The Magazine

Father of the A-bomb

What have we learned about J. Robert Oppenheimer?

Jun 6, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 36 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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Always interested in intellectual issues outside of physics--in the early 1930s he taught himself Sanskrit in order to read the Bhagavad-Gita in the original--Oppenheimer began to get involved in political issues by the middle 1930s. He was drawn into the Communist orbit primarily because of Hitler's rise to power, and was quickly immersed in the Popular Front culture of Berkeley. His longtime landlady was a Communist, as was Jean Tatlock, a professor's daughter and aspiring doctor with whom he had a long affair, and so was his closest friend on the faculty, Haakon Chevalier, a professor of French. His brother Frank, also a physicist, was a Communist, as was Frank's wife. Oppenheimer himself became an active member of the CP-dominated teachers' union, a signer of innumerable Communist petitions, and a generous contributor to Communist causes, funneled through Isaac "Pop" Folkoff, a party functionary with ties to Soviet intelligence.

Whether or not Oppenheimer ever joined the Communist party is a contentious issue. Recent scholarship has uncovered pamphlets apparently written by Oppenheimer and attributed to the College Faculties Committee of the Communist Party of California; an unpublished memoir by an ex-party member detailing Oppenheimer's membership in a secret party unit; FBI wiretaps of Communist party functionaries mentioning Oppenheimer as a party member; and a Soviet intelligence memo referring to him as a secret Communist. Bird and Sherwin are not convinced. They cite ambiguities about these secret units, and Oppenheimer's own forthright denials of membership, and speculate that since he considered himself "an unaffiliated comrade" he may have misled others into thinking he was a party member.

His Communist associations were not the only source of concern about Oppenheimer while he was being considered to head the Manhattan Project. In 1939 he met and soon married Katherine (Kitty) Harrison, a thrice-married woman, whose second husband, Joe Dallet, had been a Communist officer killed while serving in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in Spain. Not only had Kitty been a party member, but one of her late husband's closest friends, Steve Nelson, headed the Communist party in Oakland. He and Oppenheimer became friendly. Nelson was not your average Communist bureaucrat: He worked closely with Soviet intelligence, and was actively involved in attempting to gather information on the top-secret work being done at the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley.

An FBI wiretap picked up his conversation with one of Oppenheimer's graduate students, Joe Weinberg, in 1943, during which Nelson successfully pressed Weinberg to provide details about the atomic bomb project that might be useful to the Russians, while lamenting that Oppenheimer was not being as cooperative as he used to be. Later wiretaps revealed that Nelson was in touch with Soviet intelligence officers, even meeting personally with the KGB's chief resident in the United States, Vasily Zarubin.

Despite these disturbing facts, General Leslie Groves, commander of the Manhattan Engineering District, concluded that Oppenheimer alone had the requisite skills and vision to oversee the development of an atomic weapon. When Army security officials balked at providing a security clearance, Groves ordered them to do so on the grounds that Oppenheimer was indispensable. He had concluded that his "overweening ambition" and his wife's desire to advance his career would trump his political past. More practically, Groves threw a cordon of security around Oppenheimer, monitoring his movements and communications so closely that unauthorized communications would have been very difficult.

Despite these precautions, government security personnel were disconcerted in June 1943, when, on a trip back to Berkeley, Oppenheimer spent the night with Jean Tatlock (who committed suicide in January 1944). They were even more startled when Oppenheimer informed them in the late summer of 1943 that, just before leaving for Los Alamos six months earlier, he had been approached by an unnamed friend and asked to turn atomic information over to a man named George Eltenton. After two frustrating months of investigation, and only after eliciting a promise from General Groves that the information would remain confidential, did Oppenheimer reveal that the conduit was Haakon Chevalier. His reluctance, and the conflicting stories he told, led Groves to suspect he was protecting someone else, possibly his brother Frank.