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

Page 6 of 8

Science versus Politics: Moving beyond Militarism

So what the politicians didn't learn from the scientists was to go beyond the notion that victory is still possible. They believe that by building a nuclear weapon, they do not necessarily have to go to nuclear war, but will be in a position to keep the other party down; then by simultaneously applying economic screws, might possibly even break the system. The politicians haven't really gotten over these old ways of thinking that Einstein and others warned they really would have to move beyond.

They haven't recognized that this is too dangerous a policy to follow. I'm sure that President Reagan and his advisors do not anticipate that there will be a nuclear war. I'm sure that they don't believe the statement that they made last year that we might carry on a limited nuclear war in Europe and still not destroy the world. I'm sure they don't believe that. That was just propaganda to get the American people to accept the whole idea of continuing the military buildup and increasing the military budget at the same time that we are having trouble with the parts of the budget that relate to the well-being of the American people. This is just propaganda.

I have said that perhaps a limited war in Europe wouldn't get any objections because the Soviet Union wouldn't be harmed, they wouldn't complain. We wouldn't be harmed, we wouldn't complain. The European nations wouldn't complain because they wouldn't exist any longer. The fact is that in even a limited war, the radioactive fallout thrown up in the air might prevent the sun shining through for a long time; the smoke from the forest fires might hinder the growth of plant life on the surface of the earth all over the earth for months or year; and the radioactive fallout spread all over the world, the carbon-14 that has a half-life of 5,070 years and continues to damage human beings, would continue for tens of thousands of years. These effects, even in a limited nuclear war involving say only a thousand times, or a hundred times, the explosive power of the Second World War, might well mean the end of the human race. So we need to have the change in thinking that Einstein talked about.

I still want to understand why this hasn't come about. Did these efforts of the 50s and early 60s fail to win the bulk of public opinion in this country? Did the issue recede into the background of more immediate issues like the Vietnam war? Because so much of this material resonates with what we're hearing now, and in some ways it's bothersome. It's as if we haven't learned the lessons.

That's right. We were making statements of this sort, especially when the stockpiles of nuclear weapons got up to 600 megatons. This was very early, and it already was irrational to have such destructive power. Then they got to 6,000, perhaps even to 60,000 -- estimates now are usually around 30,000 as the total stockpiles -- but that order of magnitude. As Philip Morrison said, it was really insane for the human race to have developed the powers of self destruction to this level. And why? Twenty years ago, the bomb test treaty went into effect. This was a victory. It looked as though there was some sanity coming into the situation. There was a period of détente, and then, of course, the decision was made to contain communism by participating in the war in Korea, and then in Vietnam. Not very successful efforts to contain communism, and the wrong kind, I think.

How much money we waste on militarism in the world, something like $600 billion a year, equal to the total income of more than half of the people in the world. A terrible waste. Think of what good could be done if we were not to expend so much money. There are great problems to be solved in the world, to be attacked. The problem of over-population, the problem just of feeding people is going to be a more and more serious one; encroachment on the environment, possible catastrophe from damage to the ozone layer, and so on. And we aren't cooperating in solving them. The United States and the Soviet Union, even if they were to be cooperating in solving these problems, will have in the future a pretty difficult time. And when they are fighting each other the way that they are and wasting money on militarism, senseless militarism, there's not much chance of solving these other problems.

Don't your get frustrated in these endeavors?

I'm asked from time to time, am I hopeful?, and I say I am. I believe that we're going to get through this difficult period, that rationality will come into the conduct of world affairs. I have evidence. If I weren't hopeful, why should I be spending my time going around making television interviews and giving popular talks and traveling around working for world peace? If I didn't think we would succeed, I might as well be enjoying myself reading the physical and chemical literature, and trying to solve some of the interesting problems about nuclear structure, molecular structure, and even about the vitamins and their interaction with the human body, and trying to find some way of decreasing the amount of suffering caused by disease. So, I believe that we're going to be successful. The fact that I believed twenty-five years ago that we were going to be successful very soon doesn't keep me from believing now that we're going to be successful. And the fact that there hasn't been a war between the United States and the Soviet Union in the twenty-five years leads me to believe that nuclear deterrence really does work. It does work. It's insanely overdeveloped, but it works, and the danger is that it will cease to work because of some accident. This would be the result of our poor sense in continuing to make the system more and more complicated instead of trying to simplify it and get it under control.

Next page: Science and Morality

© Copyright 1996, Regents of the University of California