The Manhattan Project

Edward Teller's Interview

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Edward Teller, considered the father of the hydrogen bomb, was a key figure in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. Teller goes into detail about his work on the implosion principle for the plutonium bomb and his work with John von Neumann. He recalls getting Einstein on board with the project in order to gain FDR’s approval. He talks about whether the bomb should have been first used in a demonstration for the Japan and whether he has any regrets.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
1986
Location of the Interview: 
Telephone
Collections: 
Transcript: 

S. L. Sanger: Hello. Dr. Teller?

Edward Teller:  Yes.

Sanger:  This is Steve Sanger. I am a reporter at Post Intelligencer in Seattle. We are doing a section, probably not until July, a commemoration of the Trinity test and first bombs, partly because of the presence of the Hanford reservation over in eastern Washington where the plutonium came from. I wanted, if I could, to ask you a few questions because I know that you are a well known figure in the Manhattan Project.

Sanger:  What I really would like to know is just get some––I know you have written about this. I have read your book that came out in ’62, Energy from Heaven and Earth. I was wondering, –you were at the test, weren’t you? At Trinity?

Teller:  Yes.

Sanger:  Where were you that day? How close were you?

Teller:  I was at a slightly more distant location about twenty miles from the actual test.

Sanger:  Right. Was it at the Compania Hill? North of there?

Teller:  I do not know its name. 

Sanger:  Okay. I was down there recently. I visited the place. What is your most vivid memory of that day?

Teller:  Well, I have described it more than once. The description is contained in my book, The Legacy of Hiroshima. 

Sanger:  Right. I have that book.

Teller:  If you read the relevant passage, that is what I am apt to recite to you, if I would. 

Sanger:  Okay. I just wondered if anything had changed since you had written your book.

Teller:  No. I would quote that. That would be fine.

Sanger:  All right. Okay. Another thing I wanted to ask you, and this goes back a little further, is that I have read about your role with Eugene Wigner and Leo Szilard in the Einstein association.

Teller: Again, that is in the book, I believe. Szilard did not drive a car and I drove him out to Einstein to get the letter signed, and there I had a very pure role as Szilard’s chauffer. 

Sanger:  What is your feeling or view on how important that letter was as far as––

Teller:  It got the project going. I think it was quite important.

Sanger:  Do you think without that it would have been different? Without the letter?

Teller:  It certainly would have been different in timing. It may have been completely different, but who knows? I know that Einstein [misspoke: Roosevelt] reacted to that letter two months later, which is when he got the letter, for him. To compare to the present situation of SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative], it was really a great difference, because Einstein reacted immediately. I mean, Roosevelt reacted immediately. Whereas Reagan discussed it with quite a many people over quite a few months before he made a decision.

In both cases I believe the decision was right.

Sanger:  In that case, is it better to discuss that sort of thing, do you think, for a long time or to act on it right away?

Teller:  I think that any proper decision can take a few months and should. It is remarkable that it was Reagan who had the reputation of shooting from the hip and, where I have known him, he usually took his time and did not act on single advice, as did Roosevelt. 

Sanger:  That is interesting. I think usually FDR has the reputation of being quick to react.

Teller:  Well, FDR was quick to react.

Sanger:  He was quick in this case.

Teller:  But Reagan has that reputation, and I do not think that, as far as I know, corresponds to reality.

Sanger:  Right. Let me ask you something else.

Teller:  Of course, you may have a preference for quick reaction or more thoughtful reaction but, as I say, I agreed with both of the decisions.

Sanger:  Also, in your book Energy from Heaven and Earth, you mention I think in there I think that you are not sorry you worked at Los Alamos.

Teller:  Everybody asks if I regret that. I regret many things, but not those that you guys ask me about.

Sanger:  Well, what do you regret?

Teller:  That I will not tell you.

Sanger:  Oh.

Teller:  I certainly did not do everything in my life in the way I should have done it, but those things where I worked on topics of public interest, I can tell you I regret precisely what is written.

Sanger:  What is that?

Teller:  When Szilard, years later wrote to me and asked me to get signatures for the proposition that the first public bomb, or the first use, should not be dropping the bomb on a Japanese city, but rather a demonstration to the Japanese. I would have signed that. But Szilard also asked me to collect signatures, and that I felt I could not do without asking Oppenheimer’s permission more directly. I did so, and Oppenheimer talked me out of it, saying that we as scientists have no business to meddle in political pressure of that kind. We know too little about that. I am ashamed to say that he managed to talk me out of the right intention. I then wrote Szilard a letter saying that in a way I agreed with him, but I feel I should not act. And that I regret.

Sanger:  You had written about this in a Los Alamos 40th anniversary scientific magazine, I believe. I have read that recently. 

Teller:  I think that may have been seven hours of reminisces. 

Sanger:  Right. That is it.

Teller:  It is really nice to talk with you. I just had a visitor here who wanted to have answers to many questions, about all of which I have written. He did not know, and then asked completely obvious questions for which he knew my answers.

Sanger:  Because he had read them?

Teller:  No.

Sanger:  Because they were available?

Teller. They were just obvious. The more subtle points he never knew about and I told him where he could find them. But you have read it, so what else can I tell you? I would be glad to elaborate.

Now, look I mean. I do not want to give you the impression that I believe I never made mistakes. I think, in general, I most regret the not so rare occasions when I lost my temper. For instance, with that reporter who came to interview me an hour ago, and he was completely going to ask one routine question after another. I am sometimes impatient and I think that I do things [inaudible] often but, in general, I do not think that is what I have done in these matters that have consequences.

Sanger:  What is your view––I have not read this, I guess––Einstein once said that the bomb had changed everything but the way people think. I guess he said, “The modes of thinking in the world.” Did you feel that is so? That the world changed forever?

Teller:  I will tell you, my way of saying something similar is that I have discovered the most inner substance of the world, which is the human brain.

Sanger:  Okay.

Teller:  Not that this is new.

Sanger:  Right. Also, what would be the best way to describe your role on the fission bomb when you were working at Los Alamos?

Teller:  I worked on it. I happen to have made a real contribution together with my good friend Johnny von Neumann, suggesting the implosion principle.

Sanger:  All right, that is what I want. Good. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

Teller:  Well, I tell you, we shared some other possibilities in mind and we knew of some difficulties. And one person in Los Alamos had actually done experimental work on the implosion but without realizing some of the very important details. For this reason, his work—his name is Seth Neddermeyer, you know of him?

Sanger:  He lives in Seattle, you know.

Teller:  Yes. A very good man, who deservedly got a Fermi Prize for that. But his work was not considered that seriously because it’s very tough consequences were not realized. Then Johnny von Neumann, a good friend of mine, another Hungarian, came to Los Alamos on a visit and made some suggestions which turned out to be not unuseful, of how to assess those materials, how to put together the bomb. 

Sanger:  He was an explosives expert, wasn’t he?

Teller:  Sorry?

Sanger:  Von Neumann was an explosives expert?

Teller:  He was. That evening, I took him home to dinner, and after dinner we discussed it. That evening we found some of the details of the implosion, which made it more significant. Connected, for instance, with the immense pressures that would be developed. The next day we talked about that. And it is a remarkable fact about Oppenheimer’s flexibility that this went into high gear almost immediately.

Sanger:  The implosion idea was not going very far, very fast when Neddermeyer was working on it, was it?

Teller:  But then I brought him to Johnny von Neumann’s attention. The two of us worked on some of its consequences, and from then on it had a very high priority.

Sanger:  Something else I would like to ask you about that is that I spoke to––

Teller:  Now look, that is not the only thing on the fission process. There were plenty of people working on it, and I always was more inclined to do what had been otherwise neglected. Something for which Hans Bethe never forgave me.

Sanger:  As I said, I spoke to Dr. Wilson from Cornell. You know him, I suppose?

Teller:  Bob Wilson.

Sanger:  Yes.

Teller:  Good guy.

Sanger:  He said that, actually, he thought that the work at Los Alamos, or the whole reason as it came for its being, was to work on implosion after the gun method was realized it would probably work. He said the whole, almost entire work at Los Alamos, slung around to work on implosion and––

Teller: That is right.

Sanger:  And the plutonium bomb. 

Teller:  That is right.

Sanger:  But he said something else interesting. He said that he thought, in a way, that the Los Alamos work really was in a sense almost irrelevant as far as World War II was concerned because of the Hiroshima bomb being used first and more or less ending the war. Of course, later the plutonium implosion is important.

Teller:  My impression was that Bob Wilson, like myself, was opposed to the idea of using the bomb without prior demonstration to Japanese. I heard that, but I have no direct contact.

Sanger:  Okay. Another matter that I was wondering, it kind of goes back to Neddermeyer and the implosion. Could you tell me again what you think—is it so that he had the first brainstorm about it and then––

Teller:  Well, not only the first brainstorm, but the first concrete experiment. What Johnny and I did almost immediately was to get some ideas about its significance.

Sanger:  Right.

Teller:  Then, Johnny did much about details which, for all I know may be still classified, and required real good knowledge of the behavior of explosives, which was Johnny’s specialty, not mine.

Sanger:  Right.

Teller: Which went beyond the kind of things that Seth Neddermeyer did. 

Sanger:  I have not been able to talk to Neddermeyer. He is very ill.

Teller:  I did not know that.

Sanger:  He has Parkinson’s disease, as I understand. He also, as you may know, has some profound regrets about the bomb and just simply does not want to talk to anybody about it anymore.

Teller: It is a remarkable thing. I have been asked again and again whether I have regrets.

Sanger:  Right.

Teller:  Will you please excuse me, but this is one of the most idiotic questions, except for the fact that apparently others do. I may suffer from some moral insufficiency, but I do not. 

I did not put the work together. If you had the choice that something simply was in the long term unavoidable should be first done by the United States or by the Nazis or by the Soviets or by someone else, would you have regrets to make sure that we did it first? 

Sanger:  No.

Teller:  And I do not.

Sanger:  I am aware that the question can be fairly idiotic.

Teller:  Look, you have a right to ask if other people like Neddermeyer have problems with their conscience, you know, but I almost consider that an entirely false sense of pride. You can have regrets only if you somehow imagine that on a large scale you could have changed the course of events.

Sanger:  Incidentally, I talked to Dr. Wigner by phone a while back, and his attitude was almost identical with yours when he was asked the same question about the regrets. He said, “You cannot change past and essentially we were so, so afraid of the Germans having it that it made things––“

Teller:  But, you know, it was foreseeable that someone would have it. And if you have confidence, any confidence in the scientific elite, but the confidence that there is some [inaudible] you have to.

Sanger:  I agree with that.

Teller:  Furthermore, I did not do it in a way by choice. I prefer [Inaudible].

Sanger:  Right.

Teller:  But precisely seeing that others back away from it, practically no one is left to do the work, I could not feel that I could abandon it.

Sanger:  All right. I think that is really all that I wanted to ask you about.

Teller:  Good.

Sanger:  The bomb itself or that period.

Teller:  I can tell you that it was so the interviewer earlier today took ten times the time and got one percent of the information you got out of me.

Sanger:  Well, thank you. I appreciate talking to you.

Teller:  Thank you. Good to talk to you. Bye bye.

Sanger:  Bye.