A Spy? No. But a Communist Once? Yes.
By John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr
The relationship of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to communism and Soviet espionage has been a controversial subject since 1954, when the decision of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to decline renewal of his security clearance put the issue firmly into the public arena. Journalists and historians addressed the issue repeatedly in the decades that followed. Nothing fueled the liberal/left critique of the so-called “national security state” more than the supposed excesses of the US government in the Oppenheimer case, save the cases involving Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs.
But while the emotional level, even shrillness, of the debate continued, the substance of the argument became increasingly stale and repetitive; there was little new evidence to clarify the ambiguities of the matter. In the last two decades, however, new evidence has emerged that, while not resolving all ambiguities and still leaving a number of details unclear, nonetheless allows confident answers to the question of whether Robert Oppenheimer was a Communist and a spy. It demonstrates that he had, indeed, been a Communist but had not been a spy.
We addressed the issue of Oppenheimer’s involvement in Soviet espionage in “Special Tasks and Sacred Secrets on Soviet Atomic Espionage,” which critiqued and rejected the claims in books written by former KGB officer Pavel Sudoplatov and journalists Jerrold and Leona Schecter that Oppenheimer consciously assisted Soviet espionage and did so in a substantial way. This essay reviews the evidence indicating that Oppenheimer was a secret member of the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA), joining at some point in the late 1930s and actively participating in a secret Party faculty unit at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1939, 1940, and 1941. Secondly, it critiques the conclusion of Oppenheimer biographers Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin that he was never a Communist. Finally, it discusses the evidence indicating that in early 1942 he quietly left the Party, coinciding with, and likely connected to, his formal recruitment into the Manhattan atomic bomb project.