Robert Oppenheimer: Soviet Spy?

It’s long been common knowledge that Robert Oppenheimer was sympathetic to communist ideology, to say the very least. His brother, sister-in-law, wife and mistress were all members of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). The established historical view that is presented of Oppenheimer is that while he had flirted with communism (as indeed, had many intellectuals in the 1920’s and 1930’s) there was no evidence that he ever been less than loyal.

In 1954, Lewis Strauss, first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), called for the removal of Oppenheimer’s security clearance after reviewing his intelligence dossier. William Borden, chief counsel on Congress’s Joint Comittee on Atomic Energy during the debate on whether to pursue the development of a hydrogen bomb (something Oppenheimer opposed for philosophical and technical reasons) wrote a letter to J.Edgar Hoover in which he wrote:

“…my own exhaustively considered opinion, based upon years of study of the available classified evidence, that more probably than not J.Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.”

The AEC subsequently conducted hearings to determine Oppie’s fitness to retain a security clearance. At the conclusion of those hearings his clearance was withdrawn.

(As an aside, there lies the interesting story of Dr. Edward Teller. He and Oppie had been at loggerheads ever since they had worked together on the Manhattan Project. Teller had wanted to pursue a ‘super bomb’ (hydrogen bomb) even then, but Oppie had overruled him, judging it simply too difficult. As it turns out, he was right. But he and Teller continued to find themselves on opposing sides of the hydrogen bomb debate as it raged in the science and political communities for the following years. Teller continued to champion the super-bomb while Oppenheimer opposed it. It’s interesting to note that Oppie was consistently right in his judgement; the early designs could not work. It wasn’t until a wholely new approach was developed, the so called Teller-Ulam invention, that Oppenheimer became convinced it could work. And boy did it. Teller, however, was extremely critical of Oppenheimer, questioning his patriotism with his opposition to the H-bomb, and once it was shown it could work, with his suggestion we either share it with the world or not build them for fear of starting an arms race. During the AEC hearings, Teller testified against Oppenheimer, to the absolute outrage of the wider physics community. Here’s what Teller said: “I believe… that Dr. Oppenheimer’s character is such that he would not knowingly and willingly do anything that is designed to endanger the safety of this country. To the extent, therefore, that your question is directed toward intent, I would say I do not see any reason to deny clearance. If it is question of wisdom and judgement, as demonstrated by actions since 1945, then I would say one would be wiser not to grant clearance.” Teller was forever ostracised from the physics community for that statement and has also been villified by the press ever since. Oppenheimer, by contrast, is held up as a martyr to right-wing, ‘red scare’ hysteria.)

However, like something from Tales Of The Undead, the issue of Robert Oppenheimer’s potential treason continues to stir controversy. In 1963, President Lyndon Johnson restored Dr. Oppenheimers security clearance. Gregg Herken, author of Brotherhood of the Bomb, concludes from the evidence he’s seen that while Oppenheimer was certainly a communist, he was not a spy. He writes: “…the best evidence that Robert Oppenheimer was not a spy is negative: namely, had Oppenheimer been working either for the NKVD or GRU, the Russians would have all the secrets of the bomb – and had them a lot sooner – than we now know they actually got them.”

Intrigued by a declaration I heard on C-SPAN that Robert Oppenheimer has been clearly shown to be a spy, I began searching around the web to see if I could find any evidence of that assertion. There’s lots of conjecture, naturally. In the end, I found this piece to be both the most interesting and the most authoritative.

Cold War International History Project
Was Oppenheimer a Soviet Spy?
A Roundtable Discussion with Jerrold and Leona Schecter, Gregg Herken and Hayden Peake

The discussion revolves around a letter from the Soviet intelligence archives. It’s from agent Boris Merkulov to Lavrenty Beria, head of the state security apparatus. Here’s the damning excerpt:

In 1942 one of the leaders of scientific work on uranium in the USA, Professor Oppenheimer while being an unlisted (nglastny) member of the apparat of Comrade Browder informed us about the beginning of work. On the request of Comrade Kheifitz, confirmed by Comrade Browder, he provided cooperation in access to research for several of our tested sources including a relative of Comrade Browder.

Sixty years after the fact, whether or not J. Robert Oppenheimer was a Soviet spy is still an open question.

8 thoughts on “Robert Oppenheimer: Soviet Spy?”

  1. Bias, even a clear communist bias, doesn’t necessarily lead to a communist or pro-Soviet agenda, especially not at the expense of American security.

    As to contacts to Soviet scientists: In 1942 he might have maintained contact to them because at the time it was by no means certain that the Manhattan project would advance faster than the German project. His motive may have been to make sure that the Soviet program would be a kind of back-up in case the Manhattan project didn’t succeed.

  2. “His motive may have been to make sure that the Soviet program would be a kind of back-up in case the Manhattan project didn’t succeed.”

    Not his call. If he acted on that motive, he might not be a spy, but was certainly a traitor.

  3. Not his call. If he acted on that motive, he might not be a spy, but was certainly a traitor.

    Agreed, even if he saw it differently himself. Even so I was just speculating about the meaning of the letter. Michael concluded that it still is an open question if he was a spy or not, so I’m not quite sure if the letter really proves anything.

  4. I thought I had read something more incriminating than just the letter (Sudoplatov?), but I’m probably wrong. I agree that if not a spy, he was at least a traitor.


  5. Given that the first H-bomb was successfully detonated in 1952, why do you say that Oppenheimer was correct that the H-bomb was ‘too difficult’?

    It seems to me that we would only judge him to be correct if the actual history of development of the H-bomb included a long series of failed attempts. In other words, if it resembled the general process of development of fusion power plants, which have been “on the edge of success” ever since I was a kid.

  6. why do you say that Oppenheimer was correct that the H-bomb was ‘too difficult’?

    The short answer is that is takes the energy of a fission weapon (atomic bomb) to provide sufficient x-ray energy to compress the H-bomb fuel and initiate a fusion reaction. An H-bomb is essentially a miniature star.

    At the time of the Manhattan Project, even fission was in it’s infancy. It was only in 1939 that John Wheeler and Niels Bohr worked out the theoretical underpinnings to nuclear fission. There was almost no experimental data on which to draw from. Oppie & Co. had their hands full trying to work out the physics and mathematics. It was a huge undertaking. There were literally thousands of technical hurdles to overcome. Also, they were terrified that Heisenberg in Germany would get there first, a fear that later turned out to be unfounded. The feeling was that whoever got these new weapons first and got them into production was going to win the war.

    Also, as I mentioned, it wasn’t until 1950 that the Teller-Ulam concept even existed. Previous concepts were characterized by Oppie as “prescriptions for failure” and “a tortured thing…didn’t make much sense”. Even after the new concept emerged in 1950 using an atomic bomb trigger the physics and math required to make it work were truly daunting.

    Two teams were set up to work out the calculations, one at Los Alamos and one at Princeton. John Wheeler headed the Princeton team which worked it out. It took several months using, according to Wheeler, much of the newly aquired computing capacity available in the Eastern US. It’s also agreed by modern physicists that the early H-bomb designs would not have worked, although I don’t think they’ve actually been tried. So it seems Oppie was correct.

  7. I thought I had read something more incriminating than just the letter (Sudoplatov?)

    Val, His accusations are very controversial, which is why I didn’t include them. He’s a former KGB asassin & field agent who wrote a tell-all expose’ in the early 1990’s. He maintains that not only was Oppenheimer recruited, so was Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence, other than his claim, to support it. The KGB even went to the extraordinary length to publicly deny it. That doesn’t, in and of itself, prove anything but it’s interesting. It’s also interesting that those KGB files are still sealed. So who knows?

  8. I thought the idea that there were communists infiltrating the government (and Hollywood) was just the drunken rantings of Joseph McCarthy? They called it the “Red Scare” because there was nothing to it, right?

    Joe McCarthy was mean and liked to drink, so everything he said was false, right?

    I’m confused.

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