Reds Under The Beds: Was Robert Oppenheimer a Secret Soviet Agent Betraying America?
J. Robert Oppenheimer was the scientific head of the U.S. atomic bomb project during World War II. Oppenheimer was a brilliant physicist whose contributions were essential for the successful development of the atomic bomb. Gen. Leslie Groves, the overall head of what became known as the Manhattan Project, testified that Oppenheimer was an exceptionally hard worker who did a “magnificent job as far as the war effort was concerned.”
Despite his outstanding performance in the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer’s reputation has been tainted by allegations that he knowingly passed secrets of the atomic bomb to Soviet agents. This article will discuss the possible truth of these allegations.
Pavel Sudoplatov’s Testimony
Pavel Sudoplatov was the wartime director of an elite unit of Soviet intelligence named the Administration for Special Tasks. Sudoplatov states that Gregory Kheifetz, an undercover NKVD operative in San Francisco, met Robert Oppenheimer alone for lunch in December 1941. Kheifetz was an experienced Soviet agent who knew better than to approach Oppenheimer with the usual money or threats. Instead, Kheifetz created a common ground of interest and idealism that the two men could discuss and compare.
Kheifetz reported in 1943 that Oppenheimer, whose father was a German-Jewish immigrant, was deeply moved by information that Stalin’s policies had crushed Soviet anti-Semitism. They discussed Stalin’s plans to secure a place for Jews in the Soviet Union by setting up an autonomous Jewish republic in the Crimea after the war against fascism was won.
Sudoplatov states that other Soviet agents were used in developing Robert Oppenheimer as a source of information. Elizabeth Zarubina was a captain in the NKVD whom Kheifetz used to make friends with Oppenheimer’s wife Katherine. Through Katherine, Elizabeth Zarubina and Kheifetz convinced Oppenheimer to refrain from making statements sympathetic to Communist or left-wing groups in order not to call attention to himself. They also persuaded Oppenheimer to agree to hire, promote and share information concerning the atomic bomb program with “antifascists of German origin.”
One such antifascist of German origin was Klaus Fuchs, a German Communist who was forced to seek refuge in England in 1933. Fuchs was instructed to use a code sentence when he met Oppenheimer and to identify himself as the only one on the British team who had escaped from a German prison camp. Fuchs thus gained Oppenheimer’s respect and confidence, and through Oppenheimer was given access to material he had no right to look at. According to Sudoplatov, Fuchs reported secret information concerning the atomic bomb project to the Soviets with Oppenheimer’s full knowledge and approval.
After World War II the Soviets initiated a peace campaign against nuclear armament which was maintained until they exploded their own nuclear bomb in 1949. Disarmament and the inability to impose nuclear blackmail would deprive the United States of its advantage in nuclear weapons. Through Klaus Fuchs, the Soviets also planted the idea that Oppenheimer and other leading scientists should oppose the hydrogen bomb. According to Sudoplatov, Oppenheimer truly believed in his positions and did not know he was being used by the Soviets.
William Borden’s Evidence
William Borden, a graduate of Princeton and Yale Law School, was the executive director of the Joint Congressional Committee of Atomic Energy (JCCAE). Since Oppenheimer consistently gave advice contrary to the programs the JCCAE wished to pursue, Borden developed a deep-seated distrust of Oppenheimer. Borden began considering the possibility that Oppenheimer was a disloyal American.
Borden was given Robert Oppenheimer’s FBI security file shortly before leaving the JCCAE at the end of May 1953. As he studied the file, Borden became convinced that Oppenheimer was a Soviet agent. Borden wrote a letter to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Borden stated in this letter that at the time of Oppenheimer’s first security application in 1942:
He [Oppenheimer] was contributing substantial monthly sums to the Communist Party; his ties with communism had survived the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Soviet attack upon Finland; his wife and younger brother were Communists; he had no close friends except Communists; he had at least one Communist mistress; he belonged only to Communist organizations, apart from professional affiliations; the people whom he recruited into the early wartime Berkeley atomic project were exclusively Communists; he had been instrumental in securing recruits for the Communist Party; and he was in frequent contact with Soviet espionage agents.
In May 1942, he either stopped contributing funds to the Communist Party or else made his contributions through a new channel not yet discovered; in April 1942 his name was formally submitted for security clearance; he himself was aware at the time that his name had been so submitted; and he thereafter repeatedly gave false information to General Groves, the Manhattan District, and the FBI concerning the 1939–April 1942 period.
He was responsible for employing a number of Communists, some of them nontechnical, at wartime Los Alamos; he selected one such individual to write the official Los Alamos history; he was a vigorous supporter of the H-bomb program until August 6, 1945 (Hiroshima), on which day he personally urged each senior individual working in this field to desist; and he was an enthusiastic sponsor of the A-bomb project until the war ended, when he immediately and outspokenly advocated that the Los Alamos Laboratory be disbanded.
He was remarkably instrumental in influencing the military authorities and the Atomic Energy Commission essentially to suspend H-bomb development from mid-1946 through January 31, 1950; he has worked tirelessly, from January 31, 1950, onward, to retard the United States H-bomb program; he has used his potent influence against every postwar effort to expand capacity for producing A-bomb material; he has used his potent influence against every postwar effort directed at obtaining larger supplies of uranium raw material; and he has used his potent influence against every major postwar effort toward atomic power development, including the nuclear-powered submarine and aircraft programs as well as industrial power projects.
From these facts, William Borden concluded that
“more probably than not, J. Robert Oppenheimer was a sufficiently hardened Communist that he either volunteered espionage information to the Soviets or complied with a request for such information…and has since acted under a Soviet directive in influencing United States military, atomic energy, intelligence, and diplomatic policy.”
The AEC Hearings
Robert Oppenheimer eventually had his security clearance suspended and was asked to resign his advisory position with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). When Oppenheimer chose not to resign, the AEC conducted a hearing in Washington, D.C. from April 12, 1954 through May 6, 1954 to determine if Oppenheimer’s security clearance should be revoked.
Oppenheimer and his attorneys worked hard to defend his reputation. On March 5, 1954, they rebutted the AEC’s charges with a 42-page response written in the form of an autobiography.
However, the AEC hearings did not go well for Robert Oppenheimer. Roger Robb, the AEC’s attorney, was effective in undermining Oppenheimer’s credibility. According to Oppenheimer’s sworn testimony, Oppenheimer made up what he called a “cock and bull story” and told it to a security officer as fact. Additionally, Oppenheimer had lied in such a way that he put his friend Haakon Chevalier in the worst possible light. When Robb asked why he did that, Oppenheimer replied “Because I was an idiot.”
Robb then took Oppenheimer through all of the details of his false statements made in a conversation with another security officer, Col. Boris Pash. Robb then asked Oppenheimer:
“Isn’t it a fair statement today, Dr. Oppenheimer, that according to your testimony now you told not one lie to Colonel Pash, but a whole fabrication and tissue of lies? Oppenheimer replied, “Right.”
After Oppenheimer’s admission to several lies, it did not matter how many eminent people the defense produced to vouch for Oppenheimer’s loyalty. Oppenheimer had admitted under oath that he had lied several times, after which Robb kept reminding the defense witnesses at the hearing of these palpable facts. All Robb had to do was repeat Oppenheimer’s testimony and ask the witnesses if such testimony was indicative of an honest, reliable and trustworthy person.
Robb was even able to undermine all of the supportive things Gen. Leslie Groves had to say about Robert Oppenheimer. Robb asked Groves: “General, in the light of your experience with security matters and in the light of your knowledge of the file pertaining to Dr. Oppenheimer, would you clear Dr. Oppenheimer today?” General Groves replied,
“I would not clear Dr. Oppenheimer today if I were a member of the Commission…”
U.S. Army Capt. Peer DeSilva, a member of the Los Alamos security staff, stated that
“J. R. Oppenheimer is playing a key part in the attempts of the Soviet Union to secure, by espionage, highly secret information which is vital to the security of the United States. DeSilva said that Oppenheimer had “allowed a tight clique of known Communists or Communist sympathizers to grow up about him within the project, until they comprise a large proportion of the key personnel in whose hands the success and secrecy of the project is entrusted.”
In DeSilva’s opinion, Robert Oppenheimer must be either incredibly naïve, or extremely clever and disloyal.
The AEC board voted not to reinstate Oppenheimer’s security clearance. The majority report emphasized that they did not doubt Oppenheimer’s loyalty to his country. However, they decided that it would not be clearly consistent with the security interests of the United Sates to reinstate Dr. Oppenheimer’s clearance.
Pavel Sudoplatov’s Credibility Questioned
Pavel Sudoplatov’s testimony has been widely dismissed by scientists, historians and journalists. They state that the American government’s “Venona files” contain no evidence that Oppenheimer was a Communist Party member or that he gave secret information to Soviet agents while on the Manhattan Project. To this Jerrold and Leona Schecter, who interviewed Sudoplatov for the book Special Tasks, reply that atomic espionage went through Santa Fe to Mexico City in order to avoid Washington surveillance. Therefore, the reports from the Manhattan Project were not recorded because they went through channels other than Venona.
Some historians state that it was impossible for Oppenheimer to have deliberately recruited Klaus Fuchs to Los Alamos. However, Aleksandr Feklisov, who was Fuchs’s case officer, wrote that “by the end of 1943 Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the work on the creation of the American atomic bomb, who highly appreciated the theoretical works of Fuchs, asked to include Fuchs as part of the British scientific mission coming to the U.S.A. to assist the project.”
Other critics of Pavel Sudoplatov state that he was an old, incoherent man who made several mistakes in his interviews. For example, Sudoplatov stated that attitudes in Denmark toward Russians were especially warm immediately after World War II because Denmark had been liberated by the Red Army. Obviously, Denmark was liberated by the British and not the Russians.
The American Physical Society also held a press conference in which five experts denounced Sudoplatov’s statements about Oppenheimer “as wildly inaccurate and probably fictitious.” The organization’s 40-member council expressed “profound dismay” at the accusations “made by a man who has characterized himself as a master of deception and deceit.”
However, Jerrold and Leona Schecter found documentary evidence to verify Sudoplatov’s story. As stated in The Venona Secrets:
Sudoplatov had been jailed in 1953 by the Soviet government because of his close association with the then-discredited Lavrenti Beria. In 1968 he was released and tried in succeeding years to get a Communist Party hearing to rehabilitate him and restore him to the good graces of the Soviet leadership. In 1982, for example, he sent an appeal to Yuri Andropov and the Politburo outlining his career and asking for rehabilitation. In this secret document, Sudoplatov boasted that he had “rendered considerable help to our scientists by giving them the latest materials on atom bomb research, obtained from such sources as the famous nuclear physicists R. Oppenheimer, E. Fermi, K. Fuchs, and others.” It would have made no sense for Sudoplatov to lie to Andropov, the former head of the KGB and dictator of the Soviet Union, who would have easily found him out.
Until Sudoplatov’s testimony, even Venona could not prove that Oppenheimer had collaborated with Soviet intelligence; the only conclusion had to have been a Scotch verdict—unproved—or, as the NSA commented, “troubling.” But with Sudoplatov’s information we can say for certain that Oppenheimer did in fact knowingly supply classified information on the atom bomb to the Soviet Union.
The full extent of and final word on Manhattan Project infiltration by Soviet espionage remains hidden until the further opening of Soviet archives. However, the weight of the evidence currently indicates that Robert Oppenheimer knowingly passed secrets of the Manhattan project to Soviet agents.
What was Robert Oppenheimer’s motive for such illegal activity? He was certainly not motivated by money. Oppenheimer was born into a wealthy Jewish family and had received a large inheritance when his father died in 1937.
Jerrold and Leona Schecter summarize Sudoplatov’s explanation of why Robert Oppenheimer and other scientists passed atomic secrets to Soviet agents:
None of the Western scientists who provided atomic secrets to the Soviet Union were controlled agents in the sense that they were paid or had signed recruitment contracts. Their fear that Hitler might produce an atomic bomb first was the initial motivation for sharing their knowledge with Soviet scientists. Later they believed that equality of superpower status for the Soviet Union would contribute to world peace. In dealing with them, Sudplatov realized that the scientists saw themselves as a new breed of superstatesmen whose mandate transcended national boundaries; he and his officers exploited this hubris.
 In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing Before Personnel Security Board, Washington, D.C., pp. 165, 167.
 Sudoplatov, Pavel and Sudoplatov, Anatoli, Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness—A Soviet Spymaster, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994, pp. xiii, 175-176, 188.
 Ibid., pp. 189-190.
 Ibid., pp. 193-194.
 Ibid., pp. 207-208.
 Teller, Edward, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics, Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001, p. 386.
 Monk, Ray, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, New York: Doubleday, 2012, p. 620.
 Teller, Edward, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics, Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001, p. 387; also Major, John, The Oppenheimer Hearing, New York: Stein and Day, 1971, pp. 29-33.
 Ibid., p. 388.
 Monk, Ray, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, New York: Doubleday, 2012, pp. 621-622, 633.
 Bird, Kai and Sherwin, Martin J., American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, New York: Vintage Books, p. 2006, p. 496.
 Teller, Edward, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics, Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001, pp. 375-377.
 In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing Before Personnel Security Board, Washington, D.C., p. 149.
 Monk, Ray, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, New York: Doubleday, 2012, p. 637.
 In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing Before Personnel Security Board, Washington, D.C., p. 171.
 Major, John, The Oppenheimer Hearing, New York: Stein and Day, 1971, p. 55.
 Monk, Ray, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, New York: Doubleday, 2012, pp. 643-644.
 Schecter, Jerrold and Leona, Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History, Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc., 2002, p. 300.
 Sudoplatov, Pavel and Sudoplatov, Anatoli, Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness—A Soviet Spymaster, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994, p. 193, footnote 18.
 Romerstein, Herbert and Breindel, Eric, The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America’s Traitors, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2000, pp. 274-275.
 Ibid., p. 275.
 Schecter, Jerrold and Leona, Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History, Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc., 2002, p. 300.
 Bird, Kai and Sherwin, Martin J., American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, New York: Vintage Books, p. 2006, p. 128.
 Sudoplatov, Pavel and Sudoplatov, Anatoli, Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness—A Soviet Spymaster, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994, p. xiv.