The Magazine

Physics and Politics

The embarrassing but mostly harmless leftism of Albert Einstein.

Jul 15, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 42 • By RONALD RADOSH
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The Einstein File
J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War Against the World's Most Famous Scientist
by Fred Jerome
St. Martin's, 358 pp., $27.95

THERE IS NO DOUBT that J. Edgar Hoover was guilty of sustained abuses of power. The FBI chief's anti-communism had (as the historian Richard Gid Powers puts it) such a "hard edge" that even when he was on target he seemed "tendentious and repressive"--and, by now, most Americans remember him primarily as a threat to civil liberty.

Building upon this consensus, Fred Jerome has produced a book that promises to reveal the extent of Hoover's personal crusade to destroy Albert Einstein. But "The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover's Secret War Against the World's Most Famous Scientist" is not simply a chronicle of the FBI's sometimes silly and wasteful effort to track Einstein's every move and idea. The book is, rather, one last attempt to claim that the very existence of communism in the 1940s and 1950s was nothing but the excuse for a government campaign of repression against dissenters from the Cold War.

On the whole, that's not surprising. Jerome worked in the mid-1960s as one of the original founders of the Progressive Labor party, a Maoist splinter group that thought both the American Communist party and the Soviets in Moscow too soft. Thus, in "The Einstein File," Hoover is invariably described as a man "keeping company with this country's native Nazis," with Nazi "officials in Berlin," and a man with "possible pro-Nazi linkages"--all of which is supposed to provide the reason for the FBI's targeting of Einstein in 1940.

Jerome may well be right that Hoover and the FBI at times accepted the analysis of the most extreme counter-subversives. But Jerome puts little stock in Jerrold and Leona Schechter's convincing demonstration that Einstein's mistress, Margarita Konenkova, was a longtime spotter for the KGB who reported on which of Einstein's friends the Russians might try to recruit for espionage. Her friendship with Einstein was of great importance to Soviet intelligence. Moscow knew, for example, that Einstein had close contact with many scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. Through Konenkova, the KGB got Einstein to agree to a meeting in the fall of 1945, where Einstein was pressed to become a spokesman for the sharing of nuclear secrets with Stalin.

Einstein himself--despite his signing the letter to President Roosevelt that prompted the United States to begin work on the atomic bomb--did not work on the bomb. The physicist Hans Bethe suggested this was because Einstein never worked in the practical areas of nuclear physics and explosives in which experts were needed. But Jerome insists the reason is far more sinister: Einstein was excluded because the FBI relied on Nazi intelligence that branded him a dangerous Jewish pacifist. Worse, Jerome suggests, Einstein would have turned against the project once the war against Germany was over. Thus, in order to ensure completion of the bomb to use against Japan, they had to keep Einstein out.

This all assumes, of course, the mad notion that people at the time knew exactly how long the bomb would take to make and when the war would end. Indeed, Jerome reasserts the old Cold War revisionism that the bomb was dropped in Japan solely to end the war before the Soviet Union intervened--which, in point of fact, matches Einstein's later blaming of Hiroshima on Truman's anti-Soviet policy.

From the FBI vendetta to destroy Einstein's credibility, Jerome moves in "The Einstein File" to suggest, in an odd way, that the FBI was right: Einstein was a profoundly perceptive dissenter, an opponent of the Cold War and American racism, a pacifist, and a left-wing socialist. Einstein was not merely a brilliant scientist, Jerome thinks, but also a brilliant political observer. And thus everyone from historians to textbook writers to the FBI has been forced to hide Einstein's views from the record, so that those who admire him will not realize that Einstein opposed American foreign policy and favored socialism.

Actually, Einstein's views hardly suffered repression at the time. For decades the left-wing socialist publication Monthly Review regularly republished the essay "Why Socialism?," which Einstein had written for its first issue in 1949. Even Jerome is forced to admit that "almost all of Einstein's outspoken political stands were major news stories." There may actually have been something like a general agreement to make Einstein's "anti-establishment politics" a "non-story" since the scientist's death in 1955. But that isn't, as Jerome thinks, because we wanted to suppress his political insights. It's because we wanted to preserve his scientific reputation, and the naivet of his political views is an embarrassment.