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

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

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

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

Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Persian Gulf War

Linus Pauling in Corinto, Nicaragua. July 26, 1984

Linus Pauling in Corinto, Nicaragua. July 26, 1984

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

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

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

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

Paid New York Times advertisement by Linus Pauling.

Paid New York Times advertisement by Linus Pauling.

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

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

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

Pauling and the Presidents

rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. January 26, 1984

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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