A Soviet spy chief’s memoirs published here today claim that the late J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the U.S. atomic bomb project during and after World War II, passed nuclear secrets to Soviet agents.
The allegations were made by Gen. Pavel Sudoplatov, who was in charge of efforts to obtain atomic secrets from the West, and excerpts of them ran in the Sunday Telegraph. Time magazine will print excerpts in today’s issue.
The memoirs charge that Oppenheimer, a University of California physicist known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” condoned and assisted in the flow of vital nuclear secrets.
Oppenheimer was director of the Los Alamos project in New Mexico, which built the bomb from atomic fuel manufactured in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash. The entire operation was known by the code name “Manhattan Project.”
After the first test explosion July 16, 1945, two subsequent bombs were dropped over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, ending the Pacific war.
From 1947 to 1952, Oppenheimer was chairman of the general advisory committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, but in December, 1953, his top-secret security clearance was revoked because of his alleged Communist associations in the 1930s and 1940s. He was never charged with a crime.
At the time, many liberal Americans believed that Oppenheimer was a victim of a witch hunt led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his followers. Oppenheimer, known as “Oppie,” became the focus of a bitter fight between liberals and fierce anti-Communists.
But Oppenheimer’s reputation appeared to be rehabilitated by President John F. Kennedy, who invited him to a dinner at the White House for Nobel Prize winners in 1962. He died in 1967.
In 1963, Oppenheimer won the Atomic Energy Commission’s Enrico Fermi Award for contributions to theoretical physics and administrative leadership.
Of the new book, British historian Robert Conquest, reached in California by the Sunday Telegraph, declared: “These memoirs show that Oppenheimer was on the edge of committing treason.”
Sudoplatov charges that Elizabeth Zarubina, wife of the Soviet intelligence head in Washington, cultivated Oppenheimer socially.
Zarubina persuaded Oppenheimer to share atomic secrets with “anti-fascists of German origin,” Sudoplatov says.
The memoir, “Special Tasks,” declares: “We received reports on the Manhattan Project from Oppenheimer and his friends in oral form, through comments and asides, and from documents transferred through clandestine methods with their full knowledge that the information they were sharing would be passed on.
“In all there were five classified reports made available by Oppenheimer describing the progress of work on the atomic bomb.”
The Soviet spy chief said they took pains not to enlist Oppenheimer as an agent. “We understood that he and other members of the scientific community were best approached as friends, not as agents.”
The Russians also received photos of the facilities at Oak Ridge, the book says.
“The Soviet bomb was constructed in three years,” Sudoplatov says. “Without the intelligence contribution, there could have been no Soviet bomb that quickly.”