Nov. 30, 2001

Teller memoirs recall century's defining moments


When looking back at some of the 20th century’s most dramatic and history-making events, there stands Edward Teller.

During World War II, Teller participated in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos as America raced Nazi Germany to build the first atomic bomb. In the war’s aftermath, he helped shepherd the United States’ efforts to build the first hydrogen bomb. In 1955, as the Cold War continued, Teller advanced the concept of submarine-launched nuclear missiles, providing the United States with the third and most secure leg of its nuclear retaliation triad.

And later, in the 1980s, the theoretical physicist served as a determined advocate for the development of a ballistic missile defense system to protect the United States from nuclear attack

But of all of the 93-year-old scientist’s contributions to national security, the achievement of which he remains proudest is his "role in the establishment and work of the Livermore Laboratory."

That viewpoint, as well as the scientist’s life story from his 1908 birth in Budapest, Hungary, through events of recent years, are traced in the just-released book, "Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics." Written with his longtime editor Judy Shoolery, the book is printed by Perseus Publishing.

"In my opinion, Livermore made a very real contribution to the winning of the Cold War, and the winning of the Cold War without bloodshed," Teller said in a recent interview.

In his book, Teller describes that in some ways, the nation’s second nuclear weapons laboratory grew out of a misunderstanding with Los Alamos’ then-director, Norris Bradbury.

In 1950, in a bid to counter a negative report by Bradbury about the prospects of developing a hydrogen bomb, Teller and another scientist, Johnny Wheeler, wrote that if the H-bomb efforts proved successful, Los Alamos might not have sufficient capability to answer all of the important questions.

As a result, Teller and Wheeler surmised that Wheeler and others might need to work on other weapons issues at Princeton in a second laboratory. Bradbury, however, apparently believed Teller was trying to create competition for Los Alamos.

Eventually, when Teller decided there were too many obstacles to develop the hydrogen bomb at Los Alamos, he left to begin advocating for a second weapons laboratory.

With backing from Ernest Lawrence and others, between November 1951 and the summer of 1952, Teller made presentations and met with influential military and political officials about the need for a second laboratory .

Teller addressed a committee that supervised the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, D.C. He also met with Gen. Jimmy Doolittle; Thomas Finletter, secretary of the Air Force; and finally with Secretary of State Dean Acheson, AEC Chairman Gordon Dean and others.

Soon after he met with Doolittle at a Scientific Advisory Board meeting at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Teller writes that he received a call from Lawrence. "Ernest invited me to come to Berkeley to talk with him. I went, and on Feb. 2, 1952. Ernest took me to view a site that he felt would be an appropriate place for the second weapons laboratory, a one-square-mile area near the little town of Livermore. During World War II, the site had served as an inland Navy base for training pilots. After the war, the base was closed and sat idle until 1950; then Lawrence acquired the land as the site for the material testing accelerator (MTA)."

In June 1952, the Atomic Energy Commission recommended the establishment of a second weapons laboratory — but did not immediately select a location.

The second Lab was sought by the University of California and Lawrence, who hoped to name Herb York as its director. York had worked at Oak Ridge on the uranium separation process during World War II.

Lawrence also recommended that Teller should come to California to assist in the establishment of the new laboratory. That decision, Teller recalls, was "one of the most difficult I have ever had to make." For the University of Chicago physics professor, the Windy City was the home of his closest friends, a hospitable place for immigrants and the place where he was most content. Ultimately, he made the decision to head west.

When the Laboratory opened its doors on Sept. 2, 1952, Teller remembers that the site was still in a rather rudimentary state. With few telephones, only Herb York had a private line; the local post office couldn’t offer a post office box for the new institution; and even with less than 150 people, there were barely enough desks.

"But there was plenty of enthusiasm, energy and excitement in our setting."

Within the first year of the Laboratory’s founding, Teller points out, the pool of talent hired provided the Lab’s directors for its next four decades. The ranks of future directors included Harold Brown, John Foster, Mike May and Roger Batzel. One other future director, John Nuckolls, came to the Laboratory by 1955, nearly part of the original group.

"Finding so many exceptional leaders among the first hundred people who joined the Laboratory is a remarkable record. This group alone would have made the concentration of talent at Livermore striking," Teller said.

One other future director who was hired within the Lab’s first year was Teller himself, who in 1958 succeeded York, when York assumed a Department of Defense position.

Toward the end of 1958, an interim ban on nuclear weapons tests went into effect between the United States and the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower instructed the two laboratories to be ready to start testing in the event the Soviets started testing.

Teller himself had personally supported continued testing for two reasons — to increase knowledge and because of the difficulties with enforcing a ban and detecting violations.

During the interim ban, Teller had the Laboratory make as much use of computers as possible and develop more powerful computer codes that could perform two-dimensional instead of one-dimensional calculations. Teller continued as director until mid-1960, when Harold Brown took his place.

Three years later, in 1963, Teller helped found the UC Davis’ Department of Applied Science, which represents the first and most comprehensive use of a national laboratory for graduate student education and research. The Department of Applied Science has awarded more than 200 Ph.D’s, and nearly an equal number of master of science degrees.

Brushes with tyranny
Although most Americans have never experienced tyranny, Teller’s brushes with totalitarian regimes in Europe helped shape his future views on military preparedness and peace through strength.

As an 11-year-old boy growing up in Budapest, Teller and his family lived under Western Europe’s first communist regime outside the Soviet Union, the 1919 four-month terror crusade of Béla Kun. Those memories still live for him.

"My biggest problem was that I was hungry," Teller writes in his book. "There was no food (or any other kind of goods) for sale in the stores now owned by the communists, because their money was worthless."

On weekends, Teller’s father would take some illegal blue money from the bindings of his law books and, with Edward and his sister Emmi, walk to farms around Budapest to purchase whatever food was available.

"But there was not much to buy. As I recall, cabbage was often all we could find. I still dislike cabbage."

In Teller’s opinion, the 20th-century history of his native Hungary provides a stark illustration of the dangers and harm that can befall a nation that lacks a strong military capability.

After Hungary suffered defeat in World War I, the nation was stripped of half its citizens. Later, it became a dictatorship, initially of the extreme left and then of the extreme right. During World War II, Hungary was again defeated and became a client state of a powerful totalitarian regime.
"Those events cost hundreds of thousands of Hungarians their lives, and those left alive lost their freedom," Teller wrote. "Small wonder that emigrant Hungarians, with both their lives and their freedoms safe, were eager to secure the survival of their hard-won life raft."

Teller had other encounters with the early stages of tyranny as a young scientist living in Germany. After studying quantum mechanics and receiving his doctorate under the renowned Werner Heisenberg at the University of Leipzig, Teller later moved to Göttingen.

He lived in Göttingen, the historic center of German mathematics and physical science between 1930 and 1933. Teller served as an assistant to Arnold Thomas Eucken, a physical chemist, and soon thereafter, also to experimental physicist James Franck, who became Teller’s mentor.
In early 1933, Adolf Hitler was made the chancellor of Germany and as Teller describes it, "within a week, I caught a glimpse of the future."

With the rise of Nazism, the scientific community of Great Britain made a rapid response that surprised Teller. Within about three months of Hitler’s ascension to power, the British started a rescue operation for scientists in Germany, including Teller, whose ethnicity or politics made them vulnerable.

In his first visit to the West, Teller spent time in Britain as a guest of a noted British scientist, George Frederick Donnan. Because Donnan arranged a position for Teller at City College London, the young scientist was able to accept a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in Niels Bohr’s laboratory in Copenhagen. After teaching for a year at University College in London, Teller and his new wife Mici immigrated to the United States in 1935, with Teller taking a physics professorship at George Washington University.

"When I came to the United States, I enjoyed the possibilities of science and teaching — and I had practically nothing to do with defense," Teller said in a recent interview. "Then (fellow Hungarian physicist) Leo Szilard came to me with the suggestion that we must go ahead with developing nuclear explosives." It was Szilard who in 1939 wrote a draft letter to President Roosevelt — on behalf of Albert Einstein — warning the U.S. government of the possibility that Germany might be able to create a new nuclear weapon.

Because Szilard couldn’t drive, he asked Teller to transport him to Einstein’s home on Long Island for him to review the letter that would be sent in the famous physicist’s name.

Around this time, another Teller friend, physicist Enrico Fermi, declined to attend a governmental meeting. "But," he told Teller, "I will tell you what I should say if I were to go. You can deliver the message."

These two events, when combined, put Teller’s noted humor on display: "Thus, I was promoted from chauffeur to messenger boy."

In May 1940, Teller attended a Pan American Congress, where President Roosevelt spoke for about 20 minutes, calling on those present "to protect and defend by every means at our command, our science, our culture, our American freedom and our civilization."

For Teller, who was worried about the possibility of the new weapon but was happy in academia, the speech resolved the dilemma of what he should do.

"I was one of the fortunate helped to escape from the Nazi threat. I was now enjoying the comforts and many benefits of living in a democracy. I had the obligation to do whatever I could to protect freedom."

H-bombs and submarines
While Teller performed defense work for the nation out of a sense of duty, he did it even more out of a sense of alarm.

Following the end of World War II, many in the American scientific community refused to work on the development of a thermonuclear weapon, or hydrogen bomb. Some scientists felt it shouldn’t be studied as a good faith gesture to the Soviet Union, and others reasoned that such a devastating weapon should never be researched because there would be no defense against it.

James Conant, the chairman of the General Advisory Committee, which supervised the Atomic Energy Commission, declared the H-bomb would be built "over my dead body." Both Fermi and Hans Bethe declined to work on the project.

Teller said he realized in 1942 that after an atomic bomb was feasible, a thermonuclear weapon represented the next logical step. "I had little doubt that the Soviets had been working on it for some time." In the long run, he was right.

Andrei Sakharov, the former Soviet H-bomb designer and later dissident, wrote in his memoirs: "Josef Stalin, Beria and company already understood the potential of the new weapon, and nothing could have dissuaded them from going forward with its development. Any U.S. move toward abandoning or suspending work on a thermonuclear weapon would have been perceived as a cunning, deceitful maneuver or as evidence of stupidity or weakness."

In 1955, during a conference at Woods Hole, Mass., that was designed to provide technical advice to the Navy, Teller suggested Livermore scientists might be able to develop a nuclear warhead small enough to be placed on a missile and fired from a submarine.

Carson Mark of Los Alamos indicated that he believed such a task couldn’t be done.

Noting Livermore’s talented young physicists and recent advances, Teller then made a concrete proposal: "For a certain amount of money and in five years time, Livermore could produce a lightweight thermonuclear weapon of a certain small size, suitable for transport by a small long-range missile and powerful enough to be effective."

Mark then changed his position about the feasibility of developing submarine-launched missiles and offered his own proposal — but with more cost, less explosive power and more time to achieve the goal.

That led Adm. Arleigh Burke to comment, "All that doesn’t make much difference. The important thing is that you now agree that it can be done. However, since Teller has promised us more, let him do it."

In the end, Teller contended the results of that decision "proved important to the development of the nation’s defense and to the fledgling Livermore Laboratory."

It was important to national security because it added the third leg of the nuclear retaliation triad (submarine-based missiles) to strategic bombers and land-based missiles.

"…Because of the difficulty of finding a submarine, the deterrent effect of submarine-based missiles remained uncompromised to the end of the Cold War," Teller writes.

Personal insight
Through his book, insights are gained not only into Teller as a scientist, but as a person — his courtship and marriage to the woman, Mici, he knew from his youth in Budapest, his children, his love of pure science and even his hobbies, such as ping pong and music.

As a student in Leipzig, Teller defeated the father of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg, in ping pong. However, Heisenberg went to Japan by ship and played ping pong with a young man who was an expert. After that, Teller was never again able to defeat Heisenberg.

In his life, Teller writes that he has made few purchases of material goods —but probably his favorite "buy" happened in 1941, when he spent three months of Sundays looking for a piano. He finally found a small concert grand Steinway.

Teller has played and enjoyed his Steinway for more than 50 years.

In an October article in Insight magazine, James Lucier wrote: "…Teller’s concepts and work in physics have had a decisive impact in shaping world peace during the last half-century. And even in his mistakes, his instincts proved to be right. A man of wide-ranging interests and culture, Teller often is ranked as one of the most influential persons of the 20th century."

Throughout his youth and early adulthood, Edward Teller always dreamed of becoming a professor of physics. His memoris prove how he became that — and much more.