J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” has long been a darling of the left, and not because he oversaw the creation of the most devastating weapon ever used. No, for them Oppenheimer is the tortured conscience of the Cold War and the martyred saint of McCarthyism.
Kai Bird, co-author of the excellent biography on which Christopher Nolan’s film “Oppenheimer” is based, has penned a column in The New York Times lamenting the tragic life of the physicist, who lost security clearance in 1953. Oppenheimer was, writes Bird, “destroyed by a political movement characterized by rank know-nothing, anti-intellectual, xenophobic demagogues, the witch-hunters of that season are the direct ancestors of our current political actors of a certain paranoid style.” The main culprit in this ugly tale, according to the author, is Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel, “who taught former President Donald Trump his brash, wholly deranged style of politics.”
There it is. You can almost picture an innocent screenwriter, who had only briefly flirted with communism as a youngster, being accused of sedition by The Donald. The Red Scare, just ask anyone in Hollywood, was the greatest crime ever visited upon mankind. Well, perhaps the second greatest after the 2016 election. “Just recall the former president’s fact-challenged comments on the pandemic or climate change,” Bird reminds us. “This is a worldview proudly scornful of science.”
The problem is, Bird doesn’t defend Oppenheimer’s science — or any science, for that matter. Rather, he defends the physicist’s political outlook, which, like his own, was fueled by utopian wish-casting and counterhistories.
It’s no accident that Bird, the Oppenheimer expert, writes an entire column about this witch hunt without once mentioning that the physicist was likely a communist — or, at best, a communist sympathizer. Bird’s column creates the impression that only hysterical and paranoid Birchers could possibly have questioned Oppenheimer’s integrity.
Even Bird’s book, American Prometheus, tells a different story. On numerous occasions, Oppenheimer admitted to being a “fellow traveler.” Indeed, Oppenheimer lied to government investigators and was often evasive about his numerous close relationships with known communist operatives. His first love, his wife, his brother, and many of his good friends and colleagues were all communists at some point.
And long before anyone ever heard the name “Roy Cohn,” the U.S. government was monitoring Oppenheimer, tapping his phones, tracing his movements and relationships. There was much consternation among U.S. officials about Oppenheimer while he was director of the Los Alamos lab. According to Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Peer de Silva, the project’s chief resident security officer, believed Oppenheimer was a spy back in 1942.
Just because they’re paranoid doesn’t mean you’re innocent. There were plenty of communists operating in the U.S. government around this time. Many elites who came of age in the 1920s and 1930s, including Oppenheimer, had been supportive of the Soviet Union. When the Venona files and Soviet archives were opened, Americans learned that Alger Hiss, Laurence Duggan, Lauchlin Currie, William Remington, and many others defended by the American left had been Soviet agents. Some of the know-nothings knew something.
Indeed, Oppenheimer managed a Manhattan Project that was teeming with Soviet spies. In their book, Sacred Secrets, Jerrold and Leona Schecter produce a Soviet document sent to Stalin’s secret police henchman Beria that they claim points to Oppenheimer as being a facilitator of espionage — much like FDR’s pro-Soviet Treasury official Harry Dexter White, who let a nest of spies work under his nose.
Historians have debated the significance of the document and whether Oppenheimer was a spy. My admittedly cynical view is that many contemporary historians don’t really much care. They see little wrong with the Soviet flirtations of U.S. officials, much less their communist sympathies. Unlike fascists, communists are almost always portrayed as ideological eccentrics driven by naivety or good intentions.
Oppenheimer hagiographies almost always double as critiques of American Cold War policy. Writers, for example, love to contrast Oppenheimer’s alleged moral struggles with the stern and uncompromising nature of his great rival Edward Teller, the “father of the hydrogen bomb” and template for Dr. Strangelove and other fictitious warmongers. Though the more accomplished Teller would be proven right about both the Nazi and Soviet threats, no one is ever making a movie celebrating his life.
At any rate, when the Manhattan Project was concluding, numerous participants began to argue that the U.S. shouldn’t have a monopoly on nuclear technology. Niels Bohr (not a spy) famously wanted atomic science open-sourced. Klaus Fuchs (definitely a spy) wanted the same, but simply handed the USSR atomic secrets instead. In 1995, when it was learned that another Los Alamos scientist, Ted Hall, had sent secrets to the Soviets in the 1940s, he went on television and explained that he “decided to give atomic secrets to the Russians because it seemed to me that it was important that there should be no monopoly…”
How these men conducted business matters, but the rationalization of all of them is perilously close to Oppenheimer’s thinking on the technology he had helped create.
As Bird writes:
Oppenheimer was trying desperately to have that kind of conversation about nuclear weapons. He was trying to warn our generals that these are not battlefield weapons, but weapons of pure terror. But our politicians chose to silence him; the result was that we spent the Cold War engaged in a costly and dangerous arms race.
Would Hall or Oppenheimer have wanted to break the U.S. atomic monopoly or effectively surrender our technology had the Nazis still held power? Of course not. The American left never really viewed the totalitarian Soviet Union with the same moral disdain they did other tyrannies.
Moreover, had it not been for the spies working under Oppenheimer, the United States would likely have spent more of the Cold War in a less costly and precarious position. Even still, the U.S. avoided the kind of large-scale conflict that engulfed the world in the first half of the 20th century. All the spies did was help the Soviets strip hundreds of millions of people of their basic dignity and freedom.
And those who wanted the United States to unilaterally surrender their nuclear advantage were basically arguing for the same results. That is not a position to be admired. It’s a position that sparks even more healthy curiosity about Oppenheimer.