Goodchild, Edward Teller; de Groot, The Bomb

Published by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in Canadian Journal of History 40:3 (2005), 601–604

Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove, by Peter Goodchild. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2004. xxv, 469 pp. $29.95.  The Bomb: A Life, by Gerard J. DeGroot. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2005. xiii, 397 pp. $27.95.

Nuclear physicist Edward Teller’s death on September 9, 2003, at age 95, passed without much comment in the media.  The same month claimed the lives of actor John Ritter and singer Johnny Cash, so the eyes of popular culture were diverted to mourn more familiar faces.  The closest Teller comes to contemporary celebrity status is the rumor that he was the inspiration for the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  The subtitle of Peter Goodchild’s biography of Teller capitalizes on the Kubrick connection, calling his subject the “real Dr. Strangelove.”  On the cover there is even a giant photo of Peter Sellers, the actor who played the bizarre scientist obsessed with the bomb.  So there is a lot invested in this link, at least from the marketing standpoint.  However, the book provides no new revelations about the film’s true inspiration.  After some introductory pages about it, Goodchild drops the subject and launches into a pretty conventional narrative of Teller’s life.  In doing so he reveals not only the manifestations of Teller’s own obsession with nuclear weapons and defense, but also the depth of his political influence over the entire course of the Cold War.  As President Ronald Reagan once quipped, he was living proof that life begins at eighty.

To understand Teller’s historical significance, we do not need Dr. Strangelove.  His name forever will be linked to the development of thermonuclear weapons.  His life was a portrait of the atomic age: he worked in Germany when it was the center of the physics, fled Europe along with other Jewish scientists during the rise of Hitler, contributed to the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos during World War II, and exercised extraordinary influence over science and nuclear affairs in the Cold War.  Teller was the driving influence behind the hydrogen bomb, which could be thousands of times larger than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He became notorious for testifying against J. Robert Oppenheimer, his former boss at Los Alamos, during loyalty-security hearings.  He built a hawkish reputation and was the force behind the creation of the Livermore Laboratory, where he promised technological wonders such as “clean” nuclear bombs, gigantic engineering projects based on nuclear detonations, and various kinds of missile defense.  He was a political force, too, breaking from liberal causes and becoming the darling of the Pentagon and the voice behind President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

What Goodchild does well is to chronicle Teller’s acquisition of political power.  As an influence on science policy and national security, he seems to have had a greater impact through the course of his long life than any other scientist, including the better-known Oppenheimer (on whom Goodchild also has written a biography).  Goodchild indicates that it was Teller, time after time, who was the crucial scientific voice in derailing disarmament talks from the 1950s (when the issue was seismic detection) to the 1980s (when he feared Reagan would negotiate away SDI).  Goodchild has an engaging style of writing and also admirably explains the technical aspects of Teller’s accomplishments.  He also points out where Teller’s recollections diverge sharply from others’, revealing that Teller spent a lot of time trying to justify his actions.  Goodchild shows how Teller drove a wedge between himself and his colleagues, not only because of the Oppenheimer affair but because he took too much credit for the hydrogen bomb, and because of his opportunistic salesmanship and his wild promises.

Despite these strengths, there is not much new material in this biography, except for some interviews conducted by the author.  Goodchild, a journalist, perhaps is more adept at mining memories than laboriously sifting through archives.  Most of the early chapters simply rephrase elements of Teller’s recent Memoirs (Perseus, 2001), and there are extensive borrowings from previous biographers and other authors such as Gregg Herken and Richard Rhodes.  Goodchild does not necessarily improve on these works.  Even the Memoirs, for all the autobiographical self-justification, give a finer sense of Teller’s personal, scientific, and political struggles.  By contrast, Goodchild occasionally loses sight of Teller completely, particularly in the chapters on the wartime bomb project and the Oppenheimer scandal.  In the latter case, one is left with the impression that Goodchild is just rehashing a story he told already in his 1985 biography of Oppenheimer.

Although fans of Dr. Strangelove will learn little new from Goodchild’s biography of Teller, they will love Gerard DeGroot’s biography of the Bomb.  Like Kubrick’s film, it spares few in its sweeping ridicule.  DeGroot’s exceptional writing makes this a very compelling and “assignable” book, blending unmistakable anger with a biting sense of humor.  Conceptualizing the book as a biographical sketch has worked rather well.  After all, the Bomb became an honorary citizen of New Mexico, where scientists built it, and it has been a constant human companion ever since.

DeGroot’s remarkable accomplishment is in marshalling many different aspects of the atomic age into a single volume.  There are plenty of details about the Manhattan Project, but he also covers the German and Soviet wartime activities.  The sections on Hiroshima and Nagasaki include Japanese voices as well as American ones.  The book analyzes nuclear strategy from the point of view of the United States, the Soviet Union, and other powers such as Britain and France.  DeGroot touches on themes that are central to the history of science, such as the consequences of military patronage of scientific research after World War II.  He muses on the ramifications of the atomic age in television and movies, in desert communities near test sites, and in areas of environmental degradation in the Pacific, Siberia, and elsewhere.  He discusses the key events in international relations such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and various disarmament treaties, while considering the impact of peace movements and organizations such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  Throughout, he uses the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ adjustments of the Doomsday Clock, with its minute-hand so close to midnight, to guide the reader through the turbulent decades of the Cold War.

Although clearly DeGroot is disgusted by the Bomb itself, he appears to object more to its implications, namely the acceptance of civilians as legitimate targets in warfare.  He begins the book with a tale from the First World War, when a German bomber provoked moral outrage when its conventional explosives fell on a London school, killing eighteen children.  American planes dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima less than three decades later.  He then traces the moral dilemma within the military and government about the slippery term “military target.”  Even before the Bomb, American bombs saturated cities, unable to differentiate innocent civilians from the enemy’s military and industrial might.  The Bomb, with its capacity to decimate the landscape in one blow, implicitly reinforced the transformation toward attacking civilians.  And the hydrogen bomb, even top generals such as Omar Bradley recognized, was militarily insignificant.  As Truman’s scientific advisors put it, it was a weapon of genocide.

Despite DeGroot’s insights and his obvious mastery of the subject, some may find that the book suffers from its sweeping, usually cutting, generalizations.  Truman apparently was deeply confused about the Bomb, and was trying to fool either Americans or himself.  American scientists were hopelessly naïve, having never suspected that their government would use the Bomb, while the Russian scientists were young romantics trying to save their country.  Most military figures come off as bizarrely obsessed warmongers motivated by the need to blow things up.  Anti-nuclear protesters were pathetic, either because they lacked commitment or they could not grasp that a weapon cannot be un-invented. There is an amusing chapter that takes aim at the British and French desires to build nuclear arsenals, but it relies heavily on national stereotyping, deriding British respect for authority and Gallic logic.  Elsewhere, DeGroot treats people in caricature and with contempt.  National Bureau of Standards director Lyman Briggs was a “sloth” (p. 23).  Nobel Laureate Werner Heisenberg was a “worm” (pp. 21, 31).  General Leslie Groves was “lurking in the shadows” (p. 72).  And of course, Edward Teller was an “unrepentant worshipper of power,” who “had no qualms about knifing his ‘friend’ in the back” (pp. 177, 200).  DeGroot’s analysis of Enrico Fermi’s hope that he could advocate for disarmament from inside the military-industrial complex is simply “And pigs might fly” (p. 173).  Many will find such passages fun and witty, while others will find them self-righteous and boorish.

For all the judgments he makes in the course of the book, DeGroot’s conclusions are decidedly ambiguous.  Readers looking for a clear-cut case either for celebrating the Bomb or for ridding the world of it will be disappointed.  Clearly he sides with those who opposed building the hydrogen bomb—those who wanted a crash program “relied on fallacious logic” (p. 165).  But he also is sympathetic to those who felt that once it was built, there was no turning back.  Beneath DeGroot’s rancor and disdain is his inescapable respect for the principle of deterrence, though it is doubtful whether he would be caught praising any of its architects.


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