Of the many ironies in the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the FBI searched for reds under the beds of virtually every suspected communist in the famed nuclear scientist’s circles, only to fail to catch the real atomic spies stealing A-bomb secrets for the Soviet Union.
Oppenheimer himself, who sympathized with many communist causes, such as racial integration and support for leftists in the Spanish Civil War, was under close watch by Army counterintelligence agents and the FBI throughout his stewardship of the Manhattan Project, the super secret program in the New Mexico desert that produced the first nuclear bomb.
“Despite all this surveillance and intelligence, they were completely unaware of Ted Hall, Klaus Fuchs and any of the other spies,” Kai Bird, co-author of American Prometheus, The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, told me in a SpyTalk podcast interview. “And there were at least three or four of them at Los Alamos. And so, it was an intelligence failure as usual in this business.”
Bird’s book, co-authored with Martin Sherwin, an expert on the nuclear age who died in 2021, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2006 and provided the template for director Christopher Nolan’s phenomenally successful film, “Oppenheimer.” Bird is also the author of several other highly praised biographies, including Outlier, on Jimmy Carter, The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment, and The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, a biography of CIA officer Robert Ames.
Oppenheimer was not only never a security risk, he rejected a pitch from a communist friend to spy for the Soviets, Bird recounted during the podcast. “Oppenheimer’s response was immediate,” he said. “It was, ‘Well, that would be treason.’”
You can listen to the full interview here, on Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts.