Uncle of the Bomb

Steven Shapin

  • Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and The World He Made Up by K.C. Cole
    Houghton Mifflin, 439 pp, $27.00, August 2009, ISBN 978 0 15 100822 3

HUAC: Is your brother a member of the Communist Party?

Robert Oppenheimer: He is not a member of the Communist Party, to the best of my knowledge.

HUAC: Are you speaking as of the present time?

Robert Oppenheimer: I am, sir.

HUAC: Was he a member of the Communist Party in the past?

Robert Oppenheimer: Mr Chairman, I will answer the questions you put to me. I ask you not to press these questions about my brother. If they are important to you, you can ask him. I will answer, if asked, but I beg you not to ask me these questions.

HUAC: I withdraw the question.

Frank Oppenheimer, Robert Oppenheimer’s younger brother, had been in the Party. He had been publicly outed as a Communist in 1947, two years earlier, when a Washington newspaper – almost certainly fed the information by the FBI – headlined the allegation: ‘US Atom Scientist’s Brother Exposed as Communist Who Worked on A-Bomb.’ Frank flatly denied it: ‘I am not now and I never have been a member of the Communist Party.’ The lie was meant to protect his powerful but politically vulnerable brother. Robert had been the scientific director of the Manhattan Project during the war and was then occupied with the poisonous politics of America’s postwar nuclear weapons development – politics which brought him down five years later. Robert knew that Frank had lied. Shortly after Frank and his wife joined the Party in 1937, he had told his brother, so when Robert was pressed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949, he had long known that Frank had been in the Party until late 1940, when he let his membership lapse.

So was Robert trying to protect Frank? During the war, Robert had already ‘named names’ to army security authorities. He had told military investigators in 1943 and 1944 about some of his students working on the Project, whom he described variously as ‘very much of a Red’, ‘quite a Red’, a ‘crazy person’ or ‘truly dangerous’. He had also apparently given security personnel the impression that an invitation to espionage had been made to Frank by one of Robert’s friends, Haakon Chevalier, a French literature professor at Berkeley who was acting as a go-between for a Soviet agent. This story about a Soviet approach – circulating and festering away – was one of the immediate occasions for the withdrawal of Robert’s security clearance in 1954. Who made the approach? To whom? What for? To how many people and how many times? What did Robert say to the intermediary? What was the delay between the event and Robert’s reporting of it? And why did his story change every time he told it? This was about Robert’s honesty as well as his loyalty: indeed, about inferring his loyalty from his honesty. In 1954, he testified that he had told a ‘cock and bull story’ about the Chevalier affair, but could not explain why he had done so, except that he had been, as he pathetically confessed on the stand, ‘an idiot’. Whether or not Robert ever fingered his brother – and historians remain at odds about this – by 1949 he must have known that the story was in circulation, and the last thing he wanted was to be questioned in public about his brother’s activities. So he suggested that if the committee needed to know whether or not Frank had been in the Party, they should ask him. Remarkably, the committee agreed not to press Robert; a subpoena to Frank had already been issued. Robert must also have known that, if and when Frank testified, he was going to admit to having been in the Party. (The FBI and army intelligence already knew and Robert knew they knew.)

As Frank set off for Washington days after his brother’s testimony, he left behind a letter of resignation from his position as a physicist at the University of Minnesota. He did this as a high-minded gesture, since he had been caught in a lie, and greatly valued honesty in all parts of his life. But he didn’t expect his resignation to be accepted. He had been a good physicist and a diligent member of the department. However, the university authorities seized the opportunity to rid themselves of a political embarrassment and the resignation was taken at face value. Frank Oppenheimer then began a decade in which he was, for all practical purposes, unemployable by any American academic institution, and the State Department’s refusal of a passport meant that he could not take up opportunities abroad. Frank was effectively blackballed; he was 37 years old and his career as a research physicist was over.

Frank’s life had been diverging from that of his more famous brother for some time, and now their paths truly separated. Despite the 1949 HUAC hearings, Robert retained his role as a government nuclear weapons consultant while serving since 1947 as the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where he was nominally Einstein’s boss. As chairman of the General Advisory Committee to the newly created US Atomic Energy Commission, he did what he thought he could to limit the nuclear arms race, specifically arguing against the crash programme for developing the hydrogen bomb so enthusiastically promoted by his former colleague Edward Teller. That opposition, combined with continuing suspicion of his left-wing political affiliations before and during the war, led in 1954 to the AEC hearings, which resulted in the withdrawal of his security clearance. (Robert had flirted with joining the Party before the war, but for him theory never became practice. In his 1954 testimony he referred to himself as a politically naive ‘fellow-traveller’.) From that point, his life as a scientist-politician was over. Both brothers were now exiled from their callings.

Their lives in the wilderness were, however, very different. Robert carried on at the institute, enjoying – which is not entirely the wrong word – celebrity as a tragic icon of the American left. The purges had both damaged and purified him; his role as an expert adviser serving the national security state, and his betrayal of students and colleagues, were largely forgiven or forgotten. After the war, he had begun writing a series of elegant essays, decorated with learned allusions to philosophy and literature, reflecting on science, morality and the human condition, and now – stripped of political power – these reflections meant even more to him. The man Foucault once identified as a case of the ‘specific intellectual’ – a proto-technocrat – had in fact joined the intellectual class. He died of throat cancer in 1967 – a broken man, despite his celebrity. He had tasted power and life without it was no longer sweet.

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