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.”
One would think that the winners of America’s top literary prize would know how to evaluate evidence. What Haynes and Klehr show, much to their embarrassment, is that Bird and Sherwin do not. Here is what Haynes and Klehr conclude, after sifting through all of the pertinent material:
Historical judgment is not based on casuistic hairsplitting, mind-reading, or explaining away troublesome evidence. It must be based on a common sense evaluation of the weight of the evidence and documentation. In a sensible test attributed to the poet James Whitcomb Riley, “when I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.” By that test Oppenheimer was a Communist in the last years of the 1930s and into early 1942. It is ironic that from among all the books written about Oppenheimer, the one that won the Pulitzer Prize is so lacking in accuracy and integrity on this critical point.
At least, they write, Bird and Sherwin tried to deal with the evidence by dissembling it. Others, as you will see, do even worse. They simply ignore what is in front of their face. That, as we know, is most common for naïve liberals who want to believe that there never was any kind of Communist threat at all in the United States.
So the bottom line. Should the AEC have taken away Oppie’s security clearance? Haynes and Klehr, again, have the final word:
Knowing what we know now, America’s public interest would have been best served if Oppenheimer had been able to continue in his role as a consultant to the government on various atomic and security projects. The evidence that by the mid-1940s he had left his earlier Communist allegiance behind and sincerely supported America’s role in the Cold War is fully convincing. But, of course, one of the major contributing factors to his loss of security access was his own unwillingness to provide a candid and honest account of his earlier Communist ties and why he had put them aside. The AEC in 1954 did not know what we now know in 2011. Its decision not to renew his security clearance was understandable under the circumstances.
Read their article and the sources they cite, and decide for yourself what is the truth. I don’t think PJM readers will have any problems doing just that.