Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Edward Teller

Edward Teller died yesterday at his home on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 95. Dr. Teller was famous and controversial for his central efforts to produce the hydrogen bomb, his promotion of nuclear weapons for carefully selected purposes, his deep understanding of the Soviet Union and his opposition to curtailment of nuclear testing.

The New York Times coverage of his passing again demonstrates how flaccid and tendentious the Times has become, as with this casually offensive passage:

He was seen as the model for Dr. Strangelove, the motion picture character with an artificial arm who "loved the bomb" and spoke with a Central European accent.

In fact, Dr. Teller was seen as a model for Dr. Strangelove only by a few critics determined to grasp whatever rhetorical device they could, regardless of how obviously wrong that device might be. Strangelove spoke with a clearly German accent. Dr. Teller was Hungarian. Strangelove's mechanical arm was likely to spring into a SEIG HEIL at the slightest provocation. Teller was a Jew. It is therefore weirdly despicable of the Times to make this association, especially since Dr. Teller was not widely seen as a "model" for Strangelove and was probably not intended by Stanley Kubrick as even a partial model.

Strangelove was almost certainly intended as a amalgam of Werner von Braun, the former Nazi rocket scientist who provided his services (and those of his underlings) to the US after the Second World War and, even more so, Herman Kahn, who was the best source for Strangelove. As one commenter puts it after discussing and essentially dismissing the inevitable Kissinger suggestion:

I think the best case can be made that Herman Kahn was the best source for Strangelove. Kahn was one of the earliest employees at the RAND corporation, which had been set by Gen. "Hap" Arnold to study nuclear war. According to THE WIZARDS OF ARMAGEDDON by Fred Kaplan, Kahn was notable for developing the linguistic trick of referring to potential casualties with the "only" word, as in "only two million killed." "Alluding almost casually to 'only' two million dead was part of the image Kahn was fashioning himself, the living portrait of the ultimate defense intellectual, cool and fearless, asking the questions everyone else ignored, thinking about the unthinkable." Indeed, his book ON THERMONUCLEAR WAR (1960), SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN reviewed it as "a moral tract on mass murder; how to plan it, how to commit it, how to get away with it, how to justify it."

The case FOR Kahn: Dr. Strangelove himself refers to a study he commissioned from the "Bland Corporation," a clear play on Kahn's old haunts. The similarity to Kahn's own ideas in Strangelove's pronouncements -- including the mine-shaft and ten-females-to-each-male stuff -- is uncannily similar to Kahn's brand of futurism. And since Kahn was the most famous nuclear war theorist at the time, Kubrick must have been thinking of his work.

The case AGAINST Kahn: Kahn, despite his name, was American-born, and was never a Nazi. Kahn was once asked about STRANGELOVE, and his reply was: "Dr. Strangelove would not have lasted three weeks at the Pentagon, he was too creative."

The Times doesn't like Dr. Teller. So the Times writes nasty, incorrect, unqualified things about him when he dies.

That's how bad it is.

UPDATE: An astute reader with personal knowledge of Dr. Teller e-mails more:

I agree with your complaint about the Times mentioning the alleged connection with Dr. Strangelove. They also failed to focus on just how brilliant he was and his range of scientific achievements. In 1964, my wife worked at what was then Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore, CA. Teller had been the head the lab and was still emeritus at that time. The buzz at the Lab was that it was typical for a scientist to bring some new discovery to Dr. Teller only to have Teller dig into a file where he had made the same discovery years earlier, but not bothered to publish it.

Also, a book about the Manhattan Project noted that the three Hungarians, Teller, Leo Szilard, and John Von Neumann, were considered notably brilliant even by the standards of the stable of brilliant scientists who worked on that project.

These comments are completely on point. Von Neumann was a unique, incandescent polymath who advanced fields ranging from computer theory to quantum mechanics. Leo Slizard, a chief foe of Maxwell's Demon, cut a similarly wide intellectual swath (including as co-inventor with Albert Einstein of a new kind of refrigerator).

And Edward Teller was very much their peer.

INCIDENTIALLY: Herman Kahn's parents were ambitious immigrants from Bialystok. The place is worth remembering.

STILL MORE: Another astute reader adds:

You know, I read the obit after I read your piece, and I was furious. The Times goes on about how Teller was spurned by the scientific community after his 1954 testimony, then later tell us that TIME put him on the cover in 1957 as a scientific icon, and he was made Director of Larry Livermore in 1958.

All very true. First, the spurning, then the apotheosis. Given the way the Times covers Dr. Teller, perhaps the Gray Lady thinks his best years are yet to come!



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