Thursday, May 5, 2016

Robert Oppenheimer, Soviet Agent: a Physicist Goes Rogue

During WW2, development of an atomic bomb was a high priority. If the United States hadn’t achieved this capability, the Japanese would have killed millions of Americans.

So urgent was the need for this technology that military leaders, like General Leslie Groves, were willing to take security risks in order to accomplish this task. He hired a number of physicists and technological experts who had known Soviet sympathies.

By May 1942, when a physicist named Robert Oppenheimer was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project - originally named the ‘Manhattan District’ - the Soviet Union had switched sides in the middle of WW2, and was now ostensibly an ally of the United States.

Perhaps this made General Groves feel better about hiring Oppenheimer. While the war, and the alliance with the Soviets, lasted, it seemed like a reasonable risk.

But quickly after the war’s end, the USSR declared itself to be an enemy of the United States, and allowing the Soviets to gain nuclear technology would be dangerous indeed. Puzzlingly, Oppenheimer was allowed to remain in government projects related to nuclear weaponry.

More than merely having communist sympathies, Oppenheimer was a member of the communist party, dedicated to espionage. He was not the only atomic scientist working for Moscow. Klaus Fuchs and David Greenglass were among his fellow Soviet agents.

Oppenheimer was one of the more dangerous Soviet spies, because he worked his way up into administrative decision-making, and became he held his post longer before being eventually discovered and removed, as historian Stan Evans writes:

Foremost among such cases was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the famous nuclear scientist who played a leading role in the atom project of World War II. This was by all odds the most significant security problem in Cold War records, having its genesis in the days of FDR, blossoming into a full-fledged scandal under Truman, then finally coming to public view in the Eisenhower era.

Oppenheimer’s communist links were strong. The American Communist Party (CPUSA) had declared that it sought the “violent” overthrow of the United States, its people, and its government. This was no mere political party. It was a terrorist organization.

Oppenheimer was part of an espionage network throughout the United States. His task was to see that the Soviets obtained military and scientific secrets about nuclear weapons.

The earliest known mention of Oppenheimer in the FBI reports is a memo from March 28, 1941, which says he had the previous year attended a meeting in the home of Haakon Chevalier, an identified (later self-admitted) Red, along with Communist leaders Isaac Folkoff and William Schneiderman. It was apparently this information, obtained at the era of the Hitler-Stalin pact, that prompted the FBI to put Oppenheimer on its “custodial detention” list of people to be picked up by the Bureau if a national emergency developed. A memo to this effect was issued May 21, 1941, describing his “national tendency” as “Communist.”

In the early 1950s, Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked, effectively ending his career. After his death, documents were discovered which indicated that Oppenheimer’s sympathies had clouded his judgment, and that he had been, in some instances, more of a ‘dupe’ than a spy. He had enabled others to relay information to Moscow, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes knowing that these individuals had connections to Soviet intelligence agencies.

Despite these possibly moderating factors, Oppenheimer had joined forces with an organization which envisioned the deaths of many Americans in violent revolution. He was clearly aware that in some instances, his actions led directly to the Soviet acquisition of American nuclear technology.

The fact that the USSR eventually obtained atomic weaponry emboldened the imperialistic ambitions of the international communist conspiracy, and led to wars in Korea and Vietnam.

It is possible that if the USSR had not obtained nuclear capabilities, then the wars in Korea and Vietnam would not have taken place. Oppenheimer bears some responsibility for the deaths of American soldiers in those two wars.