The Last Days
Of Edward Teller
Edward Teller's personal tragedy in the mid-1950s was to lose almost all of his friends, and his tragedy half a century later is still not to understand why he lost them and how badly he replaced them. The defining moment came on 28 April 1954, when he provided the prosecution's crucial evidence to the AEC Board convened to pass judgment on Oppenheimer's security clearance.

Although Oppenheimer had several powerful enemies among the atomic scientists, Teller alone was prepared to deliver the Dolchstoss. Asked whether he considered Oppenheimer a security risk, Teller replied that he had repeatedly seen Oppenheimer act "in a way which for me was exceedingly hard to understand ... To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more." Pressed on whether or not clearance for Oppenheimer "would endanger the common defence and security," Teller struck home: it "would be wiser not to grant clearance." Leaving the room, he turned to Oppenheimer, offered to shake his hand, and said: "I'm sorry." "After what you've just said," his former boss responded, "I don't know what you mean."

Soon not shaking Teller's hand became the thing to do for some of his former Los Alamos colleagues. The first time it happened, Teller reacted as if he had been punched in the stomach, ultimately breaking down and crying. As he now tells the story, the true victim of the 1954 hearings was not Oppenheimer but himself: "If a person leaves his country, leaves his continent, leaves his relatives, the only people he knows are his professional colleagues. If more than 90 per cent of these then come around to consider him an enemy, an outcast, it is bound to have an effect." Asked by a journalist many years later, whether his continuing ostracism hurt, Teller screamed: "Of course that hurts! It was meant to hurt, and it did!"

And what especially hurt, Teller complains, is that his colleagues so wilfully misunderstood his motives in the Oppenheimer testimony. In a convoluted story which he has been telling since just after the event, and which few historians or colleagues have ever been able to credit, he says he had intended to exonerate Oppenheimer but, just before going into the hearing room, he was shown Oppenheimer's immediately preceding bizarre testimony about the so-called Haakon Chevalier affair and his prevarications about whether and how he had been approached during the war to spy for the Soviets.

With an irony whose richness Teller still does not grasp, what so "tremendously shocked" him was not just Oppenheimer's confusing testimony but his "betrayal of his friend" Chevalier: "That he had accused a close friend of espionage ... seemed to me inexcusable." Teller says he was left flat-footed by what he had just heard, and the testimony he delivered moments later referred, he insists, to those revelations and not to Oppenheimer's consistent postwar opposition to the development of Teller's cherished H-bomb.

There is much documentary evidence to dispute this story, including notes made by an AEC liaison officer in an interview with Teller six days before his testimony, in which Teller suggested "deepening the charges" against Oppenheimer to include his opposition to the H-bomb. And, in any case, Teller's story is clearly contradicted by his own words at the hearings, when he specified that the reasons to deny clearance arose from Oppenheimer's "wisdom and judgment, as demonstrated by actions since 1945" (my italics).

Teller now needed new friends, and, therefore, a new scientific community. These he found at Livermore. For Teller weapons work represented the kind of physics for which his enormous talents were ideally suited. On his own say-so, his genius was not of the sort that produced conceptual breakthroughs at the most fundamental level: he quotes his former colleague George Gamow calling him "a good second fiddle." What Teller liked, and what he was outstandingly good at, was seeing the overall shape of very complex physical problems and making a series of often totally wrong, occasionally brilliant guesses at how such problems might be solved. Guessing how a hydrogen bomb might be built was what Teller's intellectual talents were made for. And "good fellowship" in bomb-building was what he found emotionally rewarding, the more so when he could recruit to the well-paid cause large numbers of young physicists for whom Teller was not just a senior administrative figure but a scientific god.

He loved the adulation as much as the companionship. He loved being right, and he loved even more being told he was right. As he became more isolated from the academic physics community, so he used his vast persuasive powers to nurture and expand this new community around him, one that engaged his scientific talents and approved his political goals. As he entered old age, almost all of those he called his close friends shared his right-wing Republicanism and his fear and loathing of everything connected with the Russians. If some of his old colleagues wouldn't help build his weapons, wouldn't talk to him, wouldn't shake his hand, then the new technoscientific world of constructing ever more advanced nuclear weapons might make it all just bearable.

He has not aged gracefully. Nearly blind, and gimpy-footed from an old Budapest tram accident, Teller at 94 is no Oedipus at Colonus: his sufferings have not produced in him a holy serenity; they have just made him more bitter and more concerned with paying back his enemies and detractors, almost all of whom he has now outlived. There is little of significance in this drearily written, "as told to"-style autobiography that he hasn't said before.

The book's sole literary virtue is putting it all in one place, and its major distinction from Teller's previously expressed views is the increased spitefulness with which he disputes colleagues' entitlement to share with him the credit for the successful H-bomb design, and the less restrained malice with which he carries on the vendetta against Oppenheimer's ghost. In his prime, Teller's vindictiveness was ugly and frightening; now it's ugly and a little pathetic. It is an unintended, but nonetheless considerable, achievement of this mean-spirited book so fully to expose the sadness of megaton man.

--- From a review by Steven Shaplin
of the Memoirs of Edward Teller (Perseus)
in The London Review of Books,
25 April 2002

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