Edward Teller: He is Become Death, Destroyer of J. Robert Oppenheimer

When J. Robert Oppenheimer first saw the result of his work in creating the atomic bomb he reached deeply into the profound depth of his great and brilliant mind and quoted from the ancient text the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Whether he actually said it at the time or not has long been debated, but there is no question that he spoke those lines in remembrance of the event. What Edward Teller said or thought upon the occasion is lost to history. Probably for the best. Edward Teller was, after all, merely a shadow of the man that J. Robert Oppenheimer was. Too bad he was for more astute in the game of politics than Oppenheimer.

The facts are undeniable. J. Robert Oppenheimer played the single most vital part in the development of the most horrendous weapon of death the world had ever known. He was also quote vocal in his belief that dropping the bomb on Japan without issuing a warning was more humane than not dropping. This decision and perspective has remained controversial since it was made, but to cast Oppenheimer in the role of villain is hardly fair. After all, Hirohito and his minions saw the writing on the wall; they could have moved to save their people long before the Enola Gay was gassed up for the long trip to Hiroshima. What separates Oppenheimer from the bloodthirsty and far less humane group of killers headed by Edward Teller was his response to the push for the development of the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer was just as vocal in his indictment of the necessity of yet another weapon that, as he put it, would turn transform the players in the wars of the future from winners and losers into mere survivors and the forgotten dead. Scorpions battling over a rock.

Oppenheimer’s resistance to putting his considerable intellect to work developing yet an even more horrific weapon marked his death knell. But as they say, when a door closes a window opens. Or, more aptly, one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. Oppenheimer recognized that the hydrogen bomb was yet more human garbage, whereas Edward Teller was ate garbage and called it rare truffles. Edward Teller moved in quickly, volunteering to take up the mantle that he had had to suffer the indignity of watching Oppenheimer excel at in his role as the father of the atomic bomb. A dubious distinction to be sure, but at least he knew when to step down. Not that stepping down meant walking away. Oppenheimer was eager to help the defense industry in any other capacity besides making the world a ticking time bomb. 3-2-1. Kiss the girls and make them cry. Not so Edward Teller. Not enough for Edward Teller to attempt to place his mug into the history books alongside his better. He meant to destroy the destroyer. He is death. That Edward Teller.

Afterward, Teller would try to deny that he played a part in ruining Oppenheimer’s career, in devastating what remained of his life. McCarthyism was at its height and the second worst person in the country was running the FBI by day and dressing up in women’s clothes and being buggered by Roy Cohn at night. The Soviets were unquestionably getting secrets from somebody (his name was Theodore Hall.) And it may well be that Edward Teller didn’t know Hall was the bad apple in the bunch; probably he did. He sure as hell knew it hadn’t been J. Robert Oppenheimer. Regardless, it wasn’t enough for Edward Teller to take over the role in developing the hydrogen bomb that had elevated J. Robert Oppenheimer to legendary status, he also had to pervert and corrupt history. Teller was psychologically a dwarf to Oppenheimer as much as he was intellectually dwarfed. Grasshoppers playing with the ants and Teller was the crumb eaten by ants. The food of the gods. Had to hurt.

Teller fingered Oppenheimer as the source of the secrets making their way to the Soviets. Knew it wasn’t true. Lied about his responsibility in being the point man later. Is probably conversing right now with Elia Kazan in the seventh circle of hell is Mr. Teller. Oppenheimer was hustled in to testify about his loyalty and those nasty rumors that he should be denied his security clearance because he’d been selling secrets to the Russians like he was a common criminal. Or Dalton Trumbo. The testimony was non-stop and lasted three days and if you think his lawyers were supplied all the information given to the Feds then you probably also think there exists some enormous pile of WMDs in Iraq that will one day not only be found but will be found surrounded by the dead bodies of Saddam’s cadre of Al Qaeda soldiers. Was there any doubt in anyone’s mind that Oppenheimer’s security clearance would be denied? Was there ever any doubt that he would be cleared of all charges?

Gabba gabba hey.

There’s a happy end of sorts to this sad, pitiful story of loser named Teller. Too bad this teller didn’t even have the dignity to keep quiet like our contemporary Teller and if he can keep quiet in the face of the pile of rubbish spouted by Penn then why on earth would Edward Teller not keep quiet in the face of an intellect that towered over his own? The world may never know. Ego does strange things. Edward Teller, down there in the center pit of hell, Edward Teller probably wishes he were a magician instead of a physicist with no conscience. None at all did Edward Teller have, no conscience, nary an iota. The happy ending? Well, happy is always relative, right? A man dies alone and someone out there whom he picked on in third grade is happy to hear the news. Happy endings escaped J. Robert Oppenheimer, but when you are death, destroyer of worlds you probably give up even the expectation. You hope for the best. Prepare for the least. The least that could happen to Oppenheimer was that Teller got his due.

Edward Teller destroyed J. Robert Oppenheimer. The happy ending here is that in the process he destroyed himself. Sure, he was a liar. Sure, he was a false human being, selling his heart for a shot at the big time. He achieved that. Oh so well did he achieve. Oppenheimer was persona non grata in the world of America defense preparation, but he remained beloved. Better than beloved, Oppenheimer remain respected. Edward Teller was shunned. An outcast still in the employ of those who should be shamed, but who have their photos on currency and hanging in the hallowed halls of America history. What do you call a member of the pack who has shamed himself and is booted from the community? A pariah. Might as well call them an Edward Teller. Booted. A pariah. Not long after his backdoor dealings set up that shameful three day punching display in which his better J. Robert Oppenheimer was the bag, there occurred a meeting of the greatest physicists in the world at Los Alamos. The center of this pathetic drama, the locus of horrendous destruction from the hands of man.

Nobody even shook his hand.

He was through. Worse than through. He became the next J. Robert Oppenheimer. The only problem was that the only people who considered him their Oppenheimer was the far-right lunatic fringe.

He is become death. The destroyer of himself.