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 At the conclusion of those hearings his clearance was withdrawn.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.