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Richard Rhodes on: Edward Teller's Role in the Oppenheimer Hearings
Richard Rhodes Q: Can you tell me about Robert Oppenheimer's security hearing and particularly Edward Teller's role in it?

RR: Lewis Strauss believed that Robert Oppenheimer was a Soviet spy. It's worse than that he didn't like his advice. He believed he was a spy for the Soviet Union. It was clear to Strauss that there must have been someone else at Los Alamos during the war passing secrets, besides Klaus Fuchs. And indeed there was: a young physicist named Theodore Hall, an American physicist. But Strauss didn't know about Hall at that point, and he thought it must have been Oppenheimer. So whenever Oppenheimer recommended slowing down, don't do this, take time with that, to Strauss that meant he was being a spy, trying to retard the program. As soon as Strauss became chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, he moved to lift Oppenheimer's security clearance, to find reason to accuse him of espionage, or at least of bad advice (which is in fact what he was accused of.)

This all culminated, then, in a hearing, "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer", held in Washington in '54, when one by one, all the players in this complex tragic story come back on stage and make their speech and play their part. [Hans] Bethe testified, and [Isidor] Rabi testified, and [James Bryant] Conant testified. And significantly and really tragically, Teller testified. All the others said, "Oppenheimer is the highest kind of patriot." As Rabi said, "He gave you the atomic bomb. What do you want? Mermaids?"

But Teller testified very cleverly. And in the years since then, he's denied that he planned it all out in advance, but the record is very clear that he discussed his testimony at least a month before he arrived in Washington, with several people. Teller testified that he felt the nation would be more secure if Oppenheimer were not in government. He didn't say he was a security risk. He said, "I would feel personally more secure." (Nudge, nudge.)

And although I think it was a foregone conclusion that Oppenheimer's security clearance would not be restored, that certainly cinched the deal. And Oppenheimer was essentially cut off from being an advisor to the government, because if you don't have a security clearance, you don't know what's going on...

He retreated to the Institute for Advanced Study, where he was the director, and became what Yeats once called "a smiling public man". But he was destroyed. His friends all say that. He was not the same person after this terrible ordeal, that he had been before. And within a few years, he had cancer of the throat. (He was a heavy smoker all his life.) And he died. And that was the end of Robert Oppenheimer. A really tragic event. The Dreyfus of America, if you will.

Teller was an outcast, as a result of that testimony. There was a famous incident at Los Alamos soon afterward, where people refused to shake his hand. And he was shaken, and went back to his room, and was extremely upset. And lost his friends. Was a pariah in the physics community, really, ever since then. In a way, that was a further tragedy, because he aligned himself with the industrialists; he aligned himself with the Lewis Strausses of America; he aligned himself with the right wing.

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