A necessary evil
Edward Teller: the real Dr Strangelove
Peter Goodchild Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 467pp, £25
In Stanley Kubrick's celebrated film, Dr Strangelove is portrayed as mad. What else could explain his willingness to countenance a thermonuclear exchange totally destructive of his own side and the enemy? What Kubrick overlooked, however, was that the strategic doctrine of mutual assured destruction (Mad), which kept the cold war "cold", depended on precisely this kind of "official" madness. In the world of nuclear deterrence, it is the man who cannot bear to accept the cold logic of mutually assured destruction who needs to be locked up.
In his biography of Dr Teller, the Hungarian-born physicist who was the inspiration for Dr Strangelove, David Goodchild portrays his subject as by no means entirely bad and dangerous to know. Taking a bold and original line, he argues that Teller's form of madness was a necessary evil. For the doctrine of mutually assured destruction to work, each side has to convince the other that there is a genuine possibility of somebody near, or in control of, the levers of power actually deciding to blow up the world. So even if there are no such people, somebody brave enough to risk universal obloquy has to be willing to pretend.
For many generals and politicians, that pretence presented few difficulties. (I remember President Nixon telling me during an interview: "Unless the other fellow believes I am really mad enough to press this button, then there would be all hell to pay.") But high-minded scientists are not generally so worldly, which makes it all the more impressive that Teller was willing to earn for himself the undying enmity and ostracism not just of his Nobel prize-winning peers but also the whole of liberal America, led by President Kennedy. Far from not caring, he suffered desperately, as the touching letters he wrote to his lifelong friend Maria Mayer make clear.
Perhaps his critics were right. Teller pursued the thermonuclear arms race with an indecent urgency and enthusiasm, not hesitating to make common cause with some of the most fanatical Pentagon cold warriors. It is hard to avoid suspecting that his determination to build the H-bomb had a lot to do with the desire to triumph over rival scientists whose earlier successes he envied - notably his Los Alamos boss, Robert Oppenheimer, whom he shopped, quite disgracefully, as a potential security risk. Throughout his upbringing in Hungary, his apprenticeships in Britain and Germany, his flight from the Nazis and his eventual success in America, Teller suffered from paranoia about being an outcast. He didn't choose to be embraced by fire-eating generals and far-right congressmen - but better them than nobody. None of this is skimped over in this admirably thorough book.
In the end, though, the great question is left unanswered. President Reagan led the praise for Teller. He is quoted on the cover of this book as saying: "A sterling example of what scientific knowledge, enlightened by moral sense, and a dedication to the principles of freedom and justice, can do to help mankind . . . one of the giants of American science, and one of the bulwarks of American freedom." On the other side, the great Nobel laureate Isador Rabi is quoted: "He is a danger to all that is important. I do really feel it would have been a better world without Teller . . . I think he is an enemy of humanity." This view was obviously shared by Mikhail Gorbachev who, when introduced to Teller by President Reagan on live television, refused to shake his hand - a mark of hostility that, as far as I know, he showed to no other western leader.
My own view is that Teller was a true cold war hero - although this, like everything else about the cold war, is a contradiction in terms.
Peregrine Worsthorne's In Defence of Aristocracy is published by HarperCollins