Robert Oppenheimer Was a Communist and a Patriot

Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), American physicist, Director of the Manhattan project. Undated photograph, standing before blackboard, holding pipe. Credit - Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster movie Oppenheimer has revived interest in the physicist popularly known as “the father of the atomic bomb.” Nonetheless, the subject of Nolan’s film remains an enduring enigma. Why did the obviously brilliant Robert Oppenheimer so suddenly and completely collapse under hostile interrogation at the 1954 loyalty hearing? Why, unlike Andrei Sakharov—the Russian nuclear physicist with whom he is often compared—did Oppenheimer, following that hearing, cease speaking out against the weapons of mass destruction that he had helped to create?

“Oppie” was a man of many secrets—secrets of state, and even secrets of the heart. But I believe the answer to the enigma of Oppenheimer is a secret he defiantly kept throughout his life, one that he took to the grave.

Oppenheimer was a much more complex, conflicted—and important—figure than Nolan’s movie portrays.

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Historians are always happy when their work leads to a better understanding of their subject. Even more gratifying is when that work then inspires new discoveries.

A few weeks after my book on Oppenheimer was published, in fall 2002, an archivist at the Library of Congress received the following letter:

Gregg Herken’s book Brotherhood of the Bomb has reopened the question of whether [Robert] Oppenheimer was ever a member of the Communist Party. We are in possession of some materials that bears on this issue, and—for whatever it is worth—thought we should make it available to responsible historians.

The letter was from the children of Gordon Griffiths, and the “materials” it referenced was their father’s unpublished memoir: “Venturing Outside the Ivory Tower: The Political Autobiography of a College Professor.”

Gordon Griffiths, who died in 2001, had been a graduate student at Berkeley during 1936–42, when he served as liaison between the Communist Party of Alameda County and a secret “closed unit” of the party’s professional section on the University of California campus.

Before the Griffiths’s memoir surfaced, there had long been an unsettled question about Robert Oppenheimer’s prewar political views. As I note in my book, Haakon Chevalier, a professor of French literature at Berkeley and Oppenheimer’s close friend, claimed that he and “Oppie” had belonged to a “closed unit” of the Communist Party in Berkeley, from late 1937 to early 1942. The party’s closed units were not espionage “cells.” Rather, their members met every couple of weeks to discuss recent international events; on occasion, they were briefed by a senior party official on the latest shifts in Communist dogma. Chevalier claimed that he, Oppenheimer, and Arthur Brodeur—a professor of Scandinavian literature at the university—all belonged to the Berkeley faculty unit.

Chevalier, who died in 1985, provided details about the Berkeley unit in an unfinished memoir he left with his daughter in France. In it, Haakon claimed that the faculty group produced and distributed two “Reports to Our Colleagues” in early 1940. Both mirrored the “Party line” at the time. Each was signed “College Faculties Committee, Communist Party of California.” Chevalier wrote that the idea for the reports had come from Oppenheimer, who helped to write them and even chose literary references for the epigrams.

Haakon was not the only one in the Chevalier household to write about Oppenheimer and the closed unit. In her own unpublished memoir, Barbara Lansburgh—Haakon’s wife when the couple lived in Berkeley—recalled it was shortly after Oppenheimer had read Marx’s Das Kapital during a cross-country train trip [in summer 1936] that “he and Haakon joined a secret unit of the Communist Party.”

Likewise, my interview in early 2000 with physicist Philip Morrison provided additional clues about the closed unit. Morrison had been Oppenheimer’s graduate student at Berkeley in the late 1930s. He remembered attending animated political discussions at Chevalier’s house; among others present were Oppenheimer and Arthur Brodeur. Morrison also recalled arranging the publication and distribution of a Young Communist League pamphlet at Berkeley’s 1939 Charter Day ceremony. The YCL broadside urged the United States to join with other nations—including “Soviet Russia, which has shown itself to be the most consistent and determined force for peace in the world”—in confronting fascism. Although Morrison no longer had a copy of the pamphlet, he believed Oppenheimer was its principal author.

Subsequently, I discovered the faculty unit’s two “reports,” and Morrison’s YCL broadside, at the university’s Bancroft Library. But Oppenheimer vehemently—and repeatedly—denied ever being a member of the party or “a Communist Party unit.” Sometimes his denials were under oath.

Who was telling the truth: Robert Oppenheimer or the Chevaliers? If the latter, Oppenheimer had perjured himself—lying not only on the army security questionnaire he filled out in 1943 but to FBI agents in 1946, and again to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission at the 1954 hearing.

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When I was putting the finishing touches on Brotherhood of the Bomb in 2001, I remained uncertain who was right about the closed unit, the Chevaliers or Oppenheimer. Accordingly, I treated the question a bit like Rashomon—the truth was a matter of perspective. For Oppenheimer, I wrote that the Berkeley faculty unit was simply “an innocent and rather naive political coffee klatch.”

Gordon Griffiths’s unpublished memoir provided the final piece of evidence—what I came to regard as the “smoking gun”—proving the existence of Berkeley’s closed unit. As I discovered, Griffiths had replaced Philip Morrison as the party’s liaison to the faculty unit in 1940, when Morrison took a teaching job across the Bay. The Griffiths memoir also confirmed that the closed unit’s activities continued into at least mid-1941, and that the so-called Kenilworth Court incident did indeed happen, despite Oppenheimer’s denials:

I remember especially the meeting that took place shortly after the German invasion of Russia on 22 June 1941. Stalin had delivered a radio address calling upon the Soviet people to resist. It was an eloquent speech, and “Oppie” had brought the text to our meeting to read out loud. He was so moved that his eyes filled with tears.

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If—as now seems evident—Oppenheimer was indeed a secret or “closet” communist, the question needs to be asked: So what? Chevalier himself said that the unit voluntarily disbanded in early 1942, shortly after America entered the war. Haakon likewise acknowledged that Oppenheimer came to him in 1946 to confess his complete disillusionment with the communist cause. And, as Griffiths wrote of the closed unit:

There was never any discussion of the exciting developments in theoretical Physics, classified or otherwise, let alone any suggestion of passing any information to the Russians. In short, there was nothing subversive or treasonable about our activity.

Ironically, the best evidence that Oppenheimer never spied for the Russians comes from Soviet intelligence sources. KGB documents that surfaced following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in late 1991 reveal repeated, failed efforts to recruit Oppie as a spy. Aware that Oppenheimer was a “secret member of the fellow countryman org”—the Russians’ term for the American Communist Party—Kremlin agents were surprised when Oppie did not respond to their overtures.

But Oppenheimer’s membership in the closed unit was a secret he felt compelled to hide from the army, the FBI, and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The “cock-and-bull story” Oppenheimer admitted telling the counterintelligence officer during the war had been to deflect attention from the fact that he had been asked to pass atomic secrets to the Russians. Although he had rejected Chevalier’s entreaty, Oppenheimer feared that further investigation might reveal a connection and a past he desperately wanted to keep hidden. Even after the statute of limitations made it impossible for Oppenheimer to be prosecuted for the lie he told in 1943, the possibility that his secret party membership would come to light haunted him the rest of his days.

The Oppenheimer story is proof that the Cold War and its Red Scare left an indelible mark on this country, one whose consequences are still being felt. The ghost of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover—who equated communism with treason—haunts us still.

Anticipating the reaction to his memoir, Griffiths wrote:

[Oppenheimer’s] defenders have always stoutly denied that he was ever actually a member of the Communist Party.…A great deal of energy was spent by well-intentioned liberals who felt that this was the only way to defend his case. Perhaps at the time—at the height of the McCarthyite period—it was.…But the time has come to set the record straight, and to put the question as it should have been put: not whether he had or had not been a member of the Communist Party, but whether such membership should, in itself, constitute an impediment to his service in a position of trust.

The important point, Griffiths emphasized, was that while Robert Oppenheimer had been a secret communist, he was also, and always, a loyal American. As such, Oppenheimer was someone that FBI director Hoover and Senator Joe McCarthy categorically insisted could not exist: an American communist who was likewise a patriot.

Additional information, including portions of the Griffiths memoir and other documents cited here, may be found on my book’s website.

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