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.

Pauling and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s: The Thawing of Frosty Relations

As the dynamics of Soviet dogma evolved, the enmity surrounding the so-called “resonance controversy” simmered down, and by the late 1960s Pauling had gone from being a disparaged name in Soviet chemistry to a respected scientist and much-admired advocate of nuclear test bans and international peace.

Pauling’s first visit to the Soviet Union in 1957 did a great deal to rehabilitate his scientific reputation among Soviet scientists.  In his Pauling Chronology, Dr. Robert Paradowski notes that “Russia remind[ed] Pauling of Eastern Oregon, and the Russian people seem[ed] to him like Western Americans. ”

This visit was swiftly followed by his election to the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1958 – along with Detlev Bronk, the head of the National Academy of Sciences, Pauling was the first American to receive full recognition from the Soviet Academy.  Predictably, the honor was likewise enough to raise the eyebrow of the U.S. media, including the New York Times, which suggested that “it is impossible in today’s world position simply and naively to ignore the political implications” of the decoration.

Linus and Ava Helen traveled to the Soviet Union a second time in 1961 to attend the second centenary celebrations of the Academy of sciences, where they took the opportunity to deliver a handful of lectures, and to see more of the country, including a visit to Siberia and the shores of Lake Baikal.

The early 1960s also saw the reacceptance of Pauling’s formerly disgraced popularizer, Ia. K. Syrkin, back into the Soviet Academy of Sciences. By 1970 Pauling was recognized by the Soviet government for his peace activism with the Lenin Peace Prize, a honor bestowed upon foreign individuals conducting notable work in furthering international peace. Eight years later the Soviet Academy of Sciences decided to formally recognize Pauling’s scientific achievements by awarding him the Lomonosov Gold Medal, the highest award the Academy gave.

Lenin Peace Prize medal, June 15, 1970

Lenin Peace Prize medal, June 15, 1970

Lomonosov Medal, awarded by the Presidium of the Academy of the USSR, September 1978.

Lomonosov Medal, awarded by the Presidium of the Academy of the USSR, September 1978.

As might have been expected, Pauling did not hesitate to use his increasing fame in the Soviet Union to continue his advocacy for nuclear testing bans and better cooperation between the Soviet Union and the United States. His correspondence with Nikita Khrushchev, as contained in the Pauling archive, provides a revealing look into the increasingly intimate relationship between advocacy and diplomacy that helped define Pauling’s later peace work.

Draft of a letter from Linus Pauling to Nikita Khruschev, October 18, 1961.

Draft of a letter from Linus Pauling to Nikita Khruschev, October 18, 1961.

Khruschchev's response to Pauling, October 27, 1961.

Khruschchev's response to Pauling, October 27, 1961.

Learn more at the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement,” available via the Linus Pauling Online portal.

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.”