Oppenheimer’s feelings about the hydrogen bomb were central to the security charges brought against him by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954. The AEC indictment was for the most part a repetition of “derogatory information” originally considered during the war, and then restudied in 1947 before Oppenheimer’s security clearance was confirmed—with one exception. The AEC now charged “that you were instrumental in persuading other outstanding scientists not to work on the hydrogen bomb project.” Unwilling to call him a spy, the commission nevertheless insisted that there was something untrustworthy in his reluctance to add the H-bomb to the American arsenal. During the hearing the AEC’s chief inquisitor, Roger Robb, picked at the core of Oppenheimer’s opposition as if it were a scab:
Robb: You mean you had a moral revulsion against the production of such a dreadful weapon?
Oppenheimer: This is too strong…
Robb: Which is too strong, the weapon or my expression?
Oppenheimer: Your expression. I had a grave concern and anxiety.
Robb: You had moral qualms about it, is that accurate?
Oppenheimer: Let us leave the word “moral” out of it.
Robb: You had qualms about it.
Oppenheimer: How could one not have qualms about it? I know no one who doesn’t have qualms about it.
It was Rabi who felt most keenly that the destruction of Oppenheimer was a gratuitous act resulting in a tragic loss—not just personally for Oppenheimer, but for the country. “I never hid my opinion from Mr. Strauss that I thought this whole proceeding…should not have been done,” Rabi testified during the hearing.
There he was…a consultant, and if you don’t want to consult the guy, you don’t consult him, period…. It didn’t seem to me the sort of thing that called for this kind of proceeding at all against a man who had accomplished what Dr. Oppenheimer has accomplished. There is a real positive record, the way I expressed it to a friend of mine. We have an A-bomb and a whole series of it….
In the published transcript asterisks follow representing material deleted for security reasons—a list of the many kinds of improved atomic weapons, including the hydrogen bomb, which were developed under Oppenheimer’s leadership as chairman of the GAC. Rabi concluded, “What more do you want, mermaids?”
The point is a sound one. Why did Lewis Strauss use his position as chairman of the AEC to destroy Oppenheimer, why did Edward Teller encourage him to do it, why did the Air Force insist it had to be done, and why did President Eisenhower not only permit Strauss to do it but help him? The answers to these questions—the detailed answers, providing not just plausible surmise, but chapter and verse—form the body of Priscilla McMillan’s extraordinary book, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
The reader will get the drift immediately if the word “ruin” is understood to be an active verb—in the sense meant when someone says “I will ruin you.” What destroyed Oppenheimer was the month-long AEC hearing, the stripping of his security clearance only one day before it would have lapsed, and the publication of the 993-page hearing transcript with its merciless exposure of so many details of Oppenheimer’s life—adulteries, lies to government officials, connections to Communists, betrayals of friends. But as Ward Evans argued in his dissent to the board’s ruling, every one of these charges had been weighed and dismissed during the war and again in 1947. When the AEC confirmed the cancellation of Oppenheimer’s clearance in June 1954, they took an entirely new tack, ignored the board’s previous findings, and dropped all mention of his “opposition” to the H-bomb, which in any event had not stopped him from overseeing its development and successful first test. Instead they cited “substantial defects of character.”
The AEC’s conclusion invites us to read the fate of Oppenheimer as a tragedy of the classic, Aristotelian sort—the fall of a great man caused by flaws in his character. But as McMillan shows in her vivid and relentless account of his “ruin,” it was not Oppenheimer’s flaws, or even the anti-Red hysteria of the time, that destroyed him—it was the power and the determination of his enemies. This is not the prevailing view of what happened, and Americans are famously unwilling to think ill of their national leaders. But McMillan makes a detailed and convincing case that Oppenheimer’s destruction was the result of Teller’s insinuations, the string-pulling of Strauss, and Borden’s willingness to attack at another’s bidding.
McMillan is a gifted researcher and interviewer, shrewd and patient. Her best-known previous book, published nearly thirty years ago, was Marina and Lee, which in my opinion remains the strongest single account of the tortured life that drove Lee Harvey Oswald to murder President Kennedy. In Ruin she illuminates all the old half-hidden corners of the final act in Oppenheimer’s life—how Strauss recruited journalists and fed them distorted stories about the H-bomb program to build public feeling against Oppenheimer; how Stanislaw Ulam actually found the way to ignite fusion in the H-bomb; how Strauss falsified accounts of his role in prompting the administration to erect a “blank wall” between Oppenheimer and the nation’s secrets while Borden’s sensational charges were investigated; how the Eisenhower administration authorized FBI eavesdropping on Oppenheimer’s conversations with his lawyers so that AEC inquisitors would always know what he feared or planned; how the AEC’s chief lawyer in the hearing, Roger Robb, lied about his access to hundreds of FBI wiretap transcripts, claiming falsely that he had never asked for or seen them.
But most relentless of all is McMillan’s account of Edward Teller, who may be said to have spent the last half of his life concealing, reinterpreting, and making slyly irrelevant apologies for what he did to Oppenheimer. Teller’s performance, something like Nixon’s in what remained of his life after Watergate, was just good enough to let him appear in distinguished company without fear of turned backs and refused handshakes. But no longer; the true Teller is stripped by McMillan for those who care to see.
The biggest lie in a life with many was Teller’s posturing as “the father of the H-bomb,” supported by the never quite explicit claim that he was the one who had solved the fusion ignition problem that allowed the H-bomb to work. What he did instead was to conceal the role of the man who really did it—Stanislaw Ulam, who began to think in December 1950 of a “bomb in a box.” The compression of thermonuclear material would help it to burn, he reasoned. The following month Ulam told his wife, who had been hoping that thermonuclear weapons could never be made to work. Next he told the physicist Carson Mark, busy at the time with pending nuclear tests in the Pacific, and then Norris Bradbury, who saw the point right away.
Finally Ulam described his idea to Teller, who told his colleagues in the Theoretical Division, “Ulam has had an idea, but he hasn’t got it quite right.” It was not shock waves from an exploding fission bomb that would best create the necessary compression, but the radiation itself, getting there first before the shock waves began to blow the assembly apart. “Radiation implosion” was Teller’s part of the new idea. But Ulam’s contribution went a step further by introducing the notion of “staging” the explosion—using a fission “primary” to compress both fusion fuel and a fission “secondary.” All three ideas were central to the first working thermonuclear device; two were Ulam’s, but Teller systematically squeezed him out of the history of the new idea, which was formally written up by a Teller protégé, Frederic de Hoffman.
Usually such inventions were patented; in this case Teller refused to sign the application because Ulam would have to sign, too. As a result, no patent was issued at all. In the mid-1950s Teller published a brief account of the invention of the H-bomb, The Work of Many Men, in which Ulam was identified only as one of the early pessimists. In his 1962 book, Legacy of Hiroshima, Teller claimed the big idea was his doing with the help of de Hoffman. “Ulam invented nothing!” he often insisted, but of course the bomb designers all knew the truth, and many considered Teller the lowest, most contemptible kind of offender in the world of science, a stealer of credit. What only a few knew then is visible to all now, and there is something bracing in watching a slippery character brought to account.
At that point, in mid-1951, Oppenheimer dropped his arguments against the H-bomb—the Ulam-Teller ideas were too “technically sweet” to ignore, he said, but that did not still the animosities encouraged by Teller in Strauss and the Air Force. At every stage of this story McMillan enriches our understanding of Teller’s character and his role in promoting the creation of a second laboratory in Livermore, California; in tempting the United States to ever greater reliance on nuclear weapons for “defense”; and in placing a dark construction on whatever Oppenheimer said and did. Teller’s plotting brought a moment of climax during the AEC hearing intended to end Oppenheimer’s public influence once and for all. Of the forty witnesses called to testify only eight could be described as “prosecution” witnesses. Of the eight only one was a leading scientist, only one had been intimately involved in the programs directly overseen by Oppenheimer as chairman of the GAC, and only one was prepared to testify on the record that Oppenheimer could not be trusted—Edward Teller.
In later years Teller tried to explain his betrayal as a last-minute thing, triggered by Robb’s account the day before his appearance of an elaborate story fabricated by Oppenheimer about an espionage attempt—the so-called “Haakon Chevalier affair,” in which Oppenheimer took the initiative in giving security officials the name of George Eltenton, a chemist who wanted to put him in touch with Soviet officials; but for several months he withheld the name of the friend, Haakon Chevalier, whom Eltenton had approached in hopes of getting Oppenheimer’s cooperation. Like all the other “derogatory information” in security files, the record of his evasions had been known to the AEC when it confirmed Oppenheimer’s clearance in 1947; nothing new had been learned in the five years since. Teller claimed that he was so shocked by Oppenheimer’s lie he determined to go farther than he had planned in his testimony the next day. That night old friends tried to dissuade him but he would not be moved.
The next day Robb put the big question to Teller in unmistakable form: “Do you or do you not believe that Dr. Oppenheimer is a security risk?” Teller answered:
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 the country in hands which I understand better and therefore trust more.
That was enough. Nothing else ever said about Oppenheimer did him greater injury.
Teller tried to claim all of the credit for the H-bomb, when only a third belonged to him of right, and he spent the rest of his life trying to undermine the idea that he deserved any of the credit for stripping Oppenheimer of his security clearance. McMillan does not choose to give a number to the percentage of his just share. In this instance the credit must necessarily be shared widely, since so many people across the whole spectrum of official Washington, along with numerous disgruntled bomb builders, did what they could to bring Oppenheimer down. But at its heart the principle behind the strategy was simple—poisoning trust—and for that Teller must take a deep and sweeping bow.
McMillan writes for the most part with quiet lucidity, letting each act or utterance speak for itself, but from time to time there shoots up from her prose something like a tongue of flame. Teller’s success in promoting competing laboratories of bomb designers brings one such judgment. “Together,” she writes, “Livermore and Los Alamos created the vast arsenal of superfluous nuclear weaponry that curses us today.” Who does not sense that curse? She is tempted again when describing what Teller did to the men who aroused his ire—Oppenheimer, who wouldn’t put him in charge of theoretical work at Los Alamos; Norris Bradbury, the Los Alamos director who balked at Teller’s bullying behavior early in the H-bomb program; and Ulam, who came up with the brilliant insight that had eluded Teller. “The Freudian observer,” McMillan writes, “might say that…Teller symbolically destroyed each of the three men who had dealt him a severe narcissistic blow. The layperson might conclude, more simply, that he sought to destroy the three men who had stood in his way.” Judgments don’t come any plainer than that.
It is rare that two important books on the same subject are published in the same year, rarer still that together they tell us so much about American politics, history, science, truth, life, and fate. Together American Prometheus and The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer bring to a close a half-century’s effort in writing the history of the atomic bomb. On this subject there will of course always be more to say, but the basic story is complete; if you want to know what happened it is there to read in these two books. One is a life of Oppenheimer on the grand scale for the first time. The other reveals at last how he was betrayed and destroyed. The present reviewer is tempted to say, I will not choose between these two books; honor them both.
Oppenheimer’s friend Rabi said the stripping of his clearance killed him, but in fact he survived his humiliation by a dozen years and rarely complained. Some observers wearied of that attitude. After hearing Oppenheimer lecture at Harvard in 1957 the writer Edmund Wilson noted in his diary, “His humility now seemed to me hangdog.” That doesn’t sound right, and I suspect it was a different undercurrent of emotion that Wilson picked up—not apology, but a reluctance to blame others for what he had done.
What Oppenheimer left us at the end of the day was not the bomb—somebody would have built it—but his life. I mean the whole of it—the brilliance, the rich and complex personality, the example of his greatest achievement, pushed through in the furious, triumphant American way; and then the long harrowing aftermath so apparent in his late photographs—a man distressed by what the world insisted on doing with what he had built, and convinced there would be a price to pay. Foreboding of this kind was banished at a very early date from the Pentagon, the White House, and the bomb laboratories. There the ruling faith is that professionals can manage the dangers, and for a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, it was possible to think they were right. But now things have changed again, and we find we are living once more with the old suspense, threatened by the weapons we were the first to build and use, and waiting for nothing to happen forever.
Correction December 1, 2005