Sunday, October 1, 2023

Oppenheimer on Trial

My second post on American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (2005) will focus on Robert Oppenheimer's involvement with the security state, which culminated in 1954 with his being stripped of his security clearance and thus barred from working on US nuclear policy. The first, on how Oppenheimer made himself into the leader the Manhattan Project needed, is here.

In the 1930s, Oppenheimer was a leftist who described himself as a "fellow traveler" of the Communists. Whether he was ever actually a member of the CP USA was very much debated in later years, and Bird and Sherwin go over the evidence with almost maniacal thoroughness. They reach no real conclusion, for reasons they themselves explain: in the 1930s the CP USA allowed academics to assume a sort of halfway posture toward the party, joining what were called "study groups" rather than party cells. Some people thought everyone in one of these study groups was a party member, while others, including Oppenheimer, thought one could be in a study group without being in the party. One detail that comes up several times is that Oppenheimer did not pay party dues in the usual way. Some people in the study groups with him thought he had a special financial arrangement, since he gave generously to party causes such as the longshoremen's union and support of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War; Oppenheimer said he didn't pay dues because he wasn't a party member. Even the J. Edgar Hoover FBI, which obsessed over the question for more than a decade, was never able to prove that Oppenheimer was a party member, so it seems best to assume that on this point Oppenheimer was telling the truth. But, and this was important later, he had many friends who were communists and saw nothing wrong with that.

One of the fascinating things about Oppenheimer's case is that we know so staggeringly much about it. This all took place at the absolute peak of illegal wiretapping in America, and the FBI tapped so many phone lines and bugged so many offices that their file on Oppenheimer, consisting mostly of transcripts of illegally recorded conversations, eventually surpassed 7,000 pages. At one point they had six agents spying on him full time. In 1954 they even bugged his lawyer's office, giving us a detailed look at the Oppenheimer team's strategy sessions. Besides which all the major players wrote lots of letters to each other, many of which survive, allowing us to track their own reactions to events as they unfolded.

Because of Oppenheimer's admitted left-wing associations, the FBI and army counterintelligence were very reluctant to give him the top secret security clearance he needed to run the Manhattan Project; General Groves had to directly order his security people to grant it. But because Oppenheimer was so successful, and became such a skilled operator within the system, that was largely forgotten, and in 1947 Oppenheimer's clearance was renewed without dissent after a thorough investigation.

What did Oppenheimer do after the war? He remained a key part of the US government's nuclear security apparatus. He chaired the scientific advisory board to the Atomic Energy Commission. He was the head of the committee that investigated the evidence that the Soviets had detonated their own atomic bomb in 1949, correctly concluding that it was a near copy of the US plutonium implosion bomb from 1945. He chaired a panel that produced a report on the dangers of nuclear fallout, and co-authored another major study on the different possible ways of using and delivering nuclear weapons. And he tried, every chance he got, to push the US toward openness and arms control. This especially came up on the question of the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer thought the H bomb was a terrible mistake, too large and powerful to have any use but genocide, and he tried to talk the Truman administration out of building it. Instead, he said, we should reach out to the Soviets and make an agreement that neither side would ever test such a device. Truman asked him one question: "Can the Russians build one?" "Yes," said Oppenheimer. "Then we had better build one first," said Truman.

(Truman comes off horribly in American Prometheus, setting the stage for both the Cold War arms race and McCarthyism.)

Throughout this period Oppenheimer was ambivalent about his role. He considered resigning when his advice about arms control was ignored, and he actually wrote a resignation letter after the US detonated an H Bomb in 1952, but then decided not to submit it. This is important because various people said that Oppenheimer was wrecked by the 1954 hearings, but in American Prometheus it seems that he had been moving away from the government for five years.

Because Oppenheimer had so much prestige, and because he used it to push for arms control, he made a lot of enemies. The most important was Lewis Strauss. Strauss was a big-time Washington insider and the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. The two men detested each other and were also political opponents. Strauss was determined to build a lot of hydrogen bombs and he found Oppenheimer's opposition to be so dangerous that he decided Oppenheimer must be removed. He plotted his attack on Oppenheimer very carefully. He persuaded Eisenhower, who had seen some of the FBI information on Oppenheimer, that Oppenheimer might be a security risk. They agreed that Eisenhower (who also comes across very badly in American Prometheus, as someone who was not especially evil himself but refused to take any kind of stand against the witchhunts of men like Strauss and Eugene McCarthy) would bar Oppenheimer from secret work until the AEC had carried out a thorough review, which Strauss himself arranged.

The main charges against Oppenheimer were 1) his friendships with communists, 2) a series of false or garbled statements he made to Army counterintelligence agents in 1942-1943, and 3) his strong opposition to building the hydrogen bomb, which various FBI agents and Cold War fanatics said could only be explained by his being a Soviet agent.

Because the AEC security hearing was not a trial, it was not covered by any kind of fairness rules; most glaringly, Oppenheimer's full FBI file with all the illegal wiretaps was made available to the panel members and the prosecutor – technically, the legal assistant to the board of inquiry, but he certainly acted like a prosecutor – but not to Oppenheimer or his own attorneys. Even so, one of the three commissioners still voted to clear Oppenheimer. In his dissent he argued that the worst evidence against Oppenheimer all dated to before 1942, so it was known at his last hearing in 1947, and since Oppenheimer had continued to move away from communism across the 1947 to 1954 period he was certainly less of a risk in 1954 than he had been before. Strauss was so worried that the full AEC board would clear Oppenheimer that he had a "summary report" on the trial written for the board that badly distorted the findings from the hearing, and resorted to bribing one of the commissioners with a lot of business for his new law firm. In the end Strauss got his way, and Oppenheimer's security clearance was revoked.

This was, as Bird and Sherwin say, an important moment in US history, because it signaled very clearly that scientists involved in secret government work should not make political arguments in public. Oppenheimer and Teller were the last American nuclear scientists who were major public figures.

Some of Oppenheimer's friends said that the security hearing "destroyed" him, but this is not at all clear. If anyone was destroyed by the proceedings, it was Louis Strauss. As details of how brazenly Strauss had manipulated the hearing process leaked out, Washington turned against him, and he was denied the cabinet post he had long sought and forced off the AEC. I have trouble thinking of any American from that period except McCarthy himself whose reputation is as bad as Strauss'. I believe that in the long run Oppenheimer's status was only enhanced, and some of the blood he felt he had on his hands for building the bomb was washed away by his persecution at the hands of Cold War fanatics. In 1962 Kennedy invited him to the White House and he was even offered a chance to get his security clearance back, but he declined to apply.

The evidence presented in American Prometheus suggests that Oppenheimer was devastated by the hearings and miserable for a few months, but not that his life was ruined. He remained the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton until 1966, shortly before his death. He traveled the world giving speeches and lectures, including the prestigious Reith lectures on the BBC and the William James Lectures at Harvard. He built a house on St. John in the Virgin Islands and spent a lot of time there, holding raucous New Year's Eve parties and other gatherings. So far as I can tell from American Prometheus, the worst problems in his life after 1954 had more to do with his family than the US government. It is true that he accomplished nothing in physics and little in politics, but as I wrote in my other post, I have a sense that this was partly a matter of simple burnout from years of high-pressure work. Health may also have been a factor; Oppenheimer had tuberculosis as a child and smoked constantly through his whole adult life, both of which probably contributed to his dying at the age of 62.

I don't want to dismiss the Cold War loyalty trials as no big deal. Many people were made to suffer terribly, only a few of whom were actual Soviet agents. Some lost their jobs and a few their careers. American politics was badly corrupted, and early moves toward arms control were brushed aside in a paranoid frenzy of bomb-building. But in the long run, the persecutors blackened their own names. Some people never recovered from the ordeal, but I can't see much evidence that Robert Oppenheimer was one of them.

1 comment:

David said...

"I have trouble thinking of any American from that period except McCarthy himself whose reputation is as bad as Strauss'."

Don't forget Roy Cohn.