Robert Oppenheimer’s Career Ended Long After the Bang, With a Whimper

The rivalry between Edward Teller and Robert Oppenheimer ended both their careers

J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1956. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh

It was a postwar portrait of pettiness: two renowned nuclear scientists, each leading a cutting-edge facility, waging war on one another, with dire consequences for both.

In the end, writes Esther Inglis-Arkell for Gizmodo, the feud between Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller–once colleagues–alienated both from the community of scientists that fostered their work.

Los Alamos and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory were their respective fortresses of solitude. At these two competing weapons development facilities, as both the Cold War and McCarthyism blossomed, a slow-burning academic rivalry turned into a feud that involved the Atomic Energy Commission and ended in Oppenheimer’s security clearance being revoked, leaving him unable to work.

At Los Alamos, Inglis-Arkell writes, Oppenheimer worked on developing small (and in the end unfeasibly dangerous) nuclear bombs for field use. At Livermore, Teller worked on his ultimate vision, the hydrogen bomb–a product of nuclear fusion, which creates much larger bombs than nuclear fission.  Oppenheimer opposed Teller’s vision of a larger bomb, believing American resources should be devoted to more feasible small projects.

The Manhattan Project was forged in the heady days of a shooting war that Americans believed needed a swift and decisive resolution. The scientists who worked on the bomb didn’t fully understand the impact of a nuclear bomb attack, but they were there to witness as their relatively primitive technology changed warfare forever. However, the hydrogen bomb represented a postwar progression in nuclear technology that would push forward the emerging American-Soviet arms race–something Oppenheimer opposed on multiple grounds. His opposition was among the reasons that the American government began to look at the brilliant scientist with suspicion in the postwar years.

“It was almost unthinkable that [Oppenheimer’s] loyalty should be in question,” writes Priscilla McMillan in The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race. “Except that as U.S. disagreement with the Soviet Union hardened into a state of permanent tension, the certainties that had sustained the American people during the war and the early years thereafter ebbed away, and so did some of the nation’s confidence.”

Teller and Oppenheimer’s relationship had been rocky for a long time, but the two famous scientists both lost something in 1954, when their relationship came to a head. In an April 1954 testimony at security hearings about Robert Oppenheimer, Teller told the story of what happened at Los Alamos after the war in his own words. “In Los Alamos there was a crew of exceedingly able physicists who could do a lot and at the end of the war were trying to get back to their purely academic duties,” he said. Teller was among those looking to leave, and eventually did. Among the reasons, writes Inglis-Arkell, was Teller’s preoccupation with the hydrogen bomb.

Then, he explained, “the question arose whether this would be a good time to start a new group of people working in a separate laboratory” that supported--or competed with--Los Alamos. The answer to that question was Livermore, a lab that Teller helped run for many years.

From this position, as the trusted leader of a lab designed to compete with Los Alamos, Teller testified that he didn’t understand Oppenheimer’s decision-making and often thought he was wrong. “To that extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more,” he said.

“He [claimed] he only meant that Oppenheimer was a complex character and that he did not fully understand him (in which he was hardly alone), but the effect was explosive,”   wrote Joel N. Shurkin in Teller’s 2003 obituary:

When he was done, he walked by Oppenheimer and said, "I'm sorry."

"After what you've just said, I don't understand what you mean," Oppenheimer replied and turned away. Oppenheimer lost his security clearance and retired back to Princeton in disgrace.

The “father of the atom bomb” died about a decade later, partly vindicated but having lost his life’s work. After his testimony, Teller became “a pariah to many of his colleagues,” Shurkin wrote, “further diverting his career from science to defence politics and causing him profound sorrow.” Some of his former colleagues refused to speak to him again for more than 30 years.

Livermore and Los Alamos are both still operating today. They continue to have a tacit rivalry, even though they frequently cooperate, writes Laura Miller for Slate. “Some wounds never heal,” she writes.

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