A Long-Ago Moment with Edward Teller

By Cowen, Robert C. | The Christian Science Monitor, September 12, 2003 | Go to article overview
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A Long-Ago Moment with Edward Teller

Cowen, Robert C., The Christian Science Monitor

Edward Teller was one of the most controversial of the so-called "influential physicists" who helped shape US defense policy - including development of the hydrogen bomb - in the second half of the 20th century. To his detractors, he was an archetypal Dr. Strangelove, with an unnatural passion for nuclear weapons and "star wars" antimissile systems. His fans saw a champion of national security.

But to many of his physicist colleagues - among whom he lived, worked, and played - Teller was the man who betrayed one of their own, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the charismatic leader during World War II of the Los Alamos atomic bomb lab where Teller also worked.

It was a tragedy of the early cold-war era. Witch hunting for "disloyal" Americans who supposedly undercut US national security was politically fashionable. Both Oppenheimer and Teller were caught up in the irrationality of the time. Even though Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who symbolized that era, had nothing to do with this particular case, he and his predecessors had created the political atmosphere that put Oppenheimer under the loyalty microscope.

With Teller's passing this week, I feel free to publish excerpts from my notes of a rare interview he granted in January 1955 at a time when his colleagues had ostracized him, bringing on what Teller considered one of the saddest periods in his life. He asked that it be off the record - a request this newspaper agreed to honor because of the personal nature of his remarks. Publishing these notes now may shed a little extra light on Teller's state of mind as he went through what he considered a life-changing experience. It was a bitter experience that helped shape his thinking in the ensuing decades as he became a leading advocate of a strong anti-Soviet defense based on technologically sophisticated weapons.

The interview took place not long after geophysicist David Griggs and William Borden, a former staffer with a congressional oversight committee, raised serious questions about Oppenheimer's loyalty and judgment. They brought up his past associations with Communist organizations that had been overlooked during wartime. They also regarded his opposition to the hydrogen bomb as part of a pattern of activity designed to slow development of a strong national defense.

Borden detailed these concerns in a letter to the FBI, precipitating a hearing that resulted in the lifting of Oppenheimer's security clearance, and with it his influence on defense policy. Teller's muddled testimony convinced both hearing officers and Teller's and Oppenheimer's mutual friends that Teller had deliberately undercut Oppenheimer's credibility. Many in the news media sided with Oppenheimer, portraying Griggs and Borden as villains. Teller's image didn't fare much better.

It was at this point that the interview took place. The following notes are excerpts of a confidential memo sent to this newspaper's American news editor. Teller's remarks are paraphrased:

The interview was held in Teller's home [near San Francisco]. His wife [Mici] had just returned from the hospital and he had been trying to manage the house and children himself. But, even allowing for that, there seemed a large residual strain and a deep sadness. His smiles, when discussing the [Oppenheimer] matter at hand, were forced, and halfway through the interview his eyes became moist. This description is germane.... To understand his position as he outlined it, you have to understand that he is a man struggling under a great sense of burden, sadness, and what seems almost to be despair.

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