The Father of the H-Bomb Tells His Story

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

have now read several reviews of the autobiography of Edward Teller, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics. The reviewers appear to be not only negative but also mean-spirited. For example, Jeremy Bernstein in the Washington Times even belittles Teller’s many contributions to modern physics. (Perhaps he resents the fact that he never heard from Teller again after a job interview in 1952.)

Born in pre–World War I Budapest in 1908, Teller not only witnessed the development of quantum theory but also the rise and fall of the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union. He developed a great liking for modern physics and an intense dislike for communism. Now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, his life has been dominated by science and politics. In the process, he has championed what a review in Science terms as "unpopular" causes: a promoter and inventor of the hydrogen bomb, an opponent of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and, most recently, a champion of the Strategic Defense Initiative against ballistic missiles ("Star Wars").

But by labeling these causes as unpopular, the reviewer clearly betrays his own bias. Just why should an H-bomb based on the principle of nuclear fusion of hydrogen be any less popular than the nuclear fission bombs based on enriched uranium and plutonium that won the war against Japan? In fact, had Teller not pushed for the development of the H-bomb, we would have had no reply when the Soviets—benefiting from the information from British spy Klaus Fuchs, who had worked at Los Alamos—exploded the first one. Fortunately, we were able to respond to the Soviet challenge within a few months, thanks to Teller. If we had followed the path of the opponents of H-bomb development, including Los Alamos director J. Robert Oppenheimer, we would have been naked and the Cold War standoff—based as it was on rough equality of weapons capability—might have ended with a defeat for the United States.

In fact, it was the U.S. plan to develop Star Wars during the Reagan administration—again promoted by Teller—that finally led the USSR to throw in the towel and thus won the Cold War. Our country owes a huge debt to Edward Teller.

Instead, we find unfriendly reviewers nitpicking about how much of the credit for H-bomb technology should go to his Los Alamos coworker Stan Ulam. Frankly, I don’t care how much credit Ulam or Richard Garwin or others get for neat technical solutions. It was Teller who single-handedly pushed the nation into developing the weapon, allowing us to close the gap with the Soviets.

But it was the Oppenheimer case that really split the scientific community and caused the resentment against Teller that is only now beginning to heal. In 1954, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission removed Oppenheimer’s security clearance and, effectively, ended his association with atomic weapons work. Teller’s testimony may have been crucial in the AEC decision. In any case, he got the blame.

I remember those days well. Like many other young physicists, I supported Oppie. We were influenced by our disgust with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunts and imagined that this was just another example. We didn’t know, of course, that Oppenheimer had lied to army security officials about being contacted in 1943 to spy for the Russians, a fact he admitted only much later. Teller learned of it just before giving his testimony.

But Oppenheimer, who had moved to Princeton and was one of the examiners at my Ph.D. oral exam, had always been disdainful of military security despite Klaus Fuchs and other spies working at Los Alamos while he was director. Teller, by contrast, was shocked by this attitude. As the reviewer in Science relates: "Their conflict escalated, fueled in part by two wildly different personalities but also by their antipodal political views. Oppenheimer was a committed left-winger whose relatives and friends were members of the Communist Party; Teller a stalwart anticommunist."

But even an unfriendly reviewer had to admit that Teller "was, quite simply, the most politically influential scientist of the 20th century."