Dr Strangelove vs St Sakharov

Memoirs - Sakharov
July 26, 2002

Unlike Teller, his Russian rival put human values first, says Joseph Rotblat.

The second half of the past century was dominated by the cold war and the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the US. The nuclear age began in 1945 with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic (fission) bombs, but the arms race started a few years later, when the USSR caught up with America and tested its own atomic bomb. Alarmed by the loss of the US nuclear monopoly, President Truman ordered a crash programme for the development of the hydrogen bomb (H-bomb), with a destructive power 1,000 times greater than the A-bomb. This time, the Soviets were not behind - they developed their own H-bomb at about the same time. Within a few decades, both sides accumulated arsenals of these weapons so large that if all the bombs had been detonated, not only would civilisation have been brought to an end, but the continued existence of the human race might have been threatened.

The names of two scientists stand out in this dismal saga: Andrei Sakharov, Russian physicist, and Edward Teller, Hungarian-born US physicist. Whenever either man is mentioned in the media, he is generally described as "the father of the H-bomb". Although Teller's paternity has been put in question, there is no doubt that both men played pivotal roles in the development of nuclear weapons. Both were brilliant scientists; both hated the Communist regime; and both became deeply involved in political issues and influenced events in their countries. But here the similarity ends: Sakharov is esteemed for his courage in standing up for human rights, while Teller is the bete noire of the scientific community. Sakharov was awarded the Nobel prize for peace, Teller was called a war criminal and had to seek refuge from physical assault over the Vietnam war.

How have two persons with so much in common ended up with such radically different reputations? I met both of them in various circumstances, and read much about them. Even so, my knowledge was considerably augmented by these two books. Sakharov is a biography by Richard Lourie, an American writer, who earlier translated from the Russian Sakharov's autobiography, published in 1990, a year after its author's death at the age of 68. Memoirs , by Edward Teller, is a monumental autobiography from birth to 2000, when the author was 92 years old.

For three years after the bombing of Hiroshima, Sakharov took no interest in politics and consistently refused invitations to join the Communist Party, even though doing so would have given him significant benefits. He was quite happy to carry out pure research in theoretical physics. His brilliance and power of original thinking came through clearly in this work, and he was twice invited to join the team working on the secret bomb project. Twice he rejected the party, but the third time, in 1948, he was not invited but ordered by a decree of the Central Committee in Moscow to join the work on the H-bomb.

It took him only a few weeks to think out the principles of the bomb. Its design and manufacture were completed by 1953, when it was successfully tested, putting the Soviet Union on a par with the US. Sakharov instantly became the darling of the establishment. At the age of 32, he was elected to full membership of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, awarded the title of Hero of Socialist Labour (later two more came) and showered with prizes and medals, some with generous financial appurtenances.

But cracks soon appeared in his relationship with the Soviet establishment. A man of integrity, Sakharov could not long tolerate the disregard for life and liberty shown by the Communist regime. The first sign of dissidence related to the H-bomb project. Sakharov was strongly opposed to atmospheric testing of these weapons because of the large number of deaths that, he believed, would result all over the world from exposure to the radioactive fallout. He conveyed these concerns to Nikita Khrushchev privately and was immediately rebuked publicly: "Sakharov, don't try to tell us what to do or how to behave." From that moment on, Sakharov decided that he would tell them what to do and how to behave.

His first interventions were on behalf of colleagues who were unfairly dismissed from their posts and often ended up in gulags. Gradually, the criticisms became bolder and embraced the whole conduct of the party in relation to prisoners of conscience, and human rights in general. The establishment did not take kindly to such dissident activities, but Sakharov's reputation across the world was such that they did not dare to mete out to him the kind of punishment normal for lesser mortals. But their patience was running out. Step by step, Sakharov's privileges were withdrawn, his awards revoked. He was put under constant surveillance, and a number of "incidents" occurred to make his life miserable, including the theft of his memoirs, which he had to rewrite from memory.

When Sakharov was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1975, the award was greeted with joy by friends and followers all over the world. But it received a very hostile reception from the Soviet establishment, and Sakharov's application for a visa to Norway to deliver the Nobel lecture was rejected on the pretext that he possessed knowledge of state secrets. His (second) wife, Elena Bonner, who had been an active and enthusiastic supporter of Sakharov's campaigns throughout the whole period, delivered the lecture in Oslo on his behalf.

The award, by making Sakharov's name familiar everywhere, helped his ever-widening human-rights campaigns. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, he came out in open opposition. This was too much for the Communist Party apparatus, and Sakharov was banished to Gorky, an exile that lasted seven years. Gorky (now with its original name, Nizhny Novgorod, restored) was a city closed to foreigners. Without a telephone, Sakharov was effectively cut off. However, his wife was allowed to be with him, which made his life much easier and enabled him to conduct his campaign to some extent. On several occasions, he had to resort to hunger strikes (sometimes ending in forced feeding) to achieve some concessions.

After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, many of the issues for which Sakharov had fought were conceded. Sakharov was allowed to return to Moscow in December 1986, and he immediately resumed his campaigns with vigour. For the remaining three years of his life, he threw himself deeper into the political arena, even becoming a very active member of parliament and exerting an ever-increasing influence. One of his last efforts was to draft a new constitution, which would guarantee all human rights in a flexible, plural, tolerant society.

Sakharov lived just long enough to see the Berlin Wall come down - that symbol of the oppression that he had fought so valiantly throughout his life.

Teller's Memoirs are written in a lively and entertaining style (certainly as compared with Lourie's book). In chronological order, Teller describes with a touch of humour his years in Budapest, from birth to the end of school education; his first scientific steps in Germany; and later, when driven out by Hitler, his life in the US, where he held professorships in various universities, interposed with sojourns in government establishments.

Commingled with his academic and military activities are accounts of his private life. His devotion to his family, and his cultural ties to the countries of his youth come through clearly in many anecdotes and citations. The book is remarkable for the great detail in Teller's recollections, which give it an aura of authenticity and frankness.

It is therefore rather surprising that in regard to some important events in his life, such as work on the H-bomb, Teller's recollections differ in a material way from the accounts of these events in the literature, particularly in the two books by Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb , which are generally considered to provide the definitive history of the development of nuclear weapons. But, then, Teller himself described his book as "my version of the facts".

Teller began work on the Super project - the name given to the initial research on the feasibility of the hydrogen bomb - in Los Alamos, almost from the very beginning of the Manhattan Project. His main collaborator was a mathematician, Stanislav Ulam, who carried out the calculations on the workability of the H-bomb based on Teller's concepts. In those days, just as computers were coming in, such calculations were very slow. Eventually Ulam came up with the answer: Teller's concept was unworkable. But Teller did not accept this finding, and insisted that the project should continue as he had proposed. By the end of 1950, when President Truman ordered that the H-bomb work go ahead with full speed, there was still no way of making the bomb work. Then Ulam came up with a new idea. He communicated it to Teller, who immediately accepted; and added another idea that made the project even more feasible. The two of them produced a report that became the basis for the development of the hydrogen bomb.

This sequence of events is generally accepted by the scientific community and is fully described in Rhodes's books. Rhodes refers to the H-bomb as the Teller-Ulam project and intimates that the bomb could have been developed a few years earlier, had Teller not stuck to the Super scheme.

But in his Memoirs , Teller insists that the "credit" for the H-bomb is entirely his. In repudiating Ulam's contribution, he goes out of his way to blacken Ulam's character. According to Teller, Ulam was vain and lazy; two hours' work in a day was as much as he would do. He claims that Ulam's concept was not original; that he (Teller) had thought of it earlier; and, moreover, that Ulam never understood the concept properly. The fact that in a published article, he (Teller) gave full credit to Ulam, he now explains as a white lie.

The earlier smearing of another colleague, with whom he had disagreements, ended disastrously for Teller, with his shunning by the scientific community. I refer to the by-now-famous case of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The relationship between Teller and Oppenheimer got off to a bad start from the very beginning of the Manhattan Project. Teller recollects an event in 1942 when Oppenheimer apparently told him: "In the present situation, we must cooperate with the general [General Groves, the army officer in charge of the project], but the time will come when we will have to stop working with the military." This deeply shocked Teller, he says, and his relationship with Oppenheimer became cooler from that moment.

I am puzzled by this strong reaction. The Manhattan Project was run as a military operation, an unusual setting for scientists, and it would be quite natural for them to want to go back to civilian life. Only a perverted mind would read Oppenheimer's words as an incitement to civil disobedience, as interpreted by Teller.

There were several other areas of conflict, but the main one related to the development of the H-bomb. Teller accused Oppenheimer of discouraging work on the Super, and, later, of opposing it. Oppenheimer did initially oppose the project, on moral and technical grounds, but he gave it his support once the Ulam plan was presented.

His initial opposition was one of several factors that prompted the Atomic Energy Commission to question Oppenheimer's loyalty. In the witch-hunt climate of the McCarthy period, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the accusation by some security people that Oppenheimer was engaged in subversive activities resulted in the suspension of his security clearance.

A special board was convened to investigate Oppenheimer's loyalty. In April/May 1954, hearings were held at which a number of scientists, as well as military and security personnel, testified about Oppenheimer's loyalty. Teller was among the senior scientists. The transcript of his long testimony is reproduced in the Memoirs . When asked whether he did or did not believe that Oppenheimer was a security risk, he gave the following reply: "In a great number of cases I have seen Dr Oppenheimer act - I understood that Dr Oppenheimer acted in a way which for me was exceedingly hard to understand. I thoroughly disagreed with him on numerous issues, and his actions, frankly, appeared to me confused and complicated. To this extent, I feel that I would like to see the vital interest of this country in hands which I understand better and therefore trust more."

By a majority of two to one, the board decided not to reinstate Oppenheimer's security clearance. The general feeling among scientists was that Teller's testimony was the decisive factor in reaching the verdict, and they severely criticised him for it. Many colleagues refused to have any further dealings with him.

And not only scientists: in the 1980s, when President Reagan entertained Gorbachev at an official reception in the White House, Gorbachev ostentatiously refused to shake hands with Teller.

Teller's single-mindedness in pursuing the build-up of US nuclear strength, both in offensive and defensive warfare - he originated the Strategic Defence Initiative, which became known as the Star Wars programme - was motivated by his hatred of the Soviet regime and his fear of a Soviet attack. But he also developed a scientific reason for his stand: the quest for knowledge. "Throughout my life, I have had a strong conscious and unconscious addiction to knowledge. Suppressing knowledge seems to me wrong and impractical."

In my view, the underlying notion that the acquisition of knowledge overrides all other considerations is unsustainable. Josef Mengele justified his "experiments" in Auschwitz on the grounds that they would provide new knowledge. I am not suggesting that Teller would, even for a moment, endorse such action, but the search for knowledge cannot be absolute. There are other principles that override it, humanitarian principles. Scientists must always remember that they are human beings first, scientists second. And adherence to ethical principles may sometimes call for limits on the pursuit of knowledge.

Sakharov strongly advocated a ban on nuclear tests in the atmosphere because of the human casualties that would result. Teller strongly campaigned against such a ban because it would prevent the acquisition of knowledge that he considered to be important for the security of his adopted country. And he rationalised his stand by claiming that small doses of radiation were not harmful, a claim that is contradicted by the generally accepted norms on radiation exposures.

This is one among many reasons why Sakharov will always be revered as an intrepid champion of human values, while Teller will go down in history as the real Dr Strangelove.

Sir Joseph Rotblat, Nobel laureate, was president, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, from 1988 to 1997.

Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics

Author - Edward Teller with Judith Shoolery
ISBN - 1 903985 12 9
Publisher - Perseus Press
Price - £24.99
Pages - 628

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