Broad, William J. And Sullivan, Walter. "Edward Teller, a Fierce Architect of the Hydrogen
Bomb, Dies at 95," New York Times, 11 September 2003, p. A22.
Edward Teller, a towering figure of science who had a singular impact on the development of the
nuclear age, died late Tuesday at his home in Stanford, Calif. He was 95.
Widely seen as a troubled genius, Dr. Teller generated hot debate for more than a half century,
even as he engendered many features of the modern world.
A creator of quantum physics who loved to play Bach and Beethoven as an amateur pianist, the
Hungarian-born physicist helped found the nuclear era with his work on the atom bomb, played a
dominant role in inventing the hydrogen bomb (though he often protested being called its father),
battled for decades on behalf of nuclear power and lobbied fervently for the building of
antimissile defenses, which the nation is now erecting.
His antimissile efforts, obsessive by most accounts and dismissed by critics as doomed to failure,
were his way of trying to protect his adopted country from the horrors he helped bring into the
Dr. Teller's actions split scientists into warring camps and created huge, lingering controversies
over his legacy, including whether his work in the cold war had fostered a
dangerous nuclear arms race or an uneasy peace that helped crush Soviet Communism.
His frustrations in seeking support for the making of the hydrogen bomb led to his testimony
against J. Robert Oppenheimer, science director of the atom bomb project. When Dr.
Oppenheimer lost his security clearance after that testimony, a backlash against Dr. Teller
clouded the rest of his career.
Through it all, he was a man of principle, doing what he believed in regardless of whether it
made him a pariah.
"The loss of Dr. Edward Teller is a great loss," Dr. Michael Anastasio, director of the Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory, a California nuclear center Dr. Teller helped found, said in a
statement. "He put his heart and soul into this laboratory and into ensuring the security of
this nation, and his dedication never foundered."
In July, President Bush awarded Dr. Teller the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's
highest civilian honor.
"In my long life I had to face some difficult decisions and found myself often in doubt whether I
acted the right way," Dr. Teller said. "Thus the medal is a great blessing for me."
His sense of theater - from his famously bushy eyebrows to his heavily accented speech and
painstakingly slow delivery - forced all to pay close attention, from presidents to schoolchildren.
When he testified in Congress, which he did often, the silence was palpable.
"The famous brows beetled, the melancholy gray eyes bored in, the doom-laden voice set out the
words one by one, like great marble blocks," the writer Michael Kernan observed of
a typical Teller performance.
A Man With Two Sides
Detractors saw Dr. Teller as a divided man - warm, funny, idealistic and honestly conflicted on
one hand, maniacal, bullying, dangerous and devious on the other. Critics
viewed his "Memoirs" (Perseus Publishing, 2001) as playing loose with the historical facts.
"Like Dr. Jekyll, Teller is disturbingly aware of his darker side," the physicist Alan Lightman
wrote last year in The New York Review of Books. "That self-awareness, visible in `Memoirs'
beneath its fabrications and self-congratulation, is what accounts for Edward Teller's
angst and gives him his true tragic proportions."
For all that, he exerted great influence on government policy, his advice sought by Presidents
Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush as well
as Nelson A. Rockefeller, the governor of New York who later became vice president under
Gerald R. Ford.
To many who studied under him, he was a hypnotic lecturer and teacher, particularly for the
uninitiated. He loved children and once wrote a rhyming alphabet that hinted at his ambivalence
over the hydrogen bomb, roughly a thousand times more powerful than its atomic predecessor.
A stands for atom; it is so small
No one has ever seen it at all.
B stands for bombs; the bombs are much bigger.
So, brother, do not be too fast on the trigger.
F stands for fission; that is what things do
When they get wobbly and big and must split in two.
And just to confound the atomic confusion
What fission has done may be undone by fusion.
H has become a most ominous letter;
It means something bigger, if not something better.
Dr. Teller enjoyed telling how he "entered history" in 1939 as the chauffeur of Dr. Leo Szilard, a
fellow Hungarian-born physicist, on a trip to the eastern end of Long Island. The
goal, which they achieved, was to obtain Albert Einstein's signature on a letter warning President
Franklin D. Roosevelt that Germany might be preparing to build an atom bomb.
He quipped that he was part of the effort "because I was the only one who knew how to drive
and had a car."
While many colleagues did not share Dr. Teller's staunch anti-Communist views, to some he was
a hero crying out in a wilderness of liberal naďvete.
During the cold war, they praised him as having a deep understanding of the tyranny of
Communism and for succeeding like no other scientist in forging weapons to fight it. His decades
of building bombs, of blasting boulders into the sky in nuclear tests, of doing everything in his
power to frighten the Soviets.
Among his ardent supporters were two who in 1919 shared his experience of Communism in the
short-lived government of Bela Kun in Hungary. They were Dr. Eugene Wigner, a Nobel
laureate in physics, and Dr. John von Neumann, a founder of modern computer theory.
Dr. Wigner once described Dr. Teller as "the most imaginative person I ever met."
Critics and Supporters But Dr. Teller's critics were as impassioned as his supporters. During the
Vietnam War, he was vilified by antiwar activists. In Berkeley, Calif., a crowd of students
marched menacingly toward his home, but the police held them back. He was seen as the model
for Dr. Strangelove, the motion picture character with an artificial arm who "loved the bomb"
and spoke with a Central European accent.
Dr. Isidor I. Rabi, a Nobel laureate who worked on the Manhattan Project in World War II, called
Dr. Teller "a danger to all that's important," adding that "it would have been a better world
Edward Teller was born on Jan. 15, 1908, the son of Max Teller, a lawyer, and Ilona Deutsch
Teller, an accomplished pianist. Presumably under his mother's influence, Edward
became a fine pianist, too. When, in 1943, he moved to the newly organized atomic bomb project
in Los Alamos, N. M., his luggage included a Steinway grand piano, newly bought by his wife,
the former Augusta Maria Harkanyi, who was known as Mici.
In Budapest the Tellers had been members of a Jewish intellectual community. In later years Dr.
Teller maintained close ties to Israel as an adviser to the government and the University of Tel
As an infant Dr. Teller, like Einstein, was slow to begin speaking but soon displayed amazing
mathematical ability. When he told his father that he wanted to study mathematics, his father
discouraged him, saying he would not be able to make a living. The boy agreed to study
chemistry, but he later said he "cheated" by studying mathematics, too.
When he was about 20 a new subject captured his imagination. He began to hear of advances in
atomic theory, and "a whole new world" opened up to him, he said later.
Dr. Teller belonged to a remarkable group of scientists who grew up in Budapest about the same
time and played leading roles in modern physics as well as the development of nuclear arms and
the missiles to deliver them. The group included Dr. Wigner, Dr. von Neumann, Dr. Szilard and
Theodor von Karman, an aeronautical engineer.
As a student, Dr. Teller lost a foot in 1928 when he jumped from a moving streetcar in Munich.
A slight limp from the artificial replacement kept him from being active in sports, but he became
a smashing table tennis player.
Werner Heisenberg, under whom Dr. Teller obtained his doctorate at the University of Leipzig in
1930, regarded his student's mastery of table tennis as demonstrating his life force. He "became
an excellent player just because he wanted to," Dr. Heisenberg, one of the century's great
physicists, told Dr. Teller's biographers, Stanley A. Blumberg and Gwinn Owens.
After receiving his doctorate, he joined the faculty of the University of Göttingen, where he
remained until 1933. But it became clear that, as a Jew, he would have to leave Nazi Germany.
After sojourns in Copenhagen and London he joined the faculty of George Washington
University as a physics professor in 1935 and became a United States citizen six years later.
He had developed a deep hatred for tyranny, having as a child witnessed the abuses of the Bela
Kun government in Hungary and the even more brutal fascism of Adm. Nicholas Horthy that
succeeded it. As a young man he witnessed the rise of Hitler in Germany. And his family's
sufferings in Hungary under the Fascists and, after World War II, under the Communists, left a
A Tale of Two Bombs
The idea for a hydrogen bomb apparently originated with Enrico Fermi, the Italian
physicist, in 1941, a year before Dr. Fermi's team achieved the first fission chain reaction at the
University of Chicago, opening the way for the atomic bomb.
The atomic bomb's energy derives from the splitting of large, heavy atoms, mainly uranium or
plutonium. In contrast, the hydrogen bomb depends on the fusion of light atoms, mainly forms of
In 1941 Dr. Fermi and Dr. Teller were aware of theoretical work by others indicating that stars
derive their energy from fusion. It was believed that this probably occurred under extreme heat
and compression in the cores of stars, converting, for example, two hydrogen nuclei into one of
Over lunch in 1941, a few weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, while Dr. Teller
had a temporary appointment at Columbia University, Dr. Fermi suggested that an atomic bomb
explosion might create conditions close enough to those inside a star to start the fusion of heavy
hydrogen (deuterium) nuclei, releasing an enormous burst of energy.
At first Dr. Teller doubted that this was possible. Nevertheless, when Dr. Oppenheimer called a
meeting of top physicists a year later at the University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Teller
proposed that they consider building a hydrogen bomb.
In 1943, in the mountains of New Mexico, the government secretly set up the Los Alamos
laboratory to develop an atomic bomb. Dr. Teller, by then at the University of Chicago, agreed to
give up pure research and join the project.
He left for Los Alamos by car, with his wife and their infant son, Paul, following weeks later by
train. His hope, to design a hydrogen bomb, or "super," led to early friction with Dr.
Oppenheimer, the laboratory's director, who insisted that they concentrate on the atomic bomb,
which, in any case, would be needed to ignite the hydrogen bomb.
The scientists succeeded in 1945, detonating a test device in the New Mexican desert and helping
fashion two bombs that were soon dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949, sooner than expected, the situation
changed drastically. Dr. Teller saw in the hydrogen bomb hope for survival, and his warnings of
a Soviet menace began to reach receptive ears. Among those who heeded his advice was Lewis
L. Strauss, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission who became a strong ally.
Mr. Strauss proposed that the commission's general advisory committee consider the possibility
of a crash program to develop a hydrogen bomb. The committee chairman, however,
was Dr. Oppenheimer, and the panel voted overwhelmingly against such an effort.
Among reasons cited were that the feasibility of such a bomb was uncertain, atomic bombs were
adequate to destroy military targets, and it was morally wrong to produce a weapon that could in
theory kill millions of people. It was also feared that if the United States undertook such a
project, sooner or later the Soviet Union would, too, placing the nation in far greater danger than
if such weapons did not exist.
While many - probably most - scientists opposed the H-bomb, Dr. Teller had the support of such
distinguished figures as Dr. Ernest O. Lawrence, a Nobel Prize winner, and Dr. Luis
W. Alvarez, who eventually became one.
In addition to Mr. Strauss, Senator Brien McMahon, chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic
Energy, and others worked to persuade President Harry S. Truman to press ahead with
the hydrogen bomb. On Jan. 31, 1950, Truman announced that he had directed the Atomic
Energy Commission "to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the
so-called hydrogen or super bomb." It was a major victory for Dr. Teller.
He then pressed for creation of a laboratory, independent of Los Alamos, that would focus on the
hydrogen bomb. The proposal was rejected by Dr. Oppenheimer's general advisory
committee. Dr. Teller was able, however, to persuade his friends in the Pentagon of the merits of
his proposal, and the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory came into being southeast of San
Francisco. Dr. Teller was its director from 1958 to 1960.
A major problem in the hydrogen bomb project was to devise a fuel that would undergo adequate
fusion. Dr. Teller discussed various possibilities, including Fermi's original idea of fusing
deuterium, the heavy form of hydrogen that occurs in seawater.
The scientists decided to use two different forms of heavy hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, but
efforts at computer simulation of the expected reaction ran into trouble. It seemed that no
arrangement could work.
Dr. Stanislaw M. Ulam, a mathematician at Los Alamos, then made a proposal, still secret, that
got the bomb project back on track. Some physicists argue that Dr. Ulam, as well as Dr. Teller,
were responsible for the breakthrough idea. Dr. Ulam himself, in later years, assigned credit to
both men and spoke kindly about Dr. Teller.
Hearings on Oppenheimer
Dr. Ulam said that while Dr. Teller was very ambitious and eager for achievement in
physics, he was also "a warm person and clearly desired friendship with other physicists."
The first American fusion, or "thermonuclear," explosion in the Pacific took place on Nov. 1,
1952. Two stories tall and cumbersome, the device vaporized the isle of Elugelab, a mile in
diameter. Its power was about 700 times that of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The Soviet Union achieved such an explosion three years later. Both countries made deliverable
bombs, and Livermore produced one small enough to be fired from a submarine.
The Oppenheimer hearings were held in 1954, after J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal
Bureau of Investigation, received a long letter accusing the famous scientist of being a Soviet
The accusation led President Dwight D. Eisenhower to order the Atomic Energy Commission to
review whether Dr. Oppenheimer's security clearance should be revoked. The
commission's personnel security board held hearings and bequested Dr. Teller to appear.
Asked if he considered Dr. Oppenheimer disloyal to the United States, Dr. Teller said no. He was
then asked whether he regarded him as a security risk.
"I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues, and his actions frankly appeared to me
confused and complicated," Dr. Teller told the panel.
"To this extent," he said, "I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands
which I understood better and therefore trust more. In this very limited sense I would like to
express a feeling that I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other
A large part of the scientific community, dismayed at the witch hunts of the McCarthy era, aware
of long-standing friction between Dr. Teller and Dr. Oppenheimer, and loyal to the scientific
leader of the original atomic bomb project, turned its back on Dr. Teller.
"By old friends we were practically ostracized," he reported later. His wife "was very badly hurt"
and became ill.
Dr. Teller continued to be highly regarded in many quarters, and his role as an adviser to those in
high places increased. After the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite in 1957, he was
featured on the cover of Time magazine as a symbol of American scientific vigor.
Starting in the early 1960s, Dr. Teller, while still at Livermore, promoted work on antimissile
weapons, including a ground-based one whose rocket interceptor was topped by a large hydrogen
In the 1980s he championed an antimissile system for use in space whose hypothetical weapon
would be an X-ray laser powered by a hydrogen bomb. Its X-ray beam, he and his
supporters said, could destroy an entire fleet of incoming Soviet missiles. Its technical allure
helped provide momentum for founding the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as
Prominent American scientists argued that it would never work. And development of the X-ray
laser proved disappointing. Dr. Teller's Livermore laboratory then promoted Brilliant Pebbles, a
plan to launch swarms of small interceptors equipped with electronics and optics
enabling them to ram missiles.
By 1993, with the cold war over, Star Wars was greatly reduced in scope after at least $32 billion
was spent. To what extent it unnerved the Russians is unclear, but some experts have argued that
it helped persuade Moscow to give up the arms race.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, Dr. Teller was the chief promoter of Project Plowshare, the use of
underground nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes, like releasing fuel from Western oil shale
formations, freeing natural gas deposits, or digging a harbor on the west coast of Alaska.
In his long career, Dr. Teller advised many high officials and agencies. Nelson Rockefeller asked
him to undertake a variety of tasks, like conducting an energy study after the Northeast blackout
Dr. Teller early battled against unnecessary secrecy. While working on the atomic bomb at Los
Alamos he chafed at the security measures there. Among those rules was one forbidding
scientists in one division to discuss their work with researchers in other parts of the project.
In later years Dr. Teller said, "We are drowning in secrecy - to no purpose and to the detriment of
science." He favored secrecy regarding only how things are done, not basic scientific ideas.
It was characteristic of his distrust of Soviet intentions that he used his fertile imagination to
conceive of schemes whereby the Russians might circumvent a ban on underground
For example, he and Dr. Albert Latter of the RAND Corporation warned that earth tremors from
underground tests could be reduced 300-fold by conducting them in caverns thousands of feet
Dr. Teller wrote or was co-author of more than a dozen books and won numerous honors. In
1962 he received the government's Enrico Fermi Award for outstanding contributions to nuclear
The next year he was invited to be present when the same award was given to Dr. Oppenheimer.
After the ceremony Dr. Teller shook his hand in a gesture of reconciliation, but
the wounds never healed.
In addition to his son, Dr. Teller is survived by a daughter, Wendy, who accepted the Presidential
Medal of Freedom on his behalf, four grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Mici, his wife of
66 years, died three years ago.
Dr. Teller regretted the decision to drop the atom bomb on Japanese cities, arguing afterward that
doing so had been a mistake. Far better, he said, would have been firing a bomb
in the evening high enough above Tokyo to spare the city but flood it with blinding light.
"If we could have ended the war by showing the power of science without killing a single
person," he said, "all of us would now be happier, more reasonable and much more safe."