Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Journey in Science and Politics

Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Journey in Science and Politics

by Edward Teller, Judith Schoolery

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Edward Teller is perhaps best known for his belief in freedom through strong defense. But this extraordinary memoir at last reveals the man behind the headlines--passionate and humorous, devoted and loyal. Never before has Teller told his story as fully as he does here. We learn his true position on everything from the bombing of Japan to the pursuit of weapons


Edward Teller is perhaps best known for his belief in freedom through strong defense. But this extraordinary memoir at last reveals the man behind the headlines--passionate and humorous, devoted and loyal. Never before has Teller told his story as fully as he does here. We learn his true position on everything from the bombing of Japan to the pursuit of weapons research in the post-war years. In clear and compelling prose, Teller chronicles the people and events that shaped him as a scientist, beginning with his early love of music and math, and continuing with his study of quantum physics under Werner Heisenberg. He also describes his relationships with some of the century's greatest minds--Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, Szilard, von Neumann--and offers an honest assessment of the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, the founding of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and his complicated relationship with J. Robert Oppenheimer.Rich and humanizing, this candid memoir describes the events that led Edward Teller to be honored or abhorred, and provides a fascinating perspective on the ability of a single individual to affect the course of history.

Editorial Reviews

National Interest
A fascinating record of the mutual entanglement of theoretical physics and world politics in the 20th century.
[Teller] writes with warmth, humor, and optimism.
Washington Post
An important, informative, and that fully lives up to expectations and can be wholeheartedly recommended.
Curiosity will impel even [Teller's] harshest critics into these memoirs, where both his powerful intellect and his imperious ego are on full display.
San Diego Union-Tribune
[A]n illuminating, personable portrayal of arguably one of the greatest physicists of modern times.
Physics Today
Fascinating...Edward has captured the joys and the sorrows of [his life journey] in beautiful detail.
Times Literary Supplement
Much of [Memoirs] is indeed the raw material of history and deserves to be held as an archive.
National Review
At once lively and profound...[ Memoirs] chronicles a remarkable life.
Publishers Weekly
Teller's isn't a household name today, but in the 1950s he was dubbed "the father of the hydrogen bomb." Born in Hungary in 1908, Teller was educated in Germany, where he worked with some of the century's great scientists prior to the Nazi takeover. After arriving in the United States in 1935, he collaborated with other distinguished ?migr?s, such as Enrico Fermi and fellow Hungarian John von Neumann; he was one of the first scientists dispatched to Los Alamos, where he worked on the theoretical aspects of atom bomb design. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki came troubling years: Teller encountered great opposition to future nuclear research from the scientific community and found former friends unwilling to shake his hand after he testified against J. Robert Oppenheimer in Oppenheimer's 1954 security review. Later, Teller went on to establish the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories as a center for ground-breaking research in many fields, and in the late 1950s became a scientific consultant to Nelson Rockefeller. As is often the case with memoirs, time is relative: the years in the book's last half move much more quickly than those in the first. This is unfortunate, since Teller's work on safe proliferation of nuclear energy, the so-called Stars Wars defense system and the early detection of earth-crossing objects is almost as important as his work during the first part of his career. While waiting for a future biographer to give the latter years their proper due, readers can enjoy these panoramic and beautifully written recollections of one of the great scientific, if controversial, figures of all time. (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
At 93, Teller is one of the last living links to the golden age of 20th-century physics. He was there when quantum theory was conceived, he participated in the Manhattan Project, and he has been called the "father" of the hydrogen bomb. Yet for all of his indisputable scientific genius, he is perhaps best known for his conservative politics. Just as Teller has been lauded by conservatives and reviled by liberals, some readers will find this book frank and revealing, while others will see it as hubristic and self-serving. For example, Teller's own version of his role in the Oppenheimer hearings understandably puts a sympathetic spin on events that some writers have likened to character assassination (see Richard Rhodes's Dark Sun, LJ 8/95). Political opinions aside, this book has flaws: it is too long and packed with unnecessary details, and it contains just one appendix (the text of Teller's testimony at the Oppenheimer hearings). General readers will do better with Stanley A. Blumberg and Louis G. Panos's Edward Teller (o.p.), but it should be noted that, when that book was published, many reviewers criticized it for whitewashing its subject. Clearly, Teller's story is far from simple. Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., SUNY Albany Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"Fear of science and technology, which have empowered humans since the beginning of history, is the height of folly": so writes Teller, inventor of the H-bomb and reputed model for Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. Now 93, Teller appears ready to forgive old foes like J. Robert Oppenheimer, who turns up at many points in this oddly engaging memoir. Not that he was wrong, he hastens to add, in not defending "Oppie" when the latter was dismissed from his nuclear-weapons research position as a security threat, having flirted with communism and having made, in Teller's presence, odd references to governmental tyranny. He even forgives atom spy Klaus Fuchs for his treason, for, writes Teller, "from what I have seen of the competence of Soviet scientists, I have reason to believe that they could have produced the weapons independently, once they knew that an atomic bomb could be produced." Teller's overarching theme here is the politics of science, the application of political power to questions of technology, and he writes as an evident master of the game, basically untroubled by the moral implications of the weapons he developed-but convinced nevertheless that Harry Truman would have done better to explode an A-bomb over Tokyo Bay during the evening rush hour so that the Japanese could have witnessed its power and surrendered without loss of life. Though it will be disturbing to many readers, Teller's narrative has many fine moments: he writes affectingly of his youth in a Hungary, and later Germany, in which anti-Semitism was on the rise, pays quiet homage to his beloved late wife, and even explains how he lost a foot in an accident involving a trolley car. (Terry Southern andKubrick cruelly commemorated that loss by placing their Dr. Strangelove in a wheelchair.) But those fine moments are diminished somewhat by Teller's snappish dismissals of those who question the ethics of modern science, and he closes by insisting that we moderns have nothing to fear from today's bugbears such as genetically modified food, cloning, and nuclear power, all of which, he assures us, will lead to a brighter tomorrow. This memoir will not silence Teller's many critics; indeed, it will provide them further ammunition. Still, a useful, if (of course) self-serving, contribution to the history of science and the literature of the Cold War.

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Excerpt from Chapter 2:

Learning About War, Revolution, and Peace


In June 19114, news from Sarajevo produced a tension that I have never forgotten: The crown prince and his wife had been murdered. My family was in the dining room of our apartment, the grown-ups with their newspapers, and someone read aloud: "In spite of the tragedy, there will be no war." I was properly worried about war and the likelihood of fathers' being drafted.

"Why will there be no war?" I asked. "Because there is no reason that there should be war." "But if there is no reason, why does the newspaper say that there will be no war?" I remember my confusion to this day. Until then, my questions had always earned me my mother's immediate attention and an explanation. On this occasion, not only did my questions go unanswered, I was even told to be quiet!

Today, I believe I know the answer. In 1914, Franz Joseph was eightyfour. He had begun his rule in 1848, as part of the resolution of the Hungarian revolt, at the age of eighteen. About two decades later, in the hope of increasing popular support, Emperor Franz Joseph granted considerable autonomy to Hungary and added the title "King of Hungary" to his name. During the following years, Austro-Hungary expanded south into BosniaHerzegovina, which then, as now, was a region of intense ethnic pride and nationalistic conflict.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the menace of terrorism spread through the western world; the terrorists of the nineteenth century-called anarchists-wanted to bring an end to all government. Like their twentiethcentury counterparts, they committed acts of violence to provoke countermeasures that would, in turn, bring down the existing order. Anarchists murdered presidents, prime ministers, and members of royal families. (Today, terrorists are more democratic.)

During my childhood walks, I noticed a statue of Queen Elizabeth, Franz Joseph's wife, beside the Danube. Queen Elizabeth was a beautiful lady. I was curious about her and was told that the Hungarian people loved her and that she had had died at the hands of an assassin. While she was on a holiday in Geneva, she had wanted to take a public boat ride on the lake, accompanied only by a lady-in-waiting. Heavily veiled, she had just boarded the boat when an anarchist approached her, lifted her veil to be sure of her identity, and stabbed her to death with an awl.

Franz Joseph was sixty-eight years old and had ruled for fifty years when he lost his wife to a senseless assassination. Now, at eighty-four, he lost his nephew, the successor to the throne, to similar political violence in Sarajevo. Franz Joseph asked that the investigation of the archduke's death be conducted by the Austrian police rather than the regional police of BosniaHerzegovina. The Serbs, who were involved in the assassination plot, protested Austrian intervention in their local affairs; they claimed that it was an Austrian plot to gain a more comprehensive annexation. A stalemate was quickly reached. France and Russia backed Serbia. The Germans backed Austro-Hungary.

A few weeks later, the fate of Austro-Hungary was sealed: Franz Joseph signed the documents that started World War I. He reportedly said at the time, "I have considered everything; I have weighed everything."I He responded, as the anarchists had hoped he would, like an emotional old man. The assassin was eventually caught and sent to prison, where he died; but the deep disturbances that would plague the twentieth century had been set in motion.

During the first days of July 1914, we set out for our customary family vacation, this time to Velden, which was beside a pretty lake, but with a promise that we would go Toblach a month later. However, Emmi and I came down with measles at the end of July. We were still miserably sick when the declaration of war came. At the time, measles felt worse than war, but the declaration made our parents decide to return home as soon as could be managed. By then, trains full of soldiers were rolling.

In the days that followed, the soldiers, followed by their cannons, marched down Vaci Street, a few blocks from our home. By that time, I was not asking why. I was caught up by the war fever; I was certain that we would win. My father hunga map on his office wall and stuck flags on it to show the location of the battle lines on the eastern front. The dynamic geography of those mobile frontiers marked the beginning of my interest in the larger world.

I remember that early in the war, those fabulous German warriors von Hindenburg and Ludendorff wiped out the Russian troops in East Prussia.2 But the Russians soon recovered and deployed their forces against a weaker opponent-the Austro-Hungarian army. I remember the gloomy news in the fall of 1914. Lemberg (now Lvov), a city a hundred miles from the border of Hungary, had fallen. I had no doubt that we would take it back; Hungarians were, to my mind, brave and successful warriors. But we did not defeat the Russians. The Germans did.

The next spring, my father took Emmi and me on a long walk in the mountains of Buda. On the slopes of the triple-peaked Harmashatarhegy, we came upon some trenches. My father explained that they had been dug as a defense against the Russians. Suddenly, the war looked very different. On the map in my father's office, I had seen the Russians crossing the Carpathian mountains in the east. The trenches we saw in the mountains that day were west of the Danube. If our soldiers had had to fight there, our house and the homes of all my friends would already have been captured.

My desire to know more about war grew. At home, we had an illustrated history of Napoleon's campaigns. I remember learning that the huge army that had marched into Russia had left in a terrible retreat. The soldiers bled, they froze, they starved. Only a few returned. On Sundays in winter, my father took Emmi and me to the main park in Budapest, which had a zoo and an art gallery. I remember seeing paintings of battles: wounded men and horses intermingled in agony. They held me in horrified fascination. My father had clerks working in his office in our home, young men fulfilling a four-year-long internship before opening their own practices. One of them, Joseph Bard (who knew and later married the American reporter Dorothy Thompson), came back from the war with terrible stories. I was bothered by his seeming lack of patriotism and by the doubts he cast on the effectiveness of our armies.

A special teacher, a British subject, whom my mother hired for a short time to give Emmi and me English lessons, challenged my patriotism even further. The tutor was furious about the war and blamed Kaiser Wilhelm for starting it. His comments about the kaiser, who I knew had often rescued Hungary, upset me. So when the tutor used a somewhat objectionable word for fool in connection with the kaiser, I returned the favor by using the same word in connection with the British. Much to my amazement, my parents were not at all upset by his behavior-only about mine.

However, about the middle of the war, I realized that the Austro-Hungarian armies always seemed to lose. First, we invaded Serbia, but had to retreat. We fought the Romanians when they invaded Transylvania, but the Germans had to come to our rescue. We fought the Italians, and we were beaten again. When the Germans defeated the Russians in 1914, I had thought that the war was as good as won; I was surprised, then, to realize a few years later that we were going to lose.

By the summer of 1918, everyone was desperately eager to have an end to the war. I remember two riddles popular during the final months of the war. The first described countries:

    What is the difference between England, Prussia, and Austro-Hungary? In England, everything is permitted except for a few things that are forbidden. In Prussia, everything is forbidden except for a few things that are permitted. In Austro-Hungary, everything that is forbidden is permitted.3

The second riddle circulated about two weeks before the surrender.

    How is the war going? In Berlin, the situation is serious but not desperate. In Vienna, it is desperate but not serious. That was the atmosphere in Budapest as well.

Just before war ended in 1918, an independent republican government was formed under Mihaly Karolyi, who, I believe, was a Social Democrat, politically to the left. People walked the streets wearing tiny chrysanthemums in their buttonholes, and soldiers marched with flowers in their gun barrels. The blossoms were the symbol of a largely peaceful revolution, the Revolution of Autumn Roses.4 Franz Joseph's successor, Emperor Charles, finally acceded to popular demands for a new cabinet. The event marked the beginning of an independent Hungarian republic.

During the fall of 1918, I began my second year of gymnasium studies.5 The only good thing about school, as far as I was concerned, was the mathematics class. A few years earlier, I learned that what I had been doing in my nighttime game should be done on paper and should be correct. I practiced both on paper and at night, so I had become a good and fast calculator, a type of childhood distinction that has completely disappeared with the advent of hand calculators.

I had learned the rule of nines: If I added the numerals in numbers evenly divisible by 9 (18, 27, 36), the result would be 9. (If the result has more than one digit, the process must be repeated.) For numbers not evenly divisible by 9, the total of the numerals will be the remainder. To my delight, our mathematics teacher, Ireneus Juvancz, explained the reason behind that surprise.6

Understanding war and politics was impossible. Numbers were much more reasonable. I always understood and enjoyed what Juvancz had to say about mathematics. But Juvancz was also a dedicated communist, and his comments on that topic were confusing.

The communist movement in Hungary, led by Bela Kun, started shortly after the end of the war. Kun, a former army officer and a Jew, was captured early in the war and held in Russia. He and a few hundred other Hungarian prisoners of war became thoroughly indoctrinated as communists. They were promptly repatriated when the war ended in 1918. The postwar period in any nation, and especially in a defeated nation, is a difficult period; for an inexperienced democratic government, it proved overwhelming.

Early in 1919, four Budapest policemen were killed by a few unidentified communists. The memorial service for the policemen was held in Parliament Square. A friend of my father's had an apartment with a balcony overlooking the square, and my father, his friend (and his dog) and I watched the ceremony from there. The crowd was the largest I had ever seen: Close to a hundred thousand people had gathered. The funeral march from Beethoven's Third Symphony, which I had never heard before, was played.

Prime Minister Karolyi arrested the leaders of the communist party for the murders, even though they had not been directly involved. The arrests met with little public support. Then, a little later, the terms ending the war were presented to the Hungarian government. That settlement not only dismantled the Austro-Hungarian empire but tore the thousand-year-old nation of Hungary apart and distributed it to other nations. Under the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary was reduced from a nation of 18 million people of various nationalities to one of barely 8 million. Almost half of those who were ethnic Hungarians were to live under foreign rule.

The new democracy could not survive the loss of more than half its territory and almost half its people. In mid-spring of 1919, when I was eleven years old, the communists took over. The hope that some people held that the Soviet Red Army, stationed about two hundred miles away, might help restore the old boundaries if Hungary became a communist country; contributed to the acceptance of the communist takeover.?

The Communist Party included perhaps one-tenth of one percent of the Hungarian people; only the communists' discipline, organization, and disregard for law enabled them to gain control. The Social Democrats, who vastly outnumbered the communists, had only a program of slow reform within the law.8 They were coaxed into supporting the government formed under Bela Kun, but even though the Social Democrats represented many more people than the communists, they had no influence on Kdn's policies.

The communists overturned every aspect of society and the economy. My father could no longer practice law. In fact we became social outcasts. A lawyer was clearly a capitalist; and, unlike a doctor, who provided a service, a lawyer was a thoroughly worthless person in a "good" society. Two soldiers moved into our "extra space," the rooms that had been my father's office in our home.

The old blue money, unlike the communists' white money, still had some value, but the communists demanded that it all be turned in. Magda Hesz, who worked for our family as a sort of au pair, resourcefully used her skill in binding books to hide our family cash in the backs of the books in my father's office. Having soldiers billeted in our "bank" was a grave concern for my parents, but the soldiers never found our money. In retrospect I remember only that they were self-conscious about being in our home and tried hard to stay out of the way.

Of this time, I remember more clearly the multitude of posters that appeared in the streets and subways. On one of them, a stern man, with his arm ...

What People are saying about this

William F. Buckley
Edward Teller, physicist, is known by his reputation; Teller, strategist, by those who watched the Cold War; Professor Teller, teacher, by a generation who learned from him. Now we know Ed Teller, and rejoice in his company.
Tom Clancy
A fascinating story, every bit as intelligent as its author.
Milton Friedman
A splendid account.
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick
A fascinating account of the physics, politics, and human drama that took Edward Teller from Budapest to the citadels of nuclear science...
Henry A. Kissinger
Edward Teller's memoir is an insightful and fascinating book...worth waiting for.

Meet the Author

Edward Teller was born in Hungary in 1908 and educated in Germany. He came to the United States in 1935. A theoretical physicist, he worked on nuclear weapons during and after World War II, and was instrumental in the development of the hydrogen bomb. A staunch advocate of national military preparedness, Teller has been involved in several controversies, most recently the debate regarding national missile defense. He helped found Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he is now Director Emeritus, and continues as a Senior Research Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Judith Shoolery is a former science teacher who has worked as a writer and editor on a variety of publications, most recently as a book editor at the Hoover Institution. Now retired, she and her husband live in Half Moon Bay, California.

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