The received story of the building of the atomic bomb is a well-known narrative of triumphant scientific advancement. But there is another story about the moral and psychological complexities that confounded the (mostly) Jewish scientists who built the bomb and the heavy price they paid for their exhausting labor in a confused political environment, a story steeped in the mythological and religious symbolism of their Jewish culture. It is the personal story of the men who built the bomb, their passions, the clashes of their immense personalities, their naivete, their sense of power, their arrogance, their ambition and their despair, the messy, chaotic understory of scientific achievement, which was in fact a runaway train of human calamity.
Teller in His Own Mind
The magazines and newspapers were saying all kinds of provocative, beguiling things about the man. He was Prometheus who stole fire from the gods for the benefit of mankind. He was Aladdin who let the genie out of the bottle. To the naysayers, he was the Dr. Jekyll whose potion transformed us all into Mr. Hyde. The guy had press like nobody has ever had press. He was a warrior saint, a holy knight of the realm. He bestrode the narrow world. And I disappeared off the face of the earth. He sat on the Atomic Energy Commission. He carried letters to Washington signed by every Tom, Dick and Harry who had a scruple about the bomb, written in tortured academic prose, extolling the New World of Peace that he envisioned (Peace in Our Time, but he dared not say that!), claiming the high ground of nuclear restraint, promoting some half-baked nonsense about the Freedom of Scientific Endeavor, the Free Flow of Ideas being necessary for the well-being of our intellectual community, advocating the return of the scientists to their status quo ante when they devoted their lives to determining how many quantum angels could sit on the head of a hydrogen atom without violating the Pauli Principle. (Pauli, by the way, don’t get me started on Pauli.) He testified, he advised, he labored, he jawboned.
He offered me the Directorship of Theoretical at Los Alamos now that Bethe was returning to Cornell, and I said Yes of course now you want me for Theoretical and I will take the job under one condition: that we go full speed ahead on the Super, fusion research, fusion experimentation with deuterium and the propagation of tritium from lithium in a uranium reactor, and with the design of a thermonuclear weapon based on the implosion principle of the plutonium bomb. Ulam and I are chomping on the bit, Oppenheimer. Just give us the word and we will dive in headfirst, and he said, Under no circumstances will I authorize the research of a fusion bomb at Los Alamos and who are you kidding anyway, Edward? There is no money for fusion research now. This isn’t the Army anymore down here at Los Alamos with an unlimited, secret wartime budget. This is a civilian institution now that gets its money from Congress when and if they see fit to allocate funds. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get Congress to allocate funds for science? So I said screw you, Oppenheimer, I don’t need Los Alamos any more than you do, and I packed my grand piano and my wife and child and one on the way and I went to the University of Chicago to work with Enrico Fermi, and I put away the bomb — well I didn’t exactly put it away, but I went back to pure atomic research and I thought and I wrote and I published extensively. What did I write about? What do you care? You wouldn’t begin to understand.
OK, for the record. I went back to my previous love, the quantum mechanics of electron bonding in molecules. And I investigated the nature of cosmic rays, the most powerful radiation that nature creates, radiation that comes from enormous distances away in the universe, created by incalculably powerful energy sources I could only guess at, rays which bathed the earth relentlessly with destructive energy, a subject I find compelling.
I busied myself and I hoped for the best. I spoke of world peace. I was no different from any man. I wished to be done with wars in my lifetime. I expressed some enthusiasm for the peace initiatives, the white papers, the petitions, the colloquies, but please. I am no fool. I have lived through the first half of the twentieth century. I do not harbor any illusions about the nature of violent human endeavor. It is in us. It is at the core of who we are when we come together in nations. And so I hibernated scientifically and politically on Chicago’s South Side in Hyde Park. But I continued to think about fusion and the bomb. I tinkered. I toyed. I said, Fermi, let’s get back to work on the bomb, the real bomb, the one we need to stay ahead of the Russians, and Fermi, god bless his humble soul, said it’s an interesting scientific challenge, Edward, yes, I like that, let’s get to work. Can you believe that? Interesting scientific challenge. It was not an interesting scientific challenge. It was the necessary and sufficient condition for the freedom of mankind. It was the only hope we had. And I was happy for a time.
Let me tell you about the hydrogen bomb, describe it to you in detail, chronicle its painstaking, skullcracking complexity. Let me sing of bombs and the man. It starts in Los Alamos after the War when they gave me access to ENIAC. They transported the monster from the University of Pennsylvania where it had been invented by Mauchly and Eckert and isn’t that a sad and telling tale how they lost the patent on the electronic computer, the patent that would have made them the richest men in the world, because von Neumann outwitted them with his claim that they had put it all in the public domain. Of course he did, he had to, how else could he get down to the business of inventing his own computer, the task he had been planning since we solved the plutonium bomb with those ridiculous IBM 601’s, but that’s another story. And they brought ENIAC by boxcar to Aberdeen, Maryland, and they hammered and soldered and wired it back together, the whole hulking thing with its thousands upon thousands of vacuum tube resistors and capacitors, its accumulators and its quick electronic memory, row upon row of tubes and plugs with thick coaxial cables slithering off the wall like electric eels, gold-plated wires in thick bundles, rows of dials from zero to nine where data was entered one decimal place at a time, each complex circuit connected to a small light bulb that stayed on when the circuit was functioning and winked out when it short-circuited so we knew at a glance where the trouble was, and there was always trouble, and Mauchly and Eckert muttering and fulminating like alchemists over their cauldron because the damn thing couldn’t add two plus two without their constant cajoling and persuasion. It was their brain, an extension of their mathematical skills and only they could make it work properly. It filled a huge room that had been prepared with steel-reinforced flooring. It ate electricity like it was candy. The whole town browned out when it was thinking hard. And we thought it hard. This was back in late ’45 when Los Alamos had not yet given up the ghost and Ulam and I were coaxing every last inch of science out of it in search of nuclear fusion. Like rats from the sinking ships, scientists were skulking back to academia, but we pressed ahead with impossibly complex calculations that only ENIAC had a ghost of a prayer of handling.
In the same way we used a sphere of TNT to compress and trigger the plutonium bomb, we were going to use a sphere of uranium to ignite the hydrogen in the hydrogen bomb. The atom bomb was like a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the hydrogen bomb.” Or should I say, “make spherical”? There was the initial fusion reaction that had to be calculated, and then as if that weren’t enough there was also the production of charged particles that could either dissipate energy or pour themselves back into the fusion reaction. That had to be factored in somehow. There was also the heating of electrons which can kick back into the fusion reaction and stoke it further or absorb heat from fusion and tamp it down. That had to be factored in. The electrons can also slow down and radiate energy away or they can radiate that energy back into the fusion process. That had to be factored in as well. All of this at one and the same time. Are you getting the idea that this was too complex for the human mind? Maybe too complex even for ENIAC? We did not know but we decided to find out.
So we broke down the fusion process into increments of one ten-millionth of a second and we tried to calculate the damn thing one ten-millionth of a second at a time. But god it was a mess. We were juggling too many inputs and too many outputs to get a handle on the thing and we used a million punch cards along the way. We decided in the end that we needed a bigger and better ENIAC and our project would have to wait. For some idiotic reason we were patient. We felt we could wait. We didn’t know we were already at war, locked in deadly combat with the brutal Russians, who got no nuclear scientists out of their occupation of Germany although they got a bunch of rocket scientists, but they had their ace in the hole, Klaus Fuchs the traitor who gave them the specs for the uranium and plutonium bombs, Klaus my student who came with me to Los Alamos from the University of Chicago. I’m not sure who I hate more, Klaus Fuchs or Adolph Hitler, but I think it might be Hitler because Fuchs, goddamn his traitorous soul, came up with an idea way back in ’45 or ’46 that involved using radiation from a uranium bomb to compress the hydrogen in the hydrogen bomb, a strange and odd idea at the time, but when the sheer explosive force of uranium proved to be an impractical way to ignite the fusion reaction, radiation proved to be the answer to the H-bomb in the end. How’s that for irony, Klaus, you bloody communist bastard?
So I wrote up our results as a brilliant paper, a magnificent paper which could serve as a roadmap for the hydrogen bomb, and what did they do with it? They ignored it utterly. And those who bothered to read it said it was too optimistic, that it was a pie-in-the-sky paper — their idioms escape me — and a Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm paper, which apparently had something to do with Shirley Temple, the child actress, but what do I know about that? So OK. It was upbeat. It was hopeful. It ended with the minor caveat that we did not yet have an atom bomb that could achieve the necessary yield to trigger a hydrogen bomb. And Oppenheimer, what was his response? I’ll tell you exactly what was his response. He was relieved! He was very nearly happy that we had said the bomb was not yet within our reach because the bomb was an evil thing, Edward, get that through your thick skull. Very well, Robert Oppenheimer. If the hydrogen bomb is an evil thing, then I am an evil thing. And therefore I disprove your proposition by contradiction. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.
But the Russians had invaded Czechoslovakia. Mao had conquered China. Berlin was besieged. The lights were going out all over the Europe of my psyche. How could I think about science? I lost all interest in molecular physics and cosmic rays. I couldn’t summon a coherent scientific thought. I began instead to infiltrate the halls of power. I realized the politics of the bomb were as important as the science of the bomb. But I got nowhere and Oppenheimer was everywhere. He had their ear. I had their complete indifference. I was exhausted.
I never got up easily in the morning, as everyone at Los Alamos will tell you. But now I gave up on morning altogether. The brightening of the morning sky overwhelmed me with anxiety and black thoughts about the opinions of others. I waited for the blaze of day to rouse myself when the guilt of lying still in bed became worse than the fear of rising to the day. I seemed to grow smaller and heavier. My brow thickened. My tongue grew slack. My teeth ground down and I began to feel there was a curve in my spine in addition to the limp in my walk as if the weight of my life were pressing down on me like the world on Atlas’ shoulders. I loped. I walked on my knuckles. I ate only low-hanging fruit. Half man half beast, I was captured by darkness and imprisoned in a dungeon of my mind where the candlelight watch of my captors was the only light that penetrated through cracks in the massive wall.
Then my interrogation cell was flooded with a stinging white light that made sleep impossible, that irradiated my brain with cancerous lesions, that confused my alibis and confounded my confessions. The bright malevolence of this torment wore away at my higher faculties and nurtured the animal half.
I carved a manifesto into the walls of my cell with the blunt tip of a rusty nail
I am not evil.
It is the world that is evil.
It is the world that must be neutralized not me.
It is the delusion of fraternité and égalité that makes you as dangerous as the barbarians at the gates, Oppenheimer. Never negotiate, and when you do, negotiate from strength. Overwhelming advantage is what you need to deal with the Russians and their disregard for human life, their willingness to sacrifice entire armies mustered from legions of young men who spring from the soil of the vast steppes fully armed and ready to die for the glory of Mother Russia. Do not fool yourself into thinking the world wants peace. The word is made of war. That is the force that holds it together on its atomic level, the binding energy of war. The world has an appetite for death. It eats death to live. So do not come to me and ask me to appease. Do not ask me to share. Do not ask me to stand down. Nor to give the benefit of the doubt. I have no doubt. We must bring them to their knees. Though you take me for dead and throw me into the sea, I will return to enact my revenge.
Signed this unknown day of my confinement in the Chateau d’If of my misery.
The children irritated me. My wife irritated me. The bed terrified me. In it I could only lay awake in a straitjacket of insomnia. The piano was my only solace. I sat for hours playing in the minor key. But it was not play. One night I sat at the piano playing E minor chords, every variation on the E minor chord I could find on the keyboard. I grew enraged. I pounded them into the keyboard. I sank them in like a knife into a belly. And when I’d had enough of that, I played them tenderly, touchingly, pianissimo, almost beyond hearing, each one lingering in the air and then slipping away to make room for the next, a soundtrack for the black mood of my life. And I plotted my escape.
Until one day I said I need to get away, to take a vacation from work, from the family. I went to New York City and checked into a hotel with a view of the Empire State Building. I stood for hours at the window looking out at the teeming metropolis. I lost all sense of who I was and why I was there and I opened the window and leaned out over the sill. I came that close to the unthinkable. I imagined myself floating out the window. I imagined the enormous release of falling, of letting go. What saved me? I am not sure, but I think it was the wind fifty stories up. It struck me full in the face and brought me to my senses. The lights of the Empire State Building were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, stately, solid, lifting up above the skyline. They somehow gave meaning to the chaos of the city and the chaos of my life. My mind cleared and I lay down and slept for two days. It was the vacation I truly needed, but it didn’t last. When I got home, I sank deeper and deeper into sleep, into fantasy, into nightmare. I grew suspicious of my colleagues as I feared they had grown suspicious of me.
And when we got word in ’49 that the Russians had exploded an atomic bomb, I think I may have gone mad for a moment. I may have smashed a wall or two. I may have stomped on a child. I’m not entirely sure. I got Oppenheimer on the phone and I raged.
“I told you this would happen. What have I been talking about? What have I been saying? While we piddle around patting ourselves on the back and making little tweaks and adjustments to our timid A-bomb technology, the Russians are breathing down our necks! Did I not say this would happen? We are now at risk, Robert. We have put ourselves in harm’s way! You have put us in harm’s way with your soft sell and your go-slow and all your pigheaded idealism about the morality of the bomb. The bomb has no morality. It has no right and wrong. It has winners and losers. Conquerors and those who are conquered. It borders on dereliction of duty to say otherwise and you know it!”
“Edward, keep your shirt on!” he shouted back at me on the phone. I could hear the exasperation in his voice, but I understood it wasn’t exasperation with me. It was exasperation with this entirely predictable turn of events that I had been carping on since day one and they all had said pipe down, Teller, keep your powder dry, but here I am a prophet without honor in my own country. A Jeremiah no less and they have thrown me down the well. They had better come haul me out if they want to be ready for war when the battle is joined.
I said, “Are you with me now, Oppenheimer? Are you ready to get back to work on the Super?”
“This is not a weapon of war, Edward. This is a weapon of genocide.”
“Oppenheimer, you gullible fool, the whole time they have been demanding that we dismantle our bombs and forswear nuclear war, THEY HAVE BEEN BUILDING THEIR OWN!” I fairly screamed into the phone.
“Goddammit, Edward, don’t you see there is a limit to what you can destroy and still call it victory? The hydrogen bomb could wipe out entire nations. All human life. The whole planet. Do you want that on your conscience?”
He can be very eloquent, very clever with words, very persuasive to like-minded people, but not to me. Not to me, Mr. J. Robert Oppenheimer. That was a phone call I could not forget. That was a phone call that stuck in my gut for many, many years. I simply could not fathom the man. And I say that with respect and love. I respected and loved him. But I also had a healthy dose of suspicion. Suspicion of what? I do not know. But I was bound and determined to find out. And so the hydrogen bomb began to consume me again, to keep me up at night. And so did Oppenheimer. I stepped out of my prison cell a free man and I went to work and beautiful ideas began to bloom. There is nothing like a mortal enemy to concentrate the mind.