Exclusive Interview with Freeman Dyson: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

If there is truth in the adage, soon to be spouted at open houses by humanities professors, that you should “study what you love,” I can’t help but wonder what that says about me. While my Princeton education may allow me to slither through conversations with the Slavists, linguists, and (on a good day) biologists with whom I frequent meals, I have, in my last two Princeton semesters, spent a good deal of my time reading about atomic weapons and National Socialism, sometimes at the same time. While I am trying to diversify myself by looking more at the history of the Soviet Union (another cheery topic) this year, my interests remain in some sense tied, as one friend put it, to “Hitler and Hiroshima.”

In my intellectual quest, I struck out late last April to the Institute for Advanced Study. The Institute, which I suspect many Princeton students have heard of but never visited, lies about a forty minute walk away from campus and is most famous for having been the academic home of Albert Einstein for much of his Princeton existence, as well as that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the American atomic bomb project during the Second World War. More than just to stroll through shaded woods, charming 1940s-era academic buildings, and a less charming hulk of a cafeteria, I was there to interview Freeman Dyson, a British physicist born in 1923 who has been affiliated with the Institute since 1953, as part of a paper for a course on the history of nuclear weapons.

Meeting Dyson, who wears a cashmere cardigan to work on Saturdays, speaks in a whisper, and comes up to my shoulders at best, in a room where both Einstein and Oppenheimer sat by the fireplace, was first intimidating. But after nervously gulping down the same fruit salad served at every cafeteria in America (Dyson pays) and talking about what it is like to have V-2 rockets land near your home (less scary than you would think), I sat down with Professor Dyson in his office to talk broadly about his career and his views on the past, present, and future of nuclear weapons. What follows is an abridged transcript of our discussion:

Tim Nunan: So, I’m just going to get this little list of questions.
Freeman Dyson: Good.
TN: I remember – I was just curious with language stuff – I remember reading that you knew Russian, you know Russian?
FD: Well, sort of as badly as I know German.
TN: When did you eventually learn Russian?
FD: Well, I did it in high school. I was always interested in Russian. And the joke was that – I mean, this was during World War II, I was in high school – and I was very, I sort, I fell in love with language and I decided I would go to Russia after the war was over and study. And so, I was all planned to spend three or four years in Russia and study science – of course, they were very good in science – and also just to get thoroughly immersed in the language. So, that is what I was looking forward to at the end of the war. And then, of course, it turned out, at the end of the war, that things rapidly went downhill and we stopped being friends with the Russians, and so it became politically impossible, and so then, just sort of, as a second choice was the United States. And so I came here instead.
TN: And that was to Cornell at first?
FD: Yes. It’s amusing to think what would have happened if I had actually gone –
TN: Anyway, I remember this somewhat bizarre – maybe a little disturbing for the policymakers of the time – a lot of the writings around the early 60s, I suppose when you were looking into the test-ban stuff, it seemed , I mean, that a lot of your analysis of Khrushchev, it seemed to come from having read Russian literature. You talked, I think, a lot about Russian attitudes towards war a lot –
FD: Yes.
TN: Looking at War and Peace 
FD: Right. And in a way, it’s kind of – maybe disturbing – I kind of got the impression that not a lot of defense analysts were, were looking at the culture so much…Well, of course, it’s even worse now when they have to deal with the Arabs. They don’t understand anything at all about the Arabs.
TN: Yeah, there’s like a huge, huge push, I know, to – if you’re like an Arabic speaker or, you know, if you’re going to major in Near Eastern Studies – something like that, they’ll certainly be willing to pay your way, to some degree.
FD: Yes. No, I remember I was in Moscow a couple of years ago and stayed with an old friend there. And he has two boys, and both of them in college, and the older one, who is doing very well, is studying Arabic.
TN: And, I know at Princeton at least, our Arabic course offerings have, you know, like, quintupled since 2000.
FD: (laughs) Yes. But, still, the people in charge still don’t understand it.
TN: I was just going to ask about Cornell stuff at first. I was just reading Disturbing the Universe. You write at one point that you could feel this vivid presence, because a lot of the people had just come from Los Alamos. And I think you wrote too, that a lot of them had had this sort of exuberance about them when you were first at Cornell.
FD: Yes.
TN: I guess, could you explain, what characteristics was this exuberance marked by? And also, I remember that you wrote that some of these people – you got the impression – had had a lot of fun –
FD: Yes.
TN: — building the bomb. Could you comment on what sorts of things led you to that?
FD: Well, partly it came from my own experience in the 50s when I was a nuclear engineer. So I spent the year building a reactor, and also then a couple of years later, I worked on the spaceship, which you may have read about. I mean those were, for me, really exhilarating times, when working on a project where you were doing something real, and with a whole lot of people it didn’t matter who got the credit, and it was just a joyful time. And it was also like a camping trip – I mean, that you were away from your usual habits.
TN: Sort of – I think, what is it, more of an engineering-type atmosphere, you found?
FD: Yes. Yeah, it was a team effort and it’s like team sports. They are much more absorbing than individual sports, in a way.
TN: Did you ever draw a distinction between – did you ever see there being, I don’t know, a moral distinction between having fun working on an atomic bomb and having fun working on a reactor?
FD: Yes. Always did, definitely. I mean, I didn’t blame these people because I could very well have been in their shoes. But clearly there should have been a difference. And there wasn’t.
TN: Did you ever have a conversation with – I think I’m going to mispronounce this name – but Hans Bethe?
FD: Hans Bethe. Oh, yes, we talked with him a lot. I mean, that was the joy of arriving at Cornell as a student and finding that the students went to lunch with Hans every day. I mean, we called him Hans –
… TN: But did you ever – so did you ever have a sort of conversation with Bethe or the other physicists?
FD: Yes.
TN: Did you ever challenge them on that they had had fun there? Or did they ever have any remorse for having enjoyed this a lot?
FD: No. I don’t think so, and I mean, of course, as – they all believed that the bomb had won the war, and that was enough justification, and if it had been true, I mean I would certainly go along with that. Only more recently I came to doubt it and –
… TN: With this idea of having fun, though, did you – did you ever see a distinction between the attitude that someone like Bethe had had, working at Los Alamos, with, maybe the vigor that someone like Teller would propose weapons systems. I mean, I didn’t know him, of course, but it seems, having read about Teller a lot, he seems to have this sort of, maybe exuberance or real passion for pushing for weapons systems, whether it be – I mean, one example is, there’s this photo we have of him hugging the model of the Soviet Tsar Bomba, the biggest, you know, that fifty-seven megaton thing. And there’s this picture of him, you know, gesturing next to it. So, I’m curious, did you ever see a parallel between the fun these people had at Los Alamos and maybe the fun that, at least it seems, that Teller may have had?
FD: No, on the contrary, no. Of course, I did work with Teller on the reactor. He was, in fact – I mean, we were very, very close at that time. He was, in fact, the moving spirit of that reactor which we were building, so I was seeing him every day at that time. He was, of course, a wonderful person to work with because he just had this great enthusiasm – it didn’t matter whether it was a reactor or a bomb – for him, it was all good fun. And in both cases, I mean, he thought he was doing something good. I mean, the reactor, as it turned out, was rather good. It’s never given any trouble and it actually is useful.
TN: Triga, right?
FD: Yes. And he felt the same way about the hydrogen bomb, that it had actually kept the peace, and that it was a sensible thing to do, and the Russians would have done it anyway, all of which I think are true, in a way. So I don’t blame Teller for that. I think the problem at Los Alamos, in a way, is a bigger problem, because the bomb they designed actually was used. And—
TN: Whereas in the—
FD: —whereas the ones Teller designed were not. So that was more good luck than good judgment, but still.
TN: Did you ever have any discussions with Teller about Star Wars in the 80s?
FD: Yes, oh, a lot.
TN: What were some of the content of those? I think I remember reading in 1983, at least, when you had written Weapons and Hope, you seemed to not be a big fan of Star Wars or SDI then?
FD: Well, I always believed in it politically, not technically. It was one of these things, I thought from a moral point of view and a human point of view, it was a good idea, that we should switch from an offensive to a defensive strategy. That was something that was, in the long run, very desirable. I still think so. Problem was, that the program was technically just – well, it was actually fraudulent. (laughs)
TN: I think there’s a quote by this fellow Ronald Powaski, who, I think, is a nuclear historian, and I think he describes Star Wars as, I think the product of too many Americans pumping quarters into video game machines.
FD: (laughs)
TN: Do you agree with that?
FD: Yes, it’s true enough. It was a mixture of a whole lot of things. Star Wars was basically just a source of money for all kinds of people with different ideas who came into the foreground to get their share. So parts of it were actually quite sensible and parts were not. But, the most interesting experience I had was going with Teller to talk to General Abramson, who was the boss of Star Wars – that’s probably in one of the books, also – anyway, so, Teller and I went together because we both agreed that if this program was to be any good, it had to be declassified. Because Teller was always against secrecy, and so was I, so that was something we agreed on very strongly. So we talked to the general, and told him that this program was just not getting anywhere, and the reason was that because it was all hidden behind walls of secrecy and nobody knew how lousy it was. And if you wanted to do something useful, the first thing was to declassify it and have it honestly criticized. And anyway, so the general then gave us a big speech, said, oh yes, he completely agreed and that just next week he was going to declassify this and that and was – of course, never happened. (laughs)
TN: (laughs) And was that the end of your Star Wars politico experience?
FD: Yes. So, for me it’s always been sort of a missed opportunity. I think there could be a good program, but we’ve never had one. And certainly the existing program—the present-day program—is even worse than it was then.
TN: I recall reading, too, I think with missile defense – well, one thing I was inferring, perhaps too much, from your writing, is, when you’re talking about shelters, one of the points seemed to be to me was… in Switzerland they have a national more defensive culture, where shelters, no one takes them as a sign that the Swiss are suddenly going to unleash nuclear Holocaust on us. But in the case of America in the 70s or 80s, shelters could be construed as this effectively offensive backup. Do you feel that the political climate has changed enough since, say, the 1980s, when Star Wars was first being bandied about, that ABM systems are now sort of more acceptable?
FD: No, on the contrary. I mean, things are far worse now. I mean, this Bush notion of preventive war, I think, is an abomination. I mean, to me, that’s a huge step backward. In fact, I just wrote this morning a manifesto to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to that effect. You can have a copy of that, too, if you like. It’s only half a page. But—no, that, to me—anything Bush does, whether it’s ostensibly defensive or offensive, if you combine it with preventive war, then clearly—
TN: It’s going to have that undertone.
FD: Well, it’s more than an undertone (laughs). It’s an – it’s clearly part of a scheme for conquering the world. I find that – I’m really scared in a way that I had not been in twenty or thirty years.
TN: Just in general, or with regard specifically to, say, nuclear weapons?
FD: Well, I mean, it’s not just Bush himself but the large section of the American public seems to go along with idea that America has a God-given mission to invade countries and try to organize the world as we see fit. And that seems to me terribly dangerous, and in the end, I mean, if we go on like that, we’ll come into collision with China or some big country, and, the nuclear weapons then probably will then start exploding all over the place. The nuclear weapons are still there.
TN: Yeah.
FD: So that seems to me far more dangerous than anything else we’ve done.
TN: I was curious, to get back up to this notion of fun, and I guess nuclear weapons in general. There was a third episode that I’m curious if you could comment on. Somewhere you had, also from the 80s, you describe this experience where you went in and talked to a SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) colonel, I think it was, you know, has his maps, I suppose, up, and you were describing how he talked about his plans and what they would do in the event of a war, and how he seemed to eventually have this sort of maybe glee or his happiness about him, when describing the plans for war. Do you see that type of fun or zeal as different from Teller’s or a Bethe’s at Los Alamos?
FD: Yes. Yes, I think so, because, I mean, Teller understands very well, that the purpose of hydrogen bombs is not to be used. And that’s absolutely – that’s basic to Teller’s point of view. The whole point was to make the bomb so powerful that they would never be used. And that’s –I think that’s a consistent point of view – it may not be right but, anyway, at least it makes a certain amount of logic to it.
TN: Maybe this explains why he was hugging the fifty-seven megaton one.
FD: Yes. I mean, I remember I told that story, in the book I guess, about my brother-in-law, who—I don’t know if you happened to have read that.
TN: Not sure if I remember something –
FD: Anyway—I mean, my brother-in-law was a soldier with the German army in Russia and then, in later life, he was sitting in a pub drinking beer and reminiscing about the war and how great it had been, how wonderful those years were when he was in Russia, and – “If it wasn’t for your damned hydrogen bombs we’d be back there today!” (laughs) And there’s something to that. The hydrogen bomb really did put a stop to that kind of thing. And I think one can be proud of that, in a way. That’s certainly Teller’s view. That’s rather different from what Bethe was doing – I mean, Bethe was in the middle of a war and he was just building a weapon that we could use in a very desperate war were people were being killed every day, and if you were to bring the war to the end, that would be great. Which was a very different situation. In both cases, I think, it may be an illusion.
TN: So, I guess I’d like to move to just asking about when you first came to the Institute. I suppose it was in the late ‘40s, more or less?
FD: That was ’48.
TN: ’48, right. One big thing I’m curious about Oppenheimer, and I’m not sure if anyone has covered this in American Prometheus, perhaps, but can you describe, maybe, how research or how your life was structured by Oppenheimer when you arrived at the Institute? Like, how would you say Oppenheimer organized the people working under him at the Institute?
FD: Oh, he didn’t.
TN: He didn’t.
FD: No, in point of fact, he wasn’t even there. We arrived here in September and the building we were supposed to occupy wasn’t yet finished, so we got to sit in Oppenheimer’s study, in fact, which was very nice. It was a big room, it’s still there in Fuld Hall, where the director entertains his guests, and so there’s a big table and it’s a big room, and so there are ten of us sitting around the table, we’re all the young post-docs, and it was a very friendly atmosphere, and of course we all got to know each other, and we were very happy that Oppenheimer was away in Europe and we could get along with our work.
TN: It wasn’t until after the security hearings that he was sort of here consistently, right?
FD: Yes. Well, at that time he was traveling incessantly. I know he was in Europe for the first six weeks, and he appeared in November sometime, and then we went to our own offices in Building D and … He never really had much time for us. And he never told me what, on the contrary – I went occasionally to tell him what I had been doing, hoped to get his attention (laughs)
TN: No luck?
FD: (laughs)
TN: No luck on that front. So this is even after the security hearings?
FD: No, this was before. ‘Cause by the time he had the security hearings I was on the faculty. That was five years later. So I had my own group of post-docs and people I was responsible for. But he never actually worked in physics in all those years. That was, in a way, that was one of the tragic things about him. Of course, I talked with his wife, who is very understanding, I mean, his wife has been maligned by various books and television programs. She appeared in one horrible television series where she was supposed to be a sort of drunkard and bitch and just – just completely untrue. Anyway, she was actually a very solid and, I think much stronger character than he. And she talked to me once very frankly about Robert and his – that he desperately wanted to get back to doing some real physics himself. And would it be – he asked me if it would be possible to arrange a collaboration so I would really work with him and get him actually to sit down and do some calculations, which is something he actually never did.
TN: Why do you think – like, why was he not doing physics? Was this more his own choice after the Trinity explosion or was he, just ‘cause he was being more involved in political stuff with the Super? Or what?
FD: Well, I don’t know. I mean I have the same problem of course today – I’m eighty-two years old and – ‘course I can’t do physics the way I used to when I was young. I mean, it’s a gift, which really fades as you grow older. Some people, it fades more rapidly than others (laughs). And by the time you’re eighty-two it’s generally gone. But – but with Oppenheimer it seems to have gone earlier. Certainly part of it. In addition, of course, he was enormously involved with all sorts of other things, just as I am today, I mean, I’m writing books, I’m giving speeches –
… TN: One, I guess, the last question I have about the times at the Institute is it seems one theme you’ve written about a lot in terms of where you’ve worked is this, you seemed to have institutions or placed where you’ve worked where there is been sort of – I wouldn’t say amateurism is the right quality, but sort of this environment of excitement, of, maybe, like having fun, of being willing to take risks.
FD: Yes.
TN: Do you feel that…description applies to Institute for Advanced Study?
FD: No, I mean, it should, but it doesn’t, but no, I mean we’ve never been good about taking risks and, well one good thing has happened in the last five years – we finally have a biology department and Arnie Levine is the leader of that. He used to be chairman of biology at Princeton.
FD: And he’s an excellent man. So we have some real biologists here – which we should have had forty years ago, and I was fighting for that in the old days, and always lost – only, I had to retire first and then it finally happened (laughs). So, I mean, in that kind of way it’s not a good place for taking risks. It generally is very, tends to follow the fashions –

One thought on “Exclusive Interview with Freeman Dyson: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

  1. Reggie

    “Their son born as Raymond Joseph Teller (now just Teller) is a mcaigian.”This is not true. The Tellers had only two children, Paul and Wendy, neither of whom are mcaigians, much less famous mcaigians.

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