Radioactive memories

World War II shaped America's most controversial scientist

Edward Teller - widely known as the "father" of the American hydrogen bomb - has been a controversial guy. To his detractors, he represents the archetypal Dr. Strangelove, with an unnatural passion for nuclear weapons and "star wars" antimissile systems. His fans see a champion of US national defense who punctures arms-control hype.

Forget those stereotypes. Dr. Teller's best critic is Teller himself. He long ago warned us to take his defense policy advocacy with a grain of salt. Its wisdom has been colored by a passionate determination to ensure that what Nazis and Communists did to his native Hungary will not happen to America. Now, he has given us the whole salt shaker in this fascinating, introspective memoir.

Teller's account of growing up in a culture that was rough on Jews, of surviving hardships after the arbitrary partition of Hungary after World War I, and of losing friends and family to Nazi and Communist oppression explains his passion to protect the freedom he found in the United States. Those challenges stiffened his backbone when his vision of an adequate defense clashed with what many arms-control-oriented colleagues considered appropriate. Add to that his self-confessed penchant for speaking bluntly, and it's understandable that the heated policy debates that ensued turned even some of his friends into adversaries.

Teller regrets the acrimony, but makes no apology for his convictions. Cherished colleagues felt the destructiveness of a hydrogen bomb made it "an evil thing considered in any light," to quote a report of atomic scientists who opposed the weapon. How would you answer Teller's counter-question: Would it have been better for humanity if the United States had held back while the Soviet Union proceeded?

The case of J. Robert Oppenheimer is different. Oppenheimer, the brilliant World War II leader of the Los Alamos atomic bomb lab, was challenged as a security risk in the mid-1950s. Old communist associations were revisited, even though the government had overlooked them during the war. More important, opponents to Oppenheimer's positions on weapons policy claimed that he gave dangerously bad advice.

Hearings were held to decide whether to continue Oppenheimer's security clearance. Teller was a key witness. He testified that he had no doubt about Oppenheimer's loyalty, but was ambivalent as to the trustworthiness of Oppenheimer's advice. When Oppenheimer's clearance was revoked, many American physicists blamed Teller. He felt ostracized for a time by his own scientific community, and some of his colleagues from those days may have yet to fully forgive him. It's obvious from Teller's retrospective account that he still feels the pain of that episode and has yet to make peace with it himself.

There's much more to this memoir than policy battles. In the 1930s, Teller studied at the feet of the creators of modern quantum mechanics. His vignettes of those scientists are delightful. He worked under Heisenberg, one of the greatest physicists. The question of whether Heisenberg supported the Nazi atom bomb project or just gave lip service and dragged his feet lingers. Teller says that, given his knowledge of the man, he can't believe Heisenberg would have willingly served Hitler. But he admits that is speculation.

The memoir also gives vignettes of Teller the family man, Teller the musician - never far from his piano - and Teller the wannabe academic research scientist. He shares some of the enthusiasm of being caught up in the creation of quantum physics - his "most satisfying years." He laments that he couldn't get back into the game after the war. Whenever he tried to settle down to an academic career, he was pulled back into the world of weapons-making and research administration. While he became an outstanding scientist, he never achieved scientific greatness.

Teller has done posterity an invaluable service in publishing his memoirs. Objective historians and living participants in the recorded events may pick bones with them. But there is one assertion I think we can take at face value. Teller says that, while he could sometimes have been more gracious, he always tried to speak his mind honestly even when it made him unpopular with friends. It's hard to hate a guy like that.

Robert C. Cowen writes about science for the Monitor.

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