Where Physics and Politics Meet

Review of Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Journey in Science and Politics

A Twentieth Century Journey in Science and Politics
by Edward Teller
Perseus, 544 pp., $35

EDWARD TELLER has undertaken, at the age of ninety-three, to tell the story of his life. In conducting an exercise of this sort, most men find much to admire, but little to censure in themselves. An autobiography thus tends to be an exercise in double deception: the reader deceived by the author, the author by himself. Teller’s “Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Journey in Science and Politics” does not constitute a notable exception to the genre’s rules. His work done, he finds it good. The reader may come in the end to agree with him–interesting evidence that in compiling an autobiography a man may reveal the truth without ever telling it completely.

Teller was born in Budapest in 1907, during the long autumn of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The autumn over, there followed by the First World War, civil insurrection, and dictatorships of the left and the right. From the first, he found himself devoted to science, and among the sciences, to mathematical physics. He was by nature a man persuaded of his own pleasantness and consequently a romantic in his personal life and a sentimentalist in politics. Until 1931, he admits, he “was ignorant of most of the facts about political affairs.” The Nazis appalled him, if only because they appalled almost everyone; Stalin and the Soviet Union, on the other hand, provoked a suspension of his judgment. He listened with patience to physicists such as Lev Landau, persuaded of the Communist cause and prepared to perish for its sake. It was not until he read Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” in 1943 that his understanding improved. Thereafter, it became very much improved.

Like many other physicists, including the young J. Robert Oppenheimer, Teller was profoundly influenced–he was enraptured–by the creation of quantum mechanics, the strangest and most powerful of physical theories. In this he was fortunate but not lucky. He studied with Werner Heisenberg at G ttingen and then with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. But by the early 1930s, the greater part of the great work had already been done, classical physics shattered. Teller was able to witness the last revolution in mathematical physics, but he had arrived too late to participate at its birth.

Teller left Europe for the United States in 1935 and promptly found a generous sinecure at George Washington University. No more than a dozen physicists quite understood the new quantum mechanics, and Teller was one of them. No doubt, he added a certain European cachet to a department otherwise known for its industrious mediocrity. It is nonetheless not easy to imagine him addressing undergraduates or attending faculty meetings. He was, by his own account, a large, a rumpled personality, at once brooding and expansive, the engine of his ambition firing without pause.

BY 1939, the world had conspired to make more room for him than George Washington University afforded. Developments in physics had made it clear that the relationship between matter and energy was something more than the theoretical artifact Einstein had predicted in 1905.

Enrico Fermi had spotted the telltale signs of nuclear fission in experiments conducted in 1932 (although Fermi unaccountably had failed to register what he had seen). Six years later, the German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann carried out similar experiments, bombarding uranium with a stream of neutrons. With the help of Carl von Weizsacker, they drew the appropriate conclusions. They had witnessed nuclear fission. Their analysis was strengthened and confirmed a year later by Lise Meitner.

The consequences were plain to every one of the physicists. A bomb could be built. The only question was whether it would be built by Nazi Germany or the United States. In 1939 Teller and Leo Szilard traveled to Einstein’s house on Long Island in order to elicit his support for the development of an atomic weapon, carrying a letter Szilard had drafted. Einstein had long been an indecisive pacifist, willing to condemn but not to reject the use of violence in international affairs. He signed the letter without significant change. Szilard forwarded the letter to President Roosevelt.

THE AMERICAN SCIENTIFIC and military establishment required four years to construct an atomic weapon, their success an extraordinary feat of disciplined engineering. J. Robert Oppenheimer was recruited from the University of California at Berkeley to lead a team assembled at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer had been known as a reserved and somewhat arrogant professor, quick to ridicule his intellectual inferiors. But he undertook the transformation of his personality and against great odds succeeded in disciplining the immensely fractious and self-important group of scientists he had assembled. It was in all respects a remarkable performance. Teller’s account of Oppenheimer’s success is the more impressive inasmuch as Teller never manages to conceal the fact that he disliked the man because he felt inadequate in his presence.

The project the physicists had set themselves possessed an undeniable moral urgency. Germany had retained a cadre of talented physicists, most notably Werner Heisenberg, who had chosen to remain in Germany by invoking the unassailable but irrelevant logical truth that “if my brother steals a silver spoon he is still my brother.” It was natural to suppose that he was lending his support to the development of a German bomb–as, in fact, he was. And Germany embodied a brilliant and advanced technological society. An American scientist concerned that he might be performing the devil’s work at Los Alamos had only to imagine an atomic weapon in Hitler’s hands to resolve his doubts.

For reasons that are still unclear, the Nazi state failed to develop an atomic weapon. German physicists were sequestered in Britain after the war, and their conversations secretly recorded. The recordings reveal a surprising level of technical incompetence, with Heisenberg offering his colleagues an analysis of the relevant details that was in error by an order of magnitude. Teller suggests Heisenberg’s incompetence was feigned. This is a thesis as implausible as it is generous. Heisenberg was a notorious arithmetic bungler, and it is more likely that his carelessness, rather than his character, kept the bomb from German hands.

Although Teller worked on the development of the atomic bomb, sometimes with diligence and often with resentment, his real interests were in the development of thermonuclear weapons. Enrico Fermi had raised the possibility of such weapons with Teller in 1941, observing that an atomic weapon might be used to trigger a thermonuclear reaction. Two quite different processes are at work. Atomic weapons divide heavier atoms into lighter elements. The change between states is released as energy. Thermonuclear weapons fuse lighter atoms into heavier elements. And the change between states is again released as energy. Thermonuclear devices have a potentially unlimited yield; if needed, they can destroy the planet; if employed, no doubt they will.

Teller thus found himself in an odd position. His colleagues were endeavoring to surmount the immense technical difficulties involved in the construction of an atomic weapon–difficulties that involved both detailed theoretical calculations and practical problems of metallurgy. And all the while, Teller was urging that he be allowed to undertake a still more demanding project, one that presumed that the problem at hand had already been settled. In retrospect, his advocacy seems both rational and farsighted, but at the time, it may have seemed otherwise, rather as if a man who has not mastered the bicycle were demanding access to a race car.

TELLER’S INTEREST IN thermonuclear weapons was in part an expression of his particular talents as a physicist. He was not a great theoretician like his teachers, nor a master of detail like Hans Bethe. He had no gift for experiment. His particular talent lay in his ability to undertake intellectual gestures that were somewhat larger and more audacious than his colleagues. A hint was all he needed. Thereafter, his imagination was consumed. His interest in thermonuclear weapons represented largely an intelligent man’s obsessive curiosity about a number of technically challenging problems.

It is on this level that Teller’s story is personal. But like the other physicists at Los Alamos, Teller was fate’s servant as well as her master, and his determination to construct thermonuclear weapons, although prompted by an entirely private scientific calculus, also served several purely political ends.

The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 disturbed many of the physicists who had made it possible. They imagined a world in which nuclear weapons were constructed by hands less capable than their own. In a widely circulated remark, Oppenheimer compared potential nuclear antagonists to two scorpions in a bottle. The alternative, he thought, must be the international control of atomic weapons. Enrico Fermi, I.I. Rabi, and Hans Bethe agreed. Physicists reposed their hopes for world peace in international schemes such as the Acheson-Lilienthal report, which formed the basis for the Baruch Plan. Oppenheimer’s scorpions consumed their imagination. Few of the physicists observed that as an honor system is unworkable among thieves, disarmament schemes are unworkable among states.

IN ANY EVENT, the Soviet Union detonated its own atomic bomb in 1948. Those physicists who had been concerned to place atomic weapons beyond the control of the United States now devoted their efforts to placing thermonuclear weapons beyond its reach. In their minority report to the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, Enrico Fermi and I.I. Rabi condemned a hydrogen weapon as a “necessarily evil thing considered in any light.” The majority report (signed by James B. Conant, Hartley Rowe, Cyril Smith, L.A. DuBridge, Oliver Buckley, and J. Robert Oppenheimer) was hardly less emphatic, if slightly more precise: “The extreme dangers to mankind inherent in this proposal wholly outweigh any military advantage that could come from this development.”

Teller, on the other hand, argued that the United States must have such weapons simply because the Soviet Union would have them. Physicists in the Soviet Union argued the same in reverse. These arguments enjoyed an enviable simplicity, and if they were the expression of competitive envy in international affairs, it has not often been observed that envy plays a lesser role among states than it does among men.

President Truman decided the issue in favor of Teller. Work on the hydrogen bomb commenced in earnest in 1950. It is by no means clear from Teller’s “Memoirs” just who played the decisive role. Teller assigns himself credit for the essential idea that fusion could be induced by compression of a bomb’s core, and he assigns the physicist Richard Garwin credit for the detailed design that made his idea workable. The mathematician Stanislaw Ulam played, on this account, an altogether minor role. Mathematical gossip generally has it the other way around, with Ulam rousing himself from his habitual torpor–he was reputed to enjoy the gift of laziness–just long enough to confide the right idea to his cleaning woman. The details can no longer be verified. In any event, the bomb was built, and the world armed itself. A balance of terror was the result, and as one might have expected, the world was suitably terrified. The editors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists placed a “doomsday clock” on their journal’s cover. It was forever set close to midnight.

Curiously enough, midnight did not come. The balance of terror that has prevailed from 1954 until the present day has proved remarkably stable. Nations that acquired thermonuclear weapons found it prudent not to use them. If the aim of arms control was the avoidance of nuclear war, arms proliferation provided the outcome that arms control had only promised. A stable balance of terror is hardly an ideal condition for the human race, but it appeared to be the only accessible condition. What had been learned could not be unlearned.

ALTHOUGH TELLER has had a long and illustrious career as a warrior priest, he remains in the public mind a dark and disturbing figure. During the 1950s, he participated in an epic bureaucratic battle against J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had acquired a position of great influence on the Atomic Energy Commission. It was a battle that destroyed both men: Oppenheimer because he lost, Teller because he won.

Heavy-bearded and dark, Teller seemed to many to convey an air of moral malignity. He was popularly known as the “father of the H-bomb,” and if he objected to the paternal association, he did not widely advert to the fact. Oppenheimer seemed saintly in comparison, projecting–in disagreeably many interviews–a sense of guilt that he had taken pains to conceal, and nothing to employ, while exercising power. In meeting President Truman after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer announced “he had blood on his hands.” Physicists who were uncomfortably aware that events were no longer in their control were pleased to be reminded that once it had been in their hands.

Yet it was Teller, and not Oppenheimer, who had urged that atomic weapons be demonstrated to the Japanese before their military employment. And it was Oppenheimer, and not Teller, who rejected this counsel, arguing that the physicists who had built the bomb should have nothing to say about the circumstances of its use.

IF WITH RESPECT to this issue the popular impression and the historical record are at odds, they are also at odds when it comes to other issues. Robert Oppenheimer was a man of considerable personal negligence. During the 1930s he had acquired a circle of left-wing friends large enough to form a cohort. He had conducted the Los Alamos project with due regard for security, but the fact remains that the Russians were able to construct an atomic weapon in 1948 because they had seen the details of its design in 1945. Oppenheimer received all of the glory for the American bomb; inevitably, he received some of the blame for the Russian bomb as well.

Oppenheimer had initially opposed the hydrogen bomb on the grounds of its uselessness. But no one proposing the development of thermonuclear weapons suggested using them. By 1950 or 1951, Oppenheimer came reluctantly to see what Teller had already seen: A weapon may be politically or diplomatically useful even if militarily useless. In this Oppenheimer saw the light, but he saw it too late. With the advent of Senator McCarthy and the changed climate in Washington, his days in power were numbered.

He did not help himself by his behavior. He had performed brilliantly during World War II, but as he came to reflect on his role, he became progressively more soulful. He suffered visibly. He seemed to suggest that the physicists had corrupted themselves. These attitudes were at odds with his unflagging wish to remain in power, an enterprise not often guided by considerations of epistemological sin.

The American defense establishment lost confidence in J. Robert Oppenheimer some time after he appeared to lose confidence in himself. President Eisenhower appointed Lewis Strauss as the new chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1953. Strauss was hardly capable of addressing Oppenheimer as a physicist. He did not need to. He needed only to enlist the support of a prominent physicist. He found Edward Teller.

The commission determined to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance, an act that would effectively end his career. Between April and May of 1954, its Personnel Security Board held hearings on Oppenheimer’s fitness to retain access to secret documents. Oppenheimer’s left-wing associations were thoroughly rehearsed. Whatever they may in their heart of hearts believed, almost all of the great physicists testified on his behalf.

Teller maintains that until almost the last minute he was prepared to join them. But just before his own testimony, Roger Robb, the counsel for the Atomic Energy Commission, shrewdly showed him sections of Oppenheimer’s testimony. At issue was Oppenheimer’s friendship with Haakon Chevalier, a professor of French at Berkeley.

OPPENHEIMER’S TESTIMONY was both implausible and self-serving. He had been approached for information at Los Alamos in August 1943. And in his statements to security officers at the time, he had lied about the identity of his interlocutor. Now he was prepared to affirm that it had been Haakon Chevalier. In explaining how he came to dissemble so copiously, Oppenheimer could think of no better explanation than that he “was an idiot.”

And thereafter a shaken Teller felt compelled to share his doubts with the investigating committee. In words that would haunt him, he said, “I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better and therefore trust more.” He counseled against extending Oppenheimer’s security clearance, a recommendation Oppenheimer’s enemies accepted with alacrity.

If Oppenheimer had suffered previously because of the weight of his power, he now suffered grievously because of the effect of its absence. He withdrew to his directorship at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He grew very thin. He gave occasional public lectures that were admired to the extent that they were not understood. A lesser man would have suffered more; a greater man, less.

Teller in his turn was cut by the community of physicists. Oppenheimer’s wound was to his soul; Teller’s to his vanity. He had, it was widely believed, testified against Oppenheimer to punish him for not supporting more vigorously the development of the hydrogen bomb. The testimony that he reproduces in his autobiography suggests that this may be so. It is unyielding in its insinuation.

If Teller never completely recovered the respect of his colleagues, it was an affront that did nothing to impede his career as a warrior priest. The men responsible for the American military establishment were not generally known for their fine moral delicacies. During Reagan’s presidency, it was Teller who was instrumental in developing support for the Strategic Defense Initiative. Among the photographs Teller includes in his “Memoirs,” there is one of him standing beside Reagan, the president beaming enigmatically, Teller impossibly old, stooped, and mottled, but still obviously alert and cunning.

The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union continued for more than forty years, each side spending billions refining weapons both agreed could not be used. The Soviet Union is no more, and the major European powers are at peace with one another. If this is not Teller’s legacy, it is at least a credit to his influence.

The Cold War’s balance of terror has become magnificently obsolete, and states now at peace occasionally think they might dispense with the weapons which made that peace possible. But no state trusts that the last state to disarm would not use its singular power to overawe the rest. And so the world remains armed.

And this, too, is a part of Edward Teller’s legacy.

David Berlinski is a writer in Paris and senior fellow of the Discovery Institute. His most recent books include “The Advent of the Algorithm” and “Newton’s Gift.”

David Berlinski

Writer, Thinker, Raconteur, and Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute
David Berlinski received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University and was later a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics and molecular biology at Columbia University. He is currently a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Dr. Berlinski has authored works on systems analysis, differential topology, theoretical biology, analytic philosophy, and the philosophy of mathematics, as well as three novels. He has also taught philosophy, mathematics and English at such universities as Stanford, Rutgers, the City University of New York and the Universite de Paris. In addition, he has held research fellowships at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques (IHES) in France.