Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove by Peter Goodchild (Harvard, 2004)

Although most people would prefer to forget it, ever since the atomic bombing of Japanese cities in August 1945 the world has lived on the brink of nuclear annihilation. And no individual played a more important role in fostering the nuclear arms race and its terrible dangers than Edward Teller, a Hungarian emigre physicist.

In “Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove,” Peter Goodchild–an award-winning television producer for the BBC and the author of a biography of Robert Oppenheimer–provides a detailed, informative biography of Teller. Drawing upon interviews he conducted, manuscript materials, and secondary sources, Goodchild sketches a revealing portrait of this gifted and extraordinarily influential figure.

Although Teller was born into a relatively privileged, comfortable, Jewish professional family in Budapest, he underwent an unhappy childhood. His mother was often worried and over-protective and, thus, he grew up a very serious child, frightened of everyday situations. Indeed, Teller himself recalled that “the consistency of numbers” was “the first memory I have of feeling secure.” And there was much to feel insecure about. Within short order, the Teller family life in Budapest was disrupted by World War I, a postwar Communist revolution, and a tide of post-Communist anti-Semitism. Though he was unusually bright, Teller recalled that, at school, he had no friends among his classmates, was ridiculed by some of his teachers, and “was practically a social outcast.” Not surprisingly, he “reached adolescence still a serious child with no sense of humor.”

As Teller moved on to Germany to attend university classes and do physics research, his social acceptance and social skills improved markedly. Thrown together with other brilliant scientists, many of them as maladjusted as he was, Teller developed genuine warmth, humor, and charm. Nevertheless, his childhood difficulties deeply marked his subsequent career. Goodchild argues, convincingly, that Teller’s “thirst for acceptance–with the hurt and anger he felt when it was denied”–became “a defining feature” of his life.

With the Nazi rise to power, Teller left Germany for Britain and, soon, for the United States, where he settled comfortably into an academic career. In 1939, along with two other Hungarian emigre physicists, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, he met with Albert Einstein and helped convince him to warn President Franklin Roosevelt that the German government might be developing an atomic bomb. This proved to be the beginning of the Manhattan Project, the secret wartime atomic bomb program. Teller worked on the project, which drew together many of the scientists who, in later years, would clash over nuclear weapons policy. Expecting to be appointed head of the theoretical division at Los Alamos, Teller was bitterly disappointed when he did not get the post.

He was also chagrined when his plans for work on the “Super”H-bomb were disrupted. For these setbacks, he blamed the director of the Los Alamos lab, Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist whose influence, popularity, and cliquish behavior he began to resent. When Szilard asked Teller to circulate a petition at Los Alamos urging that the bomb not be used against Japan, Teller was ready to do it, but was dissuaded by Oppenheimer. Indeed, Teller reported back to Szilard that, in light of the need to convince the public that “the next war could be fatal,” the “actual combat use” of the weapon “might even be the best thing.” It was the first sign of his hawkishness and, also, of a complex relationship with Oppenheimer, that characterized his life in the following decades.

With the end of the war, Teller –deeply pessimistic about postwar relations with the Soviet Union– pressed scientists to continue their nuclear weapons work. Initially, to be sure, he supported nuclear arms control and disarmament measures like the ill-fated Acheson-Lilienthal Plan. But, increasingly, he championed the development of the H-bomb– a project in which he hoped to play a leading role. As Goodchild shows, by developing the H-bomb, Teller was responding both to his fear that the Soviet Union might conquer the world and to his jealousy of Oppenheimer, then widely lauded as the “father of the atomic bomb.”

The two issues, reflecting his anxiety and his ambition, soon became intertwined, for Oppenheimer and his circle proved to be major obstacles to getting the U.S. government to move forward with the H-bomb project. Gradually, however, Teller won the struggle. Particularly after the first Soviet nuclear test in the fall of 1949, powerful political figures, including President Harry Truman, lined up on the side of constructing an H-bomb. All Teller had to do was to figure out how to build it. Ironically, despite his vigorous weapons work at the Livermore laboratory, it was a problem that confounded him for years. Furthermore, the mathematician Stan Ulam may have been responsible for the necessary conceptual breakthrough. Nevertheless, Teller received the lion’s share of the credit and, ultimately, became known as “the father of the H-bomb”— a weapon a thousand times as powerful as the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima.

Nor was the creation of the H-bomb Teller’s only victory over his putative enemies. In 1954, he teamed up with other foes of Oppenheimer (and of nuclear arms controls) to destroy his rival’s career and influence. Oppenheimer had applied to the Atomic Energy Commission to reinstate his security clearance, and this triggered a dramatic, highly-publicized loyalty-security hearing. Although Teller’s friends urged him not to testify, he rejected their advice. Thus, during the hearing, he asserted that, based on Oppenheimer’s actions since 1945, he thought it vital for national security to deny clearance to him. This also turned out to be the decision of the board, which cut off Oppenheimer from government programs he had once directed and terminated his lingering influence upon them.

For Teller, it proved to be a pyrrhic victory. When the AEC surprised him by publishing the transcript of the loyalty-security hearing, many of Teller’s scientific colleagues –shocked by what they considered his betrayal of human decency–cut him off as well. Teller was devastated by their response. As he recalled: “If a person leaves his country, leaves his continent, leaves his relatives, leaves his friends, the only people he knows are his professional colleagues. If more than ninety per cent of them come around to consider him an enemy, an outcast, it is bound to have an effect. The truth is it had a profound effect.”

Teller, however, proceeded to make new friends, particularly within the ranks of the military-industrial complex, who appreciated the positions he had taken and recognized his utility as a champion of new nuclear weapons programs. And he proved to be a good investment. Urging Congress and the President to spurn the idea of a nuclear test ban treaty, Teller argued that “it would be a crime against the people” to stop nuclear testing when he and other weapons scientists stood on the brink of developing a “clean” bomb. “Peaceful nuclear explosions,” he told President Dwight Eisenhower, could be used to uncover deposits of oil, alter the course of rivers, and “perhaps even modify the weather.” Eisenhower was greatly impressed, and suggested that it might be a good idea to share the “clean”; bombs with the Russians, an idea that Teller, naturally, resisted. Under Teller’ direction, his colleagues at Livermore devised ever wilder schemes to prove that nuclear testing could be hidden and, therefore, a test ban was not possible. These included exploding weapons in deep caves, building a gargantuan shield to hide x-rays from earthbound observers, and planning nuclear tests on the far side of the moon. Although much of the public was growing concerned about the nuclear fallout from testing, Teller assured Americans that fallout was “not worth worrying about.” Nuclear test radiation “need not necessarily be harmful,” he declared, and “may conceivably be helpful.”

One of the zanier ventures promoted by Teller involved the use of H-bombs to blast out a deep-water harbor in northern Alaska. In the late 1950s, the influential physicist encouraged activities that included using nuclear explosives to create diamonds, to mine oil, and with the assistance of 26 nuclear devices to carve out a new canal adjacent to the Panama Canal. He even opined that it would be hard to “resist the temptation to shoot at the moon. . . to observe what kind of disturbance it might cause.” Eventually, these grandiose ideas took shape in Project Plowshare.

To implement its first component, Project Chariot, Teller flew off to Alaska to propose exciting possibilities that included using nuclear explosions to construct dams, lakes, and canals. Ultimately, Teller narrowed down the Alaskan venture to using nuclear weapons to blast out a giant harbor near Cape Thompson. Although commercial interests in Alaska liked the idea, local scientists were critical and the local Inuit people –32 miles from the site of the planned nuclear explosions — were not at all eager to have their community turned into a nuclear wasteland. Responding to the surge of protest against Project Chariot, the Kennedy administration scrapped it. Goodchild reveals, however, that these apparently irrational schemes had a hidden logic, for “Chariot was intended as a cover for military activities.” Faced with the prospect of a nuclear test ban, Teller was promoting “peaceful” nuclear explosions as a means of continuing the testing of nuclear weapons.

Teller’s fierce faith in nuclear weapons became ever more evident in the 1960s and 1970s. He testified before Congress against the Partial Test Ban Treaty and also spoke out against it on television. In addition, he championed the development of an ABM system that would employ nuclear explosions to destroy incoming missiles, held an underground nuclear test at Amchitka Island that set off the most powerful underground explosion in American history, and lobbied hard against the SALT treaties of Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. “He . . . was becoming so wildly hawkish,” recalled Marvin Goldberger, one of Teller’s early students, “that no one wanted him around except the extremists in the Pentagon.”

Teller’s plunge into extremism carried over into the debate over the hazards of nuclear power. When the near meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant occurred, releasing dangerous amounts of radioactivity, Teller reassured a congressional committee that, “zero is the number of proven cases of damage to health due to a nuclear plant in the free world.” The day after his congressional appearance, Teller was hospitalized with a heart attack, and even this became grist for his propaganda mill. In July 1979, under a two-page headline in the Wall Street Journal reading “I WAS THE ONLY VICTIM OF THREE MILE ISLAND,” there appeared a large photo of Teller, along with his explanation that the cause of his health problem “was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous.” Goodchild then goes on to say: “An editorial in the New York Times accused Teller of propaganda…It then pointed out something Teller had not mentioned: that the sponsor of the advertisement, Dresser Industries, had manufactured the valve that had stuck open and started the emergency.”

Although Teller had substantial influence on U.S. public policy through the 1970s – fostering the H-bomb during the Truman years, purging Oppenheimer and sabotaging a test ban treaty during the Eisenhower years, excluding underground nuclear testing from the test ban treaty during the Kennedy years, securing the deployment of an ABM system during the Johnson years, and keeping the U.S. government busily engaged in the nuclear arms race during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter years – he came into his own after the 1980 election victory of Ronald Reagan. Teller arranged for the appointment of a protégé of his as the president’s Science Advisor, became a member of the White House Science Council, met with the president at the White House on nuclear issues, and did as much as any other individual to convince him that the creation of a Star Wars anti-missile system was vital to the national defense. The Russians, Teller told Reagan, were about to deploy “powerful directed energy weapons” in space, thus enabling them to “militarily dominate both space and the earth, conclusively altering the world balance of power.” Thus, “urgent action” was needed to build an anti-missile system that would be powered by nuclear weapons explosions and could be deployed within a few years.

As is well-known, Reagan swallowed this anti-missile proposal hook, line, and sinker though, in fact, Teller’s claims for it had little relation to reality. Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, was more dubious about the project, but he did approve a modified version, Brilliant Pebbles, also championed by Teller. Republicans in Congress also rallied behind the idea of missile defense, and during the Bill Clinton years–used their newfound strength in that legislative body to keep the project alive and the appropriations flowing to America’s weaponeers. Thereafter, George W. Bush, taking office, ordered the deployment of the new system and, a week before Teller’s death in 2003, awarded him the President’s Medal of Freedom, this nation’s highest civilian award. Along the way, Teller’s brainchild helped to sabotage an agreement at Reykjavik to eliminate strategic nuclear weapons, caused the scrapping of the ABM treaty, and resulted in expenditures of over $100 billion. And there is still no indication that it works.

Overall, Goodchild’s book provides a fascinating, well-researched, and at times sympathetic study of an extraordinary individual. Unfortunately, though, the author has a much better grasp of Teller’s life than he does of his times. Thus, he makes some glaring historical mistakes. Among them are the claims that, before Japanese surrender, the U.S. government provided assurances to the Japanese government of the emperor’s safety and that “Soviet armies invaded Czechoslovakia” in February 1948. Even so, “Edward Teller” is a book well worth reading. Provocative and convincing, it highlights the importance of the personal dimension –including personal neuroses–in the history of the nuclear arms race.

Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is “Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present” (Stanford University Press, 2003)

Originally published by the History News Network