- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2003

When Edward Teller died last week at age 95, newspapers catalogued milestones in the prominent career of the physicist and public servant who gave us the H-bomb. The Washington Post called Teller “a man of intellect who was deeply involved for decades in the great public issues of his day.”

The Post stopped short of labeling him a philosopher of science, but this is precisely what he was, beyond his many contributions to physics and to national defense. In books, articles, lectures and interviews, Teller propounded a sophisticated philosophy of science that will remain relevant long after his death. In a little-noticed interview in 1999, Teller revealed the underpinnings of this philosophy.

The first element is optimism about the scientific enterprise. “I am firmly convinced that scientists must find out what can be found out,” he explained. Sometimes, dangerous technologies derive from this, he conceded. But the solution is not to give up inquiry, or to deny dangers result from them. The solution is to keep the technology out of irresponsible hands and direct it toward positive ends. “Stability does not come from weapons,” Teller explained. It comes “from human intentions, and from the power of those with proper intentions to make them work.” The atomic bomb, like any technology, will always be subject to such intentions. It follows that the technology must be kept from those who lack the proper ones.

Of course, policing nuclear technology is a not a scientific endeavor but fundamentally a political one. Teller’s scientific wisdom — of a part with his keen political sensibilities — extended its optimism to politics to emphasize the virtues of democratic government. Unlike the ideas many contemporary scientists promote, Teller knew the proper boundaries of science. He knew what questions it could answer and what lay beyond its ken. He knew where science meets politics and philosophy. How should nuclear technology be used? Who decides? “That responsibility I claim the scientist does not have,” Teller argued.

“In a democracy, kings should not make the decisions, capitalists should not make the decisions, movie stars should not make the decisions, scientists should not make them either,” Teller argued. “People in general must make the decisions, and we scientists must look to it that people understand what they are deciding about.”

Teller’s humility on such questions was profound. “I think our job is to increase human knowledge, human power, human understanding and make sure that the human society in general keeps up. Then it is up to the democratic society to make the right decisions.”

American democracy meets the challenge, according to Teller. “I am happy that the country that found [the bomb] first is the one that was not inclined to misuse it. That is why I happily and willingly worked for [the United States].” Himself a Hungarian Jew and refugee from Nazism, Teller was a keen judge of regimes inclined toward more pernicious ends. Thus, after the Nazis were defeated, he sought to show that the Soviets, too, were not to be trusted with nuclear secrets. “After many years of careful discussion and hesitations, my confidence in the Soviet government was not high,” Teller reported. “One of my very excellent Soviet physicist friends was an ardent communist who worked [with me] in Leipzig, Lev Landow. After he got back to the Soviet Union, he was arrested as a capitalist spy. My opinion of the Soviet government was low,” Teller said. “I am thinking that my low opinion was justified,” he concluded modestly. At a time when the Soviets blinkered many other wise thoughtful American observers Teller’s early-Cold War anticommunism is not to be discounted.

Was Teller proud of his work on the bomb? Surely not in the sense that careerists reach for laurels. He certainly thought his life’s work had aided human progress. But asked if he was proud to be the H-bomb’s father, he demurred. “I was not proud,” he explained. “I did what was obvious. … I would have been ashamed not to work, when it was work needed to secure world stability.”

What about Hiroshima and Nagasaki? He regretted these but stood by the view — increasingly unpopular as the late 20th century wore on — that the bomb’s deterrent effects were a great advance in the modern world, and never in any event advocated the bomb’s use in war.

He was alone among colleagues in arguing for the continuation of weapons research after the Japanese surrender. “With the war over, there is no reason to continue work on the hydrogen bomb,” Robert Oppenheimer insisted publicly. And Los Alamos? “Give it back to the Indians.”

But Teller believed the very nature of both science and politics compelled it. He persevered in this unpopular opinion, helping to shape a half-century’s worth of applied science in national defense fields. Meanwhile, in his thinking and public life, he showed Americans the best of what modern political and scientific optimism can be.

Brendan Conway is associate editor of the Public Interest and a former assistant managing editor of the National Interest.

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