The Pauling-Teller Debate: Two Books That Followed


Our Nuclear Future: Facts, Dangers and Opportunities. 1958.

[Part 4 of 5]

In the months following their televised 1958 debate, Linus Pauling and Edward Teller both published books that they believed would serve to educate the public on the real dangers associated with atomic development and testing.  And though their formal debate had long since passed, both men continued to spar with one another through their writings. As Ralph E. Lapp put it in his review of Pauling’s book,

Any meaningful review of Mr. Pauling’s No More War! must be related not only to the U.N. Report on Atomic Radiation but also Mr. Teller’s Our Nuclear Future published earlier this year.  As a matter of fact, No More War! might well be subtitled ‘A Reply to Edward Teller.’

Each book worked hard to couch its arguments in terms that readers, no matter their background, could understand.  Both books also sought to help citizens differentiate between “imaginary dangers,” “risks which are more real,” and risks that had been most neglected.  The two books likewise made use of Cold War fears over a potential war with the Soviet Union and pointed out that a future war of this sort would be far worse than anything experienced to date. In this, just as had been the case with their television appearance, Pauling and Teller alike used similar approaches to argue for very different points of view: Pauling emphasizing the need for disarmament and cooperation, Teller arguing in favor of peace assured through military might.

"No More War!" 1958.

“No More War!” 1958.

A primary goal of Edward Teller and Albert Latter’s book, Our Nuclear Future: Facts, Dangers and Opportunities, was to outline the science behind the development of nuclear weapons, as articulated for a lay audience. Teller felt a book of this sort was the best way to combat rising fear in the culture, and that it would allow readers to both understand the nature of radioactivity and to rationally assess the risks (relatively benign ones, in Teller’s view) posed by nuclear tests.

Conversely, throughout his book, No More War!, Linus Pauling discussed the harm that would befall current and future generations as a direct result of continued nuclear testing.  He also emphasized the idea of a single global community and the need to think responsibly about the entire world. This approach is clear from the outset, as Pauling writes in his preface

We are living through that unique epoch in the history of civilization when war will cease to be the means of settling great world problems…It is the development of great nuclear weapons that requires that war be given up, for all time…that from the giant of the kiloton nuclear bomb to the megaton monster…we can see for ourselves that our own future and the future of the human race depend upon our willingness and ability to cooperate, to work together in a worldwide attack on the great world problems.

Pauling’s emphasis on the need for humanity to remain united and to work together courses through the entire book.

Figure comparing estimates of wordwide fallout, as included in No More War!

Figure comparing estimates of wordwide fallout, as included in No More War!

Indeed, increases in the mutation rate and the threats that they posed to the human race comprised Pauling’s central argument in favor of ceasing nuclear tests.  Pauling believed that there was no safe threshold amount of radiation that a person could receive; any amount could prove harmful and potentially lead to leukemia, bone cancer, or other diseases linked to radiation. Conceptualized in this way, radiation was likened by Pauling as something worse than a poison.  For Pauling, a person could not receive a small, harmless dose of radiation like they could with certain poisons that are only dangerous in large quantities taken at one time.  Rather, radiation is a cumulative toxin and the lower values measured as fallout from nuclear tests were potentially just as damaging as high exposures, just not as immediately apparent.

At the other end of the spectrum, Teller downplayed the risks of fallout, basing his argument on the fact that environmental radiation is nothing new.  On the contrary, it has existed since the beginning of the Earth, meaning that every human, plant, and animal in existence is subjected daily to radioactivity and always has been and always will be.  In formulating his argument, Teller placed additional emphasis on the number of ways that environmental radiation can be taken up by the body and how geographic location influences these processes.  He also stressed that radiation could be acquired from seemingly trivial man-made sources as well, sources that most people thought little about.  Teller stated these man-made sources, such as medical x-rays or even wristwatches with illuminated hands, were more harmful than was the radioactivity from testing fallout.

Pauling's annotated copy of  Our Nuclear Future, with a New York Times review of the book tipped in.

Pauling’s annotated copy of Our Nuclear Future, with “a very poor” New York Times review of the book tipped in.

In writing No More War!, one of Pauling’s major objectives was to dispel any notion that there was wide disagreement among scientists as to the actual effects of radiation on humans. In doing so, he pointedly sought to discredit Teller and the Atomic Energy Commission as holding fringe opinions. When discussing Teller, he was especially critical, not only of his calculations and scientific acumen, but also of his views on democracy and education of the citizenry, views which Pauling claimed to be “out of place.”

Partly to combat increasing fears about environmental radioactivity, Teller suggested ramping up research and development of so-called “clean weapons” – i.e., weapons that did not produce radioactive fallout upon detonation. Teller believed clean weapons to be necessary and potentially very useful for purposes far beyond application in war.  A clean weapon might be used, for instance, to build a harbor.  Throughout Our Nuclear Future, Teller is clear in his advocacy of developing new weapons and testing them to make sure that they work.

Pauling strongly disagreed with Teller’s ideas concerning the development of a clean bomb, which Teller identified as a top reason why testing needed to continue.  Pauling likewise took offense at the use of the word “clean,” pointing out that so-called clean weapons still held the potential to kill millions of innocent people.  Furthermore, these new weapons were only promoting the culture of continued testing and thus, further radioactive fallout.

Though neither Our Nuclear Future nor No More War! pretended to be a cool analysis of fact, both used similar techniques, often based in scientific analysis, to try and persuade readers toward one of two very different points of view.  Both books also might be viewed as an extension of the debate that had been televised between Pauling and Teller in February 1958, with the two scientists continuing to jockey for position through a different public forum.

And while it is clear that Pauling and Teller were never going to agree on the fundamental nuclear issues of the time, both of their books made an impact. The New York Times placed both volumes on its list of outstanding books for the year and, in a different article, named both as among the necessary books with which to acquaint oneself in seeking to understand the nuclear debate.