[This essay is one of the chapters in the monograph “The Dispossession of the American Indian – And Other Key Issues in American History” (Washington, D.C.: Scott-Townsend Publishers, 1995). It also appeared as an article in Conservative Review, September/October 1994, pp. 2-7.]
THE J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER CASE
From 1942 to 1945, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer was the head of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, which involved some of the world's top nuclear physicists and developed America's atomic bomb. After the war, from 1946 to 1952, he chaired the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission. Oddly, he held these positions despite several years of close association with American Communists and support for Communist activities.
In 1953 at the height of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's campaign to rid government of Communist influence Senate Republicans became concerned about Oppenheimer's access to top secret information and about whether he had delayed the United States' development of the hydrogen bomb. The Christian Science Monitor reported that Senator McCarthy had for some time been preparing a case against Oppenheimer. The Eisenhower White House prevented a Senate investigation by promising that the administration would pursue the case.1
In November of that year, William L. Borden, who until five months earlier had been the executive director of the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, wrote FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover a letter detailing Oppenheimer's Communist connections and concluding from them that "more probably than not" Oppenheimer was "an agent of the Soviet Union."
The following month, another detailed letter, this time from General K. D. Nichols, the general manager of the Atomic Energy Commission, informed Oppenheimer of the charges. Oppenheimer's clearance to receive secret information was revoked, and hearings were conducted between April 12 and May 6, 1954, by the AEC's Personnel Security Board, which at their conclusion voted 2-1 to recommend against reinstatement. This recommendation was then adopted by the Atomic Energy Commission by a 4-1 vote.
The majority opinion written by each body was careful not to base the revocation of clearance on a finding of disloyalty, but rather on such factors as "imprudent and dangerous associations, particularly with known subversives who place the interests of foreign powers above those of the United States."
The "moderation" of the majorities' opinions did not forestall the Left from making the Oppenheimer case one of its causes celebres, which it has remained to this day. Cries were raised against "McCarthyite hysteria"; and reporters Joseph and Stewart Alsop wrote a piece for Harper's comparing the case to the infamous Dreyfus Affair in France.2
One of the many books about it, published in 1968 and authored by professors Joseph Boskin and Fred Krinsky, contains a good example of the Left's outlook:
During the early fifties, responsible leadership took a national holiday as Senator Joseph McCarthy led the way in exorcising the devils from American life--a little like performing mass lobotomies to restore mental health...[T]he near-hysteria of that era... It was in this historical context that J. Robert Oppenheimer became an involuntary celebrity. His reticence in supporting H-bomb development, together with his pre-war Communist associations, made him symbolic of the 'cancer' which, it was claimed, was eating away at the vitals of the nation.3
By 1963 this virulent anti-anti-Communism had long since won the day in "respectable" opinion in the United States. McCarthy had been hounded to death, and since McCarthy few have dared to speak up with any stridency in moral revulsion against things red or pink. Accordingly, on November 22, the day President John F. Kennedy was killed, the Kennedy Administration announced that Oppenheimer was to receive the $50,000 Enrico Fermi award, the highest the Atomic Energy Commission had to offer. This was bestowed a few days later by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Thus was Oppenheimer officially "rehabilitated."
But now more than thirty additional years have passed, and the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union has brought a major new disclosure. Little, Brown and Company has published Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness, the memoirs of the man who, as deputy director of foreign intelligence for the NKVD, oversaw all nuclear espionage for the Soviet Union between 1944 and 1946--General Pavel Sudoplatov.
He says that Oppenheimer, along with others who included the brilliant physicist Enrico Fermi, was a Soviet agent, operating not for pay but out of ideological motivation and because of an intricate web of Communist associations.4
"We received reports," Sudoplatov says, "on the progress of the Manhattan Project from Oppenheimer and his friends in oral form, through comments and asides, and from documents transferred through clandestine methods with their full knowledge that the information they were sharing would be passed on. One agent cited Oppenheimer's stressing that information should be leaked so as not to be traceable to those who worked in Los Alamos. In all, there were five classified reports made available by Oppenheimer describing the progress of work on the atomic bomb."
Predictably, the liberal-Left has turned its heaviest guns on Sudoplatov and his publisher. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post, among other papers, have debunked it. It is rightly pointed out that Sudoplatov, a high-level henchman for Lavrenti Beria and Joseph Stalin, is a self-confessed murderer.5 How, they ask, can such a man be believed?
It happens that Little, Brown and Company has a telling response to this. After Stalin's death, Sudoplatov was for fifteen years imprisoned in the gulag. "In 1982 he appealed...to former KGB head Yuri Andropov," the editorial director of Little, Brown writes. "He listed among his accomplishments that he supplied Soviet scientists with important information obtained 'from such sources as the famous nuclear physicists R. Oppenheimer, E. Fermi, K. Fuchs and others,' and he cited a document that provides a detailed account." The crucial point: "It is inconceivable that Gen. Sudoplatov would have dissembled or even exaggerated his activities, since Mr. Andropov could have readily verified their accuracy."6
Herbert Romerstein, writing in Human Events, agrees: "That letter proves the guilt of Oppenheimer and Fermi...Sudoplatov would not have dared to lie to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. Yuri Andropov was a member of the Politburo and was soon to be the dictator of the Soviet Union. He had recently left the position of head of KGB [the infamous agency that had, in Sudoplatov's time, been called by its earlier name, NKVD]."7 If the letter is genuine, which is a matter for scholars to determine through the most careful scrutiny, it must be given great weight.
In our discussion here, we will review the detail of the Oppenheimer case and the Sudoplatov disclosures, although a brief summary cannot hope to be exhaustive. After we have done this, it will be worthwhile to examine the current relevancy of the case. Far from being "ancient history" telling of espionage fifty years ago, it has much to say about the debilitated ideological and moral climate of twentieth century America--a climate that affects other issues today with disastrous effects.
Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer?
Oppenheimer was born in New York City in 1904, the son of a successful businessman who at seventeen had come to the United States from Germany. Robert attended the Ethical Culture School from second grade through graduation, then went to Harvard for a degree in chemistry (which he earned summa cum laude, consistently with the brilliance that led him to master Sanskrit and seven other languages). He then attended the University of Cambridge before getting his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Goettingen in Germany in 1927.
In 1929 he received concurrent appointment to the physics faculties at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley. He continued to hold these posts, subject to leaves of absence for other work, until 1947, at which time he accepted the directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Oppenheimer remained director until a few months before his death in 1967.
Soon after the United States' entry into World War II, Oppenheimer was named coordinator of the project to develop the atomic bomb. This led to his moving with his family to Los Alamos in March 1943. His directorship of the Los Alamos Laboratory, for which he is known as "the father of the Atomic Bomb," came to an end in October l945. It was early in 1947 that he began a six-year-term on the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission, and was elected chairman.
The 1954 case
During the hearings, which were closed, the Personnel Security Board compiled some three thousand pages of testimony and pored over a comparable volume of investigative reports.
The findings of the Board and admissions by Oppenheimer tell an intriguing story of Communist associations and activity:
In late 1936 he had begun courting a woman named Jean Tatlock. "She told me about her Communist Party memberships" and "was, as it turned out, a friend of many fellow travelers and Communists, with a number of whom I was later to become acquainted." They never married, but the relationship continued sporadically over several years. A Board finding says Oppenheimer "admitted having seen Jean Tatlock under most intimate circumstances in June or July of 1943" [at the height of atomic bomb development].8
"My brother Frank," Oppenheimer said, "married in 1936...He told me at the time--probably in 1937--that he and his wife Jackie had joined the Communist Party." When Robert himself married Katherine Puening Harrison in late 1940, "I learned of her earlier marriage to Joe Dallet, and of his death fighting in Spain. He had been a Communist Party official, and for a year or two during their brief marriage my wife was a Communist Party member."9
Although Oppenheimer maintained that "I was never a member of the [Communist] Party, concealed or open," he did testify that "I was associated with the Communist movement...and I did not regard it as inappropriate to take the job at Los Alamos." Contrary to Oppenheimer's denial, the Board found that even during the period of atomic bomb development in 1942-5, five people, "Dr. Hannah Peters, Bernadette Doyle, Steve Nelson, Jack Manley, and Katrina Sandow made statements indicating that Dr. Oppenheimer was then a member of the Communist Party."10
From 1937 until 1942, he donated substantial sums to the Communist Party for assistance to leftist refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Human Events points out that "he did this even through the Soviet-Nazi Pact of 1939-41, although at that time there was also a non-Communist organization raising money to help Spanish refugees." The significance of this lies in the fact that a great many leftists shrunk in revulsion from Communist activity during the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. The fact that Oppenheimer did not tends to place him among the hard-core. This is in direct contradiction to his claim that he had become disenchanted with Communism in 1938 after finding that it was "a land of purge and terror." From this we can see why the Board found that Oppenheimer "was less than candid in several instances in his testimony."11
During the "United Front" period that preceded the Pact, Oppenheimer had actively maintained various connections with the Communist movement: "I contributed to the strike fund of one of the major strikes of Bridges' union; I subscribed to the People's World; I contributed to the various committees and organizations which were intended to help the Spanish Loyalist cause." In 1938 he was a member of the Western Council of the Consumers Union, which the House Committee on Un-American Activities named as a Communist front organization.12
His ties to front organizations continued during the years of the Pact. The Board found that in 1940 Oppenheimer was listed as a sponsor of the Friends of the Chinese People and was included on the letterhead of the American Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom as a member of its national executive committee. He maintained his subscription to the west coast Communist Party newspaper, the Daily People's World, in 1941 and 1942.13
His association with a certain Haakon Chevalier is especially revealing. There are three significant parts to it, showing long-term continuity:
. Oppenheimer testified that he was present at a meeting at Chevalier's home in late 1940 at which the secretary of the California Communist Party spoke about the "party line."14
. In his written response to the charges, Oppenheimer told of a visit he received from Chevalier and his wife in early 1943. "During the visit, he came into the kitchen and told me that George Eltenton had spoken to him of the possibility of transmitting technical information to Soviet scientists." Oppenheimer said "I should have reported the incident at once" -- but he didn't; he waited several months before doing so, and then both refused to identify Chevalier and didn't mention that he himself had been the one who was approached. He only named Chevalier when, after some additional delay, he was ordered to do so. We should note, too, that Oppenheimer testified that he lied when questioned about the incident by security personnel. His excuse: "I was an idiot."15
. The Board found that none of this deterred Oppenheimer from continued contact with Chevalier. Back at Berkeley after the war, Oppenheimer was "visited by the Chevaliers on several occasions," and his wife "was in contact with Haakon and Barbara Chevalier in 1946 and 1947."16
While involved in the atomic bomb program, Oppenheimer had no compunction against bringing in people whom he knew to have had Communist connections. (This is consistent with his testimony that "past Communist connections or sympathies did not necessarily disqualify a man from employment, if we had confidence in his integrity and dependability as a man.") In a book on the case, Cushing Strout of Cornell University writes that Oppenheimer "tried unsuccessfully late in 1942 to get Dr. Bernard Peters, a former student and personal friend, to come to Los Alamos. Oppenheimer knew him as a German refugee who had been a member of the German Communist Party." Strout adds that "Oppenheimer persuaded Rossi Lomanitz, a former student whom he believed to be a Trotskyite, to go into scientific work for the government...Security officers, worried about 'leaks' at Berkeley, discovered him to be a Communist Party member."17
Oppenheimer himself testified that he knew of several people at Los Alamos who had belonged to the Communist Party, but didn't inform security officers about them.18
Despite all of this and a great deal more, the Personnel Security Board found it possible, in its yearning to show "moderation," to say that "we find no evidence of disloyalty." Instead, the majority based its recommendation against reinstating the security clearance on "security doubts."
The Sudoplatov disclosures
In its issue of April 25, 1994, Time magazine ran an extensive "book excerpt" from Sudoplatov's just-published memoirs. Time described him as a man who "worked for thirty years at the heart of the vicious secret security apparat during the Stalin era," and said that "as director of the Administration for Special Tasks...Sudoplatov ran spy networks in Europe and North America." Among his missions was the planning of the murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, and to have personally blown up the Ukrainian nationalist Col. Yevhen Konovalets in 1938. The memoirs were prepared with the assistance of Sudoplatov's son and a former Time Moscow bureau chief and his wife.
Sudoplatov's disclosures relevant to Oppenheimer are made in great detail, and we can only sketch them briefly here:
. The NKVD resident in San Francisco made contact with Oppenheimer twice in December 1941, at which time Oppenheimer revealed to him Einstein's secret letter to President Roosevelt urging study of a possible atomic bomb program.
. The Soviets assigned code names to Oppenheimer, Fermi and other scientists in the nuclear program. To cultivate the connection, the wife of one Soviet agent developed a friendship with Oppenheimer's wife.
. Oppenheimer and others "helped us place moles as laboratory assistants in Tennessee, Los Alamos and Chicago" [the three centers of atomic research]. He helped bring Klaus Fuchs, later revealed to be a major Soviet spy, to Los Alamos as part of the British team.
. Two Soviet agents had been under "deep cover" for ten years on the west coast. One of them and his wife served as "clandestine contacts" that "went undetected by the FBI." It was through this route that the Soviets received the oral and written reports about the progress of the atomic program, including the five classified reports that we mentioned earlier.
. The Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear device in 1949. Sudoplatov says that "without the intelligence contribution, there could have been no Soviet atom bomb that quickly." As it was, the Korean War, which began with the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, was fought under the shadow of a Soviet nuclear threat.
. The next major step was the development of the hydrogen bomb. "Through Fuchs," Sudoplatov writes, "we planted the idea that Fermi, Oppenheimer and Szilard become advocates against the hydrogen bomb." American development of this massive new weapon was delayed for some months while the Soviets went ahead feverishly with a program of their own.
How the case holds a mirror to certain pathologies in twentieth century America
The Oppenheimer case is historically important in a number of ways. The Soviet Union's rapid development of the atomic bomb immediately following World War II, for example, was bound to have had an incalculable effect upon the military and diplomatic history of the postwar era, and would merit considerable study for that reason alone.
What interests us most here, however, is how the case illustrates two of the more important facts about American society in the twentieth century. These are, in a sense, dual pathologies: the pathology of the liberal-Left intellectual culture in its long infatuation with and then double-standards toward the Soviet Union; and the pathology of the mainstream of "educated" Americans, whose overweening desire to be "politically correct" (even though it wasn't called that yet) settled them into a comfortable and smug "moderation" toward one of history's bloodiest totalitarian dictatorships and the people who supported it.
The infatuation and double standards. As part of the attention that was given to American Communists in the 1950s, it was common to think in terms of whether it could be proved that someone was "a card-carrying member of the Party" or was a "fellow traveller" by virtue of support for the Communists' many front organizations. Such clear evidence of Communist affiliation was necessarily important for such purposes as whether the person was suitable for government employment.
We should be aware, however, that such concerns narrowed the perception of what was actually a much broader phenomenon: that the vast majority of writers and artists in the liberal-Left intellectual culture were, for virtually the entire thirty year span from 1917 to 1947, giddily infatuated with the Soviet Union. Even after the Cold War settled upon the world, the intelligentsia cultivated an on-going condonation of Communist expansionism and turned their real indignation and rage toward anti-Communists. The resulting double-standards profoundly affected America's perception of and reaction to the many "wars of liberation" Communists sponsored all over the world. The scientists who are discussed in Sudoplatov's memoirs were closely connected with that intellectual culture.
The excitement over the Soviet Union rose to a crescendo in the 1920s and overflowed in the "Red Decade" of the 1930s. It was in 1924 that the flagship "liberal" journal, The New Republic, ran its first advertisement for the Communist Daily Worker. This set the texture of the journal for the next fifteen years, during which advertisements for trips to the Soviet Union, for Communist books and journals, and for front-group meetings and proclamations were liberally distributed through its pages.19
In 1927, H. M. Kallen wrote in The New Republic that "dictatorship though it be, [the Soviet regime] has liberated their energies, animated them with an altogether unprecedented sense of personal dignity and inward worth."
In 1928 the premier liberal philosopher John Dewey contributed a series of six articles about his trip to Russia. His tone: "In spite of secret police, inquisitions, arrests and deportations..., life for the masses goes on with regularity... There is an enormous constructive effort taking place in the creation of a new collective mentality."
Bruce Bliven, who spent many years with The New Republic and was the leading editor after Herbert Croly, wrote in 1931 that "even with all proper cautions..., I still find this graphic picture of Russia's material progress tremendously exciting." The writer M. R. Werner said that Stalin emerged from a book he was reviewing "as a person for whose character one has a tremendous respect." The next year, Edmund Wilson wrote that "Communism...has for the first time brought humanity out into the great world of creative thought and work."
In 1935 Waldo Frank, a frequent contributor to The New Republic, sent in a letter saying that "I wish to stress...my entire loyalty to the Soviet cause and my strict partisanship with its government in its struggles against a hostile world...The U.S.S.R. is the 'fatherland' of all true revolutionaries, the world over."
In 1937 Andre Gide asked in The New Republic, "Who shall say what the Soviet Union has been to us? More than a chosen land-- an example, a guide. What we have dreamt of, what we have hardly dared to hope, but towards which we were straining all our will and all our strength, was coming into being over there."
A number of "shocks" occurred to shake this faith -- such things as Stalin's show trials and liquidation of large numbers of the original Bolshevik leaders (most of whom had for years been on friendly terms with American "liberals" who made pilgrimages to the Soviet Union); the exile and eventual murder of Leon Trotsky, who had shared the leadership of the Bolshevik Revolution with Lenin; the Hitler-Stalin Pact in August 1939; the Soviet Union's invasion of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Finland; and others. Those who continued their unquestioning attachment after these shocks were, as we mentioned earlier, the "hard core." But even for those who were not, it again became fashionable to cast a fond glance at the Soviet Union after Hitler's invasion in June 1941 and during the years that the United States was an ally of the Soviets in fighting Hitler. In the late 1940s the most glowing reports were about Mao in China.
All of this should be seen, of course, as disgraceful. Not just card-carrying Communists and fellow travelers, but almost an entire intellectual culture threw itself into the arms of a totalitarian movement. Heavily under the influence of Marxism, it saw in the bloody regimes of Stalin and Mao the hope and idealism that somehow it didn't see in those of Hitler and Mussolini. One can only describe it as a pathology of indescribable dimensions.
The mainstream's "political correctness." A second and equally damaging pathology has been the spinelessness of the mainstream of "educated Americans" since World War II. The term "political correctness" has been coined in recent years to describe the Left's totalitarian demand for conformity of opinion on egalitarian social issues; it would fit equally well the enormous pressure that "educated" Americans have exerted on each other to conform their opinions in a "respectable" way to those of the Left on all issues. This included a desire to embrace a "moderation" toward the Soviet Union and Communist expansion, and to condemn anyone who seemed to them at all "strident" on the subject. For many years (and even today), anyone holding a different view was automatically considered a bigot.
This mainstream conformity among our professional classes has been, and is, so much a part of our national life that its perceptions define most Americans' understanding of the events of the twentieth century. It has been the orthodoxy for many decades and has reigned with all the smug self-assurance of orthodoxies everywhere. But it is a pathology. We will have no chance to be free of it until its existence is acknowledged and it is seen for what it is.
What have been the sources of it? No doubt among them are too much comfort, too craven a desire not to be disturbed in getting on in life, too shallow a belief in offsetting values and perceptions, and the vacuum left by the main intellectual culture's forfeiture of its appropriate and necessary role in a free society. Throughout my adult life I have been witness to this essential shallowness and moral cowardice. One result of those qualities is a profound ignorance on many things. Far from being well informed, the mainstream of "educated" Americans allows itself to drink in without demurrer the steady stream of propaganda that pours down upon it. Conservatives protest and gnash their teeth, but tens of millions of others would simply find it too discomfiting to allow themselves to be disturbed.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, for all his brilliance, was a true representative of the pathology of the intellectual culture. Those who found "no evidence of his disloyalty" and who hounded such a man as Joseph McCarthy to his grave--and successfully silenced all truly outspoken moral revulsion against Communism (and later against the New Left and its still-present cultural aftermath)--were representative of the other.
These pathologies, illustrated by the Oppenheimer case, continue to rule America. The effect is a debilitation in which today's Americans are acquiescing, under the continuing leftist assault and the "multiculturalist" redirection of American demographics, in the surrender of their heritage, their identity as a people, their common mythology and sense of shared meaning, their understanding of their own history, and their erstwhile virtues.
The problem is how a people can overcome such a debility and regain its will to exist. Because that is what it is: a matter of understanding and of will. If those existed, the solutions would not be difficult. But the presence of the pathologies means that both the understanding and the will are absent.
1. John Major, The Oppenheimer Hearing (New York: Stein and Day, 1971), pp. 9, 15; photo caption on page opposing p. 192.
2. Cushing Strout, ed., Conscience, Science, and Security: The Case of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1963), p. 52.
3. Joseph Boskin and Fred Krinsky, The Oppenheimer Affair: A Political Play in Three Acts (Beverly Hills: The Glencoe Press, 1968), pp. 2-3.
4. All quotations from Pavel Sudoplatov are taken from "Atomic Secrets: A KGB Spymaster's Tale of How the Soviets Got the Bomb," Time, April 25, 1994, pp. 65-72.
5. Article by Herbert Romerstein, "Soviet Spy Oppenheimer Exposed at Last," Human Events, May 13, 1994.
6. Letter by Roger Donald, Editorial Director of Little, Brown and Co., to Washington Post, issue of May 19, 1994.
7. Romerstein, Human Events.
8. Ibid., pp. 21, 88.
9. Ibid., p. 24.
10. Ibid., pp. 26, 94; Strout, Conscience, p. 4.
11. Romerstein, Human Events; Boskin and Krinsky, Oppenheimer Affair, pp. 24-5, 114.
12. Boskin and Krinksy, Oppenheimer Affair, pp. 22, 86.
13. Ibid., pp. 85-6, 90.
14. Ibid., pp. 92-3.
15. Ibid., pp. 32, 96, 97.
16. Ibid., p. 96.
17. Ibid., p. 30; Strout, Conscience, pp. 7, 9.
18. Boskin and Krinsky, Oppenheimer Affair, p. 95.
19. All quotations here relative to the infatuations of the liberal-Left intellectual culture with the Soviet Union are from Dwight D. Murphey, Liberalism in Contemporary America (McLean, VA: Council for Social and Economic Studies, 1992), pp. 47, 48, 60.