'H-Bomb' Teller, Dead at 95

Lifelong war hawk and nuclear scientist Edward "H-Bomb" Teller has just died at 95. Take a moment and tip your hat to one of the primary architects of American military hegemony.

Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1908, Teller displayed an early affinity for math and science, but left Europe once he decided that Jews would have few opportunities in a continent dominated by the Nazis. From his immigration to America in the 1930s, he was a continuous proponent of military innovation and a pivotal figure in Manhattan Project. After the successful detonation of a nuclear weapon, he persuaded President Truman to develop thermonuclear weapons and oversaw the project, after discrediting Robert Oppenheimer when the latter expressed reluctance for further nuclear development. Later, Teller became the director of Lawrence Livermore laboratories, a leading weapons research centre.

In the 1950s, he argued strenuously for America to build up a large arsenal of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, and encouraged Americans to build fallout shelters. He also promoted the development of the neutron bomb, a weapon that killed people but left structures in place and produced no radioactive fallout. In the 1960s, he warned America to militarize space in order to stop the Soviets.

Teller was also a primary architect of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, the so-called "Star Wars" missile defense system. He defended the idea by arguing that, throughout history, global power has shifted to those who discovered and exploited technological innovations. He liked to cite the case of Gengis Khan, who dominated Europe through the superiority of his cavalry.

Teller claimed that a naive reliance on the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction would lead to America being surprised when its enemies developed new weapons and defenses to change that logic. Instead, he insisted, America should be the country to develop those innovations and achieve the decisive advantage in the global balance of power. That way, America could take back the ability to strike first with nuclear weapons without fear of retaliation.

He opposed the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties (SALT) and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and was highly skeptical of Perestroika in the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, he was a vocal critic of President Clinton's decision to reduce military spending, particularly in research and development. He asserted that, after eight years of Clinton presidency, America's risk of being engulfed in a nuclear war rose from 1 in ten to 5 or 6 in ten as a result of the decline in America's defenses. He also charmed neoconservative politicians by warning of the dangers of rogue states - like North Korea and Iran - acquiring long-range nuclear weapons.

Until his recent death, Teller remained a tireless advocate of ballistic missile defense, space militarization, and the development of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons - all of which the current Bush administration has embraced.

Reviled by antiwar protesters in the 1960s, he was a conscious model for the character of Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick's darkly comical look at military thinking gone mad. [Update: Thanks to Andrew Barg for refering me to a blog by Robert Musil that suggests Strangelove was inspired by Werner von Braun and Herman Kahn, rather than Teller]. However, his brand of aggressive military spending and tireless weapons development has long appealed to hawkish Republicans, and many of his ideas have been reflected in the policy papers of the Project for a New American Century, the right-wing think tank that has exercised tremendous influence under the Bush presidency.

Teller's thinking has centred around the belief, echoed by many on the right, that the best defense is a good offense. He dedicated his life to applying science to weaponry and making sure America had the most technologically advanced military on the planet.

Ryan McGreal
September 12, 2003

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