Megaton Man

In late 1951, on an overnight train from Chicago to Washington, Edward Teller dreamed that he was alone, in a battlefield trench like the ones that had so terrified him as a child in Hungary during the war. The nine men attacking his position exceeded by one the eight bullets in his rifle—a cold mathematical analysis even in the confused and foggy world of a nightmare.

Teller’s dream might be simply related to anxiety over his impending report to a subcommittee of the Atomic Energy Commission, where he was lobbying for the creation of a new weapons laboratory. Yet more deeply the dream expresses a lifelong sense of being embattled, besieged, alone in a righteous struggle against his many enemies and the forces of evil. Teller remembers being insulted by his ninth- grade mathematics teacher when he correctly answered a question based on material not yet covered in class. “What are you? A repeater?” said the teacher. The boy prodigy was never called on again, even when he was the only one to raise his hand. While working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, where he pursued his own projects rather than his team’s assignments, Teller “slowly came to realize…that my views differed from those held by the majority” in his fear of Communist Russia and in his fierce support of an overwhelming American military superiority extending far beyond World War II.

Soon Teller’s friendship with Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe, both eminent colleagues at Los Alamos, soured as they engaged in mutual criticism, a pattern that was to repeat itself throughout Teller’s life. After the successful construction of the atomic bomb and the end of the war, when Oppenheimer, Bethe, and many other physicists returned to university teaching and peacetime work, Teller felt that he was a lone voice in pushing the development of the hydrogen bomb; leading scientists, he believed, were “trying to prove a hydrogen bomb impossible.” He much resented Norris Bradbury, the new director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory (replacing Oppenheimer), for dragging his feet on the hydrogen weapon, called “the Super” because of its potentially unlimited power and destructiveness; he claimed that Carson Mark, the new head of the theory division (the position Bethe had held), “made it a practice to needle me in a subtle manner.” Everywhere Teller turned, it seemed, were enemies and suspicions.

Teller’s fragile link to his colleagues was finally broken by his hugely unpopular testimony against Robert Oppenheimer in the McCarthy-era hearings of 1954, which deprived the brilliant and charismatic Oppenheimer of his security clearance and forever excommunicated Teller from most of the scientific community. Shortly after the hearings, when Teller spotted a longtime physicist friend at a meeting and hurried over to greet him, “he looked me coldly in the eye, refused my hand, and turned away.” Twice before, oppressive governments and anti-Semitism had driven Teller into exile, from Hungary in early 1926 and from Germany in 1933. “Now, at …

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