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A long-ago moment with Edward Teller

Edward Teller was one of the most controversial of the so-called "influential physicists" who helped shape US defense policy - including development of the hydrogen bomb - in the second half of the 20th century. To his detractors, he was an archetypal Dr. Strangelove, with an unnatural passion for nuclear weapons and "star wars" antimissile systems. His fans saw a champion of national security.

But to many of his physicist colleagues - among whom he lived, worked, and played - Teller was the man who betrayed one of their own, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the charismatic leader during World War II of the Los Alamos atomic bomb lab where Teller also worked.

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It was a tragedy of the early cold-war era. Witch hunting for "disloyal" Americans who supposedly undercut US national security was politically fashionable. Both Oppenheimer and Teller were caught up in the irrationality of the time. Even though Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who symbolized that era, had nothing to do with this particular case, he and his predecessors had created the political atmosphere that put Oppenheimer under the loyalty microscope.

With Teller's passing this week, I feel free to publish excerpts from my notes of a rare interview he granted in January 1955 at a time when his colleagues had ostracized him, bringing on what Teller considered one of the saddest periods in his life. He asked that it be off the record - a request this newspaper agreed to honor because of the personal nature of his remarks. Publishing these notes now may shed a little extra light on Teller's state of mind as he went through what he considered a life-changing experience. It was a bitter experience that helped shape his thinking in the ensuing decades as he became a leading advocate of a strong anti-Soviet defense based on technologically sophisticated weapons.

The interview took place not long after geophysicist David Griggs and William Borden, a former staffer with a congressional oversight committee, raised serious questions about Oppenheimer's loyalty and judgment. They brought up his past associations with Communist organizations that had been overlooked during wartime. They also regarded his opposition to the hydrogen bomb as part of a pattern of activity designed to slow development of a strong national defense.

Borden detailed these concerns in a letter to the FBI, precipitating a hearing that resulted in the lifting of Oppenheimer's security clearance, and with it his influence on defense policy. Teller's muddled testimony convinced both hearing officers and Teller's and Oppenheimer's mutual friends that Teller had deliberately undercut Oppenheimer's credibility. Many in the news media sided with Oppenheimer, portraying Griggs and Borden as villains. Teller's image didn't fare much better.

It was at this point that the interview took place. The following notes are excerpts of a confidential memo sent to this newspaper's American news editor. Teller's remarks are paraphrased:

The interview was held in Teller's home [near San Francisco]. His wife [Mici] had just returned from the hospital and he had been trying to manage the house and children himself. But, even allowing for that, there seemed a large residual strain and a deep sadness. His smiles, when discussing the [Oppenheimer] matter at hand, were forced, and halfway through the interview his eyes became moist. This description is germane.... To understand his position as he outlined it, you have to understand that he is a man struggling under a great sense of burden, sadness, and what seems almost to be despair.... One might almost imagine that his and Oppenheimer's roles had been reversed.

Teller began by explaining that he wished the whole "messy" business had never happened. He said that he never wanted [Oppenheimer's loyalty] brought up or handled in that way and wishes he had had nothing to do with it.

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Then he said that he wanted to make one point very strongly: David Griggs and William Borden have, in his opinion, been very unfairly treated. They have been made to look like sneaky villains....

Both Borden and Griggs, he said, had noticed things about Oppenheimer that deeply disturbed them. They noticed how he seemed constantly to drag his heels with, or oppose outright, any move that would strengthen the defense of this country.... For example, he said, Oppenheimer opposed the H-bomb because it was too big, and he opposed monitoring Russian explosions because we were not technically prepared to do so. These things, he said, established a pattern of danger in the thinking of Griggs and Borden that made them deeply distrust Oppenheimer and alarmed them when they saw the great influence he had on high Washington policy. Teller said they disturbed him deeply, too....

Question: Was there personal animosity against Oppenheimer involved in the hearings?

Answer: He couldn't say. He couldn't speak for anyone else. He didn't think he had any himself. But then he wasn't sure he knew all the inner workings of even his own thinking....

Question: Do you think Oppenheimer was disloyal?

Answer: Until proved clearly to the contrary, he cannot think Oppenheimer disloyal. But he is deeply disturbed for the same reasons as Griggs and Borden. Oppenheimer was a "conscientious objector who tried to be a four-star general."

Question: Have you been treated unfairly by the press?

Answer: He didn't know or care. His wife thought so; she read the clippings. What did it matter now; nothing that could now be said would remedy the situation.

Then he looked very sad and said that there was one area where he has been hurt very much. It came partly from the result of press reports but more as the result of gossip. Many of his friends had dropped him and were angry with him.... This hurt him very much, he said.

He explained that he was from another country [Hungary]. His entire life, socially and professionally, was among physicists. He had to live with and work with them. That is why this particular situation hurt so badly. He added that heavy pressure had been brought to bear on him to support Oppenheimer. It seemed, he said, that most physicists circled in a group around Oppenheimer. The attitude is black and white - pro-Oppenheimer ... is anti the forces of thought control. It just isn't that simple, he said.

In time, many - but not all - of Teller's friends forgave him. Teller, himself, carried the hurt to his grave. It permeates a lengthy account of the Oppenheimer affair in his memoirs published two years ago. He recalls meeting one of his physicist friends: "I hurried over, reaching out to greet him. He looked me coldly in the eye, refused my hand, and turned away. I was so stunned that for a moment I couldn't react. Then I realized that my life as I had known it was over."

Robert C. Cowen has covered science for the Monitor for 53 years.