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Saturday, 5 May, 2001, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
The mastermind of 'Star Wars'
missile defence test
An early missile defence test
US President George W Bush plans to develop the so-called Son of Star Wars missile defence system. BBC correspondent David Shukman has gained access to many of America's most secret laboratories, and met the man who first conjured up the defence vision.

There aren't many people who can walk into a crowded room and cast an immediate spell on everyone there.

The most hawkish of nuclear experts, he thought the atom bomb wasn't powerful enough, and pushed America towards the hydrogen bomb

But when I first saw Edward Teller we all stopped talking. This ancient stooped figure, in a crumpled suit and carrying a walking stick the size of a spear, holds a unique - some would say dangerous - position in American defence thinking.

As one of his critics put it, if evil walks this earth, it's Teller. And if you had to choose one man as the visionary behind the American dream of a shield against missiles, it would have to be Teller.

I found myself suddenly nervous in his presence. On the face of it, here was an old Hungarian emigre, a scientist, now retired.

Nuclear expert

Yet Teller was never an ordinary scientist. As the most hawkish of nuclear experts, he thought the atom bomb wasn't powerful enough, and pushed America towards the hydrogen bomb.

Teller is the role model for the mad scientist in the film Dr Strangelove, the doom-laden boffin with wild schemes for nuclear war.

Edward Teller
Teller - father of the hydrogen bomb and 'star wars'
We sat down for an interview. Teller's watery blue eyes fixed on me, unblinking. I imagined him in the White House fixing those eyes on Ronald Reagan and persuading him, as he did in the early 1980s, to launch a vast research programme into developing a shield against Russian attack.

Teller had planted an idea that has dominated American defence planning to this day, and according to some, also forced the Soviet Union into a race it could never win, and didn't.

Teller, with me, just talked, non-stop, in his heavy accent. He described how interceptors and lasers could save America.

I didn't get a word in, if I'm honest, and wondered if Reagan had been treated in the same brusque way.

He can't have minded because Star Wars was the result.

Top-secret research

The interview, for me, was disorientating. Maybe it was the altitude. We were high in the mountains of New Mexico at the Los Alamos laboratory, the top-secret birthplace of the nuclear age.

The scent of pine hung in the thin air, the sun was unusually bright, and the atmosphere was one of total isolation.

Protests in Korea
Bush's announcement provoked anger in many countries
Los Alamos boasts it has more PhDs than anywhere else on the planet, genius minds harnessed by the military.

Huge rooms are packed with lasers. There are miles of cable, flashes of mysterious light, and the hum of new technology.

Everywhere there's talk of The Threat, of the world outside bristling with malevolence, of unpredictable foreigners plotting America's destruction.

These people may be on a mountain but the mindset belongs in a bunker.

And the scientists are not alone of course. The billions of dollars they receive are the result of heavy lobbying in Washington.

Party support

For the American Right, for the Republican party, a defence against missiles is a patriotic crusade. One lobby group calls itself High Frontier and compares its cause to guarding the Wild West against Red Indians.

The editor of a right-wing magazine once asked me if I believed in missile defence.

When I hesitated, he said firmly: "For us it's an article of faith." I felt I'd been through the Spanish Inquisition.

The pressure to succeed is intense, and many of the tests have been faked

So when George W Bush announced his plans a few days ago, there was an almost religious context to what he said.

It leaves critics out in the cold. One scientist, a genial character in a cardigan, described to me how he'd once questioned whether the missile shield would ever work.

He had calculated how many flights of the space shuttle would be needed to assemble just one laser battle station in space - 350.

In other words, the scheme looked totally impractical, but the scientist was severely rebuked for pointing this out.

Faked tests

The pressure to succeed is intense, and many of the tests have been faked. In video footage of a laser destroying a rocket, it turned out the laser had been helped with a hidden explosives.

Pentagon slide
Some of America's best scientists are working on the project
Yet it's often the case with big Pentagon projects that so much money is thrown at a problem, that it has to work. That may well be the case this time - there's certainly the political will to try.

Edward Teller ended our interview - the guru had said all he wanted to.

I shook his bony hand. It was strong and again I marvelled at the force of a single man able to persuade a president, convincing enough to push a dream that now more than ever is being felt in capitals around the world.

Teller shuffled away. He was to talk to the current generation of Los Alamos scientists. He was loudly applauded, the eager young faces gazing at this living monument to the nuclear age.

Perhaps another Teller was among them, another pushy, cantankerous but brilliant scientist, who would strive to make America safer, even if the rest of us are left wondering if it's wise, if we'll be left far more vulnerable.

US Missile Defence

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See also:

24 Jan 00 | Americas
27 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
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02 May 01 | Americas
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