Megaton Man


In late 1951, on an overnight train from Chicago to Washington, Edward Teller dreamed that he was alone, in a battlefield trench like the ones that had so terrified him as a child in Hungary during the war. The nine men attacking his position exceeded by one the eight bullets in his rifle—a cold mathematical analysis even in the confused and foggy world of a nightmare.

Teller’s dream might be simply related to anxiety over his impending report to a subcommittee of the Atomic Energy Commission, where he was lobbying for the creation of a new weapons laboratory. Yet more deeply the dream expresses a lifelong sense of being embattled, besieged, alone in a righteous struggle against his many enemies and the forces of evil. Teller remembers being insulted by his ninth- grade mathematics teacher when he correctly answered a question based on material not yet covered in class. “What are you? A repeater?” said the teacher. The boy prodigy was never called on again, even when he was the only one to raise his hand. While working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, where he pursued his own projects rather than his team’s assignments, Teller “slowly came to realize…that my views differed from those held by the majority” in his fear of Communist Russia and in his fierce support of an overwhelming American military superiority extending far beyond World War II.

Soon Teller’s friendship with Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe, both eminent colleagues at Los Alamos, soured as they engaged in mutual criticism, a pattern that was to repeat itself throughout Teller’s life. After the successful construction of the atomic bomb and the end of the war, when Oppenheimer, Bethe, and many other physicists returned to university teaching and peacetime work, Teller felt that he was a lone voice in pushing the development of the hydrogen bomb; leading scientists, he believed, were “trying to prove a hydrogen bomb impossible.” He much resented Norris Bradbury, the new director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory (replacing Oppenheimer), for dragging his feet on the hydrogen weapon, called “the Super” because of its potentially unlimited power and destructiveness; he claimed that Carson Mark, the new head of the theory division (the position Bethe had held), “made it a practice to needle me in a subtle manner.” Everywhere Teller turned, it seemed, were enemies and suspicions.

Teller’s fragile link to his colleagues was finally broken by his hugely unpopular testimony against Robert Oppenheimer in the McCarthy-era hearings of 1954, which deprived the brilliant and charismatic Oppenheimer of his security clearance and forever excommunicated Teller from most of the scientific community. Shortly after the hearings, when Teller spotted a longtime physicist friend at a meeting and hurried over to greet him, “he looked me coldly in the eye, refused my hand, and turned away.” Twice before, oppressive governments and anti-Semitism had driven Teller into exile, from Hungary in early 1926 and from Germany in 1933. “Now, at forty-seven,” he recalls, “I was again forced into exile.” Years later, after countless political intrigues, after battling with scientists and politicians alike for his proposed projects ranging from nuclear energy to nuclear explosives for excavations to an antimissile defense system, Teller writes that he finally learned a slogan for life: “Trust nobody.”

Of the great physicists who ushered in the modern age of the atom, only three remain: Edward Teller, age ninety-four, Hans Bethe, age ninety-five, and John Wheeler, age ninety. Gone are Ernest Rutherford, James Chadwick, Niels Bohr, Werner Hei-senberg, Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Eugene Wigner, Enrico Fermi, and many others. Compared to Teller, the meticulous Bethe and the self-effacing Wheeler have lived quiet lives in a monastery. In his towering public persona and impact, Teller is equaled by only a handful of twentieth-century scientists: Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, and James Watson among them. In his siege mentality and violent controversies, Teller stands alone. One of the creators of the new quantum physics, a principal architect of the hydrogen bomb, founder and guiding force of the giant Livermore weapons laboratory, passionate advocate of nuclear power and antimissile defense, hypnotic teacher and lecturer, amateur pianist and performer of Beethoven and Bach, student of Plato—Edward Teller, whatever one’s attitude toward his politics, his bullying tactics and prevarications, must be regarded as a man of vision and staggering accomplishments.

An incident in 1962, which Teller proudly relates, illustrates his power. The occasion was his invitation to the Southern Governor’s Conference to argue against the pending Limited Test Ban Treaty. (Throughout his career, Teller staunchly opposed all nuclear weapons treaties.) On his arrival in Arkansas, barely awake from yet another night on a train, the Hungarian physicist was informed that President Kennedy had sent a worried message to the governors protesting Teller’s presentation on the grounds that there was no one at the conference to rebut him. Elsewhere, Teller credits the huge weapons stockpile he helped to create with preventing World War III. Now, crippled with arthritis and suffering from macular degeneration, Teller writes: “I am not about to stop working; I still have many projects to complete and an infinite number of problems to address.”

His new memoir, far more comprehensive than his 1962 The Legacy of Hiroshima, testifies to his astonishing stamina and mental facility, as well as sharp wit. Some of the recollections in Memoirs are directly contradicted by the accounts of other people; some are merely embroidered or skewed. Fortunately, a host of critical accounts, such as Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun and William Broad’s Teller’s War, and a great many documents allow us to make some judgment about the real Edward Teller. What I have come away with, after sifting through the numerous inconsistencies and contradictions, is that there are two Edward Tellers. There is a warm, vulnerable, honestly conflicted, idealistic Teller, and there is a maniacal, dangerous, and devious Teller. Moreover, like Dr. Jekyll, Teller is disturbingly aware of his darker side. Indeed, that self-awareness, visible in Memoirs even beneath its fabrications and self-congratulation, is what accounts for Edward Teller’s angst and gives him his true tragic proportions.


Edward Teller was born on January 15, 1908, in Budapest. His father was a lawyer and associate editor of the major law journal of Hungary. In a footnote, Teller comments that his father, a quiet and reserved man, “did all of the routine work” on the journal while the chief editor “added the flair.” One cannot refrain from speculating whether Teller’s own later style, avoiding routine work and spraying out original ideas, might have been some unconscious reaction against the tedium of his father’s life.

Teller recalls that “finding the consistency of numbers is the first memory I have of feeling secure.” That security was challenged again and again. When the Communists briefly took over Hungary in 1919, Teller’s father was considered a capitalist and the family became social outcasts. This ordeal was the eleven-year-old Teller’s first taste of communism. Years later, in 1939, Teller’s hatred of communism became fierce when his friend the Russian physicist Lev Landau was sent to prison by Stalin for imagined disloyalty and emerged a year later a broken man. And in 1962, at the height of the cold war, Teller would write: “In Russian Communism we have met an opponent that is more powerful, more patient, and incomparably more dangerous than German Nazism.”

Teller detested his years at high school, where his classmates laughed at him and nicknamed him Coco, meaning a simpleminded clown. When Teller wanted to transfer to another school, he was turned down because he was not Catholic. “I began to wonder whether being a Jew really was synonymous with being an undesirably different kind of person.”

The young Teller became possessed by science. In the fall of 1929, he moved to Leipzig to begin his doctoral work under Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics and already a legend at age twenty-seven. Here, Teller joined an international group of twenty eager young men. Once a week, Heisenberg’s disciples met for an evening of ping-pong, chess, and tea. Seven days a week, they argued about physics, art, and life.

Teller and Heisenberg formed a close bond. The mentor and his apprentice took turns playing preludes and fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavichord on the excellent grand piano in Heisenberg’s apartment. After World War II, when most of the scientific community harshly condemned Heisenberg for his attempt to build an atomic bomb for the Nazis, Teller alone claimed that Heisenberg was innocent, writing generously and perhaps naively that “it is inconceivable to me that Heisenberg would ever have pursued such a [weapon]. He loved his country, but he hated the Nazis.”

During the next few years Teller married his childhood sweetheart, spent a year in Copenhagen working with the great Niels Bohr, and a couple of years at University College London. In his memories of these early scientific associations, Teller shows himself to be a keen observer of people, including himself. Teller, and indeed all physicists, revered Bohr, the father of the first quantum model of the atom, a gentle man who spoke so softly that he could scarcely be heard:

Bohr invented paradoxes because he loved them. I imagine that I understand those paradoxes, but I failed to understand Bohr. In human terms, understanding means being able to put yourself in the place of a fellow being. In those terms, I can understand Heisenberg; if my abilities were much greater than they are, I could imagine myself in his position. In no way can I imagine myself in Bohr’s place.

Two recollections of this youthful period in Copenhagen reveal Teller’s recognition of his own hotheaded nature and his tendency to inflate the truth, problems that would cause him and others grave difficulties throughout his life. When Teller once pointed out a silly overstatement that Bohr had made in a casual remark, the Danish physicist replied: “If I can’t exaggerate, I can’t talk.” The ninety-four-year-old memoirist Teller writes: “I have quoted [Bohr] in many discussions in defending my own right to exaggerate.” But Teller’s exaggerations would be of more consequence, linked as they were to the nuclear arms race and costing billions of dollars. Teller recalls discussing Aristotle’s classification of different types of personality with Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, a German physicist who was later to work with Heisenberg on the German A-bomb. “Carl Friedrich,” he writes, “correctly named me, not as sanguine as some of my critics have claimed, nor as melancholic, as I sometimes feel, but as choleric, a flaw I struggled against in my youth.”

At the invitation of the physicist George Gamow, Teller came, in 1935, to the United States, where he would spend the rest of his life, first at George Washington University for five years, then at the University of Chicago, the Los Alamos Laboratory, the Livermore Laboratory, Berkeley, and finally the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford. In 1935, quantum mechanics was still a new discipline, the key to understanding the atom, and Teller was one of perhaps a hundred theoretical physicists in the world who were steeped in the subject. Already, he had done pioneering calculations of the structure and vibrations of molecules.

World events in both politics and science, however, were soon to drag Teller out of the classroom. In 1938, Hitler invaded Austria. Later that year, two German chemists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, found evidence that the uranium nucleus could be cloven in two, or “fissioned,” by the impact of a diminutive neutron, releasing in the process roughly ten million times more energy per gram of material than any chemical reaction. Indeed, it was later realized that a certain rare type, or isotope, of the uranium nucleus, called U-235, is extremely unstable, like a cocked mousetrap.

Shortly after Hahn and Strassmann’s discovery, Leo Szilárd, another Hungarian physicist and a close friend of Teller’s, suggested that if the fission of one uranium nucleus shook loose several free neutrons in addition to the two large fission halves, then each of these new neutrons could fission another uranium nucleus nearby, and so on, setting in motion an explosive “chain reaction.” Szilárd himself began an experiment to investigate the matter. One evening a month later, while Teller was playing a Mozart sonata, he received a long-distance telephone call from Szilárd: “I found the neutrons.” “When I returned to the piano,” Teller writes, “I knew that the world might change in a radical manner.”

Soon President Roosevelt received the famous letter from Einstein warning him of the possibility of an atomic bomb, and, furthermore, of an atomic bomb in the hands of the Germans. Teller and other prominent physicists were asked to form a presidential advisory committee to explore the feasibility of such a bomb. Some of the formidable problems that had to be solved included (1) separating U-235, the rare isotope of uranium that would make a bomb, from the much more prevalent isotope of uranium found in nature, U-238, and (2) designing a way that elements of the bomb could be brought together quickly, making a “critical mass” of uranium.

The concept of a critical mass in an atomic explosion can be explained as follows: if a solid sphere of uranium atoms is too small, a neutron released in the middle of the sphere will reach the outer surface before it collides with a uranium nucleus and thus harmlessly escape without causing a fission. Without a fission, no chain reaction can get going. The critical mass is the minimum mass of uranium that is needed before a typical neutron emitted near the center of the sphere will likely collide with a uranium nucleus before reaching the outer surface.

In building an atomic bomb, one cannot begin with a sphere of U-235 larger than the critical mass. Since there are always stray neutrons going through space, the bomb would be detonated prematurely in the workshop. Thus, the design problem is to begin with two or more “subcritical” masses, safely separated from each other, and then ram them together to create a critical mass at the desired moment. The critical mass for U-235 at ordinary densities is roughly five pounds (the exact number is still classified), corresponding to the explosive energy that would be released by about 25,000 tons of a chemical high explosive like TNT. The atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, an inefficient bomb by later standards, released the energy of about 10,000 tons of TNT.


In the fall of 1940, when the concept of the atomic bomb was still being debated, Enrico Fermi made a fateful comment to Teller. During a walk to the physics laboratory at Columbia University, Fermi asked Teller whether the extreme heat from an atomic bomb could not cause hydrogen atoms to fuse together, releasing yet another new source of energy. It was already known that ordinary hydrogen atoms in the sun fuse together slowly to make helium, and this slow and steady reaction, called a thermonuclear reaction, provides the energy of the sun and many other stars.

Fermi’s suggestion, in particular, was that the more rare isotope of hydrogen atoms, called deuterium, might fuse together far more rapidly, creating a bomb rather than a mere star. An atomic bomb, near or inside the deuterium, would be the “trigger.” A hydrogen bomb (also called a thermonuclear bomb or a fusion bomb) would differ greatly from a uranium bomb (also called an atomic bomb or a fission bomb). Within the tiny atomic nucleus two fundamental forces do battle against each other: the repulsive electrical force between protons and the attractive nuclear force between protons and neutrons. The protons, repelling one another, are like compressed springs waiting to be released, and only the attractive nuclear force prevents them from flying away from one another at great speed. The first force, which gains the upper hand when a large U-235 nucleus is slightly deformed by collision with a neutron, provides the energy of the atomic bomb. The second force, dominating in small nuclei when the protons and neutrons are brought close enough together, powers the hydrogen bomb. A high heat is required to ignite the hydrogen bomb because the deuterium nuclei (each consisting of one proton and one neutron) must be rammed together so closely that the attractive nuclear force between nuclei can overcome the repulsive electrical force and pull the nuclei together.

Teller became obsessed with Fermi’s idea. Unlike a sphere of U-235, which is unstable and therefore must be kept below “critical mass,” a sphere of deuterium, no matter how large, can be detonated only by extremely high heat and compression. Thus, no critical mass exists for a hydrogen bomb. Unlike the atomic bomb, a hydrogen bomb can be built without any limitation on size—the Soviets once exploded an H-bomb equivalent to 100 million tons of TNT, or 100 megatons. Furthermore, pound for pound of explosive material, a hydrogen bomb releases ten times as much energy as an atomic bomb. Finally, deuterium is readily available in seawater and far easier to separate from ordinary hydrogen than U-235 is from U-238. In short, an H-bomb would be far more powerful and also cheaper than an A-bomb.


In the spring of 1943, in the scrub brush and desert terrain of New Mexico, the secret Los Alamos Laboratory was created to pursue the atom bomb at full force, with Robert Oppenheimer named the director. Teller was hoping to be designated the head of the theoretical division, thirty physicists strong, but Oppenheimer appointed Hans Bethe instead.

Although Teller made several important suggestions about the fission bomb, he refused to help with detailed calculations when Bethe asked him to do so. Teller, at his own request, was formally relieved of further responsibilities. What he did, instead, was to pursue his preoccupation with the hydrogen bomb and, according to Bethe, “spent long hours discussing alternative schemes which he had invented for assembling an atomic bomb or to argue about some remote possibilities why our chief design might fail.”

After the end of the war, Leo Szilárd and other leading atomic scientists were not eager to continue in weapons work. Bethe remembers: “We all felt that, like the soldiers, we had done our duty…. Moreover, it was not obvious in 1946 that there was any need for a large effort on atomic weapons in peacetime.” Fermi and Bohr argued that only politics and international negotiation could counter the danger of nuclear weapons. A few years later, Oppenheimer expressed his opposition to the development of Teller’s hydrogen bomb in a report of the General Advisory Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC): “We base our recommendation on our belief that the extreme dangers to mankind inherent in the proposal wholly outweigh any military advantage that could come from this development…. A super bomb might become a weapon of genocide.” Teller felt enormously frustrated that he was not receiving scientific and governmental backing for his project, and that his colleagues had “[lost] their appetite for weapons work.”

Between 1946 and 1951, Teller embarked upon a personal crusade for the Super, at a time when many physicists were not sure that the bomb was even theoretically possible. Deeply suspicious of Oppenheimer’s “pacifism” and lack of support, Teller sought alliances with a number of powerful political and scientific figures, including Admiral Lewis Strauss, along with Oppenheimer an inaugural member of the AEC, and the physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize for his invention of the cyclotron.

In this and later crusades, Teller was more than overly confident, and he was sometimes duplicitous. Robert Serber, a protégé of Oppenheimer, remembers an important conference organized by Teller in 1946 to assess the current state of knowledge of the Super: “It became apparent to me,” Serber said, “that at every point they were making the most optimistic assumptions and that no solid calculations had really been carried through.” Serber went to Teller and suggested that they “tone down some of the more outrageous statements.” Teller agreed and the two physicists rewrote the report. As Serber recounts, a couple of months later he came across the (classified) final version of the conference report and discovered that “it was Edward’s original report, with all the changes we had agreed on left out.”

When the Polish mathematician and physicist Stanislaus Ulam demonstrated in 1950 that Teller’s initial design was flawed, Teller was, in Ulam’s words, “pale with fury.” Remarkably, less than a year later, Ulam and Teller came up with a new concept that worked. Teller has never given credit for this to Ulam. (Ulam’s particular and essential contribution, acknowledged by physicists on the scene, was that extreme compression of the deuterium would solve some of the difficulties that had been encountered, especially the loss of needed heat in the form of radiation.) Teller and Ulam intensely disliked each other. In Memoirs Teller writes scornfully that “Ulam didn’t understand my new design and claimed it would never work.”

Teller’s lifelong denial of Ulam’s contribution, while far from forgivable, may at least be partly explained by Teller’s extreme commitment to the fusion bomb over many years—reflecting a personal passion, emotional involvement, and sense of ownership that is common among scientists. These qualities, coupled with Teller’s brooding egotism, were probably dominating factors in his quest for the hydrogen bomb. No doubt his fear of the Russians, his sense of duty, and his belief that peace could be achieved only through powerful weapons were sincere and genuine. But his personal ambition seems to have been even stronger. In an unguarded moment in Memoirs, Teller says of the mathematician John von Neumann, his close friend and fellow Hungarian: “Like the other scientists from Hungary that he knew well, he had only one ambition, and that was to see his ideas succeed.”

Despite increasing enthusiasm for Teller and Ulam’s breakthrough idea for the fusion bomb, Teller himself felt that the only solution to what he considered an unfriendly and timid atmosphere at Los Alamos was to create a second, rival weapons laboratory—which he, of course, would control. In Memoirs, Teller denies campaigning for the new laboratory before he left Los Alamos in October of 1951: “It would be unseemly to advocate a second laboratory while working at Los Alamos.” However, according to an entry from the diary of Gordon Dean, then chairman of the powerful AEC, Teller met in Washington with Dean on April 4, 1951, and pleaded for a new weapons laboratory, to be staffed with 50 senior scientists, 82 junior scientists, and 228 assistants.

One can imagine the commanding presence of Teller in this and many other meetings behind the scenes or on such important committees as the AEC’s Reactor Safeguard Committee, Nelson Rockefeller’s Commission on Critical Choices for Americans, and Reagan’s White House Science Council. In addition to his imposing profile, his heavy-lidded eyes and thick, bushy eyebrows, Teller’s voice, in the words of the New York Times journalist William Broad, “could easily be called doom-laden, especially when he set out his words one by one, like great blocks of granite.” Teller could also be cutting. When Teller was given the presidential award of the Fermi Prize in 1962, President Kennedy asked the physicist about his proposed plan to use nuclear weapons to blast a second Panama Canal. Teller replied: “It will take less time to complete the canal than for you to make up your mind to build it.”

With the crucial help of Ernest Lawrence at the University of California at Berkeley and of the AEC, Teller’s new weapons laboratory was established at Livermore, California, in 1952. Eventually, the Livermore Laboratory, with thousands of work-ers, would be as formidable as Los Alamos; it trained many of the nation’s leading young weapons scientists and established an innovative Department of Applied Science, in conjunction with the University of California at Davis, for the education of graduate students. Teller, who looks back with avuncular fondness on the young weapons physicists he trained at Livermore, writes that “of all the things I have done in my life, I am most proud of my role in the establishment and work of the Livermore laboratory.”

If the Livermore lab was Teller’s proudest achievement, his testimony at the Oppenheimer hearings in 1954 was his most painful mistake, one that he now says he regrets.1 The affair began in late 1953 when William Borden, formerly director of a committee of the AEC, wrote to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that Oppenheimer was either a Communist agent himself or supported Communist agents and could not be trusted with military secrets. Hoover sent Borden’s letter to President Eisenhower.

Teller’s own view of Oppenheimer, spelled out in FBI interviews and other records at the time, was that “Oppie” had misadvised the government on weapons development, particularly in opposing the H-bomb and the creation of the Livermore lab, but that in no way was Oppenheimer subversive or disloyal. Teller faults Eisenhower for ordering the witch-hunt-style hearings and writes, “In retrospect, I should have said at the beginning of my testimony that the hearing was a dirty business, and that I wouldn’t talk to anyone about it.” In fact, Teller testified that he “would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more.”

In Memoirs, Teller gives a convoluted and deceptive explanation of the circumstances and motives behind his testimony. Perhaps the most reliable guide is to be found in the notes of a meeting Teller had, six days before his testimony, with Charter Heslep of the United States Information Service. In a report of that meeting to Lewis Strauss, Heslep writes that Teller

regrets the case is on a security basis because he feels that it is untenable…. Since the case is being heard on a security basis, Teller wonders if some way can be found to “deepen the charges” to include a documentation of the “consistently bad advice” that Oppenheimer has given.

This report clearly suggests that Teller had decided that he would use the hearings, unjustified as they were, as an instrument to dethrone a powerful enemy who had opposed him since his first days at Los Alamos and attempted to foil many of his projects.

Beyond Teller’s acknowledgment in Memoirs that he was “stupid” and wrong to testify in a hearing that should never have taken place, beyond his anguish over the resulting loss of colleagues and friends, one senses that he was in a state of inner conflict about the right thing to do. To be sure, Teller often used brutal tactics to advance his ambitions; but he was also acutely aware of standards of fair play and of the repressive methods of totalitarian governments. Other powerful figures in Washington, such as Strauss, wanted to silence Oppenheimer; they put pressure on Teller to give damaging testimony so that Oppenheimer would be stripped of his security clearance. In the Oppenheimer affair, it can be argued that Teller was, at least to some degree, a victim as well as a victimizer.

One is struck by how important Teller’s friends were to him. Some of them, including Leo Szilárd, John von Neumann, Enrico Fermi, Ernest Lawrence, John Wheeler, and Maria Mayer—all leading physicists or mathematicians—remained close to him during and after the Oppenheimer affair. Memoirs quotes from a dozen candid and personal letters from Teller to Mayer. Of Fermi, Teller says, he “didn’t care whether I was right or wrong—he simply wanted to heal the schism.”

Shortly after the Oppenheimer hearings, at the young age of fifty-three, Fermi was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Teller flew at once to his bedside in Chicago. According to Teller’s account, instead of talking about himself, Fermi asked about Teller, knowing that he was under harsh attack. Teller writes that the meeting, his last visit with Fermi, “was characteristic of Fermi’s generous nature. He had almost all the good traits that a friend could have…open-hearted, good-humored, and alert to others’ needs.”

I recently visited one of Teller’s old friends, George Hatsopoulos, a highly accomplished, seventy-five-year-old scientist and businessman who in 1956 founded the Thermo Electron Company. Hatsopoulos told me how fond he was of Teller, who had, he said, a great sense of humor, not always common among scientists. “With me,” Hatsopoulos said, “he was always an uncomplicated person, a genuine friend. As soon as a senator or someone like that would walk into the room, Edward’s eyes would light up. I could see the change. He wanted to impress the person. But he was honest with me…. Edward is brilliant, but naive.”

Teller emerges from such accounts and from his own book as capable of being both a good friend and a feared enemy, uncomplicated and genuine at one moment, a salesman driven to impress at the next—combative and vulnerable, slyly political and naive, honest and dishonest. And, now and then, aware of these contradictory qualities.


In the early 1980s, well after he became emeritus professor at the University of California, well after he had retired from the Livermore Laboratory, Teller became involved in the last major controversy of his life: the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly called Star Wars. For decades, Teller had been keenly interested in defense against nuclear bombs, particularly bombs mounted on incoming missiles. The idea of the “X-ray laser”—by which a nuclear bomb set off in space could power an intense X-ray laser beam that could quickly focus on and destroy missiles shortly after launch—had excited some scientists at Livermore. Teller strongly supported the concept and proposed it to his friend President Reagan. When Reagan asked the enthusiastic Teller if such an antimissile system could work, Teller replied, “We have good evidence that it would.” Reagan then made his famous SDI speech of March 23, 1983, with the implied commitment of billions of dollars.

In fact, there was little scientific evidence that the X-ray laser would work, and that evidence was based on crude and inconclusive experiments. It is still unclear whether such a system is scientifically possible, and, even if it is, many analysts believe that the X-ray laser could never be part of a workable defense system. After interviewing a number of weapons experts at Livermore, William Broad wrote in his book Teller’s War that the proposed program was “carved out of thin air over the objections of key Livermore officials.”2 One of those Livermore scientists, Hugh DeWitt, told me that he and other scientists considered the X-ray laser to be “utter nonsense.”

The SDI episode is part of a continuing pattern in Teller’s career of misrepresenting scientific facts in order to get what he wanted. Unfortunately, Teller’s methods have been adopted by many younger scientists and officials in the national weapons industry, which is dependent on Congress for funding. The latest example of such deception is the proposal, by scientists and weapons analysts at Los Alamos and Livermore, of so-called “mininukes,” very low-yield nuclear weapons that can allegedly burrow into hardened bunkers and explode deep enough underground so that no significant radioactivity is released on the surface. Such hypothetically “clean” nuclear weapons could be used in a variety of tactical ways in civilian areas. However, an analysis by the Federation of Atomic Scientists suggests that these claims are impossible. Unable to burrow deep enough without destroying their own hardware, such weapons would throw up a massive crater of radioactive dirt and other radiation, lethally contaminating the surrounding environment.

The decisive responsibility for evaluating these claims lies with Congress. But too often in budget hearings legislators submissively defer to weapons scientists. In some ways, scientists at the national weapons laboratories, necessary as they are for national defense, should be viewed not as scientists but as salespeople, trying to sell their products. Accordingly, their claims should be carefully analyzed by independent scientists and organizations.

In 1962, Teller wrote, “In a dangerous world we cannot have peace unless we are strong.” Such a military credo is certainly defensible; but in the hands of Teller and others, it has led to exaggerated claims about the abilities of particular weapons; furthermore, it has been used to argue not just for “sufficient” military strength but also for maximum and superior strength, without any limitation of arms. As many analysts have pointed out, we could do much better in achieving security at manageable cost with a smaller force, sufficient to counter conceivable dangers, regulated under arms control agreements. By and large, the few arms agreements we have had with the former Soviet Union have been successful.

When one reads through Teller’s many statements and considers his consistent and inflexible opposition to arms control agreements despite drastic geopolitical changes, one suspects that his real interest lies not in sufficient military strength but in world supremacy. Such global dominance might protect the US militarily, but it would exclude Americans from citizenship in the world. It would exclude real cooperation with and understanding of other nations and cultures. Paradoxically, it may actually increase the likelihood of the kind of attack that happened on September 11, 2001.

At a reception for Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev at the White House on December 8, 1987, President Reagan introduced Teller to Gorbachev, saying “This is Dr. Teller.” When Teller reached out his hand, Gorbachev stood frozen and silent. Reagan then added: “This is the famous Dr. Teller.” Still without shaking hands, Gorbachev said: “There are many Tellers.” Indeed, there are.

  1. 1

    Selected portions of Teller’s testimony, and of the hearings themselves, have recently been published: see In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Security Clearance Hearing, edited by Richard Polenberg (Cornell University Press, 2002).

  2. 2

    Simon and Schuster, 1992, p. 91.