Martian perspectives

by Alex Wellerstein, published September 28th, 2012

Of the four Hungarian “Martians” who worked the Manhattan Project — so known for their incomprehensible language, their European proclivities, and their exceptional intelligence — Leo Szilard and Edward Teller are tied, in my mind, as the most fascinating and intense personalities. (John von Neumann, the hawkish human computer, comes in a close second. Eugene Wigner, important as he was in the history of nuclear developments, just doesn’t compare to either of the other three when it comes to eccentricity.)

A rare photo of Szilard and Teller together. From a 1960 televised debate they participated in. Source.

Neither need much by means of an introduction on this blog, I don’t think. Leo Szilard was the guy who got the bomb project rolling, but quickly soured on military management. Edward Teller was the future father of the hydrogen bomb, among many other things.

Szilard was one of the strongest advocates of the idea that the atomic bomb should not first be used against an actual civilian target, but should be “demonstrated” in some way, such as on an island or a remote location. He had begun activity on this front as early as the summer of 1942, before the bomb project was truly under way.

His last attempt was a petition he circulated for scientists to sign, with the idea was that it would be presented to the President of the United States. It said, in part:1

We, the undersigned scientists, have been working in the field of atomic power. Until recently we have had to fear that the United States might be attacked by atomic bombs during this war and that her only defense might lie in a counterattack by the same means. Today, with the defeat of Germany, this danger is averted and we feel impelled to say what follows.

The war has to be brought speedily to a successful conclusions and attacks by atomic bombs may very well be an effective method of warfare. We feel, however, that such attacks on Japan could not be justified, at least not unless the terms which will be imposed after the war on Japan were made public in detail and Japan were given an opportunity to surrender.

If such public announcement gave assurance to the Japanese that they could look forward to a life devoted to peaceful pursuits in their homeland and if Japan still refused to surrender our nation might then, in certain circumstances, find itself forced to resort to use of atomic bombs. Such a step, however, ought not to be made at any time without seriously considering the moral responsibilities which are involved. The atomic bombs at our disposal represent only the first step in this direction, and there is almost no limit to the destructive power which will become available in the course of their future development. Thus a nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.

The petition continued; you can read the full version here. It was apparently signed by “approximately sixty other scientists” at Chicago.

But Edward Teller was not one of those scientists who signed it.

Edward Teller and Gregory Breit, 1976. (Aside: Breit had been the head of bomb design physics on the Manhattan Project, and was the person who Oppenheimer replaced when he was brought in on the project.) Via the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

To many, the idea that Teller would not oppose using the bombs would not be surprising. After all, he was the maker of megatons, right? But this is a misconception, in a sense. Teller was a sensitive soul. He spent a good part of the Cold War trying to argue that he would never have chosen to use the bombs if he had been given a chance. He insisted that his work on the bombs was solely to avoid nuclear war, not encourage it. He was not, I don’t feel, truly bloodthirsty.

Over the later course of his life, Teller occasionally argued that he had opposed the bombing of Hiroshima. This was, as the historian Robert Crease has pointed out, a “truthy” approach — a revisionism based on the history that Teller may have wanted to exist.2

But this is what Teller wrote to Szilard, in early July 1945, a few weeks before the Trinity test:3

Dear Szilard:

Since our discussion I have spent some time thinking about your objections to an immediate military use of the weapon we may produce. I decided to do nothing. I should like to tell you my reasons.

First of all let me say that I have no hope of clearing my conscience. The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls.

This much is true: I have not worked on the project for a very selfish reason and I have gotten much more trouble than pleasure out of it. I worked because the problems interested me and I should have felt it a great restraint not to go ahead. I can not claim that I simply worked to do my duty. A sense of duty could keep me out of such work. It could not get me into the present kind of activity against my inclinations. If you should succeed in convincing me that your moral objections are valid, I should keep working. I hardly think that I should start protesting.

This is a strikingly honest way to discuss one’s motivations for working on weapons of mass destruction. Not because of duty — but because of curiosity. Teller worked on the bomb because he thought the bomb was interesting. He wanted to use the bomb because it was the ultimate fruition of that interest. That he could admit such a thing is actually pretty stunning. He did think, though, that morality could stop him from such a project — if he could be convinced.

Teller continued:

But I am not really convinced of your objections. I do not feel that there is any chance to outlaw any one weapon. If we have a slim chance of survival, it lies in the possibility to get rid of wars. The more decisive a weapon is the more surely it will be used in any real conflict and no agreements will help.

Our only hope is in getting the facts of our results before the people. This might help to convince everybody that the next war would be fatal. For this purpose actual combat-use might even be the best thing.

This is an interesting and perhaps not wholly predictable turn, if one subscribes only to a Strangelovian caricature of Teller. Szilard wanted Teller to agree that the bomb should not be used without warning. Teller in turn says that as a scientist who worked on the bomb, he had no responsibility for how it would be used — he was the maker of tools, not the user of them.

A picture of Edward Teller as he probably looked in the early 1940s. Date unknown. From the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, photo by Francis Simon.

What he felt a responsibility for was in informing people about the bomb, about its consequences, about the reason that it should be a weapon that ends all wars. And, as he argues, “for this purpose actual combat-use might even be the best thing.”

If his responsibility is to show the world what dangers lie ahead, what would be a better way for doing so that utterly destroying at least one city?

Teller concluded:

And this brings me to the main point. The accident that we worked out this dreadful thing should not give use the responsibility of having a voice in how it is to be used. This responsibility must in the end be shifted to the people as a whole and that can be done only by making the facts known. This is the only cause for which I feel entitled in doing something: the necessity of lifting the secrecy at least as far as the broad issues of our work are concerned. My understanding is that this will be done as soon as the military situation permits it.

All this may seem to you quite wrong. I should be glad if you showed this letter to Eugene [Wigner] and to [James] Franck who seem to agree with you rather than with me. I should like to have the advice of all of you whether you think it is a crime to continue this work. But I feel that I should do the wrong thing if I tried to say how to tie the little toe of the ghost to the bottle from which we just helped it to escape.

Teller’s “main point” was that the moral work of the scientists should begin just after the bomb was used. It should be to remove the secrecy and make the facts known, because their special knowledge of how bad things could get — and this is Edward Teller speaking, so we know he was pretty imaginative on this front — gave them the moral imperative to warn the world.4

Teller attempting to make himself understood, in 1963. Via the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

In writing his memoirs, some five decades later, Teller noted that,

Rereading the letter, I cannot really agree with the person, my earlier incarnation, who wrote it. I stand fully behind my strong statement against secrecy, but I would no longer say that helping the “ghost” escape was terrible at all. That was our job as scientists, a point that became clearer when I became aware of the great progress that the Soviet Union had made on a nuclear explosive. The responsibility of scientists is to describe and demonstrate what is possible, to disseminate that knowledge as fully as possible, and, with everyone else in our democracy, to share the decisions that are necessarily connected with knowledge.5

Teller’s anti-secrecy stance may seem incongruous given his reputation for nuclear hawkishness. But for Teller, secrecy was something that slowed bomb innovation down — and bomb innovation was the ultimate goal. In such a light, an anti-secrecy hawk makes perfect sense, even if it goes against the conventional political mapping.

Returning to Szilard’s petition five decades later, Teller concluded three things:

First, Szilard was right. As scientists who worked on producing the bomb, we bore a special responsibility. Second, Oppenheimer was right. We did not know enough about the political situation to have a valid opinion. Third, what we should have done but failed to do was to work out the technical changes required for demonstrating the bomb over Tokyo and submit that information to President Truman.6

The first two are fairly straightforward positions, but the last is interesting and provocative. The Manhattan Project scientists spent a huge amount of time thinking up ways to make the bombs more deadly. Whether it was in racing towards a megaton age (Teller’s approach), or calculating the best way to kill Japanese firefighters (Penney’s approach), or — the subject of a future post — a proposal for generating radioactive thunderclouds (seriously), an enormous effort was put into making deadly weapons. Absolutely no technical effort was put into figuring out how one might use the bombs to end the war without bloodshed. The idea was proposed — even urged — but exactly zero effort was put into making it look like a realistic possibility.

The issues raised in this “Martian dialogue” didn’t go away after Hiroshima. If anything, they got more intense, more immediate. What is the responsibility of the tool-maker for his or her tools? What is the responsibility of the scientist to the public? Szilard chose his path and never strayed from it — he never made another weapon again. Teller, if anything, became more extreme on his own path, becoming synonymous with the scientist co-opted by the military-industrial complex, and not just a touch of self-delusion.

  1. Leo Szilard, “Petition to the President of the United States,” (17 July 1945), copy in Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 6, Target 5, Folder 76, “Interim Comittee — Scientific Panel.” []
  2. Robert P. Crease, “Biography: Envy and Power,” Nature 468 (2 December 2010), 629-630. []
  3. Edward Teller to Leo Szilard (2 July 1945), copy in the J. Robert Oppenheimer papers (MS35188), Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Box 71, Folder, “Teller, Edward, 1942-1963.” []
  4. Teller forwarded a copy of this letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer, of all people. He prefaced it with a hand-written note, scrawled in an elegant, old-world calligraphy. “What I say is, I believe, in agreement with your views,” he wrote. “At least in the main points.” []
  5. Edward Teller with Judith Schoolery, Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Journey in Science and Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 2001), 208. []
  6. Teller, Memoirs, 206. []

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