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Nuclear Wizards

Szilard played no part in the hearings, but judging from the record of his two debates with Teller, he would have had good reason to echo Rabi’s rebuke. Teller opposed Szilard on every major issue that the latter felt was significant if the nuclear arms race was not to end in tragedy.24 Unlike Szilard, he saw the Russians as being ready to embark on nuclear war in their quest for world domination. They cheated and in his view could never be trusted to keep any arms control agreement. The only way to deal with them was to build a more powerful nuclear arsenal than theirs, and to see to America’s defenses. Szilard was wasting his time in trying to promote US-USSR accord. The Teller who debated with his old mentor had become a black-and-white propagandist in favor of the cold war.

The irony is that only a few years before, he had made speeches and written papers in which the views he expressed were close to those that were the basis of Szilard’s crusade for peace. In 1946 he had written that now that nuclear weapons had been invented, nothing but world union could provide a safe environment for the next generation. 25 An atomic war could endanger the survival of mankind, and despite the Russian rejection of the Baruch plan for the control of nuclear power by the United Nations, the US should strive to gain their cooperation. “World Government,” Teller wrote, “is our only hope for survival.” The old Teller might have been Szilard in disguise. It is difficult to avoid the thought that the switch in Teller’s views was a matter of opportunism, an effort to adjust what he was saying to the opinions of his new right-wing patrons.

For the new Teller, champion of the “super,” had become something of a hero among hard-liners, and also the subject of much publicity, even if, reciprocally, a pariah in the social circle he had frequented before—the small and closely knit group of theoretical and experimental nuclear physicists. At first Teller did not try to disguise the extent to which he was bruised by the fact that “more than ninety percent”26 of the scientific community now regarded him as an outcast. He wanted to issue a public statement saying that he had not meant what everybody had understood his words about Oppenheimer to mean. He was dissuaded from doing so by Lewis Strauss, the member of the AEC into whose ears he had long been pouring his complaints about Oppenheimer.

In 1955 in an apparent effort to repair the damage he had done himself, Teller published an article headed “The Work of Many People,” in which, without disavowing his public image as the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” he “lavishly praised” the contributions made by other physicists and mathematicians, including Oppenheimer, Bradbury, and Bethe.27 Among others to whom he also referred admiringly were Stanislaw Ulam and Frederic de Hoffmann. He wrote that in the final days leading up to a decision about the correct configuration of a practicable fusion warhead, an “imaginative suggestion” was made by Ulam, and a “fine calculation” by Hoffmann.

The story then takes a curious turn. In the preceding year (1954) James Shepley and Clay Blair, Jr., two journalists, had published an account of the genesis of the bomb which, in Teller’s words, had praised him to high heaven at the same time as it had denied others some of the credit that should have fallen on their shoulders. According to these two partisans of Teller, Ulam’s “imaginative suggestion” had stimulated an idea in Teller’s mind which he immediately passed on to Hoffmann—described by Blumberg and Owen as Teller’s “right hand man”—who then set about his fine calculations.28

But Teller soon started to deny that he had been stimulated by anything that Ulam had said. “Ulam triggered nothing,” he told his biographers.29 The idea was his own; it occurred to him just before the conversation he had had with Hoffmann soon after he had spoken to Ulam. In his autobiography, published in 1962, Teller had written that Hoffmann not only made “a fine calculation,” but also a “projection” of the idea, so revealing how an effective thermonuclear bomb could be constructed.30 Hoffmann then wrote up the results of his work in an important paper in which he not only omitted any reference to himself, but which he signed with Teller’s name. In 1962, Teller had written that he felt “ashamed” that he had allowed this to be done. In his new book, published last year, he no longer feels “ashamed”—he is only “sorry.”31 But nowhere did he explain how one man could come to sign another’s name to a piece of work that the latter had not written. Stanislaw Ulam was clearly not as docile as Hoffmann. He and Teller have never made up their quarrel about their respective contributions to the critical concept in the ultimate and successful design of the super.

Teller’s efforts to make amends for his behavior toward Oppenheimer and Ulam got him nowhere. Instead of enjoying the recognition that would have been accorded a scientist who had made significant contributions to the body of scientific knowledge, he has had to rest content with the admiration of those who view the future as a continuing conflict between East and West. He was to develop into an ally if not a leader of the “hard right.” Whether he ever appreciated that this would happen is unclear, but it was not long before he was writing and speechifying like the best of them. The higher he flew with the hawks, the more it seemed to compensate for his ostracism by those whom he had regarded as his peers—and the more he was impelled to justify and rationalize his actions.

Thus, where before he had feared that a nuclear war would endanger the survival of the human species, he now declared that through the use of “clean” warheads a nuclear conflict could be confined.32 In 1967 he saw a most menacing and special danger coming from China, which he thought would be able to blackmail the American government by threatening to efface the “12 biggest cities in the US.”33 Nuclear testing had to go on because new warheads had to be designed. A test ban agreement would be a disaster because the Russians could not be trusted. Radioactive fallout was not as dangerous as was usually assumed. The Teller who could with feeling write after Hiroshima of “the picture of fires raging unopposed, wounds remaining unattended, sick men killing themselves with the exertions of helping their fellows”34 would become transformed into a Teller who could reassure Europeans not to worry because even if a nuclear war would wipe out millions, some of them would still survive.35 In one of their public debates, he told a highly skeptical Szilard to accept as a “concrete proposal” the proposition that Atlantic union under one government should be made a political reality.36 Szilard, romantic though he was, emerges from their television exchanges as by far the greater realist. That was more than twenty-five years ago. The Atlantic union under a single government, which Teller saw as a concrete proposal, is as far away today as it was then.

A European comparing Szilard’s book with Teller’s might well say that Teller sacrificed a large part of his intellectual freedom when he tied himself to the instinctive anti-Communist right. The more his new book is studied, the more pointless it becomes to try to separate fact from exaggeration, and fancy from reality. One has either to swallow Teller whole or to be on the constant lookout for statements which—to use a phrase recently made memorable in the UK—“are economical with the truth.” One runs into difficulties straightaway. The sword in his title is the nuclear bomb; the shield, President Reagan’s mythical SDI space defense system. The opening chapter is entitled “Three Controversies.” The first is supposed to have related to the making of the atomic bomb; the second to the technical and strategic arguments that surrounded the development of the hydrogen bomb; and the third to the current debate about the wisdom of embarking on the development and presumably eventual deployment of SDI—should it ever materialize.

It is farcical to equate these three issues. No controversy surrounded the making of the atom bomb; first, because it was developed in such dense secrecy that not even the vice-president of the US or the senior members of Winston Churchill’s cabinet were aware that there was anything to argue about and, second, because it was developed at a time when the general view was that greater destructive power necessarily implies greater military strength. The controversy provoked by the hydrogen bomb was of a totally different kind from that which surrounds SDI. The central questions about the fusion bomb were: first, whether there was a need for more destructive power than could be encompassed by atom bombs; and second, whether before proceeding, the US should try to negotiate with the Russians a ban on its development. There was also a technical controversy that involved a relatively small number of people—how to design the bomb.

The debate about SDI is altogether different. Quite apart from the momentous technical and financial issues that have never been resolved, there has to be a sensible answer to the question whether SDI is advantageous or disadvantageous from the strategic point of view. This consideration Teller does not discuss, or at best treats as a play of words. He implies that shields and swords are mutually exclusive items of armament. This they certainly are not. They are always complementary. The question is not merely whether a shield is adequate to counter an opposing sword, for example whether in the design of a tank the armor plate can withstand antitank fire, but whether—to pursue that illustration—the penalty that the weight of the armor imposes is acceptable from the point of view of the speed and firepower of the tank.

In 1962 Teller seems to have recognized this fact—an ABM defense, he wrote, is “really good only if it is not much more expensive than the offense,” and provided that it cannot be outwitted with ease37—in Paul Nitze’s updated terminology, only if it is “cost—effective at the margin.” In his new book, Teller conveys the impression that while he agrees that it is unlikely that a perfect ABM defensive system could be devised, the effort to build one would be worthwhile because “the existence of defense at least will save lives.”38 Yet at the same time he admits that more defense will stimulate “additional aggressive deployment,” so that “work on armaments would proceed indefinitely.” But having stated the obvious, Teller then brushes it aside with the unsubstantiated non sequitur that “defense has the advantage that it can provide the basis for a decrease in tensions.”

To write this in the face of the Russian reaction to SDI is truly extraordinary.39 President Reagan told the world that the aim of his Strategic Defense Initiative is to make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” There are many good reasons to doubt that he has American weapons in mind. These weapons could be made impotent far more cheaply than by the SDI program. Teller, who has not disavowed the widespread belief that he provided the President with the material for his SDI dream, wrote in 1962 that “it would be wonderful if we could shoot down approaching missiles before they could destroy a target in the United States.”40 Surely it was the same missiles to which he was referring in 1982 or 1983, or whenever it was that he bewitched the President with talk of a space-based defense system. Whatever else, and whether or not SDI spurs the Russians to devise countermeasures, it will certainly not encourage them to make “deep cuts” in their ICBM arsenal. One side is hardly likely to help the other in a process by which it might be disarmed. Teller simply deludes himself—not the Russians, or those Europeans who are looking on from the sidelines—when he says that SDI is a basis for reducing tensions.

I keep asking myself whether he really believes what he writes about SDI. He says that he wants to discover whether a space-based ABM system is feasible. “My argument,” he writes, “is for knowledge and against ignorance…. Scientists have the responsibility to make knowledge available and to explain its possible applications”—not to say how the knowledge, once acquired, should be used.41 It is for the people to decide. This message, with the word “duty” sometimes replacing “responsibility,” echoes in Teller’s writings. The proposition seems so disingenuous that one wonders whether it represents more than post-hoc rationalization and self-justification. Obviously the dictum is true for men and women with science degrees who take on jobs with contractual responsibilities, which they then have a “duty” to try to discharge. But scientists have no obligation in general to “make knowledge available.” The few who are competent to add to the store of basic knowledge are not discharging any “duty.” Like composers or painters, they are creative people who are doing what they want to do, doing what they believe they can do, and what they believe is worth doing.

The men who formulated the design specifications of nuclear warheads did not invent the “principles” of nuclear physics. It was the other way around. The specifications were derived from basic principles about the atom that had already been established. If one accepted the Teller dictum, it could be argued that competent chemists who know how to do the job have the “responsibility,” the “duty,” to invent, say, a noxious gas so many thousand times more toxic than any yet known that given the fracture of a single cylinder, the gas that escaped could kill, for example, the population of San Francisco. The gas having been invented, Teller would have it that it would be up to “the entire community” to decide whether it should be used. To Teller, that is “the main principle on which a democratic society rests.” As one reads what he writes, one may well ask whether he appreciates what the words “duty” and “principle” conventionally imply.

In the final exchange of his 1962 debates with Teller, the transcripts of which are reprinted in Toward a Livable World, Szilard made the point that “following the line of least resistance” is a characteristic of the American political system, and that in talks that he had given at ten universities and colleges, he had asked the students whether instead of this deep-seated weakness of the system, a minority could be found that would formulate “a set of political objectives on which reasonable people can agree.” In his reply, Teller said that “reasonable people are people all across the country. No minority should agree, all of us must agree, and that is the way how a democracy has to work.”

Szilard: “All of us cannot agree.”

Teller: “I think all of us will.”42

Clearly in Teller’s mind no minority should disagree. This is a strange statement since Teller, almost always in a minority, never agreed. That conception of democracy, we should note, is offered by a man who fled from Hitler’s Europe and who tells us that he had no interest in politics before, as it was to turn out, he started associating with people who instinctively encouraged his obsession to develop a “super.” What Teller was in effect saying was that a minority did not have the right to disagree—a precept that clearly had not governed his relations with Oppenheimer and Bethe and the vast majority of his other colleagues at Los Alamos. Small wonder that in a statement about Teller that Szilard drafted in 1963, a year before he died,43 he observed that he found himself disagreeing more with Teller’s attitude to the USSR than he did with that of the US administration.

In his campaign for peace, Szilard—to whom, strange to say, Teller dedicated his book—never compromised the mission he had set himself, despite the fact that, as Teller saw it, this made him unpopular “among those who had power or influence”44—presumably in political or military circles. That was not a risk that Teller ran. If in pursuing his path to the super he had to sacrifice the esteem of his peers, he could at least then enjoy that of acolytes he gathered around him, and of others who had a vested interest in the outcome of his and their labors.

Rabi, who never stopped wondering how his fellow citizens could be so misguided as to allow Teller doctrines to flourish, had always known that the destruction of war could never solve the political problems which beset a world that has been transformed by the technological developments of the postwar years. The pursuit of science was to Rabi a unifying force in the peaceful development of society. The Brookhaven Nuclear Laboratory in Long Island, where universities cooperate in research, and the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, are monuments to his success in making a reality of his beliefs. His mind was always wide open to new and challenging ideas, whereas to the public that of Teller appears to have become more and more closed, with his attitudes becoming as rigid as the anti-Semitic prejudices that enclosed him in a gilded ghetto in his youth, and as enduring as those that characterized the ghetto from which Rabi’s family fled. In escaping from the ghettos that they knew, Rabi and Szilard discovered how to enjoy true individual freedom. Teller, who seems to have created a new ghetto for himself, has still to show that he understands what it is that his erstwhile friends discovered.

  1. 24

    Hawkins, Greb, and Szilard, p. 381.

  2. 25

    Rhodes, pp. 765–766.

  3. 26

    Blumberg and Owens, p. 365.

  4. 27

    Edward Teller, “The Work of Many People,” Science 121 (1955), pp. 257–275.

  5. 28

    Shepley and Blair, p. 119.

  6. 29

    Blumberg and Owens, p. 280.

  7. 30

    Teller with Brown, p. 50.

  8. 31

    Teller, p. 79.

  9. 32

    Edward Teller, “Alternatives for Security,” Foreign Affairs (1958), Vol. 36, pp. 201–208.

  10. 33

    Edward Teller, “Needed Now: Trans-atlantic ABM Defense—and Union,” Freedom and Union (November 1967), pp. 3–7.

  11. 34

    Rhodes, p. 765.

  12. 35

    Edward Teller at a seminar in Erice, Sicily, in 1985. International Herald Tribune (September 22, 1985).

  13. 36

    Hawkins, Greb, and Szilard, p. 385.

  14. 37

    Teller with Brown, p. 128.

  15. 38

    Teller, p. 9.

  16. 39

    The Russians are not opposed to research on ballistic missile defense, in which they too are engaged. What they protest is that SDI implies the deployment of a space-based defensive system and development work that would contravene the strict interpretation of the 1972 ABM treaty.

  17. 40

    Teller with Brown, p. 128.

  18. 41

    Teller, pp. 10–11.

  19. 42

    Hawkins, Greb, and Szilard, pp. 396–397.

  20. 43

    Hawkins, Greb, and Szilard, p. 405.

  21. 44

    Teller, p. ix.

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