- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005

Edward Teller: the real Dr. Strangelove

By Peter Goodchild

Harvard University press, $29.95, 466 pages

Reveiwed by Jeffrey Marsh

Edward Teller (1908-2003) had one of the longest and most noteworthy careers in the history of science. He made important contributions to nuclear physics in the 1930s and was a leading figure in the inception of the World War II Manhattan Project. He is most famous, though, as “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” a title bestowed upon him in the 1950s which reflects both his role in the technical breakthrough that made construction of the H-bomb possible and the dogged political battle he waged against the scientific establishment to continue research on the bomb.

But perhaps the most remarkable of all his achievements occurred when he was in his 70s, when the “Star Wars” missile defense concept he advocated was enthusiastically endorsed by President Ronald Reagan and helped deliver the coup de grace to the Soviet Union’s ambitions to compete militarily with the United States.

Peter Goodchild is a BBC television producer whose earlier works include major TV and written biographies of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the celebrated leader of the Manhattan Project. What he learned then about Teller inspired Mr. Goodchild to embark upon this massive work, which answers just about any question you may have about Dr. Teller’s life and work.

Edward Teller was born in Budapest into a cultured and highly assimilated Hungarian-Jewish family. The family’s placid life was disrupted when Bela Kun’s communist uprising following World War I took over Hungary, requisitioning part of the Teller home in its revolutionary zeal. The communists were overthrown after four months, but the new regime led by Admiral Horthy was highly antisemitic and, among other things, imposed quotas on the number of university places and government jobs available to Jews.

Young Edward’s academic brilliance won him first prizes in both physics and mathematics in a nationwide competition for high school graduates, and he left Hungary to study in Germany, where he earned a Ph.D. under Werner Heisenberg, a founder of the new quantum mechanics, who made him his assistant. When Hitler took power, he joined the exodus of Jewish scientists, first moving to Copenhagen.

Teller married his long-time sweetheart from Budapest, Mici (pronounced Mitzi) and joined his Russian refugee friend George Gamow at George Washington University. He soon became a leading figure in the rapidly expanding American physics community. Some of the 60-odd papers he produced then are still producing practical spin-offs. Among other achievements, he inspired Hans Bethe’s unraveling of the thermonuclear reactions that power the sun.

In late 1939, following the discovery of nuclear fission in uranium, Teller’s old Budapest friend Leo Szilard sounded the alarm that the Germans might build an atomic bomb in a letter he drafted to President Roosevelt for Albert Einstein to sign. (Teller drove Szilard to Einstein’s summer home in Long Island.) However, serious US efforts to build a bomb only commenced in late 1941, when the MAUD report — named after physicist Niels Bohr’s nanny — arrived in Washington, describing British progress on fission research.

Teller was summoned by Oppenheimer to join the A-bomb project, and soon began thinking about the possibility of a thermonuclear “superbomb.” One of the first scientists to arrive at the newly established Los Alamos laboratory, he was deeply hurt when Oppenheimer selected Bethe, a more systematic but less imaginative figure, to head the theoretical division, an appointment Teller had expected. Adding insult to injury, a review committee relegated work on the superbomb to the back burner. From then on, he regarded Oppenheimer with deep suspicion.

After the war, Teller spent three years at the University of Chicago, pursuing pure research and mentoring a number of distinguished students. Disappointed by the failure of Los Alamos to pursue the superbomb as aggressively as he wished, he argued, correctly, that the Russians could well be working on the H-bomb. In fact, they were hot on the trail, armed with knowledge gained from their spy Klaus Fuchs, another Los Alamos veteran who actually held a key patent relating to the bomb.

In 1949, Teller returned to Los Alamos full time, and made himself unpopular with the management by his private lobbying for development of the fusion bomb with leading military and political figures. After the Russians’ first A-bomb test and the discovery of Fuchs’s espionage, President Truman ordered a crash program to develop the H bomb.

Oppenheimer and the other members of the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee were still not enthusiastic about the H-bomb program, not least because little progress had been made in producing a plausible design after a decade of research. Then Teller, together with the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, came up with a new concept that the hydrogen fuel could be compressed by X-rays from a smaller nuclear explosion. This idea made the bomb “technically sweet,” in Oppenheimer’s famous phrase, and the opposition evaporated..

Shortly thereafter, the AEC, prompted by a letter accusing Oppenheimer of being a Soviet agent, took away his security clearance and began a hearing to consider his appeal. Many distinguished figures testified to Oppenheimer’s loyalty, but the key witness was Teller. He said he had no doubt that Oppenheimer was a loyal American. But he remembered having been informed of an inexplicable breach of security by Oppenheimer during the war, when Oppenheimer first failed to report an Russian attempt to recruit him, then came forth with a bizarre story about it. Teller linked this with Oppenheimer’s foot-dragging over the H-bomb program and made the famous statement, “If it is a question of wisdom and judgement…I would say one would be wiser not to grant clearance.”

After his testimony, Teller was ostracized by many of his old friends. In more hawkish circles, however, he became a heroic figure for his continuing battles to keep America ahead in the arms race. Now associated with Livermore, a new weapons laboratory whose creation he had inspired, he fought and won a battle against a ban on all nuclear weapons tests, defying both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.

Mr. Goodchild tells us that the famous “military industrial complex” mentioned in President Eisenhower’s farewell address referred to Teller, and also provides an anecdote in which Teller made a sharply critical remark directly to President Kennedy. Teller also put great effort into Plowshare, a proposed program that would use nuclear explosions to perform vast engineering projects, including building a successor to the Panama Canal.

And he spoke out against the claims of Linus Pauling and others about the dangers of nuclear fallout. Mr. Goodchild informs us that scientists have not yet come do a definite conclusion on the dangers of fallout, but given the long period that the subject has been studied, it would seem clear that the alarm about its hazards were greatly overblown. At no time was public hysteria over nuclear matters greater than following the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, and Teller announced that he was the only victim of the accident, because he put so much effort in refuting the critics of nuclear power that he suffered a heart attack.

In the Reagan years, Teller came into his own when his vision of a space-based anti-missile defense was adopted enthusiastically by the president. Mr. Goodchild, unable to suppress his fealty to the doctrine of mutual assured destruction that ruled Western nuclear strategy from the 1950s through the 1980s, is still upset at President Reagan, under Teller’s influence, for defying it, even though this dramatic break from orthodoxy ended the nuclear arms race he so deplores and led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This may explain why he describes Dr. Teller in the book’s subtitle as “the real Dr. Strangelove,” even though his own seven-page introduction demonstrates the differences between the eponymous villain of Stanley Kubrick’s 1965 movie and Edward Teller. For those who have never seen the movie, or have forgotten most of the details, Dr. Strangelove is the ex-Nazi “cold and calculating nuclear strategist” whose deluded machinations end with the destruction of civilization in a nuclear holocaust. Teller, by contrast, was a refugee from the Nazis and foe of every brand of totalitarianism, and an outspoken advocate of scientific openness. What Mr. Goodchild describes as his life of “manic obsession” with the development of the horrific superbomb can be regarded as a 60-year-long sacrifice of his scientific ambitions in favor of saving humanity.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

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