Symposia and the Peace Ship: Pauling in Latin America, 1980s.

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling, dancing the samba in Brazil, September 1980.

[Part 5 of 5]

The 1980s were a very busy decade for Linus Pauling with regards to trips to Latin America. Over the course of the decade, he attended various scientific symposia in Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela, and also participated in a variety of peace activities – delivering a peace talk in Colombia, meeting with the leaders of several governments, and participating in the “Peace Ship,” a vessel loaded with humanitarian aid provided by the governments of Norway and Sweden, which sailed from Panama to Nicaragua in July and August 1984.

Having participated in the Second International Vitamin C Symposium in 1978, Pauling once again traveled to Brazil in 1980 for the third iteration of this gathering, which took place in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The Symposium ran from September 2-13, with Pauling seated as the guest of honor. He arrived in Manaus on September 4 and did some sightseeing to start off his visit. Later he traveled to Sao Paulo and the conference got underway. He gave the opening speech the day after the Symposium began.

Session titles at the symposium were familiar to those who had followed Pauling’s recent career: “Vitamin C in Immunology,” “Vitamin C in Lipid Metabolism,” “Other Aspects of Vitamin C,” and “Vitamin C in Cancer.” Pauling coordinated and participated in the program on vitamin C and cancer, presenting a paper titled “The Incidence of Squamous Cell Carcinoma in Hairless Mice Irradiated with Ultraviolet Light in Relations to the Intake of Ascorbic Acid.” This paper reported the results of a study that Pauling had conducted along with three other investigators, in which they observed the development of large malignant skin tumors in 700 hairless mice.

According to Pauling’s text, the mice, divided into groups, were “intermittently exposed in a standard way to long-wavelength ultraviolet light over a period of 110 days,” while each group was given a consistent diet containing a different amount of Vitamin C from group to group. At the end of the study, it was determined that a strong correlation existed between the number of tumors that the mice developed and the amount of Vitamin C in their diet.

On September 10, Pauling traveled to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, where he gave the opening speech for the First International Symposium on Recent Advances in Vitamins.  Sessions at this meeting included, “Vitamin A,” “Hipovitominosis and Public Health,” “Vitamin C Complex,” “Microbiological Measurements of Vitamins,” and “Nutrition and Vitamin Deficiencies.” Pauling concluded the symposium with a closing speech and left Rio for home on September 13.

Pauling went to yet another symposium in January 1981, this time in Mexico City and focusing on the subject “Metabolic Treatment of Heart Conditions.” The conference took place at Juarez Hospital in the Mexican capital, and was coordinated by Dr. David Contreras, Chief of Cardiology at the hospital. At this short, two-day meeting, Pauling only gave one lecture, “Treatment of Old Age.”

Pauling with Nobel laureate economist F. A. Hayek at the Darwin Conference, Caracas, Venezuela, November 1982. (El Diario)

After Ava Helen’s death in December 1981, Pauling did not travel to Latin America again until November 1982, when he was invited to a Darwin Symposium in Caracas, Venezuela. He gave a lecture on November 8 at the Central University of Venezuela titled, “Darwin and the Adventure of Thought,” as well as a lecture titled, “The Joy of Research.” In the latter, Pauling talked about his capacity to find joy in scientific discoveries made by others, specifically citing his excitement in learning of the uncovering of clues to the extinction of dinosaurs as found in clay layers. But even more joy, Pauling suggested, could be felt through one’s own process of discovery. As he recounted on a different occasion

When Ernest Lawrence got married…I was an usher at the wedding, in 1931.  I drove back in the car with some people and I said that I was happy because I had in my pocket a crystal of sulvanite, Cu3VS4.  And I had just determined the structure of this and it was a very striking structure; anomalous, it didn’t fit in with my ideas about sulfide minerals.  But I knew what the structure was, nobody else knows, nobody in the world knows what the structure is and they won’t know until I tell them.  This is an example of the feeling of pleasure I had on discovering something new.

Pauling’s next trip to Latin America was for the International Symposium on Vitamins in Nutrition and Therapy, held in Cartagena and Bogotá, Colombia, in 1983. Pauling arrived in Bogotá on November 22, and went to Cartagena the next day. After returning to Bogotá on the 27th he met with President Belisario Betancur, who led the country from 1982 to 1986. Pauling also gave a speech, “The Necessity of World Peace,” in Cartagena. In it he discussed the terrifying possibility of a third World War and how it might result in the extermination of the human race. He commented that cooperation was necessary in order for world’s superpowers to survive, since retaliation would be suicide.

During his speech, Pauling also made mention of the Korean airlines crisis of 1983, in which Korean Airlines Flight 007 was shot down by Soviet interceptors over the Sea of Japan after entering Soviet airspace around the time of a planned missile test. All the passengers and crew on board were killed, including Lawrence McDonald, a member of the United States House of Representatives. The Soviet Union eventually claimed that the aircraft was on a spy mission. According to Pauling, “President Reagan saved the world by not taking retaliatory military action, as was urged on him by the right-wingers in the U.S.”


El Mundo, July 25, 1984.

In 1984 the Nicaraguan government was struggling to rebuild itself under a new government, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), after suffering a bloody oppression under the Somoza family’s 43-year dictatorship, and a civil war from 1978 to 1979. Opposing the FSLN were the U. S.-backed Contras, guerrilla fighters engaged in violent struggle with the Sandinistas. Amidst the chaos, the government of Norway, along with a small group of Nobel laureates, decided to help the suffering people of Nicaragua by delivering a shipload of humanitarian aid in the summer of 1984.

The Peace Ship, as it was called, started its journey in Panama City on July 23 with a press conference, before sailing up to Port Corinto, Nicaragua. Passengers on board the Norwegian ship W/V Falknes included Pauling; Adolfo Perez Esquivel and Betty Williams, winners of the Nobel Peace Prize; George Wald, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine; and the leaders of various religious groups.

Those on board sent a message “To People of Conscience, From the Peace Ship,” which stated,

[this ship] carries instruments for health and life, not implements of war; medicines, educational materials, fertilizers, small fishing boats and paper donated by the governments of Norway, Sweden and non-governmental organizations to facilitate Nicaragua’s forthcoming [November 1984] national election.

Pauling and Wald also sent a telegram to President Reagan, informing him of their mission and noting their intent to issue a statement in Managua backing “the right of self-determination, support for the efforts of the Contadora Group to bring peace to the region, the cessation of all foreign intervention, and the withdrawal of all foreign advisers from the region.”

After the Peace Ship arrived in Nicaragua, Pauling and Wald rode to Managua in a Land Cruiser driven by Daniel Ortega Saavedra, a member of the Junta of National Construction that ran the FSLN. At the time, Ortega was running for President of Nicaragua and he would eventually win the November elections that year, the first presidential election held in the country’s history. Pauling commented in his notes that as they drove through the countryside, Ortega and his men were on the lookout for Contras who might attack, and kept submachine guns on the floor of the Land Cruiser. Pauling said of Nicaragua, “It is a miserably poor country. I felt about as bad concerning conditions there as I had about India…”

Accompanied by Ortega and Wald, Pauling visited a small hospital in Managua in which wounded soldiers who had been injured by the Contra forces were being treated, and also visited the medical school in León. He likewise gave a lecture at a medical conference in Managua celebrating the fifth anniversary of the National Health Service.

Pauling also went on a trip to the countryside to visit an active volcano, which he found to be home to flocks of green parakeets. This trip was hosted by Humberto Ortega Saavedra, Daniel Ortega’s brother and the commander-in-chief of Nicaragua’s armed forces.

Pauling flew out of Managua on August 4, but experienced some complications during his trip home: his passport was confiscated as he traveled from one airport to another, and was not returned to him until his arrival in San Francisco. He commented in a letter to his children that he suspected he was being harassed as a result of his and Wald’s telegram to President Reagan, sent while on board the Peace Ship.

[Above: Pauling diary entry regarding the confiscation of his passport. 4 Aug 84 In Mexico City my passport was taken & kept by the Mexican Immigration.  I got on Mexicana 970 for SF, but kept asking for my passport. I think that a flight [?] is on it- I saw a US passport. He put it in a long envelope & told me that I would receive it after Mazatlan.  It [sic] Mazatlan I was told that I could stay aboard the plane.* Only then did I have the idea that the US govt was confiscating my passport,  with the collaboration of the Mexican govt. *All other passengers got out to go through immigration, etc.]

After his return to the U.S., Pauling continued to act on behalf of Nicaragua’s struggle for peace and freedom. He supported the International Committee of the Support of War Victims of Nicaragua, and endorsed a resolution authored by two doctors, Robin W. Briehl and Kenneth Barnes, which opposed the “U.S.-directed violations of human rights and interference with scientific development in Nicaragua.” This resolution was submitted for consideration to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and urged the U.S. government to stop funding the Contras, as well as aid in the safe release of a kidnapped medical brigade.

While Pauling continued to advocate on behalf of various Latin American causes, his voyage on the peace ship marked his last major trip to the region.  So concluded a long string of memorable activities and experiences that had begun some thirty-five years before.

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A Voyage on the Peace Ship

A keepsake from the Motorship Falknes, July 1984.

A keepsake from the Motorship Falknes, July 1984.

“The invasion of Nicaragua by the United States, either by sending in the Marines or by use of forces financed and directed by the United States, would be a disgraceful action that would remain a blot on our record forever. The American people must insist that our government stop dominating and exploiting our Latin American neighbors, and instead adopt a policy of assistance and collaboration.”

-Linus Pauling, November 11, 1983.

Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Linus Pauling’s participation in the Peace Ship project. Supported by the Norwegian government and organized by Nobel laureates Adolfo Perez Esquival and George Wald, the project enlisted the support of two additional Nobel Prize-winners – Betty Williams and Pauling – in fulfilling its mission to deliver some 13,000 tons of newsprint, fertilizer, food and medicine to the Nicaraguan people.

El Barco de la Paz, which was technically the Norwegian cargo ship M.S. Falknes, arrived in Corinto harbor during an exceedingly difficult time in Nicaraguan history. Five years removed from the overthrow of the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the nation was enveloped in a brutal civil war in which the left-leaning Sandinista ruling group struggled to hold power over the U.S.-backed guerrilla corps collectively known as the Contras. By some estimates, more than 30,000 people died in this conflict, which lasted for all of the 1980s.

For Pauling, the trip was a whirlwind of sights and sounds, most of which served to confirm, and even radicalize, his existing feelings about the dire situation in this small Central American country.

As detailed in his own fascinating account of the trip, Pauling and Wald were driven around the country by Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega himself, “with machine guns on the floor of the car because they expect action from the Contras who often carry out assassinations.”

Linus Pauling in Corinto, Nicaragua, participating in the Peace Ship assistance mission. July 26, 1984.

Linus Pauling in Corinto, Nicaragua, participating in the Peace Ship assistance mission. July 26, 1984.

The Nobel laureates received glimpses of a nascent socialist heath care system, wherein “most doctors do private practice and also work for the national health system,” a situation which Pauling, in a later interview, judged to be an improvement over past arrangements. In Pauling’s view, “before the Sandinista fighters won…the poor people just didn’t get much in the way of health care or physician services. Now they do.”

Pauling also learned something of the Sandinistas’ mixed approach to creating markets for agricultural goods. His notes include mention of a visit “to one of the privately owned big farms,” where he “talked to the owner about his relationships with the government and how, when crops were poor a couple of years ago, the government had helped him. The government sets prices but the owners make a profit.”

Always on his travels, there existed the specter of on-going civil war: “We met another large land owner, Gladys Volt, whose husband had been kidnapped and killed by the Contras just eight days before.”

The trip likewise included a certain amount of lighter fare – Pauling seemed, in particular, to enjoy a trip to a volcano – as well as the usual formal receptions, lectures (mostly on vitamin C) and honorary awards that one would expect to be extended to a figure of Pauling’s stature. And throughout it all, Pauling’s evince a theme of cautious optimism for the future.

Linus Pauling speaking at a vigil outside the U.S. Embassy, Managua, Nicaragua, July 1984.

Linus Pauling speaking at a vigil outside the U.S. Embassy, Managua, Nicaragua, July 1984.

Current conditions, however, were desperate. Following a visit to a medical school, he reflects that “my high school chemistry class in 1913 was better equipped than this college,” and defining his entire tour is an overwhelming sense of “a miserably poor country. I felt about as bad concerning conditions there as I had about India…[in 1973].”

Video Link: Pauling discusses the situation in Nicaragua from the deck of The Peace Ship.

Pauling’s transit home was marked by a stark reminder that there is sometimes a price to be paid for acting in opposition to official government policy. In transit from Nicaragua to California, via Mexico City, Pauling’s passport was confiscated for six hours. After a period of confusion, the passport was returned to Pauling- though not until he arrived at his final destination. Pauling believed, perhaps from hard experience, that he was being sent a message.

I think that an order was issued to take my passport away from me. George [Wald] and I had sent President Reagan a telegram from the ship and said we were on this ship taking material from Norway to Nicaragua. So I started thinking, this is what’s happening. They are taking my passport and I won’t get it back and I wondered what to do. Should I call Meet the Press, or Face the Nation?

When we got to San Francisco and after I stepped off the plane, the stewardess came with an envelope and gave it to me. It contained my passport and I went through customs without any trouble. I think that some higher official in the U.S. government had decided that it was better not to take my passport (which had, of course, been denied me from 1952 until 1954, when I was given the Nobel prize in chemistry.)

For more on Linus Pauling’s legacy of peace activism, see Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.