Edward Teller: A Personal Remembrance

Friday, January 30, 2004

My first conversation with Edward Teller was about Albert Einstein, in whose home I had spent an unforgettable evening in 1948. Dr. Teller then told me how he had met the famous professor in August 1939, when he accompanied his friend and fellow scientist Leo Szilard to see Einstein at his summer home on Long Island. It was on this occasion that Szilard produced the historic letter alerting President Roosevelt to the possibility of a fission weapon and the need for “quick action” to provide funds to the group of physicists working on chain reaction in America. Einstein signed the letter, and within a few weeks Roosevelt acted.

I didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of a warm and valued friendship that lasted until Edward died in his home at the age of 95. Before he became seriously ill and spent his last years in a reclining chair listening to Beethoven or Wagner (he loved music), I would visit him maybe two or three times a week in his office at the Hoover Institution to talk about whatever was on his mind. Frequently he would phone me in my office and say, “Can you come up? I want to talk politics.” That usually meant he had a specific issue he wanted to discuss or, if an election was close at hand, a candidate he liked or disliked. He was a Republican and knew that I had taught American politics and was a Democrat, which in our many conversations became for both of us a source of enjoyment and great fun.

Edward had strong opinions about almost everything. His resonant Hungarian accent added to his ability to sound virtually oracular when he spoke, which I often kidded him about. “Do you know the difference between God and Dr. Teller?” I asked him once. “No,” he said. “God doesn’t think He’s Dr. Teller,” I replied. He laughed out loud and then quickly said, “God is right.”

One day he asked me to come up because, he said, he had to make an important decision and wanted my advice. Leaders in the California Republican Party, he told me, had talked to him about running against then-senator Alan Cranston in the next election. “What do you think?” he asked. I said it was the craziest idea I’d heard in a long time.

“Why do you say that?”

I told him that he would make a terrible candidate, that he wouldn’t like or have the patience for hardball politics, and that the Republicans knew they couldn’t beat Alan Cranston and were just using him. “Are you seriously thinking about this?” He said he hadn’t made up his mind. Had he considered, I asked, that he would no longer have a private life and that he would have to disclose all his financial holdings and everything else the press would want to know? “It’s none of their business,” he replied. “Horsefeathers,” I said. I asked him if he could picture himself standing on the back of a truck talking to farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley. “What would you talk to them about?”

“Science,” he said.

“They’ll be spellbound.” Maybe he’s just having some fun with me, I thought. Two nights later he called me at home to say he had declined the invitation to run. I doubt I had anything to do with his decision.

The Edward Teller I came to know was a rich mixture of many qualities. He was a man of science; it was his life and passion. Although strongly opinionated (“frequently wrong but never in doubt” I would good-naturedly tell him), he was always respectful of the facts when they were presented to him thoughtfully, even when they were “inconvenient.” The severe-looking man we often saw on television or portrayed in the press was not the kind and gentle person I was privileged to talk and laugh with. “What shall we discuss today?” he would ask as I sat down next to him in his living room when I came to visit each week. In recent years he had suffered several strokes and heart attacks and had endured major operations. His hearing was seriously impaired, and he could no longer read because he had lost his eyesight. His mind, however, remained sharp and active. His dementia made it difficult for him to remember much of what happened yesterday, but he could recall in considerable detail what had occurred 50 years ago.

His hands would shake involuntarily when he spoke, and he frequently had difficulty finding the right words. I had learned to lean close to understand him.

“May I tell you some things about Robert Oppenheimer that are not in my book (his Memoirs) and which you must treat in confidence?” he asked me one day. I listened intently for 15 minutes or so as he described the man he knew as “Oppie”—his great wartime leadership skills (which Teller admired) but also weaknesses and vulnerabilities Teller chose not to write about, including Oppenheimer’s political activities and associations with left-wing (and sometimes communist) causes in various stages of his life. On another occasion (after I had seen the play Copenhagen), he proceeded to tell me what he believed Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr had talked about in their famous secret meeting during the war (he had, of course, known both men very well). He had strong views about the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, whom he also admired but with whom he disagreed about President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. His reflections on so many of the men and women he had known provided a remarkable window on some of the major events of the twentieth century in which he had played a significant role.

In the summer of 2002, Edward became interested in the subject of human cloning, a subject (by his own admission) he knew very little about and which would soon become almost an obsession. I brought him articles representing all sides of the debate that were read to him and which he and I would discuss for weeks on end. Not surprisingly, he opposed as a scientist any restrictions on stem or embryonic cell research whose findings might be applied to animal and human cloning. When I told him President Bush had taken a firm position against any attempt to improve or “perfect” the human mind and body by “man playing God” through the biotechnology of cloning, he said I was trying to turn him into a Democrat. Would he like to be cloned himself, I asked? He took a long time to answer. “Yes,” he said. “But not now. Our knowledge is insufficient. But I believe human cloning will be possible in 10 or 20 years. Then ask me again.”

A month or so before Edward died, I received a phone call from a retired FBI agent who had been contracted to do a security check on Dr. Edward Teller and wanted to know if I would be willing to answer a few questions. Incredulous, I asked if this was a joke. He explained that back at headquarters in Washington the clerk in charge had never heard of Edward Teller and that therefore the required “field check” had been assigned to him in San Francisco. He knew who Dr. Teller was, he assured me, and could understand my disbelief. He began by asking me, very apologetically, if I could testify to Dr. Teller’s patriotism. “He should be arrested immediately,” I said. “He’s almost 96, he can’t hear or see, and lives in a wheelchair, a perfect cover for his work as a spy.” When I told Edward about this the next day, he smiled. “I prefer to think of myself as a dangerous mole,” he said, relishing the thought.

Some of my fondest memories are of when we talked quietly and easily about more personal things. Edward was not a religious man, and his idea of God (which he had absorbed as a child) was that it would be wonderful if He existed but that He hadn’t been seen in thousands of years. I asked him what he would say to God if he ever met him. He thought for a long moment. “I would ask him where He had been when the world He created needed His attention,” he replied. Did he believe there was someone beyond the universe who created it? “Not to my knowledge,” he said, pointing out that knowledge comes from scientific research, which could not answer that question. He could not prove there is no God, but he knew of no alternative theory he found persuasive. “Look,” he said (he often began a thought this way), “I don’t like to talk about things I don’t fully understand, and I have no way of understanding the unknown.”

He faced the reality of death as he faced life, knowing only that whatever the future might be, it lay straight ahead. I told him Woody Allen once said that he wasn’t afraid of dying—he just didn’t want to be there when it happened. Edward didn’t know who Woody Allen was, but he smiled in agreement. Like his wife, Mici, he wanted to be cremated. Two days before he died he suffered a massive stroke. When his doctor tried to get him to go to the hospital, Edward refused, as he always said he would. He fell into a coma and died peacefully at home.

In the final weeks of his life I sensed that he was growing weaker and that we might not have many more times together. He slept through most of our last visit. When I got up to go, he awakened, squeezed my hand, and (as he always did) said, “Come back soon—the sooner the better.”