Patras Note

The Notes of Avinash Patra, Sr.

My Bookshelf 

Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics

By Avinash Patra, Sr. |  March, 1 2015

On an overnight in the late 1951, train from Chicago to Washington, Edward Teller dreamed that he was alone, in a battlefield trench like the ones that had so terrified him as a child in Hungary during the war. The nine men attacking his position exceeded by one the eight bullets in his rifle—a cold mathematical analysis even in the confused and foggy world of a nightmare.

Teller’s dream might be simply related to anxiety over his impending report to a subcommittee of the Atomic Energy Commission, where he was lobbying for the creation of a new weapons laboratory. Yet more deeply the dream expresses a lifelong sense of being embattled, besieged, alone in a righteous struggle against his many enemies and the forces of evil. Teller remembers being insulted by his ninth- grade mathematics teacher when he correctly answered a question based on material not yet covered in class. “What are you? A repeater?” said the teacher. The boy prodigy was never called on again, even when he was the only one to raise his hand. While working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, where he pursued his own projects rather than his team’s assignments, Teller “slowly came to realize…that my views differed from those held by the majority” in his fear of Communist Russia and in his fierce support of an overwhelming American military superiority extending far beyond World War II.

Soon Teller’s friendship with Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe, both eminent colleagues at Los Alamos, soured as they engaged in mutual criticism, a pattern that was to repeat itself throughout Teller’s life. After the successful construction of the atomic bomb and the end of the war, when Oppenheimer, Bethe, and many other physicists returned to university teaching and peacetime work, Teller felt that he was a lone voice in pushing the development of the hydrogen bomb; leading scientists, he believed, were “trying to prove a hydrogen bomb impossible.” He much resented Norris Bradbury, the new director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory (replacing Oppenheimer), for dragging his feet on the hydrogen weapon, called “the Super” because of its potentially unlimited power and destructiveness; he claimed that Carson Mark, the new head of the theory division (the position Bethe had held), “made it a practice to needle me in a subtle manner.” Everywhere Teller turned, it seemed, were enemies and suspicions.

Teller’s fragile link to his colleagues was finally broken by his hugely unpopular testimony against Robert Oppenheimer in the McCarthy-era hearings of 1954, which deprived the brilliant and charismatic Oppenheimer of his security clearance and forever excommunicated Teller from most of the scientific community. Shortly after the hearings, when Teller spotted a longtime physicist friend at a meeting and hurried over to greet him, “he looked me coldly in the eye, refused my hand, and turned away.” Twice before, oppressive governments and anti-Semitism had driven Teller into exile, from Hungary in early 1926 and from Germany in 1933.

Whatever one thinks of his controversial political positions, Edward Teller's intellect cannot be denied. Historians might want to take special note of his remarks on learning from history: "Thinking that a course of events could have unfolded only the way that it did is reassuring but unjustified. . . . I believe that the only way to learn from history is to consider what was and what might have been" at certain crossroads (p. 216). Teller shows what he means in several extended speculations on might-have-beens scattered throughout these memoirs. What might have happened, for instance, if the United States had not mounted the Manhattan Project? Or if Harold Urey's proposal to separate isotopes by centrifuge (now the most widespread method but rejected by the Manhattan Project in favor of diffusion) had been adopted and the bomb was ready a year earlier for use against the Nazis? Or if President Truman had decided to accept a plan to demonstrate the bomb to the Japanese before wiping out a city? Or if Nelson Rockefeller rather than Richard Nixon had won the 1960 Republican nomination? But for the most part Teller neglects his own advice, eschewing speculation about alternatives to his own courses of action.

The book comprises forty-two smoothly written chapters in fundamentally chronological order. Framed by a brief introduction and epilogue, it can be divided into four parts of roughly equal length. In the first thirteen chapters, Teller relates the story of his growing up in Budapest, becoming a physicist in Germany, and establishing himself in America. Chapters 14-22 cover the decade 1939-49, when Teller pursued his scientific work under military auspices. After the war, he sought to resume his career in academic physics, but retained close connection with nuclear weapons research at the weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The third part of the book, chapters 23-31, addresses what may have been the most crucial period in Teller's life. It began with the Soviet Union testing its first atomic bomb in 1949 and ended five and a half years later in the aftermath of the Atomic Energy Commission hearings that stripped J. Robert Oppenheimer of his security clearance. Until 1949, Teller had remained primarily a scientist. After 1954, his major activities were primarily political. This period saw Teller campaign strenuously for an accelerated H-bomb program, strongly promote the founding of a second nuclear weapons laboratory at Livermore, California, and testify with damaging effect at Oppenheimer's hearing. The final section of the book offers a sketchy account of Teller's activities during the last forty-five years of the twentieth century.

The first half, when Teller acts like a scientist, seems to me the book's most persuasive part. His account of his childhood, youth, and young manhood struck me as particularly engaging. Science also dominates his generally straightforward account of work on the Manhattan Project. But politics begins to intrude as Teller dwells inordinately on his emerging perception of Oppenheimer's "complexity" and other manifestations of hard-to-understand behavior. This seems clearly an attempt to lay the groundwork for his testimony a decade later in the Oppenheimer hearing.

As Teller's tale shifts from a life in science to an increasingly larger role in the politics of science, his version of events becomes distinctly one-sided, often evasive if not tendentious. This is especially true of the final section. Do not expect to find, for instance, a balanced or evenhanded account of such major Teller-promoted efforts—which ultimately failed—as Project Plowshare (peaceful uses for nuclear explosions) or Star Wars (shield in space against nuclear missiles). Neither should you expect any startling revelations.

Thoughtful readers approach any memoir with suspicion. Memoirists are seldom completely honest, but that is not the real problem. Neither is their natural tendency toward one-sidedness. We all edit our memories of past events, unconsciously often enough, to place our behavior in the most favorable light. When memories are consciously rearranged for...