Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove

Email Print

most people would prefer to forget it, ever since the atomic bombing
of Japanese cities in August 1945 the world has lived on the brink
of nuclear annihilation. And no individual played a more important
role in fostering the nuclear arms race and its terrible dangers
than Edward Teller, a Hungarian migr physicist.


Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove
, Peter Goodchild
– an award-winning television producer for the BBC and the
author of a biography of Robert Oppenheimer – provides a detailed,
informative biography of Teller. Drawing upon interviews he conducted,
manuscript materials, and secondary sources, Goodchild sketches
a revealing portrait of this gifted and extraordinarily influential

Teller was born into a relatively privileged, comfortable, Jewish
professional family in Budapest, he underwent an unhappy childhood.
His mother was often worried and over-protective and, thus, he grew
up a very serious child, frightened of everyday situations. Indeed,
Teller himself recalled that "the consistency of numbers"
was "the first memory I have of feeling secure." And there
was much to feel insecure about. Within short order, the Teller
family life in Budapest was disrupted by World War I, a postwar
Communist revolution, and a tide of post-Communist anti-Semitism.
Though he was unusually bright, Teller recalled that, at school,
he had no friends among his classmates, was ridiculed by some of
his teachers, and "was practically a social outcast."
Not surprisingly, he "reached adolescence still a serious child
with no sense of humor."

Teller moved on to Germany to attend university classes and do physics
research, his social acceptance and social skills improved markedly.
Thrown together with other brilliant scientists, many of them as
maladjusted as he was, Teller developed genuine warmth, humor, and
charm. Nevertheless, his childhood difficulties deeply marked his
subsequent career. Goodchild argues, convincingly, that Teller’s
"thirst for acceptance – with the hurt and anger he felt
when it was denied" – became "a defining feature"
of his life.

the Nazi rise to power, Teller left Germany for Britain and, soon,
for the United States, where he settled comfortably into an academic
career. In 1939, along with two other Hungarian migr physicists,
Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, he met with Albert Einstein and helped
convince him to warn President Franklin Roosevelt that the German
government might be developing an atomic bomb. This proved to be
the beginning of the Manhattan Project, the secret wartime atomic
bomb program. Teller worked on the project, which drew together
many of the scientists who, in later years, would clash over nuclear
weapons policy. Expecting to be appointed head of the theoretical
division at Los Alamos, Teller was bitterly disappointed when he
did not get the post.

was also chagrined when his plans for work on the "Super"
H-bomb were disrupted. For these setbacks, he blamed the director
of the Los Alamos lab, Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist whose influence,
popularity, and cliquish behavior he began to resent. When Szilard
asked Teller to circulate a petition at Los Alamos urging that the
bomb not be used against Japan, Teller was ready to do it, but was
dissuaded by Oppenheimer. Indeed, Teller reported back to Szilard
that, in light of the need to convince the public that "the
next war could be fatal," the "actual combat use"
of the weapon "might even be the best thing." It was the
first sign of his hawkishness and, also, of a complex relationship
with Oppenheimer, that characterized his life in the following decades.

the end of the war, Teller – deeply pessimistic about postwar
relations with the Soviet Union – pressed scientists to continue
their nuclear weapons work. Initially, to be sure, he supported
nuclear arms control and disarmament measures like the ill-fated
Acheson-Lilienthal Plan. But, increasingly, he championed the development
of the H-bomb – a project in which he hoped to play a leading
role. As Goodchild shows, by developing the H-bomb, Teller was responding
both to his fear that the Soviet Union might conquer the world and
to his jealousy of Oppenheimer, then widely lauded as the "father
of the atomic bomb."

two issues, reflecting his anxiety and his ambition, soon became
intertwined, for Oppenheimer and his circle proved to be major obstacles
to getting the U.S. government to move forward with the H-bomb project.
Gradually, however, Teller won the struggle. Particularly after
the first Soviet nuclear test in the fall of 1949, powerful political
figures, including President Harry Truman, lined up on the side
of constructing an H-bomb. All Teller had to do was to figure out
how to build it. Ironically, despite his vigorous weapons work at
the Livermore laboratory, it was a problem that confounded him for
years. Furthermore, the mathematician Stan Ulam may have been responsible
for the necessary conceptual breakthrough. Nevertheless, Teller
received the lion’s share of the credit and, ultimately, became
known as "the father of the H-bomb" – a weapon a
thousand times as powerful as the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima.

was the creation of the H-bomb Teller’s only victory over his putative
enemies. In 1954, he teamed up with other foes of Oppenheimer (and
of nuclear arms controls) to destroy his rival’s career and influence.
Oppenheimer had applied to the Atomic Energy Commission to reinstate
his security clearance, and this triggered a dramatic, highly-publicized
loyalty-security hearing. Although Teller’s friends urged him not
to testify, he rejected their advice. Thus, during the hearing,
he asserted that, based on Oppenheimer’s actions since 1945, he
thought it vital for national security to deny clearance to him.
This also turned out to be the decision of the board, which cut
off Oppenheimer from government programs he had once directed and
terminated his lingering influence upon them.

Teller, it proved to be a pyrrhic victory. When the AEC surprised
him by publishing the transcript of the loyalty-security hearing,
many of Teller’s scientific colleagues – shocked by what they
considered his betrayal of human decency – cut him off as well.
Teller was devastated by their response. As he recalled: "If
a person leaves his country, leaves his continent, leaves his relatives,
leaves his friends, the only people he knows are his professional
colleagues. If more than ninety per cent of them come around to
consider him an enemy, an outcast, it is bound to have an effect.
The truth is it had a profound effect."

however, proceeded to make new friends, particularly within the
ranks of the military-industrial complex, who appreciated the positions
he had taken and recognized his utility as a champion of new nuclear
weapons programs. And he proved to be a good investment. Urging
Congress and the President to spurn the idea of a nuclear test ban
treaty, Teller argued that "it would be a crime against the
people" to stop nuclear testing when he and other weapons scientists
stood on the brink of developing a "clean" bomb. "Peaceful
nuclear explosions," he told President Dwight Eisenhower, could
be used to uncover deposits of oil, alter the course of rivers,
and "perhaps even modify the weather." Eisenhower was
greatly impressed, and suggested that it might be a good idea to
share the "clean" bombs with the Russians, an idea that
Teller, naturally, resisted. Under Teller’ direction, his colleagues
at Livermore devised ever wilder schemes to prove that nuclear testing
could be hidden and, therefore, a test ban was not possible. These
included exploding weapons in deep caves, building a gargantuan
shield to hide x-rays from earthbound observers, and planning nuclear
tests on the far side of the moon. Although much of the public was
growing concerned about the nuclear fallout from testing, Teller
assured Americans that fallout was "not worth worrying about."
Nuclear test radiation "need not necessarily be harmful,"
he declared, and "may conceivably be helpful."

of the zanier ventures promoted by Teller involved the use of H-bombs
to blast out a deep-water harbor in northern Alaska. In the late
1950s, the influential physicist encouraged activities that included
using nuclear explosives to create diamonds, to mine oil, and with
the assistance of 26 nuclear devices to carve out a new canal adjacent
to the Panama Canal. He even opined that it would be hard to "resist
the temptation to shoot at the moon. . . to observe what kind of
disturbance it might cause." Eventually, these grandiose ideas
took shape in Project Plowshare.

implement its first component, Project Chariot, Teller flew off
to Alaska to propose exciting possibilities that included using
nuclear explosions to construct dams, lakes, and canals. Ultimately,
Teller narrowed down the Alaskan venture to using nuclear weapons
to blast out a giant harbor near Cape Thompson. Although commercial
interests in Alaska liked the idea, local scientists were critical
and the local Inuit people – 32 miles from the site of the
planned nuclear explosions – were not at all eager to have
their community turned into a nuclear wasteland. Responding to the
surge of protest against Project Chariot, the Kennedy administration
scrapped it. Goodchild reveals, however, that these apparently irrational
schemes had a hidden logic, for "Chariot was intended as a
cover for military activities." Faced with the prospect of
a nuclear test ban, Teller was promoting "peaceful" nuclear
explosions as a means of continuing the testing of nuclear weapons.

fierce faith in nuclear weapons became ever more evident in the
1960s and 1970s. He testified before Congress against the Partial
Test Ban Treaty and also spoke out against it on television. In
addition, he championed the development of an ABM system that would
employ nuclear explosions to destroy incoming missiles, held an
underground nuclear test at Amchitka Island that set off the most
powerful underground explosion in American history, and lobbied
hard against the SALT treaties of Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy
Carter. "He . . . was becoming so wildly hawkish," recalled
Marvin Goldberger, one of Teller’s early students, "that no
one wanted him around except the extremists in the Pentagon."

plunge into extremism carried over into the debate over the hazards
of nuclear power. When the near meltdown of the Three Mile Island
nuclear power plant occurred, releasing dangerous amounts of radioactivity,
Teller reassured a congressional committee that, "zero is the
number of proven cases of damage to health due to a nuclear plant
in the free world." The day after his congressional appearance,
Teller was hospitalized with a heart attack, and even this became
grist for his propaganda mill. In July 1979, under a two-page headline
in the Wall Street Journal reading "I WAS THE ONLY VICTIM
OF THREE MILE ISLAND," there appeared a large photo of Teller,
along with his explanation that the cause of his health problem
"was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous."
Goodchild then goes on to say: "An editorial in the New
York Times accused Teller of propaganda…It then pointed out
something Teller had not mentioned: that the sponsor of the advertisement,
Dresser Industries, had manufactured the valve that had stuck open
and started the emergency."

Teller had substantial influence on U.S. public policy through the
1970s, fostering the H-bomb during the Truman years, purging Oppenheimer
and sabotaging a test ban treaty during the Eisenhower years, excluding
underground nuclear testing from the test ban treaty during the
Kennedy years, securing the deployment of an ABM system during the
Johnson years, and keeping the U.S. government busily engaged in
the nuclear arms race during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter years –
he came into his own after the 1980 election victory of Ronald Reagan.
Teller arranged for the appointment of a protégé of
his as the president’s Science Advisor, became a member of the White
House Science Council, met with the president at the White House
on nuclear issues, and did as much as any other individual to convince
him that the creation of a Star Wars anti-missile system was vital
to the national defense. The Russians, Teller told Reagan, were
about to deploy "powerful directed energy weapons" in
space, thus enabling them to "militarily dominate both space
and the earth, conclusively altering the world balance of power."
Thus, "urgent action" was needed to build an anti-missile
system that would be powered by nuclear weapons explosions and could
be deployed within a few years.

is well-known, Reagan swallowed this anti-missile proposal hook,
line, and sinker though, in fact, Teller’s claims for it had little
relation to reality. Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, was more
dubious about the project, but he did approve a modified version,
Brilliant Pebbles, also championed by Teller. Republicans in Congress
also rallied behind the idea of missile defense, and during the
Bill Clinton years – used their newfound strength in that legislative
body to keep the project alive and the appropriations flowing to
America’s weaponeers. Thereafter, George W. Bush, taking office,
ordered the deployment of the new system and, a week before Teller’s
death in 2003, awarded him the President’s Medal of Freedom, this
nation’s highest civilian award. Along the way, Teller’s brainchild
helped to sabotage an agreement at Reykjavik to eliminate strategic
nuclear weapons, caused the scrapping of the ABM treaty, and resulted
in expenditures of over $100 billion. And there is still no indication
that it works.

Goodchild’s book provides a fascinating, well-researched, and at
times sympathetic study of an extraordinary individual. Unfortunately,
though, the author has a much better grasp of Teller’s life than
he does of his times. Thus, he makes some glaring historical mistakes.
Among them are the claims that, before Japanese surrender, the U.S.
government provided assurances to the Japanese government of the
emperor’s safety and that "Soviet armies invaded Czechoslovakia"
in February 1948. Even so, Edward Teller is a book well worth
reading. Provocative and convincing, it highlights the importance
of the personal dimension – including personal neuroses –
in the history of the nuclear arms race.

29, 2005

S. Wittner [send him mail]
is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany.
His latest book is Toward
Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement,
1971 to the Present
(Stanford University Press). This article
originally appeared on the History News
. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Email Print