Edward Teller: My brush with greatness

While the entertainment world reels from the loss of Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash, and John Ritter, the world stage will long remember the controversial cold warrior bomb-builder Edward Teller, whose September 9 death got lost in the shuffle. One local remembers the man who built the horrifying "super." –editor


It would be a lie for me to say that Edward Teller and I were friends. It would even be a stretch to call us acquaintances, although we were colleagues on one side of a vital public debate at the height of the Cold War.

The best I can say is that Edward Teller and I crossed paths on about a dozen occasions in the 1980s, participating in conferences together, and engaging in short but substantive conversations on nuclear weapons policy, U.S.-Soviet relations, and international politics.

Teller, who died on September 9 at his home in California at the age of 95, was known as the "father of the hydrogen bomb." He participated in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb, and for many years was head of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which pursued fundamental research in nuclear physics and applied sciences.

My most memorable encounter with Teller was not the first one, in 1981. Rather, it was one of the last meetings we had, on November 16, 1988, at the Washington Hilton Hotel in the nation's capital.

On that occasion, Edward Teller, the American "father of the hydrogen bomb," met for the first time Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet "father of the hydrogen bomb." Sakharov, who as a dissident and human rights activist was forced by the Soviet regime to live in internal exile for many years, was in Washington on his first trip to the United States. (This was in the era of glasnost and perestroika-­ openness and reform-­ ushered in by former Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev.)

The meeting between the two famous physicists was arranged by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think-tank for which I worked at the time. On that night, Teller was to receive the Shelby Cullom Davis Award for "integrity and courage in public life" at a dinner attended by some 750 people in government, business, the academy, and journalism. A few days before the dinner, we learned that Sakharov would be in town and that he had a desire to meet Teller.

As the crowd mingled at the cocktail reception several floors below, the president of the Center, Ernest Lefever, and I waited anxiously for Teller and Sakharov to arrive. Teller came first, accompanied by the massive walking stick he always carried with him. The three of us made some small talk when there was a knock at the door: Sakharov, accompanied by a Russian-English interpreter.

They greeted each other like old friends, although the two had never met before. They sat together on a sofa and chatted amiably about the issues that motivated them: international stability, human rights, and, above all, nuclear physics. They spoke in soft tones, and we left them alone. What passed between them that night, in private, was known only to Teller and Sakharov.

Teller's career was a storied one, and he earned both scorn and accolades in his long life. Never one to mince words, he criticized government officials regardless of political party or ideology when he thought they were on the wrong path. He led a lonely but articulate crusade against U.S. government secrecy, arguing that it was pointless to classify, for example, reports on nuclear weapons research, because the Soviets were able to obtain these reports by stealth and espionage anyway.

The only people left in the dark were American voters, who were then unable to make sensible, fully informed decisions about public policy.

This approach was consonant with Teller's lifelong trust in democracy. In 1950 he wrote: "It is not the scientist's job to determine whether a hydrogen bomb should be constructed, whether it should be used, or how it should be used. This responsibility rests with the American people and with their chosen representatives."

Teller earned the enmity of "peaceniks," appeasers, nuclear freezers, left-wing ideologues, and Communist fellow travelers. In the 1980s, he was hounded by operatives of Lyndon LaRouche's political cult, who heckled him at public speaking events and tried to embarrass him for his support of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the anti-missile project known derisively as "Star Wars."

It was said that the only human casualty of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 was Edward Teller: So exhausted by traveling around the country, speaking out calmly against the Chicken Littles who declared Three Mile Island a disaster, Teller suffered a heart attack and was incapacitated for several weeks.

Teller, of course, had his admirers, too-­ not least among them those who felt that a strong defense posture was necessary in the face of Soviet expansionism, and especially those who felt that true defensive strategies (including civil defense programs and anti-missile programs like SDI) were morally, strategically, and politically imperative.

On that November night in 1988, President Ronald Reagan said that Teller was "a sterling example of what scientific knowledge, enlightened by moral sense and a dedication to the principles of freedom and justice, can do to help all mankind." The President added that Teller was "one of the giants of American science, and one of the bulwarks of American freedom."

Richard Sincere is co-editor of Promise or Peril: The Strategic Defense Initiative, and author of Civil Defense: A Moral, Political, and Strategic Approach, both published in 1986 by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, as well as of other books.

Edward Teller and Richard Sincere at an American Civil Defense Association meeting, circa 1983.