“We Knew That If We Succeeded, We Could At One Blow Destroy A City”


Teller responded by lobbying for a crash program to develop his “Super bomb” as a response. Robert Oppenheimer, now a respected government adviser, led the Atomic Energy Commission committee asked to consider the proposal. After much discussion the committee correctly determined that Teller’s initial design was undeliverable and recommended focusing instead on the creation of a moderate arsenal of “off the shelf” fission weapons as a deterrent to Soviet ambition. Beyond that, the hydrogen bomb’s potential lack of an upper yield limit made it, in the opinion of Oppenheimer, Fermi, and others, an obscene weapon, as well as one without a target in the Soviet Union that couldn’t be adequately devastated by one or more Nagasaki-size fission bombs. Only the United States had any cities large enough to provide tempting fusion targets. Finally, the suggestion was made that by turning away from H-bomb research the United States might actually inspire the Soviet Union to do likewise.

Oppenheimer’s recommendations appalled Teller, who thought his old friend utterly misunderstood Stalin’s dangerous ambitions. Among many in Congress and the Air Force the report was seen as openly treasonous, a belief Teller was able to exploit very effectively in his quest for backing. Teller got his go ahead for a crash program on the hydrogen bomb, which, thanks to an insight by the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, had now been completely redesigned. The new configuration was so elegant and logical that even Oppenheimer called it “sweet.”

Shortly after the Ivy-Mike shot, Robert Oppenheimer found himself removed from government service. In subsequent months, as Cold War hawks assumed higher positions of power, Oppenheimer’s top-secret “Q” clearance was revoked amidst charges of disloyalty, stemming largely from his pre-war Communist associations, as well as his more recent attitudes toward the hydrogen bomb. To salvage his reputation, Oppenheimer chose to fight back and requested a hearing before the Atomic Energy Commission. At the 1954 closed-door sessions a stream of scientists and colleagues testified on his behalf, including, rather lukewarmly, Gen. Leslie R. Groves, who had been the military leader of the Manhattan Project. To the astonishment of Oppenheimer and the rest of the scientific community, Edward Teller was recruited by the prosecution. Asked if Oppenheimer was a security risk, he testified: “In a great number of cases I have seen Dr. Oppenheimer act... in a way which for me was exceedingly hard to understand. I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated. 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.”

Teller paid mightily for those words. Most of his friends in the scientific community turned their backs on him. For the remainder of his life he insisted that his testimony had not harmed Oppenheimer significantly. More recently, and very specifically in the interview that follows, Teller claimed his words were a one-time overreaction, the impetuous result of his learning only the day before of Oppenheimer’s failure years earlier to fully and promptly disclose an approach by an old Berkeley friend, Haakon Chevalier, a professor of French literature and a longtime Communist. In 1942 Chevalier hoped his friend Oppie might agree to help the Russians, then imperiled by the German invasion, by sharing nuclear secrets—a position that, ironically enough, Oppenheimer would come to advocate after the war. Oppenheimer turned Chevalier down flat but did not report the approach, as he was required to do. Later, when questioned about the incident, in a mixture of panic and an attempt to protect friends of questionable background (including his own brother), he exaggerated the extent of Chevalier’s involvement in the espionage scheme. To his enemies in the military and the FBI, it looked as though Oppenheimer might be embroiled in a nest of spies. He would pay dearly for his misjudgment a decade later. Devastated by the outcome of the AEC hearing, his security clearance never restored, Oppenheimer spent the rest of his career at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey (he was the director from 1947 until his death), before dying of cancer at 62.