Memoirs by Edward Teller
Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics
by Edward Teller with Judith Shoolery
Perseus. 602 pp. $35.00
Edward Teller, one of the 20th century’s preeminent physicists, is now ninety-three, and plainly has numerous excuses for recording the events of his life. The first one you encounter here is in the glimpse he offers of a lost world: a middle-class childhood in the Austro-Hungarian empire during the years before the Great War. Another has to do with his insider’s status in the intellectual revolution triggered by quantum mechanics in Germany during the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Still another is his deep involvement during World War II in the making of the original atomic bomb, mainly at the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico.
But at the center of Teller’s story—and, one has to believe, at the heart of his reason for writing it—are the controversies that have long swirled around his career after World War II. In particular, there is the matter of his role in pushing for the development by the United States of the hydrogen bomb—what researchers in the late 1940’s called “the Super”—and the closely related episode of his 1954 testimony to Congress against his one-time boss at Los Alamos, J. Robert Oppenheimer. But if Teller’s motive in writing about these matters was to clear the air, it must unfortunately be said that he has not succeeded.
A thoroughly secularized Jew (religion is near-invisible in this memoir), Teller left his native Hungary in 1926 because of its virulent anti-Semitism, and began his university education at Germany’s Karlsruhe Technical Institute. He next went off to Leipzig for a postdoctoral fellowship under Werner Heisenberg, one of the two prime developers—with Niels Bohr—of quantum mechanics. (A high point in Teller’s first year there was beating Heisenberg at ping-pong, which appears to have been a seriously competitive sport in the world of high-level theoretical physics.)
Not long afterward, Teller was studying with Bohr in Copenhagen. In 1932, he was invited to Rome to work with Enrico Fermi, then experimenting with nuclear fission (and concluding prematurely that it was impossible). By the mid-1930’s, he was lecturing on quantum mechanics in London, where he became friendly with another Hungarian exile, Leo Szilard, who had already conceived the idea of using nuclear fission to generate extremely powerful explosions.
At age twenty-seven Teller was thus already very much a part of the relatively small group that was reshaping the world’s understanding of basic physical laws. Obviously somewhat intoxicated at being in on a revolution in human thought, he seems to have been oblivious for a long time to the rise of the Nazis and its implications for all of Europe, not to mention his own future. He certainly did not foresee that he and so many of his colleagues would end up in America.
Teller first arrived in the U.S. in 1935, when he was invited to lecture at George Washington University. Inevitably, it seems, he gravitated to other academic centers that were deep into theoretical physics—Columbia, Berkeley, Chicago, Stanford—in the course of which he met J. Robert Oppenheimer, who later recruited the young physicist to join the group he had assembled to work at Los Alamos on nuclear-weapons design.
The hearings involving “Oppie,” as Teller repeatedly calls him, took place almost a decade after the end of the war, in the spring of 1954. They were triggered by a letter to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover from William Borden, who had been staff director of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy and had dark suspicions about Oppenheimer’s loyalty. The letter accurately cited numerous Communist connections in the physicist’s immediate family, as well as the fact that Oppenheimer himself had gone through a long period, including the years of the Nazi-Soviet pact, in which he made regular monthly payments to the Communist party. Borden’s letter linked these affiliations to the fact that after the war, Oppenheimer had been an unrelenting opponent of work on the hydrogen bomb. When Hoover got the letter, he immediately brought it to President Eisenhower, who ordered a review of Oppenheimer’s security clearance.
It was true that, with the war’s end, Oppenheimer had quite suddenly shifted his position on developing the Super. As early as 1942, he had seen the possibilities of a hydrogen-based fusion bomb, and ordered Los Alamos to work on it even before the fission device necessary for triggering it had been created. But after the Japanese surrender he declared that fission bombs were all the country needed, and suggested that the scientists who had created them should now return to their assorted academic posts.
Teller’s testimony on these matters was clearly botched. In the book he characterizes it as “ambiguous and fumbling”—the transcript of it, published as a 33-page appendix, offers support for this view—while arguing in extenuation that he was blind-sided by last-minute developments. Even though exasperated by Oppenheimer’s postwar campaign against the hydrogen bomb, Teller had shown up on the day of his testimony planning to vouch for Oppenheimer’s right to a security clearance. But shortly before he was called as a witness, one of the prosecution lawyers showed him a transcript of Oppenheimer’s own prior testimony.
It was a stunner to Teller. Oppenheimer, it turned out, had admitted that, while running Los Alamos, he had lied to security officers when asked about an “intermediary” who tried to get classified information for Soviet intelligence, and then belatedly acknowledged that the man involved was his close friend Haakon Chevalier, a professor at Berkeley and known Communist sympathizer. Asked under oath why he had kept all this secret, Oppenheimer replied, “Because I’m an idiot.”
Teller, who had long considered Oppenheimer a brilliant physicist and superior manager, says he was still trying to sort out this bewildering behavior when his turn came to testify. He refused to admit the possibility that Oppenheimer was disloyal or to take seriously the numerous Communist entanglements in his personal life. He also refused to believe that there could be an ideological dimension to Oppenheimer’s postwar opposition to development of the hydrogen bomb. So what should he say?
The formulation he ended up using was that Oppenheimer was not disloyal and would never intentionally harm our country. But, 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.”
Gloomily reviewing the whole sequence, Teller now confesses to not saying what he had meant to say. The poor judgment he was thinking of, he writes, had to do with Oppenheimer’s admitted participation in a serious security breach and his fingering of Chevalier—a friend he had long publicly defended. Yet, somehow, Teller never got around to mentioning his newfound knowledge of these events. Most people naturally assumed that he was really criticizing Oppenheimer for not having helped push for the hydrogen bomb, which, Teller testified, we could have had four years earlier—in 1949 instead of 1953—if there had been support for its development.
In the world of politically active scientists, Teller’s testimony was judged an outrage—an ignominious caving-in to McCarthyism—and Teller himself became a kind of pariah. A moment of high drama in this memoir comes when he writes of a scientific conference he attended soon after the release of the transcript of his testimony. Walking over to an old colleague with whom he had once shared an apartment, he held out his hand. The colleague looked at him coldly, rejected the hand, and turned away. “I was so stunned that for a moment I couldn’t react,” Teller writes. “Then I realized that my life as I had known it was over.”
Although he was psychologically devastated by the hostility he kept running into after the hearings, Teller’s career trajectory was not visibly affected. He continued working on nuclear-weapons issues at the federal government’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, which he had helped to found, and joined the physics faculty at the University of California-Berkeley.
He also remained actively involved in the big strategic debates, especially over two high-profile issues: nuclear test bans (which he has opposed) and ballistic missile defense (which he has supported). The two positions are logically related: Teller believes that the test bans, especially those in the atmosphere, have made it much more difficult to design effective defensive systems.
Politically, Teller comes across as an instinctive conservative, which probably means that, sooner or later, he would have been at odds with most of his colleagues even if there had never been an Oppenheimer security case. But he does not come across as an instinctive hard-liner. To the extent that one can generalize about the countless controversies depicted in his memoir, his desire seems less to settle scores with his critics, many of whom have long since died, than to mollify them—to make them see, as it were, that he still holds most of them (including Oppenheimer) in high regard, understands their perspective on his behavior, and was himself grievously misunderstood.
One of the few colleagues who seems always to have been on Teller’s side was the late John von Neumann, another Hungarian refugee, still occasionally identified as the smartest man who ever lived. Both Teller and von Neumann were all-out for proceeding with the hydrogen bomb, and feared a world in which Stalin had it and we did not. This was a distinctly unpopular position at a time when most other scientists were (a) feeling guilty about the use against Japan of the nuclear weapons they had created and (b) telling themselves that it was still possible to reach agreement with the Soviets on outlawing the hydrogen bomb. Skeptical about any such possibility, Teller says he became a serious anti-Communist while at Los Alamos, mainly as a result of reading the work of yet another Hungarian refugee, Arthur Koestler.
When a man in his nineties writes a memoir “with” somebody, the standard assumption is that the other person is a ghostwriter. My own guess about this book, based on numerous clues throughout the text, is that Teller pretty much wrote it, apparently over many years, and that Judith Shoolery (a veteran book editor at the Hoover Institution, where Teller for many years has been a senior research scholar) helped him smooth out some rough edges.
In any case, the book is a terrific read. Its up-close portraits of the scientific luminaries who created nuclear weapons ring true, and at times Teller displays an almost journalistic eye for the memorable detail. One also finds that he is a more rounded and interesting human being than his highly focused career and characteristically stern visage would suggest. He has been a super-doting father and husband (his wife of 66 years died in 2000). In periods of high emotion, he has often turned to the writing of poetry (Hungarian or otherwise) to express himself. He is a gifted pianist. Also a relentless poker player. And he seems addicted to puns and jokes, a sizable sample of which appear in the footnotes.
Still, as far as substance goes, Teller’s confession about Oppenheimer presents some maddening problems for his admirers, including this one. The main question is how, a half-century later, he can continue to dismiss out of hand the possibility that Oppenheimer’s behavior—including his campaign against our developing the hydrogen bomb—may have arisen out of his Communist sympathies. How could Teller, a man professing to have been profoundly affected by Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, write in connection with Oppenheimer that “being a Communist in the 1920’s and 1930’s . . . reflected little more than a strong streak of idealism”? For that matter, how can he ignore the details set forth last year in The Venona Secrets, by Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel, about Oppenheimer’s contacts during the war with known Soviet agents?
The answer, one assumes, is that, despite everything, Teller retains some residual feeling for his old boss. More important, he may still want to extend a hand to those who have been demonizing him all these years. But it will not work. As others who have tried to explain or explain away their honorable service in the cause of anti-Communism have discovered, the other side, even at this late date, is not listening.