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Correspondence

Letter from Linus Pauling to Dr. Willard F. Libby. December 21, 1961.
Pauling writes to dispute Libby's writings regarding fallout shelters and civil defense.

Transcript

21 December 1961

Dear Bill:

After returning from a rather long European trip I have been reading the newspapers, and have read your series about fallout shelters.

I find it difficult to believe that you wrote these fifteen articles, because the style in which they are written does not seem to me to be your style. Moreover, some of the statements are false, or are so misleading, either through carelessness or through intent, as to deceive the great majority of readers. The matter of a nuclear war is so serious for the whole of humankind that deception of this sort should not be practiced, and I do not like to have the belief forced upon me that you have been associated with it.

I shall now ask you about only one of these false or seriously misleading statements.

In the forth of your articles, published in the Pasadena Star-News and many other papers, there is a view (photograph) of a fallout shelter, with the following caption, in bold-face type: "An interior view of an underground fallout shelter shows the elaborately equipped structure that probably could be duplicated at present for about $5000. Shelters such as this can increase your chances of survival by at least 10,000 fold."

This statement is not true. It is not possible for shelters to increase the chances of survival at least 10,000 fold.

I think that we are forced to interpret your words "your chances of survival" as meaning the chances of survival of Americans, because your articles were without a doubt seen by a very large number of Americans, constituting approximately a representative sample.

For example, let us assume that an atomic attack on the United States would kill about one quarter of the American people, without shelters. This is the customary estimate, corresponding to an attack of between 1,500 and 2,500 megatons. The chance of survival of the American people in such an attack is 0.75. For such an attack the construction of shelters could increase the chance of survival only by 33 percent.

This calculation indicates that your statement "Shelters such as this can increase your chances of survival at least 10,000 fold" involves a 30,000 fold exaggeration of the protection provided by the shelters.

I note that in the text of your article you mention "fallout protection" in one sentence. However, the proceding sentence reads "The better, the sturdier and better supplied the shelter is, the more protection there is against fallout, and even blast effects."

The caption of the photograph illustrating the article refers simply to chances of survival. I do not think that it can be assumed that a reader would interpret the sentence as referring to a sort of hypothetical survival of fallout damage, with death attributed to blast or fire included in the "survival" category.

The heading of the article itself, in large type, is "You can survive atomic attack: A real shelter is a real life saver."

A great many readers of the newspapers in which your article appeared would look at the photograph and read the caption and also the heading of the article. They would carry away the conclusion that you have assured them that the construction of shelters would increase their chances of survival at least 10,000 fold.

I have been trying to think of a possible way of justifying your having written this caption for the illustration, but I am unable to think of an acceptable justification.

I might point out that the chance of survival of Americans equipped with shelters would not be greater than unity. If your statement were correct, it would mean that the chance of survival without shelters is 0.0001 or less. Am I to assume that you think that a nuclear attack on the United States before shelters have been built would leave fewer than 18,000 Americans alive?

I hope that you will write to me at once, giving details of your calculations and explaining the basis of this statement in your fourth article. I shall, I believe, be making some public statements about this matter before long, and accordingly I hope that you will answer my letter without delay.

Sincerely yours,

[Linus Pauling]

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