Some 25 years ago, Peter Goodchild was responsible for the BBC drama series Oppenheimer, about the head of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, and the extraordinary effort to produce the first atomic bombs. One other key figure of the early nuclear age, Edward Teller, was a significant character. Now Goodchild has produced a remarkable biography of Teller, sometimes said to be the model for Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove.
Teller was born in Hungary, moved to the US in the 1930s, proved himself a brilliant physical chemist, and went on to be a big player in the creation of the first A-bomb. Even as that was being developed, he was working on the idea of a far more devastating thermonuclear, or fusion, bomb that used an atomic bomb to trigger a much larger explosion: what came to be called the H-bomb.
In the postwar years, Teller directed America's second nuclear weapon research centre at Lawrence Livermore, was regarded as the "father" of the H-bomb, and was a strong proponent of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative. By this time, Teller had also become a consummate political operator. He was avidly anti-Soviet, an opponent of most arms control, and a powerful adjunct to Reagan's hawkish policy advisers.
Teller had earlier been immersed in controversy when, in the 1950s, he had testified against colleagues such as Oppenheimer during the McCarthy era. This key episode is covered in an illuminating way, just one part of a book that virtually tells the history of the nuclear age through the life of one person.
Teller was not always so antagonistic to weapons control. The turning point for him came in the tense atmosphere of the late 1940s, with the Communist takeover of Hungary a key factor. For Teller, the Soviet Union was an absolute threat, and the worst aspect of all was the unexpected testing of the first Soviet atom bomb in summer 1949.
Of the key figures of the Manhattan Project, he was probably the longest lasting, dying at 95 last September. The Reagan era had given Teller a new lease of life, as he steadfastly promoted new technologies. His opposition to arms control persisted, and Goodchild recalls the remarkable occasion when Reagan introduced Teller to Gorbachev in the post-Reykjavik thaw. Conscious of Teller's role in the arms race, Gorbachev refused to shake his hand. Teller came "to regard the incident as a great compliment ... I am a little proud that my efforts to protect freedom and to extend it to those behind the Iron Curtain were noticed".
Goodchild has combined a thorough biography with lucid technical detail, both delivered in a style that is a delight to read.
Paul Rogers's 'A War on Terror' is published by Pluto Press