Robert Oppenheimer

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Robert Oppenheimer

Julius Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904 – February 18, 1967) was born in New York City. He was the son of Ella Freedman and Julius Oppenheimer. He married Katherine Puening Harrison.[1] It was said of Oppenheimer that he was for some years in the position to compromise more vital and detailed information affecting the national defense and security than any other individual in the United States.[2]

Manhattan Project

Concerns Over Oppenheimer's Integrity

On April 28, 1942, Oppenheimer filled out a personal security questionnaire. In about July that year Dr. Arthur Compton informed him that there was a question with regard to his security clearance because he had a leftwing background. However Compton assured him that this would not interfere with his work on the atomic bomb program.

In March 1943, although his security clearance had not yet been approved, Oppenheimer was appointed by Compton and Major General Leslie Groves to be director of the laboratory in Los Alamos. On July 15, 1943, Groves, ignoring the advice of security officers who had learned that Oppenheimer was a potential security risk, directed that clearance for Oppenheimer be issued without delay. Although he was granted a security clearance by Groves, security personnel did not lose their interst in him. They became especially anxious when, in the summer of 1943, Oppenheimer paid an overnight visit to his mistress and former fiancee who was known to be a member of the Communist Party. Following this incident, Oppenheimer was to be interviewed many times by security officers and the FBI. This investigation was closed on August 6, 1947, when a security clearance was authorized for Oppenheimer.[3]

In the conclusion of the Atomic Energy Commission's personnel security board Hearing of the Oppenheimer case, they stated:

"We have regretfully concluded that Dr. Oppenheimer has been less than candid in several instances in his testimony before this board."[4]

Soviet and Communist Involvement

On Nov. 7, 1953, in a letter from William Borden, former executive director of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy wrote to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, he stated:

"The purpose of this letter is to state my own exhaustively considered opinion, based upon years of study, of the available classified evidence, that more probably than not J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union...
...The central problem is not whether J. Robert Oppenheimer was ever a Communist; for the existing evidence makes abundantly clear that he was. Even an Atomic Energy Commission analysis prepared in early 1947 reflects that conclusion, although some of the most significant derogatory data had yet to become available. The central problem is assessing the degree of likelihood that he in fact did what a communist in his circumstances, at Berkley, would logically have done during the crucial 1939-1942 period - that is, whether he became an actual espionage and policy instrument of the Soviets. Thus, as to this central problem, my opinion is that, more probably than not, the worst is in fact the truth."

Borden went on to list the following grounds on which he made his assertion:

  1. The evidence indicating that as of April 1942:
      1. He was contributing substantial monthly sums to the Communist Party
      2. His ties with communism had survived the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Soviet attack upon Finland
      3. His wife and younger brother were Communists
      4. He had no close friends except Communists
      5. He had at least one Communist mistress
      6. He belonged only to Communist organizations, apart from professional affiliations
      7. The people whom he recruited into the early wartime Berkeley atomic project were exclusively communists
      8. He had been instrumental in securing recruits for the Communist Party
      9. He was in frequent contact with Soviet espionage agents
  2. The evidence indcating that:
      1. In May 1942, he either stopped contributing to the Communist Party or else made his contributions through a new channel not yet discovered
      2. In April 1942 his name was formally submitted for security clearance
      3. He himself was aware at the itme that his name had been so submitted; and
      4. He thereafter repeatedly gave false information to General Groves, the Manhattan District, and the FBI concerning the 1939 - April 1942 period
  3. The evidence indicating that:
      1. He was responsible for employing a number of Communists, some of them nontechnical, at war time Los Alamos
      2. He selected one such individual to write the official Los Alamos history
      3. 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
      4. He was an enthusiastic sponsor of the A-bomb program until the war ended, when he immediately and outspokenly advocated that the Los Alamos Laboratory be disbanded
  4. The evidence indicating that:
      1. He was remarkably instrumental in influencing the military authorities and the Atomic Energy Commission essentially to suspend H-bomb development from mid-1946 through Jan. 31, 1950
      2. He has worked tirelessly, from Jan. 31, 1950, onward,to retard the United States H-bomb program
      3. He has used his potent influence against every postwar effort directed at obtaining larger supplies of uranium raw material; and
      4. He has used his potent influence against every major postwar effort toward atomic power development, including the nuclear-power submarine and aircraft programs as well as industrial power projects.

Borden summarized the above points with 3 brief conclusions:

  1. Between 1929 and mid-1942, 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. (This includes the possibility that when he singled out the weapons aspect of atomic development as his personal specialty, he was acting under Soviet instructions.)
  2. More probably than not, he has since been functioning as an espionage agent.
  3. More probably than not, he has since acted under a Soviet directive in influencing United State military, atomic energy, intelligence and diplomatic policy.

These conclusions correlate with the information furnished by Klaus Fuchs which indicated that the Soviets had acquired an agent in Berkeley who informed them about electromagnetic separation research during 1942 or earlier.[5]

Accused Soviet source

According to Pavel Sudaplatov, former wartime director of the Administration for Special Tasks, an elite unit of the Soviet intelligence service, Leo Szilard, Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, knowingly supplied information to Soviet contacts during their work on the Manhattan Project.


Sudaplatov claimed in his 1994 book "Special Tasks, Memoirs of an unwanted witness-A soviet Spymaster"[6].

The most vital information for developing the first Soviet atomic bomb came from scientists engaged in the Manhattan Project to build the American atomic bomb - Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard.
Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard, and Szilard's secretary were often quoted in the NKVD files from 1942 to 1945 as sources for information on the development of the first American atomic bomb. It is in the record that on several occasions they agreed to share information on nuclear weapons with Soviet scientists. At first they were motivated by fear of Hitler; they believed that the Germans might produce the first atomic bomb. Then the Danish physicist Niels Bohr helped strengthen their own inclinations to share nuclear secrets with the world academic community. By sharing their knowledge with the Soviet Union, the chance of beating the Germans to the bomb would be increased.
As early as 1940, a commission of Soviet scientists, upon hearing rumors of a superweapon being built in the West, investigated the possibility of creating an atomic bomb from uranium, but concluded that such a weapon was a theoretical, not a practical, possibility. The same scientific commission recommended that the government instruct intelligence services to monitor Western scientific publications ...
{p. 192} We were able to take advantage of the network of colleagues that Gamow had established. Using implied threats against Gamow's relatives in Russia, Elizabeth Zarubina pressured him into cooperating with us. In exchange for safety and material support for his relatives, Gamow provided the names of left-wing scientists who might be recruited to supply secret information. ...
Another route was from the mole who worked with Fermi and Pontecorvo. The mole in Tennessee was connected with the illegal station at the Santa Fe drugstore, from which material was sent by courier to Mexico. The unidentified young moles, along with the Los Alamos mole, were junior scientists or administrators who copied vital documents to which they were allowed access by Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Szilard, who were knowingly part of the scheme.
{p. 194} We received reports on the progress of the Manhattan Project from Oppenheimer and his friends in oral form, through comments and asides, and from documents transferred through clandestine methods with their full knowledge that the information they were sharing would be passed on. In all, there were five classified reports made available by Oppenheimer describing the progress of work on the atomic bomb.
{p. 195} Not only were we informed of technical developments in the atomic program, but we heard in detail the human conflicts and rivalries among the members of the team at Los Alamos. A constant theme was tension with General Groves, director of the project. We were told of Groves's conflicts with Szilard. Groves was outraged by Szilard's iconoclastic style and his refusal to accept the strictures of military discipline. The "baiting of brass hats" was Szilard's self-professed hobby. Groves believed that Szilard was a security risk and tried to prevent him from working on the Manhattan Project despite Szilard's seminal contribution to the development of the first atomic chain reaction with Fermi. ...
We knew that Oppenheimer would remain an influential person in America after the war and therefore our relations with him should not take the form of running a controlled agent. We understood that he and other members of the scientific community were best approached as friends, not as agents. Since Oppenheimer, Bohr, and Fermi were fierce opponents of violence, they would seek to prevent a nuclear war, creating a balance of power through sharing the secrets of atomic energy. This would be a crucial factor in establishing the new world order after the war, and we took advantage of this...
After our reactor was put into operation in 1946, Beria issued orders to stop all contacts with our American sources in the Manhattan Project; the FBI was getting close to uncovering some of our agents. Beria said we should think how to use Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard, and others around them in the peace campaign against nuclear{p. 208} armament. Disarmament and the inability to impose nuclear blackmail would deprive the United States of its advantage. We began a worldwide political campaign against nuclear superiority, which kept up until we exploded our own nuclear bomb, in 1949. Our goal was to preempt American power politically before the Soviet Union had its own bomb. Beria warned us not to compromise Western scientists, but to use their political influence.
Through Fuchs we planted the idea that Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Szilard oppose the hydrogen bomb. They truly believed in their positions and did not know they were being used. They started as antifascists, and became political advocates of the Soviet Union.

Atomic Energy Commission Hearing

On Dec. 23, 1953, Major General K. D. Nichols, General Manager of the Atomic Energy Commission informed Oppenheimer that his security clearances were summarily suspended until such time as a final determination should be made regarding him. Oppenheimer subsequently requested a hearing before the AEC's personnel security board. On March 4, 1954, Oppenheimer sent a lengthy response to Nichols. The hearing was held from April 12 through May 6, 1954. The chairman of the board was Dr. Gordon Gray. Its members were Dr. Ward V. Evans and Thomas A. Morgan. The board heard forty witnesses (including Oppenheimer), all of whom testified under oath. On May 27, 1954, the personnel security board made known its "specific findings" as to the allegations contained in Nichols 23 Dec. 1953 letter. What follows is a summary of the major findings of the board:[7]

Findings pertinent to Robert Oppenheimer:

  1. That Oppenheimer was listed as a sponsor of Friends of the Chinese People, cited by HCUA as a Communist-front.
  2. That his name was included on a letterhead of the American Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom as a member of its National Executive Committee. In 1942 HCUA cited the Committee as being a Communist-front and in 1943 the House Committee on Appropriations found that the Committee was subversive and un-American.
  3. That in 1938 Oppenheimer was a member of the Western Council of the Consumers Union which was cited in 1944 by HCUA as being a Communist-front, headed by Communist Arthur Kallet.
  4. That in 1943, Oppenheimer had stated that he himself was not a Communist, but that he had probably belonged to every Communist-front organization on the West coast of the United States. Oppenheimer also stated that he thought he would have been considered at one time a fellow-traveler.
  5. That in 1943 and previously, Oppenheimer was intimately associated with Dr. Jean Tatlock, a member of the Communist Party in San Francisco. Oppenheimer had confirmed to the board that this was the case. Tatlock was Oppenheimer's ex-fiancee and mistress.
  6. That he had been associated with members and officials of the Communist Party, including Isaac Folkoff, Steve Nelson, Rudy Lambert, Kenneth May and Thomas Addis. He testified that he was aware that most of these were either Communist Party functionaries, or close to that.
  7. That Oppenheimer was a subscriber to the Daily People's World, a West coast Communist newspaper in 1941 and 1942.
  8. That in 1950 he stated to an FBI agent that he had in the past made contributions to Communist-front organizations.
  9. That it was probable that Oppenheimer attended a house-warming party at the home of Kenneth and Ruth May on Sept. 20, 1941, for which there was an admission charge for the benefit of The Peoples World, and that at this party he was in the company of Joseph W. Weinberg and Clarence Hiskey who were alleged members of the Communist Party and thought to have been engaged in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.
  10. That he had attended a meeting at the home of his brother, Frank Oppenheimer on Jan. 1, 1946, with David Adelson and Paul Pinsky, both of whom were members of the Communist Party. In was further reported that he had analyzed some material which Pinsky hoped to take up with the Legislative Convention in Sacramento, California.

Findings pertinent to friends and family of Robert Oppenheimer:

  1. That his wife, Communist Party Member, Katherine Puening Oppenheimer was formerly the wife of Joe Dallet, a member of the Communist Party, who was killed in Spain in 1937 fighting for the Spanish Republican Army.
  2. That his brother, Frank Oppenheimer became a member of the Communist party in 1936 and served as party organizer and educational directer of the professional section in Los Angeles County.
  3. That his brother's wife, Jackie Oppenheimer was a member of the Communist Party and assisted in the organization of the East Bay branch of the California Labor School.
  4. That Frank and Jackie Oppenheimer were invited to an informal reception at the Russian Consulate, and that this invitation was extended by the American-Russian Institute of San Francisco and was for the purpose of introducing famous American scientists to Russian scientist who were delegates to the UN Conference on International Organization being held at San Francisco at the time. Frank Oppenheimer accepted this invitation.
  5. That Frank Oppenheimer had agreed to give a 6-week course on The Social Implications of Modern Scientific Development at the California Labor School, beginning May 9, 1946.

The board concluded that the material and evidence presented to them left reasonable doubts with respect to Oppenheimer. They stated,

"We, therefore, do not recommend reinstatement of clearance."

Their conclusion was based on four brief points,

  • We find that Dr. Oppenheimer's continuing conduct and associations have reflected a serious disregard for the requirement of the security system.
  • We have found a susceptibility to influence which could have serious implications for the security interests of this country.
  • We find his conduct in the hydrogen-bomb program sufficiently disturbing to raise a doubt as to whether his future participation, if characterized by the same attitudes in a Government program relating to the national defense, would be clearly consistent with the best interests of security.
  • We have regretfully concluded that Dr. Oppenheimer has been less than candid in several instances in his testimony before this board.[4]

On June 12, 1954, Nichols observed,

"The record contains no direct evidence that Dr. Oppenheimer gave secrets to a foreign nation or that he is disloyal to the United States. However the record does contain substantial evidence of Dr. Oppenheimer's association with Communists, Communist functionaries, and Communists who did engage in espionage. He was not a mere 'parlour pink' or student of Communism as a result of immaturity and intellectual curiosity, but was deeply and consciously involved with hardened and militant Communists at a time when he was a man of mature judgment."[4]

Supporters of Robert Oppenheimer

Even before the AEC had rejected Oppenheimer's reinstatement for security clearance, he had become a martyr in the yes of the liberal-leftist establishment. He was portrayed in novels and the press media as a victim of McCarthyism, a victim of the Red-baiters, a victim of a national mania for security, and a persecuted repentant sinner. The Alsop brothers, Stewart and Joseph pleaded his case in We Accuse: The Story of the Miscarriage of American Justice in the Case of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Charles P. Curtis did the same in his The Oppenheimer Case: The Trial of a Security System. In Europe, theater audiences were treated to a completely dishonest presentation in a drama by a West German playwright titled In the matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Support from the Ford Foundation

In 1955 the Ford Foundation's Fund for the Republic financed an hour-long interview between the Columbia Broadcasting System's Edward R. Murrow and Robert Oppenheimer. Hundreds of reproductions of the interview were made for free distribution to collegiate and civic groups. The interview was a deliberately contrived whitewash of Oppenheimer, who emerged from the propaganda effort as a much-maligned and abused innocent victim of vicious and narrow-minded reactionaries.

Federation of American Scientists

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) was founded in 1945 by scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bombs.

Hans Bethe, was one of the founders of FAS.[8] Leo Szilard, Philip Morrison, Richard L. Meier and Harold Urey[9] were others.

FAS was founded from the merger of thirteen smaller groups. It started with a membership of more than 2,000 scientists and an advisory panel that included Robert Oppenheimer, Harold Urey, Harlow Shapley, Smyth, Leo Szilard and Edward U. Condon.[10]

Attempt to Reinstate Oppenheimer

In 1961, the ultra-leftist Federation of American Scientists petitioned the Atomic Energy Commission to review Oppenheimer's security revocation. The pressure they applied appears to have had the intended effect with President John F. Kennedy inviting Oppenheimer to an April 29, 1962 White House dinner which was held in honor of forty-nine Nobel Prize winners.

In March 1963, the ten-member General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission unanimously recommended that the AEC present its $50,000 Fermi Award for 1963 to Oppenheimer. The five Atomic Energy Commissioners unanimously accepted the recommendation, and subsequently submitted the nomination to the White House. On the day of his death, President John F. Kennedy announced hi plans to make a personal presentation of the award to Oppenheimer. He had signed the award prior to this statement. On Dec. 2, 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Oppenheimer with a certificate, a gold medal and the $50,000 check. He observed,

"One of President Kennedy's most important acts was to sign the award."

The Fermi Award was widely regarded in the press and in scientific circles as a not-too-subtle effort by the liberal Kennedy Administration to rehabilitate Oppenheimer and to encourage the disarmament and appeasement advocates both in and out of government. The award certainly emboldened Oppenheimer, who in May 1964, in an address at the California Institute of Technology, expressed his regret that a suggestion by Niels Bohr had not been adopted. Bohr had proposed that all atomic bomb secrets be handed over to the Soviet Union as a gesture of trust, in order that the heads of state could calmly discuss the uses of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.[11]

Institute for Advanced Study

Oppenheimer began working for the Institute for Advanced Study in 1947.

In the aftermath of Oppenheimer's encounter with the personnel security board of the Atomic Energy Commission, and despite the overwhelming consensus of that hearing that Oppenheimer not be reinstated, he was given an overwhelming vote of confidence by the Institute for Advanced Study's board of directors, who agreed unanimously that Openheimer should be retained as the Institute's director - a position he held until his retirement in 1966.[12]

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

As at 1949,[13] May 1971[14] and April 1984,[15] Robert Oppenheimer served on the Board of Sponsors for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists journal.


On Nov. 7, 1953, in a letter from William Borden, former executive director of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy wrote to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, he stated:

"As chairman or as an official or unofficial member of more than 35 important Government committees, panels, study groups, and projects, [Openheimer] has oriented or dominated key policies involving every principal United States security department and agencey except the FBI."[2]

The following is a chronological list of the positions Oppenheimer has held:[3]

  • Pre 1928: Pursued graduate studies at Christ College of Cambridge University, England.
  • 1928: Pursued post-doctoral studies, as a National Research Fellow, at Harvard University and the California Institute of Technology.
  • 1929: Held an International Education Board Fellowship at the University of Leyden and the Technische Hochschule in Zurich, Germany.
  • 1929 - 1930: Served as assistant professor of theoretical physics at the University of California.
  • 1929 - 1937: Served as associate professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology.
  • 1930 - 1935: Served as associate professor of theoretical physics at the University of California.
  • 1935 - 1947: Served as professor of theoretical physics at the University of California.
  • 1937 - 1947: Served as professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology.
  • Spring, 1942: Dr. Arthur Compton invited him to assume the directorship of various physical studies preliminary to the design and construction of an atomic bomb. Oppenheimer acepted the invitation and became an employee of the Metallurgical Laboratory.
  • March 1943 - October 16, 1945: Appointed by Compton and Major General Leslie Groves to be director of the laboratory in Los Alamos. Oppenheimer had himself proposed this new laboratory to Groves, who had not only agreed on the necessity of a central laboratory, but also had it constructed - on a site selected by Oppenheimer.
  • Early 1946: Worked for 2 months as a member of the Board of Consultants to the Secretary of State's Committee on Atomic Energy as a scientific consultant to Baruch.
  • Late 1946: Appointed by President Harry Truman as a member of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission. Elected Chairman at its first meeting, and re-elected until the expiration of his term in 1952.
  • Spring, 1947 - 1966: Served as director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.


  • Dec. 2, 1963: President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Oppenheimer with the Fermi Award: a certificate, a gold medal and the $50,000 check
  • June 1966: Presented with an honorary degree from Princeton University


  • Science and Common Understanding, 1954
  • The Open Mind, 1955
  • Some Reflections on Science and Culture, 1960


  1. Biographical Dictionary of the Left, Francis X. Gannon, Vol. 4, p. 513-514
  2. 2.0 2.1 Biographical Dictionary of the Left, Francis X. Gannon, Vol. 4, p. 518
  3. 3.0 3.1 Biographical Dictionary of the Left, Francis X. Gannon, Vol. 4, pp. 513 - 533
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Biographical Dictionary of the Left, Francis X. Gannon, Vol. 4, p. 530
  5. Biographical Dictionary of the Left, Francis X. Gannon, Vol. 4, pp. 517-519
  6. "Special Tasks, Memoirs of an unwanted witness-A soviet Spymaster" Little, Brown and Company, New York 1994 page 172
  7. Biographical Dictionary of the Left, Francis X. Gannon, Vol. 4, pp.521 - 530
  10. Crucibles: the story of chemistry from ancient alchemy to nuclear fission By Bernard Jaffe, page 312
  11. Biographical Dictionary of the Left, Francis X. Gannon, Vol. 4, p. 532
  12. Biographical Dictionary of the Left, Francis X. Gannon, Vol. 4, p. 531
  13. Letter from Hans Bethe, Chairman of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Feb. 20, 1981
  14. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists - administrative letter to Professor Joshua Lederberg, May 4, 1971
  15. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 40, No. 4, April 1984, page 28