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“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
Work on the hydrogen bomb must have seemed impossibly more complex than implosion, if only because of the vast number of events that had to take place within milliseconds of the triggering blast to ignite the fusion fuel and keep it burning. How were you able to address those problems in the age of desktop adding machines?
Among my Hungarian friends there was one who was particularly ingenious, John Von Neumann. He changed the thinking about computing machines. Instead of a hard-wired machine that was good for one job, he invented something flexible that could be instructed and could work not only on things that you told it to work on but on alternatives that the machine itself formed. A tremendous piece of progress that now plays a considerable role in day-to-day life and commercial life. The early calculations on the Super were done by his method, and our success relied to a great extent on his computing machines.
Which leads me to the disproportionate Hungarian connection to physics in the twentieth century. There’s an old theory that coming from Hungary, a mountain-rung country with no linguistic connection to its neighbors, you were clearly aliens using your superior intellect to help the rest of us along. What are your thoughts?
I had four Hungarian friends. One was much older, Theodore von Karman. The second was Leo Szilard. He was responsible for early work on atomic energy. The third one was Eugene Wigner, a very modest, incredibly ingenious man who played a huge role in designing nuclear reactors. The fourth was John Von Neumann. To my mind he was most ingenious of the whole group, except possibly for me, who is sometimes given the honor of being mentioned with the others. All of us together were mentioned by the older Theodore von Karman. He denied that we were Hungarians; since we could not talk English without an accent, we had to pretend to come from someplace, because no one would believe in a Martian. So we settled on Hungary, and that was where we came from.
I’ve always been amazed by the widespread acceptance of the Martian theory.
It’s as nice a theory as I’ve ever heard, and Theodore von Karman was famous for his true statements. He always insisted on never being too confined by actual events, and he never told a good story twice without improving it.
You’re not widely known for actively espousing the Martian theory.
Not necessary, it’s a simple fact.
Looking back, how do you view your role in America’s deployment of a thermonuclear defense strategy?
I absolutely accomplished it. I saw, and I saw correctly, that both atomic weapons and hydrogen bombs, Super bombs, would become important. I saw correctly that the Soviets would have both in a short time. I did two things with conviction, develop our bomb first and act in a way that we should never use it except to deter its use by others. In that we succeeded. The Soviet leaders after Stalin, who were not complete fanatics, realized that they could not possibly win without terrific losses, and in the end they resigned. That they resigned was the triumph and success of the Russian people, but had they had the power of the hydrogen bomb before we did, I don’t know what would have happened.
But we did build both bombs well before them.
Due to the excellent work of the people who came to Los Alamos. These were Americans, but to a not small extent they were refugees from Hitler’s regime. There were also inspirational American leaders, and among those, Oppenheimer was most outstanding. His efforts inspired us to success before the entire world. Even so, we were ahead of the Soviets by only a few years, and not more.
Yet Oppenheimer was ultimately destroyed over his postwar leadership of the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee, especially in its recommendations against the development of the hydrogen bomb and what he saw as a costly and ultimately futile arms race with the Soviet Union.
What you said is believed by many and is completely wrong. Oppenheimer was not destroyed. Oppenheimer was deprived of his security clearance. He was no longer asked to assist in policy matters. He was already the scientific leader of a group in Princeton, the Institute for Advanced Study, the most outstanding theoretical group in the world. To be the head of that and be destroyed is quite a combination. But he was extremely ambitious, and he was deeply hurt. And then he died, to what extent due to these events I don’t know.
I take your point. Yet history views your testimony at the 1954 hearings as a factor, perhaps the primary factor, in the decision to deny the renewal of Dr. Oppenheimer’s clearance. Your life in the aftermath of that hearing was affected to almost the same degree as his. In hindsight, would you testify any differently today?