppenheimer is a loyal and patriotic American must be reached by any sensible person who considers the facts. It must have been reached by the A.E.C., and by President Eisenhower himself. We are accordingly forced to believe that the recent action is the result of political considerations – that Dr. Oppenheimer has been sacrificed by the government to protect itself against McCarythism.

…It has been said that Dr. Oppenheimer opposed the H-bomb program at the time, 1949, when the initiation of this program was under consideration. … Dr. Oppenheimer is to be commended if he advanced moral and ethical arguments against the manufacture of that greatest of all weapons of mass destruction, the H-bomb. … Instead of raising trivial questions about Dr. Oppenheimer’s loyalty, which he has demonstrated time and time again since 1940 through his deeds, the government should be asking him to use his great intellectual ability, in collaboration with many other outstandingly able physical scientists, social scientists, and specialists on international relations and other aspects of the world problem, to find a practical alternative to the madness of atomic barbarism.


Unfortunately for Oppenheimer, the panel reviewing his case did not view him as favorably as many of his colleagues and fellow scientists did.  Within the majority report, it was decided that Oppenheimer was loyal, but not completely; he had stumbled once, he could falter again.  The panel also observed that Oppenheimer had shown a “serious disregard” for security requirements and evidenced “susceptibility to influence,” which could hurt national security.

These claims were paired alongside the argument that he had displayed “disturbing” conduct toward the H-bomb program and had withheld his full support of the project.  He was also charged with a lack of candor during periods of the board’s hearing, particularly when discussing the extent of his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb.

The minority report, on the other hand, emphasized that the nation had taken

a chance on him because of his special talents and he continued to do a good job.  Now when the job is done, we are asked to investigate him for practically the same derogatory information…. No one on the board doubts his loyalty…and he is certainly less of a security risk now than he was in 1947, when he was cleared.  To deny him clearance now for what he was cleared for in 1947, when we must know he is less of a security risk now than he was then, seems to be hardly the procedure to be adopted in a free country.

Other statements within the report make comparisons to Oppenheimer’s handling with that evidenced in less democratic countries, like Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. The document likewise reminds its readers that “All people are somewhat of a security risk.”


Oppenheimer appealed the AEC’s decision immediately after it was issued. In the appeal, Oppenheimer’s lawyer pointed out that the majority decision not to recommend reinstatement of Oppenheimer’s security clearance stood in “stark contrast” to the board’s findings that the scientist was loyal.  In the view of the appeal, the board’s decision “raise[d] doubts about the process of reasoning by which the conclusion was arrived at.”

Oppenheimer ultimately lost his appeal on a 4 to 1 vote – a tally heavily influenced by delegates’ sense of “defects in [Oppenheimer’s] character.” The lone dissenting vote in the appeal case was cast by the only scientist on the committee, Henry D. Smyth.

Nontheless, the larger community of scientists generally supported the continued push for Oppenheimer’s clearance.  In an editorial published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists after the appeal verdict was rendered, ten of Oppenheimer’s colleagues, including Harold Urey and Leo Szilard, issued a response. “It seems to us a breach of faith on the part of the Government,” they wrote, “to call upon a man to assume such heavy responsibilities in full knowledge of his life history and then, after he has demonstrably done his best and given the most valuable services to the nation, to use the facts which were known all the time to cast aspersions on his integrity.”

The Executive Committee of the Federation of American Scientists furthered this sentiment in a statement of its own:

We hope that the Atomic Energy Commissioners will again review the record and, within the bounds set by law and Executive Order, do justice to Oppenheimer as an individual.  But beyond that we urge strongly that the entire machinery of security must itself come under review.

In the end, for many the case served as another example of the existence of an unwritten imperative that scientists stay in line if they were to associate with the government and maintain a public image.  But for others, the trial marked a breaking point. As Pauling concluded in a letter to a friend who had complimented his Nation article, “For a couple years I have greatly restrained myself with respect to political action.  I have decided that not only is it wrong to permit oneself to be stifled, but it isn’t worthwhile.”

Radioactive Fallout and the Birth of the “Superbomb”


Event Baker test explosion, Bikini Atoll, July 1946.


[Part 2 of 2]

While Linus Pauling’s immediate concern with the new hydrogen bomb was avoidance of a global nuclear conflict, he was also very uneasy about the threat of nuclear fallout.

As is now commonly understood, dangerous byproducts result from the fission fraction of radioactive materials following the detonation of atomic weapons. Much of the radioactive material released during such an explosion, widely referred to as fallout, eventually falls to the Earth’s surface. The exact distribution of the fallout depends largely on how closely the bomb is detonated to the surface of the Earth, as well as the direction and intensity of winds near the Earth’s surface.

Humans that come into contact with fallout can develop radiation poisoning – a condition that, depending on the level of exposure, is hazardous and potentially fatal. The outcome of consistent exposure to large amounts of radiation became relatively easy to predict, but little was known during the early 1950s about long-term exposure to smaller amounts.

The radiation released from atomic bomb tests was a relatively small addition to the total amount of other man-made and naturally occurring sources in the atmosphere. However, Pauling feared that even a small increase in radiation could significantly increase the risk of harmful genetic mutations to vulnerable populations. As a result of the accumulated nuclear fallout from ongoing atomic testing, Pauling predicted a higher frequency of medical complications and birth defects world-wide over the next several generations. As with the case of long-term exposure to small amounts of radiation, the long-term effects of nuclear fallout were very difficult to control for, lending Pauling’s grave warnings serious cause for consideration.

The uncertainty regarding fallout and radioactivity from nuclear explosions likewise allowed for a wide spectrum of alternative perspectives to emerge. Though Pauling’s warnings about nuclear fallout received ample attention, he was challenged by several conflicting counter-claims, especially those of the Atomic Energy Commission and of nuclear physicist Dr. Edward Teller.


Portrait of Edward Teller by Dmitri Vail. June 1965.


The debate that came to define Pauling and Teller’s interaction, and the contrasting viewpoints that they represented, would last for decades. Teller argued that the actual level of long-term radiation resulting from nuclear fallout was negligible when other forms of radiation were taken into consideration. Using essentially the same data as Pauling, he demonstrated that the average risk to any one person from fallout-related radioactivity was minimal, at least for those positioned outside of a certain blast radius. Furthermore, he argued that most people were subjected to more radiation annually by cosmic rays (among other sources), than they were from the fallout of a typical well-planned nuclear detonation.

Pauling and Teller were given several forums for debate on television and other outlets in the mainstream media. Though they were not on friendly terms, and often characterized in the media as completely at odds, historians and more moderate voices in the general discussion believed that Pauling and Teller had more in common than was popularly perceived. In a 2001 lecture, author and Pauling biographer Tom Hager had this to say about the general debate:

It was inconclusive to a certain extent because each side used the same data two different ways. And depending on how you look at the data, it can either look like fallout is going to cause 200,000 miscarriages and deaths of infants over the next few generations, or atomic fallout poses a danger equivalent to wearing a watch with a radium dial. Now, those were the kind of terms that were used in the debate and they were both correct. Pauling looked at the worst case scenario over many generations worldwide and the Atomic Energy Commission looked at the increased risk for an individual during their lifetime. In both cases, they were coming to correct or essentially correct conclusions, but the debate was framed in a way on Pauling’s side so that it aroused world opinion against atomic testing.

Pauling remained involved in the discussion of nuclear fallout and the politics of atomic weapons in the following years, but gradually receded from the scene as his public profile began to cause trouble for him at Caltech and with investigatory bodies. He was pulled back into the fray, however, when, in 1954, an unexpected reaction resulted from the detonation of a secret new type of atomic weapon.

This mysterious bomb, detonated on the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, surprised even the scientists who were testing it. Several military personnel overseeing the test were subjected to unexpected levels of radiation, as was the crew of a Japanese fishing boat that had wandered into the area unaware of the danger. The men on the fishing boat, sick from radiation poisoning and carrying a hull of contaminated fish, were analyzed by Japanese scientists. Judging by the type of radiation damage discovered in the men, it was clear that something unusual was involved with the test to which they had been subjected.

This “superbomb” as it would commonly be known afterward, involved the coating of a hydrogen bomb with ordinary uranium metal or uranium-238, a by-product of the uranium enrichment process. Typically unfit for use in nuclear weapons, the uranium was destabilized during a three-stage reaction using a fission-fusion-fission detonation process. The resulting explosion penetrated a hole into the upper regions of the atmosphere, where radioactive materials were deposited and capable of traveling much greater distances on the high elevation winds.

This new development quickly re-energized Pauling’s public outspokenness. The relative silence that he had attempted to maintain for several of the preceding years was shattered by his concern over the powerful new bomb. In due course, he gave his first bomb-related speech in over two years and became engaged with the ongoing conversation once again.

The fallout debate, filled with victories and defeats for Pauling and the anti-testing community, would remain frustratingly unresolved throughout much of the following century. Over the course of many difficulties however, Pauling never lost sight of his hope for world peace. Later in life, he recalled his thoughts following development of the original atomic bomb in 1945:

I came to think, as did Albert Einstein, that the existence of nuclear weapons had finally made it imperative to abandon war once and for all. As seemed only logical to me, these weapons force us to accept the idea of coexistence and cooperation. Now that the facts about nuclear weapons are relatively well-known to the general public, we must realize that the future of the human race depends on our willingness and ability to cooperate and work together to solve global problems without belligerence.

The Peril of the Hydrogen Bomb



[Part 1 of 2]

“The question of an atomic war is not an ordinary political question. It is of equal concern to the left-winger, the right-winger, and the man in the middle of the road. The hydrogen bomb would not discriminate – it would kill them all. This problem, of an atomic war, must not be confused by minor problems, such as communism vs. capitalism, the existence of dictatorships, the trend toward socialism, the problem of race and class discrimination. It is a problem that overwhelms them – and if it can be solved, they too can be solved.”

-Linus Pauling, 1950.

In January 1950, President Harry S. Truman announced that the U.S. military was pursuing the development of an incredibly powerful atomic bomb. The new and mysterious weapon was rumored to be many times more destructive than any nuclear weapon that had yet been detonated. The declaration was a heavy blow to Linus Pauling and others already opposed to nuclear weapons production, a movement which was now further isolated from official U.S. policy.

To understand the import of Truman’s announcement, it is first necessary to understand the reaction mechanics of the various types of atomic bombs then in development. The cores of first generation atomic bombs were composed of concentrated and heavily enriched uranium or plutonium isotope spheres. Though several methods were devised to catalyze the nuclear reactions necessary for an atomic blast, the first atomic test at Alamogordo, New Mexico used TNT implosion for detonation. When the first atomic bomb was detonated during “the Trinity test,” TNT charges surrounding the bomb caused an explosion on all sides of the radioactive material, forcing it to compress and destabilize its molecular composition. Fission resulted from the splitting of radioactive nuclei, subsequently unleashing a chain reaction that released unprecedented amounts of force.

A different method was used to begin the chain reaction within “Little Boy,” the first atomic bomb ever used in combat. To initiate the Little Boy reaction, a specially tailored gun barrel was used to shoot a uranium projectile into a sphere of enriched uranium.

The hydrogen bomb, in contrast, used principles of both fission and fusion. Fusion, the process by which the sun generates such vast quantities of light and heat, is a process wherein the nuclei of light elements are fused to form heavier elements. This fusion of light elements is capable of liberating far more energy than is atomic bomb fission; however a large amount of energy is required to initiate the reaction.

The first hydrogen bombs were more or less conventional Little Boy-style atomic weapons surrounded by densely packed atoms of hydrogen and other light elements. The primary purpose of the atomic bomb that formed the core of a hydrogen bomb then, was essentially to catalyze an even larger reaction.

In order to help people understand the differences in explosive magnitude created by atomic bombs versus hydrogen bombs, Linus Pauling often compared their relative power to scalable amounts of TNT.  In his book No More War! (1958), Pauling wrote

The Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs had explosive energy somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 tons of TNT. Each of them was accordingly about 15,000 or 20,000 times more powerful than a one-ton blockbuster. Each was about 1,000 times as powerful as the greatest of the great bombs with conventional explosives used in the Second World War.

The bomb that could destroy the greatest city in the world and kill ten million people is not something imaginary. Bombs of this sort – hydrogen bombs and super-bombs – have been made and have been exploded. Bombs have been tested that have an explosive power as great as 15 megatons – an explosive power equivalent to 15 million tons of TNT, 15 million one-ton blockbusters.

Each one of these bombs is one-thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb or the Nagasaki bomb. Each one of them has an explosive energy five times as great as that of all of the bombs used in the Second World War.

Pauling had been gravely concerned about the possibility of atomic war between the United States and Russia well before development of the hydrogen bomb. However, the destructive potential of a single hydrogen bomb, as well as the conclusiveness of the decision to pursue its development, gave him much greater cause for concern. Pauling was alarmed by the post-war escalation of international tensions, and feared that production of such powerful weapons could instigate an accelerated arms race, ushering in an era shadowed even further by the threat of full-scale nuclear war. Pauling believed that heightened diplomacy and improved international relations were the keys to finding an agreeable solution, and that the development of the hydrogen bomb sowed new doubts about the feasibility of a peaceful, institutionally backed solution.


Harold Urey, 1930s


As discussion of the hydrogen bomb became more public, the possibility of consensus on the matter grew ever more remote. The seemingly irreconcilable positions surrounding hydrogen bomb policy led to the fracturing and destabilization of several associations, including the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS). The ECAS, chaired by Albert Einstein, spent a substantial amount of time and energy addressing the need to place atomic weapons under international oversight, stressing the growing importance of an effective world government.

Many members of the ECAS, including Pauling, were vehemently opposed to the development of the hydrogen bomb. Others, particularly Harold Urey, favored pursuit of the new weapon, arguing that the Soviet Union would begin production of the bomb regardless of U.S. intentions. This difference of opinion turned out to be too great, and the ensuing debate was in part responsible for Urey’s resignation from the group. Afterwards, faced with a number of other difficulties, the committee chose to disband.

The severity of Pauling’s disagreement with Harold Urey and others became altogether too much to contain. Pauling gave hundreds of speeches during the 1950s which addressed the pressing threat of deteriorating international relations and atomic war. While his speeches and talks stressed the dangers of the hydrogen bomb, nuclear weapons proliferation and world war, they also accentuated peaceful negotiation as the only realistic solution.  As he noted in his 1954 talk “The World Problem and the Hydrogen Bomb

…Atomic energy should be used for the welfare and not the destruction of mankind. The statement of Mr. Churchill that ‘atom bombs are a terrible means of maintaining the rule of law in the world’ is no longer valid. The atom bomb and the hydrogen bomb have become powerful weapons of destruction in the hands of powerful nations, opposed to one another. If international affairs continue along the lines characteristic of the whole past history of the world, we shall sooner or later see the outbreak of a hydrogen-bomb war. No nation will benefit from such a war – it may be expected confidently that a hydrogen-bomb war, if it comes, will result in the destruction of most of the cities in the world, the death of hundreds of millions of people, the end of the present civilized world.

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.”