The SISS Ordeal: Background to a Trying Time

Pauling testifies before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, 1960.

[Ed Note: June 21, 2010 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Pauling’s first appearance before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.  We are marking the occasion with a five-part series that tells the story of this important and traumatic experience.]

[Part 1 of 5]

In 1956 and 1957, Linus Pauling helped organize a petition which protested against above-ground nuclear bomb testing by the world’s nuclear powers. The project was first endorsed only by American scientists, but became an international appeal shortly after the completion of a robust initial release.

Though many found the display inspirational, others questioned the petition’s motives and organization. Pauling was not alone in crafting the document, but much of both the praise and the criticism that it generated was directed at him. The petition remained a contentious issue into the following decade, as Pauling became entangled with members of the United States Senate over questions concerning the petition’s distribution.

As was the standard for him after World War II, Linus Pauling was kept busy in the late 1950s by a frenzied mixture of research, public speaking and social demonstration. He remained actively engaged in academia, but was directing more and more attention to nuclear non-proliferation issues.

Pauling’s main concern at the time was the tepid response from public officials and the Atomic Energy Commission to what he viewed to be a major problem – radioactive fallout from atomic bomb detonations. After conferring with two scientific colleagues, Barry Commoner and Edward Condon, it was concluded that, because of their insight and technical knowledge of the dangers involved, the nation’s scientists bore a special responsibility to speak out about nuclear testing.

As a result, Pauling and several associates began circulating a petition. Copies were distributed to individual scientists across several states, and soon large swaths of scientists from several universities and institutions began responding en masse. The petition’s purpose was made very clear from the outset of its introduction:

We, the American scientists whose names are signed below, urge that an international agreement to stop the testing of nuclear bombs be made now.

The initial document, “Appeal by American Scientists to the Government and Peoples of the World,” came back to Pauling adorned with over two-thousand signatures, including those of several prominent members of the scientific community. After a short interlude, the petition was supplemented by an international version, ultimately raising the total to a tally of more than 13,000 signatures.

The endeavor was seen as a huge success by advocates, but it also instigated a new movement against Pauling, one propelled by several public agencies and officials. In particular, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS) began focusing more attention on Pauling, though it was not the first time he had found a place on their agenda. In 1955 the SISS released a tract titled “The Communist Party of the United States of America: What It Is, and How It Works.” Linus Pauling’s name was on a list of individuals said to be among the most active participants and supporters of communist fronts.

Similarly, when Pauling and his associates released their nuclear test ban petition in June 1957, they were met with substantial criticism from a wide variety of opinion makers. Initially Pauling’s scientific authority on the issue was the primary in question. Soon enough though, Pauling was being accused of communist conspiracy, and was subpoenaed by the SISS to discuss the potential role of communist organizations in the petition’s distribution. Pauling expressed his willingness to appear before the subcommittee, but unforeseen senatorial politics eventually interceded, forcing a temporary delay of his compulsory appearance in Washington, DC.

The SISS itself was essentially the Senate version of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), having served similar purposes in the past. Indeed, in 1960 the committee was composed of many staff members recycled from past HUAC activities. Most notably, Senator Thomas Dodd, chairman of the Subcommittee at the time, conferred regularly with former HUAC investigator Benjamin Mandel. Senator Dodd and others were also working periodically with the FBI in a joint effort against suspected communist subversion.

Before they refocused on Pauling, Dodd and the SISS were popularly credited with instigating the dissolution of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), a collection of locally oriented anti-bomb protest groups. Dodd worked discretely with SANE’s national leadership in providing the organization with an ultimatum:  either cull itself of alleged communist membership or risk a prolonged investigation by federal authorities. SANE’s leadership chose to impose loyalty oaths, a move that split the entire organization, leaving the severed parts largely incapacitated. After the subcommittee’s apparent victory, Dodd and his counsel were emboldened enough to focus their full attentions on Pauling.

Following a speech given to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in the spring of 1960, Pauling was handed several fliers, a poem, some news clippings and other random papers while answering people’s questions. That night, after returning to his hotel room, he found a subpoena addressed to him within the clutter.

Subpeona issued to Linus Pauling by the Internal Security Subcommittee of the United States Senate. June 20, 1960.

The subpoena adjured his appearance before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee on June 21st, two days from then, to address:

Communist participation in, or support of, propaganda campaign against nuclear testing, and other Communist or Communist-front activity with respect to which you [Pauling] may have knowledge.

Abraham Lincoln Wirin, a lawyer who had helped Pauling through an earlier dispute, flew directly to Washington, DC the next day. The duo discussed Pauling’s options and decided to utilize the press as much as possible, a tactic that had proven fruitful for Pauling in the past. Though Pauling was given very short notice, he and Wirin were able to devise what seemed to be a simple but promising broader strategy. They decided to make the entire affair as public as possible, cooperate to whatever extent was appropriate, and maintain the integrity of Pauling’s constitutional rights. Though he was alarmed, Pauling felt reasonably prepared for the engagement ahead of him.

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The Story of 1960

[A look back 50 years in honor of the Pauling birthday anniversary on February 28th.]

Throughout most of 1959, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling were actively engaged in several peace-related activities, including a nuclear test ban treaty being deliberated in Geneva. Certain developments preceding the New Year made it clear, however, that a full nuclear test ban treaty (atmosphere, water and underground) was unlikely to be negotiated. Richard Lippman, a good friend and ally of Pauling, passed away suddenly around the same time. Quite understandably, the two events had a depressive effect on Pauling. When he and Ava Helen visited their Big Sur ranch the following January in 1960, Pauling decided to go for a walk early one Saturday morning.

After following a deer trail for some time, Pauling became lost and then stuck on a cliff under a large rock formation. He found himself surrounded by slippery blue shale, and the unstable rocks shifted towards the cliff edge every time he tried to move. Ava Helen contacted the Forrest Service in the evening when her husband failed to come back or return her shouts. Pauling heard searchers at one point in the evening, but his voice wouldn’t carry up to the would-be rescuers above him. That night he slept under a map that he had with him, and tried to keep warm in the freezing fog.

He was found the next morning in “high spirits,” but was deeply shaken by the ordeal. He attempted to go back to work the following Monday, but was forced to return home after a short time in his office, fully conscious but unable to speak. He had been terrified by his night on the cliff, and it seems that after years of internalization, the unsettling experience was forcing him to confront many repressed emotions. His physician diagnosed Pauling’s condition as shock, and ordered him to rest for a few days. During the ensuing weeks of recovery, he was more emotionally vulnerable than his family had ever seen him.

Meanwhile, after negotiations had stalled in Geneva, the international moratorium on nuclear testing expired at the end of 1959. The expiration catalyzed a strong re-emergence of proponents for renewed nuclear bomb testing, and the force of the new movement compelled Pauling and his wife back into the nuclear test-ban arena. The Paulings attended several protests and in June Linus gave a speech to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Afterwards he was handed several fliers, newspaper clippings and an array of other papers which he stuffed into his pockets while answering questions. Back at his hotel room that night, he was sorting through everything when he noticed a subpoena that had been handed to him during the post-speech discourse. It stated that he was to appear before an executive session of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee two days from then, on Monday, June 20.

Subpeona issued to Linus Pauling by the Internal Security Subcommittee of the United States Senate. June 20, 1960.

Pauling immediately called Abraham Lincoln Wirin, a lawyer who had assisted him with a number of legal disputes, to discuss his options in addressing the subpoena. The day before Pauling was to appear before the subcommittee, he held a press conference, and successfully lobbied to have the first executive session opened to the public. After being sworn in, it became clear why Pauling had been summoned. Several years prior, he had submitted a nuclear test ban petition to the UN with a substantial number of signatures. The petition was initially an appeal by American scientists but was later circulated in many other countries, several of them governed by Communist parties, for an expanded petition response. The subcommittee wanted to know how he’d done it, and if he utilized the help of any communist organizations. Pauling politely answered every question, but when it came to divulging the names of those who had helped to collect more than one signature, he became openly concerned. After some questioning and a short recess, Pauling stood and said:

The circulation of petitions is an important part of our democratic process. If it is abolished or inhibited, it would be a step toward a police state. No matter what assurances the subcommittee might give me concerning the use of names, I am convinced the names would be used for reprisals against these enthusiastic, idealistic, high-minded workers for peace.

The acting chairman, Senator Thomas Dodd, gave Pauling until August 9 to come up with a list of names. Wirin succeeded in getting the deadline postponed to October 11, and Linus and Ava Helen  continued to travel and deliver speeches. Pauling received a great deal of support from many academics, members of the press and fellow Nobel Prize winners as well as a great number of constituents who wrote letters of protest to Dodd and other senators. When asked to relinquish the requested names at the October hearing, Pauling refused. He was not given a contempt citation, as was somewhat expected, but instead subjected to a loyalty inquiry. After five hours of questioning related to his presumed affiliation with the Communist party and party members, Pauling was allowed to leave.

As the Dodd confrontation was entering its final stages, Pauling remained on the offensive. Though it appeared to most that he had won, Pauling took the matter very personally. He continued to attack Dodd publicly and began campaigning for the abolition of investigatory committees, even mounting several libel suits against newspapers and organizations that had released material reflecting allegations and positions taken by the SISS. Pauling came into conflict with past associates and organizations, and became a more open critic of American society generally. He had resigned his chairmanship at Caltech several years before to focus more of his time on personal pursuits, and his political crusades grew more public after years of partial restraint. He was still supported by an array of old associates, though many became concerned with Pauling’s new disposition.

Linus Pauling speaking at a peace march in MacArthur Park, Los Angeles, California. 1960. Photo by Robert Carl Cohen.

Linus Pauling’s rescue from a cliff and his confrontation with the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee – events which were both widely publicized and of enormous import to Pauling’s life – overshadowed most of his other activities in 1960. He made frequent appearances in all forms of media throughout the year, and gave a considerable number of speeches.  He remained very active in the nuclear test ban arena, and even spoke to ambassadors from the U.S., Great Britain and the Soviet Union during a July visit to Geneva.

Though he came out relatively unscathed from his activities, the SISS confrontation soured Pauling in a way, and further radicalized his positions. For the time being however, he remained popular within the establishment. The following year he was among the American scientists honored by Time magazine as “Men of the Year,” received the title of Humanist of the Year from the American Humanist Society, and would participate in a number of high-profile conferences and protests. But despite this series of mostly positive outcomes, 1960 was a difficult year that significantly influenced the direction of Pauling’s ever evolving demeanor.

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

Featured Document: Angry and Frustrated, Pauling Considers a Run for the U.S. Presidency

Linus Pauling. Oslo, Norway. December 21, 1963

Linus Pauling. Oslo, Norway. December 21, 1963

Though often encouraged to, Linus Pauling never ran for elected office. From the vantage point of his peace work, Pauling believed himself to be a far more effective agent for change when working in an environment that was essentially unencumbered by political considerations. Of at least equal importance was the fact that the time commitments demanded by government service would surely diminish Pauling’s capacity to pursue his first love, scientific inquiry.

For a very brief period however, Pauling certainly did consider running for the highest office in the land — the United States Presidency. Deeply angered by his treatment at the hands of Senator Thomas Dodd and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, the frustrated scientist made, as it turned out, a temporary decision to pursue a position in the Oval Office. The three pages of notes that follow were written — as per Pauling’s annotation — on the flight home to southern California following Pauling’s first appearance before the Dodd subcommittee.

Click on the thumbnails below to enlarge each page of this fascinating manuscript.

I have decided to run for the office of Pres. of the U.S. I cannot bring myself to vote for either the Dem. or the Rep. candidate. I shall vote for myself. I invite people everywhere to help me. I do not care who they are or what they have done in the past, I pro only that they believe in what I state as my beliefs. I promise that I will not reward them in any way. If the satisfaction of having done what they think is right is not enough, I do not want them. One advantage that I have is that I know what the world of 1960 is like. No one can fool me the way Dr. Teller fooled Pres. Eisenhower.

Page 2

[Tangential Notes: We need a law that no former FBI agents should be elected to Congress. Perhaps only professors. I am shocked with the revelation that has come to me of the quality, caliber, nature of our Senators. Respect – ] It is not necessary that the Pres. be a vassal of the Rep. party or the Dem. party. I shall be the servant only of the people of the U.S. – and only then if they are unselfish.

Page 3

I have held no office. The presidency differs so much from other offices that this is not important. I can think – I shall get good advice – but I will make the decisions. We need leadership unhampered by politics. Pres. Eisen was unhampered but he did not grasp his opportunity.