History Magazine

The First Gulf War: Pauling Speaks Out

By Scarc

The First Gulf War: Pauling Speaks Out

[Part 1 of 2]

Sparked by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, and his subsequent refusal to comply with a U.S. demand that he withdraw from the region by mid-January 1991, the first Persian Gulf War began on January 17, 1991 with an operation known as Desert Storm.

In the lead-up to this military engagement, Linus Pauling established himself as a prominent critic of American posturing in the Gulf.  Just shy of his ninetieth birthday, Pauling returned to the world stage first by publishing a broadly circulated statement and open letter addressed to President George H.W. Bush, and later by giving a collection of interviews and speeches excoriating American policy in the Gulf. This body of activism reflected the anti-war stance that Pauling had assumed for more than four decades and served as a final demonstration of his ambition that war be ended once and for all.

Pauling’s initial pieces included little in the way of discussion of the precise issues at hand, but instead used the Persian Gulf War as an opportunity to highlight and amplify his broader views on war and peace. Later on, as battlefield engagement became a reality, Pauling’s writing and rhetoric made greater use of concrete examples in developing a specific point of view that resisted the American military campaign.


Pauling’s opening salvo, “Stop the Rush to War,” took the form of a full-page advertisement that was published in the New York Times on January 9, 1991. In this publication, Pauling emphasized that ultimatums or deadlines issued to the Hussein regime were unlikely to prove helpful. Instead, Pauling felt that the situation called for negotiations and economic pressures, which would ultimately lead to a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

For Pauling, one thing was clear: war would not work. In the Times piece, Pauling argued against military conflict by employing the fear of the potential use of bombs, poison gas, lethal bacteria, and even nuclear weapons, which would release fallout all over the world.  He argued that no cause could ever justify this kind of war. As an alternative, Pauling encouraged the reader to take personal action to persuade their leaders and those of other nations to stop the build-up to war.

Pauling’s New York Times appeal prompted the drafting of a petition that was authored in conjunction with the Institute for Peace and International Security in the United States and Naturwissenschaftler für den Frieden (Scientists for Peace) in Germany.  Pauling also contributed a greeting message that was read at the Naturwissenschaftler für den Frieden Congress, held in Muenster on January 28, 1991. In it, Pauling emphasized that international involvement was crucial to promoting peace and ending the threat of war.


On January 17, 1991, President Bush announced that the defensive posture that had been assumed by the U.S. military since August 1990 (“Operation Desert Shield”) had shifted into a phase of active combat, the aforementioned Operation Desert Storm. The next day, Pauling authored “An Open Letter to President Bush,” which called for specific actions to be taken in order to stop the further escalation of a war that had now effectively been declared.

The open letter appeared in the January 24th and 28th editions of Roll Call, a Washington D.C.-based newspaper that claimed readership on Capitol Hill, where it was delivered twice weekly. In addition to its publication in Roll Call, a copy of the letter was sent directly to the President.

The First Gulf War: Pauling Speaks Out

Albert Schweitzer and Linus Pauling at the Schweitzer compound, Lambéréne, Gabon. 1959.

Employing a series of concise statements, Pauling made it very clear that to kill and maim is immoral, as is war in general. He further explained that war causes human suffering and that it is our job as humans – and certainly as world leaders – to decrease the amount of suffering that exists in the world. In this, Pauling reflected the point of view of Albert Schweitzer, a philosophical role model for Pauling whose emphasis on minimizing human suffering emerged as a crucial component of Pauling’s thinking and rhetoric during his years as an activist.

Similar to the previously published “Rush to War” piece, Pauling also emphasized his fears over the unintended consequences that might arise should a collection of terrifying weapons of war be deployed. Likewise, he concluded once again that negotiation was the just and moral route to peace in the Persian Gulf.


The First Gulf War: Pauling Speaks Out

Linus Pauling, 1991.

Pauling’s next major statement on the war came in April 1991 and was delivered in the form of a speech titled, “Reflections on the Persian Gulf ‘War.'” Pauling gave this speech in Santa Barbara, California at a meeting of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, which was honoring him with a lifetime achievement award. In it, he collected a series of ideas that he had been developing over the previous months, and also issued a more pointed critique of the Persian Gulf War as a specific and perilous moment in human history.

Later excerpted in an article titled “Use Strength for Morality” and published in the July-August 1991 issue of The Human Quest, Pauling’s talk began with an analysis of President Bush’s so-called “New World Order,” which Pauling defined as depending upon rule through terror and the installation of friendly governments in strategically important foreign nations.

Pauling’s lecture also reflected an earlier interview with TIME magazine in which he had questioned the concept of a “just war.” In the conversation, Pauling explained that war may be justified when the suffering brought about by the act of war yields more long-term benefit or a higher purpose than the levels of suffering already extant in a given region.

With respect to the Gulf War, Pauling was deeply concerned that the Bush administration had failed to discuss issues of human rights and democracy in the country of Kuwait. Instead, the White House had only made the case that the family of the Kuwaiti emir needed to once again be restored to power.

For Pauling, the U.S. should have been far less concerned about the emir’s circumstances and much more interested in supporting democracy for the Kuwaiti people. As in his earlier statements, Pauling reemphasized the moral imperative for the United States to apply diplomatic and economic pressures in bringing about change. The chosen alternative, military incursion, would lead only to the waste of human lives and the possibility of escalation from conventional war to nuclear engagement.

In Pauling’s view, the clearly superior route for President Bush was to align himself on the side of morality.  Were he to do so, Bush could proclaim that “I set such a high value on human life and morality that I have decided the time has come to enter into discussions about all these world problems and save tens of thousands of lives.”  Likewise, there should be no concern about losing face. Indeed, Pauling argued that the “macho” stance for President Bush would entail a shift away from his pro-war policy, because it would take far more courage to resist war than to escalate it.

Pauling further delineated his previously expressed point of view arguing against ultimatums. In Pauling’s estimation, a series of threats were never going to prove persuasive for Saddam Hussein, whom Pauling judged to be lacking any fear over the potential deaths of soldiers or civilians. Likewise, the need to shift toward discussion was only exacerbated by the strong possibility that military conflict in the Gulf would serve to inflame the long-simmering Arab-Israeli conflict. With the end of the Cold War now at hand, the moral role of the United States as the dominant world power was to discourage regional wars rather than actively engaging in them.

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