From Friends to Foes: The Story of Hans Bethe and Edward Teller

Mallory Ellingson

Originally published December 4, 2015

 Photo by: Paula Tyler

Photo by: Paula Tyler

On a summer afternoon, two young couples drove across America enjoying the sun and sights as they took a break from the rigors of academic life. Hans Bethe was falling in love with Rose Ewald while Edward Teller and his wife Mici looked on, perhaps laughing and congratulating themselves on their matchmaking abilities. It was the summer of 1937 and the four friends were taking a cross-country road trip to California. Nearly sixty years later, Hans Bethe would eat breakfast at the Los Alamos Inn. Moments later, as another physicist Ralph W. Moir observed, Teller would enter and seat himself merely two tables away from Bethe. Although each could clearly see the other, neither man would bother to acknowledge the other; a notable chill sat between them. Within decades, the two men would go from the closest of friends to the bitterest of rivals. One would come to be seen almost as a villain; part of the supposed inspiration behind Stanley Kubrick’s titular mad scientist character in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, while the other would become a Nobel laureate and respected scientific advisor, maintaining influence in the White House late into his nineties. The tale of the friendship between Edward Teller and Hans Bethe is inextricably intertwined with the history of nuclear physics and science policy in the United States, an epic tale spanning decades and involving numerous presidents and multiple wars.

In some ways, the entire history of nuclear policy and technology can be traced back to one man who had a revolutionary thought while crossing a London street in 1933. Leo Szilard’s concept of a nuclear chain reaction, the idea that the splitting of an atom could produce massive amounts of energy if the conditions were right, was the first domino in a long line of discoveries and innovations, which eventually lead to the atomic bomb and nuclear energy. The later creation and use of the atomic bomb set the stage for the Cold War, a period of high tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union which caused a number of bitter policy debates over the future of nuclear research, nuclear energy, and defense initiatives. Today the US still finds itself embroiled in international nuclear policy. Current Secretary of State John Kerry recently negotiated with other world powers and clashed with the GOP over the future of the bans on Iran’s nuclear program.

Both Bethe and Teller got their start at Los Alamos working side by side on the infamous Manhattan Project constructing the atomic bombs that would later end World War II, but their paths diverged as they found themselves taking two very different stances on nuclear policy. Bethe was a staunch technological skeptic, a concept very strongly associated with the Presidential Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) of the 1950s and 1960s. Technological skeptics focused on the boundary between science and technology, encouraging basic research and shedding light on the limits of technological solutions to social and political issues. Teller, on the other hand, is perhaps one of the most renowned technological enthusiasts and supported technology as the primary solution for most issues. Technological enthusiasm was a prevalent belief in the Cold War era and lead to several of the largest technological initiatives in American history, such as the Apollo Project and the Hydrogen Bomb.

For two scientists so divided later in life, the early days of Hans Bethe and Edward Teller were remarkably similar. Both were born to Jewish families in the early 1900’s, Teller in Hungary and Bethe in Germany. Teller began his scientific career in Hungary but quickly moved to Germany, which was the center of scientific advancement in the first few decades of the 20th century. They most likely first met at the University of Munich in 1928 where Bethe was studying under renowned physics professor Arthur Sommerfeld, when Teller arrived and started attending Sommerfeld’s lectures. However, as Hitler and the Nazi party began to gain popularity and power in Germany and surrounding countries in the 1930’s, both promising young physicists joined the veritable flood of great minds that left Europe to avoid Nazi persecution. The refugees eventually made their way to the United States where Teller joined the faculty at George Washington University and Bethe took a position at Cornell University. It was during these years at Cornell that Hans Bethe began his work on the production of energy in stars, which would eventually win him a Nobel Prize. Teller was exploring the field of astrophysics as well, focusing on the nuclear processes of stars, collaborating with Bethe on numerous occasions. 

Nuclear physics was a burgeoning, yet still relatively small, field in America at the time and it is no surprise that Teller and Bethe maintained their friendship from their student days. The two often visited each other at their respective universities and they collaborated on multiple projects. Edward Teller and his wife, Mici, played matchmaker for Bethe and Rose Ewald who married in the late 1930s and the two couples remained very close for many years. Their paths also crossed with numerous other famous personages in nuclear physics – upon visiting The University of California, Berkeley at the end of a California road trip with Hans and Rose Bethe nee Ewald, Teller met J. Robert Oppenheimer, who would eventually lead the Manhattan Project, for the first time. Bethe made multiple trips to Columbia University to visit I.I. Rabi, who would later work on the Manhattan project and win a Nobel prize for his work with nuclear magnetic resonance, and out to Chicago to see Arthur Compton, another Nobel Laureaute in Physics, whom he had met at a conference in London . Teller also enjoyed a close friendship with Leo Szilard, the man who first conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, whom he had met while working in Germany. In 1938, Edward and Mici Teller planned a trip to return to Hungary to see family; however, they were forced to postpone their trip as German forces arrived on the borders of Hungary. Neither would see their family again for nearly twenty years nor return to Hungary for half a century.

At the very end of the 1930’s, the dominoes began to fall and Edward Teller, by virtue of his close friendship with Leo Szilard, found himself right in the center of what we now mark as the beginnings of the atomic bomb. Teller was recruited to come to Columbia to work as an intermediary between Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi as the two worked on nuclear fission and the production of a nuclear chain reaction using uranium. All three men, and many of their colleagues, recognized the potential of what they were doing and the need to alert the government. They turned to Albert Einstein, who wrote a famous letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1940, prior to the official entry of the United States in World War II, the US government began to look into the possibility of an atomic bomb and recruited a variety of physicists to assess the issue. Bethe recalls that when he first heard the rumors in 1940, he was not yet convinced that a bomb was possible, unlike his friend Teller. His mind was changed after he visited Enrico Fermi’s laboratory in 1942 and witnessed a nuclear chain reaction, although he remained uneasy about working on the project. After hearing President Roosevelt declare at the Eighth Pan-American Scientific Conference that it was the responsibility of scientists to use all of the knowledge at their disposal to protect America, Edward Teller saw the atomic bomb as his only path.

In the summer of 1942, J. Robert Oppenheimer began to recruit scientists from across the country to join him at Berkeley to begin work on the design of an atomic bomb. Despite his initial misgivings, Bethe was desperate to contribute to the fall of the Nazi party, so he and his wife Rose piled into a car, picked up their best friends, Edward and Mici Teller, and made their way to California. Shortly after, Oppenheimer recruited scientists to Los Alamos and offered Hans Bethe a position as the Head of Theoretical Physics. Teller was asked to join as a group leader in the same department, but wanted the director post for himself. He felt slighted and chafed under the leadership of his old friend. This marked the beginning of the end of the friendship between Hans Bethe and Edward Teller. Their inability to work together stemmed from this perceived slight but was also based in very different methodologies. In his Memoirs, Teller describes Bethe’s methodology as detail oriented and Enrico Fermi said that Bethe worked on “little bricks.” Teller, on the other hand, considered himself more of a bricklayer. He liked to look at the larger picture rather than focus on the little details. So when Bethe asked Teller to work on the minutiae of the implosion scheme of the bomb, he declined, instead choosing to focus on the possibility of a thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb. Bethe did not take this well and Oppenheimer was forced to separate the two former friends and move Teller’s team to work under Fermi.

After working non-stop on the atomic bomb, many of the scientists working on the project – both at Los Alamos and at other facilities – were forced to pause and think about their creation following the surrender of Germany in the spring of 1945. Beating Germany to the creation of the bomb had been the primary motive behind many of the scientists’ participation, Bethe included. With Germany out of the picture, a new question had to be asked: Do we use the bomb on Japan? Leo Szilard worked very closely with James Franck in the writing of a petition, later known as the Franck Report, to President Truman, warning of the arms race that was sure to happen if the United States decided to use the bomb. Szilard sent the petition to Teller, asking him to sign and share it with the rest of the Los Alamos scientists. Unsure, Teller consulted Oppenheimer, who – unbeknownst to Teller – was sitting on a military committee convened to answer the very same question. Oppenheimer told Teller that the report was based on incomplete information and that the decision needed to be left in the hands of the politicians and the military. Bethe felt this way as well, appreciating Franck and Szilard’s moral objections and foresight, but not wanting to protest without fully understanding the situation. The Franck report was published and signed by 68 scientists; however, it did not include Teller, Bethe, or any other Los Alamos scientists, something that Teller deeply regretted and held against Oppenheimer for the rest of his life. Testing of the atomic bomb proceeded in July of 1945 and once complete, the decision to use the bomb was made. When asked about this on multiple occasions later in his life, Teller firmly replied that the US Government was wrong to use the bomb without giving Hiroshima proper warning. Bethe believed that the destruction, however horrible, was necessary to make the Emperor surrender and to save the lives of the nearly one million Americans it was estimated would have died if the United States had been forced to invade Japan, as he expressed in an interview with the Cornell Chronicle in 1994.

Oppenheimer resigned his directorship of Los Alamos shortly after the successful testing of the atomic bomb. The new director, a reserve naval officer by the name Norris Bradbury, wanted to keep Teller on in the theoretical division, however he would not meet Teller’s condition that the hydrogen bomb, Teller’s pet project at Los Alamos, be a priority. Teller then made his way to Chicago where he joined Fermi at the Institute of Nuclear Studies. Bethe was asked to stay on as well; however, he chose to return to teaching at Cornell. It was during these immediate post war years that Teller became involved in politics, which would later become one of the largest parts of his life. It seemed for a few years that life would return to normal for these two scientists, however, everything changed again when the Soviet Union had their first successful atomic bomb test in 1949. Teller began to lobby the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) for the construction of the hydrogen bomb and compiled a list of scientists that he wanted to join him, including Hans Bethe. Bethe initially refused, as he was morally opposed to any continued work on the creation of nuclear weapons. However, he later joined the effort at Los Alamos, when he realized that he might be a better advocate for disarmament if he were at the center of the nuclear weapons world.

Teller had long been vehemently anti-communist, even prior to his involvement with the Los Alamos project. In addition to this position, he had multiple personal conflicts with Oppenheimer, including feeling betrayed over the Franck Report. Therefore, it is not as surprising that when J. Robert Oppenheimer was falsely accused and brought to trial for espionage for the Soviet Unionin 1953, Teller was the only major scientist who agreed to testify against Oppenheimer. In his youth, some of Oppenheimer’s family had friends that had flirted with communism. This association would haunt him through his years on the Manhattan Project and was part of the basis for his trial in the post-war era of anti-communism led by Senator McCarthy among others. All of the other scientists called to testify against Oppenheimer refused and chose instead to stand by their colleague. Although Teller did not directly accuse Oppenheimer of espionage or being a communist, during his cross-examination, he expressed that he did not trust the nation’s secrets in Oppenheimer’s hands. This action permanently damaged Teller’s relationship with the majority of his scientific peers. As Bethe later observed, it was no surprise that scientists would blame Oppenheimer’s downfall on the only witness they knew well. However, it also allowed Teller to step into Oppenheimer’s role as a scientific statesman. He became very politically vocal and even appeared on the cover of Time Magazine’s Men of the Year issue in 1960, which acknowledged the accomplishments of the scientists of the past decade. Around this same time, Bethe was entering the political sphere as well, however he generally found himself politically at odds with his ex-friendas the two established the camps of technological skepticism and enthusiasm respectively. Bethe played a key role in the creation of, and subsequently served on, the Presidential Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), an organization that often served as a stronghold of technological skeptics.

Prior to the establishment of the Presidential Science Advisory Committee under President Eisenhower, presidential science advising was inconsistent and often came from the military. With the development of PSAC, Eisenhower was the first President to acknowledge the necessity of scientific authorities in the White House as scientific developments in physics, technology and biomedical sciences began to intersect more with the role of Commander in Chief. President Nixon abolished PSAC in 1972 and scientific advisors were once again relegated to the sidelines until President George W. Bush established the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in 2001.

The successful launch of the satellite Sputnik into space by the Soviet Union in 1957 sparked the first major clash between the scientific skepticism espoused by PSAC and the scientific enthusiasm that was advocated by Teller and other scientists (collectively known as the “Teller-Lawrence Group”). Sputnik occurred around the same time that the Soviet Union and the United States were in the middle of discussing a Nuclear Test Ban. Teller strongly believed that Sputnik represented a technological defeat for the United States. He believed that the only way for the United States to regain its prestige was through continued nuclear research and testing, and he gained the support of the military-industrial complex with his convictions. Bethe, on the other hand, stood firmly with PSAC in support of a complete Nuclear Test Ban. He was called upon to lead an interagency panel on the nuclear test ban in 1958 because of his experience at Los Alamos, position on PSAC, and longtime position on the Air Force panel in charge of monitoring Soviet Nuclear tests. Although the Bethe Panel did not come to a conclusion as to whether a nuclear test ban would be a detriment to the United States, the conclusions of the panel clearly reflected Bethe’s firm belief in disarmament as well as the limits of the realms in which scientists can provide advice. When negotiations for a test ban with the Soviet Union stalled after a US spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory, Bethe expressed his disappointment in Eisenhower publicly through an article in Atlantic Monthly in 1960. This critique, albeit gentle, of Eisenhower’s nuclear policy enraged Teller so much that he challenged Bethe to a televised debate, which Bethe refused, believing that nothing good could come of such a spectacle. It was clear at this point that these two former friends had become rivals – fierce opponents each strongly advocating for different sides of the same issue.

Both men remained influential in nuclear policy throughout the changing political climates of the next few decades while still continuing to make meaningful contributions to the field of nuclear physics. Bethe’s work won him the Fermi Award from the Kennedy administration in 1961 and a Nobel Prize in 1967for his work on the production of energy in stars. Bethe typically found himself politically aligned with more liberal candidates in arguing for nuclear disarmament and the Limited Test Ban Treaty that was enacted in 1963. Teller, on the other hand, stood staunchly with the conservatives and was very active in several presidential campaigns, including Richard Nixon’s. In fact, he became a close scientific advisor of Nixon and was almost given membership of PSAC during Nixon’s term, but was told by the then chairman of PSAC, Edward David Jr., that putting Teller on the still very Oppenheimer-loyal PSAC would destroy the committee. However, despite his lack of an official position, Teller still had the president’s ear on scientific and nuclear policy matters, including the debate over the implementation of an anti-ballistic missile system.

The idea behind the anti-ballistic missile system was that it would be a defensive measure consisting of a number of Chinese-oriented thermonuclear missiles and would serve to deactivate any nuclear attacks that the Chinese may decide to make against the United States. Bethe strongly believed that the implementation of such a system would only serve to increase tensions between the United States and various communist nations, and even more, would do nothing to defer an attack from China, as he expressed in an article in Scientific American in 1968. Teller, on the other hand, unsurprisingly strongly advocated that the United States needed to have such mechanisms in place in order to properly defend itself. This debate drove a deep wedge between the Nixon administration and his science advisors and perhaps, along with other cultural factors, lead to a decline in the influence of science advising in the White House including the disbandment of PSAC. Bethe and Teller clashed again during the Reagan administration over the Strategic Defense Initiative, however for the most part they spent the last couple of decades of their lives in relative peace.

Hans Bethe and Edward Teller both stamped their legacies across nuclear physics and scientific advising, albeit in very different manners. Bethe’s staunch stance against nuclear weapon development and use lead him to be revered among his peers and he maintained strong friendships with his fellow scientists throughout his life. Teller, on the other hand, was vilified and vituperated by many of his colleagues for his pursuit of thermonuclear weapons. He is remembered as the father of the Hydrogen Bomb and despite his many contributions to the field of nuclear physics, was overlooked for many prestigious awards. Looking back over their lives, it seems like the friendship of Hans Bethe and Edward Teller was doomed from the beginning. Although both respected the minds and scientific accomplishments of the other, they could never come to any compromise on the issue of nuclear policy. At the cost of their friendship, both men made extremely meaningful contributions to American history and played an important part in keeping the United States safe during the Cold War.

Edited by: Brindar Sandhu

Mallory is a student in the Rollins School of Public Health and can be reached at mallory.ellingson@emory.edu.