Edward Teller – arming against Communist tyranny

Edward Teller died aged 95 on September 9th, 2003. Six weeks earlier he had been awarded by President George W Bush the US Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. Teller had lived a remarkable and highly controversial life that included work in the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. Later he headed up the research that led to the creation of the hydrogen (fusion) bomb, with many times the destructive power of atomic (fission) bombs. And after that he conducted a strong campaign for the US to create a defence against nuclear weapons, a programme later called the Strategic Defence Initiative, adopted by President Ronald Reagan, and which played a crucial role in securing the West's victory in the Cold War.

He was detested by the Left, partly because he gave the West the weapons with which it confronted and finally defeated the Soviet Union, and partly because he testified to a Congressional Committee against continuing Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance. Oppenheimer might not have been a security risk, but he had lied to federal investigators about his links with known Communists and his membership of the Communist Party until 1942.

Teller had left his native Hungary for Germany in 1930, now with a PhD in theoretical physics, but left when Adolf Hitler's rise made it an unsafe place for Jews. He worked with Niels Bohr for a time in Copenhagen, then went to the US to become Professor of Physics at George Washington University, before being recruited into the Manhattan Project. While on that project, Teller developed the idea of a feasible thermonuclear bomb. This was dismissed as implausible and impossible by fellow physicists, but when the USSR exploded its own nuclear bomb in 1949, Teller was given the go-ahead to develop a hydrogen bomb, the first of which was detonated in 1952.

He never liked the title of "Father of the H-Bomb," but he was. He is widely believed to have been, along with Hermann Kahn, the model for Dr Strangelove in the 1964 Kubrick classic movie. He was not wheelchair-bound, but he did have a prosthetic foot resulting from an accident in youth, and walked with a pronounced limp. He was a potent public advocate of a strong defence policy to combat Soviet expansionism and aggression, and regularly went public in calls for higher defence spending. He initiated a study as to whether a one megaton warhead could be made small enough to put atop a submarine-launched missile, a programme that led to the Polaris missile submarine.

His fervent anti-communism was sparked by his reading of "Darkness at Noon" by Arthur Koestler when he was a teenager, and he spent his life resisting both communism and fascism. In the 1980s he lobbied strongly for advanced weaponry to provide a defensive shield against enemy attack, including the use of atomic weapons to fire X-ray lasers at incoming missiles. It was derided as "Star Wars" by critics, but a now-convinced President Reagan announced his commitment to it. The Soviets were unable to match the SDI in either technology or cost, and ultimately folded, meaning that the system never had to be built. The threat of it achieved its objective.

I met Edward Teller at Hillsdale in 1975 and was privileged to shake his hand, something Gorbachev later publicly declined to do at a White House reception. The Nobel Prize winning physicist, Isidor Rabi, once suggested that "It would have been a better world without Teller." The opposite is true. Without Edward Teller the Soviets might have won, and the world would have been incomparably and unimaginably worse.