Edward Teller: the Real Doctor Strangelove, by Peter Goodchild

Reviewed by
Colin Hughes


The Real Edward Teller?

As someone who worked on the development of the first British atomic bomb, on early ideas for a thermonuclear weapon, and on nuclear reactors for research and power production from 1949 through 1964, I have always been gripped by stories of the early nuclear pioneers in the United States: Hans Bethe, Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller and John von Neumann, among them. But I must confess I turned to Peter Goodchild’s biography of Edward Teller with reservations, even before I opened the cover. It was the subtitle that put me off: The Real Dr Strangelove. No question mark. No doubt about it. Teller is the real Dr Strangelove. Or is he?

It seems strange that a work that purports to show us ‘one of the most powerful scientists of the twentieth century in all his enigmatic humility,’ and succeeds in doing so in many places, should begin by comparing him with a fictional character who appears in an admittedly brilliant, highly satirical, and hugely funny film, for a brief six minutes forty seconds. Kubrick’s film, Dr Strangelove (1965), tells the story of a US Air Force Commander, Jack D Ripper, who, convinced that the Commies are contaminating his bodily fluids, orders a nuclear strike on Russia. He seals off his base and cuts all communications. There is, it seems, no way of calling the aircraft back. The President gathers his advisors around him in the war room to deal with the crisis. His advisors include Air Force General Buck Turgidson, and a scientist, Dr Strangelove, a ‘Kraut’, confined to a wheelchair, whose right arm, as the tension mounts, involuntarily rises to a Nazi salute, and he addresses the President as ‘Mein Fuhrer’. He is a ‘mad scientist’ in the Frankenstein mould. In the introduction to his book, Goodchild considers a number of candidates for the most likely inspiration behind the character. Edward Teller, he says, was Hungarian, but spent nearly a decade studying at German universities. Unlike the others, he had an obvious disability, he was ‘father’ of the H-bomb as well as a nuclear strategist who had both advised and opposed presidents. And, he adds, Teller’s life ‘can be seen as a rich variation on the theme of manic obsession, which lies at the heart of Kubrick’s film and was personalized in the character of Dr Strangelove.’

This is not good enough. Teller hated Nazis and Communists. His disability, though noticeable when he walked – he lost his foot in an accident and wore a prosthesis – was quite minor compared to that of Strangelove, and although manic obsession is a theme of Kubrick’s film it is evidenced much more in the characters of Jack D Ripper and General Turgidson, and certainly for longer periods of time, than in the mad scientist. Nor would Teller have reacted with such uncontrolled passion when advising a president: even his detractors praised the charm and diffident manner which won him many favors in the political arena. After putting forward points in favor of Teller as Dr Strangelove, Goodchild backs off. ‘I have highlighted those elements that create a match with Kubrick’s fictional obsessive,’ he writes, ‘but there are many other elements in Edward Teller’s life that complicate, confuse and even confound this picture.’ And he ends the introduction rather lamely by saying that he hopes the book will provide a better understanding of one of the most powerful scientists of the twentieth century – a real Dr Strangelove.’

I have dealt with this topic at some length because it is symptomatic of the way in which the author himself sometimes complicates and confuses the issues. It would have been best if he kept things simple. His grasp of nuclear physics is shaky, and his occasional attempts to explain the science behind nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons are not only unnecessary in a biography but unwise. In describing the role of the moderator in slowing down neutrons in a nuclear reactor he confuses absorption, which is to be avoided, with elastic scattering, which is the prime requirement. A reactor built on his lines would simply not work.

Teller died less than two years ago. He will be remembered not for his contribution to the wartime fission bombs – he made important calculations on the compression of plutonium but refused to oversee the follow-up work – but for his unforgivable testimony against Oppenheimer in the security hearings in 1954; his uncompromising promotion of full-scale development of thermonuclear weapons; his opposition to attempts to contain the nuclear arms race; and his advocacy of the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”).

These issues have been aired and debated at length in previous books, but Goodchild makes use of material which has only recently become available: Teller’s Memoirs, published in 2001 when Teller was 93 years old, and his letters to his fellow scientist and confidante, Maria Gopperts Mayer. While the memoirs are largely self-justifying, they do provide a remarkable account of his early years in Hungary and Germany and do much to explain his later fears and obsessions. His letters to Mayer reveal the state of Teller’s mind at critical moments in his life in America. ‘I am really convinced that whoever is really nice to me must be crazy...,’ he wrote to her in 1946, when on the point of leaving Los Alamos for the University of Chicago.

Edward Teller was born in Budapest in 1908, the son of a prosperous Jewish lawyer, and brought up at a time of great political unrest and violence. With the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Hungary became an independent state and was for a brief period in 1919 a communist republic under Bela Kun which was quickly overthrown and replaced by an oppressive fascist regime, headed by Admiral Horthy. As members of the bourgeoisie, the Teller family suffered severe deprivation under the Kun regime, Edward’s father no longer being allowed to practice law. As Jews, they found themselves ostracized under the rule of Horthy. In 1920, Horthy restricted the admission of Jews to the universities and in order to study science, Edward Teller left ‘this doomed society’ in 1926 to enter the Technical Institute at Karlsruhe. He studied chemistry for two years but then went to Leipzig where, under the supervision of Heisenberg, he took his PhD in physics in 1930. He ended his student days a year later when he was appointed Assistant Professor at Göttingen at the age of just twenty-three

This world came to end in 1933 when Hitler rose to power in Germany and Nazi propaganda was directed against Jewish scientists. With aid from the British scientific community, Teller was given a base in London which allowed him take up a Rockefeller Grant to study for a year under Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. In 1934, he left London to take up a full professorship at George Washington University in Washington DC offered to him by an old friend George Gamov. He was now financially secure and entering a ‘wonderful quiet period’ in his life. In 1940, when German troops were moving across Europe, and both America and Britain were exploring the feasibility of atomic bombs based on nuclear fission, Teller felt an obligation ‘to do whatever I could’ to protect the freedom of his adopted country. In 1941 he moved to the University of Columbia in New York to join Fermi and Szilard in their work on an embryonic uranium reactor.

On December 6, one day before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States embarked on a crash program to develop an atomic bomb. The task of coordinating uranium research at the universities of Columbia, Princeton, Chicago and California, was given to Arthur Compton, chairman of the physics department at Chicago. He decided that scientists under his supervision at Columbia and Princeton should be transferred to the euphemistically named Metallurgical Laboratory at Chicago. Fermi moved in at the end of April 1942 and the construction of a nuclear reactor (Chicago Pile 1) began. Teller was left behind, because, he was told, the theoretical problems of nuclear reactions had already been solved, but the real reason was a delay in securing clearance for secret work. Two months later he was called to Chicago, though no role had been assigned to him. While at Columbia, Fermi had raised with him the question of whether a fission bomb might be used to produce a thermonuclear reaction using deuterium as a fuel, and with no other task assigned to him at Chicago, Teller began to explore the possibilities of designing such a thermonuclear weapon, often referred to as a Super, or an H-bomb. It became an obsession.

In early 1943 a new research laboratory under the supervision of Robert Oppenheimer was built at Los Alamos, New Mexico to work on the actual design of the atomic bomb. Teller moved there in April confident that he was the best person to direct the theoretical division, but his hopes were soon dashed. Oppenheimer appointed instead Teller’s friend Hans Bethe to head the division with Teller as one of his team. Teller was deeply hurt and never fully cooperated in the development of the fission bomb. He was taken off the work and given a small team to look at theoretical aspects of his pet project, the Super, which by then had been relegated to a distant second place behind the work on fission in the allocation of resources. Bette had no alternative. ‘Teller,’ he said later, ‘wanted to see the project run like a theoretical physics seminar and spent a great deal of time talking and very little time doing solid work on the main line of the Laboratory.’ The ‘solid work’ at the Laboratory led to the successful development of two different types of atomic weapons: a U-235 bomb called Little Boy and a plutonium bomb called Fat Man.

On August 6 1945 a uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; three days later a plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered. Within a month, half the staff of Los Alamos had dispersed. Oppenheimer resumed his academic career in California but in 1947 became director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. When the Atomic Energy Commission took over the task of running the nuclear programs from the military in 1947, Oppenheimer became part-time chairman of its General Advisory Council. Bethe returned to Cornell. Norris Bradbury took over from Oppenheimer as director of Los Alamos and tried to stem the loss of senior staff. Teller was invited to stay as director of a much reduced theoretical division but demanded as a condition that the Laboratory should mount a large scale program to develop the Super or plan twelve tests a year on fission bombs. Given the staff and resources available the demand was quite unrealistic and Teller returned to a chair of physics at Chicago. Convinced that Russia was now a threat to America, he continued to urge the need for a Super and made periodical visits to Los Alamos, as consultant, with suggestions for a possible design, called the ‘classical Super’. In the early summer of 1949 Teller was persuaded to return to Los Alamos full-time. Bethe also returned. The first Soviet atomic bomb was exploded on August 29 and, after frantic discussions on how to respond, President Truman authorized preparations for the quantity production of thermonuclear weapons. This was a victory for Teller and for the equally committed Ernest Lawrence and Luis Alvarez of Berkeley, who had lobbied vigorously for it in Washington.

Despite Truman’s words, there was no thermonuclear weapon to produce. Calculations showed that Teller’s classical Super was far from promising. Stanislaw Ulam suggested a possible solution using a primary fission bomb to compress thermonuclear materials in a secondary assembly. Teller took it up and turned it into what became known as the Teller-Ulam experiment. The configuration is still secret and the exact contributions of Ulam and Teller may never be revealed. Teller was reluctant to share the credit although he did later acknowledge that it was the work of many people. An experimental version of the Teller-Ulam configuration (Mike) was successfully exploded on November 1 1952 and a deliverable version (Bravo) on March 1 1954. The yield of Bravo was nearly 15 megatons, more than 1,000 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. The Soviet exploded a low yield thermonuclear weapon on August 12 1953, and a second with a yield well in the megaton range on November 23 1955. A thermonuclear arms race had begun.

But even before the Mike shot, Teller had left Los Alamos, again falling out with top managers over the direction of the program. He lobbied for the establishment of a second weapons laboratory and was allowed to brief the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. He succeeded in overcoming opposition from the AEC and in September 1952 a new Laboratory opened at Livermore in California, with Teller on the Scientific Steering Committee, but with no formal management authority. After a unpromising start – its first tests were a failure - Livermore contributed greatly to weapon development.

All this is well covered by Goodchild, but the book really comes to life with the “Star Wars” program. Buoyed up by his successes in Washington, Teller turned from active science to politics. He had learned that direct access to Presidential advisors was far more effective than using formal channels. He also knew that extravagant promises and wildly optimistic timescales gained support for his cause. Believing that Russians could not be trusted he bitterly opposed the nuclear test moratorium of 1958-1961 – to the chagrin of Eisenhower, who came to regard Teller as a high-pressure super salesman. Teller also did much to secure the failure of the 1963 Test Ban Treaty. It was with Ronald Reagan that he had his greatest success. Livermore had been experimenting with X-Ray lasers with the power to knock out incoming Soviet ballistic missiles. Teller sold the idea to a receptive Reagan as a means of obtaining ‘assured survival’ though his descriptions of its capability were well ahead of anything being thought of at Livermore. On March 23 1982 the President announced the Strategic Defense Initiative – SDI or “Star Wars” But the X-Ray laser program was plagued with difficulties and promising trials were shown to be flawed. Undeterred, Teller came up with another entirely different system ‘Brilliant Pebbles’ which was backed by Reagan and, more reluctantly, by his successor, George Bush despite technical difficulties. SDI came to end with the Clinton administration, by which time Teller had retired.

[In my pantheon of nuclear ‘greats’, there would be places for the Nobel Prize-winners Fermi and Bethe for their contribution to physics, and Oppenheimer for his achievements in science management. All three were respected by their colleagues. There would be no place for Teller.] Opinions of Edward Teller were, and are, sharply divided. The scientist Isidor Rabi described him as an enemy of humanity; Reagan was captivated. Somewhere between the two extremes is a real Edward Teller but, as Goodchild discovered, he is hard to find.