The unknown life of the "father" of the nuclear bomb

2024-03-14 22:14:00, Blog Gregg Herken

The unknown life of the "father" of the nuclear bomb

The successful film of director Christopher Nolan, "Oppenheimer", has revived interest in the physicist widely known as the "father of the nuclear bomb". However, the subject of Nolan's film still remains an enigma in some respects.

For example, why did Robert Oppenheimer, certainly extraordinary, break down so suddenly during a long hearing before Congress in 1954? Why, unlike Andrei Sakarov – the Russian nuclear physicist with whom he is often compared – did Oppenheimer after that session speak out against the weapons of mass destruction he had helped to create?

"Opi" as he was called by friends and acquaintances, was a man with many secrets. State secrets, but also of private life. But I believe that the answer to Oppenheimer's riddle is a secret that he kept hidden throughout his life. A secret he took with him to the grave. Oppenheimer was a much more complex, conflicted and important figure than is portrayed in Nolan's film.

Historians are always happy when their work leads to a better understanding of their subject. It is even more enjoyable when this work then inspires new discoveries. A few weeks after my book on Oppenheimer was published in the fall of 2002, a Library of Congress archivist received the letter, which read, among other things: Greg Herken's book “Brotherhood of the Bomb,” has reopened the question of whether Oppenheimer was ever a member of Communist Party. We have some materials related to this issue, which we thought we would make available to interested historians."

The letter came from Gordon Grifts' children, and the "materials" referred to were their father's unpublished memoirs: "Dangerous Adventures Outside the Ivory Tower: The Political Autobiography of a College Professor." Gordon Griffiths, who died in 2001, was a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley from 1936 to 1942, when he served as a liaison between the Communist Party of Alameda County and a secret cell of the party's campus section.

The unknown life of the "father" of the nuclear bomb

Before Griffith's memoirs were publicly discussed, there were still many questions about Robert Oppenheimer's political views before World War II. As I point out in my book, Hakon Chevalie, a professor of French literature at Berkeley and Oppenheimer's close friend, claimed that he and "Opi" belonged to a "secret cell" of the Communist Party at the university from late 1937 to at the beginning of 1942.

These types of cells did not engage in espionage. Instead, their members met every two weeks to discuss the latest international events. On occasion, they were briefed by a senior party official on the latest changes in communist dogma. Chevalie recalls that he, Oppenheimer and Artur Brodo – a professor of Scandinavian literature at the university – belonged to the secret cell.

Chevalie, who died in 1985, gave details about this cell in a book of unfinished memoirs he left to his daughter in France. In it, Hakon claims that the faculty communist group produced and distributed two "Reports to our Colleagues" in early 1940.

Both reflected the "party line" at the time. Each was written on behalf of the "University Faculty Committee, Communist Party of California." Chevalie wrote that the idea for those reports was Oppenheimer's, who helped write them, and even chose literary references for the epigrams.

But Hakon was not the only one in the Chevalie family to write about Oppenheimer and the secret cell. In her unpublished memoirs, Barbara Lensburg—Hakon's wife when the couple lived in Berkeley—recalled that shortly after Oppenheimer had read Marx's Capital during a train ride in the summer of 1936, he and Hakon joined a cell secrets of the Communist Party.

The unknown life of the "father" of the nuclear bomb

Likewise, my interview in early 2000 with physicist Philip Morrison provided me with additional information on this cell. Morison had been a student of Oppenheimer at Berkeley in the late 1930s. He recalled taking part in heated political discussions at Chevalie's home.

Among those present were Oppenheimer and Artur Brodo. Morrison also recalled organizing the publication and distribution of a New Communist League pamphlet at the university's Charter Day ceremony in 1939. The League urged the United States to join other nations—including “Soviet Russia, which has shown itself to be the most stable and determined force for peace in the world" - in the face of fascism.

Although Morison no longer had a copy of the pamphlet, he believed Oppenheimer to be its primary author. Then, in the university library, I discovered the two "reports" of the faculty cell and Morison's memorandum. And yet Oppenheimer vehemently and repeatedly denied ever having been a member of the Communist Party or any of its units.

Sometimes his denials were under oath. So who was telling the truth, Oppenheimer or Chevalie? If it's the latter, then Oppenheimer lied, faking it not only during the military's security questionnaire in 1943, but also to FBI agents in 1946, and again to the US Atomic Energy Commission— in the 1954 hearing.

When I was putting the finishing touches on my book in 2001, I was unsure who was right on the matter. Therefore, I approached the question a bit like Rashomon: truth was a matter of perspective. Of Oppenheimer, I wrote that the KP cell at Berkeley was simply "an innocent and naïve political discussion club."

The unpublished memoirs of Gordon Griffiths provided me with the final piece of evidence that proved the existence of the secret Berkeley cell. As I discovered, Griffiths replaced Philip Morrison as the party's liaison to the faculty unit in 1940 when the latter took up work elsewhere.

The unknown life of the "father" of the nuclear bomb

Likewise, Griffiths' memoirs confirmed that the activities of the secret cell continued at least until mid-1941, and that the so-called Kenilworth incident actually took place, despite Oppenheimer's denials: "I remember the meeting that took place after the German invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941. Stalin had given a radio address, calling on the Soviet people to resist. It was an eloquent speech and 'Opi' had brought the text of that speech to our meeting to read aloud. He was so moved that his eyes filled with tears."

So if Oppenheimer was really a secret communist, the question must be asked: And then what? Chevalie himself says that the unit voluntarily disbanded in early 1942, shortly after America entered the war. Hakon, meanwhile, admitted that Oppenheimer went to see him at home in 1946 to confess his utter disillusionment with the cause of communism.

But Chevalie points out that at those meetings there was never any discussion of exciting developments in theoretical physics, of classified information, nor was there any suggestion of passing any information to the Russians. So there was nothing subversive or treasonous in their activity.

Ironically, the strongest evidence that Oppenheimer never spied for the Russians comes from Soviet intelligence sources. KGB documents released after the collapse of the USSR in late 1991 speak of several repeated and failed attempts to recruit Op as a spy, and even Kremlin agents were surprised by this refusal.

But Oppenheimer's membership in that cell was a secret he felt compelled to keep from the military, the FBI and the US Atomic Energy Commission. The "cock and bull story" he admitted to the counterintelligence officer during the war was intended to deflect attention from the fact that he had been asked by the Russians to pass on nuclear bomb secrets.

Although he had rejected Chevalie's suggestion, Oppenheimer believed that further investigation might reveal a connection and a past that he desperately wanted to keep secret. Although the expiration of the statute of limitations made it impossible for Oppenheimer to be tried for the lie he told in 1943, the possibility that his secret membership in the Communist Party would come to light haunted him throughout his life.

Oppenheimer's story is proof that the Cold War and the Fear of the Reds left an indelible mark on this country, the consequences of which are still felt today. The ghost of legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who equated communism with national treason, still haunts us. 

*Gregg Herken, professor of history at the University of California, USA.

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