Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma
Jeremy Bernstein
Ivan R. Dee, $25 (cloth)

J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century
David C. Cassidy
Pi Press, $27.95 (cloth)

Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove
Peter Goodchild
Harvard University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

I came to understand that vast insecurities lay forever barely hidden beneath his charismatic exterior, whence an arrogance and occasional cruelty befitting neither his age nor his stature.—Abraham Pais on Robert Oppenheimer

[Nothing could] silence the insecurities preying on him . . . the roots of his turmoil ran deep . . . conflicting emotions [fueled] the will to succeed that Heisenberg had identified and the aggression that Rabi had seen.—Peter Goodchild on Edward Teller

Two men—both brilliant at science, both hungry to exert an influence on world affairs, both living in a time that allowed them to aggravate into existence the ability to destroy the planet, and both sufficiently neurotic that neither fulfilled his own promise as a scientist (though both betrayed friends and colleagues to hold the power they thought they had attained). Only Thomas Hardy could have done justice to the melodrama that grew out of the fateful connection between Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and the American development of nuclear weapons. Now, three new biographies—two of them on Oppenheimer—concentrate us once more on the extraordinary impact two larger-than-life figures can have on the world when they antagonize one another at a receptive moment in political time.

The outline of the story is simple. When war broke out in 1939, scientists all over the West who had been working for years to understand the possibilities of nuclear energy realized that if such energy could be harnessed properly, a weapon of immense power might be fashioned. Very soon, those living in England and the United States became persuaded that the Germans were at work on just such a project; their fears drove them to approach Franklin Roosevelt with the suggestion that a laboratory be created in the United States to hasten the development of a nuclear weapon for the Allies. A year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt authorized the army to organize such a lab. The military man in charge, General Leslie Groves, chose Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist from Berkeley, to run it. Together, Groves and Oppenheimer decided on Los Alamos, a village high up in the mountains of New Mexico, as the perfect site. There, Oppenheimer gathered together the largest group of talented scientists ever assembled in one place—physicists, mathematicians, chemists, and engineers who, under his direction, lived for the 27 months between April 1943 and August 1945 in virtual isolation, working single-mindedly to produce a successful fission bomb.

In July of 1945 their long labor at last produced results, and that August two such bombs were released over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II was at an end, the nearly fatal rivalry between Russia and the United States had begun, and humanity now existed in a world capable of destroying itself—not partially and temporarily, but totally and forever.

In the interim between the time the atom bomb blew up Hiroshima and the Cold War began in earnest, the Los Alamos scientists (among them countless Nobel laureates) declared themselves eager to help develop political policy regarding nuclear weapons. Inevitably, these men turned out doves and hawks alike. Among the doves were the physicists Hans Bethe, I.I. Rabi, Leo Szilard, and Oppenheimer, who wanted badly to put nuclear-energy research under international control. The chief hawk was the physicist Edward Teller, who obsessively insisted that America build a fusion (that is, hydrogen) bomb to get ahead of Russia and stay ahead.

For nine years the debate over nuclear-weapons research raged among scientists, politicians, and the military. Then, in early 1954, Robert Oppenheimer (by then the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and a member of the influential advisory council on the Atomic Energy Commission) submitted to a security-clearance hearing that went against him. At this hearing Edward Teller (who by then had caused a hydrogen bomb to be built and tested) was the main witness against him. Afterward, the sociologist Phillip Rieff said that the outcome of the Oppenheimer case meant that scientists as a body would no longer “play a role in shaping an American military policy that they themselves have made possible.”

In actuality, the Oppenheimer hearing meant only that liberal scientists would have no future clout; right-wing scientists like Teller would go on playing a role in government decisions for the next 40 years. But the light that the hearing had cast on our sorry Cold War times did mean that forever after Teller would be demonized in the public eye as Dr. Strangelove and Oppenheimer deified as a figure of heroic tragedy. The more interesting reality is that each man, having in the deepest sense borne witness against himself, came out of that hearing doomed to a kind of isolation that he could not have dreamed was waiting for him—an isolation that mirrored the powerful sameness of self-division that had brought both, ineluctably, to this moment.

* * * 

J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in 1904, in New York City, into a wealthy family of assimilated German Jews. He grew up restless, lonely, brilliant—responsive to poetry and language, literature and the arts—yet apprehensive enough to approach the world from inside the protective armor of an intellectual arrogance that came early and stayed late. From his school days on, Oppenheimer was known not only for his brains but also for his scornful, interruptive manner when in the presence of those he judged as less intelligent than himself. When he encountered a figure he admired, however, his capacity for appreciation showed itself immense. His love of science developed through exposure to a great high-school teacher of physics and chemistry, a man of whom Oppenheimer later said, “He loved [science] in three ways: he loved the subject, he loved the bumpy contingent nature of the way in which you actually find out about something, and he loved the excitement that he could stir in young people . . . to whom he hoped to give some touch, some taste, some love of this life, and in whose awakening he saw his destiny.” Many who heard Oppenheimer speak these words felt he was describing himself.

Soon enough, the young Robert shared the passion of the laboratory with his inspired mentor. Yet his own nature remained moody and restless, his interests broad, his attention fractured, and he failed to develop—then or ever—the single-mindedness required to do great science. As everyone who knew him recognized, Oppenheimer’s talent for physics was consistently short-circuited by his inability to concentrate exclusively on a single major problem for as long as it took to solve it. Ambitious for he knew not what, he continued writing poetry, learning Sanskrit, riding horses, falling in love. Nevertheless, science held him rather more than not and, as he was gifted, it kept pushing him ahead to study at one star-studded institution after another. Upon graduation from Harvard, he went to the Cavendish Laboratory in England, then on to Germany and Denmark to learn the new “European physics” (that is, quantum mechanics), along the way meeting and attracting the attention of every world-famous physicist then teaching.

Returning to America in 1929, Oppenheimer accepted a joint appointment at the California Institute of Technology in Los Angeles and the University of California at Berkeley, where no programs in theoretical physics existed. (American physics, until then, had been almost exclusively experimental.) It was here, in this position, that Oppenheimer came into his own. His real talent, as it turned out, was not only for teaching, but for building a department; not just a department, a school; not only a school, but a “culture of research” from which eminent physicists might emerge. Within a year, Oppenheimer had gathered a small but significant group of “genius” graduate students around him, nearly all of whom would ultimately disseminate the new ideas in physics throughout American science. At the same time—that is, in the early 1930s—another young physicist, the future Nobel laureate I.I. Rabi (a fellow student of Oppenheimer’s in Germany), was doing the same thing at Columbia University in New York. When the Second World War broke out, these two men and their protégés provided the majority of the scientists who would create radar and build the atomic bomb.

In the ’30s, Oppenheimer was famous in the small world of American physics not only for the elegance with which he had built the Berkeley school of physics, but also for his ascetic good looks, his high-class taste in clothes and wine, and his left-leaning politics. The Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe had politicized the heretofore unworldly Oppenheimer in the same way that it had thinking people the world over. He felt the relation between man and society as never before—and the feeling pressed on him. If Oppenheimer was not actually in the Communist Party at that time, he was nonetheless an intimate of many who were; throughout the decade he was perceived as an active fellow traveler who supported a myriad of so-called progressive causes and associated freely with known left-wingers. Then came the war—the problem of nuclear fission, the urgency of defeating the Nazis—and with it the directorship of the lab at Los Alamos. Overnight, the aesthetic but politically progressive physics teacher became the scientist in single-minded service to his government.

From the very beginning, running the lab at Los Alamos brought Oppenheimer’s gift for synthesizing the work of others into astonishing clarity. He had always had the outstanding ability to, as David C. Cassidy writes in J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century, almost instantly “comprehend research across the entire spectrum of theoretical and experimental physics . . . quickly grasp a formal argument in physics, assess its internal problems, and determine its possible solutions.” To this talent he now added another: the ability to keep track in his head, all at the same time, of every aspect of the bomb-building program. He was alive with understanding for everyone’s needs—physicists, engineers, mathematicians, wives and children, technicians and maintenance men, cooks and secretaries—and spent every waking hour attending to them.

The situation had clearly brought out the best in him. Throughout his life, Oppenheimer had dismissed all whose minds were not as quick as his own—students and colleagues alike dreaded his scorn—but now, at Los Alamos, the defensive arrogance went underground. His behavior transformed into something remarkably benign. “The one quality that runs through all the scientists’ narratives of [their time at Los Alamos] is enthusiasm,” Jeremy Bernstein writes in his Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma. “As hard as they worked building the bomb, they also had a great deal of fun.” The reason, they all agree, was Oppenheimer. It was he who set the tone, he who created and sustained the mood, he who attended magnificently to everyone everywhere, soothing, arranging, supplying. In return, he became the man for whom one wanted to do one’s best. At Los Alamos, Robert Oppenheimer was universally beloved. Even Edward Teller—Oppenheimer’s bête noire then as later—had to admit that as a laboratory director he had no equal.

The problem, as it turned out, was that Oppenheimer became addicted to his own extraordinary effectiveness, especially when he began to feel assured that Los Alamos would put him on the road to glory. He and General Groves got along so excellently because each was aware that the project would be the making of his career, and thus the two were equally driven to make it work. For many others at Los Alamos, the project’s mission was often the cause of profound inner conflict. Not so for the elegant, independent-minded, left-leaning lab director who obsessed only over the successful conclusion of the task at hand.

Now we arrive at the complication of character that would dog Oppenheimer’s rise and foreshadow his fall. No sooner was the lab at Los Alamos put into operation than national security became an overriding issue with the government, and the FBI began digging around in everyone’s past—including Oppenheimer’s. Almost immediately, he seemed to grow frightened of losing what was now so visibly within his grasp—and suddenly he was a man eager to help his government root out potential security risks. He didn’t know exactly what they wanted, but he decided to throw them a bone they could chew on. Interviewed in 1943 on a peripheral matter of security at the lab, Oppenheimer, for no real or immediate reason, offered up a number of names from among his Berkeley friends and colleagues as potential communist “threats” to the safety of the nation. Later that same year, interviewed again in Washington, he named several of his former students at the Lawrence Radiation Lab as possible Communist Party members (for which the agents, of course, read “Soviet spies”).

Oppenheimer was essentially just shooting off his mouth, talking to persuade the FBI that it didn’t have to worry about him, that he was true blue. But unbeknownst to him, these conversations were being recorded and—exactly as in a Hardy novel—would rise from the grave to grab Oppenheimer by the throat in 1954 when they were made public during his disastrous security-clearance hearing. Then, not only were the professional lives of the people he had named destroyed, but he himself was seen to be a man of seriously frail character who had sold out others when he didn’t have to—simply to hold on to the position that was allowing him to experience himself at his very best.

* * * 

Enter Edward Teller, of whom I.I. Rabi was to say that it would have been a better world had he never been born.

Teller grew up with the same kind of privilege as Oppenheimer, he possessed the same kind of talent, and, ultimately, he would be undone by the same kind of neurosis. The son of a prosperous, assimilated Jewish-Hungarian lawyer, he was born in Budapest in 1908 and came to science young through exposure to a great teacher of mathematics who made him fall in love “with the underlying simplicity of what seems at first complex.” This teacher, he wrote, “could do mathematics all day long. He was the only adult I did not feel sorry for. Almost all the others had complaints about their jobs. I became determined to have a job that allowed me to do something I wanted to do for its own sake.” The sentiment was true enough as far as it went, but as it turned out, it didn’t go far enough.

In 1926, when Teller was 18 years old, Hungarian anti-Semitism forced him to travel to Germany, where, ironically, a Jew was still able to take a Ph.D. There, of course, he met every great physicist then working in Europe, just as Oppenheimer had, and there he, too, performed brilliantly and exhibited the inner restlessness that made it impossible for either man to ever work long, hard, and exclusively on a single problem. “Restlessness” is a euphemism for a kind of insecurity that never abates. Although he was awarded his Ph.D. at the unusually young age of 22, Teller remained incurably anxious about his talents. He was mortified when he went to Berlin to hear Einstein speak on his vision of a unified theory and couldn’t understand a word of the lecture; 75 years later the memory of that moment could still eat him alive.

In 1934, the 26-year-old Teller and his young wife, Mici, arrived in England under the protection of a plan hatched by the British scientific community to rescue Jewish scientists already at risk in Hitler’s Germany. Within a year, though, an offer came through at an American university, and the Tellers traveled to the United States, where they remained for the rest of their lives, with Edward occupying one excellent academic post after another throughout the 1930s. Then came World War II and Los Alamos, the power struggle between the United States and Soviet Russia, and Teller’s lifelong obsession not only with building a hydrogen bomb, but with nonstop politicking for the continual development of nuclear weapons. It was Teller who caused Livermore, the California laboratory devoted to nuclear-weapons research, to be built; Teller who hammered away at one president after another on the necessity of the arms race; Teller who led the United States into Star Wars, the mad dream of a space-based anti-missile defense system.

In his early years Edward Teller was seen as a bundle of contradictions. On the one hand, his approach to science was warm, personal, unorthodox, exciting, and stimulating. Peter Goodchild, in Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove, quotes a former student who remembers that during the ’30s, “All relished Teller’s quickness in grasping the essence of your problem, and his uncanny ability to make good his half-jest, ‘I don’t understand it, but I will explain it to you’ . . . He could [always] offer some ideas which would help you understand the problem yourself. This was precisely Teller’s forte.” His enthusiasm was as legendary as his quicksilver movement from one scientific interest to another.

At the very same time, Teller was also seen as deeply irascible: thin-skinned, emotionally volatile, easily provoked, quick to take offense. By the time he got to Los Alamos, his capacity for grievance-collecting was nearly at its all-time high. Many who knew Teller well were convinced that it was here that his attitude hardened into one of temperamental reaction from which he could never retreat.

He had expected to be appointed head of the theoretical division at Los Alamos—not only because he thought the position was his by right, but because he needed the recognition—and when Oppenheimer appointed Hans Bethe instead he suffered a blow to his ego from which he never recovered. From this time on, according to many (including Bethe himself), “Oppie” became the man with whom Teller felt himself embattled. If another scientist responded negatively to a suggestion of his, he took to saying to his friends, “Oppenheimer’s gotten to him.” He burned with an angry ambition to have his own scientific presence achieve dominance over Oppenheimer’s—and that ambition became hopelessly wedded to the building of the large thermonuclear bomb known as the Super. The Super, Teller was persuaded, would be his path to glory. And indeed, throughout his later years, he was proud to be known as the father of the hydrogen bomb.

Even so, it is hard to explain how it was that Teller fell so completely away from the world of science-for-its-own-sake into a world of political power-brokering that served right-wing America to such an extent that Gorbachev refused to shake his hand when the two men met at a Washington reception. All we can say is that when the war ended and Teller returned to the University of Chicago, where he had been teaching before he had gone to Los Alamos, and where he had many old friends (including the great Italian physicist Enrico Fermi), he found that pure science was no longer an all-in-allness to him. The thing he now felt compelled by—and I mean compelled—was the desire to build a thermonuclear bomb. So single-minded was this urgency of his that it is impossible not to feel a hidden psychological need at work, manipulating a Cold War panic that he insisted on inflaming within himself as well as in the world at large.

The allure that the hydrogen bomb held for Teller went way back, actually, to a preliminary meeting held in Berkeley (before the laboratory at Los Alamos had opened) at which Teller had proposed that research be concentrated on a fusion rather than a fission bomb. Such a bomb, it was calculated, would produce an explosion equivalent to that of 1,000,000 tons of TNT. This suggestion was so startling to the others at the meeting that Oppenheimer made a trip to Michigan to discuss the idea with the University of Chicago’s dean of physics, Arthur Compton, who, in turn, was horrified. “This,” Compton wrote, “would be the ultimate catastrophe. Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than to run a chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind. We agreed . . . that unless [Oppenheimer’s team] came up with a firm and reliable conclusion that our atomic bombs could not explode the air or the sea, these bombs must never be made.”

Teller never for one moment felt the same compunction—much less the same terror—as the others, and he resented, even then, the way in which the idea of the Super was dismissed. Now, in 1948, he left the University of Chicago, returning to Los Alamos, where he set to work with a will to bring to fruition the thing he had been so long obsessed by.

Toiling ceaselessly to direct the development of the device that could explode a hydrogen bomb, Teller—having badgered, cajoled, insulted, and strong-armed countless scientists at Los Alamos into working solely on the Super—was experienced only as petulant, explosive, imperious. He made many enemies among his fellow scientists in these years, but on November 1, 1952, the first thermonuclear bomb in history was exploded, on the Pacific atoll of Eniwetok. Here is Peter Goodchild’s description of what happened that day:In the sky fifteen miles away and 40,000 feet above [the earth] the wings of one B36 monitoring plane heated to boiling point almost instantly. Wildlife and vegetation on the surrounding islands vaporized, birds burnt to a cinder in mid-flight, fish stripped of their skin as if deep-fried. Within five minutes the fireball had been transformed into a purple, roiling cloud a few hundred miles wide and thirty miles high. At ground level, the island of Elugelab ceased to exist, replaced by a crater two miles wide and half a mile deep. Eighty million tons of coral, earth and water had been vaporized and dispersed high into the atmosphere, radioactive material that would circulate and fall out around the world.

Between this time and the time a test-ban treaty was at last signed, over 300 such tests were performed in the United States and in Russia. Of that moment in 1952 when the first hydrogen bomb was exploded, Vannevar Bush, Roosevelt’s wartime head of the National Defense Research Committee, was to say at the Oppenheimer hearing in 1954, “I think history will show that this was a turning point . . . when we entered into the grim world that we are entering right now . . . [and] that those who pushed that thing through to a conclusion . . . have a great deal to answer for.”

Edward Teller heard many people speak as Vannevar Bush spoke at the very same hearing, but he remained unmoved. When his turn came, he told the committee sitting in judgment on Robert Oppenheimer that he regretted to say, but say it he must, that he did not think the future safety of the country would be well served by extending security clearance to Oppenheimer, mainly because Oppenheimer had opposed the development of the Super.

Teller could not, at that moment, realize that with these words he was sealing his own fate. For the next 40 years he would be absorbed by the monomaniacal drive to produce more and more powerful nuclear weapons, at least partly because after the Oppenheimer hearing he was shunned by almost everyone in science he had ever known or worked with. For the rest of his long life people at scientific conferences would turn away from him, refuse his hand, cut him dead. The result: he became increasingly more allied with powerful right-wing figures both in government and in the military. Now, they were his pals, not the scientists. Years later, George Cowan, a radio chemist who had known Teller since wartime Los Alamos, said, “People do betray themselves. Potentially, Edward was a great man in the highest sense, but he was betrayed by his obsession for power. Early on he was ambitious, which led to frustration, and then with success came the hubris and the power. And then he was lost. He made a mistake. He knows.”

The observation is, I think, shrewd, but the analysis somewhat lacking.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge Thomas Hardy creates a character who is filled with intelligence, enterprise, and ingenuity while he is at the same time a man who knows “no moderation in his requests and impulses.” When he loves, the warmth is all-enveloping; when he grows suspicious, he is capable of murder. The volatility and the moroseness within rise up repeatedly out of an uncontrollable inner conviction that the world—in the person of one intimate after another—stands ready to humiliate him. Once an “enemy” is identified, the mayor’s passions know no bounds: he is willing to risk bringing the world down to defeat those whom he imagines opposing him.

Edward Teller never understood the degree to which battling the opposition was an emotional necessity that drove him on and on; much less did he understand that it was Robert Oppenheimer, not the Russians, whom he had internalized as the designated enemy.