With yesterday’s announcement of the historic nuclear arms treaty signed by Russia and the United States (that would reduce existing stockpiles by as much as 30%) I thought I would repost my piece on Edward Teller’s nuclear legacy from September, 2003 that was originally commissioned by The Nation magazine (though ultimately went unpublished). Also see my posts Intimidating the Soviets: A Hiroshima Anniversary Memorial and The Population Bomb, Nuclear Winter and the Role of Science in Public Advocacy. Yesterday’s treaty is the first step in dismantling the nuclear policies that this would-be Dr. Strangelove spent his lifetime building up.
Many credit Edward Teller for being the inspiration behind Peter Sellers’ classic character in Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
“Edward Teller helped to shape the course of human history,” said George W. Bush as he presented the nuclear scientist with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in July. “He has been a strong advocate for national defense and the cause of human freedom.” Considering that Bush was opposed to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and is funding a program to build “mini-nukes,” this is apt praise indeed. Teller’s death on September 9, at the age of 95, signals the end to the first chapter in an ongoing saga of nuclear proliferation.
Teller was an outspoken proponent of nuclear weapons throughout his life. His campaign began in 1939 when Teller was one of the three scientists who convinced Einstein to alert President Roosevelt about the power of nuclear fission. Three years later he was a premier researcher at Los Alamos. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki Teller pushed to develop a “Super,” or thermonuclear, bomb; a project that Oppenheimer was decidedly against. As head of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Oppenheimer oversaw the unanimous decision “determining not to proceed to develop the Super bomb.” Other members of the Committee, Fermi and Rabi, went even further in their condemnation:
It is clear that such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground… The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness of this weapon makes its very existence and the knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a whole. It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light.
Teller felt he was beyond such concerns, writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that:
[T]he scientist is not responsible for the laws of nature. It is his job to find out how these laws operate. It is the scientist’s job to find the ways in which these laws can serve the human will. However, it is not the scientists job to determine whether a hydrogen bomb should be constructed, whether it should be used, or how it should be used.
But this was somewhat disingenuous. According to Teller’s colleague, Herbert York:
Teller struck off on his own, and from that day on he promoted the idea of a crash program with all of those he contacted, [including] General McCormack and other officers and officials in the AEC and the Pentagon.
Teller’s persistence paid off. On January 31, 1950 President Truman overturned the AEC and directed them “to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or superbomb.”
Despite any protestations to the contrary, Teller actively promoted nuclear weapons programs and testing throughout his career. According to declassified documents Teller spoke against suspending nuclear tests during the first US/Russian negotiations in 1958, told the Scientific Advisory Board in 1961 that it was “urgent” they conduct atmospheric “proof tests,” campaigned against the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, tried to sell Kennedy on the idea that “clean” nukes could be used to cut a second Panama canal, fought for the inclusion of Article V (allowing for “peaceful” nuclear explosives) in the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, suggested that “mini-nukes” could be used as defensive weapons, was one of those who persuaded the Senate to kill the SALT II Treaty in 1986, convinced Reagan that “Star Wars” would work, and, upon hearing that George W. Bush pulled out of the ABM Treaty, the 93-year-old Teller announced, “High Time!”
While the scientific understanding of radiation exposure was vague in our nuclear infancy, Teller was unusually dismissive. In 1958 he wrote that world-wide nuclear fallout:
is not as likely to induce cancer as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, that it is not as likely to give rise to harmful effects as are many unsuspected chemicals in the food we eat or in the air we breathe, that it is not as apt to produce mutations as wearing trousers. It is, in other words, not worth worrying about.
That same year he wrote of the Bikini Atoll tests that:
[A]ll of the Marshalese and American victims seem to be fully recovered from a dosage of radioactivity far greater than any humans are ever likely to be subjected to again from a bomb test. Although long-term effects are still being carefully watched for, no malignancies or cases of leukemia have shown up to date.
He also argued that Carl Sagan and Richard Turco’s nuclear winter theory was “dubious” and “highly speculative.” He went on to say that radioactive fallout and depletion of the ozone layer as a result of nuclear war was “unimportant.”
Needless to say, Teller was almost entirely wrong. In 2001 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported to Congress on the “Health Consequences to the American Population of Nuclear Weapons Tests” (pdf here). The report “estimated that about 11,000 extra deaths from all cancers, including leukemia, would occur among the population of the United States who were alive at any time during the years 1951-2000 as a result of external exposure to fallout.” Furthermore, in the 1995 Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, Anthropologist Glenn Alcalay testified that birth defects, miscarriages and children born with serious maladies were common among the Marshellese women exposed to nuclear fallout:
After the large hydrogen bomb weapons, we see a distinct correlation between distance from Bikini and that being the independent variable and the incidence rate of congenital anomalies. . . This is a quote from a Mili Latobo on Utirik, and I quote, she says, “Some women gave birth to creatures like cats, rats and the insides of turtles, like intestines. Most of the women had miscarriage, including myself, who gave birth to something unlike a human being. Some women gave birth to things resembling grapes and other fruits, and some women even stopped having children, including myself. Things are not the same now, and the people are not as active and healthy as before the bomb.”
Hopefully we won’t ever know if Teller was also wrong about nuclear winter.
Now that Teller is gone we can start cleaning up his mess. However, though history may speak against him, Teller’s influence still runs deep in current policy circles. As a senior member of the Center for Security Policy he urged then Governor Bush in 2000 to enact “comprehensive anti-missile protection” and hailed Donald Rumsfeld as the “Keeper of the Flame.” Edward Teller may have been known as the “father of the H-bomb,” but he leaves many sons in ideology.