Linus Pauling Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Peace Movement in Historical Perspective; Conversation with  Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling; 1/18/83 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Tom Rush

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Public Criticism and Peace Activism

One of the petitions that was signed by fifty-two Nobel Prize winners, the Mainau Declaration of July 15, 1955, included this sentence: "We think it is a delusion if governments believe that they can avoid war for a long time through the fear of these weapons. All nations must come to the decision to renounce force as a final resort of policy." Was that a criticism of the notion of deterrence?

Well, it may be that it was. I wasn't at Pugwash that year. I have gone to Pugwash where there were meetings of Nobel Laureates from time to time, every year in fact. I signed the statement, but I wasn't involved in writing it. I believe, and I continue to believe, that the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons is very important. In 1961, the Soviet Union exploded in the atmosphere a single three-stage nuclear weapon that was a 60-megaton bomb with explosive power equal to 60 million tons of TNT. That's ten times the explosive power of all of the bombs used in the whole of the Second World War, in one explosion. And these bombs exist by the thousands. I don't know that there are any other 60-megaton bombs because there's no target worthy of one, but there are 20-megaton bombs and many one-megaton bombs around, roughly equal to the Second World War in a single bomb. The feeling that I had and many other people had was that the existence of these stockpiles of terrible weapons, weapons that if used would certainly destroy civilization as we know it and might well wipe out the human race, meant that the great powers must not get involved in a war with one another. My own feeling, then as and now, as expressed in the report called "The Price of Defense" issued about four years ago by the Boston group, Philip Morrison and his associates, is that the nuclear deterrent should be reduced from its present completely insane level to a somewhat less irrational level. But I think we shouldn't get rid of it entirely and tempt the great powers to go back to old-fashioned wars with one another with conventional weapons, with 20 million people killed in the First World War, 40 million in the Second World War, perhaps 60 million, or 80 million, in the Third World War, fought with conventional weapons. Why take that chance? I believe in the nuclear deterrent, but it's gotten out of hand, and we continue to waste money on it instead of stabilizing it.

Were charges made against you that you were for unilateral disarmament? In a public debate there tends to be such a distortion of views that are so different from the conventional as yours were in the fifties.

There were some irresponsible statements about me to the effect that I was working for disarming the United States, that I was taken by Soviet propaganda, and that sort of thing. Of course, I was speaking out contrary to the official opinion. If we had had a dictatorship in this country, I might well have been accused of the crime of seditious libel, which is used in dictatorships to suppress criticism. When I was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, Life Magazine published an editorial with the heading "A Weird Insult from Norway -- The Norwegian Nobel Committee Awards the Peace Prizes." I think that the writer of this editorial thought that it was insulting to give the peace prize to someone who advocated something that was not the official policy of the United States government.

And, indeed, when you circulated a 1958 petition which was signed by 2,000 American scientists, and I think 8,000 foreign scientists from 49 different countries, there was government harassment, there was harassment in the press, and charges of working for the enemy.

I first announced that 2,000 American scientists had signed the petition asking for cessation of the testing of nuclear weapons on the atmosphere where they were liberating radioactive fallout over the whole world that would cause defective children to be born and that would damage living human beings, causing cancer and other diseases. We asked that the nations make an agreement to stop testing of nuclear weapons. At that time, the government policy was not to make this treaty, it had not yet been decided, but pretty soon it was decided to make such a treaty. I think that I got a good bit of support but some criticism also. I'd written this petition together with Barry Commoner and Ed Condon. Ed Condon is a Berkeley man who was at that time Professor of Physics at Washington University in St. Louis; Barry Commoner was Professor of Biology at Washington University. We circulated the petition. Scientists from foreign countries began to send in signed copies of the petition, so my wife and I circulated it in foreign countries and ultimately turned over 13,000 signatures of scientists to Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld of the United Nations.

Next page: The Test Ban Treaty

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