I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Edward Teller—the “father” of the hydrogen bomb—on several occasions. Teller believed strongly that the United States should have demonstrated the atomic bomb for Japanese leaders before the weapons were used to destroy Japanese cities.
Dr. Teller and I first met on 14 November 1986. As a member of the Secretary of the Navy’s Research Advisory Committee, I had participated in a major study of theater nuclear war at sea. An article followed (see “The Soviet Navy: Nuclear War at Sea,” July 1986 Proceedings), then another, with Dr. Donald Kerr, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, “Nuclear Torpedoes,” appeared in August 1986.
These articles led to an invitation to speak at a small luncheon of nuclear weapons experts at the Department of Energy (DOE) to provide my views of a possible nuclear conflict at sea. The day before the talk I was asked if I would mind if Dr. Teller attended the session. Teller, who had emigrated to the United States from Hungary in the 1930s, was one of the world’s most famous weapon scientists and theoretical physicists. Of course, I voiced no objection!
The session did not start well: We already were seated for lunch—15 DOE officials and myself—when Teller walked in and took his seat opposite mine. Looking at me, he asked, “Polmar. What kind of a name is that?” I explained its Russian-Ukrainian origins. Then I asked, “Teller. What kind of name is that?” Not a good question.
The conversation never lagged at lunch, and I began my talk as dessert was being served, using flip charts in that pre-PowerPoint era. At about my fourth or fifth chart, Teller stood and began discussing it. After he spoke to that one, and the next, and maybe one other, he was politely asked to sit down and let me continue. The briefing went well with many good questions, several from Teller.
He and I next spoke nearly a decade later, when we both were on a panel at the symposium “Crucible of Deliverance: Prisoners of War and the A-Bomb,” held in San Antonio, Texas in March 1995. My close friend Thomas B. Allen and I had just published our book on President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs —Codename Downfall (Simon & Shuster, 1995)—and we were to speak on the need to employ the bombs to end World War II. Teller had been invited to explain why the United States should first have demonstrated a nuclear explosion for the Japanese.
Shortly before our panel, I entered the conference room to check out the seating arrangements. Teller was already sitting at the table, reviewing some papers. I reintroduced myself to him, and he gave a vague acknowledgment that we had met before.
I asked if his plan was “to say that we should have had a demonstration before Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” He responded, “Why not?” I offered to tell him why, if he would listen for a few minutes without interruption. This appeared to interest him.
The points that I outlined to Teller—not necessarily in this order—were:
- U.S. and Japanese officials communicated through the Swiss Red Cross; “negotiations” for a demonstration would have been complex and time-consuming.
- Would Japan believe or trust the United States enough to risk sending scientists and military officers to a location of our choice?
- How would the Japanese observers be transported safely to the demonstration site from a fierce combat environment?
- Would the Japanese try to shoot down the B-29 bomber carrying the bomb to the demonstration site?
- Would the Japanese officials, observing the demonstration, believe that the massive detonation was caused by a single bomb—or by trickery, perhaps with previously planted explosives?
- Would a massive “water spout” caused by the detonation be perceived to realistically indicate the potential damage to a Japanese city?
- What if the bomb did not work? It probably would have been a gun-type plutonium bomb which, while simple in design, would not have been previously tested?
When I finished, he mumbled something along the lines of, “Interesting points, Polmar.”
Our session opened, and Teller began his remarks. He started by mentioning the number of conference attendees with whom he had spoken who believed that the atomic bombing of Japan was necessary. Then, he declared, “For the first time, I had a very real impression of something that almost amounts to a complete moral justification of using the bomb.” The audience broke into applause.
Later in his remarks, Teller did mention his idea that detonating a nuclear weapon 30,000 feet over Tokyo Bay—an explosion that would have been seen by 10 million Japanese—would have convinced the Emperor that surrender was necessary. But, one must ask, would such a detonation be seen as an indication of the bomb’s awesome destructive power? Or, would it appear merely to be a massive pyrotechnic display? Of course, the Japanese people had absolutely no influence on the six-man council that ruled Japan at that time.
After the session Teller said a few words to me, again indicating that my arguments had been “interesting.”