Edward Teller, High Priest of Physics
On December 1, 1995, I traveled to Stanford University to meet with Edward Teller at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, where he is a senior research fellow. Left to my own devices, I would not have attempted to interview Teller. I am from a liberal background, and his name held many negative associations for me, from the matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer to the development of the H-bomb, the nuclear freeze, and the Strategic Defense Initiative. My concern was that my biases would make an interview too difficult. However, Teller had been one of the first on Hans Bethe's list of those with whom I should speak. I wrote to Teller describing my project and saying that Bethe suggested I interview him. He sent a cordial reply, granting me the interview. Then, during the process of setting up the appointment, I had several pleasant telephone conversations with his assistant, Patricia French. Nevertheless, when I walked through the front door of the Hoover Institution, I was uneasy.
As I arrived at his office, Teller was ending a meeting with a young European man who requested that Patricia French photograph them together. She then led me from her outer office into Teller's and introduced us. She offered us some lemonade and left the room to get it. I had barely taken my seat when the eighty-seven-year-old physicist said emphatically that he did not know exactly why I had come but there were some things he intended to make clear to me from the outset. First, he said that the United States' expenditure on nuclear weapons was a smaller percentage of the total defense budget than commonly believed, making the point that criticism of spending on nuclear weapons was overblown. I sat very still, unsure of whether I should move or speak. I had not asked his permission to tape the interview or even taken out pen and paper. As he recited the defense dollars, I indicated that I wanted to take some notes and needed my writing material. He replied that I did not need to take notes.
Immediately on meeting Edward Teller, I had two reactions. The first was that I felt intimidated and dared not interrupt him. The second was that he seemed intent on persuading me of the rightness of his views. He spoke emphatically, his Hungarian-accented voice rising to punctuate crucial ideas and falling dramatically to almost a whisper at the end of key arguments. To add force to his words, he wielded his heavy walking stick. As I oriented to the room, I noticed laces protruding from the top of one of his black cowboy boots and assumed that they were part of a prosthesis. I knew that in the late 1920s, while a student in Budapest, he had lost a foot in a streetcar accident. Behind Teller's head, I saw a bust of Abraham Lincoln.
After several minutes, when there was a break in his monologue, I obtained his permission to record the interview. After making his point about defense spending, Teller turned to an issue that was of more immediate interest to me--the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. On that subject Teller told me he had regrets, "a weak regret" and "a strong regret." The weak regret was related to a July 1945 letter and petition that his friend and countryman Leo Szilard had sent from Chicago's Metallurgical Lab to him in Los Alamos. The strong regret had to do with a request that Enrico Fermi had made of him a few weeks earlier.
Before receiving Szilard's letter, Teller had been in Chicago. He was therefore aware of the Franck Report and other discussions taking place at the Metallurgical Lab regarding the political, social, and moral implications of the atomic weapons. Szilard's correspondence to Teller contained the petition that he hoped to have circulated at all the Manhattan Project laboratories and then forwarded to President Truman.
I had read Teller's comment that he had been "inclined to sign the Chicago petition, but could not circulate it without checking the matter with Oppenheimer." He was now telling me he had felt obliged to inform the Los Alamos director of Szilard's communique before doing anything. He said that Oppenheimer's response was that the petition should not be circulated at the laboratory because the leaders in Washington knew what they were doing. Teller added that Oppenheimer told him it was not the scientists' job to try to influence the politicians and the military on matters about which they had little understanding. Teller has also recorded his recollection of the incident:
Oppenheimer immediately offered several uncomplimentary comments about the attitudes of the involved Chicago scientists in general and of Szilard in particular. . . . My predominant feeling following our conversation was relief--I did not have to take any action on a matter as difficult as deciding how the bomb should be employed. Later I learned that shortly before that interview Oppenheimer not only had used his scientific stature to give political advice in favor of immediate bombing but also had put his point of view forward so effectively that he gained the reluctant concurrence of his colleagues. Yet, he denied Szilard, a scientist of lesser influence, all justification for expressing his opinion.1
Teller was alluding to Oppenheimer's membership, along with his colleagues the Nobel laureates Enrico Fermi, Ernest O. Lawrence, and A. H. Compton, on the Scientific Panel advising the Interim Committee of the War Department. In May 1945 Secretary of War Stimson had formed the committee at the urging of advisers who believed it was essential that immediate attention be paid to the postwar implications of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Stimson asserted that the bomb project "should not be considered simply in terms of military weapons, but as a new relationship of man to the universe."2
Teller wrote to Szilard, "Since our discussion I have spent some time thinking about your objections to an immediate military use of the weapon we may produce. I decided to do nothing."3
Teller told me that although he blamed Oppenheimer for not allowing the petition to be circulated, he nonetheless regretted having been persuaded by him. However, he said it was a "weak" regret because he had not been officially asked for input about the use of the bomb.
Teller contrasted these misgivings with his strong regret about the conversation he had with Enrico Fermi several weeks before receiving Szilard's letter. That discussion concerned a possible demonstration of the bomb. Teller said that his Italian-born friend had consulted him about how the bomb might be technically demonstrated and that he regretted having given insufficient thought to this problem. In this case he had been asked to look at a particular technical question and had not done so. He explained that he should have come up with a concrete plan that the scientists could have presented to the leaders in Washington. This, to Teller's mind, could have been a demonstration of an atomic bomb over Tokyo Bay, where the emperor and the Japanese people would have seen it but the danger would have been minimal. He envisioned parachuting the bomb from an altitude of six miles, having primed it to explode when the plane was away. At a sufficient height, he said, the only casualties would have been people blinded by looking directly at the blast.
I understood Teller to say that Fermi, in his capacity as a member of the Interim Committee's Scientific Panel, had specifically asked him to explore possible alternatives to the military use of the bomb and that he had not given the problem adequate attention. On May 31, 1945, after discussing possible targets and effects, Stimson expressed the committee's conclusion, on which there was general agreement:
That we could not give the Japanese any warning; that we could not concentrate on a civilian area; but that we should seek to make a profound psychological impression on as many of the inhabitants as possible. . . . The secretary agreed that the most desirable target would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers' houses.4
The Atomic Energy Commission's official history concluded that during lunch on May 31, perhaps ten minutes were spent generally discussing an issue Lawrence had raised at the Interim Committee's morning session: "give the Japanese some striking but harmless demonstration of the bomb's power before using it in a manner that would cause great loss of life." However, the historians reported,
Oppenheimer could think of no demonstration sufficiently spectacular to convince the Japanese that further resistance was futile. Other objections came to mind. The bomb might be a dud. The Japanese might shoot down the delivery plane or bring American prisoners into the test area. If the demonstration failed to bring surrender, the chance of administering the maximum surprise shock would be lost. Besides, would the bomb cause any greater loss of life than the fire raids that had burned out Tokyo?5
On June 16, 1945, the four scientists on the panel reported, "We can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use."6
I wondered if Teller's demonstration idea was similar to the Franck committee's recommendation to use the atomic bomb on an uninhabited island. He told me that one objection to the Franck Report had been that if something went wrong, if the bomb did not work, such a demonstration would make matters worse. When I asked him how his plan differed, he explained, "Because it would be unannounced. We drop a bomb, all right! It does not go off, then we have done nothing! Here the failure is: it didn't work, do it again or forget it. But it did not do any damage."
When I questioned how, without an understanding of nuclear physics, the emperor and the Japanese people could have comprehended the significance of such a demonstration, he continued,
Look, I have seen it. Here you are at 6:00 a.m., it's dark, and there is light for five minutes! They [would] know something very strong, something very effective has happened. And ten million of them have seen it, so it was over a big area. It would not be proven, but it would be plausible that the same thing, used for destructive purposes, could destroy.
I asked Dr. Teller what, in the best of worlds, he envisioned as the possible consequences of such a demonstration. He replied,
Look, let me tell you, in the most real of worlds, and taking into account what you have read and I have read: ten million Japanese would have seen it, [Emperor] Hirohito would have seen it. Hirohito heard of Hiroshima. Hirohito instead would have seen the effect over Tokyo Bay. We would have explained, "This is what happened," and next time we would use it over a city. I think the inducement of Hirohito to do something would be comparably strong, if not stronger [than it eventually was]. And furthermore, he would have an easier job, because he would talk to Japanese who have likewise seen it.*(Harold Agnew, a Manhattan Project physicist who flew the Hiroshima mission, told me in a January 1999 telephone conversation that Teller's idea was nonsense. Six miles was thirty thousand feet, as high as they could fly, and it would have been difficult, even impossible, for the plane to get away in time. In a February 1999 letter, Agnew added, "We also only had 2 bombs. The ability to deliver bombs 3 days apart I believe gave the impression we had lots. Whta would we have done if they told us to jump in the lake after the demonstration? Having only one bomb to use would not in my opinion [have] convinced [the Japanese] to quit.") Incidentally, if that would have happened, it would have had a different, but a comparable, effect on the Soviets. Well, not as strong, because nobody would have been killed. The very fact that it ends the war by a demonstration would have been a shock, and furthermore, something that could not have been just covered up. And you know the moral force of saying, "We have ended the war without killing a single person." That would have been so strong a statement that it would have influenced many people. Not Stalin, but many people, many people including many Communists.
In what way, I asked Teller, would the Communists have been influenced? "That their opponents, the United States, were not all that horrible." His answer surprised me because it implied that the use of the bomb had run counter to America's interests regarding postwar relations with the Soviets. Yet some scholars argue that the United States dropped bombs on Japan precisely to subdue the Soviets. I asked Teller if he was saying that the atomic bombings actually had a negative impact on relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. He quickly responded, "Look, look, it had an effect, it had an effect toward winning the cold war. But it had a warlike effect, which being a warlike effect, had also necessarily contained a very strong negative emotional component."
It so happened that Teller was then reading Gar Alperovitz's recently published work on the decision to use the atomic bomb.7
He agreed with Alperovitz on one point but was otherwise critical of the book.
Probably, the war could have been ended by [the United States] being more open on retaining the emperor sooner. And you know it so happens that my suggestion would have been a fortunate one. The emperor would have seen it, and furthermore he would have talked to the Japanese, many of whom also would have seen it. And so he would have been in an excellent position. But [Alperovitz's argument] that our emphasis on influencing the Soviets was somehow very wrong, with that I don't agree. That was an opening of the cold war, indeed, it was indeed a beginning of a lot of enterprise which amounted to stopping the imperialistic trend in the Soviet Union--the trend to force on other countries their form of government. And to my mind, that was a necessary mission. But let me tell you, in a way, the strongest argument I have, all right? Not Russia, not Communism, but today, there is in my opinion, a very dangerous antiscientific movement afoot. I [will] illustrate this to you. I give a lecture on modern biochemistry--a public lecture. Without exception, I get one question from the audience: "How can this be misused?"
I came to this country in 1935, sixty years ago. At that time nobody would have asked that question. That nobody would have asked that question, that there was a confidence in people, that on the whole scientific developments were desirable, is the reason of the strength of this country today. The negative feeling about science--that you ought to be afraid of it--is a strong reason for a potential weakness of the United States. Had we avoided that, had we said, "Science stopped the Second World War, without the loss of a single life," it would have been good for the proper support of science.
The discussion had quickly moved from Teller's fifty-year-old regrets about his friends Szilard and Fermi to his arguments against what he considers today's dangerous antiscience stance. Although he made connections between the atomic bombings and this attitude, he nonetheless was highly critical of those who find in the use of the bomb justification for condemning science and scientists. I was not sure of the logic of his argument, but his remarks raised a question in my mind. Because he seemed to be making a direct connection between current negative feelings about science and the atomic bombings, I asked him if he had ever wondered what might have occurred if the discovery of fission had not coincided historically with the rise of Nazism and Communism.
Teller closed his eyes and put his hand to his temple. The short pause I was expecting before his reply grew into a long silence. Although I had begun to relax, I still felt considerable anxiety and laughed inwardly at my predicament. I thought, either he is controlling his anger because this is the stupidest question he has ever heard, or he is thinking about what I asked. Hoping he would not notice, I held my breath as he opened his blue eyes, peered out from under his thick brows, and fixed his gaze on me.
Look, I cannot tell you what would have been. I can tell you what I actually knew and how I reacted. I knew of that toward the end of January of 1939. We had a conference in Washington, to which Niels Bohr came on the invitation of [Russian-born physicist George] Gamow. And on the evening before the conference opened, Gamow, who was close to Niels Bohr, called me, and told me on the phone, "Bohr has gone crazy, he tells me that uranium splits." Next morning I already knew. I had heard about Fermi's experiments, and I figured out what he was talking about. He talked about it next morning. There was general agreement that this could be very dangerous and that we'd better not talk about it. You know, this story [of the discovery of fission] came to me in the middle of terrible worries of how the Nazis ever could be stopped! And I must confess, I never thought of the question of how it would have been, had it been otherwise.
As Teller continued, he again brought the discussion to the present-day fear and mistrust of science, in this case, the application of science in the production of small nuclear warheads.
I'll now tell you, I may be wrong, I think that had the Nazis not been around, we would have developed it. We would have developed it openly, and the question would have arisen, under less hysterical conditions, how misuse can be prevented. Whether we would have succeeded with it or not, I do not know. But I want to draw your attention to a simple fact, that today we have fortunately a repetition. Soviet Union no longer exists in its imperialistic form. We have now the possibility to open up and to find the way to regulate this thing. And I must say that the whole discussion has been colored by the hysteria and that people, instead of talking about the most probable, are tending to talk about the worst. For instance, I claim that to know about it would be good, to develop small nuclear explosives to make the present methods of mass destruction, like tanks, obsolete, because you would have small, cheap, easily delivered things that would destroy a tank from a distance of one hundred feet. Immediately people say, "We can't do that because of terrorists." The point that such a weapon might be easily smuggled is not wrong, but people immediately, automatically, concentrate on what is easiest, not on what is most difficult.
So I claim the slow development where openness would be the route and where we would try to find out and could find out who is doing funny things, could probably lead to a very stable situation. And that could have happened fifty or sixty years ago. And what is more important, it could happen now. But even now it's not happening. Because people tend to think about the worst case.
Teller's reference to small nuclear weapons indicated that he believes the institution of war, as we know it, will be with us for some time to come. I recalled the argument that nuclear weapons mean humankind must end war or face the possibility of complete annihilation. I asked Teller if he meant that war is a given. And, if that were the case, was he saying that nuclear weapons development must continue? He responded,
I am not answering this. That war is a terrible thing and has been even in times of Genghis Khan, it's quite clear. I am not saying that war is going to be over soon, and I'm certainly not saying that war can be stopped by disarmament agreements. I am saying that wars can be stopped only by a careful, gradual development, and I am also saying, however, the need for such a development, and, in principle, the possibility of such a development, is now much bigger than ever before.
Teller was presenting me with an argument for continued weapons development after the cold war. I was trying to understand more clearly why, if his advocacy during the cold war had been because of the Soviet threat, there was now no apparent change. I told him that my reading of his earlier works was that he expected there would be a real nuclear confrontation between East and West.
I didn't say "would," I say "could." I differed from most people, not in predicting that such a thing might happen, but in restricting the ways in which it might happen. It did not come to pass, in my opinion, because there was no time where the Soviets could have attacked us without the, not possibility, but probability, of they themselves going under. Probably we too, but they too.
Many times during the interview Teller asserted that people oppose such technological development because they focus on the "worst case." I understood this to be directly related to his point about the irrational fear of science. But did he not see some justification for this fear? After all, science and technology are often used in ways that people judge to be counter to moving us forward, realizing our potential, or doing us good. He answered, "Look, let me take two very different things, both of which have some relation to an answer. One is that throughout all written history the killing of people was never limited by the ability to kill people but always by the amount of intention to kill people." He asked me if I knew what happened under Genghis Khan. When I answered yes, Teller said that he knew better than I.
Because after his death, the Mongols under two generals descended on Hungary and killed 90 percent of the Hungarians in a few weeks. You know what they did was--they would attack a city, kill everybody, then leave, then come back in a week, and kill those who crawled out from the weeds. That happened to Persia, it also happened a little later to Hungary. The atomic bombs killed 150,000 people out of the fifty million that had been killed in the Second World War. The limitation is not in the ability but in the intention. That is one thing I wanted to call your attention to. So there was reason to fear at any time. The other point I want to draw your attention to is that science in the last century was understood and liked by the intellectuals. Then, at the beginning of the twentieth century, two scientific developments occurred that were beyond 99 percent of the intellectuals: one was relativity and the other one was quantum mechanics. That looked like mathematical tightrope dancing.
Was he saying that the new theories were beyond the intellectuals' understanding?
[Beyond their] capabilities to understand. They knew it was wrong, and somehow they were informed it was not. They did not like it. They did not understand it and they did not like it. Now that happened in two chunks, or in three. One was Einstein in 1905, then came general relativity in 1915, then came quantum mechanics in 1925. All of this was far beyond popular understanding and far beyond the understanding of the intellectual leaders. What you don't understand, you don't like. Then, out of that not understood and disliked science, came Hiroshima. What came afterwards was a confluence of lack of understanding and horror. The two together produced absurd policies.
When I replied that his argument was interesting and that I could understand his logic but had a further point, Teller quickly interjected, "Look, let me tell you what state you are now in. You said you see my logic, right? I think you do, but you don't feel
my logic." It seemed that Teller was applying to me the same analysis that he applied to the intellectuals he was discussing. I did not feel his logic, did not truly comprehend it in the same way the intellectuals could not feel relativity or quantum mechanics. Teller continued, saying that science had two enemies:
One was the Church, the other is the modern intellectual. The intellectuals I am not talking about are the people who make an honest intellectual effort but who, many of them, overestimate themselves. And where they have not understood something, they have a feeling, here something is wrong, not in me, but in what I haven't understood.
I then asked Teller if we were not talking about two separate realms, the scientific and the social, to which he responded, "Entirely true." I continued by arguing that a physical scientist, an intellectual in the physical scientific realm, looks at things differently and draws different conclusions from someone examining the social, political, or spiritual meanings of events. Therefore, the interpretation of a social scientist will differ from the kinds of conclusions drawn by a physical scientist. He responded,
Of course, of course. Except that the social attitude should be about all these things, and there science, or then science, should have the same value and meaning as music--as music, provided that they [the intellectuals] are not musical, but they understand that it has a power that is wonderful and important, even if they [have] not understood. Remember I am saying that a shock of scientific, technical roots--the atomic bomb--has been put already at an original disadvantage by its having come from an area that had already excited some tremors, not having understood it.
He was bringing up a point that I struggle to comprehend--the relationship between science and its products. I can appreciate that for the physicist, deep mental interaction with the subtle workings of nature can be a kind of spirituality, a beautiful and awe-inspiring endeavor. But once I move into the realm of the application of scientific knowledge, especially the making of weapons, the analogy between science and art breaks down. Although Teller claimed that knowledge and its application were separate, he seemed to be attaching equal value to them. Surely pure physics and its applications are linked, but what links them is choice. And such choices are not made on the level of physical science but in the political, moral, and social realms.
I was very interested in what he had written about the scientists who opposed the development of thermonuclear weapons: "Can lack of knowledge ever contribute to stability or safety? The hydrogen bomb controversy marked the first time that a large group of scientists argued for remaining ignorant of technical possibilities."8
Did he think that this was the first example of scientists being unwilling to pursue certain kinds of knowledge? He responded that although he was not sure it was the first case, it was a striking case. I replied that it had been valid to ask why the H-bomb should be built. After all, the fission bomb was destructive enough. Why would we want a bigger weapon? Teller replied,
Look, let me put it in perhaps a not permissible way, in words of one syllable. I do not want the hydrogen bomb because it would kill more people. I wanted the hydrogen bomb because it was new. Because it was something that we did not know, and could know. I am afraid of ignorance. As it turned out, when the hydrogen bomb was planned we began to debate about it, everybody, including Fermi, emphasized what you are now saying--"It's bigger, why should it be bigger?" That was the debate that occurred in '49.
Teller was referring to a 1949 statement by Enrico Fermi and I. I. Rabi: "The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness of this weapon makes its very existence and the knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a whole. It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light."9
The two physicists were members of the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Atomic Energy Commission, headed by Robert Oppenheimer. In 1949, after the Soviets detonated an atomic device, the short-lived American monopoly on nuclear weapons ended. This set off a contentious, top-secret debate, within government and among scientists, regarding the hydrogen bomb. The GAC's October 30, 1949, report argued against the development of the hydrogen bomb but recommended the accelerated development of atomic weapons.
Teller, recalling those early years of nuclear weapons research, told me,
People were overly impressed by the argument of size. Let me tell you, the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were approximately twenty kilotons; the bombs today, most of them stockpiled, are bigger. I'm not sure I'm allowed to tell you how much bigger, but the fact is, not terribly much bigger. And the reason for that is not that it's forbidden. The reason for it is that the military have recognized what is the most useful size, considering delivery, et cetera. The hydrogen bomb is bigger, but the most important point about it is that it is different. And its difference can be exploited.*(In his November 17, 1997, correspondence with me, Herbert F. York recalled, "Both Lawrence and Teller were indignant over GAC's allowing their 'political and moral views' to influence, even overshadow, their technical judgments, and that they had in fact adjusted the technical report to reflect their 'feelings' in the matter.")
I asked Teller if he meant that it was not just the knowledge that was new but also the way it could be used. He replied, "In this case, we were not talking about new knowledge at all in the scientific sense. We were talking about new knowledge in the technological sense-how to, by what trick to turn that knowledge into something usable." I then wondered if he meant that, rega rdless of the application, such a development is "almost good," simply because we can figure it out. He immediately answered,
Good, not almost. Good. Look, the scientists, by giving you the tools, are not responsible for the use of these tools. But they are responsible for the effectiveness of the tools and for the understanding of the tools. I and you as citizens are responsible for selecting the decision makers who will then use whatever can be used in the right way. And these functions should be separated. My position is that knowledge is good and must be separated from the application of knowledge. And anything that can be applied can be used or misused.
Our government does not work in the easiest way. It works at every point in a way that provokes criticism and slows down progress. And the point is precisely to guard against the excess of power. And that is not done, in my opinion, by eliminating progress in the techniques but by guaranteeing the adversary functions within our government so our government should limit itself.
I remarked that Teller himself makes no bones about being highly critical of those who disagree with him. Was he now saying that he really had no problem with them?
Of course. I become indignant, not when they win, but when they win easily. When it becomes obvious and clear to everybody that nuclear explosives are an evil. When everybody is afraid of radioactivity, when there is an exaggerated fear of the ozone depletion. Then I see, not an argument which I consider wrong, but an argument that claims to be obvious.
I noted that we had again come around to the problem of the general public being able to understand technological issues. He agreed. "Precisely. And furthermore, I have to admit that the job to explain science, including relativity and quantum mechanics, to everybody is very hard and therefore its neglect, although terrible and deplorable, is understandable."
At this point we had gone over the one hour allotted for the meeting, and Teller's next appointment was waiting in the outer office. I asked if he would grant me a follow-up interview the next day and arranged to call him in the morning. As I prepared to leave, Teller continued to discuss his final point, saying that there had once before been a scientific revolution with claims seemingly as absurd as those of the twentieth century. He was referring to the Copernican revolution and the idea that the earth was not stationary but moving. He suggested I read Arthur Koestler's book on the subject, The Sleepwalkers
Now that [the heliocentric worldview] in the course of time, and not without opposition from the Church at that time, was finally assimilated. So that now, somehow a child can understand that the earth is moving. I say it will be necessary to understand quantum mechanics and relativity in the same primitive manner. And that, in fact, has not happened.
I turned off the tape recorder and was shaking Teller's hand when he said he wanted to ask me something. What, he wondered, was my impression of Hans Bethe? His question surprised me. Unsure of what he wanted to know, I simply said that I liked Bethe very much and quickly added, "He is a very intelligent man, as I can see you are, Dr. Teller." At that moment Teller's colleague entered the room bringing some cookies. I left and was in the outer office chatting with Patricia French when I heard Teller call out, "Give her a chocolate chip cookie, she deserves it!"
On the trip back to my hotel I munched on the cookie and thought about Edward Teller. In some ways I found the controversial "father of the hydrogen bomb" as I had expected him to be--intense, uncompromising, opinionated. However, I had not anticipated that once we got into the discussion he would be charming and animated and possess a good sense of humor. At one point during the interview, I began to use the word irregardless
, something I never do. When I told Teller of my imminent fau x pas he laughed and replied, "Irregardless. Irregardless sounds to me a little more Hungarian!"
I had imagined that the famous hawk would be ponderous and obvious in his thinking. But, during the course of our conversation, I became aware of the subtlety and sharpness of his mind--he was, after all, in his late eighties. I saw something of the romantic in him, certainly something of the idealist. But I was most struck by the sense of him as someone fascinated by his own thinking process. Sometimes Teller seemed to be not so much talking to me as caught up in his rapid internal mental connections. After the interview I recorded only one note in my journal: "Edward Teller: A mind delighting in its own quickness."
After our first encounter, many of my questions remained unanswered. In July 1945 Teller had written to Leo Szilard, "First of all let me say that I have no hope of clearing my conscience. The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls."10
What had he meant? And how could the democratic process in which he so fiercely believed possibly work when the very social structure of the nuclear weapons culture was built on secrecy? How could the public influence decision makers without adequate understanding of the scientific or technological complexity involved in such decisions? Finally, I had lingering questions about the connections he made between science's search for the truths of the natural world and the technological applications of that knowledge. It is one thing to understand the physical laws necessary to produce a nuclear weapon, quite another to make the decision to bring that weapon into being--into social, political, and historical reality. I was determined to focus on these questions at our meeting the next day.
In the morning I called Teller to confirm our meeting and to ask his permission to bring my husband, Joseph, to the interview, as we were en route to the airport. He assented, and late in the morning we arrived at his Palo Alto home. Approaching the house, we heard strains of a Beethoven piano sonata. A medical oxygen sign was posted on the front door, and when the housekeeper greeted us, we saw the physicist rising from the piano. I introduced Joseph to him, and as he led us to the dimly lit living room, I noticed a table covered with Teller's medals, which he told me his wife collects and displays.
We took our seats, and I began to set up my recording equipment. After a few minutes, I heard a woman's voice and out of the corner of my eye saw a cord moving on the floor. A tiny, frail-looking lady using oxygen entered the room, and Teller introduced Joseph and me to Mrs. Teller. Mici Teller, who has been married to Edward for more than sixty years, greeted us and took a seat on the far side of the room directly facing her husband. During the next two hours, she listened silently, murmuring one or two questions as Teller spoke. She seemed to me like a pale guardian angel, protectively watching over her husband.
Although I was determined to ask some very specific questions, once again Teller took control of the interview from the outset. He began by telling me why I had come back. "Look, you want to know about my religion--what I believe in." Although this was not what I had intended to ask, I was intrigued and curious to hear what he had to say.
And that I can tell you about very briefly, and then I can tell you about it in several hours if you wantto. I believe in science. I have, therefore, strong feelings about people who disagree with me on science, and most of them are scientists. I believe you know, contrary to what is the general impression, that science is by no means finished, that science consists of surprises, that these surprises are of course, by definition, unpredictable. I literally grew up, you know, at the very end of the last magnificent period of science, which produced relativity and quantum mechanics. That was a period from 1905 to 1930, and I became a physicist in 1930. I came in 1928, I was a very young physicist. And then I saw the destruction of this by Hitler, and the very great changes in it, by overemphasizing applied science, in which I participated very strongly. I am by all means for the application of science, but I am not for the replacement of science by applied science.
Teller told me that when he was young, he had wanted to be a mathematician, not a scientist. He recalled in some detail his early fascination with geometry and his reading of Euler's text at age eleven. Although his father encouraged this interest, he did not support him in pursuing mathematics as a profession. The only career available for a mathematician was that of a university professor--something that, as a Jew in Hungary, Teller could never become.
So, after some haggling, we compromised on chemistry, and then I studied chemistry for a couple of years, from '26 to '28. And by that time learned enough about mathematical physics to get interested, really interested in the exciting new things in quantum mechanics. And that is where I got to Heisenberg in Leipzig. I was then twenty years old, I got my Ph.D. when I was twenty-two, stayed in Leipzig for another year, got to Göttingen, worked there as assistant professor for a couple of years, then Hitler came and I went. And within three years I landed as a professor at [George] Washington University.
When, in the context of our discussion, I mentioned my own father, Teller said it seemed that my father had "had something of a bad conscience about the bomb." I replied "Yes," and he added,
And I am trying to tell you that he was wrong. I mean what I'm trying to tell you is that he wasn't and shouldn't be responsible. That he was responsible for doing good work. Look, I tell you, having a bad conscience about that is, unfortunately, extremely fashionable among scientists and it has something to do with this having too high an opinion of oneself. I don't think we are all that important.
I appreciated his telling me that my father's work was of value. Yet this was not the first or last time I would hear negative remarks about scientists who experienced some personal conflict about the use of the atomic bombs. And, as usual, I felt a kind of anger begin to well up in me--I needed to defend or at least explain my late father. I told Teller that my father had not spent his life beating his chest, far from it. However, his Polish-born mother was from a family of rabbis and had taught him strong humanitarian values. Thus he had faced certain ethical issues within himself. And, I added, perhaps my father agreed with Teller that something like a demonstration should have been tried, to avoid the atomic bombings of the Japanese. He quickly answered,
Look, I am not saying at all that it was wrong to bomb the Japanese, I'm saying very definitely and very loudly that I don't know whether it was right or wrong. And that I don't have the real instruments by which I could know. What I'm trying to tell you is, all right, I heard the arguments, but to hear arguments, and you know I read that horrible book by Alperovitz, for the simple reason that I do want to have the arguments from all sides. But to have the arguments is very different from knowing how it happened, when it happened, knowing the details, knowing the inflections of voices at that time. And that was not my business.
So we returned to Teller's "weak and strong regrets." I asked if I had understood correctly that his strong regret was that when Fermi asked him directly, he did not think about a possible alternative to the eventual use of the atomic bombs. He replied, "Exactly." However, this regret raised a question in my mind about his actual reply to Szilard, which seemed to indicate that he was already resigned to the situation as it stood. I told Teller that I had a question about his July 2, 1945, letter, and he asked, "And what the devil did I say? I may not agree with myself." I read a passage from the opening of his response to Szilard: "First of all let me say that I have no hope of clearing my conscience. The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls." Teller explained, "Look, I am talking to [Szilard] who did have that position. And I was putting myself into his shoes. So by starting that way, I was simply starting it by how he was looking at it. All right?" But what about the closing, in which again he seemed to be saying there was nothing to be done? I read from the letter, "I should like to have the advice of all of you whether you think it is a crime to continue to work. But I feel that I should do the wrong thing if I tried to say how to tie the little toe of the ghost to the bottle from which we just helped it to escape." He replied,
Well, look, by that time the question of the hydrogen bomb was already very real to me. And clearly we were heading into a period where I was considered a criminal for working on the hydrogen bomb. And it was so unanimous that a very good friend, who was and remained my friend, like Fermi, refused to work on it, and he was much too wise to tell me not to work on it, but he implied it. That [the closing] was simply a reference to continuing to work, which already at that time was in the air, we should stop. And I was the one who protested against that.
It seemed to me that if Teller had been able to put himself in Szilard's shoes regarding having a bad conscience, then it would follow that he could at least comprehend the general public's deep misgivings about nuclear weapons. He responded by telling me more about his friendship with his countryman. "Szilard did tend to feel that way, but he was not very strong on it. Szilard was very strong on seeing good sides in Communism, in the Soviets. With Szilard I differed less on the hydrogen bomb and more on Stalin." Teller pursued the issue of the hydrogen bomb by telling me that after the war most of his colleagues went back to the practice of pure science.
And for them, or most of them, the point that it would be wrong to continue [research on the thermonuclear weapon] turned into a motivation, which did not take place in my case. What you read here [the letter to Szilard] is the very beginning of that controversy, when it was not yet spread out.
Surprised by what he was saying, I asked Teller if I had understood correctly that the closing of his letter to Szilard--"I should like to have the advice of all of you whether you think it is a crime to continue to work"--was a reference to his continuing work on the H-bomb. In the same letter he had written that the only hope was to make the weapon known to people, that this might help to convince the world that the next war would be fatal: "For this purpose actual combat use might even be the best thing."11
Therefore, I had assumed he meant work on the A-bomb. Teller answered,
That would be the immediate application, yes. That was a natural continuation on which I was actually, even then, working. And where I was simply ahead of everybody else. Not because it was so difficult, but because nobody else wanted it. Now look, I have to add something that was also important. Getting away from Hungary and from Europe, apart from my closest family, which at that time consisted exclusively of Mici, I had absolutely nobody except the scientists. And now the great majority of them came up with value judgments of the work that were in complete variance, in complete variance, with what I was, in the main, trying to do.
My husband, Joseph, interjected that he must have felt very isolated from his colleagues. Teller replied,
Of course I was. Of course. Excuse me, I was not isolated, I was a criminal, I was worse than isolated. Look, many people, including [Richard] Rhodes, you know, give a description of me that my whole motivation was the hydrogen bomb. The simple fact is that I did not want to work on it. I wanted others to work on it. And I wanted to work on it only then when I saw that nobody else was willing to.12 With the success of our earlier work, with the reaction of the bulk of the scientific community to that, I saw the continuation of the work on the hydrogen bomb, not [only] in danger, but come to an end. And I was just very clearly convinced that that was wrong and that I should do something about it.
I asked why it was wrong.
Now let me, before I try to answer your question, tell you that I was in a unique position for a point that you know but that you may not realize at the moment. And that is secrecy, all right? Except for secrecy, this would have been an argument that could have been made and then left alone. If it's right, there will be people who worry about it. But the number of people who even could know about it were restricted. I talked with every one of them about it and I was not figuratively, but literally, alone. In other words, a man like [theoretical physicist Emil] Konopinski who worked on this [the thermonuclear bomb] with me from the beginning, you know, would listen, but he did not have the means or the strong interest to work on it if he was alone, you know? If I stopped on it, the thing would have stopped dead.
And what did he imagine the consequence would have been if that had happened?
I imagined that, and I now claim I would have been right, I was right. Had that happened, then Russia would be today Communist, and, I'm afraid, so would the United States. There was no question of holding back on the part of the Soviet Union. We know that quite independently from us they were developing nuclear weapons. They were behind us for only a few years. Had they gained an immense reinforcement and being in a position, unlike the Nazis, a considerable fraction of the population of the United States thought, well, all the story about Communism may be right. The cards were stacked very much in their favor.
Did he believe that, unchallenged, the Soviets would have developed the bomb and used it to conquer us?
I don't have any doubt, I'm absolutely certain, that they would have developed the bomb. I have little doubt that they would have implicitly or explicitly threatened to use it. Whether they would have used it, I don't know. Look, one of the points about Soviet policy on which I'm talking to you, hopefully as an equal, but possibly, probably you know more about it than I do, one of the virtues of the Soviets was that they were patient. They were very much convinced that they were right, and that they would win in the long run. To what extent their power, together with patience, would have sufficed and through what intermediate steps, first influencing Europe and only then America, or whatever--I am certainly not good enough to invent for you a whole way of history, absolutely not. But it was a very powerful factor.
I asked Teller if he meant that his dedication to continued work on the thermonuclear weapon was in response to the particular situation with the Soviets. Or did he think it should have gone forward in any case?
I had two independent and strong reasons. In principle, either of them would have sufficed. I did not want something to be stopped that was new, we had to find out. And I also did not want to stop when dangerous people were getting ahead of us. These were two entirely different things. And the circumstance that Hungary had been Communist when I was eleven years old for four months did not, as my opponents very clearly picture it, make me an anti-Communist. It did make me very much interested in Communism, and it did result in the point that when I got out to Germany, even then eighteen years old, for the following few years in Germany and partly in America, I got much more interested than the average Westerner in what was happening in Soviet Union. And in that course I became a dedicated anti-Communist, although not more so than I was anti-Nazi--if at all, less so.
I followed up on his first point. Was he arguing that the work should be pursued because it was new? He responded, "Right, that was, I would say, an independent half." But I wondered if a separation could be made between the theory and its applications--he seemed to be arguing that making the weapon was necessary.
Look, excuse me, by working on the atomic weapon I learned that nothing will suffice, unless you actually do it. Look, here is a really eminent physicist, a very close friend of mine, Eugene Wigner, all right? Who in '42 and the beginning of '43 told me, with great emphasis and sympathy, "Don't go to Los Alamos, we know everything about it, there is nothing more to be done." And I get to Los Alamos, difficulty after difficulty, it is not done until you actually have done it. Acknowledging that he might disagree with me, I said that it seemed we were discussing an intertwining of scientific knowledge and a particular application. A more dangerous weapon than had ever existed was being brought into being. Was that not a problem?
Listen, there was scientific interest, and there was a political consequence. You are using the language that says the political consequence was negative, because it was a dangerous one. I say it was positive, because it served the stability of democracies as against the Soviet Union. What you consider, and most people consider, as a danger, I considered then and consider now as an advantage.
I told Teller that I accepted his point, but it still meant that both arguments are intertwined and that, in such a case, the scientific cannot be separated from the political. He answered, "I don't separate them out, but they were clearly acting in the same direction in my mind."
Teller insisted that the United States must continue technological development in order to maintain world stability. This raised another question in my mind. What were his present views on international relations as compared to those in his 1947 article "The Atomic Scientists Have Two Responsibilities"? Fifty years earlier, he had asserted that he and his colleagues had "two clear-cut duties: to work on atomic energy under our present administration and to work for a world government which alone can give us freedom and peace." The article concluded, "It seems difficult to take on these responsibilities. To take on less, I believe, is impossible."13
That I believed in at that time. And I still believe in it. Not in a sense that it will be effective tomorrow, but that we have to make a beginning of it. No, what I wanted to say is, that at the moment we are making negative progress in that direction. Because it would be important to begin to cooperate with the Russians.
When I asked if an agreement to stop nuclear testing might be a way of cooperating with the Russians, he responded, "No, not
stopping. No, no. Look, stopping nuclear testing will not work. Stopping nuclear testing will contribute to proliferation and secret proliferation and that will give rise to tensions." Did he mean that with dangerous leaders in the world, the United States had to stay technologically strong while still engaging the Russians in a nonaggressive way?
Precisely. Use the complete development of everything possible for peace and for war and, of course, where there are peaceful applications, that I want to emphasize. Let me give you a very vivid example. I have been in Russia now twice. The first time in and near Moscow, the other time in the southern Caucasus, in the Russian-type Livermore--their second lab [Chelyabinsk-70]. What we discussed there was cooperation in using nuclear explosives to prevent collision from a big asteroid. You know the last time it happened was in 1908 when an asteroid about one hundred, one hundred fifty feet in diameter fell on Siberia. It may have killed one or two people, possibly no one. But it laid a forest flat for one thousand square miles. Now we estimate that that will happen once in every few hundred years. If it happens over New York, ten million people are dead. The likelihood of that happening is very small, because the event is rare, and that it should happen in the wrong place seems less likely. To our knowledge the last big event occurred sixty-five million years ago. You know, that is the Alvarez asteroid. That was about ten miles in diameter and that exterminated something like two-thirds of the species on earth.
He prefaced his further explanation by telling me that the late Carl Sagan, then still living, was a strong opponent of his ideas about how to deflect asteroids because such technology had the potential to be misapplied.
Now, that they should then really hit us is very unlikely. I claim that these come close, we observe them, we know them, when they are past us and the danger from them is completely passed, then we send out the deflection apparatus and exercise it. Without this experience we are not going to stop one probably. Carl Sagan says, "Fine, fine, but what about somebody misusing that, somebody using it in such a way that asteroids should collide with us?" Now, to consider nuclear explosives as evil and try to take any application of it as wrong, no matter how improbable, no matter how clumsy, all right? Do I have to continue?
I told Teller that I hoped he would not like me any less for telling him that I believe we have to think about the potential danger of weapons that are so much more powerful than picking up stones and throwing them at an enemy. I began to say that misuse had to be considered whether or not it ultimately resulted in stopping development. Teller cut in, "Listen, listen, number one, of course it has to be considered. I like you less for only one reason. For the reason that you imagine that I don't know that." I immediately retorted that I was not imagining anything but simply trying to make myself clear to him in the conversation. He went on answering my point.
Well, of course, you cannot have a powerful instrument without looking at all its consequences. But to look only at the negative consequences is even worse. Look, I have already told you, but I want to repeat it. The whole history of destructive technology shows that the potential to do damage was, in any practical sense, unlimited from thebeginning. That limitation was always from the side of the intention, and not from the side of capability. The past was when they came to the point that one side tried to exterminate the others, they had no difficulty. If you get convinced that you can't survive, except by killing your opponents, and killing all your opponents, indiscriminately, you can do it. And we are not going to do it with nuclear weapons by mistake. The question is only the intention. Because the capability has been there for five thousand years.
He had criticized those who see all nuclear technology as evil. I wondered what he thought about people holding a negative view of him because of his advocacy of the development of such technology.
Well, look, they hold it in a more or less personalized manner. But the important thing is not that this view exists. The important thing is that it is so generally believed: atomic weapons are terrible, no matter how you look at them. You know I'm quoting. This is an incredibly stupid statement! You know, you are asking, don't I agree that you have to watch out for the negative effects?Well, of course, yes, of course! Who ever thought of doing it without thinking of that? I am simply protesting against a statement that evil things dominate no matter how you look at it.
Teller continued to discuss the ways in which he believed science and the tools it creates are misunderstood. After a while, I heard the housekeeper preparing lunch in the kitchen and realized that it was time to bring the interview to a close. I asked Teller, considering the incorrect views that he be lieved existed, how he wanted to be remembered and how he wanted his work to be remembered. "I will give you a very concrete answer. First of all, let me tell you that your closing question is not original. I've been asked that before." I laughed, apologizing for my unintentional lack of originality, but replied that I still thought it was a good question. He told me that when he was first asked the question it came as a surprise, and unprepared, he had answered, "I don't care." I asked if he really did not care, and he admitted,
It's a lie, I do care. The truth is, I don't care very much. I say the issues we are talking about are so big that it's ridiculous to be overly influenced, "All right, I'm going to be remembered this way, I am going to be remembered that way." I am writing my memoirs, and that I do because I want to be remembered. And I'm not worried about, I'm not too excited. I am excited about what will happen. Let me tell you.
Then, gesturing, Teller asked, "See that thing there on the wall, above the key? You know what that is?" I stood and walked to where he was pointing and examined a plaque hanging on the wall. When I observed that it was something from Hungary, he responded,
It is very much something from Hungary. I hadn't visited there for half a century. And then when the Russians got out, Ivisited there. And I am saturated with the positive response to what I have done. I am very much satisfied. Because in Hungary, it is recognized that I contributed to it that the Russians are no longer there. And that's enough for me. Whatever will be said about me after I'm dead is not important as compared to the point that the Hungarian government and Hungarians, in a general way--independent of their Hungarian political position--appreciate what I have done. I am now not worried about how I will be remembered, I'm now worried about what will happen. Whether the present trend, the present antiscientific trend, the present fears of whatever is new, will cripple the United States and thereby eliminate the huge stabilizing factor in world politics.
Even as our time ran out, my questions remained. Teller said that he opposed secrecy and was in favor of scientific openness. But, I asked, wasn't the whole environment in which he had attained his stature built on secrecy? Hadn't Oppenheimer's 1954 security clearance case been constructed on the question of the right to know secrets? Teller told me that he had not opposed Oppenheimer because of his stance on the hydrogen bomb, and I wanted to hear more about this controversial subject. I knew that Teller had testified against his colleague. He recommended that I read a series of articles in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
written by Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Teller himself during the early days of the hydrogen bomb controversy. As I listened, it occurred to me that Teller was engaged in arguments I could not hear, with people I could not see, answering questions I had not asked. He seemed not to comprehend why so many of his scientific peers had so fundamentally disagreed with him. At that moment I believed he really did not understand.
Joseph and I went to Mrs. Teller and thanked her for having us in her home. Joseph admired a collection of Imari porcelain on the mantel. I noticed some Southwest prints on the wall and seeing their date, 1944, wondered if the Tellers had brought them from Los Alamos. As they walked to the door, Joseph told Edward Teller that he did not consider him a criminal. With a sigh, the physicist replied, "I did not intend to be."
1. Edward Teller, Better a Shield than a Sword: Perspectives on Defense and Technology
(New York: Free Press, 1987), 57. 2. Quoted in Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and the Origins of the Arms Race
(New York: Vintage, 1987), 296.
3. Teller, Better a Shield
, 58. There is a discrepancy in the dates of this correspondence between Teller and Szilard. Teller explained, "Szilard's letter was dated July 4, 1945, while my reply, dated July 2, was written a number of days after I received his. In addition, Szilard had not bothered to fill in my name in his form letter. The explanation is simply that Szilard was a man of many contradictions." Teller, Better a Shield
, 244 n. 7.1. The editors of Szilard's papers ordered the correspondence chronologically and did not describe Teller's July 2 letter as a response to Szilard's petition but rather as part of the general debate about it. See pp. 208-212 in Weart and Szilard, eds., Leo Szilard
. Regarding the date discrepancy, Szilard's biographer opined, "A more likely explanation is that he [Teller] knew about the petition in advance and drafted his reply on the second [July 2], even before receiving a copy." William Lanouette, Genuis in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard
(New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1992), 527 n. 36.
4. Sherwin, A World Destroyed
, "Notes of the Interim Committee Meeting, May 31, 1945," 302.
5. Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission
, Vol. 1, The New World, 1939/1946
(University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962), 358.
6. Sherwin, A World Destroyed
, "Science Panel: Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons, June 16, 1945," 305.
7. Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).
8. Teller, Better a Shield
9. Quoted in Herbert F. York, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller and the Superbomb
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989), 161.
10. Teller, Better a Shield
11. Teller, Better a Shield
12. Teller is referring to Rhodes's analysis of his reasons for working on and role in the development of the H-bomb. See Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986); and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).
13. Edward Teller, "The Atomic Scientists Have Two Responsibilities," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
3, no. 12 (1947): 356.