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UCI Libraries - The Quest for Peace Interviews: Edward Teller Interview Transcript
UCI Libraries: Quest for Peace

 

Critical Issues Before the Democracy

WHATEVER YOU THINK, THINK AGAIN

Dr. Edward Teller, 1985

During the 1930s Dr. Edward Teller, a Hungarian born physicist, made important scientific contributions to quantum mechanics and physical chemistry. In 1941 he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. It was during this time that his interests were drawn to the potential of the fusion process to create a much more powerful superbomb with the heat from a fission explosion. Subsequently, he was instrumental in the creation of the hydrogen bomb.

As one of the early directors of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, he has helped guide Livermore into a preeminent position as a designer of advanced nuclear weapons systems. Dr. Teller has served his country as a member of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the Scientific Advisory Board of the United States Air Force, the General Advisory Committee of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and the Board of Directors of the Defense Intelligence School in the Naval War College. In recent years, he has been an advocate of the use of advance technology to create a defense against nuclear weapons, and has served as a principal presidential advisor on the Strategic Defense Initiative. Among the many awards bestowed upon him is the Presidential Medal of Science. The citation accompanying his award stated "For his outstanding contribution to molecular physics, understanding the origin of stellar energy, the theory and application of fusion reaction, the field of nuclear safety, and for his continued leadership in science and technology." Recalling the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb which caused a Pacific island a mile in diameter to disappear in a fraction of a second, Dr. Teller remarked that we would be unfaithful to the tradition of Western civilization if we shied away from exploring what man can accomplish; if we fail to increase man's control over nature.

Whiteley: Dr. Teller, you've referred to the Strategic Defense Initiative as more properly referred to as the Strategic Defense Response. What do you mean?

Teller: I mean a collection of different possibilities. For instance, defending certain vital areas, just as the Soviets are defending Moscow today. This surely can be done. We know how to do it. We have neglected to deploy anything even though the means are there. I also mean a great number of added possibilities of defense which have not been obvious three decades ago, like defense by very high intensity lasers. One can direct them so accurately that in a thousand miles they will diverge by not more than five feet. The very idea of practical lasers did not exist thirty years ago. Technology has made great strides in various fields, and these new possibilities should be used not only for the development of methods of mass destruction, but very particularly for defense.

Whiteley: Is defense possible in the nuclear age?

Teller: The only way to fail is not to try. And we certainly have been on this failing path. We have not tried. In the last three years or four years, under the impact of Reagan's challenge to try and find defenses we find, on various occasions, that defense is not quite as difficult as we imagined.

Whiteley: You've identified the Strategic Defense Initiative as a collection of systems. What do you envision?

Teller: I cannot make plans. I can tell you what my feelings are. The oldfashioned terminal difference, to shoot at missiles as they re-enter the atmosphere, that is a good realistic possibility, because by that time the atmosphere has stopped the decoys, and you have fewer objects to shoot at. Both the Soviets and we can produce defensive rockets, anti-missile missiles with a considerable edge, so that a defense at one point - for instance a defense at Moscow - does defend the countryside around. It's not just the defense of one site. It can be the defense of many people. One thing that the President has emphasized, and about which I am enthusiastic, is defense for everybody. Not defense for the United States, but joint defense of everybody who wants to prevent the Third World War. I believe that with such a joint defense there is a much better chance to make the job of an attacker more difficult. And in fact, by using defense to make the attack look more difficult, it is probable that the attack will never come. Deterrence by defense is by far the best way to go.

Whiteley: One hope for you about defense is it will add to deterrence by making the aggressor think twice before acting.

Teller: The Soviets - the Soviet leaders - seem to me very obviously for power - for more power. They are, however, in one respect quite different from the Nazis. They are really cautious. Therefore, if they see defenses the chance that they attack will be much, very much less.

Whiteley: As you've thought about the goals of the Soviet Union, and with your understanding of what they have been doing, why are they protesting so much about this Strategic Defense Initiative?

Teller: It is really remarkable that they have publicly stated they want defense, and they were consistent about it up to 1983. A little more than two days after President Reagan talked about strategic defense Secretary Andropov protested against American militarization of space. The remarkable fact is that the President did not talk about space or satellites or t he space shield. He just said it is better to save lives than to avenge them. He challenged technical people, scientists, to find ways of defense. At that point the Soviets did something. Secretary Andropov did something that no Russian has done ever before. They protested against defense.

I don't know why, but there is one possibility which worries me a great deal. We have reason to believe that the Soviets have done a lot about defense. They in fact have today a monopoly. All SDI is challenging that monopoly. They rather would keep it. And if they can make American retaliation obsolete, then indeed they will have much greater freedom of action, many more possibilities to follow their announced aim to model all the world after the one example of the Soviet Union.

Whiteley: As you've thought about the controversy surrounding the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, it has been reminiscent for you of some of the controversy surrounding the development of the hydrogen bomb. What do you want your fellow citizens to understand about the parallels?

Teller: There is one very essential point. In both cases I advocated that we find out something. The remarkable response from many of my colleagues was that we must not find out. We must not find out whether the hydrogen bomb is feasible. We must now not try to find out whether defense is feasible, and to what extent it is feasible. I believe now, as I believed then, that the greatest danger is ignorance, and it is to my mind a really remarkable circumstance that scientists should advocate not to find out. Not what to do with the knowledge once we had it, is I do not believe, a question up to scientists. But to prevent knowledge from being developed, that I think must not be the work of scientists. We must know.

Whiteley: A second parallel for you about the Strategic Defense Initiative controversy and the development of the hydrogen bomb has to do with the argument that if the United States had only not proceeded with the hydrogen bomb development, the Soviet Union would have used restraint. What is your understanding of the history?

Teller: I did worry decades ago that the Soviets would have a hydrogen bomb and we would not. What was in the future then is now in the past, and we know more. We know that the man who led the Soviet effort for the hydrogen bomb is a very excellent scientist: Sakharov, who is now in exile. We know from Sakharov's writings that eighteen months before the claim was made, if we do not work on the hydrogen bomb, neither will they. Eighteen months before that Sakharov was already drafted to work on the hydrogen bomb. Today we have plenty of evidence that the Soviets are working on SDI and have advanced in practically every field in which we are making attempts. Whether it is anti-missile missiles or lasers or x-ray lasers or other beams, or hypervelocity fragments or anything else, we do not have complete knowledge, but we do have strong indications that in whatever we have tried the Soviets already have some experience. They are not protesting for the reason that they think it is unfeasible.

Whiteley: You've indicated that the consequences of not proceeding now with the Strategic Defense Initiative are much greater than if we had not proceeded with the development of the hydrogen bomb. Why is that?

Teller: At the time of the hydrogen bomb the United States military force was obviously superior to that of the Soviet Union. Today the Soviets are the strongest military power on the globe. If this is further - this advantage is further increased by their having defense, and we not have any defense, that I think might be a really dreadful situation. It reminds me of what happened fifty years ago. Fifty years ago we were on the threshold of Munich. The British and French representatives who were surrendering at Munich were not very close. They tried to save British and French lives against a threat which was recognized too late. I think we are at a time when defense probably will still be timely if it is undertaken with a will, and if it is undertaken jointly by everybody who wants peace: the British, the West Germans, the Israelis, the Italians, and now recently the Japanese have joined. We still have hope, and what we think and do about it today could be the difference between peace we want and a Third World War that must be avoided.

Whiteley: In the context of Soviet military superiority, you've written that we're not in an arms race, we're in a technology race. What do you mean?

Teller: In an arms race, as I understand it, we are reproducing more and more of the same kind of arms. Before the First World War it was who has more battleships; now it is an unreasonable count - who has more bombs? The question is not that. The question is who has more knowledge. Who has a more advanced technology? And we have a more advanced technology in every civilian respect. In regard to preparedness, and very particularly defensive preparedness, we have neglected the obvious, and the Soviets have done what is obvious and what is right for their people.

Whiteley: You have discussed and analyzed four separate statements which have been an implicit basis for U.S. defense policy over the last several decades. You have disputed each of them at least in part. I would like to remind you of them each in turn, and ask you to share your understanding. First, nuclear weapons produce total destruction.

What I believe is a real big difference - a change brought about by nuclear explosives, is that dreadful destruction can be brought about in a shorter time. Therefore, we have to prepare for the possibility in advance and more thoroughly.

Teller: Nuclear bombs are certainly terrible. I do not quite know what is meant by total destruction. If I remember what has happened in the Second World War, it is difficult for me to imagine something even more terrible. What I believe is a real big difference - a change brought about by nuclear explosives, is that dreadful destruction can be brought about in a shorter time. Therefore, we have to prepare for the possibility in advance and more thoroughly.

Whiteley: Second, the prevention of total destruction requires retaliatory deterrence.

Teller: It is certainly necessary to use every possible means to deter another war. A part of this deterrence should indeed be the possibility of retaliation. That we have to keep. To rely exclusively on retaliation, to neglect defense, is _______________.

Whiteley: Third, retaliatory destructiveness necessitates arms limitations.

Teller: It would be wonderful to get rid of the need of producing arms, if only it could be verified in the situation of an open United States and the very well-kept closed society in the Soviet Union. It is much easier to imagine arms limitations, and much harder - perhaps impossible - to get real arms limitations.

Whiteley: Four, arms treaties lessen the danger of nuclear war.

Teller: We had treaties with Hitler. There were non-aggression pacts, and they certainly did not prevent the Second World War. I don't know whether there is any real change from that situation. We should continue to talk with the Soviets. I'd rather talk about positive measures of cooperation, whether it is in technical developments like fusion energy, or whether it is for cooperation on defense, where we indeed cooperate with many others and we are ready to cooperate with the Soviets when they get interested.

Whiteley: You have singled out two flaws of Mutually Assured Destruction for analysis and comment. I would like to present each of them to you in turn and ask you to share your comments. First, that it is morally bankrupt.

Teller: I believe that the idea that the killing of millions of people should be followed by the killing of more millions is a dreadful idea. I do not like to talk of morality, but this is a case where indeed, morality may have to be invoked.

Whiteley: Second, it assumes the absence of new technology.

Teller: Actually, we have plenty of reason to believe that the Soviet progress in defense may well make our retaliatory capability obsolete. What our response should be, in actual fact, I do not know. But a part of that response must be to find out to what extent defense is possible, and that is what we are trying to do. It's a difficult task and we all should participate.

Whiteley: What is your response to the statement that nothing short of an impenetrable defense will do?

Teller: Nothing short of an impenetrable defense will satisfy anybody; would satisfy me. But the simple fact is that we are not going to be satisfied. Life is dangerous and life will remain dangerous no matter what we do. All we can do is to pursue, not complete safety, but the hope and the possibility of peace, and that can be increased by defense.

Whiteley: In stating that the main purpose of defense is not to win wars but to deter them, what do you want your fellow citizens to understand?

Teller: We had a period of peaceful development in the world for four decades. I think that defense could and should increase this period of peace. Not complete freedom of everything undesirable, but much better than what we have known in the First and Second World Wars. To continue with peace, and with improvement everywhere, including the United States, clearly including Europe and Japan, and including the Soviet Union where there is more freedom now than there has been under Stalin. We try to prolong that period of peace, and that is what defense is about.

Whiteley: You've stated that there is no peaceful technological advance that cannot be used for war. What do you mean?

Teller: There is also no progress in defense that cannot be used for peace. Improvement in technology can be used for peace and for war, and any advance in technology will be useful and helpful to all of us.

Whiteley: A theme that's recurrent in your writings and your speaking is that you want your fellow citizens, whatever they think, to think again because the future is incredibly complex. What do you mean?

Teller: I know what I understand. In March of 1939 I got a telephone call telling me that there are neutrons produced in fission. I knew then that atomic weapons will be made sooner or later. In the process I had to think and think again, and no thought was final. No thought can be final now. The thinking process must continue; there are no final answers no matter how important the question happens to be.

Whiteley: Dr. Teller, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the ways to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age.