Minority Report (Interview with Dr. Edward Teller) (Column) (Interview)

By Hitchens, Christopher | The Nation, September 19, 1994 | Go to article overview

Minority Report (Interview with Dr. Edward Teller) (Column) (Interview)


Hitchens, Christopher, The Nation


Crossing the threshold of Dr. Edward Teller's den is an experience to flutter even the most insouciant. For one thing, there is the burden of history. Here is Dr. Strangelove himself, the man who moved us from the nuclear to the thermonuclear stage. For another, there is the immense weight of secrecy, contempt and impatience that always invests those members of the permanent government--the ones who know--when they deign to receive a petitioner from the world of the imperfectly informed. As his bent and shrunken wife gestures into the gloom and shuffles wordlessly away, I can make out a great hunched figure in a crepuscular corner. "Dr. Teller?" I inquire absurdly. The great eyebrows twitch resignedly, as if writing off the next hour or so as a distraction from greater tasks.

There are many things I would like to be asking. Is it true that Teller once proposed nuking the moon as a way of conducting an ex-atmospheric test? What was the effect upon him of living through Bela Kun's 1919 Hungarian Soviet? Did he give the Judas kiss to J. Robert Oppenheimer? Did he really say, during the debate over Kennedy's test-ban treaty, that "a little radiation can be good for you"? But the time is short and I'm considered amazingly lucky by people at Stanford and Livermore to have been received at all, and the appointed topic is the truthfulness of Pavel Sudoplatov [see Walter Schneir, "Sudo-History," June 6]. At the Hoover Institution, which contains perhaps the most sophisticated concentration of ex- and anti-Communists in the world, one must take a view these days as between Robert Conquest, who thinks that Sudoplatov's book Special Tasks is on the right track, and Edward Teller, who regards it as containing "scandalous accusations against numerous well-known scientists who have passed away. Among them are two of the greatest names of science of all time, Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi."

It becomes evident with gratifying speed that for Teller this involves a matter of personal and professional solidarity. "I do not know of a single case where a scientist was also a spy," he say. "But what about Klaus Fuchs?" I reply, feeling rather odd in thus prompting a pillar of the Manhattan Project to, as people used to say, "revive the cold war." "That case is well known," he responds frigidly, contriving to give the impression that such a concession makes no difference to his original pronouncement. I decide not to mention Bruno Pontecorvo, but instead observe offhandedly that, according to Sudoplatov, Soviet intelligence at one time conflated the identities of Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, listing them under the same name in secret code books. Perhaps this explains some of the confusion? My bait is not taken. Teller shrugs and says that he knows nothing of such trivia. Damn.

In Teller's opinion, the whole controversy arises because of a warped relation between science and secrecy. "I agreed to strict secrecy in wartime conditions, and later came to oppose it because there are many things that cannot be kept secret and it is damaging to try. Niels Bohr was always very opposed to secrecy on scientific principles. Secrets should have a time limit. A drawing made by a physicist is one thing; an idea or a principle discovered by a physicist is another." The real difference between Teller and his more conscience-stricken friends, like Bohr and Fermi, was that he did not believe that nuclear breakthroughs either could or should be kept quiet. "Enrico Fermi once told me that if we found out that the hydrogen bomb was not possible, he would be happy. To me this is absurd. To work on a project and to pray for its failure.... There is no case where ignorance should be preferred to knowledge--especially if that knowledge is terrible. And the other difference between me and the others is that I did not assume that if the United States failed to make a discovery, then nobody else would be clever enough to do so." In a moment of quasi-insight, I suddenly realize why Teller emerged as the unsentimental victor in the scientist wars. …

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