Pauling and the Moon

Herblock editorial cartoon published in the Washington Post, November 1963.

Herblock editorial cartoon published in the Washington Post, November 1963.

[Post 2 of 2 marking the centenary of Jerome Wiesner’s birth]

When Linus Pauling traveled to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1963, he stepped off the plane and was filled with indignance. At first he couldn’t be sure, but after a few minutes it was clear: contrary to well-established convention, no representative of the U.S. government had arranged to meet him at the airport.

Pauling participated in the ceremonies as scheduled, but he did not forget this slight. On December 13th, two days after he delivered his Nobel lecture, Pauling wrote to his friend, Jerome Wiesner

The Nobel Ceremonies were fine. They were marred only by the boycott by the American Embassy. Usually the ambassador of the country of the Laureate is at the airport to greet him, at the prize ceremony, at the banquet, and at the Nobel Lecture. Day before yesterday Director Gunnar Jahn, the chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament, told me that a member of the U.S. Embassy staff had come to see him (about another matter), and that he (Jahn) had said, ‘You go back and tell your Ambassador that his behavior this year has been an affront to the Norwegian Nobel Committee.’

Wiesner had just concluded a three-year stint as Chairman of the President’s Committee on Scientific Affairs (PSAC) and Pauling thought that Wiesner might possibly have access to information about the government’s failure to acknowledge Pauling’s prize.

Wiesner, however, could only offer a guess that the government officials were too busy with other affairs to greet Pauling at the airport, a notion that Pauling had already dismissed out of hand. Rather, Pauling was convinced that the embassy simply chose not to acknowledge his efforts to promote world peace because these activities often led him to denounce the government’s projects and ambitions.


North Mankato (Minnesota) Free Press, May 6, 1963.

North Mankato (Minnesota) Free Press, May 6, 1963.

Regardless of the justifications that Pauling was given regarding this incident, it is interesting to note that he had a friend in the White House during some of the most tumultuous years of his public life. The year 1963 was one during which Pauling both received perhaps the highest-profile award that an individual can receive – the Nobel Peace Prize – and also decided to end his tenure of over four decades at Caltech, all due to resistance to his political views and activism.

And while he was recognized around the world as an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons testing and proliferation, Pauling also made headlines in 1963 for a reason that is less well-known to most: his failure to support space exploration. It is thus ironic that one of the few people who agreed with him was precisely Jerome Wiesner, a high-level advisor serving in the White House that Pauling so commonly criticized.

Indeed, Wiesner and Pauling’s friendship was centered on policy issues of mutual interest; despite the fact that each lived on opposite sides of the country, they kept in contact primarily through sharing ideas on nuclear weaponry and space exploration. Both Pauling and Wiesner believed the two issues to be of paramount importance. And while each man had slightly different reasons for taking this shared position, both also strongly believed that the federal government needed to change course.


One of Jerome Wiesner’s core beliefs was that the national government should place an emphasis on providing a robust funding infrastructure – post-graduate fellowships, for instance – for scientific minds to pursue their own research agendas as they progressed through their careers. Doing so, Wiesner felt, would secure the importance of scientific endeavors and technological advances in the United States.

Pauling agreed with Wiesner’s position, but as an activist not formally affiliated with the government, he was much more free to parse the details of where the money was going. He could see, for example, that there were benefits to be gained by exploring outer space and developing nuclear technologies, but he was very uncomfortable with the fact that these technologies would being developed for use in war. Likewise, he took issue with the fact that the federal government continued to spend money on weapons that put the public at further risk, when that same money could be used to fund research that, in his view, would improve quality of life for many.

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In October 1963, news reporters across the country published articles describing one of Pauling’s more public declarations of opposition to the U.S. space program. During a lecture commemorating the National Academy of Sciences’ 100th anniversary, Pauling stated that “Something is wrong with our system of values when we plan to spend billions of dollars for national prestige.”

Pauling’s comment referred to the common understanding that a driving force behind American space exploration was a perceived need to match and surpass the Soviet Union’s achievements. In this, Pauling expressed agreement with Wiesner’s own criticisms of the moonshot efforts. Both believed that the moon project alone was absorbing too much money and that, although useful, these efforts would not provide the same volume of proportional benefits that other forms of scientific research could.

Pauling couched his criticism of the space program by emphasizing his opinion that the U.S. government needed to reject the perceived need to match or stay ahead of the Soviets’ technological advances. Instead, the U.S. should focus on decreasing human suffering, a core principle of Pauling’s own belief system. Pauling’s personal interest in medicine also led him to state, perhaps hyperbolically, that it would be possible to “answer 1,000 interesting and important questions about the human body for every one question answered about the moon.” News reporters further noted that, at the National Academy of Sciences celebration, Pauling had suggested that scientists had the knowledge to combat many diseases but simply lacked the money to test their ideas.

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It is both important and interesting to note that Pauling’s critique of the moonshot at the NAS celebration was actually a very small detail of his evening. In fact, Pauling’s talk, which was on chemical structure, did not mention the moon initiative at all, though he did bring it up immediately following the conclusion of his formal remarks. Nonetheless, reporters focused on the critique and rapidly disseminated Pauling’s ideas. And after his talk, Pauling was chided by NAS President Frederick Seitz, who told Pauling in a private meeting that the event was “a birthday party and not a forum for a political discussion.”

As with Wiesner before him, Pauling’s stance on the moon project was met with significant criticism. And, of course, the U.S. did continue to move forward with the project, famously landing an astronaut on the moon’s surface in July 1969. Their criticisms of the space program proved to be another instance in which Wiesner and Pauling were forced to accept the government’s decisions. But this disappointment did not stanch either man’s desire to make their ideas known as both pursued public platforms for their activism for the remainder of their lives.

Remembering Jerome Wiesner

Science Advisor Jerome Wiesner sits in his office, 1 February 1963.  Photograph by Cecil Stoughton in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Scanned from original 2 1/4" neg.

Science Advisor Jerome Wiesner sits in his office, 1 February 1963. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton. Original held in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

[Marking the one-hundredth anniversary of Jerome Wiesner’s (1915-1994) birth. Post 1 of 2]

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy spoke at a joint session of Congress to request funds for sending an American to the moon. During his memorable speech, the president stated his belief “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” In an era of heightened patriotism, the president received staggering support from Congress and the people of the United States alike.

Kennedy’s speech was delivered at the height of the Cold War, a time during which the Soviet Union’s own ambitions to explore outer space were making many Americans uncomfortable. For the most part, Americans believed that it was necessary to match and surpass the Soviet Union’s achievements in space in order to secure the United States’ geopolitical power.

In addition to staying ahead of the Soviet Union’s efforts, Kennedy also hinted that there could be additional benefits to the United States’ space program even beyond Cold War positioning.  The President went so far as to state that space exploration could very well be “the key to our future on Earth.”


Jerome Wiesner, Joseph McConnell, John F. Kennedy and Harlan Cleveland in the Oval Office. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton. Original held in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Jerome Wiesner, Joseph McConnell, John F. Kennedy and Harlan Cleveland in the Oval Office. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton. Original held in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Kennedy’s remarks added fuel to an already heated debate over the proper relationship between science and federal policy. Following a trend that had begun during the First World War, Cold War scientific efforts had become particularly linked to national defense and, in Kennedy’s words, science had “emerged from a peripheral concern of government to an active partner.”

In 1951, well before Kennedy was known to most Americans, President Harry S. Truman had set up the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) to provide counsel on issues regarding science and technology. The committee was charged with conveying a refreshed scientific perspective to the top levels of political decision-making, but its members sometimes found themselves in an awkward position if they disagreed with the established views of those in office.

In February 1961 President Kennedy appointed Jerome Wiesner to the PSAC chairmanship. Wiesner was unique among the roster of past committee chairmen in that many of his ideas proved incongruous both with politicians in Washington and with many Americans at large. Of particular importance, and contrary to the President’s optimistic vision for the future of space travel, Wiesner was not at all convinced that sending a man to the moon would yield great advantages for the U.S., be it in terms of technological development or national defense.

Wiesner agreed that sponsoring technological development was a key to the success of the nation. However, he suggested that a more efficient and more effective mechanism for the government to adequately support science and technology was to provide stipends for post-graduate education. A more educated society, Wiesner argued, would be better equipped to meet its own scientific and technological needs.

The Cold War, however, developed within its own unique historical context, one defined in part by widespread anxiety. One outcome of this pervasive fear was an acceleration by which technologies could be advanced. Beginning with the instruments of war developed during World War II – most notably the atomic bombs – the perceived needs of national security propelled the creation of new technologies at a rate never seen before.

The Soviet Union’s launch into orbit of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957 racheted the levels of American cultural insecurity to new heights. With Sputnik, the American public peered into the night sky and literally saw tangible proof that its main enemy had created technologies that would allow it to surveil the country like never before. The seemingly endless possibilities of this breakthrough convinced many that a failure on the part of the U.S. to invest in science and technology would put the nation at grave risk. This fear ultimately created the cultural context by which it proved possible for President Kennedy to allocate an unprecedented amount money for the Apollo Space Program, now estimated to have cost over $170 billion in contemporary U.S. dollars.

Although the President and a significant portion of the American public were convinced that the space program was key to national security, Wiesner and others held firm in their belief that there existed better alternatives for protecting the nation from potential Soviet threat. Nonetheless, as chair of the PSAC, Wiesner was compelled to accept Kennedy’s determination to pursue the moonshot, and continued to advise the chief executive on other issues of science and technology.


Portraits of participants in the Second Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, March-April, 1958. Jerome Wiesner is depicted at bottom.

Portraits of participants in the Second Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, March-April, 1958. Jerome Wiesner is depicted at bottom.

It was at this time that Wiesner turned to an old friend, Linus Pauling, to inquire into the development of his opinions regarding issues of peace and world affairs.

Wiesner was especially interested in receiving Pauling’s counsel on the issue of nuclear testing. Like Pauling, Wiesner was an advocate of a test ban treaty and he wished to use his committee chairmanship to shade President Kennedy thinking in favor of an international agreement of this sort.

Indeed, Wiesner’s unique position gave him powerful influence over federal science policy for the years of his chairmanship, 1961-1963. These years happened to coincide with a period during which Pauling’s main professional focus was his peace activism, and having a strategically placed ally in the White House proved very beneficial to his many causes.

In corresponding with Wiesner, Pauling articulated his argument that the radiation released by nuclear weapons tests was a clear threat to the environment and to human health. Moreover, on a humanitarian level, Pauling felt strongly that the nuclear arms race, if left unchecked, would inevitably lead to new tragedies on the scale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if not worse. Through their exchange of letters, Wiesner and Pauling thus built a relationship rooted in discussion of issues that interested them: both believed in nuclear disarmament and both were interested in sharing their scientific and political arguments with broader audiences.

Page one of a handwritten letter from Linus Pauling to Jerome Wiesner, March 17, 1962.

Page one of a handwritten letter from Linus Pauling to Jerome Wiesner, March 17, 1962.

Once his formal involvement with the PSAC concluded (he was relieved of his position not long before Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963) Wiesner became more vocal in his opinions. In 1965 he published a series of essays, titled Where Science and Politics Meet, that were written during his tenure in the White House and that serve as evidence of Wiesner’s strong belief in nuclear disarmament, among other topics. Later, in the 1980s, Wiesner turned to the media and once again laid out his ideas on disarmament in two articles published in The New York Times.

Pauling and Wiesner continued to discuss the issues that they valued through letters and over the phone well into the 1980s. And while they did not ever formally join efforts – each lived on opposite sides of the country – the documentary evidence indicates that they kept one another in mind. At one point, Pauling even nominated him for an award, the Family of Man Award, because he thought of Wiesner as having played a key role in President Kennedy’s signing the partial test ban treaty, an act which directly led to Pauling’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963.

Colleagues and friends for many decades, Linus Pauling and Jerome Wiesner died within months of one another. Pauling passed away on August 19, 1994 and Wiesner died just over two months later, on October 21st.