Past, present and future

A century defined

23 May 2002

During World War II, Edward Teller participated in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos as the USA raced Nazi Germany to build the first atomic bomb. In the war's aftermath, he helped shepherd the USA's efforts to build the first hydrogen bomb. In 1955, Teller advanced the concept of submarine-launched nuclear missiles, providing the USA with the third and most secure leg of its nuclear retaliation triad.
Later, in the 1980s, the theoretical physicist served as a determined advocate for the development of a ballistic missile defence system.
But, of all of the 94-year-old scientist's contributions to national security, the achievement of which he is 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 birth in Budapest, Hungary, is outlined in the book, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics.

A Misunderstanding
In his book, Teller describes how, 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 the capability to answer all 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.
In June 1952, the Atomic Energy Commission recommended the establishment of a second facility - 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 asked Teller to come to California to help set up the new laboratory. He left Chicago reluctantly.
When the laboratory opened its doors on September 2, 1952, Teller recalls that the site was in a rudimentary state. Only Herb York had a private phone line; the local post office couldn't offer a box for the new institution; and even with less than 150 people, there were barely enough desks.
But he adds that there was "plenty of enthusiasm, energy and excitement."
The first year's recruits would provide the lab's directors for the next four decades: Harold Brown, John Foster, Mike May and Roger Batzel. Another, John Nuckolls, came in 1955.
"This group alone would have made the concentration of talent at Livermore striking," Teller says. He succeeded York to become a director himself in 1958.

Brushes with tyranny
Teller's brushes with totalitarian regimes in Europe had shaped his 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. Teller writes that his biggest problem was hunger. "There was no food for sale in the stores now owned by the communists, because their money was worthless."
On weekends, Teller's father would take illegal 'blue' money from the bindings of his law books and, with Edward and his sister walk to farms around Budapest to buy whatever food was available.
"As I recall, cabbage was often all we could find. I still dislike it," he adds.
In Teller's opinion, the 20th-century history of his native Hungary starkly illustrates what can befall a nation that lacks a strong military capability.
After a crushing defeat in World War I, Hungary became a dictatorship, of the extreme left and then of the extreme right. During World War II, the country 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 writes. "Small wonder that emigrant Hungarians were eager to secure the survival of their hard-won liferaft."
Teller had other encounters with tyranny, as a young scientist living in Germany. After studying quantum mechanics and receiving a doctorate at the University of Leipzig, he moved to Göttingen.
Teller lived in Göttingen, the centre of German mathematics and physical science between 1930 and 1933. He served as an assistant to physical chemist Arnold Eucken, and to experimental physicist James Franck, who became his mentor.
In 1933, Hitler became chancellor, and Teller says that he caught a terrifying glimpse of the future "within a week."
The scientific community of Great Britain made a rapid response to the rise of Nazism that surprised Teller. Within about three months of Hitler's ascension, the British started a rescue operation for scientists in Germany, including Teller, whose ethnicity or politics made them vulnerable.
Teller arrived in Britain in 1934, as a guest of scientist George Donnan. After teaching for a year at City College, London, he took a professorship at George Washington University and moved to the USA.

Letter to the president
"When I came to the USA, I enjoyed the possibilities of science and teaching - and I had practically nothing to do with defence," 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 that Germany might be able to create a new nuclear weapon.
Because Szilard couldn't drive, he asked Teller to take him to Einstein's home on Long Island for the famous scientist to review the letter.
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."
"Thus, I was promoted from chauffeur to messenger boy," says Teller.
In May 1940, Teller attended a Pan American Congress, where Roosevelt called on delegates to "protect and defend by every means ... our science, our culture, our American freedom and our civilization."
For Teller, who 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
Teller performed defence work for the nation out of a sense of duty, but even more out of a sense of alarm.
After the war, many scientists refused to work on the development of a thermonuclear weapon, or hydrogen bomb. Some 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 defence against it.
James Conant, 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 realised in 1942 that a thermonuclear weapon represented the next step from the development of the atomic bomb. "I had little doubt that the Soviets had been working on it for some time," he says. He was right.
Andrei Sakharov, the former Soviet H-bomb designer and 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 US move toward abandoning or suspending work on a thermonuclear weapon would have been perceived as a cunning, deceitful manoeuvre or as evidence of stupidity or weakness."
In 1955, during a conference at Woods Hole, Mass, that was held 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.
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 small size, suitable for transport by a small long-range missile and powerful enough to be effective."
Teller remarked that the decision to go ahead with the project "proved important to the development of the nation's defence 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 wrote.
In a recent issue of 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 is ranked as one of the most influential persons of the 20th century."


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