Truth Teller

by John J. Miller on April 20, 2010

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

September 30, 2002



The famous eyebrows are as bushy as they’ve ever been, though they’ve lost their color. The hair has turned white, too, and it’s thinning. The eyes no longer see, except to tell the difference between day and night. Yet Edward Teller, perhaps the most politically important scientist of the 20th century, still possesses a sharp and curious mind. He dictates responses to e-mails, travels to his office twice a week, and stays on top of current events. Late last year, he published Memoirs, a 628-page brick of a book that is at once lively and profound; the paperback comes out this October. It chronicles a remarkable life, and includes everything from a description of meeting the legendary physicist Niels Bohr to advice on how we might one day stop gigantic meteors from smashing into the earth.

When I visited the 94-year-old Teller at his home on the campus of Stanford University, on August 26, the scheduled topic of our conversation was missile defense. The so-called “father of the H-bomb” might also be called the grandfather of missile defense–a longtime supporter of anti-ballistic technology who introduced Ronald Reagan to the concept more than 15 years before there was a Strategic Defense Initiative.

This ought to be a moment of great satisfaction for Teller, who now has both outlived the ABM Treaty and watched the Bush administration proceed with its full-steam-ahead program to develop the capability to shoot down enemy rockets and warheads. Teller is pleased by these recent developments, and he’s happy to say so.

But something besides missile defense is on his mind the day of our meeting, and he’s itching to discuss it: cloning. He recently finished reading a book on it–or rather, he recently finished having it read to him. “I’m not sure I have a definite opinion about cloning yet,” he says in his thick Hungarian accent. “Research on animal cloning should be very strongly pushed.” He’s less certain about human cloning, but quite open to the possibility of it. We go on for a few minutes before I can resist no longer: “Dr. Teller, would you like to clone yourself?” He replies quickly, as if he’s already given it some thought. “My preliminary answer is yes, even though I probably won’t live long enough,” he says. “I remember my early interest in mathematics. I would like to discuss mathematics with my clone and see if I could arouse his enthusiasm.”

Now there’s a thought sure to strike fear into American leftists: the cloning of Edward Teller. The first version, in their view, was bad enough–the very incarnation of Dr. Strangelove, a one-man axis of lunacy. Indeed, Teller was among the most polarizing figures of the Cold War. He not only conceived of the H-bomb, but also made its construction possible through relentless goading against arms-control liberals in the scientific community and the political establishment. He fought for the creation of a second federal weapons lab, and then saw it built in Livermore, Calif. He freelanced as an advocate-at-large for nuclear power in all its forms. And this is to say nothing about his substantial role in advancing missile defense. “I really do feel it would have been a better world without Teller,” physicist Isidor Rabi, a Nobel laureate, once said. “I think he is an enemy of humanity.”

He certainly has been an enemy–of Communism. This may be his most unforgivable sin in the minds of obsessive anti-anti-Communists. Born in Budapest in 1908, Teller went to Leipzig for his Ph.D. in theoretical physics. The rise of Hitler convinced him that Germany was no place for a Jew, so he took a job at George Washington University in 1935. “As late as 1937,” writes Teller in Memoirs, “I believed that the experiment in Russia might be the answer to that nation’s political and economic problems.” It wasn’t until he read Darkness at Noon, by fellow Hungarian Arthur Koestler, that he awoke from this naivete and felt he finally knew the truth about Communism.

By then Teller’s scientific brilliance had started to attract attention, and in 1941 he became one of the first physicists recruited to join the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. As he worked to build an atomic bomb, however, he found his mind constantly racing ahead toward an even more ambitious project: the hydrogen bomb, a thousand times more powerful than the weapon the United States would drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The H-bomb was a far-off concept, and many scientists believed that it violated the laws of physics. With the end of World War II, moreover, there was no overpowering sense of urgency to try to develop a real one–except in the mind of Teller, who lobbied relentlessly on its behalf. Then in 1949, a U.S. Air Force plane detected an unusual amount of radiation in the atmosphere over the Far East. There could be only one explanation: The Soviet Union had detonated its first atomic device, several years sooner than even the wariest person had thought possible. The explosion prompted President Truman to order work to begin on the H-bomb. In less than three years, the U.S. added this massively powerful weapon to its arsenal, thanks in great part to the intellectual contributions and political legwork of Teller.

One of the people who opposed Truman’s decision to build the H-bomb was Robert Oppenheimer, the former director of the Manhattan Project. For years, “Oppie” had fallen under scrutiny for his left-wing political sympathies, but he had always managed to deflect suspicions that he wasn’t loyal to his country. In 1954, however, the Atomic Energy Commission was concerned enough to convene hearings on Oppenheimer’s security clearance. During these proceedings, it came out that Oppenheimer had lied several years earlier to federal investigators about his contacts with known Communists, which had been extensive.

These revelations were probably enough to guarantee that Oppenheimer’s clearance would be yanked. Yet it was Teller who delivered the mortal blow. When the committee’s chairman asked Teller whether he thought Oppenheimer deserved clearance, Teller replied that he did not believe his old colleague would knowingly do anything to hurt his country. Then he added, “If it is a question of wisdom and judgment, as demonstrated by actions since 1945, then I would say one would be wiser not to grant clearance.”

Those words also changed Teller’s own life. When Teller returned to Los Alamos, he was surprised and distressed to learn that many of his friends and coworkers would not even shake his hand–they considered him an accomplice to a new Red Scare that had just defrocked a great man who had done an enormous service to his country. In their view, Teller was exacting revenge for Oppenheimer’s views on the H-bomb.

In Memoirs, Teller defends much of his testimony but also expresses regret for saying that Oppenheimer didn’t deserve clearance: “I proved not only that stupidity is a general human property but that I possessed a full share of it.” This is a curious admission, because, if anything, Teller’s central claim about Oppenheimer’s poor judgment has grown more convincing over time.

Fresh evidence reveals that Teller’s concerns about Oppenheimer were in fact justified. A pair of new books, Brotherhood of the Bomb by Gregg Herken and Sacred Secrets by Jerrold and Leona Schecter, reveal that Oppenheimer was a secret member of the Communist party as late as 1942. “The evidence is getting heavier that he cooperated with Soviet intelligence to some extent,” says John Earl Haynes, a historian who specializes in the American Communist movement. This is not to say Oppenheimer was a spy in the familiar sense of the word–that is, a direct source of information for Soviet agents, which is what KGB general Pavel Sudoplatov alleged in 1994. Yet he does appear to have been a facilitator of espionage who was aware of subordinates who did spy for the Soviets. He also seems to have changed his mind about all this in 1943, when he apparently abandoned his Communist party membership and provided a few names to American security officials – though the information he volunteered was minimal.

Teller doesn’t include these details in Memoirs, which is odd because they vindicate much of his testimony. “He had a big problem with Sudoplatov’s allegations,” says Judith Shoolery, Teller’s longtime assistant. In addition to fingering Oppenheimer, the Russian also named Enrico Fermi as a source of Soviet intelligence. Teller thought the allegation preposterous, and denounced Sudoplatov in the Wall Street Journal. Others, however, have not shared Teller’s reluctance to press charges against Oppenheimer. In their 2000 book The Venona Secrets, Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel concluded that “Oppenheimer did in fact knowingly supply classified information on the atom bomb to the Soviet Union.”

Among scientists, the Oppenheimer hearings inspired a fierce and irrational hatred of military projects in general and Teller in particular. “What happened over the Oppenheimer case not only polarized the scientific community but also brought about the situation that at least ninety percent of the scientists and probably more consider it immoral to cooperate in any way with the military. Our present military weakness goes back to those days,” remarked Teller in 1983. Reviewing Memoirs for the New York Times, Richard Rhodes even found a way to blame Teller for the events of September 11: “It remains to be determined how much responsibility the missile-defense mandarins bear for the nation’s lack of protection against terrorist attacks, how much their glamorous and expensive high-tech visions distracted our leaders from practical home defenses.”

This was Teller’s final offense: pushing for missile defense, and helping create the conditions for its present success and hopeful future. Teller actually started thinking about missile defense as early as 1945, when he authored a report for the Navy. “It has been often said that no defense against the atomic bomb is possible,” he wrote. “I do not agree with this statement if taken too literally.” He believed that offensive capabilities would outstrip defensive ones, but still imagined situations in which defensive missiles would be usefully deployed.

Teller wouldn’t return to the subject for many years–“I was busy,” he deadpans in our interview–but by the mid 1960s he was again involved in missile defense. Soon after Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, in 1966, Teller invited him to visit the weapons lab at Livermore. Reagan accepted, and on November 22, 1967, he made the trip–and received, during a two-hour presentation, what must have been his first exposure to the serious idea of missile defense. “What we told the governor was not simple, but he listened carefully and asked perhaps a dozen salient questions. Those questions made two points clear: The topic was quite new to the governor, and he understood the essence and importance of what we were discussing,” wrote Teller in Memoirs. “When the briefing was finished, I knew that Reagan had listened; I believed that he understood; but I had no idea whether he approved of the work or not.”

He wouldn’t know for many years. Soon after Reagan became president, Teller began to press the administration to embrace the missile-defense cause. Initially, he was frustrated by its apparent refusal. In the summer of 1982, he lodged a complaint with NR‘s William F. Buckley Jr. on Firing Line: “From the time that President Reagan has been nominated, I have not had a single occasion to talk to him.” Reagan himself apparently saw the program–and Teller had his meeting less than two months later. It didn’t go well, or at least it didn’t seem to at the time. Teller made a short presentation on strategic defense, but felt that Reagan’s staff undercut him with questions and concerns.

Teller’s mood was bleak, but he didn’t give up. He worked with the White House Science Council to produce a report on the technical prospects of missile defense, which was completed in January 1983. That March, Teller received a phone call asking him to attend a dinner at the White House. He canceled his appointments and rushed to Washington for a meal with Reagan and other leading scientists shortly before the president went on national television to announce the Strategic Defense Initiative. “I remember being surprised by the speech because Reagan finally was explicit on the topic after being silent and never giving any indication on it,” recalls Teller.

Over the next several years, Teller threw himself into technical debates over how best to build a missile-defense system. His identification with SDI was so complete, in fact, that many of his old foes allowed it to color their views of this new project. In 1987, he attended a White House dinner in honor of the Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife. Teller was one of the last to march through the receiving line, and Reagan introduced the scientist to the Soviet leader. “I put my hand out to shake hands, but Gorbachev stood unmoving and silent,” writes Teller. It was a familiar spectacle, though it startled and upset the old Hungarian.

Teller doesn’t participate in high-level missile-defense confabs anymore, but he stays abreast of developments. “Missile defense is difficult, necessary, and possible,” he says. “The ABM Treaty was not useful, and President Bush had a good excuse to get out of it.” He scoffs at the suggestion that missile defense is an unwise distraction during the age of terrorism. “That’s an entirely different question,” he says, with some irritation. “Missile defense is for national survival, and it’s more important than defense against terrorism.” He goes on to advocate boost-phase intercepts–in other words, developing the ability to strike enemy missiles shortly after they’re launched. “Whether it would work against a powerful and determined opponent, I don’t know,” he says. “Today it’s the right way to go. I do not see any opponent powerful enough to be effective against a strong determination on our part.”

At the conclusion of our interview, Teller summons an assistant to resume reading the book they were enjoying before my arrival: Roy Jenkins’s recent biography of Winston Churchill. (“I like it,” says Teller. “There are so many things I had forgotten, though I dislike many of the details about with whom Churchill had coffee.”)

I leave the old man where I found him: lying back in a blue recliner, resting his head on a pillow and keeping warm under a blanket. His body may be immobilized, but his mind continues to churn. I can’t help thinking that if we have to clone somebody, Edward Teller might be just the guy.

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