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Ron Radosh

Was the Father of the A-Bomb a Communist and Soviet Spy?

February 15th, 2012 - 10:40 am

Many conservatives have argued that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the A-bomb, was both a Communist and a Soviet spy. In 1954 — way after the war’s end and the once top-secret Manhattan Project at wartime Los Alamos — the Atomic Energy Commission called Oppenheimer to answer questions about associations he had before the war, about which he had answered dishonestly. Despite his success in completing the bomb on time  (giving the United States an atomic monopoly), the AEC took away his security clearance. As liberals of the time saw it, even America’s most famous scientist was not immune to the wrath of the McCarthyites.

Liberals saw Oppie, as he was called, as a victim of guilt by association. Much of the Right saw him as a legitimate security risk. No one, it seemed, was immune to having his or her career halted, no matter what their accomplishments. So what is the truth? Was Oppie a Communist, a spy, or both? Or was he neither?

Now, in a scholarly but very readable and important article, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr have answered the question. They do not satisfy either those who believe he was a Soviet spy — as did my friend the late Eric Breindel — or those on the left who believe he was a good liberal smeared by the right wing.

Two authors who take the latter point of view are Kai Bird and historian Martin J. Sherwin. Both won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2005, for their book American Prometheus. As the PW review of their book puts its theme, Oppenheimer “was branded a security risk at the height of anticommunist hysteria in 1954” and the authors claim that Oppie had only “‘hazy and vague’ connections to the Communist Party in the 1930 — loose interactions consistent with the activities of contemporary progressives.”

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