Intrigued by the buzz around “Oppenheimer,” I decided to watch the film because of its historical focus on Robert Oppenheimer, the architect of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. The film explores the complex world of scientific inquiry and the challenges of creating such powerful weapons. The latter part of the film delves into the political influences on Oppenheimer’s life after 1954.
As I watched, Oppenheimer’s character became more mysterious. Questions arose about his Communist party ties and whether he shared atomic secrets with the USSR. The film also delved into his extramarital affair and the tragic suicide of his mistress, adding layers of complexity. Oppenheimer’s demeanour throughout the film remained unreadable, making it challenging for viewers to understand his true nature. Struggling to grasp the movie, I researched online for more insights.
In an enlightening interview, JNS editor-in-chief Jonathan Tobin spoke with historian Harvey Klehr, an expert on Soviet spies in the U.S. during that period. Klehr’s insights revealed the Soviet interest in espionage, particularly regarding the Manhattan Project since the 1930s. This background shed light on the historical events and personal choices that shaped Oppenheimer’s legacy.
Before World War II, many Americans, including Oppenheimer’s students at Berkeley University and his friends and relatives, were attracted to the ideals of the Soviet International Communist Party and its utopian Marxist ideology. Notably, Oppenheimer’s wife’s second husband fought and perished in the Spanish Civil War in support of the communist cause. Furthermore, there were suspicions surrounding Oppenheimer himself, who was believed to be affiliated with the Communist Party, information that was likely in the possession of the FBI when he assumed leadership of the Manhattan Project.
Soviet archives indicate a persistent interest in obtaining information about the atomic bomb project dating back to the 1930s. Reports from Klehr suggest that individuals within the United States, spying for the Russians, had successfully infiltrated the U.S. federal government both before and after the war—a concern paralleling contemporary worries about Chinese Communist infiltration.
Despite these associations, FBI wiretaps released from that era reveal Oppenheimer’s deliberate distancing from Communist ties once he assumed control of the project, thwarting Soviet attempts to secure his cooperation.
Understanding this historical backdrop is paramount today, given that in 1941, many were oblivious to Stalin’s true nature as a Communist leader. Recognizing the depth of Communist influence and espionage during that period offers valuable insights into the intricate geopolitical dynamics of the time. It is a cautionary tale, underscoring the potential consequences of political ideologies and covert activities.
Stalin and his Soviet party led the endeavour to collectivize all of the farmlands of Ukraine in 1929. Teams of Communist Party agitators forced peasants to relinquish their land, personal property, and housing to collective farms. Many “kulaks”—wealthier land-owning peasants who resisted collectivization- were deported to the Soviet Gulag and a campaign of repression and persecution was carried out against Ukrainian political intelligentsia, political leaders and Ukrainian religious leaders. Collectivization led to a drop in production, the disorganization of the rural economy, and food shortages, a series of peasant rebellions and a very serious famine that resulted between 1931 and 1934 in the deaths of at least 3.9 million people. The Ukrainian term for this period is the “Holodomor.”
As the famine was happening, news of it was deliberately silenced by Soviet bureaucrats. Party officials did not mention it in public. Western journalists based in Moscow were instructed not to write about it. One of the most famous Moscow correspondents at the time, Walter Duranty of The New York Times, went out of his way to dismiss reports of the famine when they were published by a young freelancer, Gareth Jones, as he “thought Mr. Jones’s judgment was somewhat hasty.” Jones was murdered under suspicious circumstances in 1935 in Japanese-occupied Mongolia. Stalin himself went so far as to repress the results of a census taken in 1937; the administrators of that census were arrested and murdered, in part because the figures revealed the decimation of Ukraine’s population. (*2)
This brings to mind the narratives detailing the tactics employed by Chinese Communist leaders and North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un. These include political indoctrination, the existence of concentration camps for dissenters, individuals deviating from the prescribed ideology, or those with independent thoughts or religious affiliations.
Is Putin presently adopting the role of Stalin and employing similar tactics in the Ukraine conflict? According to Timothy Snyder, an American historian with expertise in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, this seems to be the case.
Many Western, left-leaning academics are still enamoured of communism and deny the brutality and aims behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the present time and are apologists for Putin and blame the US for what is happening.
Turning our attention back to “Oppenheimer,” the film uncovers the presence of not one but two scientist spies embedded within the Manhattan Project. Ted Hall, a remarkably talented graduate student, was recruited at eighteen through his Harvard professors. Surrounded by card-carrying communists as roommates, he independently chose to divulge atomic secrets to the Soviets. Hall believed that a shared possession of the nuclear bomb would contribute to a “safer world.”
A recent documentary titled “The Compassionate Spy” delves into Hall’s story, defending his decision to share crucial atomic information with the Soviets. His apology, featured in The New York Times Magazine under “The Boy Who Gave Away The Bomb,” provides further insight (*3).
The second spy, Klaus Fuchs, assumed leadership in the British atomic lab post-World War II. Operating as a double agent, Fuchs was eventually apprehended and served time in jail.
In the third hour of the movie, Oppenheimer’s alleged spying and the loss of his security clearance in 1954 are portrayed. However, an article from September 1977 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists provides a more nuanced perspective. According to an eyewitness, the motives behind Oppenheimer’s troubles were more intricate than the personal conflicts shown in the film. The attack on Oppenheimer was influenced partly by President Eisenhower‘s desire to highlight Democrats’ perceived leniency towards Communists. Additionally, Senator McCarthy’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, was involved in these manipulative actions (*4).
In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Kai Bird, the author of “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” – the book upon which the movie is based – expands on these intricacies (*5).
Sadly, Oppenheimer’s life story is relevant to our current political predicaments. Oppenheimer was destroyed by a political movement characterized by rank know-nothing, anti-intellectual, xenophobic demagogues. The witch-hunters of that season are the direct ancestors of our current political actors of a specific paranoid style… Oppenheimer did not regret what he did at Los Alamos; he understood that you cannot stop curious human beings from discovering the physical world around them. One cannot halt the scientific quest, nor can one un-invent the atomic bomb but it is up to each and every one of us to ensure that our current technologies are integrated by our leaders into a sustainable and humane civilization.
These three historical films—”Golda,” “Shttl,” and “Oppenheimer”—remind us of human limitations and the contrast between our insight and the lasting gaze of the divine. Israeli rock sensation Yishai Rebo recently released a moving rendition of the Hebrew prayer verses in his latest chant, Ata Zocher, beautifully encapsulating the essence of divine remembrance across the intricacies of the universe (*6).
You (G-d) remember all the workings of the universe
And you note all the creatures of this world
All events and mysteries are revealed to you
Because there is nothing forgotten before Your Holy Throne
Or hidden from your gaze.
Reflecting on historical events, we’re reminded that divine justice unfolds at a pace distinct from human justice, sometimes taking 70 years for the truth to emerge.
- Explore the conversation between JNS editor-in-chief Jonathan Tobin and historian Harvey Klehr on the movie Oppenheimer and the enduring legacy of American Communism.
- Delve into the details of the Holodomor with Britannica.
- Check out the NY Times Magazine, Sept. 14, 1997, article “The Boy Who Gave Away The Bomb.”
- Read “The Oppenheimer case: A study in the abuse of law” by Harold P. Green, published on July 17, 2023, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
- Gain insights from Kai Bird, the author of “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” in his NY Times opinion piece.
- Watch the captivating “Ata Zocher” performance by Ishay Ribo & Mordechai Ben David on YouTube.