|Man Without Qualities|
Thursday, September 11, 2003
Edward Teller II
The New York Times today runs a more elaborate article on Edward Teller than the article the Times featured yesterday which was discussed in a prior post.
Some of the more obnoxious aspects of yesterday's diatribe have been corrected. Today the Times acknowledges Dr. Teller's brilliance and grudgingly avers to the value of his deep insights into the workings of the Soviet Union - which, of course, the aftermath of the Soviet collapse has demonstrated was every bit as nasty as Dr. Teller had determined and his critics simply would not accept. For example, yesterday's article led off with this demeaning summary of the life of one of the 20th Century's truly great people:
Few, if any, physicists of this century have generated such heated debate as Edward Teller. Much of it centered on his decade-long effort to produce the hydrogen bomb, his ardent promotion of nuclear weapons in general, his deep suspicion of Soviet intentions and his opposition to curtailment of nuclear testing.
His frustrations in seeking to win support for development of the hydrogen bomb led to his testimony that helped deprive J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the development of the first atomic bomb, of his security clearance. The result in much of the scientific community was a backlash against Dr. Teller that clouded the rest of his life.
The Times is deeply wrong to refer to Dr. Teller's ardent promotion of nuclear weapons in general - and this rhetoric chosen by the Times is obviously intended to cast Dr. Teller as having an "ardent" relationship with the H-Bomb, in other words that he "loved the Bomb" - yet another Strangelove allusion by the Times. Dr. Teller did advocate a broader nuclear strategy than his critics did, and he also advocated civilian uses of nuclear energy and hydrogen bombs. But in every case his advocacy was carefully thought out and far from "general." He was often confronted by hysterical opponents, opposed to any use of the H-Bomb on emotional or ill-conceived tactical grounds. And he was almost always right. In the aggregate, this reference to his ardent promotion of nuclear weapons in general is a nothing short of a slur.
Similarly, the reference to his deep suspicion of Soviet intentions is tendentious and wrong. Dr. Teller didn't suspect Soviet intentions, he understood them - which his most ardent critics did not.
Further, as noted in my prior post, yesterday's Times screed was as short on acknowledging Dr. Teller's scientific contributions and brilliance as it was long on its inappropriate Strangelovian intimations.
Today's effort by the Times suggests that yesterday's hachtet job was not well received. Yesterday we saw the work of Walter Sullivan alone, but today's apparent damage control job adds William J. Broad. Is this the Times' attempt to impose some adult supervision? In any event, today's article opens with rather a different tone, one that acknowledges his scientific importance and broad influence:
Edward Teller, a towering figure of science who had a singular impact on the development of the nuclear age, died late Tuesday at his home in Stanford, Calif. He was 95.
Widely seen as a troubled genius, Dr. Teller generated hot debate for more than a half century, even as he engendered many features of the modern world.
A creator of quantum physics who loved to play Bach and Beethoven as an amateur pianist, the Hungarian-born physicist helped found the nuclear era with his work on the atom bomb, played a dominant role in inventing the hydrogen bomb (though he often protested being called its father), battled for decades on behalf of nuclear power and lobbied fervently for the building of antimissile defenses, which the nation is now erecting.
Today there is no reference to Dr. Teller's "suspicions" of the Soviets - it is replaced by a reference to his "distrust" of Soviet intentions, a marginal improvement on the Times' part. A grudging acknowledgement has also been inserted:
During the cold war, [some of his colleagues] praised him as having a deep understanding of the tyranny of Communism and for succeeding like no other scientist in forging weapons to fight it.
Dr. Teller's highly nuanced and exactly correct analysis of J. Robert Oppenheimer is also quoted today, where yesterday we were led to believe that Dr. Teller had simply denounced Oppenheimer.
His frustrations in seeking to win support for development of the hydrogen bomb led to his testimony that helped deprive J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the development of the first atomic bomb, of his security clearance. .... Asked if he considered Dr. Oppenheimer disloyal to the United States, Dr. Teller said no. He was then asked whether he regarded him as a security risk. He replied that he often found Dr. Oppenheimer's actions "hard to understand."
"I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated," Dr. Teller told the panel.
Asked if he considered Dr. Oppenheimer disloyal to the United States, Dr. Teller said no. He was then asked whether he regarded him as a security risk.
"I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues, and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated," Dr. Teller told the panel.
"To this extent," he said, "I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understood better and therefore trust more. In this very limited sense I would like to express a feeling that I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands."
So - contrary to yesterday's insinuations - Dr. Teller did not suggest that he thought Robert Oppenheimer was a "security risk" with a wink and a nod. No sensible person can deny the truth of what Dr. Teller did have the courage to say about Robert Oppenheimer, who was a confused, conflicted, complex, brilliant scientist who imported much of his own social and political agenda into his technical recommendations. He was obviously not the right man to be running the programs he was running, regardless of his brilliance and scientific accomplishments and independently of whether he should have been regarded as a "security risk." That is, Dr. Teller's judgment in this affair was measured, intelligent and correct - and the portion of the scientific community that thereafter shunned him simply embarrassed themselves by doing that. Later investigations revealed that Robert Oppenheimer also had a problematic past which included substantial involvement with the Communist Party - a past that he largely concealed.
Today's article still does not strike the right balance. The wholly inappropriate Strangelove reference remains, and remains unqualified, for example. But today's article replaces and repairs a substantial portion of yesterday's mess. In truth, today's article should have been printed under the same kind of errata headline that accompanied the Times' Jason Blair confessions.
And there should be another such article tomorrow.
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