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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The Chevalier incident became one of the most damaging pieces of evidence when Oppenheimer lost his security clearance. To Bird and Sherwin, it is a tempest in a teapot. Indeed, they brush off all the evidence that the Soviet Union had mounted an intensive, multifaceted effort to penetrate the Manhattan Project. Not only do they pooh-pooh the idea that Joe Weinberg was a spy, they dismiss Eltenton--who admitted to the FBI that, after a talk with a Soviet official, he asked Chevalier to approach Oppenheimer--as "more likely a misguided idealist than a serious Soviet agent." And they accept Nelson's word on the nature of his contacts with Oppenheimer and other scientists, even though he consistently lied about not being involved in espionage. (Incredibly, they note that "the evidence of spying" against Weinberg, which was inadmissible in court because it was based on an illegal wiretap, was ambiguous.)

In short, they fail to understand that there was a genuine threat of Soviet espionage, and that Oppenheimer's own choices and behavior could have led serious people to conclude that he was a security risk.

Bird and Sherwin are properly indignant about the shabby treatment the Atomic Energy Commission afforded Oppenheimer when its chairman, Lewis Strauss, set out to humiliate and destroy his longtime adversary. Oppenheimer had resisted American development of a hydrogen, or super, bomb, supported international controls on atomic energy, and favored greater openness and cooperation with the Soviet Union to prevent further development of atomic weapons. Whatever the merits of the particular policies he favored, there was no evidence they were motivated by any lingering sympathy for communism; Oppenheimer had become a liberal anti-Communist. He had, however, been deeply affected by the destruction wrought by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. At one disastrous meeting with President Truman in October 1945, Oppenheimer blurted out "I feel I have blood on my hands," prompting the president to tell Dean Acheson that he didn't "ever want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again."

By 1953, Oppenheimer's role on the AEC was much diminished, but Strauss, who had suffered a variety of insults and public humiliations from the arrogant Oppenheimer in the past, was determined to extract his revenge. He encouraged the filing of a complaint challenging Oppenheimer's loyalty, wiretapped his conversations with his lawyers, stacked the hearing, refused Oppenheimer's lawyers a security clearance enabling them to read FBI files to which the "prosecutors" had access, and was rewarded when the hearing board found Oppenheimer was not disloyal but was a security risk. His clearance was rescinded a day before it would have expired.

Turning policy disputes into tests of loyalty is fraught with danger. Unfortunately for Oppenheimer, his associations during the 1930s, and postwar revelations about the extent of Soviet espionage, made the suspicions about him more than paranoia. When his own admitted lies about the Chevalier affair were added to convincing evidence that he had been a member of the Communist party, he was doomed. That some of those who brought him down were unattractive men with sordid motives does not erase the fact that a hugely talented man who had made major contributions to American security was destroyed because of a series of disastrous political choices he had once made, and then tried to obscure.

Harvey Klehr is coauthor of In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage.