Oppenheimer’s ‘Hollywood Ending’

Will Christopher Nolan’s movie take the kind of hardheaded look at the father of the A-bomb that Secretary Granholm failed to take?

AP/John Rooney, file
J. Robert Oppenheimer at his study at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study, December 15, 1957. AP/John Rooney, file

Will the movie “Oppenheimer,” a likely blockbuster that filmmaker Christopher Nolan is due to release in July, confront squarely the unsettling evidence — glossed over in Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s recent move to rehabilitate the physicist’s reputation — that the “Father of the A-bomb” was a member of the Communist Party?

Major studios bid for the film, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning, empathetic biography of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is lionized in the film and called “the most important man who ever lived.” Yet the government deemed Oppenheimer a security risk— thus injuring his reputation, which the Energy department just moved to restore. 

In Secretary Granholm’s December 16 announcement vacating the 1954 decision on Oppenheimer’s security clearance, the Energy Secretary fully avoids — and thus, in effect, seems to evade — the evidence of the physicist’s Communist Party membership. Will Mr. Nolan’s film — reportedly costing about $100 million, and starring Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr. — take the same approach?

For years, Oppenheimer was a near icon. After World War II, for more than a half-decade, he served as an influential government adviser to nuclear-energy programs. Between 1947 and 1949, he generally supported the postwar development of the A-bomb arsenal, but in late 1949, in a reversal of his earlier recommendations, and after the Soviets’ breakthrough with their first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer opposed development of an American H-bomb.    

His reversal on H-bomb issues, his known earlier affiliation with Communists, his lies involving a possible espionage approach made to him during the war, and the fact that his brother, wife, and sister-in-law had been Communists all contributed to doubts about Robert Oppenheimer himself.

His security clearance was suspended in December 1953 after charges by an anti-McCarthyite Democrat and recent atomic-energy official that Oppenheimer was “more probably than not” a Soviet agent. Such charges were extreme, and unfair.

Yet they helped lead to a 19-day hearing in 1954, after which a special Board voted, two to one, that Oppenheimer was a security risk and that his clearance should not be restored. In June, the Atomic Energy Commission, by a four to one vote, reaffirmed that decision. Oppenheimer would never again have a security clearance.   

Oppenheimer remained a hero to many, and was often considered a martyr, but was a pariah to some. Pleas to undo the AEC’s 1954 negative decision have occurred over the years.

Such a bipartisan letter in August 2022 from 43 Senators, including Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, apparently helped lead to Ms. Granholm’s December 16 announcement that the Energy Department, the distant successor agency to the AEC, was “vacating” the AEC’s 1954 actions finding Oppenheimer a security risk.

That is basically a symbolic but important act, presumably endorsed by the Biden White House. Ms. Granholm stated that her “vacating” decision was based heavily on the distressing evidence of the many irregularities and violations of AEC procedural rules in the 1954 case. Because Oppenheimer was dead, there could not be a new hearing. His clearance was not restored.

Unwisely, Ms. Granholm chose, in her formal statement, to go well beyond discussing procedural violations. She offered a partial interpretation of the loyalty-security case, and asserted that Oppenheimer’s “loyalty [was] never seriously questioned” (my emphasis).

On much of that, Ms. Granholm is in error.    

Even before the case came to a head between 1953 and 1954, and markedly contrary to Ms. Granholm, at least five American officials, in the early 1950s, seriously questioned Oppenheimer’s loyalty. They included: AEC Commissioner Lewis Strauss; William Borden, the executive director of the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy; and chemist Kenneth Pitzer, the AEC’s director of research.   

Significantly, in the Truman period, the air force secretary, Thomas Finletter, a liberal Democrat, and the air force chief of staff, General Hoyt Vandenberg, also seriously questioned Oppenheimer’s loyalty. For Ms. Granholm to be ignorant of so much unsettling evidence, or to choose to ignore it, is distressing, even if that evidence does not mean that the early 1950s fears were accurate.

What Ms. Granholm also overlooks is far more serious: substantial evidence that Oppenheimer had been, between about 1938 and 1941, a secret member of a small Communist Party cell, and that he had repeatedly — in likely criminal acts — perjured himself, in the 1940s and 1950s, by denying that he had ever been in the party.

The strong evidence on Oppenheimer’s secret membership includes notably the 1990s memoir, made available in 2001 to 2002 and written by the party’s long-ago liaison agent, Gordon Griffiths. He disclosed that, as a young Berkeley graduate student in early World War II, Griffiths had collected dues from some members of that secret party cell, of which Oppenheimer was regarded as a member.

Two other persons, who had known Oppenheimer between 1938 and 1941 — Haakon and Barbara Chevalier — also separately asserted, long after the war and after their divorce, that Oppenheimer had been a secret Communist Party member. Such evidence from three sources seems compelling.

It is this evidence of Oppenheimer’s Communist party membership, and thus what was Oppenheimer’s likely perjury, that challenges Mr. Nolan in his Oppenheimer movie — and Ms. Granholm. Will Mr. Nolan deal forthrightly with such strong unsettling evidence? Should this evidence — unacknowledged by Ms. Granholm  — affect her “vacating” decision? What is their responsibility to the American public?

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