Linus Pauling Letter to President Kennedy about nuclear weapons testing

Linus Pauling was one of the most famous scientists of his era. In the period immediately following WWII, he became active in efforts to ban the bomb and stop atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Like Hermann Muller, he had no compunction against using inaccurate information about the health effects of radiation to instill sufficient fear to encourage political actions to stop the testing.

A friend recently shared a copy of a handwritten note that Pauling sent to President John F. Kennedy in March, 1962 as a telegram. I thought it would be worth sharing with you. It illustrates how exaggerated assumptions about the negative health effects of radiation played a role in forcing political leaders to seriously and successfully negotiate an end to race to explode ever larger numbers of nuclear weapons in our common atmosphere.

I have no argument with the ban the bomb effort, but I rue the fact that the activists trained in that effort took on the lessons and tactics in an effort to halt the growth of nuclear energy. The really sad part of the story is the success that the effort had for so many years before some of us learned how to fight back.

Here is the full text of the note:

1 March 1962 Night Letters Durham, NC

President John F. Kennedy, White House:

Are you going to give an order that will cause you to go down in history as one of the most immoral men of all time and one of the greatest enemies of the human race? In a letter to the New York Times, I state that nuclear tests duplicating the Soviet 1961 tests would seriously damage over 20 million unborn children, including those caused to have gross physical or mental defect and also the still births and embryonic, neonatal and childhood deaths from the radioactive fission products and carbon 14. Are you going to be guilty of this monstrous immorality, matching that of the Soviet leaders, for the political purpose of increasing the still imposing lead of the United States over the Soviet Union in nuclear weapons technology?
(Signed) Linus Pauling


To Dr. Jerome Wiesner, Mr. McGeorge Bundy, Dr. Glenn Seaborg
I have sent the following telegram to President Kennedy. (quote it). Linus Pauling

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10 Responses to “Linus Pauling Letter to President Kennedy about nuclear weapons testing”

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  1. Brian Mays says:

    Yep, and Pauling’s Vitamin C thing was completely nutty too.

    It’s really sad to watch a once great mind go to rot.

    • Alberto says:

      Wow, didn’t know about this thing of the Vitamin C and Pauling
      The funny thing is… the more I read about these things (radiation cellular damages) the more I believe that Vitamin C could be a life saver. Also to reduce damage of cells caused by normal metabolism (free radicals). Am I getting mad, too?

      • Brian Mays says:

        Nobody is saying that Vitamin C is not good stuff. In fact, it’s essential for proper health. If your diet is deficient in Vitamin C, you get scurvy.

        Pauling’s claim, however, was that massive doses of Vitamin C had such effects as preventing the common cold or reducing its severity. He had almost no reliable scientific evidence for this conjecture, relying instead on reasons that he made up himself. The first problem with this theory is that the body can absorb only so much Vitamin C. As the dose increases, much of the stuff begins to just pass through the body. More importantly, however, this idea has been thoroughly investigated, and claims of preventing the common cold have been discredited.

  2. DV82XL says:

    Pauling was one of those individuals that began to believe his own press and as a result lost his objectivity. If there is one thing worse than a non-scientist holding forth on topics he shouldn’t, it’s an old scientist doing the same.

    • John Englert says:

      Or old scientists who get so focused on topics they are very knowledgable about that they can’t see the forest for the trees (i.e. Dr. John Gofman).

  3. SteveK9 says:

    Well, to come to Paulings defense a bit: who among us is ‘objective’? I don’t think you can call opposition to the arms race ignoble. Keep in mind that this letter was written in 1961, and I don’t think it is easy for any of us now to put ourselves accurately in that context.

    And, Pauling was a great scientist. To develop the valence-bond theory in 1932 just 5 years after Schrodinger published the wave equation is beyond astonishing … and is still largely the basis for understanding chemistry. He also developed the alpha-helix model of protein structure and (it is said) that without his leftist politics blocking travel to Europe, he very likely would have developed the DNA double-helix model before Watson & Crick.

    All in all, not a life to be ashamed.

    • Cal Abel says:

      The context of that time specifically after the explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be truly unsettled. The world changed in an instant. Without living brought that change as an adult it is very difficult to comprehend, especially with the confused politics in this country and of the world at the time.

      I have been trying for the past few months to understand the context of the decisions hat were made by some key players in changing our radiation protection standards. More for my own edification but also to understand the how and why we are where we are so as to be able to be able to change them.

      Thank you for your perspective on Pauling.
      It is interesting that both Muller and Pauling share similar political tendencies. I did not know that about him.

  4. Jerry Cuttler says:

    Matthew Meselson a graduate student in Pauling’s lab at Caltech, had neglected his lab duties to organize scientists against atmospheric nuclear testing.
    Linus Pauling told him a story. A man asked Socrates: What is the best job for an old man? ‘Politics,’ Socrates responded. And for a young man? ‘Science.’
    Meselson took Socrates’ advice: in 1958, studied replication of DNA. Later in life, campaigned against chemical and biological weapons.
    Pauling likewise, first winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1953, and later becoming science’s most prominent activist against nuclear weapons testing, a movement which led to the 1963 ban on above-ground testing and Pauling’s Nobel Peace prize.

  5. Valerie Eisman says:

    What science do YOU HAVE that proves Linus Pauling is wrong? There is an aritcle today that talks about the ongoing controversy over the number of deaths that Chernobyl has caused in the world. Nobody knows the exact figure because individuals who get cancer are not monitored as to their exposure to Chernobyl.

    We don’t yet know how many infant deaths worldiwde might have been caused. But a new study has come out and said 14,000 infant mortalities were caused by the explosition at Fukushima in March 2011.

    What kind of scientist are you to evaluate Linus Pauling’s claim and what is YOUR stand on Fukushima and the ongoing aging decrepit nuclear facilties in the US plus the ongoing crisis at Hanford which now drains 300 tons of uranium into the Columbia River yearly due to production of our nation’s nuclear weapons. And a growing number of infant deformities now in the Washington area because the storage containers for this highly radioactive waste from the production of nuclear bombs is now leaking into WA’s groundwater and the Columbia River.

    • Rod Adams says:

      I’m not a scientist. If anything, I am an engineer. (Truth be known, my undergraduate degree is a BS in English and my graduate degree is an MS in Systems Technology. I served as an engineer officer on nuclear powered submarines.)

      I can compare and contrast the health effects of the competitors to nuclear energy – burning coal, oil and natural gas – and recognize that nuclear fission is a superior way to boil water.

      I can also read the comprehensive reports of groups like the Chernobyl Forum and the UN Scientific Commission on the Effects of Atomic Radiation http://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/chernobyl.html that show how wrong your assumptions are.

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