‘OPPENHEIMER: In a straight race to build the Bomb, the Germans win. We’ve got one hope.
COLONEL GROVES: Which is?
Adolf Hitler called Quantum Physics ‘the Jewish science’. He didn’t trust it. And he could not stomach the thought of these ‘Untermensch’ Jews developing something valuable. Hitler was more interested in paganism and magic (and also quack medicine in his last years). He was a real philistine when it came to science.
The Manhattan Project’s race with the Nazis (and the Russians) to build the first nuclear bomb was spurred on by the hope that Hitler, blinded by hate, would deny physicist Werner Heisenberg the proper resources he needed for the German nuclear programme. And so it was.
Father of the H-bomb
The Hungarian-born theoretical physicist Edward Teller was a core part of Robert Oppenheimer’s team at Los Alamos. After the war, Teller continued his pet project of the much more powerful Hydrogen bomb, and years later he worked on Excalibur, the space-based laser which he sold to President Reagan as the ultimate shield against missile attack.
The film director Benny Safdie (Hidden Gems) plays Teller in the Oppenheimer film – one of the best performances in the movie. The moment when the Bomb is first tested in the desert (the Trinity test), the explosion is reflected in Teller’s dark glasses, and a diabolical smile spreads across his face. This is director Christopher Nolan’s homage to the film Dr Strangelove. Teller became known as the model for Dr Strangelove, the eponymous scientist in Stanley Kubrick’s classic black comedy. Teller rejected this association, not least because the Dr Strangelove film character is an unreformed Nazi. Not only was Teller no Nazi, but he also saw the Stalinist influence in Eastern Europe. He was a committed anti-totalitarian.
Born in Budapest in 1908 to Jewish parents, Teller was educated at home and then teased and bullied mercilessly when he eventually went to school. He was gifted, but moving around Europe from one centre of excellence in physics to another, he became an outsider – a brilliant outcast.
Teller believed in ‘peace through strength’. He did not want a hydrogen bomb because it would kill more people, but because once it was possible, ‘it was out of our powers to prevent it.’
By the time the H-bomb had been accepted, Teller believed that Oppenheimer had campaigned against it.
Teller’s work can be seen in the 1980s strategic defence initiative (‘SDI’), popularly known as the ‘Star Wars’ programme, and its influential role in the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The Russians took it so seriously that when US President Ronald Reagan first announced it, amazed veteran negotiators at the 1986 Reykjavik summit watched as the Soviet Union’s Premier Mikhail Gorbachev offered to eliminate all his nuclear weapons if SDI were confined to the lab for 10 years. That didn’t happen, but East-West relations had entered a new phase.
Journalist Matthew d‘Ancona has suggested that we should replace the socioeconomic shorthand term Centrist Dad, with Bomb Bloke – so enamoured is the male of the species with all things nuclear.
Nuclear paranoia was deeply pervasive in the 1940s and 1950s – ‘radiation’ became a major theme in super-hero comics, and the younger generation rebelled against the perceived betrayal by their elders who ‘almost wiped us out.’
There’s a direct link from nuclear science and the development of the Bomb to teenage rage, and to beatnik counter-culture, and to the hippy movement … and to The Catcher in The Rye (1951)!
(References: The Real Dr Strangelove, by Peter Goodchild; Prospect)