Were the Atomic Scientists Spies?

Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness
A Soviet Spymaster

by Pavel Sudoplatov, and Anatoli Sudoplatov, with L. Jerrold, and Leona P. Schecter, foreword by Robert Conquest
Little, Brown, 509 pp., $24.95

When wars end the belligerents begin to speak and write about what happened—indeed, their willingness to tell the truth is one sign that the fighting is really over. Truth-telling about the cold war took a new turn following the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and there has been no pause since in the flood of memoirs, documents, and declassified files published or simply opened to the public in Moscow and other capitals of onetime members of the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet murder of thousands of Polish army officers at the Katyn Forest in 1940, Stalin’s agreement to let Kim Il Sung’s armies invade South Korea in 1950, the crimes and triumphs of the KGB and other Soviet intelligence organizations, and a long list of other revelations, large and small, eventually will make it possible for scholars to write a true history of the cold war.

But this relentless exposure of the past is not merely useful for tidying up the record of what happened; it also helps to restore peace by feeding the public hunger for truth after decades of accusation, lies, and secrecy. “Conjecture abounds when the truth is hushed up for political reasons,” said the Soviet physicist and bomb-builder Yuli Khariton in a lecture in Moscow a year ago. “If there is no truth today, there will be myths tomorrow.”1 But if truth heals, it also hurts, as the Poles and the Germans have discovered from secret files proving that all sorts of people—some once considered heroes of principled resistance—in fact were reporting to the police, betraying friends and allies.2

A painful disclosure of the kind already familiar in Europe was visited on Americans by Time magazine on Monday, April 18, with an eight-page excerpt from a new book claiming that leading scientists involved in the Manhattan Project to invent atomic bombs—J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, and the Danish physicist Niels Bohr—had served as spies for the Soviet Union during the Second World War. That evening a twenty-minute report on the Mac-Neil/Lehrer News Hour repeated the sensational claims without qualification or reservation and presented filmed interviews with the books’ four “authors” along with archival footage of Oppenheimer and other atomic scientists, Stalin and his Politburo, the Red Army goosestepping through Red Square, and similar images of the red menace of yesteryear. The principal “author” or “source” of these charges—we shall consider below which if either should apply—was also on camera: a shuffling, stoop-shouldered, rambling former officer of Soviet intelligence3 named Pavel Sudoplatov, whose “special assignments” for Stalin and Lavrenti Beria included the assassination of Leon Trotsky in addition allegedly to managing the flow of intelligence concerning the Soviet scientific program to invent atomic bombs during and immediately after the war.

That Oppenheimer was a Soviet spy was not the most shocking of Sudoplatov’s claims. A substantial literature has argued and re-argued similar charges brought in the early 1950s which prompted a formal hearing by the Atomic Energy Commission and…

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