A Cold War Division Chair: Pauling Under Investigation

[Pauling as Administrator]

As Chairman of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, Linus Pauling was obligated to deliver an annual report each year to Institute President Lee DuBridge. As he compiled these reports, Pauling solicited comments from members of the division that focused primarily on their research progress over the previous year.

In 1952, using the Division of Biology’s report as a model, Pauling added some specifics to his usual request for comment. This time around, he needed information about funding sources; a 100-500 word description of work completed that would be accessible to the general reader; and a list of awards received and publications authored. These extra details painted a generally positive portrait of the division, though they did not always reflect the budgetary strains being felt across the unit.

While Pauling oversaw an influx of funding that allowed the division to expand, the money on hand never seemed to be quite enough. As a result, Pauling needed to keep a close watch on the division’s budget, tracking staff salaries, fellowships, supplies, and special funds. In doing so, Pauling sometimes uncovered what appeared to be frivolous spending in unexpected places.

In 1951 for example, Pauling asked division staff to be careful about publishing in journals that charged page fees for article reprint orders. That year, Pauling noted, the division had spent $2,500 on reprints, including $700 for covers alone. Going forward, Pauling asked that, unless absolutely necessary, reprints be ordered without covers; a small sacrifice to conserve resources.


While modifying reprint ordering practices promised to save the division a bit of money, Pauling’s own activities outside of the division began to impact the division’s budget in a far more substantial way. By 1951, Pauling’s work as an anti-nuclear activist had been targeted for suspicion by external forces as well as Caltech’s own administration. That same year, a tangible outcome of this suspicion hit the division’s bottom line hard when the United States Public Health Service denied Pauling a $40,000 grant on the basis of his alleged communist ties.

Around this time, with Red Scare fears intensifying, Caltech decided that all individuals serving on the Institute’s Contracts Committee be required to pass a low-level security clearance, to be administered by the Industrial Employment Review Board (IERB). In part because it was meant to be a routine, low-stakes review, this directive was something that should have posed no complications for Pauling. However, problems did indeed arise after Pauling’s name was erroneously (and accidentally) included on a list of upper level administrators connected to Project Vista, a top secret hydrogen bomb research program with which Pauling, in actual fact, had no affiliation.

As a scientist, Pauling’s IERB case was to be evaluated by a military panel. At the beginning of August 1951, Pauling received notice from Lieutenant Colonel W. J. King that he had been denied a security clearance due to his being a “member of” and a “close associate” of the Communist Party since 1943. In backing this claim, King cited as evidence Pauling’s support of “known Communists,” a likely reference to the fundraising effort that Pauling had helped lead for Sidney Weinbaum’s defense the previous year. Pauling adamantly denied the charges, calling anyone who accused him of being a communist a “liar.” Pauling did concede that he may have defended communists in the past, but also maintained that he had the right to defend those who “deserve to be defended.”


King informed Pauling that he could submit evidence in his own defense before a final decision was made, at which point Pauling turned to his scientific colleagues, asking them to vouch for him through character reference letters. In making this appeal, Pauling sent out a form letter describing how he had signed the Espionage Act several times over the previous eleven years, a period during which he had carried out war work that made use of large amounts of classified information. The letter also stressed that Pauling wanted to continue working on similar research as a “service to the Government,” but that he would not be able to do so without approval from the IERB. The letter concluded with Pauling’s feeling that his own political actions to “help improve our national politics and to prevent and rectify injustices to individuals” should not be held against him.

One supporter, Frank Aydelotte of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, told the IERB that Pauling was definitely not a communist. In his letter of reference, Aydelotte wrote

Professor Pauling is a liberal; he is a man of great personal courage who would not hesitate to defend anyone whom he believed to be the victim of injustice, but he is at the same time a man of complete integrity and proven loyalty to the United States Government.

But not all of the colleagues solicited by Pauling gave their unconditional support. One of them, Karl Compton, the Chairman of the Corporation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, asserted that Pauling’s scientific and personal character were admirable, but also pointed out that he had never spoken with Pauling about communism and so could not say whether or not Pauling was a communist.

Caltech President Lee DuBridge also agreed to write a letter of support for Pauling, but added that he was not surprised by the decision that the IERB had reached, an admission that shocked Pauling. For DuBridge, the issue was mostly a headache that he wanted settled “one way or another.” As Pauling’s activities had come under increasing scrutiny, some of the Institute’s trustees had threatened to leave the board, and DuBridge himself was in danger of being replaced if he could not find a way to keep Pauling in line.

By the end of September, it appeared that the letters of support had fallen on deaf ears when Pauling’s clearance was once again denied. Following Pauling’s immediate appeal, another month passed until the Project Vista clerical error came to light. And while this revelation led to a momentary lessening of tensions, problems related to Pauling’s public persona would only continue to interfere with his duties at Caltech and within his division.

The Price of Affiliation

Linus Pauling, 1950s

[Part 2 of 2]

Nearly halfway through the twentieth century, many scientists who had held classified security clearances during the Second World War were being blacklisted from their profession. Post-war, the clearance process for work on classified projects became subject to increased scrutiny, a duty which fell under the dual jurisdiction of regional personnel security boards and the military. The boards could revoke clearance upon examination of an applicant’s personal information, and could choose not to present evidence for their conclusions.

In such instances where an applicant wished to challenge the decision, an appeal could be issued to the Industrial Employment Review Board (IERB), which allowed individuals to present their case in person. Civilian scientists that came before the board were judged by a military review panel, whose decision on the matter was final.

As a part of his general duties after the war, Linus Pauling worked on a committee that reviewed grant requests for Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, many of which involved classified information for work on restricted projects supported by the Department of Defense. Because of new Caltech policies, people in Pauling’s position were required to submit an application for low level security clearance, a stipulation which Pauling agreed to but otherwise took little interest in.

On July 31, 1951 however, Pauling was notified by the IERB that his most recent request for clearance to work with classified military information had been denied. Before explaining his rights to appeal the decision, the reasons for his denial were freely expressed by the board:

Information indicates that you have been a member of the Communist Party and close associate of Communist Party members from 1943 to the present time; you have also been affiliated with or a member of numerous organizations which espouse Communist Party ideologies and on many occasions you have openly defended known Communists and Communist ideologies.

Pauling promptly requested a hearing before the board. He was soon notified of his options, and provided with an extended justification for his clearance denial. The reply from the review board included a detailed listing of Pauling’s many suspected connections to communism and communist organizations. The itemization noted, among other transgressions, his affiliations with the Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions, the National Council of the Arts Sciences and Professions, the Progressive Citizens of America, and a lengthy list of people and causes that had received Pauling’s support or opposition over the previous several years. Nearly all of the listings had been cited by the Attorney General of the United States as subversive and/or communist. Having presented the lengthy list, the Executive Officer of the IERB, Donald Mare, concluded that

The foregoing information and all the investigative evidence in your case file, when considered in connection with the duties of your position as a research consultant on classified information of the Department of Defense at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, indicates that you might voluntarily or involuntarily act against the security interests of the United States, and that your employment in that position might constitute a danger to national security.

Pauling was informed that the board would be hearing cases on the West Coast during the week of November 12, at which point he scheduled an appearance. Caltech President Lee DuBridge did not immediately reply to Pauling’s inquiry about Caltech-funded legal defense and delayed the assignment of a lawyer to Pauling, thus forcing Pauling to find his own. The event precipitated one of Pauling’s first close interactions with Abraham Lincoln Wirin, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who would provide him with vital legal counsel over the next several decades.

A. L. Wirin

At his appearance before the IERB, Pauling read a thirteen-page statement about his life, beliefs and the value of his work to the nation. After further discussion and examination of his character witnesses, the board ended the hearing inconclusively, informing Pauling and his counsel that a follow-up hearing would be pursued later in Washington, D.C.

Several days before his next hearing was scheduled to take place, Pauling met with Mr. Wirin and President DuBridge. At this meeting, DuBridge informed Pauling that the whole controversy with the IERB had resulted from an administrative oversight. DuBridge had discovered that Pauling’s name was mistakenly added to a list of researchers requesting top secret clearance for a hydrogen bomb research program called Project Vista. It seems that the mistake had made the entire discussion of Pauling’s affiliations a moot point, as the low level security classification required for Pauling’s position would likely have passed through the clearance process without incident.

After some discussion, DuBridge agreed that the basic “Confidential” clearance would likely continue to be satisfactory for Pauling’s work on the division’s Contracts Committee. He wrote a letter to that effect, clarifying the list error, which Pauling promptly delivered to the IERB. After presenting DuBridge’s letter to the Board, Pauling’s clearance was shortly reinstated.

Though the troubling events ended mostly in his favor, Pauling was understandably shaken by the ordeal. Had the low-level security clearance not been reinstated, Pauling’s ability to operate effectively in his position at Caltech would have been greatly jeopardized. Pauling was cowed by the experience, and after talking with his wife Ava Helen, decided to tone down the political aspects of his public profile.

Shortly thereafter, Pauling resigned from the NCASP, then declined a nomination from the American Association of Scientific Workers for a continued position as one of the organization’s vice-presidents. Pauling also resigned his vice-presidency of the World Federation of Scientific Workers, citing an inability to effectively perform his duties as an officer.  Nonetheless, even as he distanced himself from several people and organizations, Pauling found himself under continued scrutiny from investigators and other interested parties.

Though Pauling felt a pressing need to withdraw from some of his controversial associations, it was not long before he began to re-initiate contact. Pauling accepted the National Vice-Presidency of AAScW for 1952-53, less than a year after his initial refusal, and continued to receive and save AAScW newsletters throughout the 1950s. He also maintained contact with J. D. Bernal and others within the World Federation of Scientific Workers well into the 1980s. While the events of 1951 proved that Pauling could be temporarily intimidated or constrained, they also demonstrated his resilient commitment to peace-related activism and organization.