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The Strange Case of Robert Oppenheimer

Pandora’s Keepers: Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb

by Brian VanDeMark
Little, Brown, 339 pp. (withdrawn)

1.

April next year will mark the centenary of the birth of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the generation that built the atomic bomb. He had been a Wunderkind, the son of well-to-do German Jews in New York City, a brilliant student of physics at Harvard and Göttingen. In the 1930s, teaching at both the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, he trained the United States’ first vital school of theoretical physicists. Together with his students, he provided the theoretical analysis of the nuclear data that came pouring out of the cyclotrons at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. They were the product of the driving inventiveness and entrepreneurship of Ernest O. Lawrence, a midwesterner of uncomplicated ambitiousness whose work on big accelerator physics earned him a Nobel Prize in 1939.

The two men admired and liked each other, although Lawrence strongly disapproved of Oppenheimer’s politics. Awakening politically in the mid-Thirties, Oppenheimer became an energetic fellow traveler—joining with Communists in supporting the Loyalists in Spain and promoting labor activism, including attempts by the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians (FAECT) to organize the employees at the Radiation Laboratory. Lawrence, perhaps fearful of alienating his rich California patrons, prohibited anyone, including Oppenheimer, from raising political questions at the Radiation Laboratory. Even though Oppenheimer broke the rule occasionally, Lawrence nevertheless brought him into the atomic bomb work at Berkeley in 1941, declaring, “I have a great deal of confidence in Oppenheimer.”

Since the bomb project not only posed a formidable scientific challenge but also entailed a huge task of procurement and production, authority over it was given in 1942 to the Army’s new Manhattan Engineering District under the command of General Leslie R. Groves.1 Groves selected Oppenheimer to direct the laboratory where the atomic bombs would be designed, even though Oppenheimer seemed unqualified for such a job either by experience or temperament. In July 1943, despite counter-recommendations from Army security officials, Groves ordered Oppenheimer cleared “without delay,” declaring, “He is absolutely essential to the project.”

Oppenheimer succeeded brilliantly, assembling a team of world-class physicists in a new base at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and managing their egos as well as their dissatisfactions with the muddy streets as they worked on the design of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He emerged from the war as one of the most famous physicists in America, the leading sage of the nuclear era, an influential adviser to statesmen, chair of the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and the new director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where Einstein was a professor. He enjoyed power and took care not to jeopardize his access to it, declining to contest attacks against the political reliability of other scientists and telling security officials who among physicists might have been a Communist or might now be a danger to security.2

Yet Oppenheimer was conscience-stricken, regretting the devastation the Manhattan Project had wrought. “Physicists have known sin,” he famously lamented in 1948.3 During the war, Oppenheimer had thought it important that, once an atomic bomb was produced, vigorous effort should be mounted to develop a hydrogen bomb, a thermonuclear weapon that would explode with a force hundreds of times greater than that of fission weapons. With Oppenheimer’s support, Edward Teller had begun working on the hydrogen bomb at Los Alamos (he refused to work on anything else, even when theoretical talents were critical for calculations on the atomic bomb). But within weeks of Japan’s defeat, Oppenheimer began trying to rein in the demon he had done so much to unleash, urging that the United States push for international control of atomic energy and refrain from developing an H-bomb, judging that its nuclear arsenal would keep it safe enough. By contrast, Teller, a refugee from Hungary and a ferocious anti-Communist, equated national security with maximum firepower. In the immediate postwar years the H-bomb became the principal vehicle of his scientific and ideological ambition, and he promoted it avidly.

Oppenheimer’s efforts at restraint earned him enemies. He could be cutting and arrogant, and this provoked personal resentments. And his past political activities and associations aroused suspicions among security officials. On a visit to Berkeley from Los Alamos in mid-June 1943, he spent the night with his former fiancée, Jean Tatlock, a one-time Communist. His wife, his brother, Frank, and Frank’s wife had once been members of the Communist Party and some of his students belonged to Communist front organizations. He had brought several of them, along with Frank, into the early atomic bomb research at Berkeley. Despite all this, Oppenheimer was cleared in 1947 by the new AEC, with strong support from high-ranking officials and scientists.

But anti-Oppenheimer sentiment intensified after the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in mid-1949 and the GAC nevertheless recommended against a crash program to develop a hydrogen bomb. Among Oppenheimer’s antagonists were the Air Force, enthusiasts of big bombs and bigger bombers, and several of its affiliated scientists; Lewis Strauss, a well-to-do investment banker long involved in defense matters who shared Teller’s views of the Soviets, science, and security, and whom Dwight Eisenhower appointed chairman of the AEC in 1953; and Teller himself, who, along with other defense hawks, insisted that the nation embark on a crash program to build an H-bomb.

Ernest Lawrence, converted by the Soviet test to supporting the H-bomb, joined with Teller in calling for the creation of a second laboratory which they would control and which would remove work on the weapon from the supervision of Los Alamos. The initiative stalled because the GAC considered a second laboratory unnecessary and a drain on scarce scientific talent. Teller and Lawrence blamed Oppenheimer for this. In mid-1952, the AEC finally caved in, authorizing the establishment of the Livermore Laboratory not far from Berkeley. The controversy helped to convince Lawrence that Oppenheimer was not to be trusted in nuclear policymaking.

In November 1953, a letter reviewing Oppenheimer’s record by a former staff member of the Joint Atomic Energy Committee in Congress concluded that “more probably than not J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.” The document contained nothing new, but the standards for security clearance were now far tighter than they had been during the war or even in 1947. Eisenhower, eager to prevent an assault by Senator Joseph McCarthy, ordered the suspension of Oppenheimer’s clearance. Oppenheimer, his term on the GAC having expired, no longer had any formal connection with the AEC except a consultantship that was due to run out the following June. Declining to let the question of Oppenheimer’s clearance merely lapse, Strauss had a formal list of charges drawn up against him, including allegations that he had opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer, determined to clear his name, chose to undergo a hearing before the AEC’s Personnel Security Board.

The hearing gave his enemies an opportunity to destroy his influence in nuclear policymaking by having him declared a security risk. The most devastating witness against him was Teller, whose dissatisfaction with Oppenheimer’s attitudes and actions on the hydrogen bomb, vented to the FBI, had formed the basis of the charges leveled against him on that issue. He told the security board that Oppenheimer had repeatedly behaved in ways that he found difficult to understand, taking actions that seemed “confused and complicated.” He added, “To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more.” He thought it would be “wiser not to grant clearance.” Perhaps he revealed how he resented Oppenheimer’s influence when he added, “I would feel personally [italics mine] more secure if public matters would rest in other hands.”

In 1963, writing a dissertation on the history of physics in the United States, I visited Teller at his house in Berkeley. He welcomed me into his living room with a kind of avuncular courtesy. The subject of Robert Oppenheimer soon came up. Teller told me that Oppenheimer deserved to lose his security clearance because he had been a Communist and an advocate of Soviet appeasement. I said that no one had ever produced evidence that Oppenheimer was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Teller, wagging his finger, declared, Young man, you don’t understand. The Communists don’t make their most important people Party members. It hampers their work.

2.

Oppenheimer repeatedly denied that he had ever been a member of the Communist Party, let alone a Soviet agent, and the security agencies of the United States government never proved he was either, despite years of trying. The FBI first opened a file on Oppenheimer in March 1941 because he recently had gone to the house of his friend Haakon Chevalier to attend a political discussion group whose members, Communists or fellow travelers, the bureau already had under surveillance. An assistant professor of French literature at Berkeley, Chevalier was a Communist whom Oppenheimer had met at a rally for the Spanish loyalists and with whom he had helped organize a campus local of the American Federation of Teachers. Army Intelligence, aided by the FBI, dogged Oppenheimer’s movements, conversations, friends, and acquaintances during his Manhattan Project days. Although the surveillance ended after the war, the FBI revived it in 1946, putting a tap on his house in Berkeley. By the time it was all over, the FBI had accumulated almost three file drawers of Oppenheimer material, including notes about his activities and verbatim transcripts of his conversations, many of which had been recorded.

Gregg Herken’s Brotherhood of the Bomb draws on these files, similar ones about other FBI targets, and a great many other additional sources, including declassified government documents, the secret cable traffic between Moscow and its wartime spies, private papers, personal interviews, and the steadily accumulating studies on the cold war and national security. Although Herken’s book deals with a familiar story, it has much new detail bearing on the careers of Oppenheimer, Lawrence, and Teller and their relations with one another. But the most arresting feature of Brotherhood of the Bomb is its chilling narrative of the shadowy world of state surveillance—some of it warranted, much of it not—and abuse of power in the name of national security. Oppenheimer, his fate, and his agency in realizing it all loom large in the account. The book also speaks indirectly to contemporary concerns about weapons of mass destruction and the threats to civil liberties that the war against terrorism has raised in science and beyond it.4

According to Herken, J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, knew nothing about the Manhattan Project until 1943, when General Groves told him in veiled terms about the highly classified effort. Among those under the bureau’s surveillance, however, was Steve Nelson, a former leader in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and a leading Bay Area Communist trained in espionage by the Soviets. Two conversations monitored in Nelson’s office—one in October 1942, the other in March 1943—revealed that he was encouraging two of the former students whom Oppenheimer had hired to engage in espionage at the Radiation Laboratory, where a new weapon was said to be under development. The FBI also learned from remarks in the bugged conversations that Nelson had met with Oppenheimer several times. Although Nelson complained that Oppenheimer would not divulge any information, FBI officials and, later, some members of army security, held that Oppenheimer might be a Communist or even a Soviet agent.

  1. 1

    Groves’s biographer convincingly argues that without his “organizational and managerial skills, and construction know-how, the project would have taken longer to accomplish, or perhaps even failed.” See Robert S. Norris, Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, The Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man (Steerforth, 2002), p. 187.

  2. 2

    He received letters criticizing his conduct from several scientists, including the physicist Edward U. Condon, himself a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who wrote that perhaps Oppenheimer thought he could “buy immunity for [himself] by turning informer.” Condon added, “You know very well that once these people decide to go into your own dossier and make it public that it will make the ‘revelations’ that have been made so far look pretty tame.” See Barton J. Bernstein, “The Oppenheimer Loyalty-Security Case Reconsidered,” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 42, No. 6 (July 1990), p. 1405.

  3. 3

    Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 395.

  4. 4

    The current war has imposed restrictions on the free movement of scientists, including graduate students, from suspect countries and also on access to certain infectious organisms; it has threatened to restrict publication of certain types of basic biological research. See Daniel J. Kevles, “Biotech’s Big Chill,” Technology Review, July/August 2003, pp. 40–49.

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