The famous brows beetled, the melancholy gray eyes bored in, the doomladen voice set out the words one by one, like great marble blocks.
"Ten years ago I would have said we don't need to have a war. Today I can only say I hope we can avoid a war without surrender. It may be too late."
Dr. Edward Teller, the celebrated nuclear physicist, passed through town yesterday to help launch a monumental 868-page study by himself and 31 others, "The United States in the 1980s," produced by Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
Teller's message was basically the same grim prophecy that has made him a storm center since the earliest days of the Manhattan Project, when an amazing collection of the world's greatest scientific minds worked together in fanatic secrecy to make the first atomic bomb.
The brilliant Hungarian's special role was to press for a thousand-times more powerful bomb, one that would work not by chipping pieces from the massive uranium atom but by fusing forms of the lightest atom of all -- the hydrogen bomb.
"Look," he said, wearying of talk about nuclear holocaust, "I prefer to talk about the real dangers and the real solutions: for instance, the fact that we have no contingency plan for the case that the Russians should take over the oil in the Mideast or -- easier, and it could come sooner -- block the exit from the Persian Gulf.
There is a great accumulation of Russian tanks in the southern end of the Arab Peninsula. What, please, are those tanks doing? We don't have any contingency plan, and I don't mean military, because probably to prevent a Russian takeover there, if they seriously tried, I doubt we can do it. But what we should know is how do we behave, how will the free world behave if that happens?"
Teller tends to be wary of the press, especially dovish voices. "Don't call me the father of anything," he muttered, referring to the apparently unkillable cliche that unfailingly follows any mention of his name: "Father of the H-Bomb."
The 72-year-old Teller, who came to this country in 1935 and was naturalized in 1941, became the target of bitter attacks because of his hawkish position after World War II and his testimony in the 1954 security hearing of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer. Later he was to say that Oppenheimer talked him out of signing a petition against dropping the A-bomb on Japan.
Never one to follow the leader, Teller earned a certain fame at Los Alamos for getting up late, not at dawn with the other scientists, and for working at home, not in the labs.
His wife Micci (whom he married just before fleeing Hitler in 1934 and whose existence he had to conceal for a time while he lived off a bachelors-only Rockefeller grant) made her name at Los Alamos by staging a sitdown strike to save some pine trees from the bulldozer as the sprawling enterprise expanded. There are two children.
Today, when asked if he was frightened by the power he helped set free in the bomb, he replies: Is the press frightened at its own power to influence?
"Our danger has now increased," he said, "and opportunity has decreased but has not vanished yet . . . I'm not advocating strong measures that we cannot follow through. I am advocating that the American people should be told and that we should lay plans by which all in America and the other democratic developed countries can fully cooperate in the kind of technology that can save freedom and very particularly avoid the war."
He takes the same line in his essay for the new book on the '80s.
Teller's contribution to the book typifies the Hoover Institution's stance on foreign affairs. Once again he speaks out on the dangers of secrecy, which today, he said, "makes no sense, erects barriers between the government and the people, between ourselves and our friends and essentially does not help in defense."
As for nuclear proliferation, he finds the real danger lies not in terrorists making bombs but in small countries "making a few bombs, never testing them, never using them in war, but giving them to terrorists."
He feels that the arms race is meaningless, that the point now is quality, not quantity.
"The Russians," he added, "are ahead of us most certainly in the quantitative sense but probably by now also in the qualitative sense, and that is a much more serious danger. The Russian scientists are working, ours are not."
The Russians have an elaborate civil defense program, he noted, which means that "the Russian people will survive a nuclear conflict in better shape than they survived World War II (20 million military casualties alone). We won't because we have made no preparation. By that time, the Russians can tell anybody what they want, and people will say, Yes sir. If they want food, they'll get food; if machinery, machinery; if slave labor, slave labor.Under these conditions Russia can recover from a nuclear conflict in one year, or if not one, then in two years."
Edward Teller does not hold dialogues; he transmits and you receive. But sometimes the old-world charm shines through, if you can get him away from the fate of the world.
He was asked: How can it be that all those remarkable minds -- Szilard and Von Neumann, the nuclear physicists; Syent-Gyorgy, the discoverer of Vitamin C; Teller himself, and others -- all came from the same neighborhood of Budapest in the same decade?
"I could say it is because Hungarians are more visible. I could say that a shipwreck is a stimulating experience. But the real reason, and this is strictly classified, is that we are Martians. We have come to conquer this planet. And you forgot the most important, the leader of us all. You forgot Zsa Zsa Gabor."