The Father of Proliferation: Edward Teller's Nuclear Legacy

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nuclear legacy from September, 2003 that was originally commissioned by The Nation magazine (though ultimately went unpublished).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.


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"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."

That's correct and gives me license to speak in defense of Teller.

At the time that Teller urged the development of the hydrogen bomb there was much uncertainty in the atomic weapon arena. Not only were the immediate and long range effects of such weapons inadequately understood (lack of real world experience) as well a the practical usage of such weapons, there was a singular certainty. Simply put, the production of a thermonuclear weapon by someone was a foregone conclusion. The technical knowledge might have been lacking but the theory was compelling. Basic rule of thumb: if it can be done it probably will be done.

Teller was not an advocate of aggressive confrontation. He was facing up to the certainty that the H-bomb would be developed by others whether America did or not. The science exists outside of intent. He understood that imperative and saw the need to do what was necessary to meet and resist the inevitable threat. Perhaps to just hold against it. The value or his insistence has been born out by history. We (US and Russia, aka USSR) still have the bombs; we are disposed to not use them; the outcome is clear to established nuclear powers. It's the young ones that are the concern.

In order to defend against a risk, I venture, one must understand the nature of the risk. If I am to defend myself against a pugilist then I'd not only better understand how to throw a punch and how to take one as well. Or be holding four foot of two-by-four.

Teller will remain a controversial figure as long as he is remembered. I credit him with being instrumental in maintaining the precarious balance which allowed me to grow to adulthood and become a grandfather. I don't want to imagine the present had America not developed the UberWeapon. Such a lurch in the balance of power (read: threat of power) would have certainly skewed history as we know it. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction pissed me off royally when I was just a grade school student. Still does. Regardless, that my nation was an equally insane and dangerous player in that game has the perverse benefit of my being here, typing this, thinking of what I'll have to offer my grand kids when I next visit.

Teller was no saint; he is almost soul-less from some vantages. Nevertheless, he confronted the inevitable and probably prevented something very, very nasty. We can relax a bit these days by virtue of his will to keep a balance of power. Now it is up to us all to find a better avenue of conflict resolution than the threat of destruction.

The question is, how long can we keep it up? How long can we maintain a balance? How long until someone cracks under pressure, real or imagined, and starts something that resists solution? Who will be the next asshole and how shall civilization protect itself? These answers are not readily available. Sometimes insight and guidance requires a Teller to tell us. Perhaps another Teller will appear . . .

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 09 Apr 2010 #permalink

. . . with insight into twenty-first century nuclear intrigue.

I suppose that once upon a time there was an individual who knew a lot about throwing rocks at enemies and prey. That one went to lengths, for the first time in our ancestral history, to explain not only the finer points of aiming and delivery and follow through but also of when and how hard to throw the rock.

Deliberations concerning weapons of mass destruction are nothing new. Machine guns, carbines, explosives, crossbows, arrows, spears and sticks have all been used and abused as weapons. Or as mere instruments of coercion. Same difference.

I am not championing the development or use of any weapon. I merely recognize that it is a common human trait to do so. I am deeply interested in how we cope with such ability. More directly I am interested in understanding how to reconcile the possession of power with restraint in its use. The spook in the pantry is the uncertainty of future power. The same science and humanity that gave us the A-bomb and the H-bomb are still hard at work. Such shit tires my poor old ass.

Perhaps if we teach our children well they will have some insight or ability that we lack or have missed . . .

Ahh. I'm dreaming.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 09 Apr 2010 #permalink

For some reason I started thinking about the movie Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

That Peter Sellers managed to play the roles of disparate and contradictory characters in the movie, and pull it off, rips great satire from the fact that people are easily led and that the lineup of prospective leaders is long. That the exhibition of leadership qualities is portrayed as not a requirement for serious consideration of authority is interesting and more than embarrassingly contemporary. The payoff of the movie is that fate is totally out of control and yet human excesses can inform it in ways that defy predictability while convincing humans that fate is fixed. Such a fertile field for confusion.

Lately there is little concern that a nuclear war is imminent for the simple reason that the principal nuclear nations have read the tea leaves and found them uninformative at best, desultory at worst. There is legitimate concern that there are some who are less circumspect; to whom every symbol, every tea leaf, every leaning of desire confirms, demands an aspiration to power. We will observe how they fare in the longer term, should we be alive and observant, and we'll once again learn that to be strong is not the same as being powerful.

Any idiot, given sufficient tech and squeeze, can blow shit up. What can they build save anger and a desire in others to blow more shit up?

I should stop now. Blood pressure, you know. Thanks for your blog Eric.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 09 Apr 2010 #permalink

A pleasure to meet you tonight Eric, and a very interesting post on some recent history. Hope to see you again at a sciencescouty or local beery event!

Edward Teller was also the father of Nuclear Proliferation in the sense that he was responsible for the clandestine transfer of Nuclear weapons technology to Israel.

I´m currently at the Review Conference of the Non-Poliferation -Treaty. Trying to enlighten the negotiations with some transparency. Our project is a website that provides general as well as very specifiy and detailed information about th eNPT and all th etopics regarding it.
We could get a hold of some very interesting people, such as the former president of the 1995 RevCon.
If you are interested in non-proliferation of nuclear weapons than our website might be of interest to you!
If you like it get back to us!