- Historic Sites
“We Knew That If We Succeeded, We Could At One Blow Destroy A City”
A final interview with the most controversial father of the atomic age, Edward Teller
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
Edward Teller viewed himself as one of the heroes of the Cold War. He believed with all his heart that the hard-line positions he urged against Soviet expansion, his insistence on overwhelming nuclear deterrence, and his advocacy of strategic missile defense were all instrumental in the prevention of nuclear war, not to mention the eventual fall of the Soviet Union. His great blind spot lay not in his comprehension of science or in his soaring imagination and curiosity but in his understanding of the people he shared this fragile planet with (as he freely admitted in his appraisal of Oppenheimer’s motives during the AEC hearings). His perpetual disputes with colleagues were a minor issue compared with the dangerous trust he placed in government officials until quite late in life. Buoyed by Oppenheimer’s wartime counsel to leave politics to the politicians, Teller failed to see the hidden depths of the Faustian bargain he had so eagerly made with the ambitious generals then running the Air Force and the Strategic Air Command (SAC). The true miracle may be not that we survived the years of nuclear testing and saber rattling but that wiser minds prevailed over the opinions of men like Gen. James Doolittle, the World War II hero whose 1953 advisory committee recommended that the Soviet Union be given two years to come to terms—and then be attacked with nuclear weapons if it failed to do so (a recommendation that President Dwight D. Eisenhower swiftly rejected). Far more dangerous was the SAC commander and later Air Force chief of staff Gen. Curtis LeMay, who sent spy planes over the Soviet Union and maintained an SAC policy (with details hidden even from government officials) that in response to a severe Soviet attack would have launched his “Sunday Punch,” a simultaneous attack on Soviet dams, military installations, cities, and towns using everything in the arsenal. He died regarding Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy as rank cowards for not crushing the Soviets by threatening a nuclear attack while their country held the means to do so.
“Heisenberg worked on it as a German citizen.... he had to work on it because he couldn't leave his country.”
I was finally able to set up a meeting with Dr. Teller, for what would turn out to be his final interview, in late 2002. It wasn’t easy. What follows came about only after months of very difficult “auditioning” on my part. Teller wanted to be sure that his interviewer knew what he was talking about. I was required to submit a series of essay-style answers to questions he posed to establish my position and knowledge on a number of topics, not all of them nuclear-based. This process continued even as I was setting up the lights to videotape the interview in his Berkeley study. He would regularly call me over to ask my opinion of, say, recent political developments in Hungary or to quiz me on something he had included in his just-published autobiography. Apparently I passed his many tests, although it wasn’t until we had been talking freely for half an hour that I began to lose the apprehension that he might yank off his mike at any moment and wheel himself from the room. Although we had conversed by letter, telephone, and fax, I had no idea what to expect from him in person. What I found was a brilliant scientist and thinker still vibrant at the end of his days. His thoughts on free will relate to the unpredictable actions of subatomic particles as revealed in work only now being reported, nearly two years after his death.
Edward Teller remained ever childlike, in both the best and worst senses of that word. The long-term consequences of his work are still playing themselves out, and they will determine whether future historians regard him as a genuine titan or the ultimate terminator.
Dr. Teller, I wonder if we could begin with your good friend Leo Szilard, and specifically your involvement with him in encouraging Albert Einstein to write his 1939 letter to President Roosevelt warning that the Germans might be working on a bomb.
Szilard was a very ingenious and interesting person, almost 10 years my senior, whom I met when I was a high school student in Hungary. We kept up our friendship, and one day he came to me and told me about Werner Heisenberg and the letter he was carrying for Einstein. I was superior to Szilard in one respect. I drove a car. He did not have a driver’s license. He needed a chauffeur. He told me what it was about, but I would have been glad to help him in any case. I agreed to drive him wherever he needed to go, which was near the end of Long Island, where Einstein took his summer vacation. That was the beginning.
The beginning of the Manhattan Project?
The beginning of everything.
Your work in nuclear physics will certainly form a large part of your legacy, but your writings suggest that you were heading in a different direction as a young man.
An entirely different one. The most important part of my education was my study with a great man whom I admired and whom I continued to consider a wonderful person, and not only a wonderful scientist, Werner Heisenberg. I learned from him the amazing new story of quantum mechanics, something that says that the future is truly unpredictable and that we may well have something like a free personal will. I worked on molecular spectra, a big area in this new science. I was happy doing that, I was happy teaching it, and had fission not come along, I would have continued to do it happily ever after.