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In Defense of Oppenheimer

The excellent review in these pages by Thomas Powers of the book entitled Special Tasks by Pavel Sudoplatov and his son gives so thorough and searching an appraisal of the book as a whole that there is hardly any need for me or anyone else to attempt to add anything to what he has said.* After all, a statement issued by the official Russian Itar-Tass news agency (see The New York Times, May 6, 1994) described the volume as a “mosaic of truthful events, semi-truths, and open inventions,” and that agency is not alone in holding that view. It is in fact a regrettable circumstance, and one that reflects favorably on neither the publisher nor the editors, that a book of this particular provenance and character, casting serious aspersions on prominent persons now dead and unable to speak in their own defense, should have been laid before the American public without accompaniment of a competent critical commentary.

I would, however, like to add a few words about the various passages in the book suggesting or insinuating that J. Robert Oppenheimer, as director of the Los Alamos project where the first nuclear explosive was designed, developed, and tested, was actually serving deliberately if indirectly as an informer of the Soviet secret police, betraying to it, or encouraging others to do so, some of the tightly held secrets of that great undertaking.

There are several of these references, only three or four of which would suggest any deliberate, connivance on Oppenheimer’s part in leaking information to Soviet agents. These references give the impression of having been dragged in by the heels, as if they had been rather ineptly inserted into a text that had originally been written without them. Some can even appear in conflict with the general tenor of the book. In any case, as Mr. Powers so amply demonstrated, all are marked by an extreme vagueness. Details, such as those of the time and place of the various episodes or the channels of implicit communication, are never mentioned. Supporting evidence is never offered. We are left, throughout, to take Mr. Sudoplatov’s word.

The reasons for this strange invocation of Oppenheimer’s name must remain a matter of conjecture. But it is perhaps not without relevance that parts of the book, originally written or dictated, one must suppose, in Russian, show every sign of having been intended primarily not for the American reading public but rather for a specific body of Russian readers—particularly for such of the author’s colleagues or superiors in the former Soviet-Communist police apparatus as might have survived into this day, or perhaps for that small but not insignificant body of persons in Russia, both within and without the present Russian officialdom, who still hold to the old Communist values and would like to see Communist rule restored. These passages seem to have been written for people whom the author was anxious to persuade of his great competence as a one-time spy-master and of the importance of his achievements along this line.

It appears that Sudoplatov at some time in the 1950s had fallen foul (as had so many others in similar positions) of his own police establishment, been arrested, and been sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment. It would also appear that in 1982, having evidently served his sentence and been released, he appealed to the Central Committee of the Party to rehabilitate him, to restore his rank, decorations, rights, etc. The book ends with a photostat of one page of this appeal—a document in which Oppenheimer’s name again appears, coupled this time with that of Klaus Fuchs, a man now well known to have been a Soviet agent. But other passages in the book make it quite clear that Oppenheimer was not at all, even in Sudoplatov’s view, an agent. A clearer case of the effort to establish guilt by association would be hard to find. Oppenheimer was, of course, the most important of all the personalities involved in the Los Alamos project. To persuade others that he had been successfully recruited into the Communist network, and this by none other than Sudoplatov himself, would have been to add the most colorful of all feathers to the author’s cap.

All these references to Oppenheimer in this book would appear to relate only to the period between 1942 and 1945, the time of his directorship at Los Alamos. But that period of service was followed in his life, as many will still recall, by an ordeal of nearly a decade’s duration consisting of attacks on him by persons suspicious of his loyalty. These attacks were sometimes widely publicized, and in other instances took the form of private denunciations made behind his back, but led, in any case, to a long series of official investigations, hearings, demotions, and humiliating exactions at the hands of American officialdom. This sort of persecution took its most sensational form in a series of official but closed hearings, in Washington in 1954, hearings that had the appearance of judicial proceedings (which they were not), while depriving Oppenheimer of a number of the rights he would normally have enjoyed had the tribunal been a regular court of justice.

I was serving abroad at the time of the Los Alamos project, had never met Oppenheimer, and knew nothing of what was then going on. But by the early 1950s, when these various ensuing developments were at their height, we were both at the Institute for Advanced Study, he as director of that institution, I as a regular scholar in residence. I never questioned him about the details of his difficulties with the government, some of which involved classified information; but I knew him well as a friend, was a frequent witness to the anguish all this was bringing to him, was in close touch with him both before and after his various appearances before the Washington tribunal, and on one occasion testified before it myself.

These matters are now long in the past. But the Sudoplatov insinuations and charges are bound, one must suppose, to pour oil on the otherwise nearly extinguished fires of that earlier day; and for these reasons I feel obliged to give my own impressions of the Oppenheimer I then knew, and of the validity or non-validity of the charges so cruelly and persistently raised against him.

I cannot conceive for a moment that Oppenheimer was guilty of the various acts or attitudes of disloyalty imputed to him in Mr. Sudoplatov’s book. It was not in his nature. Above all, I can think of no plausible motivation for such behavior. He had directed the work at Los Alamos with remarkable brilliance and distinction. He was proud at the time, and in retrospect, of what he had achieved. In all the years I knew him I never detected the faintest admiration or sympathy on his part for the Soviet regime or for the doctrines by which it professed to be animated. Had things been otherwise, I am sure I would have known it.

It is true that he had been persuaded by the great Danish scientist, Niels Bohr, whom he revered as a person and a scientific colleague, that it was a mistake for the American government to ask its scientists to explore alone and in secrecy the possibilities for development of nuclear energy as a military weapon—that it would have been better to enlist the collaboration not just of British scientists and their governments but of the Soviet ones as well for this effort, and to continue the inquiry in fraternal association with them, hoping that this would help to avoid the unleashing of that very weapons race which later occurred. I personally disagreed with these views, as did many others, including the President, Franklin Roosevelt, to whom Bohr at one point took his case. But neither Bohr nor Oppenheimer ever made a secret of these views; and when the government rejected them, Oppenheimer, in particular, took it in good part and, so far as I could see, pursued it no further. At no time, I am sure, would the government’s rejection of his view ever have suggested to him that he should encourage the leakage of bits and pieces of information about the Los Alamos project through what he once termed “the back door.”

It is also possible that he may have been, as some charged, awkward, inept, confused, or inconsistent during the many interrogations to which he was eventually exposed. This is not impossible. Curious mixture that he was of scientist, scholar, and aesthete, he was poorly armed for that sort of bureaucratic in-fighting.

But a traitor to his country, Robert Oppenheimer, by my deepest conviction, was not. He loved it deeply, was proud of the service he had given it, and suffered greatly from the fact that he was officially barred from serving it further.

It would be a tragic injustice, and an ironic one, if people of this age, themselves unfamiliar with these happenings of a half-century ago, were to give greater credence to the insinuations of a man long since emerged from the most sinister recesses of Stalinist terror than to the statements of the incomparably more open and humane regime that now exists in Russia. They would be better advised to consult the large body of historical evidence on these questions that has now appeared and is continuing to become available in published form in the libraries and archives of this country.

  1. *

    Were the Atomic Scientists Spies?” The New York Review, June 9, 1994, a review of Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness—A Soviet Spymaster by Pavel and Anatoli Sudoplatov, with Jerrold L. and Leona P. Schecter.

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