History Magazine

Pauling, Kennedy and Khrushchev: Public Interactions

By Scarc
Pauling, Kennedy and Khrushchev: Public InteractionsPauling speaking to students at San Jose City College, April 12, 1962

Linus Pauling's public relationship with John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev was not dissimilar from his private interactions with the world leaders. As in his correspondence, Pauling was not shy about expressing his displeasure with various actions taken by the two men, and his message remained consistent and clear: the urgent need for nuclear disarmament and the cessation of nuclear weapons testing.

In pursuit of these goals, Pauling made use of his high profile with the media to call attention to the atrocities of nuclear weapons and to hold both leaders accountable for their actions. As time progressed, Pauling also became increasingly direct in his rhetoric, again with the goal of pushing for global denuclearization.

In a speech delivered at San Jose City College in 1962, for example, Pauling urged his audience to write letters to Kennedy urging the U.S. "not to carry out nuclear tests." Later that year, at Portland State College, Pauling spoke to students about his lack of trust in Kennedy's public statements supporting disarmament, noting that the president was "at the same time asking for a $6 billion increase in the military budget." For Pauling, a ramp up of this magnitude was wholly inconsistent with an ethos of nuclear disarmament: "so long as great bombs remain, war will become great war."

Pauling also engaged publicly with Premier Khrushchev, albeit in somewhat different ways. One prominent instance involved an "open telegram" that Pauling sent to Moscow, and that was also published in multiple newspapers. As one might expect, the telegram focused on Soviet weapons testing, and urged that "you [Khrushchev] stop the plan for carrying out a test explosion of a 50-megaton bomb." Failure to do so would mean that "several tens of thousands of children all over the world would be born with gross defects" were the test to go forward.

From there, Pauling assuming the role of a public broker. "I have telegraphed President Kennedy," he wrote, "asking that the United States pledge that it will not carry out additional bomb tests if you revoke further testing." He then concluded with a plea,

For the sake of human beings all over the world, I beseech the Soviet Union to stop testing bombs and, instead, to redouble its efforts for peace and disarmament.

With the open telegram, Pauling once again sought to raise public awareness about inconsistencies in rhetoric related to nuclear testing, and to serve notice to both leaders of the need to stop testing for the sake of all humanity.

As he calculated his public actions, Pauling took care to show that he was not unilaterally targeting one country or the other. This notion was emphasized in a September 1962 letter to the editor of This Week magazine, in which Pauling stressed that

I have never advocated unilateral disarmament by the United States or unilateral cessation of bomb testing. For years I have vigorously and consistently advocated that all testing of nuclear weapons in the world be brought to an end by means of international agreement, with the best possible systems of international controls and inspections.

This theme was furthered in a different letter penned for the New York Times. In it, Pauling debunks a series of recent comments made by Kennedy on the alleged safety of nuclear weapons; statements that the President had used to justify continued testing. Pauling then turned to Khrushchev, decrying a recent hydrogen bomb test that "will, if the human race survives, reap a toll approaching 20,000,000 grossly defective children and embryonic neonatal deaths."

Pauling addressed both men once more in yet another 1962 letter, this time published by The National Guardian. Pauling used the piece to argue that "the Soviet nuclear explosion, like the present U.S. series of tests, was carried out for political purposes, and not for the sake of military security."

For Pauling, the case was closed that neither world leader was seriously interested in disarmament. "Premier Khrushchev and President Kennedy talk about the need for peace, disarmament, and international cooperation," he wrote, "but the orders that they give are for continued bomb testing." In this context, the time had come "when we, through duty to ourselves, our children, and our children's children, must revolt against this irrational and immoral policy of our governments. Through our protests we must force our governments to stop the bomb tests."

Pauling was not just angry about Kennedy and Khrushchev's testing programs, he was equally upset about the brinksmanship that they had put on display during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Pauling was, in particular, infuriated by Kennedy's decision to blockade Cuba, and issued a series of public wires calling the action "horrifying" and placing "all the American people, as well as the people of many other countries, in grave danger of death through nuclear war."

For Pauling, the blockade was far too provocative and also an indication that Kennedy "has great trust in the rationality of the Russians [...] but I don't have as much trust in Khrushchev as Kennedy does." Pointing out that "the threat of nuclear destruction can't be made over and over again," Pauling feared that Khrushchev might one day soon actually use nuclear weapons against the United States, were he provoked significantly enough. This eventuality was, of course, one that could be avoided were both world leaders capable of seriously discussing disarmament.

To that end, instead of a blockade, Pauling argued for other ideas. Why not, for example, consider the complete removal of Soviet and U.S. military bases near shared borders? More broadly, Pauling urged both leaders to work in the spirit of negotiation rather than retaliation, making clear that he did not "trust the military element in either country."

Pauling, Kennedy and Khrushchev: Public Interactions

No survey of Pauling's engagements with Kennedy can overlook their most famous interaction, one imbued with cordiality and antagonism in equal measure.

On April 30, 1962, Pauling attended a dinner at the White House honoring all Nobel Prize winners residing in the Western Hemisphere; a total of forty-nine laureates were in attendance. In his remarks, Kennedy judged the guest list as comprising "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House." The evening clearly put Pauling into a jovial mood as, at one point, he led 175 guests in an impromptu waltz in the East Room.

This act of buoyant spontaneity was quite a juxtaposition from Pauling's actions earlier in the day. From noon to 3:00 PM that afternoon, Pauling had participated in an anti-nuclear picket protest organized by Women Strike for Peace and held directly in front of the White House. While marching on the line, Pauling posed with two signs: one read "No" with a picture of a mushroom cloud and the other said "Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Macmillan: We Have No Right to Test." After three hours of protesting, Pauling returned to his hotel to put on black tie and prepare for the Nobel dinner.

One evening of fun did nothing to stop Pauling from continuing his public crusade again nuclear testing, and eventually he arrived at a major success. In August 1963, a little over a year and a half after the White House dinner, Kennedy and Khrushchev were among the signatories of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which rendered illegal the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. In recognition of this moment, Pauling wrote to Kennedy to express his gratitude for agreeing to the terms of the treaty and to express his belief that "this agreement will go down in history as one of the greatest events in the history of the world." And of course, the role that Pauling played in bringing it about did not go overlooked: a few months later, he was traveling to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Filed under: Peace Activism | Tagged: John F. Kennedy, Linus Pauling, Nikita Khrushchev, nuclear weapons testing |


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