Linus Pauling loved science. He did not love political work. He once gave an interview
in which he referred to his peace activism as "something that I didn’t care to do
very much, except for reasons of morality and conviction." In the end, he won the
Peace Prize, which he viewed as a vindication of this difficult work. But what impact
did Pauling’s peace work really have? During the decade and a half between 1948 and
1963, a time during which the governments of the world were grappling for the first
time with the challenges of proliferating nuclear weapons, Pauling, Einstein, and
Bertrand Russell rose to become the world’s three most visible and influential peace
But there were important differences between Einstein and Russell on one hand, who
were, in their own ways, philosophers of peace, and Pauling, more of a hands-on activist.
He did not merely lend his name to advertisements and pen declarations. Pauling marched,
picketed, debated, wrote scores of letters to publications, spoke hundreds of times.
He organized global meetings. He met with world leaders. He knew how to time and present
his views in ways that garnered the greatest possible amount of media coverage. He
could speak to large groups with passion, and was a rare scientist who could mobilize
a crowd. His kitchen-table petitions against the spread of nuclear weapons were critical
in demonstrating that scientists worldwide were anti-Bomb. He helped make dissent
during the McCarthy era both rational and respectable.
Pauling was different in a deeper way as well. Einstein and Russell did their peace
work at the ends of their careers, when they were so eminent they had little to lose
by taking unpopular political stands. They were untouchable. Pauling, however, risked
a great deal. He could -- and did -- lose research funds and prestige within his field,
and lost the chairmanship of his division at Caltech. Years of attacks in the press
and by government officials left him stained for the rest of his life, seen by many
as more a crank than a genius. His political activism thereby became something more
than a gentleman’s act of conscience. It was an act of surpassing courage.