Papers for Peace: Vietnam, Linus Pauling, and Thích Nhất Hạnh’s Burning Lotus

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[Ed Note: This is the second of three Pauling-related posts authored by SCARC Student Archivist Ethan Heusser for the Rare@OSU blog, which explores the rare book collections held in the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center.]

Though people often come to SCARC to access our collection of two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling’s documents and correspondence, an important but oft-overlooked part of the archive is his personal library. It contains an incredibly diverse amount of material, including history, fiction, science, psychology, drama, and activism. That last category is particularly important given Pauling’s shift toward peace and anti-nuclear activism in his mid-40s; a closer examination of the books in his library from that point onward offers a possible view of the mental landscape that gave his peace activism its sustained intensity.

One salient example is “Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire” by Buddhist monk and activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. Published in 1967, the book offers a piercing look into the real experience of Vietnamese people mid-crisis and how this commonly overlooked mindset contributed to the continually escalating Vietnam conflict.

It begins by discussing “the historical setting” of religion in Vietnam before quickly pivoting to the rise of communist-capitalist tensions as global powers began to get increasingly involved. Hanh uses this context to address inaccurate perceptions held by the American public about Vietnam’s cultural climate; for example, he demonstrates that the majority of NLF (National Liberation Front) soldiers were not in fact fighting for communism, but rather for the end of American occupation. In escalating the conflict for the sake of fighting communism, therefore, the U.S. occupying force only drove the people of Vietnam against it more.

Hanh also undermines the misconception that non-affiliated Vietnamese citizens helped the NLF because of coercion; rather, they assisted the NLF because of the promise of achieving national independence. (In his view, this perspective mainly developed due to the historical presence of French imperialism in Vietnam. He claims that people in Vietnam associate American presence with age-old French oppression, thereby carrying that anger and resentment directly over.)

“Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire” was published at a critical point in American history and in the history of the Vietnam conflict. It complicated the overly-simplistic narrative presented by American media, arguing that the best solution for Vietnam is a neutral one free from the control of both capitalist and communist superpowers. To Hanh, this neutral solution involves establishing an interim government truly representative of the people of Vietnam in order to conduct a free and fair election. He advocates for the emergence of engaged Buddhism as a necessary part of this change. (“Engaged Buddhism” was first coined by Hanh as a philosophy that asks Buddhists to use the principles of their faith to fight injustice and ameliorate inequity.)

There’s nothing out of the ordinary about the edition of “Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire” in our archives, but its presence in Pauling’s personal library can perhaps reveal some of the thoughts and ideas that inspired his anti-Vietnam War activism. Both Linus and Ava Pauling were strong public critics of the Johnson administration’s escalation in Vietnam – and books such as this make it easy to see why. Firsthand accounts from peace activists like Hanh make it difficult to interpret America’s role in the conflict as something other than immoral and ineffective.

It’s inaccurate to assume a person agrees with a book simply because it exists in one’s library – but taking this book in context of the tenor of Pauling’s larger collection as well as the vehement discourse he used in fighting for peace can perhaps shed some light on how the sharing of ideas from peace activists around the world allows for stronger resistance against global injustice.

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One World Away: Kiang’s Great Unity and Pauling’s Press for Peace

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[Ed Note: With the conclusion of the academic year here at Oregon State University, we say goodbye to Student Archivist Ethan Heusser, who has written extensively on the Special Collections and Archives Research Center’s rare book collections at our sister blog, Rare@OSU. Today and over the next three weeks, we will share three Pauling-related posts that Ethan wrote over the course of his tenure working for us.]

Many Americans – and people around the globe – experienced the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s as an age of political uncertainty and social turmoil. It was a powerful time: everywhere the specter of disaster loomed, yet that fear brought with it a unique capacity for change enabled by commonplace desperation. In the United States alone, mounting resistance to the Vietnam War built confidence among grass-roots activist organizations for their efficacy in up-ending the status quo. And while mutually assured destruction terrified the world, the threat of nuclear war also inspired many thinkers and activists to strive for equally bold solutions. In the light of world chaos and potential mass destruction, the idea of building a global government and abolishing nationalism seemed especially promising – far more promising than what the United Nations seemed ultimately able to provide.

It’s no surprise, then, to see a large proliferation in world peace literature in the Cold War era. Some publications were mild and innocuous, but many took the form of bold declarations and manifestos about the urgent need for radical change.

An excellent example of the latter is One World: The Approach to Permanent Peace on Earth and the General Happiness of Mankind by John Kiang. Self-described as “a manifesto of revolution for world union with the evolutionary law of group expansion as a guiding theory,” it examines shifting technologies and living conditions to build a larger argument in favor of a unified humanity. From that perspective, nations and nation-states can only be seen as counter-productive: the deep-seated but fundamentally arbitrary veil of nationalism impedes sincere appeals to common humanity and mutual accountability.

Although the core text is fairly concise, this copy of One World is a scholarly edition from 1984, replete with extensive sources, commentary, and analysis:

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In this work we see the role that cultural context can play in international movements: though not explicitly outlined, One Worldcontains thematic and rhetorical ties to the utopic vision of “Great Unity” in China. Great Unity represents the goal of creating a Chinese society of mutual accountability and selflessness – a cohesive community where people work to help others rather than harm them.

First described in classic Chinese texts going back millennia, Great Unity was popularized by Sun Yat-Sen in the early 20th century. In doing so, it was used to help build a cultural momentum in favor of a shift towards a communist ideal. The Great Unity message was adopted overtly in China’s national anthem in 1937; though later supplanted with another song in the People’s Republic of China during the Chinese Civil War, it remains in use by Taiwan to this day.

John Kiang left China in 1949 in the wake of the earth-shattering Chinese Civil War. It seems fair to suggest that he nevertheless brought the culturally-specific vision of world peace, prosperity, and harmony with him stateside. It’s hard for those of us living in our countries of birth to imagine the inner turmoil he must have felt during that time, working for global peace a world away while his homeland was experiencing such complete upheaval and division. Perhaps that effort helped him, in some way, to bring his home with him and improve the world as a result.

These efforts manifested in One World. Though a relatively obscure book, One World at last found some degree of traction once it found its way into the hands of two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling – surprisingly, Pauling was willing to attach his name to it in the form of a guest introduction.

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As a famous peace activist, Pauling was a prime recipient of unsolicited manuscripts, book ideas, calls for action, and reference requests. But of all of the texts he received and was asked to endorse, why would he choose one such as this?

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A large factor was undoubtedly Kiang’s persistent correspondence with Pauling. He wrote with Pauling repeatedly between 1983-4, praising Pauling’s efforts and experience and asking for an introduction to One World. Pauling consistently refused, citing his lack of expertise in Kiang’s specific subject area. This pseudo-humble approach to refusing unsolicited (and often wacky) manuscripts was trademark for Pauling during his peak social activism years. Then, somehow, everything changed for One World. Somehow, Pauling changed his mind. We have as proof Pauling’s written introduction documented in the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Collection, along with letters and cards from the Kiang family thanking him for his collaboration:

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Even when meticulously compiled and researched, correspondence collections can still resist post hoc scrutiny. We hold a substantial set of letters between the two activists, but we lack the connection point between the “before” and “after” of when Pauling agreed to add his name to Kiang’s One World project. Was it a letter that went missing? A phone call? An in-person visit? Kiang later sent Pauling a photo of a meeting between them, but the context for how and when it happened is largely absent.

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Another probable factor is that the content and message of the book aligned well with Pauling’s driving fears for the future. As Pauling writes in his introduction, “[Kiang’s] principal message is that war has now ruled itself out.” For Pauling, the atom bomb meant that “a war in which the existing nuclear weapons were used would with little doubt mean the end of our civilization, and possibly the end of the human race.” Perhaps that in itself built enough common ground between two men of different backgrounds and fields of expertise to collaborate – if only in a minor way – on what must have felt like a higher calling. (Pauling’s endorsement would be used in later work by John Kiang as well, but always from a distanced position.)

On a general level, One World embodies the slippery way that ideas persist, spread, and evolve. Just like how John Kiang built his own vision upon seeds planted by Sun Yat-Sen and many authors before him, it will be fascinating to witness how the Cold War push towards internationally-regulated peace and world government will rear its head again on the world stage in the decades to come.

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