Edward Teller On Oppenheimer, H-Bomb, Los Alamos, More

With the recent release of the movie, “Oppenheimer,’’ I was reminded of a lengthy interview I did with Dr. Edward Teller two decades back, just before he passed. Teller, father of the Hydrogen Bomb, is featured prominently in the new Chris Nolan film, which is getting rave reviews.

In that 1999 interview with Teller, I covered much of what is depicted in the new flick, especially the odd relationship between Teller and Los Alamos laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer. With minor edits, below is the guts of our two-hour chat.

AN INTERVIEW WITH the great physicist Edward Teller is a lot like a long, hard game of Ping-Pong: You hit the ball back and forth, back and forth, with Teller asking as many questions as he answers. None of it is chit-chat. His direct queries about cloning and nuclear weapons leave you uncomfortable and, once the volley has ended, you’re not sure whether you’ve won or lost. But you certainly are on edge.

Even after suffering a stroke when I had encountered him, and being in his 90s, the father of the Hydrogen Bomb, was still an undisputed genius. At the time of our interview, he was living in a modest home with his wife, Mici, in Palo Alto, California, splitting time between the Hoover Institute and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.

As a young Hungarian émigré physicist in the early 1940s, Teller helped develop the Atomic (fission) Bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico. But he is most famous – or infamous, depending upon whom you talk to – for pioneering the Hydrogen (fusion) Bomb, today’s standard in nuclear weapons and hundreds of times more powerful than the Atomic Bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Teller talks passionately about Japan here – why, perhaps, we should not have dropped the bomb at all – and about his volatile relationship with J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had directed efforts at Los Alamos.

In this interview, he also answers some big questions: What’s the greatest danger facing the world? (Hint: Teller doesn’t think it’s nuclear war.) Did Werner Heisenberg, Teller’s former teacher, purposely stall Germany’s efforts to produce an Atomic Bomb in World War II? And would Teller’s controversial Star Wars missile defense system ever have worked? Teller also offers insights into Albert Einstein, Presidents Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, and mathematician Johnny von Neumann, founder of the modern-day computer.

JIM CLASH: The world feels safer with the collapse of the Soviet Union, yes ?

EDWARD TELLER: The world is much safer, but safer doesn’t mean safe. America has to maintain its leadership position. We are now acting on a crazy basis that if we stop weapons research, advances will halt everywhere else. On that basis, actual dangers are going to arise – probably not in my lifetime, but almost certainly in yours.

CLASH: How would you change the nuclear strategy?

TELLER: I would certainly support more military research. I would also support international cooperation. Today, international cooperation, to the extent it exists, says we should have agreements whereby this and that is not to be done.

We should have positive agreements whereby we collaborate. Today people are afraid of whatever is new. This clearly is true about radioactivity. What do you think about cloning?

CLASH: I have mixed views, as I’m sure most people do. In terms of pure science, of moving society forward, you have to pursue new knowledge. But I can also see where it presents ethical problems.

TELLER: Look, cloning is a very old business. What is news is the cloning of a mammal. And that, of course, brings the possibility of cloning human beings much closer. In 1935, this discovery would have been welcomed. Now discussion has already resulted in cutting of funds. The fear upon us – the fear of what can be worse if it succeeds – is something that is a great danger. Unless it is stopped, it will end the strength of the United States.

Here’s a lady, her husband has died. She has a single child, one-month old, and it’s dying. Would you deny the possibility of reproducing the child painlessly and identically? Anything new can be applied well. And anything new can be applied wrongly. In other times, people would have said, “New, go ahead. If there’s a problem, we’ll deal with it.” Today, it is, “New, better stop, we’re going too fast.” This is as un-American as can be.

CLASH: Why has that happened?

TELLER: Two reasons. One is that science sometimes produces undeniable facts that are contrary to common sense. You and I are not sitting here at rest. We are moving through space at 10 miles per second with variable velocities, different in the morning and evening. Impossible! Denied by the Bible. It resulted in the trial of Galileo. Now such absurdities, which are real, occur in science, but not frequently. Some very important discoveries occurred around 1900. Will you kindly tell me what you know about relativity?

CLASH: Relativity is Einstein’s theory where he links mass with energy and states that, as you approach the speed of light, time slows down.

TELLER: If you ask about understanding and absurdity: What does it mean that time slows down? Newton has written that time passes everywhere at the same rate. Was Newton wrong?

CLASH: I don’t know. Einstein seems to disagree.

TELLER: Newton was wrong. If you read beautiful science fiction stories about an empire that extends over the galaxy – do you know how big our galaxy is?

CLASH: Thousands of light-years.

TELLER: It’s 100,000 light-years. That means, of two events you think have occurred with a time difference of 50,000 years, you cannot say which happened earlier. It depends on the observer. An empire over the Milky Way is impossible because you don’t know what has happened and you cannot influence what is going to happen, except in very small pieces of the Milky Way. This relativity of time, if you understand it, is simply contrary to common sense, yet it’s true.

Now let me come to the point. The two important basic discoveries of the century – relativity and quantum mechanics – have not been assimilated by people. Instead they ignore them and say, “Oh, that’s science, and science cannot be trusted.” They don’t understand it, and therefore they don’t like it. The second point is that the un-understandable – science – produces things like atomic explosions. The result is: “Stop, don’t go so fast in science. Better not to know so much.’’ Applied not only to radioactivity, but to cloning. After centuries of being pro-science, we are now in an anti-science era.

CLASH: Do you use the Internet?

TELLER: I am old and know less about it than I should. I think it’s another way to communicate and use many facts on computers. It’s the one real positive development of recent years. This development was started by a very good friend of mine. Do you know who I mean?

CLASH: John von Neumann?

TELLER: Right. He died in the early 1950s. Look, there had been primitive computers before Johnny von Neumann. But they were all hardwired. The program was built into the machine. Johnny’s influence was programming a card to produce a flexible, digital computer you could tell what to do and vary it, one where the computer could essentially program itself and, to that extent, bring computers closer to humans.

[Teller had a long and strained relationship with J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had directed development of the Atomic Bomb at Los Alamos in the 1940s. A staunch anticommunist, Teller had reservations about Oppenheimer’s motives and allegiance to the United States. He worked with Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, but quit just before the Atomic Bomb was tested to pioneer the Hydrogen Bomb. Later, in the 1950s, Teller was a key witness against Oppenheimer at the McCarthy trials. Teller’s controversial testimony ultimately helped lead to Oppenheimer’s security clearance being revoked.]

CLASH: Let’s discuss Oppenheimer.

TELLER: Oppenheimer was the only scientist I knew who was a scientist in order to promote his political views. During the war, my friend and fellow scientist, Leo Szilard, was in Chicago. I had been there, too, but went to Los Alamos. Sometime in June 1945, I got a letter from Szilard saying, “The Nazis have surrendered. We are about to complete work on the Atomic Bomb. We should not use it on Japan, at least not without warning them first.” He said there were a number of scientists who had signed a petition to that effect, and would I please get signatures of the scientists at Los Alamos?

Well, at Los Alamos, I could not do that. Oppenheimer controlled everything. The only thing for me to do was to go to Oppenheimer. It was the one occasion when I saw Oppenheimer really getting mad. He said: ‘’The people in Washington know perfectly well what they’re doing.’’ So I wrote Szilard a letter saying that I am attracted to his idea and I’m also not sure that dropping the bomb is the right thing. But I told him that I could not circulate a petition. I did not mention my conversation with Oppenheimer because I knew that Oppenheimer would read my letter before it was sent. There was no privacy there.

What I did not know, and what Oppenheimer did not tell me, was that he was chairman of a very small group of prominent scientists who had been asked in higher secrecy what should be done. Oppenheimer wanted the bomb dropped right away. He convinced the others of the same. The recommendation went in to the President to drop it.

The bomb was tested early on the morning of July 16 [1945] at Trinity. After the test, Oppenheimer talked to the press. Do you know his famous statement at the time? “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Now will you please tell me what kind of man is this who, when asked for scientific advice, made sure that the only advice to the President was “Drop it,’’ then turns around to the press and implies the opposite?

CLASH: You were at that historic test. What do you recall?

TELLER: I was 20 miles away. The shot was canceled, then put back on. The countdown stopped at minus 30 seconds. An eternity passed – and I thought it was a failure – but it was just a very long 30 seconds. I had a dark glass to exclude light from welding. But, to be extra safe, I had put on an extra pair of dark glasses and suntan lotion. When I saw light – it was early in the morning before sun-up – I tipped the welding glass and looked down at the sand beside me. It was as daylight.

CLASH: Was it right to have used the Atomic Bomb on Japan?

TELLER: I did not know what to do at the time. I am very sorry now that I did not make the recommendation that I should have. There was a way to act that would have been clearly better. I found out only later that we knew of Emperor Hirohito’s attempts to make peace. I think we should have dropped the bomb near Tokyo Harbor in the evening – detonated it at an altitude between 10,000 and 20,000 feet. The Japanese, including the Emperor, would have seen the firestorm. We could have told them what it was.

But had we done the demonstration, no one would have been hurt. Perhaps if no one had been hurt, the whole thing wouldn’t have been taken seriously. Perhaps it was best it happened as it did, because we had to kill quite a few thousand people in order to deter further warfare. I don’t want this to be true, but maybe it is.

CLASH: How did India and Pakistan get the Atomic Bomb?

TELLER: A half century ago I tried to write an atomic alphabet: A stands for atom, it’s so small, no one has ever seen it at all. B stands for bombs, the bombs are much bigger, so let’s not be so fast on the trigger. Do you know what S stands for?

CLASH: Safety?

TELLER: S stands for secret, you can keep it forever, provided there’s no one else who is clever. India and Pakistan know that two and two makes four. You cannot keep scientific knowledge your own secret. We are the only ones clever enough to do it, right? If others have done it they must have copied us. Maybe, but I doubt it.

[Teller continued work on the more powerful Hydrogen Bomb after World War II, while many scientists and politicians were against it ethically. His reasoning: Even though the Soviets didn’t have it, he believed it was just a matter of time before they did. To Teller, that was extremely dangerous. He didn’t trust the Soviets. He felt if they developed an advantage over the United States in the nuclear arms race, they would exploit it. Russia ultimately did get the H-bomb, in 1953, just after the United States.]

CLASH: You’re known as father of the Hydrogen Bomb. How did you feel when you finally realized your design would work?

TELLER: Look, you work on something. If it succeeds, you like it. I have never had any doubts that knowledge is good. And I never had any tendency to be afraid of knowledge.

CLASH: Is “father” an accurate label?

TELLER: I worked on it more than anybody else. I made some essential contributions. But I have one distinction- I was for it when nobody else was. And, quite possibly, if President Harry Truman had been faced with a unanimous scientific opinion against it, he might have acted differently. And now we would all be talking in Russian.

CLASH: Had we delayed development, would Russia have gotten it first?

TELLER: Quite possibly. They certainly got it independent of us. Look, the Soviets made their first atomic explosion in 1949. That set off debate on the Hydrogen Bomb, on which we had done little serious work for a long time. In October 1949, I think, a Democratic senator, Brien MacMahon, then responsible for supervision of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), asked me to talk to him. I did not volunteer – I was asked.

I went to Washington. At the rail station I was met by John Manley from Los Alamos, who was under Oppenheimer. He was important in getting a unanimous opinion to the President that the Hydrogen Bomb could not be done, and should not be done. Manley said to me: “Now look, the President should be under the impression that scientists are unanimously against the H-bomb. Please don’t talk to McMahon.” I would not agree to that and said, “I will let Sen. McMahon know I am not coming because you asked me not to.” Then he gave in and said, “You had better go.”

These people wanted to actively suppress any opinion that the H-bomb might be done. I gave my opinion to McMahon, later to Lewis Strauss, who would later become chairman of the AEC. These people had access to Truman, and noted my opinion to him. I broke the anonymity of saying it could not be done.

CLASH: Their efforts sound subversive.

TELLER: Look, Oppenheimer’s mother was a Communist. His wife became a widow when her first husband – a Communist – was killed fighting in Spain. He was not a member of the Communist Party. And it’s not my business to tell you why he did things. But it is my business to repeat to you essentially what I answered under oath at his trial: “I don’t think he wanted to hurt the United States, but some of his actions are of the kind that I don’t understand, and when the security of the United States depends on people, I want people I can trust more.

CLASH: Where were you in 1952 when the first H-bomb was detonated in the Pacific?

TELLER: I was busy at work in my laboratory. I was invited to go out; I didn’t. But I knew the predictions. I went down to Berkeley to look at the seismograph and found that I could not see properly. My hand was shaking. Then came the appropriate time for the detonation. Nothing happened at first. I kept looking for travel of the sound wave through the ground. Then the shock arrived exactly when I had expected it. What I did then was a security violation at the time. Los Alamos did not know if the test was a success because the security people would not let them be notified. What I did was send an unclassified wire to the wife of the man who conducted the test saying, “It’s a boy.” This, of course, she immediately understood and circulated. It was the first Los Alamos had heard that the Hydrogen Bomb was a success. That is an accomplishment of which I am deservedly proud.

CLASH: What are your thoughts on Stanislaw Ulam (Polish mathematician credited, with Teller, as coinventor of the staged, radiation-imploded H-bomb design)?

TELLER: He was not a nobody. He did make many suggestions in what is called the Monte Carlo method in statistical mechanics. After I had known the solution to the H-bomb, and after the director of Los Alamos declined to listen to me, Ulam came to me with a part of the solution. I used that to get my paper published on a joint basis.

Ulam signed it. When it came later to defend it, he declined because he said he believed it would not work. I think his moral standards were a little higher, but not much, than Oppenheimer’s. He was not working for the United States – he was working for fame, and he wanted to get credit. He got it, for very much more than what he did.

[In the 1980s, Teller was the main influence behind President Ronald Reagan’s controversial Star Wars missile defense program. Many physicists said the concept was flawed, and publicly questioned whether it could ever work. Teller’s association with this project, to many, is the one scientific gaffe in an otherwise brilliant career.]

CLASH: You worked with Ronald Reagan. What was he like?

TELLER: Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966. Very shortly after – I hadn’t met him yet – I invited him to visit us at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. I remember him listening to our arguments on why missile defense is necessary. He listened carefully. He asked a number questions, intelligent questions but which showed that the whole topic was new to him. Then we had lunch together. He left without my knowing whether he was for or against it. Remember, that was in the 1960s. He was elected President in 1980 and did nothing about missile defense.

In March 1983, he made famous statement fully supporting missile defense, and making suggestions on how to do it. You know, he’s accused of shooting from the hip. It took him more than a decade to draw, but he hit the target very accurately.

CLASH: If enough money had been spent on Reagan’s dream of an antimissile defense shield, would it have worked?

TELLER: I don’t know. I do know if you work only on things you know will work, you are not going to get anywhere. What I’m trying to propose is that you do not oppose people having missiles. But you require every big multiple-missile firing to be announced. And unannounced missiles should be brought down. Not just for the purpose of defending the United States, but for eliminating surprise attacks against anybody. That is the kind of positive action I think would make sense.

CLASH: Do you keep in touch with the Reagan family?

TELLER: When he was President, yes, and after that I visited him once. Already then, after he had retired, he seemed not to be completely there.

CLASH: I’ll name some others and you tell me what comes to mind. Albert Einstein?

TELLER: Albert Einstein and I met twice, briefly, and he was already way over the hill. He did wonderful things until about 1920. After that, he did one or two things that were worthwhile – less and less as he became older, and practically none in old age.

He “wrote’’ a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt suggesting that nuclear energy be explored. The letter was actually written by my friend, Leo Szilard, who could do everything except drive a car. I was the historical personage who was Szilard’s chauffeur that day. I drove him to the end of Long Island to show the letter to Einstein and to ask for his signature. From what I have seen of Einstein, I have no reason to respect him. But from what I know about Einstein – what he did before 1920 – I have every reason to respect him.

CLASH: President Harry Truman?

TELLER: I didn’t meet him while he was President. But after success of the H-bomb, Time magazine and other people got interested in me. I was giving a lecture in the Midwest and a man came over and asked if I wanted to meet President Harry Truman, who was celebrating his 70th birthday in the same town.

I said yes, met Truman, and we had a very nice conversation. He told me this story about himself, without any provocation on my part. “I wanted some money to publish my papers. I got an offer from the tobacco companies that if I might say something favorable about smoking, they would give me the money. So I made a statement: ‘When the Pilgrims came to America, we gave them tobacco and they brought us syphilis. I think it was a fair trade.’ Guess what? I didn’t get the money.” Truman clearly was an honest person.

[For decades, there has been speculation that Werner Heisenberg, director of Germany’s Atomic Bomb development during War II and a former teacher of Teller’s, deliberately stalled Germany’s efforts to produce a bomb. This drama had been played out in the Tony Award-winning play, Copenhagen. Heisenberg and Teller remained friends, even after Teller came to America.]

CLASH: Werner Heisenberg taught you physics when you were young. What was he like?

TELLER: Let me tell you. Heisenberg knew about the possibility of the Atomic Bomb. He went to his teacher, Niels Bohr, and proposed that there be an agreement between the Americans and Germans that neither side work on it. Bohr did not understand. He spread a rumor to America and made life very unhappy for Heisenberg.

I will tell you the truth as I know it. Right after the war, a half-dozen really eminent German scientists were detained by the British for a few months in England. And, unknown to them, their conversations were recorded. In the mid-1990s, they were declassified. When we dropped the bomb on Japan, the Germans couldn’t believe it. “We tried to do that thing. It cannot be done. What did the crazy Americans do, drop a reactor on the Japanese?” Now that, to my mind, proves as clearly as is ever possible that Heisenberg did not work seriously on the bomb.

CLASH: It turns out the Germans where nowhere near as far along as the United States had feared, correct?

TELLER: Their leader, Heisenberg, didn’t want to do it and persuaded himself that it couldn’t be done.

CLASH: Do you think he didn’t do it for moral reasons?

TELLER: He certainly was not enthusiastic about doing it, and was happy to find that it could not be done. Other Germans were not completely happy about the way he talked about it. Heisenberg was a proud German. A very nice man. He had a sense of humor above all that. But certainly, he was an anti-Nazi.

CLASH: How would you like to be remembered?

TELLER: I don’t particularly care if I’m remembered. I never did anything for that purpose. When I go back to Hungary, a member of NATO, now a member of people realize I did something, and that makes me happy. I tell you, I would be a little happier if people would be less critical of my having found something dangerous and about my having hurt a sweet, innocent person like Oppenheimer.

CLASH: For the most part, then, you feel good looking back at your life?

TELLER: Let me tell you. I don’t think I will go to hell. I think I will go to purgatory, but I don’t think I will spend a lot of time there.

CLASH: If you made a list of the five greatest science minds of the 20th century, who would be on it?

TELLER: I feel I knew them all, and there were more than five. Despite my negative feelings about Einstein in his later years, he would be on it. Neils Bohr, with whom I disagree in connection with the Heisenberg business, would have to be on it. Heisenberg himself. Then, you know, my fellow Hungarians Leo Szilard, Johnny von Neumann, Eugene Wigner.

CLASH: Would you add your own name to that list?

TELLER: I have to leave some job for you to do.

CLASH: Do you believe in God?

TELLER: I won’t talk about things I don’t understand.

CLASH: Do you go to church?


CLASH: Are you disappointed that you never won a Nobel Prize?

TELLER: I have a standard answer for that: I prefer when people ask me, “Why did you NOT win a Nobel Prize,’’ rather than, “Why the hell did you get it?”

CLASH: Is there an element named after you?

TELLER: No. I told you, in that respect, I am less ambitious than Oppenheimer. And even he does not have an element.

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