Jonah, three observations about Edward Teller:
1. A participant in the Manhattan Project, Teller argued that before dropping an atomic bomb on Japan the United States should instead detonate a bomb above Japan, demonstrating the new weapon but harming no one. Teller’s proposal never made it as far as Truman’s desk, but it proves that Teller was never even close to the bloodthirsty, mad scientist that Cornwell and so many others have attempted to portray.
2. Over the bitter objections of much of the scientific establishment, Teller insisted that a hydrogen bomb would prove feasible, playing a personal and decisive role in persuading Truman to move ahead with the project. In doing so, Teller ensured that the United States remained ahead in the arms race. The Soviets behaved brutally enough even so, of course. But what would the world have looked like if the USSR had believed that it was stronger, not weaker, than the United States?
3. Beginning during Reagan’s term as governor of California, Teller briefed Reagan on the increasing technical feasibility of some form of defense against ballistic missiles, briefings that led directly to the Strategic Defense Initiative. What good did SDI do? A brief excerpt from How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life:
In 1992, the year after the Soviet Union was dissolved, I attended a dinner at which former secretary of state Henry Kissinger described a trip he had just made to Russia. Speaking to high officials in the government and military, Kissinger had asked each to name the critical factor in the demise of the USSR. “Almost without exception,” Kissinger said, “they named SDI.”
“The Soviets may have overestimated our technical capacity,” Kissinger now says. “On the other had, we didn’t have to build a complete version of SDI to make their calculations difficult. If the Soviets no longer knew how many missiles would get through, then they might have hd to launch hundreds more to have had a chance of success.” Hundreds more? But the Soviets could never have afforded hundreds more. “You can see,” says Kissinger, “why SDI had them so rattled.”
If you believe that the world is a better place because during the second half of the twentieth century the United States prevailed over its enemies, you will have trouble escaping the conclusion that Edward Teller was a great man.