- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

One of my Hoover colleagues, John Bunzel, who was a close friend of Edward Teller’s, once asked the eminent physicist: “Do you know the difference between God and yourself? You don’t? Well, God doesn’t want to be Edward Teller.”

The story was told at a commemoration last week dedicated to the Hungarian-born world-renowned nuclear physicist who died Sept. 9 at age 94. It was that kind of a memorial celebration, irreverent and admiring of the father of the hydrogen bomb, held at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in northern California, where Teller, its founder, held sway for many years. Less than two months before his death, President Bush awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Teller was too ill to accept the medal in person. President Bush telephoned him at his California home to congratulate him before the presentation ceremony. Teller’s daughter, Wendy, accepted the medal on his behalf at the White House ceremony.

I knew Teller as a Hoover colleague but I also knew him not only as the great scientist he was but as someone who, regardless of infirmity, took any opportunity offered him to talk to students.

For some years, I’ve run a weekly “pizza and politics” luncheon for Stanford undergraduates to meet Hoover fellows. Before Mr. Teller became house-bound, I regularly invited him to meet and talk to the students, an invitation he eagerly accepted.

And when he arrived at our luncheon, it was like some historical apparition, the man derided by his enemies as “Dr. Strangelove” who appeared out of a past the students had read or heard about but a past that had become the present in a Hoover seminar room.

He charmed students with his Hungarian-accented English and aroused them with his passionate tribute to modern science, especially to quantum physics. He exemplified Albert Einstein’s dictum, as theoretical physicist Lowell Wood, a Teller protege and now a Livermore senior scientist, put it, that “even the deepest truths can be simply conveyed.”

Teller fled to America from Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power. And in America he began his long career in theoretical research. With the coming of World War II and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call to arms of the scientific community, Teller moved from theoretical physics to applied nuclear physics studies at Columbia University.

It was Teller who in 1939 drove his fellow-Hungarian physicists, also emigres, to Einstein’s Long Island summer home, where Einstein signed what history will one day show was one of the most important letters ever written. The letter to Roosevelt from Einstein urged the U.S. to undertake atomic weapons research before the Nazis did so. Roosevelt listened.

There followed after Teller’s application an initial government grant of $6,000, to support Enrico Fermi’s nuclear reactor studies, which eventually grew into the Manhattan Project and then into Los Alamos.

When in 1949-50, the Soviet Union made its first nuclear bomb test, Teller pushed for the thermonuclear bomb as part of the U.S. defense program. With President Truman’s approval, Teller led in the designing of the first thermonuclear device tests in 1952. He went even further in his promise to a skeptical audience of a warhead that could be launched on a long-range missile carried by a submarine. That missile became Polaris, which was successfully tested in 1958.

Perhaps one of his most important contributions was to President Reagan’s “star wars” or strategic defense initiative (SDI) that repudiated the MAD doctrine, “mutually assured destruction” and sought instead to prevent a missile attack on the U.S. And when the president announced SDI on March 23, 1983, Teller was at the White House having dined with Mr. Reagan in advance of his historic address whose theme was: “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than to avenge them?” Years later, the onetime Soviet leaders admitted that the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire came with SDI.

How fortunate for America and for the Free World that there was a haven for immigrants like Teller and, of course, Einstein. I wish Teller were around now to explain how quantum mechanics could be used to thwart Osama bin Laden and his cohorts.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.


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