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A Mixed Legacy

Gregg Herken

JUDGING EDWARD TELLER: A Closer Look at One of the Most Influential Scientists of the Twentieth Century. Istvan Hargittai. 575 pp. Prometheus Books, 2010. $32.

The author of Judging Edward Teller, Istvan Hargittai, is a professor of chemistry at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics and was personally acquainted with Teller. Being not just a fellow scientist but also a countryman of the Hungarian-born Teller has given Hargittai advantages in writing about certain aspects of his subject’s life and career. However, on the role that Teller played in a succession of defense-related controversies in the United States—including the H-bomb decision, the test-ban debate and the origins of the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”)—the book is much less revealing, and even disappointing.

2011-03BREVHerkenFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageJudging Edward Teller focuses on three “exiles” that Teller claimed to have suffered during his lifetime. The first of these was his decision to leave Hungary at the age of 18 for Germany, where, ironically, Jews at the time seemed more likely to be able to pursue a university career. The second occurred when the Nazis came to power, and Teller had to flee, first to England and then the United States. The third and final “exile,” in 1954, followed Teller’s testimony at the loyalty investigation of his former Los Alamos colleague, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. When questioned as to whether he considered Oppenheimer a security risk, Teller’s equivocal answer—that he “would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more”—was a case, Oppenheimer’s supporters said, of thrusting a knife into the back of his onetime friend and twisting it. Whether Teller’s words actually made any difference in the final outcome—the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance and the end of his role as a key science adviser to the U.S. government—is debatable. But there is little doubt that it was a traumatic experience for Teller, and one that haunted him to the end of his days.

The strongest part of Hargittai’s book is its account of Teller’s contributions to the world of science. For example, the author makes understandable, even to the nonspecialist, the part that Teller played, with other colleagues, in the discovery and application of high-temperature superconductors. Likewise, Teller’s subsequent brief foray into biological research—his unsuccessful hunt for the genetic code behind the DNA molecule, which virtually coincided with his involvement in the Oppenheimer affair—is an aspect of the physicist’s life absent from other book-length biographies of Teller and, curiously, even from Teller’s own memoir.

Another part of Hargittai’s book that is new—and is based on the author’s research in state archives opened since the end of the Cold War—is its account of the failed attempts by Hungary’s communist government to recruit Teller as a spy. Both the FBI and the ÁVH (Hungary’s state security service from 1945 to 1956) were aware that Teller had left behind relatives in the country of his birth—a fact that gave rise to fears in the United States, and hopes in Hungary, that the physicist might be blackmailed into giving up defense secrets. There is an almost humorous Cold War counterpoint in the fumbling efforts of the competing gumshoes on both sides of the iron curtain, who, like Inspector Clouseau, occasionally picked the wrong Edward Teller to shadow. (According to Hargittai, the ÁVH nonetheless concluded that Teller’s testimony in the Oppenheimer case was a “‘shrewd’” way of getting rid of his top competitor.)

More than half of this 575-page book is devoted to the role that Teller played in the various defense debates that occupied U.S. policy makers between the time the H-bomb decision was made in 1950 and the advent of “Star Wars” in 1983. The emphasis here is appropriate, since by any measure Teller was one of the most politically influential scientists of the 20th century. Unfortunately, this section is the weakest part of Hargittai’s book.

The chapter titles of Judging Edward Teller reflect the controversies surrounding Teller’s career, which will already be familiar to an American audience of a certain age: “Atomic Bomb Quest,” “Fathering the Hydrogen Bomb,” “Fallout and the Test Ban.” But, except for a brief section explaining the science behind the so-called Teller-Ulam innovation—the conceptual breakthrough that made the H-bomb possible—there are no new facts or insights regarding those controversies. This is perhaps because of Hargittai’s overreliance on two sources in telling the tale: his subject’s own memoirs and a largely hagiographical, semi-authorized biography of Teller published 35 years ago by two journalists, Stanley Blumberg and Gwinn Owens. This occasionally makes for some dated, and even dubious, scholarship. For example, Hargittai repeats a questionable claim made both in Teller’s memoirs and in the Blumberg-Owens biography—that Oppenheimer proposed using the H-bomb in Korea—and cites as evidence for the story a second book on Teller coauthored by Blumberg. Likewise, Hargittai’s version of the creation of the second weapons lab at Livermore—“Teller could count on Lawrence as an important ally”—is exactly backward. The book’s account of the Oppenheimer hearing and its aftermath is also suspect: Ward Evans’s dissenting vote against revoking Oppenheimer’s clearance was not a bold act of conscience on his part, but a cynical ploy by the prosecution, as was the decision by the Atomic Energy Commission to publish a transcript of the hearing; the latter was not “some administrative mix-up,” as the author claims.

Hargittai’s reliance on Teller to tell his own story is also curious in light of the author’s own acknowledgment that Teller repeatedly changed his version of events—most notoriously, regarding the supposed paternity of the H-bomb (which Teller would either boastfully assert or angrily deny, depending on the audience and his mood), but likewise on the matter of who deserved credit for the Teller-Ulam breakthrough. (For another example of Teller’s deliberately selective memory, see the footnote on page 374 of his Memoirs.)

There is a substantial literature on Teller and his scientist-contemporaries that has been published over the past decade or so and is based on primary sources. Hargittai’s failure to make better use of it is puzzling. Although he cites in one footnote more than a dozen relatively recent books dealing specifically with Oppenheimer and Teller and the controversies in which they were involved, there is little evidence of the information those books contain in his narrative. Perhaps most glaringly, the 2005 book American Prometheus, a Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Oppenheimer that also deals extensively with Teller, receives no mention at all.

Instead, Hargittai seems to have elected to talk to other scientists who knew Teller. One was physicist Richard Garwin, who was also involved in inventing the hydrogen bomb. Garwin has contributed an afterword to Judging Edward Teller that contains the most convincing explanation yet of how the Teller-Ulam breakthrough came about. This explanation is consistent with Teller’s own mea culpa in a 1993 interview with this reviewer and other historians at the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Los Alamos lab.

Some important episodes in Teller’s life that evidently remain mysteries to Hargittai were actually solved years ago in other books or scholarly articles. The question of whether compression by radiation-implosion—a concept crucial to a workable H-bomb—was discussed at the 1946 Los Alamos conference on the Super Bomb received an answer with the discovery of the Fuchs–von Neumann patent, which is recounted in several sources now available in the open literature. Similarly, although the contribution that the British-born physicist and Russian spy, Klaus Fuchs, made to the Soviet H-bomb project remains a matter of speculation in Hargittai’s book, a copy of the H-bomb design that Fuchs gave to his Soviet control in a London pub on March 13, 1948, is reprinted in my 2002 book, Brotherhood of the Bomb.

Readers should therefore be wary of Hargittai’s treatment of the political component of Teller’s life. It would be difficult to argue, however, with his assertion that Teller’s legacy is paradoxical—and mixed. There were, Hargittai writes, “a few Tellers.” Although an “extraordinarily gifted physicist” was unquestionably among their number, Teller was also a jealous and resentful figure with an essentially “medieval” approach to human relations. Perhaps fittingly, it was “controversies and scorn—deserved and undeserved—that would form his legacy,” the author concludes.

Gregg Herken is an emeritus professor of history at the University of California and is the author of Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller (Henry Holt, 2002).

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