January 13, 1958: 9,000 Scientists Urge End to Nuclear Bomb Tests

Linus Pauling and Ava Helen Pauling working on the test ban petition. Image courtesy of Oregon State University.

On this day sixty years ago, Linus Pauling presented a petition signed by over 9,000 scientists urging an end to nuclear bomb tests. The “Scientists’ Test Ban Petition” to the United Nations called for an end to testing due to its threat to the planet and its children in particular, noting that “If testing continues and the possession of these weapons spreads to additional governments, the danger of outbreak of a cataclysmic nuclear war through the reckless action of some irresponsible national leader will be greatly increased.”

Amidst a Cold War nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and an ongoing anticommunist hysteria dominating politics and discourse in the United States, Pauling paid dearly for his antiwar activism, and was forced to resign from his positions as Chairman of Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Director of the Gates and Crellin Laboratories Caltech. By 1964, when he left his professorship under pressure from school administrators for his political activism as well, he had been at Caltech for forty-two years.


New York Times headline re: the nuclear petition.

Background – Linus Pauling & The Bomb

The Super Bomb

From late 1951, through his passport difficulties in 1952, and on toward the end of the year — when he was again denounced as a concealed Communist by overeager informer Louis Budenz — Pauling maintained an almost invisible political profile. Then came a new president: Dwight Eisenhower, elected in November 1952. Ike seemed even more eager than Truman to root out Communists. A member of his cabinet, Oveta Culp Hobby, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, for instance, began withholding federal research money from suspected Communists. That included Pauling, who was notified in late 1953 that all his research money from the US Public Health Service was being suspended. It amounted to about $60,000 per year. Pauling was advised by a sympathetic USPHS manager to reapply under the names of researchers who worked for him, rather than using his name. It worked. The same grants for the same projects were funded as long as Pauling’s name did not appear. He would not receive another penny from the agency until two years later, when Hobby resigned.

Then, at the end of 1953, another of his passport requests was refused. Pauling’s political silence, it seemed, was gaining him nothing. But he continued to hold his tongue until March 1, 1954, when the US detonated a new type of weapon, a super bomb powerful enough to obliterate an entire Pacific island. The explosive energy of what would come to be called the “H Bomb” surprised even the scientists who designed it. It was strong enough to punch a hole into the upper atmosphere, spewing a cloud of radioactive particles that spread around the globe. The radioactive dust then slowly fell back to earth, creating a new threat that everyone started calling “fallout.” Peace activists around the world began organizing to fight further development of the weapon.

Pauling, too, was galvanized by the news. On April 15, he finally broke his long silence and delivered his first talk on bomb policy in two and a half years. He connected it with an impassioned defense of Robert Oppenheimer, who was then being accused of being a Communist sympathizer and threatened with a loss of his security clearance. “Dr. Oppenheimer has been sacrificed by the government,” Pauling wrote in a piece that ran in The Nation on May Day, 1954. He urged the United States to mount a concerted political and scientific effort to find “a practical alternative to the madness of atomic barbarism.” When a friend complimented him on his Nation piece, Pauling replied, “I have decided that not only is it wrong to permit oneself to be stifled, but it isn’t worthwhile.”


Soon after learning that he had won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry , Pauling made what would be his last visit to Albert Einstein. The great physicist was happy to see Pauling and especially pleased that his younger friend was using the media attention spurred by his Nobel to speak out against the persecution of Oppenheimer. They talked about the new H bombs, about their regrets that the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists had ceased to function, and about their dismay at US defense policies. “I made one great mistake in my life,” Einstein told Pauling, “when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made.” His only excuse, he said, was his concern that the Germans were doing the same thing. He then repeated a story he had heard, about an incident centuries earlier in which a Swedish leader had told his son, “You would be astonished to know with how little wisdom the world is governed.” That, they agreed, was still very much the case.

Einstein died five months later. But his work for peace and disarmament continued, through Pauling and through other leaders of what was becoming an international movement. Chief among them was Bertrand Russell, the renowned British philosopher and mathematician, who led the anti-Bomb efforts in Europe. In July 1955 Russell released a resolution against nuclear war signed by himself, Albert Einstein — it was the last public document Einstein put his name to before his death — and eight other prominent scientists. Pauling added his own name to what would become known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. “. . . if many H-bombs are used there will be universal death — sudden only for a minority, but for the majority a slow torture,” the Manifesto read in part. “We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”


Both Pauling and Russell were energized by a common concern over the growing power of the new bombs. Whether they were called “H-Bombs,” “U-Bombs,” or “Superbombs” — all of which referred to the same high-yield weapons that used a Hiroshima-style atomic explosion to set off an even bigger burst from an outer coating of uranium — they presented new risks. The new, bigger bombs, exploded in a series of tests by both the US and Russia through the latter half of the 1950s, released a riot of exotic radioactive isotopes, some never before seen on earth. The potential effects were frightening because so little was known about the health effects of low-level radiation. Public attention focused on one of the fallout components, strontium-90, a long-lived radioactive substance that was similar enough to calcium to enter the food chain, falling first on grass, then appearing in cow’s milk, then depositing in human bones — especially those of children. Once in the bone, it decayed, exposing the tissue around it to radiation.

Pauling assumed the worst, and publicized his own estimates of health risk, extrapolating numbers from animal studies of radiation damage. Averaged over the population, he came up with a figure that each roentgen of added exposure would shorten the average life by two or three weeks. His numbers — which predicted thousands of new cancers and cases of “premature aging” — were vigorously denied by the Atomic Energy Commission.

Pauling remained undeterred and steadily his message broadened. By 1959 his “stump speech” had evolved into a frightening vision indeed: The United States had stockpiled enough nuclear weapons to kill everybody in the world twenty times over; all the talk of bomb shelters and civil defense was “just silly”; the AEC was a “schizophrenic” agency; “the only safe amount of strontium-90 in the bones of our children is zero.”

1957 text of the petition, with the recent addition of Max Perutz’s signature.

The Right to Petition

While the debate raged, Pauling continued to keep a high public profile, speaking widely and appearing often in newspapers and magazines through 1956 and into 1957, garnering attention by positing shocking estimates of fallout-related damage to human health. By the spring of 1957 it appeared that his and Russell’s efforts were yielding fruit. Alarmed by the dangers of fallout, Japanese, British, German, and Indian politicians began urging a halt to H-bomb tests, as did the Pope and the World Council of Churches.

In May, after delivering a fiery anti-Bomb speech at Washington University in St. Louis, Pauling conferred with two other scientists, Barry Commoner and Edward Condon, about next steps. They decided to mount a scientists’ petition to stop nuclear testing as a way to draw attention to the concerns of a growing number of anti-Bomb scientists. Their “Appeal by American Scientists to the Government and Peoples of the World,” mimeographed and hand-mailed, garnered more than two dozen signatures within a week. Pauling took the project back to Pasadena, where he and Ava Helen, along with some volunteers, mailed hundreds of additional copies to researchers in more American universities and national laboratories. Within a few weeks they had gathered some two thousand signatures, including more than fifty members of the National Academy of Sciences and a few Nobel laureates.

On June 3, Pauling released his signatures to the world, sending copies to the United Nations and President Eisenhower. The petition made national headlines — and spurred an immediate attempt to isolate its primary author. Even the president took a shot at Pauling. “I noticed that in many instances scientists that seem to be out of their own field of competence are getting into this argument about bomb testing,” said Eisenhower, “and it looks almost like an organized affair.” This thinly veiled allusion to Communist backing for Pauling’s effort was echoed by a number of other critics of the ban-the-Bomb movement. The head of HUAC blasted Pauling on the floor of Congress for spreading Soviet propaganda. A few days later Pauling was subpoenaed to appear before a Senate investigatory committee (although those hearings were delayed, then canceled). Through it all, he continued to broaden the distribution of his petition through the end of 1957, expanding his mailing list to scientists around the world, including many in Communist countries. By the beginning of 1958, he and Ava Helen counted more than 9,000 signatures. When the expanded petition response was submitted to the United Nations, it once again made headlines worldwide.

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