The Pauling-Teller Debate: Fear and Loathing

Annotations by Linus Pauling, 1963.

Annotations by Linus Pauling, 1963.

[Part 5 of 5]

Once his televised debate with Edward Teller was concluded, Linus Pauling stated that the two would never meet again in a format of this type, as Pauling “considered [Telller’s] debating methods improper.”  And though the two would indeed never again confront one another in public, tensions continued to build, if mostly on the side of Pauling.

In the lectures that he gave over the decades that followed, Pauling would regularly make a point of countering Teller’s arguments.  Seeking to circulate his opposing viewpoint as widely as possible, Pauling likewise often wrote published responses to Teller’s articles and penned just as many (or more) unpublished letters to the editors of various journals that had printed Teller’s work.

In marginalia notes written on a 1963 New York Times article titled “Teller Test-Ban Warning,” which Teller published nearly five years after the debate took place, Pauling’s animosity toward his opponent is perfectly clear. Reacting to Teller’s statement, “I hope that patriotic Congressmen of both parties will resist the pressure of a public frightened by crisis and misled by the mirage of peace,” Pauling expresses himself with an uncommon level of vitriol.

HERE THE DEVIL IS SPEAKING, THE PERSONIFICATION of EVIL, THE FOE of MORALITY & GOODNESS, THE ENEMY of HUMANITY.


Program for an event sponsored by the New York chapter of SANE, 1959. Pauling has annotated: "We will all fry together when we fry/Three billion sizzling platters"; "We will all go together when we go/I dedicate this song to the man who has done so much to make the golden dream a reality - Dr. Edward Teller"

Program for an event sponsored by the New York chapter of SANE, 1959. Pauling has annotated: “We will all fry together when we fry/Three billion sizzling platters”; “We will all go together when we go/I dedicate this song to the man who has done so much to make the golden dream a reality – Dr. Edward Teller”

After the debate, Pauling pursued his activist platform in much the same vein as in his encounter with Teller, continuing to make the same points of contention and state the same facts.  But in doing so, he not only countered points made by Teller, he also began to argue against essentially anyone who spoke out positively on issues of nuclear weapons development or a future nuclear war.

In one such instance, his article “The Dead Will Inherit the Earth,” published in Frontier in November 1961, Pauling attacked prevailing arguments made in favor of fallout shelters and their ability to save large percentages of American lives.  Where Life magazine had suggested that fallout shelters might lead to survival rates as high as 95%, with Teller pegging the number closer to 90%, Pauling placed his own estimate at 0% within one year of hostilities. Such was Pauling’s estimation of the magnitude of any nuclear war that might be waged using the weapons that had been stockpiled and mobilized at that time.


Detail from "Enforcing an Atom Test Ban: Scientists Testify Before Joint Atomic Energy Comittee," Science, April 29, 1960. Annotation by Pauling.

Detail from “Enforcing an Atom Test Ban: Scientists Testify Before Joint Atomic Energy Comittee,” Science, April 29, 1960. Annotation by Pauling.

Indeed, the late 1950s were a unique moment in world history, a time period during which the future was uncertain both in terms of geopolitics as well as the continued health and well-being of humanity. At the heart of these tensions resided, of course, the development of weapons far more powerful than anything ever seen before. While, during World War II, nuclear devices were initially viewed as symbols of strength and as a hope for peace, for many they quickly came to embody all that is negative in human society after they were used in Japan.

Though their viewpoints on nuclear weapons clearly resided on polar opposites of this dichotomy, a singular menace lay at heart of much of Teller and Pauling’s rhetoric: the threat of a third World War, one which would be far worse than any previous war, potentially resulting in the elimination of human life from the planet.  This potential for crisis was a key factor in the escalation and continuation of the Cold War.

Both Pauling and Teller used these Cold War fears to bolster their arguments – clearly their positions would have carried far less weight without them.  In doing so, both men attempted, in their own specific ways, to use data and statements of fact to alleviate public ignorance surrounding nuclear technologies.  On the same token, both men also relied on a lack of conclusive data to make assumptions that would further support his point of view.


Summing Up

The 1958 debate, coupled with the books that both Pauling and Teller wrote later that year, demonstrate the broad diversity of ideas and tensions that surrounded the development and testing of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.  Likewise, the story of the confrontation that emerged between these two men is central to understanding arguments over the continuation or cessation of weapons testing and development, and the emotional nature of the Cold War era.

Teller professed a desire to believe in Pauling’s position that the U.S. could maintain peace through international cooperation, but he was never able to arrive at this point.  On the contrary, Teller, hardened by his own personal experiences as a Hungarian national, felt that the Communist bloc could not be trusted and that the U.S. ultimately had to keep the upper hand in nuclear technologies to keep its enemies in check. Teller viewed this tactic as the only route to avoiding a third World War. Deterrence, of course, required more weapons, and in order for new weapons to be developed, nuclear tests needed to continue.

As vehemently opposed as they were to one another’s perspectives, Pauling and Teller shared much in common. Their stances both emanated from their their views on the leading role that science should play in daily life, the need for scientists to be involved in the development of public policy, and the importance of developing policy through public dialogue.

Both men were also essentially arguing for the same, or similar, outcomes: the education of the public on scientific matters and a quick end to tensions with the Soviet Union.  Pauling and Teller likewise attempted to reach their rhetorical goals through a “translation” of science into language that laymen could understand. And although both hoped to change the minds of the public using reason and a better understanding of the facts at hand, each man ended up playing on fears in order to get their points across.

Though they went about it in very different ways, Linus Pauling and Edward Teller were both trying to prevent a third World War. Both agreed that war brings out the worst in humanity and that the next World War portended dire consequences.  But as the debate unfolded, their vastly different perspectives brought emotions to the surface, at times revealing personal beliefs on nuclear weapons and on each other. For Pauling, the animosity that he felt remained consistent throughout his life, as he continued to be publicly critical of Teller’s work and role in the development of the hydrogen bomb.

 

The Pauling-Teller Debate: Two Books That Followed

nuclear-future

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.

The Pauling-Teller Debate: Coming Face-to-Face

 

Linus Pauling debating Edward Teller on the topic of nuclear fallout: “The Nuclear Bomb Tests…Is Fallout Overrated?” KQED-TV, San Francisco. February 20, 1958.

[Part 3 of 5]

An informed citizen is a good citizen.  This was a belief held by both Linus Pauling and Edward Teller.  As scientists the two likewise believed that the information they presented to the public must be specific and stripped of rhetoric. On the same token, it was also their obligation to spell out to the public their sense of the threats that loomed during the Cold War and to motivate their audience to respond to those threats. Perhaps most importantly, both men believed it imperative that the information that they provided be up-to-date and reflective of the idea that science is the most reliable source of information for the public.

In many respects then, Pauling and Teller were operating from principles that would seem to have been very close to one another. That the two men would present such differing viewpoints from such a similar basis of belief is illustrative of the confusion that prevailed in American society concerning fallout and nuclear weapons at the time of the Pauling-Teller debate.


The one and only televised debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller was held in San Francisco on February 20, 1958, and broadcast live by KQED television, a public broadcasting station located in the city. From the get-go, Pauling had a hard time.

As the debate commenced, Pauling opened with a plea to prevent nuclear war, and emphasized the pressing need that prevention start now.  Pauling’s speech was stilted and awkward though, and he stumbled over his words despite appearing to have been well-rehearsed.  For whatever reason, in his opening statement, Pauling did not come across like a man who was used to speaking in front of others about these ideas, although he gradually appeared more relaxed as the debate progressed.

Edward Teller and Linus Pauling with members of the media and a television crew at their 1958 debate.

Teller also began his opening statement in a staccato cadence similar to that used by his opponent, though he quickly warmed up to the audience and began to speak more candidly.  Teller also succeeded in letting his emotions show more clearly than did Pauling. Although this is not how most scientists of the era would think to present themselves, the display of emotions likely came across as more appealing to the debate audience.

One of the main points that Pauling tried to emphasize in the debate was that the cessation of nuclear development and testing would require the agreement of many people, both inside and outside of the U.S.  Pauling called for a collective effort “to solve international disputes by the application of man’s power of reason in a way that is worthy of the dignity of man.” He went on:

We must solve them by arbitration, negotiation, the development of international law, the making of international agreements that will do justice to all nations and to all peoples and will benefit all nations and all people

This process naturally would require large amounts of work on behalf of many people. Indeed, in order to achieve peace and stability, Pauling argued that levels of resources equivalent to those committed to create nuclear weapons needed to be expended in support of coming to an agreement. A commitment, in other words, “comparable to that of the forty billion dollars a year that we put into armaments.”  Pauling also pointed out that the Soviets had already proposed a cessation in nuclear weapons testing and an end to weapons stockpiling, so neither idea was too radical or forward thinking.

A lasting agreement would also have to transcend political systems.  Pauling saw no problems with coming to terms with the Soviet Union, or any other nation, regardless of politics and policies.  On the contrary, he believed “that we need to have different kinds of political systems…[and] that the way to settle the problem of the differences is not to kill off most of the people in the world, or a large fraction of the people in the world with these terrible nuclear weapons.”

Though Pauling mostly spoke in positive and inclusive tones, he often strayed from this approach to criticize Teller, at times going line-by-line through one or another of Teller’s articles. And while an important part of Pauling’s strategy appears to have been to attack Teller’s previous public statements, he failed to expand beyond this tactic to address certain of the larger issues at hand, such as radioactive fallout or a nuclear weapons test ban.


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San Francisco Chronicle, February 21, 1958.

As the debate moved forward, it was Teller who became more and more precise on the topic of harm from fallout, though this would seem to have been a point of rhetoric favoring Pauling’s point of view. It was at this point that Teller was able to take firm command of the proceedings. As he outlined his arguments, he did not try to discredit or attack Pauling, but instead worked to align himself with his opponent by focusing on their similarities instead of their differences, by characterizing their differences as misconceptions, and by emphasizing the ambiguities in the data they were both using.

Conversely, throughout the evening Pauling painted Teller as a warmonger, quoting him as saying “we must meet the Russians wherever they choose to attack.”  Pauling interpreted this statement as an expression of need to prepare for nuclear war. Teller countered that he supported the development of a wide range of weapons as a means to stave off any possibility of attack.  If the U.S. had developed weapons to deal with any possible scenario, Teller’s logic went, the Soviets would be too afraid to ever attack.

Teller also argued that no one could possibly know for sure what potential harm might arise from nuclear weapons tests, a counterpoint diametrically opposed from Pauling’s dire warnings of negative health impacts from radioactive fallout. Teller pointed out that nuclear weapons had not been around long enough for adequate research to be conducted and that, just as researchers were only then starting to evaluate the results of industrialization, only time would tell what to make of the nuclear age.

For Teller, the threat of a potential attack was a bigger deterrent to a test ban than were the possible threats of continued testing. Likewise, as its military strength improved, the U.S. would become stronger and the world more stable.  Teller agreed with Pauling’s position that the world needed to strive for peace based on mutual understanding.  However, as Teller put it

Peace based on force buys us the necessary time. And in this time we can work for better understanding, for closer collaboration, first with the countries which are closest to us, which we understand better, our allies, the Western countries, the NATO countries, which believe in human liberties as we do.  Then, as soon as possible, with the rest of the free world, and eventually, I hope, with the whole world, including Russia, even though it may take years to come.

Teller concluded the debate by reflecting on the situation in his native Hungary, his own love of liberty, and his belief that continued testing was an exercise of democratic freedom.  His very last line, “I am talking for my freedom, for his [Pauling’s] freedom, and for the freedom of all of us,” emphasized the collective nature of his stance.  So ended the televised debate between Pauling and Teller, but their public engagement with one another was far from concluded.

The Pauling-Teller Debate: Setting the Stage

Portrait of Edward Teller by Dmitri Vail. June 1965.

Portrait of Edward Teller by Dmitri Vail. June 1965.

[A detailed examination of the 1958 Pauling-Teller nuclear fallout debate. Post 1 of 5]

Linus Pauling and the Hungarian-American Edward Teller were well-acquainted with one another, both because of their research backgrounds in quantum mechanics and because, by the late 1950s, each was commonly recognized to be one of America’s premier scientists. On February 20th, 1958, the two men came face-to-face in a televised debate about nuclear weapons testing and fallout for the first and only time. Pauling would say afterward that he would never debate Teller again. Later that year, both men also published books that furthered their stances on the topics of nuclear fallout and weapons testing, while simultaneous engaging each other’s views.

World War II came about while both men were at similar places in life. In the mid-1940s, both Pauling and Teller were in the early stages of their careers and were establishing themselves as leaders within their fields of discipline.  However, the choices that the two made in the face of war were radically different – as were the projects that they pursued – with both men making decisions shaped by personal motivations and principles.

Although Pauling was asked to work on the Manhattan Project, he declined to do so, partly because he did not want to disrupt his family life, but also out of a desire to continue on his own war work projects uninterrupted.  With the onset of war, Pauling made an abrupt shift to support the Allied effort, transitioning his work from a focus on immunology to more practical problems, including finding a substitute for blood serum and devising an oxygen meter for use in submarines and aircraft.

On the contrary, when asked to assist with work on the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project, Edward Teller replied that he could not say no, due largely to his abhorrence of Hitler and Mussolini and the havoc that they were causing in his native Europe.  A recent arrival to the United States, Teller felt a strong obligation to protect the freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of his new home, of which he too became a citizen in 1941. Teller likewise believed that it was his job as a scientist to help science progress, a belief that only strengthened post-war, as it became clear that the Soviets had developed their own nuclear weapons in 1949, much earlier than anticipated.

Indeed, World War II and the role that technology played in winning the war both elevated science into the spotlight and expanded capacities for public and political criticism of science. According to Pauling, applied science could be used for evil just as easily as it could be used for good, and sometimes the line between the two was hard to discern.

One outcome of this was that scientists now held greater power in politics, and especially in the military. Nonetheless, after the war ended, many scientists simply aligned themselves with the US government, and its objectives, in part to secure support and funding for their projects.  A smaller number, Pauling and Teller included, actively sought to shape government policy with their influence and prestige.

1960i.11-600w

Following the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a long stream of questions and concerns came to dominate the public discourse over nuclear weapons, with many demanding instant action to control the use and further development of these powerful new instruments of war.  In the years immediately following the war, Teller agreed with Pauling that a universal government could, and should, control the knowledge that had resulted in the production of a nuclear device – trying to keep the information secret was unscientific and would likely only make the geopolitical situation worse.

Teller continued to believe in this course of action until finally deciding that the solution was not realistic, especially in the face of mounting tensions with the Soviet Union over their rapidly developing technologies.  Teller stated publicly that he wished he could side with Pauling’s position that the US could help to maintain peace through international cooperation.

But instead, Teller believed that the US ultimately had to keep the upper hand with respect to nuclear technologies and that doing so necessitated further weapons development. Deterrence, Teller felt, required more weapons, and in order for new weapons to be developed, nuclear tests needed to continue. Teller argued that this was the only path to avoiding a third World War. Pauling, on the other hand, believed that the West needed to learn to get along with the Communists and he sought to include them in his peace activities.

The 1958 debate, and Pauling and Teller’s stances, encapsulate many of the diverse ideas and tensions that surrounded the development and testing of nuclear weapons in the Cold War period. The two scientists approached the dangers of the Cold War and the associated arms race from very different perspectives, due in part to their different disciplinary backgrounds in chemistry and physics respectively. Nonetheless, their tactics and approach were similar in key respects, in part because each man shared an enthusiasm for speaking to large lay audiences.

Both men also sought to educate the American public about the current geopolitical situation and the future of nuclear development, and both strove to present their views in language that the public could understand.  Pauling was extremely rational in his thinking and he sought to use his scientific background to educate others so that they could draw their own conclusions concerning nuclear testing and fallout.  In this, Teller was similar to Pauling as he too sought to educate the lay public as a means to establish his argument.  Both men also believed that it was their duty to educate the public because of their unique positions as scientists, consultants, and citizens.

But the discussion between Pauling and Teller was not merely one of whether or not nuclear weapons should continue to be developed, but ultimately how peace with the Soviet Union could be maintained.  For Pauling the dialogue was framed as a battle for disarmament that would lead to peace; for Teller, it was deterrence against future Soviet acts of aggression.  Both men played on the fears of ordinary Americans, drawing from the very real tensions of the time, and each fought for the attention of politicians who could enact the policies that they, as scientists, could not.  As we will see, the result of all this was a sometimes messy battle over calculations, predictions, and interpretations.

Pauling’s Peace Prize

On October 10, 1963, Linus Pauling received notice that he was to be history's first recipient of two unshared Nobel Prizes.

On October 10, 1963, Linus Pauling received notice that he was to be history’s first recipient of two unshared Nobel Prizes.

Like many other Nobel Prize winners, Linus Pauling discovered that he had been awarded the Peace Prize in a dramatic way. The news was announced on October 10th, 1963, while Pauling was at his Big Sur ranch – an intentionally secluded space lacking a telephone to say nothing of a television. He, Ava Helen and some friends had already planned on celebrating that morning, as October 10th would also mark the formal beginning of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which put an end to above-ground nuclear tests among the world’s major nuclear powers. As he wrote in his research notebook:

Ava Helen and I had come to the ranch with Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Durr. We had bought a bottle of champagne, which we planned to drink to celebrate the treaty. At 8:15am, as we were sitting down to breakfast, the forest ranger, Ralph Haskin, came to the cabin. He said that Linda had telephoned and had asked that Ava Helen and I both come to the ranger station and telephone her. I asked if he knew what was the matter, and he said that he thought that it wasn’t serious. (Linda had told him and asked him not to tell us.) We finished breakfast, drove to the station, and telephoned Linda. She said that I had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1962. (She first asked me if I had heard the news. I said no.) I spent most of the day at the station, answering the telephone and giving interviews. We forgot to open the champagne. On 11 October, we drove to Carmel. Ralph Atkinson had champagne at hand. It’s our first celebration.

The fact that Pauling received the 1962 prize in 1963 is extremely telling. As Pauling wrote in a confidential note to self:

On the morning of Tuesday 13 Nov., Gunnar Jahn [then chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee] telephoned me at the Bristol Hotel, Oslo, and asked us to come to his office at 11 A.M. There he said to Ava Helen and me, in the presence of his secretary, Mrs. Elna Poppe, “I tried to get the Committee…to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 1962 to you; I think you are the most outstanding peace worker in the world. But only one of the four would agree with me. I then said to them ‘If you won’t give it to Pauling, there won’t be any Peace Prize this year.'”

And indeed there was not.


Life magazine, October 25, 1963.

Life magazine, October 25, 1963.

Jahn’s conflict with his colleagues was symbolic of the differing attitudes with which news of Pauling’s Peace Prize was greeted, especially in America. While the public and many of Pauling’s friends sent him a flood of congratulatory letters and telegraphs, pro-nuclear scientists, much of the mainstream media and official agents of the U.S. government were unhappy about Pauling’s accolade.

Perhaps most famously, on October 25th, 1963, Life Magazine published an editorial titled “A Weird Insult from Norway,” which, as one might imagine, criticized the Nobel committee’s decision. The critique attacked Pauling’s prize from two directions. First, the editors pointed out that the recognition of Pauling’s peace work by the Norwegian committee was, in effect, a condemnation of contemporary research on nuclear science. The magazine argued that if efforts to ban nuclear tests were deemed worthy of respect, then efforts to promote nuclear research were conversely discredited. By this logic, Pauling’s Nobel Peace Prize was presumed to be an insult to other scientists engaged in nuclear weapons research.

Second, the Life editorial sought to undermine Pauling’s importance to the nuclear disarmament movement. The magazine stressed that the real reason why the Partial Test Ban Treaty came into being was not because Pauling’s famous 1958 appeal finally changed the minds of governments, but rather because President Kennedy’s firm stance against the construction of missile bases in Cuba during October of the previous year had, to a large degree, helped shape sentiment in favor of disarmament on a global scale.

While Pauling received many letters of support from those who were outraged by the editorial, few were quite so colorful as that penned by his friend Ernst Scharrer. Scharrer, at the time a faculty member at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, began by dismissing as folly the logic behind Life‘s critique. From there Scharrer compared the editors’ published opinion to Adolf Hitler’s response to Carl von Ossietzky’s 1935 Peace prize. As Hitler secretly began rearming Germany, in the process ignoring the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Ossietzky revealed the news to the world by publishing details of the militarization. When this effort won Ossietzky the Nobel Peace Prize, Hitler declared that, henceforth, German citizens were forbidden to accept Nobel prizes. Though of lesser consequence, Scharrer’s point was that Life‘s critique was similarly unjustified, partisan and petty.


Linus Pauling debating Edward Teller on the topic of nuclear fallout: “The Nuclear Bomb Tests…Is Fallout Overrated?” KQED-TV, San Francisco. February 20, 1958.

What explains the divergence of views over Pauling’s peace efforts? To answer this, it helps to go back to the central questions of the nuclear test debate.

Opposing viewpoints on these questions were summed up in a televised debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller titled “Fallout and Disarmament” and broadcast on San Francisco’s KQED-TV in 1958. Teller spoke for the pro-nuclear camp in first explicitly stating that, as with Pauling, peace was his goal. The focus of the controversy, then, was how best to bring about a world in peace. The conflict centered on whether the process should involve nuclear weapons. The still somewhat unknown side effects associated with the manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons also made this in an issue of pitched debate. It was known that nuclear bombs could crush islands into dust and spread them into the atmosphere over the course of a few seconds. What’s more, rare, toxic elements were also clearly created alongside the release of large amounts of radiation. But no one knew exactly what might happen to our bodies when exposed to regular, if lower, levels of these atomic-era materials.

Faced with this uncertainty, the two sides came into conflict on the question of what the development of nuclear weapons might bring to American society. Edward Teller thought them beneficial in that the ability to manufacture these massive weapons meant that the U.S. could match and possibly overcome the Soviet Union in terms of military strength. It was this balance between the two military superpowers, Teller claimed, that would guarantee peace. In the absence of this dynamic, war was presumed to be inevitable, with the side that failed to develop a matching nuclear capacity finding itself at a distinct disadvantage. For Teller, the arms race necessitated the testing of nuclear weapons. The real stake was military strength – peace was based on force. In addition, and of major consequence to his position, Teller maintained a very optimistic view on the health effects of prolonged exposure to fallout levels of radiation. He even pointed out the possibility that increased mutations resulting from fallout could be regarded as a source for enhanced evolution of species.

Pauling couldn’t have disagreed more vehemently. He thought the construction of nuclear weapons to be a bane of world society and emphasized the environmental and health costs imposed by the development of such weapons. Morality was another of Pauling’s weapons with which to attack Teller’s arguments. If it was understood that developing weapons to strengthen national security came at the cost of decreases in public health and environmental stability, the effort, even if well-intentioned, was morally corrupt and ought to be brought to a close as soon as possible. Furthermore, as a fundamental principle, world conflicts should be settled at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield. Pauling also expended much energy in compiling evidence on the ill effects of increased environmental radiation. One example that he often cited was the increase in the incidence of children born with birth defects after World War II and its nuclear conclusion. By directing his audience’s attentions to the impact of atomic gamesmanship on future generations, Pauling stressed the seriousness of the issue and re-emphasized the morality of his argument.


Editorial cartoon published in the York Gazette and Daily by Walt Partymiller, September 20, 1962.

The crux of the Pauling-Teller debate was still in play by the time that Pauling received the 1963 prize. While Life magazine was criticizing the decision of Norway’s Nobel committee to reward Pauling’s peace work, his emphasis on moral action was being enthusiastically supported by his friends and many others in the public arena. In particular, Pauling’s concern over the harmful health effects of atmospheric radiation on future generations gained a lot of attention among the public. This positive response was reflected in many letters of congratulation from ordinary people who wholeheartedly endorsed Pauling’s appeals. Typical was an October 13th, 1963 letter, written by a widow with two boys:

To me you have been vindicated in the eyes of the world. These stupid, loud-mouthed patriots, as they consider themselves, should have to eat their words. I am not a college educated person, and I do not pretend to know what the ultimate outcome of this testing program would be, but I have read enough to make me very fearful as you are. I think we all should consider the future generations – not just ourselves, as you did. But few would be as brave and heroic as you, and would ‘stick our necks out’ as you did. You are a truly great American and a great humanitarian, which is more important! Someday people will speak of you as the great man you really are. I feel so relieved that you have won this prize, as I have been very bitter over the criticism of you. I have resented it so much, but now I feel people will change in their opinion of you…if they don’t, these few ‘screwballs’ you should not care. Most of us are as happy as if we won that prize ourselves. I know I am! Usually it seems, they wait until you die to relent and say a person is truly great and deserves the highest honor. So I feel so grateful that this was done while you still can appreciate the fact that you are considered by many a hero, if there ever was one!

The contrast between the critique of Pauling’s peace prize from Life and the support that he received from much of the public displayed again the pivot point of the nuclear test debate, an issue whose resolution was still many years in the future.  For the remainder of 2013, as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of Pauling’s second Nobel award, we will explore his preparation for Oslo throughout the months of November and December 1963 as he continued to speak and write, often at great personal cost, during a turbulent time in world history.

Linda Richards, Resident Scholar

Linda Richards.

Linda Richards, doctoral candidate in the history of science at Oregon State University, is the first individual to have completed a term as an OSU Libraries Resident Scholar in 2012.  Steeped in the tradition of the activist-scholar, Richards has been discussing nuclear history, environmental justice and non-violent conflict resolution for over twenty-five years.  During her residency, Richards continued her investigations into these themes using the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, the History of Atomic Energy Collection and the Bart and Sally Hacker Papers.

Titled “Starfish, Fallout Suits, and Human Rights,” Richards’ Resident Scholar presentation started from the premise that “how nuclear history is told matters.”  In exploring this idea, Richards introduced her audience to a number of events important to the history of nuclear energy that were likely unknown to most in attendance.

One such incident is the United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock uranium mine contamination, the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history, which occurred in New Mexico on the Navajo Reservation in July 1979.  The disaster badly contaminated the reservation’s scarce water supply with radioactive pollutants flowing some seventy miles down the Puerco River.  The event took place just a few months after the Three Mile Island accident, but is far less well known to the general public.  As Richards noted

What I have found so far in my research confirms, as Gabrielle Hecht suggested, that radiation health safety is more a reflection of the value of what is being irradiated than how dangerous a substance is….I have [also] found nuclear history is most often told as a technocratic saga of nation states pursuing nuclear weapons superiority and energy independence. This narrative is incomplete because it not only separates the glitz of modern reactors from the rocks and dirt of uranium mines hiding what is polluting and harmful about nuclear technology, but it is missing the dimension of lived human experience, particularly of indigenous peoples’ physical and cultural interaction with nuclear technology.

In her discussion of Linus Pauling’s activism in opposition to atmospheric nuclear testing (including his involvement in the Fallout Suits) Richards likewise introduced a number of historical events that do not typically make their way into the shorthand version of nuclear history.

For example, in May 1958 James Van Allen announced his finding that the Earth is surrounded by belts of high-energy particles that are held in place by magnetic fields – the so-called “Van Allen Belts.”  That very same day, Van Allen signed an agreement to work with the military to test nuclear weapons high in space for purposes of studying the disruption of the belts and of military communication during the event of a nuclear war.  Historian James Fleming was later quoted, “this is the first occasion I’ve ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up.”

The most intensely disruptive and longest lasting of these tests was the 1.4-megaton Starfish Prime explosion, which occurred on July 9, 1962. The artificial extension of the Van Allen belts created by the test could be seen across the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to New Zealand, lighting up the night sky. The test damaged six satellites that all failed within six months. The explosion also created an electromagnetic pulse that blew out transformers on Hawaii and disrupted the electricity grid.

Richards also recounted, in alarming detail, the extent to which nuclear testing in the 1960s became increasingly extreme.  The largest nuclear device ever detonated was the Soviet’s Tzar Bomba, a 50-megaton bomb tested some eight months before Starfish Prime.  A graphic presented by Richards illustrated the magnitude of this detonation in stark terms.

The impact of the release of radioactive toxins into the environment was a source of great concern to Linus Pauling and is still being studied today.  By some estimates, radioactive fallout will cause around 430,000 fatal cancers by the end of this century.

And it is this human element that, Richards argues, must be included in contemporary historical writing on the nuclear age.  “My dissertation,” she concluded “is premised on the belief that including a human rights dimension into the nuclear narrative destabilizes the disempowerment of an inaccessible technocratic narrative while raising the questions that need to be asked of history.”

For more on the Resident Scholar Program, now entering its fifth year, please see the program homepage and our continuing series of posts on this blog.

James F. Crow, 1916-2012

James F. Crow. (Credit: Millard Susman)

Professor Crow ran his laboratory on the principles of bringing smart people together to pursue their passions and encouraging interaction, mutual respect and support, constructive criticism, and the free sharing of ideas and resources. There were no formal group meetings or reports, as there was so much daily interaction that group meetings would have been superfluous. He would advise, suggest, and encourage, but never direct or cajole. The standard of mutual respect was set by Professor Crow himself and extended not only to members of the lab but also to everyone in the field. I never heard him utter an unkind word about anyone. He also treated everyone in the lab as a colleague. One day he came to me and said, ‘Dan, there’s a matter on which I’d like your advice.’ He must have seen how flattered I was at being asked because he quickly added, ‘That doesn’t mean I’ll take it. It only means I want to hear it.’

-Daniel Hartl.

James Crow, Professor Emeritus of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, enjoyed a successful scientific career that spanned some seventy years. Crow was most widely recognized and honored for his research in the field of population genetics. With Motoo Kimura, Crow co-authored a book titled, An Introduction to Population Genetics Theory (1970), which focused on the mathematical basis of population genetics and which is now considered a classic of the field.

Born on January 18, 1916 in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, Crow was exposed to the importance of education early on, as his father was a teacher at Ursinus College and later at Friends University in Witchita, Kansas, which Crow attended. Throughout his schooling, Crow enjoyed physics and chemistry, and ended up double majoring in chemistry and biology. In 1941 he earned his doctorate degree in genetics at the University of Texas-Austin, where he also played viola in the student orchestra. This is also where he met his wife, Ann, who was a clarinetist.

Crow next spent seven years at Dartmouth before moving to the University of Wisconsin, where he remained for the rest of his life. Crow’s collaborator Kimura joined Crow’s lab at Wisconsin in 1961, where he spent the next two years working on important problems like the fixation probability of a newly occurring mutation and the “infinite alleles model.”

(Credit: W. Hoffmann)

Over the course of his career, Crow witnessed the discovery of the structure of DNA, the rise of computer technology, cloning and the sequencing of the complete human genome. He stayed current with scientific several fields and was always curious about new research and findings. He became a respected leader in his field and served on a genetics committee set up by the National Academy of Sciences to assess mutational damage in those exposed to radiation from the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He also developed the concept of genetic load, a measure of how fitness may be reduced by selection, and applied it to the rate at which natural selection would remove deleterious mutations from a population.

Remembered for his ability to explain concepts in ways that others could understand, Crow was described as a “brilliant mind and a fabulous storyteller.” His writings on genetics gained international traction and are now commonly referred to as “Crow’s Notes.” During his career, genetics was a growing and changing field; when asked by his students to give them a hint about questions that might be posed on their exams, Crow would often reply, “the questions are the same every year but the answers are different.”


I have never met Professor Crow, but I myself have developed a strong feeling about his ability and reliability from reading his papers.

-Linus Pauling

Known for being social and maintaining a positive outlook on life, Crow enjoyed parties and other avenues that afforded him the opportunity to influence fellow scientists. (One such avenue was his work with the journal Genetics, for which he edited the “Perspectives” section from 1987 until 2008, where he published scientific anecdotes from major scientists in the field of genetics.) One of the scientists influenced by his work was Linus Pauling, who often referenced Crow’s research in his own writings and speeches.

One notable example came about in 1962, when Pauling began writing “Fallout,” a piece discussing nuclear weapons tests that he hoped to publish in The Saturday Evening Post.  As he was developing his text that February, Pauling wrote to Crow, asking if he would be willing to rewrite any sections that he felt might need it and to advise him on any other aspects that needed to be revised or omitted. Crow responded with a three page handwritten letter, providing only minor mark-ups on the actual text, but adding several comments regarding word choice, making sure that Pauling felt no pressure to credit him for the revisions. “Your article fills the bill,” he noted, “I see no need for me to write anything additional.”

Crow did, however, include a quote of his own that he said was published in one of his public affairs pamphlets.  It read,

The harm from fallout is spread over space and time so thinly that the increased risk to any individual is too small to measure, but if all the damaged individuals could be identified and brought into one place at one time it would be regarded by everyone as a major catastrophe.

He concluded his letter by inviting Pauling to visit his lab in Madison, Wisconsin.

Later that year, in an article titled “Genetic Effects of Weapons Test,” published in December in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Pauling once again referenced Crow’s research on exposure to radiation and its deleterious effects on children. This research led Pauling to look into the possibility that carbon-14, a by-product produced by neutron irradiation of nitrogen-14 during nuclear weapons tests, could do extensive genetic and somatic damage. Based on estimates for radiation dosages published by Crow, Pauling determined that one’s exposure to carbon-14 over the entire lifetime of the isotope is actually four times higher than what had normally been assumed for worldwide radioactive fallout.

It is clear from Pauling’s papers that he learned a lot from James Crow’s extensive research on genetics and on the effects of radiation. The two also shared a taste for public service, as Crow chaired various civic organizations while staying engaged in his studies for the remainder of his life. Crow died of congestive heart failure on January 4, 2012, aged 95, at his home in Madison. He spoke frequently with his colleagues until the end.