Dinner in Camelot: What an Evening 55 Years Ago Tells us Today

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Science News Letter, May 12, 1962

[Ed Note: Today we are pleased to publish this guest post authored by Joseph A. Esposito, who served in three presidential administrations. His book on the Nobel Prize dinner will be published in 2018 by Fore Edge, an imprint of the University Press of New England.]

As the nation grapples with polarization and rancor, it is instructive to look at the state of discourse a half century ago.  Perhaps there is no better prism to do so than the dinner that President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy hosted for Nobel Prize winners and other American intellectuals fifty-five years ago, on April 29, 1962.

Coming at the mid-point of the Kennedy presidency, this dinner honored forty-nine Nobel laureates and spoke to the accomplishments of America while at the height of its power during the Cold War era. In the background, foreign and domestic challenges faced the country as the rivalry with the Soviet Union was intense and growing; race relations were frayed and becoming increasingly violent; and a number of important social issues were just emerging.

But there was optimism.  Certainly this dinner celebrated American achievement and a belief that the United States could tackle and surmount any problem.  And surely part of that feeling was due to the leadership exhibited by the president.  Kennedy, whatever his flaws, was a charismatic figure who used words to inspire while understanding the need to be conciliatory and pragmatic in dealing with public issues.

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Pasadena (California) Star-News, April 29, 1962

Prior to the dinner, Linus Pauling, the 1954 Nobel laureate in Chemistry, had been picketing the White House for the previous two days because of stalled nuclear test ban talks with the Soviet Union and the announcement that the United States would resume its own testing following a four-year halt.  After picketing on the Sunday that the event was to be held, Pauling and his activist wife, Ava Helen, changed for dinner and headed to the White House.

In the receiving line, Kennedy greeted Pauling cordially, commending him for expressing his views. Pauling was ambivalent about Kennedy, but enjoyed himself that evening, even leading the dancing.

As the dinner was being held, the Tony Awards were also being presented in New York.  The award for drama went to the play “A Man for All Seasons,” which is about Thomas More, who placed principle over loyalty to his government; Paul Schofield was honored with a Tony for his role as the lead character.  Linus Pauling might have smiled about the coincidence.  Pauling subsequently received a second Nobel Prize for Peace, the culmination of years’ worth of social activism such as he had exhibited that day.   A nuclear test ban agreement was signed in 1963.

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Time, May 11, 1962.

James Baldwin was another guest at the White House dinner.  Baldwin, then thirty-seven years old, had already written several books, including Notes of a Native Son.  He would interact with Robert Kennedy at the Nobel event, and this conversation would have important implications for the civil rights movement.  One year later, Baldwin and Robert Kennedy met with African American leaders in New York.  The meeting was acrimonious, but it proved educational for the attorney general. Eighteen days later, President Kennedy delivered his famous civil rights speech in which he envisioned the future Civil Rights Act. As it turned out, his brother was alone among his advisors in supporting this televised address.

Also present at the White House gathering was J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had run afoul of McCarthyism and had his security clearance revoked by the Eisenhower administration. Having spent the past eight years in political purgatory, Oppenheimer was invited by Kennedy to the gala dinner.  The President understood the value of reconciliation and redemption; the following year, Kennedy selected the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” for the prestigious Fermi Award.

Indeed, the dinner brought together some of the nation’s greatest minds.  Among the collection of writers present were Robert Frost, Pearl Buck, John Dos Passos, William Styron, and Katherine Anne Porter, whose A Ship of Fools became the number one bestseller that day.  The scientists in the room included Glenn Seaborg, responsible for the discovery of ten elements; several others associated with the Manhattan Project; and a veritable who’s who of American physicists, chemists, biologists and medical researchers.  Astronaut John Glenn, the hero of the hour who had recently orbited the Earth, was also there.

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Much has been made about Camelot, a focus that will surely intensify during the upcoming centennial of John F. Kennedy’s birth. And while images of the 1,036-day presidency of the young leader will forever be intertwined with his untimely, tragic death, it is also clear that Kennedy could uplift the nation through soaring words, measured action, and the ability to bring together people who sought only America’s best interests.  A partisan when necessary, he also understood civility and the value of respectful dialogue.

So too was Linus Pauling a man who respected principal and the exchange of ideas.  While he appreciated that special evening in 1962 and had been hopeful of the young president’s potential, he was not reluctant to speak out about the great issues of the day. Above all, Linus Pauling was a distinguished scientist and a committed activist for peace.  He was truly “a man for all seasons.”  We can learn much from him as well.

Dinner and a Dance

Creative Nonfiction by Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet

The White House, April 29, 1962

It had been pleasant weather in Washington DC all day. The air was still warm at 8:00 PM when Linus and Ava Helen Pauling arrived at the White House that evening. Ava Helen wore a floor-length cape over her formal dress, and white gloves covered her arms almost to the elbow. Pauling sported a traditional tuxedo.

Pauling and Ava Helen arrived just before the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had been the lead scientist of the Manhattan Project. Many heads turned toward the two controversial scientists as they waited in the receiving line to greet their hosts, the President and First Lady, John and Jacqueline Kennedy.

Pauling approached President Kennedy. They stood practically eye-to-eye.

“I’m pleased to see you,” the President said. “I understand you’ve been around the White House a couple of days already.”

Pauling likely grinned and nodded, thinking back to earlier that day when he marched with other protesters in front of the White House, holding a sign that read “Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Macmillan, We Have No Right To Test!” Pauling, the 1954 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, had spent the better part of the past decade and a half as an outspoken activist for ending nuclear weapons testing.

He shifted to greet the next person in the receiving line. Jacqueline’s pale mint silk evening gown and bouffant hair defined fashion. She flashed Pauling a large smile and extended her elegantly gloved hand. “Dr. Pauling, do you think it’s right to march back and forth out there where Caroline could see you?”

A hush fell over those nearby. Pauling didn’t quite know how to respond.

“She asked me, ‘Mummy, what has Daddy done wrong now?'” People nearby laughed and the tension broke. Clearly, Pauling’s message had reached the occupants of the White House, from the family’s patriarch to his young daughter.

Side-by-side for most of the evening, Ava Helen and Pauling, like all couples at this dinner honoring Nobel laureates, were seated at different tables for the meal. She approached her table to find she would be eating with many distinguished scientists, one of whom, Willard Libby, held opinions different from her husband and herself. She immediately decided to refrain from talking to him about politics and peace.

Ava Helen took her seat, and the historian and critic Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. sat down next to her, pulling his chair onto her chiffon skirt. It possibly occurred to her that this was going to be a long meal.

As they conversed, Ava Helen found Schlesinger to be antagonistic and unfriendly.

“Do you hold the same opinions as your husband?” he asked.

“I do for the most part,” Ava Helen responded. Last summer, she urged Jacqueline Kennedy, speaking mother-to-mother, to keep her children and the world’s children safe by pushing for a continuance of the moratorium on testing nuclear weapons.

“Can I ask you a question?” Schlesinger asked. Without waiting for her response, he continued: “How can your husband accept an invitation to the White House after what he said to the President?” Schlesinger’s question referred to Pauling’s sharply-worded telegram, sent March 1, 1962, a little less than two months earlier.

In the telegram, Pauling asked the President, “Are you going to give an order that will cause you to go down in history as one of the most immoral men of all time and one of the greatest enemies of the human race?” Ire probably fumed from Pauling as he drafted the telegram. He couldn’t believe that President Kennedy was contemplating breaking his 1960 presidential campaign promises to not test nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.

Pauling’s note continued by referring to the Soviets’ detonation of several nuclear weapons in the atmosphere above Siberia. “In a letter to the New York Times, I state that nuclear tests duplicating the Soviet 1961 tests would seriously damage over 20 million unborn children, including those caused to have gross physical or mental defects and also the stillbirths and embryonic neonatal and childhood deaths from the radioactive fission products and carbon-14.”

Hoping to give President Kennedy some perspective about his decision, Pauling asked in his note, “Are you going to be guilty of this monstrous immorality matching that of the Soviet leaders for the political purpose of increasing the still imposing lead of the United States over the Soviet Union in nuclear technology?”

Throughout dinner, Ava Helen remained good-natured with Schlesinger. “There is nothing personal in either the invitation or the acceptance – Just the President of the U.S. having dinner with a Nobel Laureate.”

Looking tall, thin, and handsome in his tuxedo, Pauling likely approached her table after the meal ended, asking “How was your dinner?”

“Arthur Schlesinger is a clout and a boor!” Although she may not have told her husband this in this moment, she wrote down the exchange and her thoughts of Schlesinger after the evening ended.

Pauling would have smiled and thought to himself how lucky he was to have Ava Helen in his life. It was something he expressed aloud many times. He loved her for her pluckiness and devotion, among many other reasons.

The Air Force Strolling Strings played a lively Latin rhythm as the couple made their way after dinner across the main lobby to the East Room for three dramatic readings by the actor Fredric March. Rather than passing by the band, Pauling asked Ava Helen for a dance. Taking her into his arms he deftly guided her across the checkered floor. Her dark, short hair framed her face in waves and her chiffon dress whispered as she moved across the dance floor. Soon other guests joined them, setting aside political controversies for a little fun.

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Remembering Jerome Wiesner

Science Advisor Jerome Wiesner sits in his office, 1 February 1963.  Photograph by Cecil Stoughton in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Scanned from original 2 1/4" neg.

Science Advisor Jerome Wiesner sits in his office, 1 February 1963. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton. Original held in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

[Marking the one-hundredth anniversary of Jerome Wiesner’s (1915-1994) birth. Post 1 of 2]

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy spoke at a joint session of Congress to request funds for sending an American to the moon. During his memorable speech, the president stated his belief “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” In an era of heightened patriotism, the president received staggering support from Congress and the people of the United States alike.

Kennedy’s speech was delivered at the height of the Cold War, a time during which the Soviet Union’s own ambitions to explore outer space were making many Americans uncomfortable. For the most part, Americans believed that it was necessary to match and surpass the Soviet Union’s achievements in space in order to secure the United States’ geopolitical power.

In addition to staying ahead of the Soviet Union’s efforts, Kennedy also hinted that there could be additional benefits to the United States’ space program even beyond Cold War positioning.  The President went so far as to state that space exploration could very well be “the key to our future on Earth.”


Jerome Wiesner, Joseph McConnell, John F. Kennedy and Harlan Cleveland in the Oval Office. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton. Original held in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Jerome Wiesner, Joseph McConnell, John F. Kennedy and Harlan Cleveland in the Oval Office. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton. Original held in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Kennedy’s remarks added fuel to an already heated debate over the proper relationship between science and federal policy. Following a trend that had begun during the First World War, Cold War scientific efforts had become particularly linked to national defense and, in Kennedy’s words, science had “emerged from a peripheral concern of government to an active partner.”

In 1951, well before Kennedy was known to most Americans, President Harry S. Truman had set up the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) to provide counsel on issues regarding science and technology. The committee was charged with conveying a refreshed scientific perspective to the top levels of political decision-making, but its members sometimes found themselves in an awkward position if they disagreed with the established views of those in office.

In February 1961 President Kennedy appointed Jerome Wiesner to the PSAC chairmanship. Wiesner was unique among the roster of past committee chairmen in that many of his ideas proved incongruous both with politicians in Washington and with many Americans at large. Of particular importance, and contrary to the President’s optimistic vision for the future of space travel, Wiesner was not at all convinced that sending a man to the moon would yield great advantages for the U.S., be it in terms of technological development or national defense.

Wiesner agreed that sponsoring technological development was a key to the success of the nation. However, he suggested that a more efficient and more effective mechanism for the government to adequately support science and technology was to provide stipends for post-graduate education. A more educated society, Wiesner argued, would be better equipped to meet its own scientific and technological needs.

The Cold War, however, developed within its own unique historical context, one defined in part by widespread anxiety. One outcome of this pervasive fear was an acceleration by which technologies could be advanced. Beginning with the instruments of war developed during World War II – most notably the atomic bombs – the perceived needs of national security propelled the creation of new technologies at a rate never seen before.

The Soviet Union’s launch into orbit of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957 racheted the levels of American cultural insecurity to new heights. With Sputnik, the American public peered into the night sky and literally saw tangible proof that its main enemy had created technologies that would allow it to surveil the country like never before. The seemingly endless possibilities of this breakthrough convinced many that a failure on the part of the U.S. to invest in science and technology would put the nation at grave risk. This fear ultimately created the cultural context by which it proved possible for President Kennedy to allocate an unprecedented amount money for the Apollo Space Program, now estimated to have cost over $170 billion in contemporary U.S. dollars.

Although the President and a significant portion of the American public were convinced that the space program was key to national security, Wiesner and others held firm in their belief that there existed better alternatives for protecting the nation from potential Soviet threat. Nonetheless, as chair of the PSAC, Wiesner was compelled to accept Kennedy’s determination to pursue the moonshot, and continued to advise the chief executive on other issues of science and technology.


Portraits of participants in the Second Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, March-April, 1958. Jerome Wiesner is depicted at bottom.

Portraits of participants in the Second Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, March-April, 1958. Jerome Wiesner is depicted at bottom.

It was at this time that Wiesner turned to an old friend, Linus Pauling, to inquire into the development of his opinions regarding issues of peace and world affairs.

Wiesner was especially interested in receiving Pauling’s counsel on the issue of nuclear testing. Like Pauling, Wiesner was an advocate of a test ban treaty and he wished to use his committee chairmanship to shade President Kennedy thinking in favor of an international agreement of this sort.

Indeed, Wiesner’s unique position gave him powerful influence over federal science policy for the years of his chairmanship, 1961-1963. These years happened to coincide with a period during which Pauling’s main professional focus was his peace activism, and having a strategically placed ally in the White House proved very beneficial to his many causes.

In corresponding with Wiesner, Pauling articulated his argument that the radiation released by nuclear weapons tests was a clear threat to the environment and to human health. Moreover, on a humanitarian level, Pauling felt strongly that the nuclear arms race, if left unchecked, would inevitably lead to new tragedies on the scale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if not worse. Through their exchange of letters, Wiesner and Pauling thus built a relationship rooted in discussion of issues that interested them: both believed in nuclear disarmament and both were interested in sharing their scientific and political arguments with broader audiences.

Page one of a handwritten letter from Linus Pauling to Jerome Wiesner, March 17, 1962.

Page one of a handwritten letter from Linus Pauling to Jerome Wiesner, March 17, 1962.

Once his formal involvement with the PSAC concluded (he was relieved of his position not long before Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963) Wiesner became more vocal in his opinions. In 1965 he published a series of essays, titled Where Science and Politics Meet, that were written during his tenure in the White House and that serve as evidence of Wiesner’s strong belief in nuclear disarmament, among other topics. Later, in the 1980s, Wiesner turned to the media and once again laid out his ideas on disarmament in two articles published in The New York Times.

Pauling and Wiesner continued to discuss the issues that they valued through letters and over the phone well into the 1980s. And while they did not ever formally join efforts – each lived on opposite sides of the country – the documentary evidence indicates that they kept one another in mind. At one point, Pauling even nominated him for an award, the Family of Man Award, because he thought of Wiesner as having played a key role in President Kennedy’s signing the partial test ban treaty, an act which directly led to Pauling’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963.

Colleagues and friends for many decades, Linus Pauling and Jerome Wiesner died within months of one another. Pauling passed away on August 19, 1994 and Wiesner died just over two months later, on October 21st.

Linus Pauling Receives the Nobel Peace Prize

The Pauling family anticipating Linus Pauling's Nobel lecture, December 11, 1963. (Photo credit: Aftenposten)

The Pauling family anticipating Linus Pauling’s Nobel lecture, December 11, 1963. (Photo credit: Aftenposten)

On December 10th, 1963, Linus Pauling accepted the belated Nobel Peace Prize for 1962. Attended by the Norwegian royal family and various government representatives, the ceremonies took place in Festival Hall at the University of Oslo in Norway – separate, as per tradition, from the other Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden. Pauling shared the ceremonies with the winners of the 1963 Nobel Peace Prize – an award split between the International Committee of the Red Cross and the League of Red Cross Societies in commemoration of the centennial of the founding of the Red Cross.

Gunnar Jahn, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, introduced Pauling before presenting him with the prize. In his remarks, Jahn reconstructed the advances and setbacks of the post-war peace movement in which Pauling had so prominently operated since the dropping of atomic bombs by the United States on Japan. Escalating Cold War tensions and the arms race soon rendered as unlikely any hopes for an immediate era of peace. The nascent post-war peace movement, according to Jahn, “lost impetus and faded away. But Linus Pauling marched on: for him retreat was impossible.”

While Pauling”s peace work was surely political in nature, Jahn drew attention to the importance of Pauling’s scientific attitude in researching and determining the effects that atmospheric radiation may have on future generations. Even critics of Pauling, including the physicist and nuclear weapons engineer Edward Teller, did not fundamentally disagree with him concerning the harmfulness of fallout from nuclear tests. Where Teller and Pauling did conflict centered more on questions as to whether or not these harmful effects outweighed the advantages that they provided to the United States with respect to the Soviets. Pauling thought they did; Teller disagreed.

Pauling and Gunnar Jahn, ca. 1963.

Pauling and Gunnar Jahn, ca. 1963.

Jahn then recounted how the public started paying close attention to Pauling in 1958 as he presented to United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld a petition signed by 11,021 scientists from fifty different countries calling for the end of above-ground nuclear weapons testing. Because of the petition, Pauling was called before Congress and questioned about alleged communist ties which, not for the first time, he denied. By Jahn’s estimation, the hearing only served to make Pauling a more popular and sympathetic character and he continued to speak out more and more.

For Jahn, Pauling’s 1961 visit to Moscow, during which he delivered a lecture on disarmament to the Soviet Academy of Science, illustrated Pauling’s importance in propelling the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which came into effect two years later. While there, Pauling unsuccessfully sought to meet with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Unbowed, he instead sent Khrushchev two letters and a draft nuclear test ban agreement. “In the main,” Jahn emphasized, Pauling’s

proposal tallies with the test-ban agreement of July 23, 1963.  Yet no one would suggest that the nuclear-test ban in itself is the work of Linus Pauling… But, does anyone believe that this treaty would have been reached now, if there had been no responsible scientist who, tirelessly, unflinchingly, year in year out, had impressed on the authorities and on the general public the real menace of nuclear tests?

Ultimately, for Jahn, it was as a scientist that Pauling helped move the world toward peace. Looking forward, Pauling’s proposed World Council for Peace Research would bring together bright minds from the sciences and humanities under the auspices of the United Nations in hopes of seeking out new institutional models and paths of diplomacy for a nuclear-armed world. Jahn closed by suggesting that “through his campaign Linus Pauling manifests the ethical responsibility which science – in his opinion – bears for the fate of mankind, today and in the future.”


Associated Press photo published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 10, 1963.

Associated Press photo published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 10, 1963.

After concluding, Jahn called Pauling to the stage; applause and a standing ovation from the crowd quickly followed. After the applause had died down and Jahn presented Pauling with the gold Nobel medal and a certificate, Pauling delivered a brief acceptance speech, calling the prize “the greatest honor that any person can be given.” But Pauling also recognized that his prize was likewise a testament to “the work of many other people who have striven to bring hope for permanent peace to a world that now contains nuclear weapons that might destroy our civilization.”

Pauling went on to draw similarities between himself, the first scientist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and Alfred Nobel, who endowed the Nobel Foundation. Both were chemical engineers interested in scientific nomenclature and atomic structure. Both owned patents on explosive devises – Nobel the inventor of dynamite and Pauling an expert on rocket propellants and explosive powders whose skills came to bear during World War II. And both expanded their interests into biology and medicine as well. Many had described Nobel as a pessimist, but Pauling wished to assure his audience that this was not the case and that, like himself, Nobel was an optimist who saw it as “worthwhile to encourage work for fraternity among nations”


Pauling, holding the case containing his Nobel diploma, being congratulated by Norwegian King Olav V. Image originally published in Morgenbladet, December 11, 1963.

Pauling, holding the case containing his Nobel certificate, being congratulated by Norwegian King Olav V. Image originally published in Morgenbladet, December 11, 1963.

The following day, December 11th, Pauling gave his Nobel Lecture, “Science and Peace.” In it he described how the advent of nuclear bombs was “forcing us to move into a new period in the history of the world, a period of peace and reason.” Development of nuclear weapons showed how science and peace were closely related. Not only were scientists involved in the creation of nuclear weapons, they had also been a leading group in the peace movement, bringing public awareness to the dangers of such weapons.

Pauling recounted how Leo Szilard – whose 1939 letter to President Roosevelt (and co-signed by Albert Einstein) had led to the Manhattan Project – urged Roosevelt in 1945 to control nuclear weapons through an international system, a plea that was issued before the first bombs had been dropped. While Szilard’s appeal fell flat, it was followed, in 1946, by the creation of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, a group overseen by Szilard, Einstein and seven others, including Pauling. Over the next five years, the committee warned of the potentially catastrophic consequences of nuclear war and advocated for the only defense possible: “law and order” along with a “future thinking that must prevent wars.”

Pauling's Nobel certificate, 1963.

Pauling’s Nobel certificate, 1963.

Other groups followed. For Pauling, the Pugwash Conferences, headed by Bertrand Russell from 1957 to 1963, were particularly influential in bringing attention to the harmful effects of nuclear testing and, ultimately, the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. It was during this time that nuclear fallout, the subject of Pauling’s 1958 petition, became of greater concern. The importance of fallout centered on the potential genetic mutations to which several generations would be exposed. Pauling quoted the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy to support his point: “The loss of even one human life, or malformation of even one baby – who may be born long after we are gone – should be of concern to us all.”

As matters stood in 1963, Pauling warned that the time to effectively control nuclear weapons was fast slipping away. The test-ban treaty was, Pauling lamented, already two years too late and had not prevented the large volume of testing that took place after the Soviets – who were quickly followed by the United States – had broken the 1959 testing moratorium in 1961. The failure to end testing outright before 1960 led to the explosion of 450 of the 600 megatons detonated during all nuclear tests.

Pauling's Nobel certificate case, 1963.

Pauling’s Nobel certificate case, 1963.

Because of the sheer number of nuclear weapons in existence (Pauling estimated some 320,000 megatons) limited war was not a feasible plan due to “the likelihood that a little war would grow into a world catastrophe,” both immediate and long-term. Abolishing all war was the only way out. But standing in the path of the abolition of war were people in powerful positions who did not recognize the present dangers and the need to end war. Pauling also saw China’s exclusion from the United Nations, which prevented the nation from taking part in any discussions on disarmament, as an additional roadblock to a lasting world peace.

To get around these blockades, Pauling proposed joint national and international control of nuclear weapons as well as an inspection treaty aiming to prevent the development of biological and chemical weapons, which could become a threat of equal measure to nuclear weapons. Additionally, Pauling felt that small-scale wars should be abolished and international laws established to prevent larger nations from dominating smaller ones.

The challenges of the era were great but Pauling ended optimistically:

We, you and I, are privileged to be alive during this extraordinary age, this unique epoch in the history of the world, the epoch of demarcation between the past millennia of war and suffering and the future, the great future of peace, justice, morality and human well-being… I am confident that we shall succeed in this great task; that the world community will thereby be freed not only from the suffering caused by war but also, through the better use of the earth’s resources, of the discoveries of scientists, and of the efforts of mankind, from hunger, disease, illiteracy, and fear; and that we shall in the course of time be enabled to build a world characterized by economic, political, and social justice for all human beings, and a culture worthy of man’s intelligence.


The Nobel medal, obverse.

The Nobel medal, obverse.

The response to Pauling’s speech by the American press was fairly tame. Most headlines simply issued variations on “Pauling Gets His Prize.” A handful of headlines delved into the substance of Pauling’s lecture, one noting “Pauling Accepts Award, Sees World without War in Sight.” Others emphasized the means by which he sought to end war, e.g. “Pauling Urges UN Veto Power on Nuclear Arms.”

The substance of the articles, most of which relied upon Associated Press copy, continued to focus on Pauling’s past controversies and suspected communism. From his lecture, the reports tended to highlight his homage to the late President Kennedy and the dollar amount of his prize. When Pauling’s policy proposals came up, mostly in larger papers that did not rely on the Associated Press, China’s admission to the United Nations and UN veto power over the use of nuclear weapons were seen as relevant and potentially controversial.

Absent from the press coverage was any discussion of the science of Pauling’s lecture. This included his claims concerning the harmful health effects of nuclear weapons as well as his descriptions of the increases in size and number of nuclear weapons. No article mentioned “genetic mutations” or “megatons” as Pauling had done in his lecture.

The Nobel medal, reverse.

The Nobel medal, reverse.

One bit of critical commentary, published in the Wall Street Journal, came out a week after Pauling’s speech. Author William Henry Chamberlin dismissed Pauling’s views on peace as both unpopular and overly simplistic. Pauling’s reasoning ran counter to the thinking of all US presidents since Truman – namely, that the only avenue to peace is to make as many weapons as the Soviets. Chamberlin noted that even scientists – specifically Edward Teller – agreed.

In Chamberlin’s estimation, Pauling was merely an alarmist. Further, Pauling had no impact whatsoever on the Partial Test Ban Treaty. The idea for the treaty had emerged out of the governments of the United States and Great Britain long ago and its delay in ratification was due solely to foot-dragging from the Soviets. Chamberlin also discounted Pauling’s claim to be a representative of a world-wide movement for peace by characterizing his efforts as “a one-man crusade.”

Pauline Gebelle as pictured in the Portland Oregonian, December 17, 1963.

Pauline Geballe as pictured in the Portland Oregonian, December 17, 1963.

Contrary to Chamberlin’s stance, on the same day the Portland Oregonian published a short article profiling Pauling’s freshman physiography teacher at Washington High School, Pauline Geballe. Pauling pointed to her as one who had helped to ignite his interest in science and the two had kept in touch over the years. Geballe herself, through the League of Women Voters, was also part of the peace movement. On behalf of the group, she had recently queried Pauling for insight into questions of disarmament. Pauling responded by sending her a copy of No More War! from which Geballe read aloud the next time the group met. Geballe and her colleagues seemed to evidence that, just as he had been stating for the previous two months and likewise in his Nobel acceptance speech, Pauling was merely a representative of a much larger movement, if still a polarizing and extremely prominent one.

Oslo Bound

Celebrating with friends, December 1963.

Celebrating with friends, December 1963.

While letters congratulating Linus Pauling for winning the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize continued to pour into his office early in December 1963, the debate in the press over whether Pauling deserved the Nobel had begun to cool down. Meanwhile, closer to home in southern California, friends and colleagues of Pauling and his wife Ava Helen honored the pair for their activism at several events.

On December 1st, eight activist groups, including Women Strike for Peace, the American Friends Service Committee, SANE, and the Youth Action Committee, held a public reception for the Paulings at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Los Angeles. The Paulings also opened their home to celebrate with friends and former students. The celebrants made banners to honor the Paulings, one reading, “We knew you when you only had one.” Another took on a more mathematical form: “LP plus AHP equals PAX plus 2 Nobels.”

While the Pauling’s attended celebrations in their honor, they were obliged to refuse other offers as they prepared for their trip. A Caltech student requested that Pauling give a farewell speech before leaving for Scandinavia. Turning down the request, Pauling would tell the Associated Press a few days later that he was not giving any speeches before he accepted his Nobel Prize so as not to “be tempted to let something drop beforehand.”

Flyer for the Biology Department coffee hour honoring Pauling's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. December 3, 1963.

Flyer for the Biology Department coffee hour honoring Pauling’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. December 3, 1963.

It is, of course, entirely possible that something else was in play with respect to Pauling’s refusal to speak at Caltech.  Much has been made of Caltech’s official non-response to Pauling’s Nobel Peace award.  Indeed, the only recognition that occurred at all on the Pasadena campus was a small coffee hour hosted by the Biology Department. The fact that his own department, to say nothing of the larger institution, chose to ignore this major decoration was deeply hurtful to Pauling. By December Pauling had already announced his departure from Caltech, his academic home of some forty-one years. But the cold shoulder that he received from all but the Biology Department was suggestive of tensions that had been mounting for some time and proved a fitting, if bitter, capstone to this unhappy phase of his relationship with the Institute.


Three Linus Paulings. From left, grandson Linus Fowler Pauling, Linus Pauling and Linus Pauling Jr. 1963.

Three Linus Paulings. From left, grandson Linus Fowler Pauling, Linus Pauling and Linus Pauling Jr. 1963.

For their part, mainstream journalists had finally begun to take a more amicable and celebratory approach to their portrayals of Pauling than had generally been the case since the announcement of his Nobel win in October. Articles sought a more personal reflection of Pauling while not completely ignoring the earlier controversy.

Of particular note, as the Paulings flew across the Atlantic on December 7th, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published an interview with their eldest son, Linus Pauling Jr., in which he reflected on his father’s activism. When asked to gauge Pauling’s talents, Pauling Jr. downplayed his father’s peace efforts in relation to his work as a scientist. “In terms of his ability to marshal facts and to organize and reorganize them toward a goal,” Pauling Jr. stated, “his strivings for peace are comparatively simple, whereas this ability applied to science demonstrates an astoundingly high degree of creative imagination. Essentially, his work in peace is a public relations job – to get the facts across to the public in a meaningful way.”

When asked what inspired his father to engage in peace work, Pauling Jr. said that “innately, he has always been a humanitarian.” His aversion to hunting and his resistance to Japanese internment during World War II were submitted as past evidence of these humanist proclivities.

Digging a little deeper, Pauling Jr. pointed to his father’s experience with Bright’s disease in the early 1940s as a turning point in taking on social issues. At the beginning of the disease, which manifested in bloating and impaired kidney functioning, the elder Pauling “was pretty close to dying.” During his recovery he was forced to rest and spent time weaving blankets. Pauling Jr. thought that his father’s time of rest “forced him to contemplate on the value of life; on the wrongs of killing and harming that was going on around the world.”

Ava Helen Pauling also was a major influence on her husband according to Pauling Jr. Of particular importance was her work with Union Now during the early war years – an activist platform that called for world government as a tool for mediating international issues between nations.

Pauling Jr. inevitably addressed some of the controversy surrounding his father’s alleged communist ties, saying that he had “never heard him praise communism, although, on occasion, he has criticized some aspects of capitalism, such as unequal opportunities. Today,” he continued, “that’s known as civil rights.”


Conducting interviews in the living room of the Pasadena home, 1963. James McClanahan, photographer.

Conducting interviews in the living room of the Pasadena home, 1963. James McClanahan, photographer.

The following day, an Associated Press article that centered on Pauling’s life and his “book-and-paper strewn den,” came out in papers across the country. With the Nobel ceremonies only two days away, the headlines that ran with the article insinuated something big, with variations of “Pauling Hints at Surprises in Oslo Speech,” “Linus Pauling Promises Speech Shocker,” or “Pauling Predicts Shock.” The actual feature article, written by Ralph Dighton, was less sensational.

A Peanuts cartoon strip signed by Charles Schultz on display at the Pauling’s home helped Dighton to characterize his subject. The strip showed the animated character Linus stacking blocks in a “gravity-defying stairstep fashion” with the tagline, “Linus, you can’t do that!” Pauling’s own reaction after reading it, Dighton noted, was a loud laugh. For Dighton, the lesson of the cartoon was that “the world has been telling Pauling [you can’t do] that all his life, and he keeps doing what for many others would be impossible.”

In his piece, Dighton also spoke to Pauling’s decision to leave Caltech in favor of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Pauling avoided any discussion of problems at Caltech and instead explained that receiving the Nobel Peace Prize was an opportunity and his decision to leave was a direct consequence of his prize. At the Center, Pauling would have more freedom to focus on his peace work and international affairs while also continuing to delve into the molecular basis of disease.

While the article avoided adding to the controversy surrounding Pauling, it still discussed past instances to remind readers that Pauling was never far from trouble. The list was familiar to those who had followed Pauling’s career: the 1952 denial of Pauling’s passport due to suspected communist tendencies; his1958 petition against nuclear testing, signed by over 11,000 scientists from 49 different countries; the consequent 1960 “joust” with the Senate Internal Security subcommittee; his picketing of the Kennedy White House just before attending dinner inside. All helped to exemplify how Pauling had “made a public scourge of himself.”


Arrived in Oslo. From left, an SAS official, Ava Helen and Linus Pauling, Linda Pauling Kamb and Barclay Kamb, Lucy Neilen Pauling, Crellin Pauling and Linus Pauling Jr. December 1963.

Arrived in Oslo. From left, an SAS official, Ava Helen and Linus Pauling, Linda Pauling Kamb and Barclay Kamb, Lucy Pauling, Crellin Pauling and Linus Pauling Jr. December 1963.

As Pauling set his sights on Europe and the spotlight of international attention, he left behind a busy office. His assistants Helen Gilrane and Katherine Cassady, who had typed up numerous thank you letters and helped to coordinate Pauling’s increasingly busy life over the previous two months, continued to assist Pauling from a distance. Both kept on answering Pauling’s unceasing correspondence while also working out the details of his still-unfolding trip. For her part, Gilrane responded to Bertrand Russell among many others, telling him that Pauling would be unable to respond right away. Communications of high importance were forwarded to Pauling in Norway; others had to wait until his return in January.

The Paulings return trip through the East Coast had not been finalized either. Gilrane made reservations in New York and Philadelphia while also coordinating Pauling’s wardrobe for the celebrations that would take place upon his return. She wrote to Samuel Rubin, President of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation, that Pauling “shall have his smoking jacket as well as his tails, but he will wear whatever you think is appropriate for the evening.”

Pauling also benefited from the help of friends in Norway. Otto Bastiansen, a Norwegian physicist and chemist, worked out much of Pauling’s Scandinavian itinerary, deciding where he would lecture and with whom he would meet. Since the entire Pauling family, including the children’s spouses, was coming, Bastiansen had to work out how they might be involved in activities as well. The Paulings’ first event happened almost as soon as they landed in Oslo on Sunday, December 8th. Ignored by the U.S. embassy or any other official representative from his home country, Pauling was welcomed at a private party held at the home of Marie Lous-Mohr, a Norwegian Holocaust survivor and peace activist who had also helped to arrange Pauling’s schedule.

On December 9th, the day before the Peace Prize ceremonies, the Paulings had lunch with friends and colleagues from Norway at the Hotel Continental, where they were staying. Afterward Linus and Ava Helen, together with two of their sons, Peter and Linus Jr., participated in a press conference. The event focused mostly on the man of the hour, who was very optimistic about the significance of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and expressed gratitude toward the many people who worked in the peace movement. The Associated Press quoted Pauling as stating,

I think awarding me the prize will mean great encouragement to the peace workers everywhere, but particularly in the United States, where there have been so many attacks upon the peace workers… For some time it has been regarded as improper there to talk about these things. I think this is about the best thing that could happen for the movement.

As the world was still mourning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Pauling said that Kennedy’s “attitude” helped make peace activism acceptable in the United States. Pauling steered away from any criticisms of Kennedy, as one reporter prodded Pauling about his opinion of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time, Pauling had been extremely critical, calling Kennedy’s threat of military action against Russia “horrifying” as it could easily lead to the use of nuclear weapons. Regardless, Pauling told the press in Oslo that the situation “taught the lesson to the world, that the existence of nuclear weapons is a peril to the human race.”

The next day, Pauling would receive the Nobel Peace Prize for helping alert the world to that peril.

The Oslo Conference

Group portrait of participants at the Oslo Conference. 1961.

[Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Oslo Conference. Part 2 of 2]

In early spring of 1961, Linus Pauling and his wife Ava Helen, along with a committed group of friends and volunteers, were busy preparing for their conference against the spread of nuclear weapons, scheduled to take place in Oslo, Norway, from May 2-7. As practical necessities for the conference such as travel and lodging were gradually accounted for, an expressed priority for Pauling and other planners was the need to shape perceptions of the event with greater heed to its larger political context. In their correspondence, the planning group continually stressed that the conference itself was to be non-political, since, in Pauling’s words, “the spread of nuclear weapons is a non-political problem, really a problem of danger to humanity and civilization as a whole.”

The list of individuals invited to the event was thoughtfully organized in order to limit potential (and anticipated) claims of politicization by critics of non-proliferation. The title of the event, the “Conference to Study the Problem of the Possible Spread of Nuclear Weapons to More Nations or Groups of Nations,” was likewise crafted with diligent care and focus, albeit without regard to practical length.  In time, however, to conference planners, attendees and future references, the gathering would simply be known as the “Oslo Conference.”

Shortly before the conference was to take place, the Paulings and their associates received word from the Norwegian Nobel Committee that permission had been granted to hold their event at the Norwegian Nobel Institute. The general plan for the conference entailed studying the spread of nuclear weapons as a problem over several days of seminar-style gatherings, and then to form a scholarly statement about the problem which would be issued to the public. No organizations were allowed to directly sponsor the conference – another safeguard to repel claims of politicization – and attendees were advised that they had been selected as participants because of their expertise, knowledge and experience, rather than their professional positions, status or affiliations.

In the run-up to Oslo, a number of people wrote to the conference planners asking whether or not the event would be open to the public, as many wished to witness the discussions and conference discourse, even if they were barred from participating directly. Though Pauling and other planners were grateful for the interest expressed in such inquiries, they ultimately decided to hold a closed conference. According to Pauling, the meetings were to be kept private so that

Participants might have the greatest possible freedom to discuss the important questions that will be taken up, from every point of view, and to reach some conclusions on which they could all agree, without being hindered by public knowledge of preliminary and perhaps contradictory statements made in the course of discussion.

Pauling let it be known to interested parties that public participation would take place after the drafting of the statement, most likely at the University of Oslo, and following the culmination of the conference. But even with these pronouncements, Pauling was compelled during the conference to reiterate this point. Though spouses of participants were allowed to attend, several attendees brought friends during the first day of the conference and were rebuked accordingly.

Just as the image of the conference was carefully shaped in the weeks and months preceding it, so too were the themes and perspectives that were planned to guide the event’s proceedings. Though they had around five days to do so, creation of the final conference statement was carefully planned from the outset of the gathering. The process was structured such that suggestions for material that participants wanted to see incorporated into a preliminary draft of the conference statement were to be given to members of a Drafting Committee at the beginning of the conference. After this was done, there were to be several days of presentations and discussion, during which an initial draft of the conference statement would be composed and reviewed. The final day of the conference was set aside for concluding remarks, discussion, last minute changes, and voting for approval or rejection of the final statement.

A segment of the crowd gathered for the Oslo demonstration, May 1961.

As it turned out, the statement was approved unanimously by the conference-goers on May 7th, and presented that evening to a gathering of the public at the University of Oslo. After reading the statement, those present conducted a peaceful demonstration through the streets of Oslo in recognition of the collective effort toward the furtherance of world peace.

While the statement discusses several themes relating to the issue of disarmament from various perspectives, the final statement lists five points meant to synthesize the final conclusions of the conference:

  1. Each addition to the numbers of nations armed with nuclear weapons drives its neighbors toward acquiring similar arms.
  2. As nuclear weapons pass into more hands, the chance increases that a major war will be started by some human error or technical accident.
  3. The spread to more nations increases the chance of deliberate initiation of nuclear war.
  4. Increase in the number of nuclear powers would further increase the difficulty of achieving disarmament.
  5. After it obtains nuclear weapons, a nation becomes a more likely target in any nuclear war.

Shortly after returning to the United States, Pauling appeared at the Conference of Greater New York Peace Groups, and discussed the results of the Oslo Conference in front of a large audience at Carnegie Hall. He stressed the wide range of opinions and perspectives brought forth by each conference participant, and the difficulties encountered and overcome in achieving unanimous approval of the statement. While Pauling strongly supported the results of the conference, as well as the feasibility of the final statement’s goals and recommendations, he clarified that achieving these goals would easily require ten years, but likely more. Through all his idealism, Pauling seems not to have suffered from delusions about the difficulty of this task, reminding his audience that “we must work; but we have a hard job!”


Pauling’s words turned out to be prescient as, in the wake of the conference, a number of developments took place that infuriated him and temporarily dampened his resolve. For one, as part of more complicated international political maneuverings, the Soviet Union announced plans to resume testing of nuclear weapons, followed shortly thereafter by similar stated intentions from the United States. Pauling subsequently set about writing letters to Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy, imploring them not to resume testing; he received no answer from the Kennedy administration, and was delivered a largely apologetic reply from Khrushchev. In his letter to Pauling, Khrushchev suggested that the decision to resume testing was a painful one, but necessary due to the movement into European waters of American Polaris submarines and nuclear missiles.

Pauling became nearly distraught when the Soviet government detonated a 50-megaton atomic bomb, an action that Pauling had implored, with particular emphasis, the Soviet government not to pursue. The fallout from such an explosion, Pauling reasoned,

…could cause damage to the pool of human germ plasm such that during coming generations, several tens of thousands of children would be born with gross physical or mental defect, who would be normal if the bomb test were not carried out.

After the detonation of the 50-megaton bomb, followed by a number of additional less-substantial but still extremely powerful explosions, Pauling began criticizing the Soviet Union at a level that was virtually unparalleled in his previous approach to internationally oriented dialogue. The U.S. also was not spared from similar denunciations by Pauling, but he was particularly disturbed by the magnitude of the Soviet endeavor after years of seemingly productive discussions towards disarmament in Geneva.

Though Pauling became extremely disillusioned by the decision of both nations to resume testing, he was eventually rewarded for his sustained efforts. In 1963, following resumed negotiations, the United States and Soviet Union signed a partial test ban treaty that halted the testing of nuclear weapons in the ocean, in space and in the atmosphere. Pauling’s impact on this development was formally recognized several weeks later when he received word that he had been chosen as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

1961 and 1962 Now Live on Linus Pauling Day-by-Day

Group portrait of participants at the Oslo Conference. 1961

We recently completed and uploaded two more years of the ever-expanding Linus Pauling Day-by-Day project.  With the addition of 1961 and 1962, more than three decades of Linus and Ava Helen Pauling’s lives are now chronicled in exquisite detail.  The mammoth site currently includes summaries of over 92,000 documents and features 1,851 illustrations and 2,289 full-text transcripts.

The years 1961 and 1962 bore witness to the Paulings’ continuing tilt away from scientific research in favor of a pitched agenda of peace activism.  Both were likewise incredibly busy years littered with international travel, worldwide acclaim and periods of heavy tumult.  The energy that the Paulings expended over this period of time surely took its toll – in their letters to colleagues, both Linus and Ava Helen commonly remark of being overwhelmed with work and on the brink of exhaustion.  Their labors did not go unnoticed, however, and their frenzy of activity in 1961 and 1962 surely added to the dossier for which Linus Pauling would receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963.

Many of the Paulings efforts during these years have been chronicled on this blog or on our Documentary History sites.  Among them, in 1961 Linus Pauling published his theory of anesthesia, worked with Ava Helen in organizing the Oslo Conference against nuclear testing, and continued to dialogue with both John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev about matters of nuclear weapons policy.  The next year saw more of the same, including the famous “White House incident,” many more awards (including an honorary high school diploma) and nearly 2,700 unsolicited write-in votes for U. S. Senator from California.  In the midst of it all, the Paulings traveled almost non-stop, from Toronto to Honolulu, Paris to Cleveland, Moscow, Chile, Dallas and many points in between.

Linus Pauling Day-by-Day documents this blizzard of activity while simultaneously attempting to shed light on some of the lesser-known components of the Paulings’ personal and professional matters.  Indeed, one of the true delights of working in an archive of such breadth as the Pauling Papers is the opportunity to uncover and make available documents of a more esoteric nature.  And so it is that we find Pauling hazarding a guess in response to a question about birds losing their sense of direction when flying through a radar area.  Likewise, readers may be interested in a short discussion about a treatment for catatonic schizophrenia, his notes on Albert Einstein’s belief in God, and his gratitude upon receiving a particularly thoughtful birthday gift.  The illustrations selected for the Day-by-Day project are full of such nuggets.

Work is completed on the Day-by-Day project on a nearly continuous basis here in the OSU Libraries Special Collections.  The data for 1963 and 1964 is close to complete and should be launched sometime later this year, with plenty more to come shortly thereafter.  For those interested in the background and technical mechanics of this ambitious effort, see this series of blog posts published in 2009.