"I do really feel it would have been a better world without Teller," Nobel Prize laureate Isidor Rabi once said about Dr. Edward Teller, who passed away last week at the age of 95 and was Rabi's colleague on the Manhattan Project to build the first American atomic bomb. "If pure evil is walking on the planet, it is undoubtedly Teller," said another critic about the man considered to be the father of hydrogen bomb.
Few were the scientists of the 20th century whose personalities and activities managed to inspire such vehement emotions of fear and hatred by his opponents, of admiration and affection by his supporters, as did Teller. His life story is important not only because he had a decisive influence over the views and policies of American presidents over the last six decades, but also because to a large extent, he is the person whose views shaped the nuclear world of our age, which amazingly has not been destroyed by the destructive weapons Teller worked so diligently to praise and develop.
It is doubtful that without the unceasing efforts of Teller, the hydrogen bomb, which makes the original "ordinary" atomic bomb pale in comparison, would ever have been born. For a decade, and practically on his own, he pushed his idea for the ultimate "super-bomb" weapon, until he finally convinced President Harry Truman to order the Atomic Energy Commission, on January 13, 1950, to continue working on all forms of nuclear weapons, including the hydrogen bomb. Less than two years later, on January 1, 1952, the U.S. detonated the first hydrogen bomb, 700 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Pacific island where the bomb went off simply vaporized.
But Teller was not only the "father of the hydrogen bomb," he was a highly influential, enthusiastic supporter of the development of all sorts of nuclear weapons. He was a determined opponent to the end of nuclear testing, and he managed to persuade President Ronald Reagan to develop expensive, unnecessary anti-missile systems.
But mostly he will be remembered as someone with profound suspicions of the Soviet Union's intentions, whose hatred of the Communist regime guided him to his last day. In short, it can be said that for more than half a century, he was at the most critical strategic junctions and contributed more than anyone else to the crazed arms race that at its height had more than 70,000 missiles aimed at each other on both sides of the Iron Curtain, which, had they ever been used, would have destroyed civilization.
But it would be a mistake to regard Teller as a lonely and isolated man whose only efforts were nuclear armament and the acquisition of unlimited power. In effect, his life and deeds personified the concepts of national security held by American leaders for generations. When Teller made clear that life taught him to stick to the slogan, "never trust a soul," and when he would explain that "in a dangerous world, you can never reach attain unless you are strong," he in effect was quoting the foundations of the world view that formed the basis of American policy during the 50 years of the Cold War.
As a Jewish boy in Hungary he witnessed the horrors of a Communist regime, and later a Fascist one. As a university lecturer who was forced to leave Germany after Hitler's rise to power and then followed the fate of his family left behind in Hungary under the Communist regime that followed World War II, Teller had a profound hatred for tyrants and dictators and a real fear of Communism. That combination of "fear of the Reds" and years of frustration that he was not backed by his scientific colleagues in his efforts to develop the hydrogen bomb, made him testify against Robert Oppenheimer, who fell victim to the McCarthyist hysteria of the 1950s. It was Teller's testimony that apparently sealed the fate of Oppenheimer, the legendary scientific boss of the Manhattan Project, stripping Oppenheimer of his security clearance.
Nearly all of Teller's colleagues in the scientific community boycotted Teller because of it and he admitted late in life that it was a regrettable mistake on his part. The role of Dr. Strangelove, the eccentric scientist in the Stanley Kubrick classic, the man with an artificial arm who speaks with a heavy central European accept, was inspired by Teller. He lost a leg jumping off a street car in Munich in 1928 and to the day he died he spoke with a heavy Hungarian accent. Kubrick made a brilliant satire, meant to attack the knights of the Cold War and to warn against accelerating the arms race.
Peter Sellers' depiction of the mad scientist advising the president to launch missiles to destroy communists everywhere may have been famous, but the movie had no influence over American policy. Teller remained one of the most important and influential advisors to American presidents. His combative worldview has enjoyed a revival with the arrival of George Bush Jr. in the White House, and he enjoyed seeing the young president adopt a new policy that lowered the threshold on nuclear threats and included programs for developing new nuclear weapons. Bush canceled the treaty against anti-missile systems, and even accelerated their development, just as Teller sought in the 1980s.
Thus, instead of Teller's death becoming a symbol of the death of the spirit of the Cold War, his heirs have taken control in Washington and they are now proudly carrying on with the legacy of the man who nearly led the world to self-destruction. Teller may have died, but regrettably, the ghostly heirs of Dr. Strangelove now roam through the corridors of the White House and Pentagon.