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 …

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