Scientists Campaign Against Nuclear Testing

During the post-World War II period, Linus Pauling and other scientists spoke and wrote on the perils of nuclear testing and weaponry, leading the public to rethink the dangers not only of nuclear fallout and radiation poisoning but also the ultimate danger: nuclear annihilation.

Summary of Event

On October 10, 1963, the Nobel Peace Prize committee of the Norwegian parliament announced that the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Peace Prize;Linus Pauling[Pauling] would be given to Linus Pauling. It was not a coincidence that this was also the day that the Limited Test Ban Treaty Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963) went into effect, because the committee used its award to Pauling to call attention to the scientists who had aroused public awareness of the dangers of nuclear testing. Even though the treaty did not ban underground tests, it did end nearly two decades of aboveground testing by the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. In the years following the ban, this cessation of testing dramatically reduced atmospheric and ground contamination with dangerous and persistent radioactive isotopes. Nuclear weapons;testing
Nuclear weapons;disarmament
[kw]Scientists Campaign Against Nuclear Testing (July 9, 1955-early 1960’s)
[kw]Nuclear Testing, Scientists Campaign Against (July 9, 1955-early 1960’s)
Nuclear weapons;testing
Nuclear weapons;disarmament
[g]North America;July 9, 1955-early 1960’s: Scientists Campaign Against Nuclear Testing[04880]
[g]United States;July 9, 1955-early 1960’s: Scientists Campaign Against Nuclear Testing[04880]
[c]Cold War;July 9, 1955-early 1960’s: Scientists Campaign Against Nuclear Testing[04880]
[c]Social issues and reform;July 9, 1955-early 1960’s: Scientists Campaign Against Nuclear Testing[04880]
[c]Environmental issues;July 9, 1955-early 1960’s: Scientists Campaign Against Nuclear Testing[04880]
[c]Health and medicine;July 9, 1955-early 1960’s: Scientists Campaign Against Nuclear Testing[04880]
Pauling, Linus
Commoner, Barry
Muller, Hermann Joseph

Future Nobel peace laureate Linus Pauling (right) at Caltech around 1952 with fellow professor George Beadle.

(California Institute of Technology)

From July, 1945, when Manhattan Project scientists and the U.S. military detonated the first atomic bomb in the desert of New Mexico, to August, 1963, when the United States completed its final series of atmospheric tests in the Pacific, the accumulated tonnage of nuclear explosions had been doubling every three years. A similar expansion in the quantity and power of nuclear tests characterized the Soviet Union’s testing program from 1949, when Soviet scientists first detonated an atomic bomb, until the summer of 1963, when the Soviet Union, too, ended its atmospheric testing.

Because of the many nuclear tests by these and other countries, fallout Nuclear fallout
Radioactive contamination all over the earth kept escalating, as the longer-lived radioactive isotopes gradually settled back to the earth with other debris from nuclear explosions. As time passed, these isotopes became part of various ecosystems and thereby endangered all levels of life. Because such fallout isotopes as strontium 90 concentrated in the tissues of highly developed organisms, they posed a particularly acute danger for human beings. The growing environmental contamination alarmed many scientists, some of whom participated during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s in the campaign for the civilian control of atomic weapons through the United Nations (U.N.).

Pauling, whose many basic discoveries in structural chemistry and molecular biology had made him a highly respected scientist by the late 1940’s, was representative of a small but growing group in his profession who believed that scientists had a responsibility to appraise the peril posed by nuclear weapons and to alert the public. In a world deeply divided by the Cold War, Pauling wanted people to set aside partisan feelings and think in new ways; he argued that people had to see themselves as members of a biological species that could become extinct. A pivotal event on the road to such an understanding was the detonation of the most powerful bomb ever tested by the United States.

The fifteen-megaton hydrogen-bomb test on March 1, 1954, not only obliterated an island in the Bikini Atoll but also sucked the pulverized remains into a gigantic, highly radioactive plume that slowly drifted around the world. Downwind from the explosion, the crew members of the Japanese trawler Lucky Dragon
Lucky Dragon (ship) were exposed to such heavy amounts of radioactive fallout that all developed radiation poisoning Radiation poisoning , and one fisherman died. Furthermore, radioactive isotopes that fell on the ocean became part of the food chain and concentrated in the tissues of fish, creating dangers hundreds of miles from the test site. In the aftermath of these events, worldwide concern about fallout from atmospheric testing grew rapidly.

Hermann Joseph Muller, widely regarded as the leading expert on radiation-induced genetic changes, became concerned that nuclear tests were seriously undermining the biological integrity of humanity. With Pauling and other prominent scientists, Muller signed the July 9, 1955, Russell-Einstein Manifesto Russell-Einstein Manifesto (1955)[Russell Einstein Manifesto] , an appeal stating that nuclear weapons threatened the continued existence of the human species and urging that an international congress of scientists be convened to pass a resolution imploring the governments of the world to settle their differences peacefully. This manifesto led to the establishment of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs , many of which became forums for debating fallout and other nuclear issues.

Muller, who attended some of the early meetings of the organization, became very critical of medical, industrial, and military indifference to radiation damage. He believed that radiation caused harmful mutations in direct proportion to total exposure; as studies made clear, no level, even that received from a diagnostic X ray, could be considered safe.

As these warnings about the dangers of radiation percolated to the public, the debate about nuclear testing and fallout became intensely political. Adlai E. Stevenson, the 1956 Democratic presidential candidate, called for a test ban as a helpful way to revive the disarmament negotiations, but Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;nuclear technology , the Republican incumbent, argued that the tests were necessary to prevent the United States from being put at a military disadvantage. After Eisenhower’s election, Pauling, who had been publishing both scientific and polemical papers demonstrating the dangers of fallout, learned to his dismay that the president’s new secretary of health, education, and welfare had terminated the funding for one of his research projects.

On May 15, 1957, in the middle of this divisive ideological climate, Pauling gave an address on “Science in the Modern World” “Science in the Modern World” (Pauling)[Science in the Modern World] at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He discussed how bomb tests were causing an increase in the number of bad genes, which would result in the deaths of many people from leukemia and other diseases. He then gave Albert Schweitzer’s definition of a humanitarian as someone who believes that “no human being should be sacrificed to a project” and concluded by stating that no human being should be sacrificed to the project of perfecting nuclear weapons. So well received was his address that Pauling and some scientists in the audience decided that some action should be taken to stop the testing of nuclear weapons.

Barry Commoner and Edward Condon Condon, Edward , professors at Washington University, composed statements that Pauling combined into a two-hundred-word Appeal of Scientists Appeal of Scientists (petition) , calling for an international agreement to stop nuclear testing. Within a few weeks, more than two thousand American scientists, including Muller, had signed the appeal. Pauling sent it to Eisenhower and issued a statement to the press. The petition became news all over the world; soon, Pauling was receiving signatures to the appeal from scientists in other countries. On January 15, 1958, Pauling and his wife Ava Helen Helen, Ava presented the petition, with a list of more than nine thousand signers, to U.N. general secretary Dag Hammarskjöld.

Pauling’s petition generated controversy in both scholarly and popular venues. For example, in February, Pauling engaged in a debate Television;televised debates with Edward Teller Teller, Edward , often described as “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” on the educational television station KQED in San Francisco, California. Pauling argued that fallout from the tests was causing the birth of thousands of disabled children and that radiation from isotopes in the environment was causing leukemia and bone cancers Cancer;and nuclear radiation[nuclear radiation] . Teller argued that fallout contributed only a small fraction to natural radiation and that human exposure to this fraction was as dangerous as being an ounce overweight.

One month after this television debate, Pauling and seventeen others, including Norman Thomas Thomas, Norman and Bertrand Russell Russell, Bertrand , brought a lawsuit against the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission to stop nuclear tests. About the same time, Commoner and others founded the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information[Saint Louis Committee for Nuclear Information] (later known as the Committee on Environmental Information Committee on Environmental Information ). One of the committee’s first projects was a survey of baby teeth that revealed high levels of strontium 90 in the teeth of children in St. Louis. In his 1958 book No More War!
No More War! (Pauling)[No More War] Pauling brought together many of the arguments against testing; he sent more than fifteen hundred copies to influential individuals, including every member of Congress.

The work of Pauling, Commoner, and others began to have an effect. In 1960, a Gallup poll showed that more than 60 percent of the American public favored a test ban (as opposed to only 20 percent three years earlier). Despite this growing public support, Pauling continued to be harassed by the government. In the summer of 1960, he was called by a congressional subcommittee and asked to furnish the names of the individuals who had helped him gather signatures for his U.N. petition. When he was called before the subcommittee a second time in the fall, he refused to reveal the names of these scientists, many of whom were in the early stages of their careers, and the committee ultimately backed down.

Because of the work of Pauling and others, public pressure on government officials to end nuclear tests increased to such an extent that the United States and the Soviet Union embarked on a series of test moratoriums, but these were often broken by one side or the other. The event that, more than any other, caused negotiations to succeed was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962. This flirtation with nuclear disaster had a sobering effect on U.S. president John F. Kennedy Kennedy, John F.
[p]Kennedy, John F.;Cold War and Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev Khrushchev, Nikita S.
[p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;Cold War . Both leaders thereupon became willing to compromise, and their negotiating teams worked out the Limited Test Ban Treaty in the summer of 1963. To secure ratification by the U.S. Senate, Kennedy had to make important concessions to the military, including the promise to pursue an aggressive underground testing program. Once these concessions were made, the treaty was ratified. It went into effect on October 10, the day that Pauling’s Nobel Peace Prize was announced.


The nuclear test ban debate brought about a new relationship between scientists and the general public. Scientists discovered through this debate that all knowledge, even esoteric scientific knowledge, could be political. The public learned that a nuclear explosion was not merely a physical process but also a vast ecological experiment. Scientists were undertaking these devastating interventions into the biosphere without an adequate grasp of their possible dangers. They were discovering that these weapons of mass destruction were especially pernicious because their impact could not be confined to a particular place or time. Fallout could insidiously spread a test bomb’s radioactive poisons all over the world, and these poisons became part of various ecosystems for decades.

Pauling, Commoner, and Muller were able to alert the public to these dangers. Pauling, the chemist, was able to show that radioactive isotopes in test fallout could cause genetic and somatic damage to adults, children, and fetuses. Commoner, the biologist, was able to communicate how these isotopes became part of nature’s ecosystems. Muller, the geneticist, demonstrated that radiation from the isotopes had teratogenic effects and that no radiation level was really safe. Pauling, Commoner, Muller, and the scientists who supported them recognized that their views prevailed because they used arguments that had more popular emotional appeal than those of Teller and his supporters. When strontium 90 turned up in the milk of nursing mothers, concerned citizens had an issue they could understand.

The most immediate result of the Limited Test Ban Treaty was the halt of atmospheric nuclear tests by the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain, its initial signatories. Eventually, more than one hundred nations signed the treaty. In the years after the ban, contamination of the environment by fallout isotopes steadily declined. For example, levels of strontium 90 in milk and in children’s bones have decreased dramatically since the ban.

A less direct effect of the treaty was its influence on arms control. The test ban proved that meaningful disarmament steps were possible. It was the first treaty that explicitly limited nuclear competition among nations, and it was respected by its signatories.

The treaty, however, did not prohibit underground testing, nor did it permit on-site inspections. To get the treaty ratified, Kennedy had to compromise by agreeing that technology not prohibited by the test ban would be vigorously developed; in the case of underground testing, it was. Both the United States and the Soviet Union tested more after the treaty was signed than before. In the years between 1945 and 1963, these two countries carried out nearly five hundred nuclear tests, most of them aboveground; in the years between 1963 and 1981, the two nations exploded more than seven hundred nuclear weapons, all underground.

In short, the limited test ban did little to stop the arms race; it simply forced testing underground, where the pace actually accelerated. This did not concern most citizens, because their anger had been directed primarily at radioactive fallout rather than at nuclear testing itself. Consequently, few obstacles remained to prevent the creation and testing of new and more efficient nuclear weapons. Instead of leading to an era of arms agreements, the Limited Test Ban Treaty actually called forth a new arms race.

Nevertheless, the treaty represented a first step. It served as a model of activism for many scientists, some of whom played major roles in the environmental movement. Most analysts agreed that aroused public opinion had much to do with the treaty’s evolution and ratification and that scientists such as Pauling and Commoner did much to shape that opinion. Kennedy was assassinated six weeks after the Senate ratified the treaty, and Khrushchev was deposed a year later, but the test ban survived through many changes of regimes and political parties. Nuclear weapons;testing
Nuclear weapons;disarmament

Further Reading

  • Commoner, Barry. Making Peace with the Planet. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990. Commoner discusses the environmental costs of technological developments. His experiences in the campaign against nuclear testing form a subtheme in this book. Includes extensive bibliographical references and an index.
  • Divine, Robert A. Blowing on the Wind: The Nuclear Test Ban Debate, 1954-1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Detailed analysis of the debate that followed the development of the hydrogen bomb by the United States and the Soviet Union. Emphasizes the potential dangers that nuclear fallout poses for human health and genetic stability, and documents how professional scientists, humanists, and concerned citizens became involved in the debate. Includes a useful chronology, 1950-1963, an extensive bibliography, and an index.
  • Hacker, Barton C. Elements of Controversy: The Atomic Energy Commission and Radiation Safety in Nuclear Weapons Testing, 1947-1974. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. A sequel to the author’s earlier work, The Dragon’s Tail: Radiation Safety in the Manhattan Project, 1942-1946. Draws on government and medical documents to show how American nuclear weapons tests in the 1950’s and 1960’s subjected many soldiers and ordinary Americans to large amounts of radiation. Discusses the controversy whether overexposure to radiation actually caused the cancers and birth abnormalities that were attributed to it. Includes seven maps, one table, and a good index.
  • Kendall, Henry W. A Distant Light: Scientists and Public Policy. New York: Springer-Verlag, 2000. Written by a former UCS board chair, this collection outlines the challenges faced by scientists who are politically active especially on issues of science and public policy.
  • Lochbaum, David. Walking a Nuclear Tightrope: Unlearned Lessons of Year-plus Reactor Outages. Cambridge, Mass.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2006. A brief report that discusses “extended nuclear power reactor outages” and outlines how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can avoid a catastrophic nuclear accident.
  • An excellent resource for students studying the history of the atomic age. The site, a project of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, includes links to primary sources, study guides, suggested readings, and much more.
  • Oliver, Kendrick. Kennedy, Macmillan, and the Nuclear Test-ban Debate, 1961-63. New York: St. Martin’s Press, Scholarly and Reference Division, 1998. A history of U.S. and British negotiations to ban the testing of nuclear weapons and to control the global arms race. Part of the Studies in Military and Strategic History series.
  • Pauling, Linus. Linus Pauling, in His Own Words: Selected Writings, Speeches, and Interviews. Edited by Barbara Marinacci. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. A collection of the words and talks of Pauling, organized in the following sections: The Path of Learning, 1901-1922; The Structure of Matter, 1922-1954; The Nuclear Age, 1945-1994; and Nutritional Medicine, 1954-1994.
  • _______. Linus Pauling on Peace: A Scientist Speaks Out on Humanism and World Survival. Edited and selected by Barbara Marinacci and Ramesh Krishnamurthy. Los Altos, Calif.: Rising Star Press, 1998. This collection presents selected writings and talks, organized into the following sections: Education and Science in a Democracy; War, Peace, and Dissent; In the Nuclear Age; Peace Through Humanism; The Scientist in Society; and Future Prophecies.
  • _______. No More War! New York: Dodd, Mead, 1983. The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of one of the earliest books to alert the public to the potential dangers of nuclear war and nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere. Explains the nature of nuclear weapons and the effects of radiation. Unaltered reprint of the 1958 version with addenda to each chapter that discuss some of the intervening developments. Includes seven appendixes, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Seaborg, Glenn T. Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Test Ban. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. The author, who was chair of the Atomic Energy Commission and actively involved in the test-ban negotiations, deals only peripherally with the movement against nuclear-weapons atmospheric tests. Discusses, rather, the delicate negotiations carried out by representatives from the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. Includes the text of the treaty in an appendix and a good index.

Teller and Ulam Develop the First Hydrogen Bomb

Atomic Energy Act

International Atomic Energy Agency Begins Operations

Cousins Founds SANE

Nuclear Powers Sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty

Union of Concerned Scientists Is Founded