Review of Peter Goodchild, Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove (Harvard, 2004)
Although most people would prefer to forget it, ever since the atomic bombing of Japanese cities in August 1945 the world has lived on the brink of nuclear annihilation. And no individual played a more important role in fostering the nuclear arms race and its terrible dangers than Edward Teller, a Hungarian emigre physicist.
In "Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove," Peter Goodchild -- an award-winning television producer for the BBC and the author of a biography of Robert Oppenheimer -- provides a detailed, informative biography of Teller. Drawing upon interviews he conducted, manuscript materials, and secondary sources, Goodchild sketches a revealing portrait of this gifted and extraordinarily influential figure.
Although Teller was born into a relatively privileged, comfortable, Jewish professional family in
As Teller moved on to
With the Nazi rise to power, Teller left
He was also chagrined when his plans for work on the "Super" H-bomb were disrupted. For these setbacks, he blamed the director of the
With the end of the war, Teller -- deeply pessimistic about postwar relations with the
The two issues, reflecting his anxiety and his ambition, soon became intertwined, for Oppenheimer and his circle proved to be major obstacles to getting the
Nor was the creation of the H-bomb Teller's only victory over his putative enemies. In 1954, he teamed up with other foes of Oppenheimer (and of nuclear arms controls) to destroy his rival's career and influence. Oppenheimer had applied to the Atomic Energy Commission to reinstate his security clearance, and this triggered a dramatic, highly-publicized loyalty-security hearing. Although Teller's friends urged him not to testify, he rejected their advice. Thus, during the hearing, he asserted that, based on Oppenheimer's actions since 1945, he thought it vital for national security to deny clearance to him. This also turned out to be the decision of the board, which cut off Oppenheimer from government programs he had once directed and terminated his lingering influence upon them.
For Teller, it proved to be a pyrrhic victory. When the AEC surprised him by publishing the transcript of the loyalty-security hearing, many of Teller's scientific colleagues -- shocked by what they considered his betrayal of human decency -- cut him off as well. Teller was devastated by their response. As he recalled: "If a person leaves his country, leaves his continent, leaves his relatives, leaves his friends, the only people he knows are his professional colleagues. If more than ninety per cent of them come around to consider him an enemy, an outcast, it is bound to have an effect. The truth is it had a profound effect."
Teller, however, proceeded to make new friends, particularly within the ranks of the military-industrial complex, who appreciated the positions he had taken and recognized his utility as a champion of new nuclear weapons programs. And he proved to be a good investment. Urging Congress and the President to spurn the idea of a nuclear test ban treaty, Teller argued that "it would be a crime against the people" to stop nuclear testing when he and other weapons scientists stood on the brink of developing a "clean" bomb. "Peaceful nuclear explosions," he told President Dwight Eisenhower, could be used to uncover deposits of oil, alter the course of rivers, and "perhaps even modify the weather." Eisenhower was greatly impressed, and suggested that it might be a good idea to share the "clean"; bombs with the Russians, an idea that Teller, naturally, resisted. Under Teller's direction, his colleagues at
One of the zanier ventures promoted by Teller involved the use of H-bombs to blast out a deep-water harbor in northern
To implement its first component, Project Chariot, Teller flew off to
Teller's fierce faith in nuclear weapons became ever more evident in the 1960s and 1970s. He testified before Congress against the Partial Test Ban Treaty and also spoke out against it on television. In addition, he championed the development of an ABM system that would employ nuclear explosions to destroy incoming missiles, held an underground nuclear test at
Teller's plunge into extremism carried over into the debate over the hazards of nuclear power. When the near meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant occurred, releasing dangerous amounts of radioactivity, Teller reassured a congressional committee that, "zero is the number of proven cases of damage to health due to a nuclear plant in the free world." The day after his congressional appearance, Teller was hospitalized with a heart attack, and even this became grist for his propaganda mill. In July 1979, under a two-page headline in the Wall Street Journal reading "I WAS THE ONLY VICTIM OF THREE MILE ISLAND," there appeared a large photo of Teller, along with his explanation that the cause of his health problem "was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous." Goodchild then goes on to say: "An editorial in the New York Times accused Teller of propaganda... It then pointed out something Teller had not mentioned: that the sponsor of the advertisement, Dresser Industries, had manufactured the valve that had stuck open and started the emergency."
Although Teller had substantial influence on U.S. public policy through the 1970s -- fostering the H-bomb during the Truman years, purging Oppenheimer and sabotaging a test ban treaty during the Eisenhower years, excluding underground nuclear testing from the test ban treaty during the Kennedy years, securing the deployment of an ABM system during the Johnson years, and keeping the U.S. government busily engaged in the nuclear arms race during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter years -- he came into his own after the 1980 election victory of Ronald Reagan. Teller arranged for the appointment of a protÃ©gÃ© of his as the president's Science Advisor, became a member of the White House Science Council, met with the president at the White House on nuclear issues, and did as much as any other individual to convince him that the creation of a Star Wars anti-missile system was vital to the national defense. The Russians, Teller told Reagan, were about to deploy "powerful directed energy weapons" in space, thus enabling them to "militarily dominate both space and the earth, conclusively altering the world balance of power." Thus, "urgent action" was needed to build an anti-missile system that would be powered by nuclear weapons explosions and could be deployed within a few years.
As is well-known, Reagan swallowed this anti-missile proposal hook, line, and sinker though, in fact, Teller's claims for it had little relation to reality. Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, was more dubious about the project, but he did approve a modified version, Brilliant Pebbles, also championed by Teller. Republicans in Congress also rallied behind the idea of missile defense, and during the Bill Clinton years -- used their newfound strength in that legislative body to keep the project alive and the appropriations flowing to
Overall, Goodchild's book provides a fascinating, well-researched, and at times sympathetic study of an extraordinary individual. Unfortunately, though, the author has a much better grasp of Teller's life than he does of his times. Thus, he makes some glaring historical mistakes. Among them are the claims that, before Japanese surrender, the
Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is "Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present" (Stanford University Press, 2003).