August 16, 2023


Christopher Nolan's Forthcoming "Oppenheimer" MovieA Historian's Questions, Worries, and Challenges (Barton J. Bernstein, 7/11/23, Washington Decoded)

    Whether the AEC's negative "security-risk" judgment in assessing Oppenheimer in 1954 was reasonable, justified, and defensible was a sometimes heatedly contested issue in the mid-1950s, and it is sometimes today. For the most part, the pro-Oppenheimer forces at the time seemed to carry the day in the liberal media. Their own "verdict": Oppenheimer was basically innocent, he'd been viciously pilloried, and his enemies had unfairly done in him.

    Complicating matters, that complex judgment, with its undergirding assumption that Oppenheimer was basically innocent, when now re-examined, is often reconsidered by also employing new materials. They include some letters, a key memoir, an important diary, and Soviet intelligence documents; mostly these sources became available only in the 21st century. They overwhelmingly establish that Oppenheimer, contrary to his wartime and postwar claims, had been a secret Communist Party (CP) member for a period.[11]

    That rather new evidence also leads to a reassessment, and thus taking far more seriously, much negative evidence on Oppenheimer, dating back to about the 1940s, that many historians (including myself), often unwisely in about the 1970s-2002 period, minimized or disregarded. Hence, the interpretive situation--with the use of long-available and also relatively newly available evidence--has markedly changed.[12]

    It is no longer possible, or reasonable, to comfortably conclude, as had many liberal interpreters (including myself), that Oppenheimer in the 1954 hearing was candidly forthcoming about his late 1930s and early 1940s politics. He was not. He lied, and he sought to deceive.

    That suggests that many scientists at the time, and scholars and other writers then and later studying Oppenheimer, and the loyalty-security case, had--for many years--seriously erred. They had trusted him. [...]

Undoubtedly far more important, in terms of his own self, Oppenheimer repeatedly lied during and after World War II to the US government. He thereby concealed his secret Communist Party (CP) membership, of about 1939-1941, and participation in a party cell. The evidence of such CP membership is overwhelming, and that means he also committed perjury on at least a few occasions over a number of years.[24]

    That subject could be discussed in great depth, and at considerable length. What follows however in the next eight paragraphs, is only, basically, a quite brief summary of much of the overwhelming evidence. While some pieces of that evidence might be challenged, as Bird and Sherwin briefly sought to do in their 2005 book and in their 2005 essay, the total evidence, contrary to their unconvincing efforts, is now overwhelming: Oppenheimer had been a member of the Communist Party.

    Haakon Chevalier, once Oppenheimer's friend, informed him in 1964, in a private letter, that Chevalier was writing, in his forthcoming book, of their much earlier Communist Party past. Oppenheimer, bristling, denied that claim that he had ever been a CP member, and he even considered legal action to block Chevalier from making a public charge involving such membership. Chevalier did not make such a public charge, but years later, Chevalier confided in Oppenheimer analyst Jon Else, basically a filmmaker--that Oppenheimer had been a Communist Party member.[25]

    Over the years, other evidence, and strong evidence, also emerged supporting that claim. Barbara Chevalier, though long divorced from Haakon and often contemptuous of him, independently provided her own recollections, in a 1984 diary entry and in 2000s interviews with two separate historians. She corroborated that both Haakon and Robert Oppenheimer had been CP members years earlier. She placed that membership in about 1938-1941.[26]

    The two Chevaliers's claims, despite their acting independently, in their recollections of Robert's CP membership, might be doubted or perhaps dismissed as very frail evidence and thus even suspect. Building firm conclusions on the two Chevaliers's sets of claims might not be convincing to many who want to understand, and to assess, the relevant evidence on Oppenheimer and CP membership.

    But far more substantial evidence also became available. It was provided by a longtime historian (Gordon Griffiths), who was no longer a Communist, and who had broken many years earlier with the party. He had crafted in the 1990s a personal memoir, basically for his family. He was not red-baiting, and his personal memoir, in his lifetime, remained private and probably only in family hands.[27]

    What Griffiths revealed in that unpublished, but thoughtfully crafted, memoir was very significant: He had been for a few years, apparently mostly before Pearl Harbor, a secret CP liaison to a small clandestine CP cell in Berkeley; that cell included both Oppenheimer and Chevalier. Griffiths wrote, "Nobody carried a party card," and Griffiths was sure that both men--Oppenheimer and Chevalier--had "considered themselves to be Communists." Griffiths's recollections--not intended for public consumption, and by a man who was writing when still on the American left--constitute powerful evidence. He stated, "[T]he time has come to set the record straight."[28]

    Griffiths's statement on Oppenheimer's CP membership, even if taken alone, cannot be discounted, or dismissed. Added to the independent and basically corroborating evidence from the two Chevaliers, Griffiths's memoir becomes even more powerful, and greatly persuasive, on the CP membership issue. His memoir statement seems, especially when carefully read and thoughtfully assessed, to clinch the case: Robert Oppenheimer had been a CP member.

    But significant added material--quite substantial material--involving Oppenheimer and the CP, drawn from former Soviet sources, later became available. Used primarily by historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, that significant material, often quoted by them in their important 2012 article, seems even further to tighten an already very substantial case: Robert Oppenheimer had been a secret CP member for a few years.[29]

    The implications of that warranted finding for understanding Oppenheimer, his foes, and the loyalty-security case, are significant. That finding about Oppenheimer can help, and often should, shape important interpretive conclusions about Oppenheimer himself and about that case, and sometimes even about his foes.

Posted by at August 16, 2023 12:00 AM