Commentary: Hollywood got Oppenheimer right except for one detail: He was a communist

by WorldTribune Staff, August 14, 2023

The Hollywood blockbuster “Oppenheimer”, accurately depicts the man who directed the building of the atomic bomb, a new analysis notes.

Except for one detail …

… J. Robert Oppenheimer “was a communist,” Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes write in the September edition of the monthly opinion magazine

J. Robert Oppenheimer is portrayed in the film by Cillian Murphy

The film, directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer, “depicts the rise to eminence of the brilliant theoretical physicist who was selected during World War II to run the secret laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was built,” the analysis notes.

Oppenheimer “had never organized anything more complicated than a graduate seminar. And yet he recruited, assembled, and managed hundreds of prickly egos and made them into a cohesive team, solved innumerable logistical and scientific problems, and produced a working bomb within three years. Lauded as one of America’s greatest scientists after the war, in 1954 he was humiliated by the loss of his security clearance after facing accusations of having Communist sympathies and for opposing development of the ‘Super,’ or hydrogen, bomb.”

The film follows the lead of the book that inspired it, the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin called “American Prometheus”, in maintaining that Oppenheimer was truthful when he denied under oath ever having been a member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA).

“Even when Bird and Sherwin published their award-winning biography in 2005, there was already abundant evidence that Oppenheimer had indeed once been a member of the Communist Party of the United States,” Klehr and Haynes write. “Their efforts to explain away or obfuscate the clear evidence that Oppenheimer lied under oath about it have been further eroded by material that has emerged from Russian archives since. But to this day, Bird (Sherwin died in 2021) has not responded to that evidence, and the writer-director Christopher Nolan did not look deeper into the question when he crafted his screenplay. That is unfortunate, because reckoning with the truth about Oppenheimer would have deepened the movie’s portrait of this singular American and added more layers of ambiguity and complexity to what is already a remarkably ambiguous and complex work of portraiture.”

FBI wiretaps from the 1940s, made public decades later, “provided more corroboration that senior Communist officials considered Oppenheimer to have been a party member,” the analysis said. “In 1940, the Bureau learned of a private meeting of senior Communists that was to be held at (Haakon) Chevalier’s home. Surveillance revealed Oppenheimer’s car parked outside the house (a moment depicted in the movie). In December 1943, FBI listening devices picked up a conversation between Steve Nelson, the party’s leader in the Bay Area, and Bernadette Doyle, its organizational secretary. In that conversation, Nelson and Doyle spoke of both Robert and his brother Frank as CPUSA members, but Nelson noted that Robert had become inactive. As late as 1945, a bug at a meeting of the North Oakland Communist Club overheard one official state that Oppenheimer was a party member and another call him ‘one of our men.”

The book and movie come to the conclusion that because Oppenheimer never had a party card, he was not a “formal, card-carrying” CPUSA member.

“But this is wrong-headed,” Klehr and Haynes write. “Many Communists never held party cards. Those belonging to professional groups were treated differently from regular Communists. Most important, they were exempted from the work required of most recruits—selling the Daily Worker, manning picket lines, attending rallies, etc.,—because doing so would have revealed their identities.”

In the end, the analysis continues, “the words of Oppenheimer’s friends and the evidence from the wiretaps and burglary, according to Bird and Sherwin, all amounted to nothing more than a case of mistaken identity. Oppenheimer left the impression that he was a Communist, so friends and party members naturally assumed he was and spoke of him as Communist. In fact, Bird and Sherwin even suggest he may have fooled himself: ‘For a brief time,’ they write, ‘he may well have thought of himself as an unaffiliated comrade’ even though he wasn’t. No, Oppenheimer was an ardent New Dealer and FDR loyalist. …

“…If he had been, why would he have written fiercely anti-FDR pamphlets in 1940 during the period when the Nazis and Soviets were in an alliance and Oppenheimer actively supported the Soviet invasion of Finland? Bird and Sherwin write that at that moment, Oppenheimer’s ‘rational style had abandoned him’ and that his ‘words reveal someone primarily worried about the impact on domestic politics of a world teetering on the brink of a great disaster.’ What they cannot admit is that he was parroting the CPUSA’s anti-interventionist, anti-FDR, anti-New Deal line — and this after thousands of disillusioned close allies of the CPUSA abandoned (some permanently, some temporarily) their alignment with the party because of its new friendship with Hitler. Several hundred members openly quit the CPUSA because it had abandoned the putative anti-fascism that had led them into the party. Odd behavior, indeed, if Oppenheimer had been only a dedicated liberal.”

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