The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin
Knopf, 736 pp., $35
ALL THE NEW EVIDENCE FROM long-closed Russian archives, and declassified American projects like Venona, has settled many of the most vexing espionage cases of the Cold War. The Rosenbergs were guilty of spying; so, too, were Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and the dozens of government employees whom Elizabeth Bentley accused of being Soviet agents. The only major controversy that remains concerns Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant scientist who oversaw the construction of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II.
Oppenheimer's left-wing past from the 1930s brought him to grief in 1953, when the Atomic Energy Commission withdrew his security clearance. His appeal of that decision led to a dramatic secret hearing that concluded he was a security risk. The decision angered many scientists, who saw his disgrace as a warning not to challenge the political or military uses to which scientific research was put. Conservatives believed he had assisted Soviet intelligence to steal atomic bomb secrets; liberals viewed him as one of the most prominent victims of McCarthyism. As the McCarthy era receded, Oppenheimer's reputation rebounded. The longtime head of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he was honored by President Johnson in 1963, just four years before his death from cancer, and lionized by historians and journalists. In the past decade, new evidence about Soviet efforts to infiltrate Los Alamos, and about Oppenheimer's own politics, has emerged; but there has been no smoking gun implicating him in espionage. Despite some efforts to link him to one of the unidentified cover names in the Venona transcripts, there is no consensus about what role, if any, he played in atomic espionage. Jerrold and Leona Schechter, using a variety of unattributed Russian sources, claimed that Oppenheimer was a valuable Soviet source. Gregg Herken concluded that he was never a spy, despite being a secret member of the Communist party. John Haynes and I argued that the strongest evidence he was not a Soviet spy was that, if he had been, the Russians would have gotten even more information about the atomic bomb than they did.
Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's American Prometheus is the most detailed biography of Oppenheimer ever produced. In the making for a quarter-century, it is based on numerous interviews, prodigious digging in archives and sources, and an earnest faith that concerns about security and subversion in the atomic bomb project were misplaced paranoia. Well-written, enjoyable to read, and filled with insights about 20th-century physics, the development of the atomic bomb, and postwar American foreign policy, it too quickly attributes base motives to people genuinely concerned with the Soviet threat, and fails to treat Oppenheimer's travails as largely of his own making.
Robert Oppenheimer came from a financially successful German-Jewish family that had embraced the liberal pieties of the Ethical Culture movement. Always intellectually precocious, he was emotionally immature, often driving friends away with his unnerving intensity. After a series of academic successes at Harvard College, he went to England's Cambridge University in 1925 to study physics, but suffered a breakdown. Its most serious manifestation was poisoning his tutor's apple, an act that almost got him charged with attempted murder. Oppenheimer recovered, transferred to the University of Göttingen in Germany, and quickly became a star in the new and burgeoning field of quantum mechanics. Just two years after getting his bachelor's degree, he had a Ph.D. and a reputation as one of the leading young theoretical physicists in the world. He accepted appointments to split his teaching between the University of California at Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology, quickly becoming a guru to graduate students and, with Ernest Lawrence, establishing Berkeley as a major center for the new physics.
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.
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.