Peter Pringle's America: Old KGB warhead misfires

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The Independent Online
A former KGB general has suggested in a new book that Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the American atomic bomb, knowingly allowed nuclear secrets to be passed to the Russians. Sounds like a publishing bombshell, doesn't it? Time magazine thought so - and bought a huge extract. But while the book includes interesting history, the charge against Oppenheimer is an undocumented slur by an old Stalinist.

It's easy to see how people were seduced. The espionage charges would certainly have rung a bell for those who remembered Oppenheimer's pre- war links with Communists, and the removal of his security clearance during the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the Fifties. Before Oppenheimer worked on the atom bomb, he had embraced left-wing causes on California campuses and had married the widow of a member of the International Brigade, who had been killed in action in Spain in 1937.

With that record, Oppenheimer should have been refused security clearance to work on the Manhattan Project, which built the first A-bomb, but General Leslie Groves, the stern, practical Corps of Engineers officer in charge, set aside Oppenheimer's past. He was much taken with this cultured genius who could explain in words of one syllable the basics of nuclear physics, and overruled the objections of the US security agencies.

Now, 87-year-old Pavel Sudoplatov, one of Stalin's KGB serial killers who also briefly ran Soviet espionage on the US atomic bomb, claims that Groves was badly mistaken. In his book Special Tasks (Little, Brown pounds 18.99), Sudoplatov baldly asserts: 'The most vital information for developing the first Soviet atomic bomb came from scientists designing the American bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico - Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi (the Italian physicist who started the first nuclear chain reaction) and Leo Szilard (the Hungarian physicist who was the first scientist to believe it was possible to make an atomic bomb).'

Sudoplatov writes: 'It is in the record that on several occasions they (Oppenheimer, Fermi and Szilard) agreed to share information on nuclear weapons with Soviet scientists.'

So these famous scientists were spies? The charge is purely on Sudoplatov's say-so. The former KGB chief provides no documentary evidence - despite his apparent access to the files. In fact, the charge against Oppenheimer is based on conflated evidence: pieces of information blended or fused together to make a whole.

Since the book came out last week, Sudoplatov has stressed in an interview that Oppenheimer and the others were not agents in the usual sense of the term. 'These scientists were not our agents, Lord save us . . . they were not under our command.'

No secret information coming from the atomic laboratories had Oppenheimer's name on it, even though the KGB did give him a code name: Star. Instead, Sudoplatov describes Oppenheimer and the others as concerned scientists who thought that by spreading the secrets of atomic physics they would prevent a nuclear arms race: everyone could have a bomb if they wanted, and the result would be a military stalemate.

It is well documented elsewhere that this is indeed what Oppenheimer and the others felt - but only after they had built the bomb and dropped two on Japan, and won the war. During the war years Oppenheimer had resisted approaches from Communist sympathisers to improve scientific co-operation between Russia and America, and had reported the contacts to General Groves.

Sudoplatov paints Oppenheimer as a passive spy, though he also says there are several instances of Oppenheimer telling Soviet agents based in California of the progress of US atomic research. In particular, he charges that Oppenheimer deliberately chose Klaus Fuchs, the German scientist later convicted in Britain of spying for Moscow, to work on the Manhattan Project. Yet several histories of that period, official and unofficial, say that the British scientists who went to Los Alamos, including Fuchs (who had left Germany in 1933), were sent as a team, complementing each other in their various disciplines.

Suduplatov writes: 'When Fuchs appeared, he was to identify himself as the only one on the British team who had escaped from a German prison camp, and thus gain the respect and absolute confidence of Oppenheimer. In this way, under Oppenheimer's initiative, Fuchs was given access to material that he had no right to look at.' In what way, precisely?

Fuchs did indeed send several secret reports back to Moscow, and Sudoplatov implies that at least some of them came from Oppenheimer. 'In all, there were five classified reports made available by Oppenheimer describing the progress of work on the atomic bombs.' What does 'made available' mean? Again, there is no documentary evidence for Oppenheimer's collaboration, only hearsay.

According to other accounts of the Los Alamos years, General Groves, in the interests of security, wanted work at the laboratory to be compartmentalised: the scientists, he argued, should be given access to each other's work on a 'need to know' basis. But Oppenheimer, arguing that everyone needed to know everything to maximise progress in this new scientific field, persuaded Groves to drop the rule and allow a weekly meeting for all senior staff.

The reader is left either to trust Sudoplatov's memory - and it would be surprising if it were not self-serving at this distance - or accept that the editing of what he had to say - by Time magazine's former Moscow correspondent Jerrold Schecter and his wife, Leona - was incomplete. There are far too many loose ends for the severity of the charge made against Oppenheimer.

One incident sticks out. The book makes much of Oppenheimer having lunch with a Russian agent in San Francisco during which the physicist is said to have 'revealed' the now-famous letter that Einstein wrote in August 1939 to President Roosevelt, warning him of the possible military aspects of atomic fission, and of Germany making a bomb first. It is well known that Oppenheimer was frustrated that Roosevelt had not replied.

It was also well known at the time that physicists had been openly discussing the various possibilities of a nuclear chain reaction, but the book charges Oppenheimer with passing on a state secret that was of great importance in persuading the Kremlim to take the bomb seriously.

Phooey. It took a second letter from Einstein, in March 1940, to stir the Americans into action. Roosevelt then ordered the immediate classification of all research material on atomic matters, a move with which the British and French concurred. The only physicists outside Germany who continued to publish were the Russians, and they soon began to notice the absence of Western research in the standard journals and deduced for themselves that censorship had been imposed because of the military implications of the work. Moscow did not need Oppenheimer, Fermi or Szilard to uncover that piece of intelligence.

(Photograph omitted)