The Pauling-Teller Debate: A Tangle of Expertise and Values

This historic debate from the height of the Cold War provides a refreshing perspective on science and politics.

By 1958, Americans had been living under threat of nuclear attack for more than a decade. The United States and the Soviet Union were trading atomic weapons tests, battling for supremacy through displays of scientific and military might. Though the weapons were tested in remote areas, mangled shacks and burned farm animals near the blast sites revealed the destructive power of the bombs.

As the total number of global tests grew with each passing year, from 25 in 1955 to 55 in 1957 to nearly 120 in 1958, so too did concerns that the enemy would launch a nuclear attack. Children practiced scrambling under their desks upon seeing a flash of light in the sky. People built fallout shelters and stockpiled them with food, blankets, and first aid supplies, should an atomic bomb make their land unlivable.

Meanwhile, activists and politicians debated the merits of the tests, and the intensity of their concerns increased with the strength of weapons. Two lines of argument shaped the public conversation. Those who favored an end to nuclear weapons testing thought an international treaty was the only way to peace, while others supported continuing the tests to ensure freedom and national security.

On February 20, 1958, in the midst of the escalating nuclear tests, two scientists met in San Francisco for a live televised debate over nuclear weapons testing, fallout, and disarmament.

At the moderator’s right sat a staunch Linus Pauling, the 1954 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and a compelling voice in the push for world peace through nuclear disarmament. To their left was physicist Edward Teller, looking comfortable and confident. Teller helped build the atomic bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and also helped develop the more powerful hydrogen bomb. He supported constructing increasingly powerful weapons to deter nuclear war with the Soviets.

Since that day nearly 60 years ago, the spectacle of scientists dueling in public over matters of political disagreement has become more and more commonplace. Experts line up on opposing sides of a widening array of policy debates around issues as diverse as climate change, genetically modified crops, food and nutrition, and K-12 education. The experts speak as scientists. But very often they also speak on behalf of one political position or another. As a result of such advocacy, the line between science and politics seems to be growing more and more blurry.

When the politics are divisive and the science is complicated and uncertain, what should the role of scientists be in helping the public come to terms with complex and difficult dilemmas? Today’s cacophony of science and politics makes it hard to see clearly how these two different worlds might interact to the benefit, rather than the detriment, of each. What might we learn, then, if we look back to a time when such debates were much less familiar, when scientists were mostly in the background of political processes, and the authority of science was much less wrapped up in its role in public controversies?

Scientists in black and white

On that night in 1958, the television camera first focused on the moderator sitting at a podium. Behind him in big block letters hung KQED, the call sign of San Francisco’s public television station. “We in the United States bear an enormous burden in the decisions which must be made,” he began, referring to society’s questions about how to handle our invention of nuclear weapons. Smartly dressed in a suit and bow tie, the strength and confidence in his voice matched his demeanor. “In an effort to sharpen the focus…two of the world’s leading scientists agreed to debate the issue of ‘Fallout and Disarmament.’ Each speaks from personal convictions based upon experience, thoughtful consideration, and a profound knowledge of the subtleties involved.”

Pauling, wearing a suit tailored to fit his thin frame, spoke first. A week shy of his 57th birthday, gray hair curled around his ears and at the nape of his neck. The top of his head was practically bald. Pauling began giving lectures about the science of atomic weapons after the United States used the bombs on Japan in 1945. By the end of the 1940s, he was studying international relations, international law, and the peace movement. Then he shifted to speaking about the dangers of atomic weapons, always keeping his presentations up to date with the latest scientific advances and political developments.

Placing both hands flatly on the table in front of him, Pauling leaned forward and looked straight into the television camera. “I am a scientist. I am interested in the world, this wonderful world we live in.” He seemed a bit uncomfortable and hesitated slightly. “And I am especially interested in human beings.” With this line, his eyes twinkled and his demeanor relaxed.

He launched into his political position and policy advice. “We must not have a nuclear war. We must begin to solve international disputes by the application of man’s power of reason in a way that is worthy of the dignity of man.” With each must Pauling’s voice got louder and his body language larger. “We must solve them by arbitration, negotiation, the development of international law, the making of international agreements that will do justice to all nations and to all people—will benefit all nations and all peoples. And now is the time to start.”

One month before this, Pauling and his wife Ava Helen presented a petition to the head of the United Nations while they were in New York. The day after their UN visit, the front page of The New York Times reported “9,000 Scientists of 43 Lands Ask Nuclear Bomb Tests Be Stopped.” It was the largest organized political movement among scientists in a decade. The scientists united to express their concerns about the potential health effects of radioactive particles called fallout, recently discovered drifting through the atmosphere after weapons tests.

But not all scientists, including Pauling’s debate opponent Teller, thought nuclear testing should be stopped. Teller and Albert L. Latter, also a nuclear weapons expert, challenged the petition through an article they published in Life magazine. The story’s subheading blared: “Father of H-Bomb and Colleague Answer Nine Thousand Scientists: Fallout Risk is Overrated.”

In their Life article, Teller and Latter agreed with the findings reported to policymakers by an independent panel of scientists charged with assessing the hazards of fallout. The scientists concluded that background radiation bombarding the planet from the Sun and x-rays from procedures at doctors’ offices were more dangerous than nuclear weapons tests. Teller and Latter used this information to claim that the chances of contracting leukemia or bone cancer from fallout were negligible.

Buried in the piles of notes strewn across Pauling’s podium was a copy of Teller’s Life article. “I should like to read a statement in this article,” Pauling said, putting on his glasses. He began reading: “‘Since the people are the sovereign power in a democracy, it is of the greatest importance that they should be honestly and completely informed about all the relevant facts.’” He read each word with deliberation, and then said: “They are not honestly informed or completely informed by this article.” Pauling then proceeded to read several passages of the article, many relating to the potential health impacts of radiation, that he deemed “not true” and “seriously misleading.”

Teller followed Pauling’s argument with his own copy of the article in front of him, holding a pencil poised for taking notes, even though quibbles over the article’s contents did not concern him. Ending weapons tests was a greater danger than fallout. If Pauling’s fame and influence were growing through his work on disarmament, Teller’s career was advancing by building weapons and advising politicians about them.

Pauling’s numbers

Pauling finished his presentation with some science of radiation that he hoped would help listeners understand the magnitude of the dangers from fallout. He recited memorized estimates that 15,000 children yearly would be affected by disease-causing genetic mutations should nuclear testing continue at the current rate.

“Also, there are serious effects on the health of human beings now living, according to the information that is now available.” His dark eyebrows rose in emphasis and he rarely turned his eyes away from the television camera. “This is the opinion that I and many of my scientific colleagues—a great many—have.” He smiled slightly and nodded in satisfaction as he reached the end of his opening statement.

Knowing that many individuals value their own good health and that of their loved ones, Pauling sought to connect the preservation of health to the halt of weapons testing. If a majority of people could be swayed by his argument, it would improve the chances of enacting a policy that stopped the detonation of nuclear weapons simply for the purpose of testing them. A policy banning nuclear tests was, in Pauling’s opinion, the first step toward peace.

Pauling had a personal stake in his position on weapons testing, as his own moral code about the ethical responsibilities of scientists drove him to speak out for peace. Though he was a pacifist, scientific evidence also informed his political position. Pauling wanted the debate to continue emphasizing the science.

Teller had a different strategy for his opening statement. He planned to talk politics through an emotional appeal, more than a factual one. He leaned on the table, his body turned slightly toward Pauling. “I would like to emphasize at the outset that there are many, many facts about which Dr. Pauling and I agree,” 50-year-old Teller stated in a thick Hungarian accent. The arcs of his widow’s peak matched the curves of his dark caterpillar eyebrows, and wrinkles in his suit jacket crept up toward his shoulders. His relaxed demeanor and slightly disheveled appearance made him appear more avuncular and approachable than Pauling. “Now, the first points about which I would like to agree very strongly with Dr. Pauling are his quest for peace and his great appreciation for human life.”

The camera cut to Pauling. Back straight, brow furrowed, and lips pursed, he stared at the camera acknowledging Teller’s statement with a slight nod. He seemed to be trying to figure out what Teller would say after this string of compliments.

Teller’s story

“We live in the same world with the Russians, whose leader has said that he ‘wants to bury us’—and he means it. Disarmament, the cessation of tests, will not automatically bring us closer to peace,” Teller argued. Disarmament stripped nations of their ability to retaliate. It had allowed Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to occupy Teller’s homeland.

Born to a Jewish family in Hungary and educated in Germany, Teller emigrated in 1934 to escape Nazi persecution. Despite leaving over 20 years ago, the feelings of harassment were still fresh, and anger rumbled in his raised voice. The belligerence of the Soviet Union made the country no more trustworthy than Nazi Germany had proven to be.

“We are playing for big stakes,” Teller continued, becoming solemn. “We are playing not only for our lives, we are playing for something more. We are playing for freedom, for our own freedom, for the freedom of our friends and allies.” Siding with the U.S. government’s nuclear policy of deterrence, he believed that force was the best way to maintain freedom and eventually achieve an international agreement. Placing freedom above peace allowed him to appeal to viewers’ fears of a Communist takeover.

“We must avoid war under all possible circumstances, except, in my opinion, one: when the freedom of human beings is at stake.” Teller’s head nodded and shook as his passion crescendoed with the points in his speech. “If we…let the Russians know, that we will defend ourselves, I think that is the best way to peace. But all this means that we must be prepared.” War was a last resort; developing and testing weapons deterred war.

Pauling tried to turn the debate back to what he felt was the central question that scientific information could address: the amount of genetic damage presently caused by test explosions. But Teller was savvy at politics. He had established himself with governmental and military personnel as an expert on weapons development and national security. He spent most of his public speeches appealing to people’s belief systems, but that did not mean he ignored the science.

When Pauling discussed the science of fallout, Teller turned it into an opportunity to talk about another side of nuclear science, a utopian future made possible by continued testing. He spoke of the development of clean explosives devoid of radioactive elements, of days when nonradioactive nuclear explosions could be used to crush rock for mining, dig canals, and possibly even increase oil production.

The camera cut to Pauling, who watched Teller closely and nodded politely. A slight smile barely hid his growing anger.

“Now let me tell you right here,” Teller stated earnestly, “this alleged damage which the small radioactivity is causing by producing cancer and leukemia has not been proved, to the best of my knowledge, by any kind of decent and clear statistics,” Teller continued stating each word slowly and clearly through his thick accent. “It is possible that there is damage. It is even possible, to my mind, that there is no damage. And there is the possibility, furthermore, that very small amounts of radioactivity are helpful.” Besides, Teller continued, scientific research showed that genetic mutations in sperm could be caused by something as simple as the clothes men wore. Why, then, worry about the effects of radioactivity?

Teller’s position on the scientific evidence for risks from fallout was clear: Too much was unknown. Researchers had yet to provide conclusive statistics about the damaging effects of radioactive fallout on the reproductive system. Without stronger scientific evidence, it was too early to take a radical action that could make the U. S. vulnerable to nuclear attack.

Pauling thought he was there to discuss science, and he repeatedly tried to engage Teller in a scientific discourse. But he recognized Teller’s tactical advantage as the debate progressed. Teller captured viewers with ardor and urgency that were sure to have them listening intently to his message about the specter of a catastrophic world war.

So Pauling switched his focus from fallout science to policy advice that might calm listeners’ concerns. “I do not believe that there is going to be a nuclear war. I believe that these great stockpiles of nuclear weapons are really deterrents, as President Eisenhower has described them. Deterrents that will prevent war.” The next step, he said, was instituting an international agreement to stop bomb tests. However, Pauling’s tempered statements and restrained demeanor undermined his effectiveness toward an emotional connection with listeners.

Nuclear weapons are deterrents, Teller agreed. But to cease tests was to give the world to the Russians. “Now, peace based on force is not as good as peace based on agreement, but in the terrible world in which we live—in the world where the Russians have enslaved many millions of human beings, in the world where they have killed men—I think for the time being the only peace that we can have is the peace based on force.” Agreements take time. Soviet ruthlessness left the United States no option but to stay strong.

The debate volleyed in this manner. Pauling and Teller dissected each other’s statements and cast doubt. They made emotional appeals and pushed political solutions. They stood their ground on the best approach to international policy. Teller conveyed his earnestness with body and voice. Pauling retreated into the comfort of academic arguments grounded in numbers, facts, and reason.

By the end of the debate, however, science held a supporting role, as each man emphasized his value-based position on an international policy issue.

Teller grabbed the advantage from the beginning and never let go. He had a better presence on camera. And although he discounted the science of fallout, his arguments resonated with viewers better than Pauling’s numbers, statistics, and bland delivery.

Pauling’s strongest statement came toward the end of the debate. He wondered when countries throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East would have nuclear weapons. “If testing continues and stockpiles of nuclear weapons get into the hands of a great many countries,” Pauling said, “there would be great danger of outbreak of a catastrophic world war.” Although the gravity of his message increased, Pauling remained calm.

Teller got the final word. He ended with a fire in his belly and an argument that he hoped would sway people’s thoughts on the matter. “I have to tell you that I am not talking about these things calmly,” he sneered, lurching his torso toward the camera. “I have feelings. I have strong feelings. Many people were killed in Hungary from where I came, and all people in Hungary lost their freedom.”

Striking the desk twice in rapid succession, he continued his political tirade. “This question of freedom is the most important question in my mind. I don’t want to kill anybody. I am passionately opposed to killing,” Teller spat out, “but I am also even more, more, more passionately fond of freedom.” His head bobbed vigorously. He condemned censorship. He rebuked totalitarianism. His fury was obvious. And with his rage at a boil, he concluded. “I am talking for my freedom, for his freedom,”—he gestured to Pauling—“and for the freedom for all of us.”

With that statement, the debate ended. The moderator sat perched on his stool between the two scientists. Looking at each scientist in turn through thickly framed glasses, he reminded viewers of their responsibility in what today might seem extraordinary terms.

“It is apparent that the issue has not been resolved, but I am sure that both of our guests would agree that its ultimate solution rests in our hands. That each of us bears the moral obligation to examine the evidence, draw conclusions from this evidence, and act upon our convictions.”

And the winner is…

To modern ears, what is refreshing about the Pauling-Teller debate comes through the moderator’s concluding acknowledgment that science alone could not provide a clear answer on the issue of regulating nuclear testing, and that democracy would have to be the arbiter of such difficult choices. This perspective was more famously echoed almost exactly three years later in the farewell speech from President Eisenhower, who warned of the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” Nonscientific factors, including personal experience, economics, religion, and political persuasion would inform voters’ and scientists’ positions. Now, more than half a century later, what seems especially remarkable about the debate is how overtly Pauling and Teller—preeminent experts both—connected their opposing scientific perspectives and policy preferences to their highly personal views of the world and of the best ways to manage the unprecedented specter of nuclear Armageddon.

Each scientist drew on his scientific expertise to argue his position. Pauling used his knowledge of quantum mechanics and organic chemistry to estimate the strength and detrimental effects of nuclear weapons. Teller used his knowledge of the weapons’ workings to envision improved, radiation-free versions of nuclear power.

By the end of the debate, however, science held a supporting role, as each man emphasized his value-based position on an international policy issue. Pauling remained stoic as he used statistics to urge peace through an international treaty banning nuclear testing. Teller made the topic personal by focusing on his family and others’ experiences with the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to support the use of force to keep the peace.

The Pauling-Teller debate reminds us that there is an alternative, and arguably better, way to involve scientific experts in political controversies. Neither scientist tried to occupy a pedestal of detached objectivity in a world of momentous dilemmas and divisive politics. As the scientists argued, the audience could easily recognize their statements for what they were: informed perspectives influenced by personal values.

This doesn’t mean that science is unimportant or should be disregarded in political debate, but it does mean that experts need to be recognized as humans with biases, preferences, and always incomplete views of the difficult challenges facing democratic society. In the end, the question of whether expertise confers special wisdom about how best to resolve political controversies is a matter for the rest of us to decide. The final word was neither Teller’s nor Pauling’s, but that of the moderator: “That each of us bears the moral obligation to examine the evidence, draw conclusions from this evidence, and act upon our convictions.”

Melinda Gormley ([email protected]) is Assistant Director for Research at the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values at the University of Notre Dame. Melissae Fellet ([email protected]) is a freelance science writer whose work about chemistry and materials science has been published in New Scientist, Chemical & Engineering News, and Ars Technica.

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Cite this Article

Gormley, Melinda, and Melissae Fellet. “The Pauling-Teller Debate: A Tangle of Expertise and Values.” Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 4 (Summer 2015).

Vol. XXXI, No. 4, Summer 2015