MEMOIRS: A TWENTIETH-CENTURY JOURNEY IN SCIENCE AND POLITICS
By Edward Teller
With Judith Shoolery
Perseus, $35, 628 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY JEREMY BERNSTEIN
By the spring of 1954 it had become clear to everyone in the Harvard physics department, including myself, that I was actually going to get my Ph.D. and would need a job. Academic jobs were scarce but the two weapons laboratories, Los Alamos and Livermore, were hiring. The latter had been created in California for Edward Teller in late 1952 and was now actively recruiting. Indeed, my name had been given to Mr. Teller and an interview had been arranged at the spring Washington meeting of the American Physical Society. It was a rather bizarre encounter in Mr. Teller’s hotel suite. He paced the floor while reciting a lecture he was to give on some theory of mesons, expecting me to make comments of which I had none.
Suddenly, in the middle, he stopped and said it was a relief to be talking about physics rather than politics. I had no idea what he meant. It was only a few months later that I discovered that, just before our encounter, he had been testifying, negatively, in the hearing before the Personnel Security Board of the Atomic Energy Commission In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It was this board that voted to remove Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Mr. Teller’s testimony made him a pariah for most of the physics community. I never heard from him again.
All of this came back vividly as I was reading Mr. Teller’s just published “Memoirs.” He is now in his early 90s. While much was familiar his boyhood as a pampered son of a successful Jewish lawyer in Budapest, his studies in Germany, his escape to England and his emigration to this country in 1935 some was new to me. I had not realized his close relationship with Werner Heisenberg and his even closer relationship with Heisenberg’s disciple and protege Carl Frederick von Weizsacker.
This certainly accounts for Mr. Teller’s vigorous defense of their wartime activities both in his memoir and elsewhere. I found particularly offensive Mr. Teller’s assertion that Heisenberg took a great “personal risk” in attempting to save the parents of the physicist Samuel Goudsmit from being deported to a concentration camp. What happened was that a Dutch physicist asked Heisenberg to help. Heisenberg responded to the physicist with a letter that said that, “I would be very sorry if, for reasons unknown to me, his parents would experience any difficulties in Holland.”
Heisenberg, of course, knew the reasons and, in fact, Goudsmit’s parents had already been deported. Heisenberg, Mr. Teller would have us believe, was engaged in a peaceful activity designed to keep German scientists out of the war. But toward the end of his book he tells us that Weizsacker had been assigned to “the German atomic bomb project” of which Heisenberg was the intellectual leader.The reasons this project failed are complex, but moral rectitude is not among them. Mr. Teller’s own involvement with nuclear weapons began in the summer of 1939 when he drove Leo Szilard to Long Island to give Albert Einstein the letter to President Roosevelt that warned of the German program. Mr. Teller was one of the early recruits to Los Alamos. Oppenheimer was its director.
Mr. Teller makes it clear that he was never very comfortable with Oppenheimer. His wife actively disliked him. Things came to a head when Oppenheimer made Hans Bethe the director of the theoretical division instead of him. This still rankles. Thereafter Mr. Teller followed largely his own direction which included doing research on a hydrogen bomb when it was not clear that an atomic bomb was feasible. After the war most of the scientists wanted to get back to their universities and their research, but Mr. Teller was still eager to carry on at Los Alamos. A good deal of this had to do with his concern about the Soviet Union but some I think goes deeper.
Mr. Teller informs us that after attending a 1948 meeting, he decided that the physics on offer was not up to his standards and chose not to work on it any more. Despite this explanation, he did work on it. Witness the lecture he gave to me. The problem was that his output was not very good; unlike Mr. Bethe’s, who did wonderful work while continuing his efforts on national defense, Mr. Teller became what he himself admits was monomaniacal especially in designing the hydrogen bomb. In his book Mr. Teller claims complete credit for the discovery that made this dreadful weapon possible, denying any credit to the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam. Why anyone would want this credit I cannot imagine. But there it is.
So long as the bomb seemed technically infeasible, Oppenheimer opposed it. Once he learned of the Ulam-Teller idea he felt that there was no way to stop it. This initial reluctance became one of the issues in his hearing but Mr. Teller claims that it was not his issue. He said that he had been set to testify in favor of Oppenheimer when he was approached by the AEC’s counsel Roger Robb. Robb discussed some of Oppenheimer’s testimony with him. If this had been a proper judicial hearing it would have been witness tampering. During the war Oppenheimer had been approached by a friend to pass information to the Soviet Union. He refused and then reported the matter to the security people disguising his friend’s role.
This was a stupid thing to do and was soon unmasked. This episode is what Mr. Teller says he objected to. But he did not say this in his testimony. He refers to a “great number of cases … in which his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated.
I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better and trust more.” This was the end of Oppenheimer’s public career and the end of many people’s respect for Mr. Teller an unnecessary tragedy for both men.
Judging from his memoirs, and his public activities in the last half century, Mr. Teller has never met a nuclear weapons system he did not like. His Plowshare program was meant to design atomic explosions for everything from canal dredging to oil and gas exploration. The fact that these explosions created radioactivity in the atmosphere was in his view of no real concern. In fact he tells us in his memoirs that low level radioactivity might even be good for us. He defends all of this with arguments that most scientists feel border on quackery. He informs us, for example, that there are populations in regions of China, Brazil and India where the natural radioactivity levels are high but which, he says, show no health effects.
Mr. Teller does not tell us anything about these populations, including their life spans and of what they die. The Sherpas of Nepal live at altitudes of 12,000 feet where natural radioactivity is high. When I first visited them in 1967 there was no evidence of radiation induced illness either as far as I know. But their average lifespan was only 35 years and they were dying of diseases that modern medicine can cure. Needless to say, given his attitude, Mr. Teller fought the above-ground nuclear test ban treaty tooth and nail but, fortunately, good sense prevailed. It also prevailed, at least for a while, in the anti-ballistic missile treaty which alas did not prevent the spending of billions of wasted dollars on a Star Wars program that Mr. Teller championed.
Future historians, if they are spared the weapons Mr. Teller helped to create, will not have an easy time placing him. As a scientist I would imagine he will hardly be worth a footnote. As a political figure how he will be viewed will depend on where you are seated at the ideological table. For some he may appear to have been a heroic figure who helped to win the Cold War. For others he will be judged a nuclear Svengali whom we could well have done without.
Jeremy Bernstein is emeritus professor of physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology. He has written extensively about the science and politics of physics.