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'Father Of The H-Bomb' Dies At 95

Edward Teller, Nobel Prize-winning physicist known as "the father of the hydrogen bomb," 8-20-01
AP (file)
Edward Teller, who played a key role in U.S. defense and energy policies for more than half a century and was dubbed the "father of the H-bomb" for his enthusiastic pursuit of the powerful weapon, died Tuesday. He was 95.

Teller had recently suffered a stroke and died at his home on the Stanford University campus, not far from the Hoover Institution where he served as a senior research fellow, said Susan Houghton, a spokeswoman for the laboratory.

Teller exerted a profound influence on America's defense and energy policies, championing the development of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, nuclear power and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Among honors he received were the Albert Einstein Award, the Enrico Fermi Award and the National Medal of Science.

Yet Teller also will be remembered for his role in destroying the career of his one-time boss, Robert Oppenheimer — which alienated Teller from many of his colleagues — and for pushing the H-bomb and the Strategic Defense Initiative on grounds that, in the opinion of critics, were sketchy or dubious.

Teller's staunch support for defense stemmed in part from two events that shaped his dark, distrustful view of world affairs — the 1919 communist revolution in his native Hungary and the rise of Nazism while he lived in Germany in the early 1930s.

Even the end of the Cold War did not change Teller's view that the United States needed a strong defense.

"The danger for ballistic missiles in the hands of 18 different nations has increased, and will increase, unless we have a defense," he said. "If we want to have stable, peaceful conditions, defense against sudden attack by rockets is more needed than ever."

Witty and personable, with a passion for playing the piano, Teller nevertheless was a persuasive Cold Warrior who influenced presidents of both parties.

In 1939, he was one of three scientists who encouraged Einstein to alert President Franklin Roosevelt that the power of nuclear fission — the splitting of an atom's nucleus — could be tapped to create a devastating new weapon.

Two years later, even before the first atom bomb was completed, fellow scientist Enrico Fermi suggested that nuclear fusion — fusing rather than splitting nuclei — might be used for an even more destructive explosive, the hydrogen bomb.

Teller's enthusiasm and pursuit of such a bomb — he called it the "Super" — won him the title "father of the H-bomb," a characterization he said he hated. The first megaton H-bomb was exploded in 1952.

The H-bomb was never used in war, but atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945, quickly leading to Japan's surrender. They followed by less than one month the first major atomic explosion on July 16, 1945, at Trinity Site in New Mexico.

In 1995, Teller looked back a half-century and wondered if the United States could have showed Japan the tremendous power of the bombs without destroying the cities. Some scientists had suggested at the time that a bomb be exploded in the sky miles over Tokyo harbor in hopes of scaring Japan into surrendering with a minimum of casualties.

"I think we shared the opportunity and the duty, which we did not pursue, to find ... a possibility to demonstrate" the bomb, Teller said at a 50th-anniversary forum. "Now in retrospect I have a regret."

Still, he defended the existence of atomic weapons, saying, "The second half of the century has been incomparably more peaceful than the first, simply by putting power into the hands of those people who wanted peace."

Teller continued to lecture and conduct research into his 90s, although ill health had slowed him some by then.

Edward Teller was born Jan. 15, 1908, in Budapest. He received his university education in Germany, earning a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Leipzig.

In 1935, Teller and his wife, Mici, came to the United States, where Teller was a professor at George Washington University until 1941, the same year the Tellers became U.S. citizens.

Teller joined the Manhattan Project in 1942 at Los Alamos (N.M.) Scientific Laboratory to work on developing the first atomic bomb. He also promoted the hydrogen fusion bomb, a concept that attracted interest but remained secondary to the work on the atomic weapon.

After the success of the Manhattan Project, Teller left in 1946 to become a physics professor at the University of Chicago.

When the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in 1949, Teller persuaded the Truman administration to push ahead on H-bomb research. He returned to Los Alamos and worked on the bomb through the first megaton-scale explosion at Eniwetok in the Pacific in 1952.

At the same time, Teller pushed for the creation of a second national science lab — Lawrence Livermore. He became a consultant there in 1952, associate director in 1954 and director from 1958-60. He continued as a consultant at the lab after retiring in 1975.

In a 1990 interview with The Associated Press, Teller said that development of the Livermore lab, near San Francisco, was one of his most important accomplishments.

"A single laboratory is not capable of criticizing itself," he said. "By competition, the quality of work is greatly increased."

While Teller was beginning his work at Livermore, he began attacking Oppenheimer, who had directed the Manhattan Project. Teller claimed he had slowed development of the H-bomb, allowing the Soviet Union to catch up.

In two secret interviews with the FBI in 1952 — made public under the Freedom of Information Act in 1977 — Teller made statements casting doubt on Oppenheimer's actions.

The allegations became the basis for the most serious charges brought against Oppenheimer in 1954 when his security clearance was lifted.

In his memoirs, published in 2001, Teller remained critical of Oppenheimer, but said the hearing was a mistake and he was stupid to testify. Teller also said he was motivated not by Oppenheimer's opposition to the hydrogen bomb, but by the way Oppenheimer had treated a third man.

Yet Teller himself may have unwittingly spurred the Soviet H-bomb project. Teller ignored doubts by physicists about his H-bomb design at a conference in 1946 and went ahead with an optimistic assessment of the project.

The result was an eventual go-ahead from Truman, and a leak to the Soviets about the superbomb from conference participant Klaus Fuchs.

Fuchs' information, based on Teller's flawed early design, may actually have misled the Soviets and hampered their H-bomb program. But the United States' decision to forge ahead with its own project had the effect of laying down a challenge to the Soviets.

In the end, Teller was right about the feasibility of the H-bomb, but he repeated the same pattern of seeming to oversell technology in 1983 when he persuaded President Reagan that space-based laser weapons could provide a secure anti-missile defense.

Reagan bought the idea and proposed the multibillion-dollar Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed "Star Wars."

Computer experts raised doubts early on about the reliability of the complex software required for a Star Wars system. But even as the evidence mounted that Star Wars would cost billions more than originally expected and would take years longer to develop, Teller continued to support it.

In an interview in 2001, Teller showed his old fighting spirit, delivering the two-word endorsement — "High time!" — to President George W. Bush's decision to pull out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia to work on a missile defense shield.

"So many times I have been asked whether I regret having worked on the atomic and hydrogen bombs," he wrote in his autobiography, "Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics." "My answer is no. I deeply regret the deaths and injuries that resulted from the atomic bombings, but my best explanation of why I do not regret working on weapons is a question: What if we hadn't?"

Teller's wife of 66 years, Mici, died in 2000.