Beyond Hollywood: Science, Spies and Security Risks
Or, The Oppenheimer Trap
Here is a treat. A guest expert column by Reg Whitaker, one of Canada’s leading national security experts. We’ve seen the films. With this piece we can dig a little deeper and explore the tradeoffs between security and key scientific projects during the Cold War. Enjoy!
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Reg Whitaker writes:
Two recent films highlight the Manhattan Project, the development of the atomic bomb, Soviet nuclear espionage and the national security panic that engulfed the weaponization of science. The two films highlight, directly or indirectly, a conundrum that appears when science goes to war, or cold war.
Modern science can unlock the most basic secrets of the universe. In doing so – for example, in learning how to split the atom – science can be harnessed to unlock destructive power on a previously unimagined scale as a weapon of mass destruction. Science drafted into military service becomes an intelligence problem, in more than one sense of the word. The leading physicists mobilized in the Manhattan Project were on the one hand applying intelligence in the sense of the same pure quest for knowledge that had driven the discoveries of scientists from Galileo to Einstein. On the other hand as a military scheme, the Manhattan Project was an intelligence problem in the sense of secrets that had to be protected from enemy eyes, or indeed from any eyes, friendly or unfriendly, from outside the charmed circle of the initiated and security-cleared. Beyond this was the question of the criteria used to determine risk, and the potential political biases that might be involved in selecting risk factors. The conundrum: how well could open-minded scientific intelligence survive the constraints and limitations of security intelligence?
Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), is a dramatic Hollywood blockbuster of the season. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist in overall charge of the Manhattan Project, known to an awestruck public as the ‘father of the Bomb’, is seen before, during and after Los Alamos. ‘During’ is when we see Oppenheimer at the ‘Trinity’ test explosion, both basking in the success of the project he had led yet facing the spectre of the awesome mushroom cloud while intoning the words of the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds”. ‘After’ mainly focuses on 1954: as the hysterical era of McCarthyism peaked, a special national security hearing resulted in Oppenheimer being publicly stripped of his security clearance.
There is no evidence Oppenheimer actually betrayed any secrets. He did have close personal associations with a number of Communists or Communist sympathizers, including his brother, his ex-girlfriend and his wife. In the panicky atmosphere of the early Cold War that was enough to cast dark suspicion, even on the man who had been lauded as the genius who masterminded the project that had unlocked the staggering power of the atom and given America the global supremacy that came with an apparent monopoly of the ‘winning weapon’ that ended World War 2.
Four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the USSR successfully tested its first atomic bomb. To credulous American politicians and public who believed the American monopoly would last forever, this was a terrible shock, explicable only in terms of the Soviets having stolen the American nuclear ‘secret’. In early 1950, a leading Manhattan physicist, Klaus Fuchs, confessed to having passed nuclear intelligence to the Soviets from 1942 on. Oppenheimer’s security hearing came a year after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for passing sketchy nuclear information to the Soviets, leaving two orphaned children. There were real Soviet spies, but there was also a witch hunt for traitors to blame for this injury to American hubris.
In the race for the much more powerful hydrogen bomb, the gap between the first successful American test and the first Soviet test narrowed to only a few months. Cold War hawks interpreted the fast Soviet H-bomb timetable as evidence that there were yet more spies to be ferreted out. Oppenheimer, assailed by ethical doubts about the human costs of the use of the weapon he had helped bring into being, had opposed the H-bomb project. There were moral and logical conundrums here, perhaps never resolved in Oppenheimer’s own mind. But to suspicious Cold Warriors, it was evidence for more doubts about Oppenheimer’s loyalty.
At a pivotal point in the 1954 hearing, General Leslie Groves, the military commander of the Project who had recruited Oppenheimer and made sure the project had the resources and personnel to be carried through to the successful conclusion of the first test of the atomic bomb, was confronted by the investigating board with a direct question: retroactively applying the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission criteria for establishing an employee security risk, would Groves still give Oppenheimer the clearance he had been granted during the war? Groves reluctantly agreed that applying current rules he could not have. Most previous accounts of the Oppenheimer case have been partial to Oppenheimer but less friendly to Groves. Groves’ answer has often been portrayed as a betrayal, as the General bending to the prevailing McCarthyite winds at Oppenheimer’s expense. The film presents a more sympathetic reading of Groves, and in emphasising Groves’ reluctance to agree with the AEC interrogator, implies a deeper problem in the security system.
By the 1954 rules, there was no question that Oppenheimer had constituted a security risk in 1942-45, when such rules were not yet written. He had had close personal associations with known Communists; he had contributed financially to Communist or Communist-front causes; he had failed to report a query from a friend obviously seeking secrets to pass to the Soviets (although he had not complied). Even during the wartime alliance with Stalin’s Russia, suspicions of the Soviets were widespread, indicated in the decision to share knowledge of the atomic bomb project with America’s British and Canadian allies, but to try (unsuccessfully) to keep the Soviets on the other side of a closed door. Any associations or indications of ideological sympathy with Communism were thus at the centre of American concerns over security risks to the Manhattan enterprise. Yet Groves had known about Oppenheimer’s Communist associations at the time and nonetheless refused the advice of suspicious security officers that Oppenheimer be removed, or at least put under interrogation. Groves’ reluctance might have been based on unhappiness at having to admit that he had been wrong, but something more significant was involved.
Groves was certainly suspicious of anything associated with Communism. He believed that a chief benefit of an American Bomb would be to intimidate Russia – a revelation that so shocked the nuclear scientist Joseph Rotblat that he quit the Manhattan Project to devote himself to the cause of nuclear disarmament. But Groves had a more subtle motive. Without spelling it out publicly, he implied that if he had had Oppenheimer removed, America might have failed to build the bomb, or taken much longer to get there, with the huge human costs of an invasion of the Japanese homeland. Oppenheimer was the glue that held the Project together, a man with both the prestige and respect of his peers due a physicist of high standing and a man with the administrative and interpersonal skills to keep a crew of free spirits and big egos, sometimes at odds with one another on scientific and personal grounds, working on the whole harmoniously together towards success. The 1954 security rules were in this case foolish. There could have been a high-security project with doubtful prospects, or what Groves instead chose: a less than high-security project that succeeded.
More light is cast on this issue in the recently released documentary A Compassionate Spy (Directed by Steve James, available to stream in Canada on Apple TV+). The “compassionate spy” is Ted Hall whose role in passing crucial information from Los Alamos to the Soviets did not provoke espionage charges and indeed did not become public knowledge for decades, until Hall himself confessed a year before his death in 1999. The documentary has little of the box office appeal of Oppenheimer. As a film, it suffers from excessive parti pris on Hall’s behalf, including its uncritical acceptance in the title of Hall’s own description of his spying as motivated by “compassion” (whatever that could mean in the context of Stalin’s USSR). But the story it tells is extraordinary, and as thought-provoking as the Oppenheimer security case.
Ted Hall was an 18 year-old wunderkind recruited out of his senior year at Harvard to play a key role at Los Alamos, designing the implosion mechanism for the bomb. Like other Jewish scientists at Los Alamos, including Oppenheimer himself, Hall justified his work on developing a weapon of mass destruction in the context of the fear that Nazi Germany might get there first. But with Germany defeated and the bomb used against the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hall’s moral qualms rose to the surface – as did Oppenheimer’s. In Hall’s case, he feared that an American state with a nuclear monopoly might become recklessly aggressive, and decided to pass detailed information on the implosion mechanism as well as other secret information he had gathered to the Soviets. Hall was not recruited by Soviet intelligence; he was a self-motivated walk-in. In his retroactive justification, Hall stressed that passing crucial secrets enabling Soviet development of the bomb constituted an effort to rebalance the international power structure, although his own Communist Party ties suggests ideological motivation not too far from that of long-time Klaus Fuchs. What he did provide his Soviet contacts was pure gold to the Russian nuclear program, far more significant than anything passed by Julius Rosenberg.
Yet even as Fuchs went on trial in the UK and on to prison, and the Rosenbergs went to the electric chair, Hall’s name never publicly surfaced. Behind the scenes, Hall was a target of FBI suspicion. His Los Alamos security clearance was revoked, initially on the basis of his known Communist ties without any direct proof of espionage. Denying everything, he finally refused to submit to any further FBI interrogations. Intrusive surveillance and harassment continued, finally driving him to a position at Cambridge University in the UK where he settled with his family for decades. We now know that a 1944 Soviet document among the Venona decrypts actually discussed Hall by name as a Soviet intelligence asset. As with the Rosenbergs, Venona decrypts were off-limits for use in criminal proceedings for fear of alerting the Soviets to the American counter-espionage coup of breaking the Soviet code. In any event, they were likely inadmissible in court as hearsay evidence, even if they had been produced.
The FBI might have been grinding their teeth in frustration at having this very big fish evade them, but they were not done looking for ways to snag their elusive quarry. This is where the story becomes both weird and ironic. The FBI gambit was to hit on Hall’s older brother, Edward Hall, to use against Ted. Ed Hall was America’s premiere rocket scientist on the US Air Force ICBM program (The Hall brothers were a most remarkable scientific duo!). Going on guilt by association, the FBI turned suspicious eyes on Ed Hall, but their main aim was to threaten the elder brother to force his sibling to confess– rather like sending the innocent Ethel Rosenberg to her death in a vain attempt to get her husband to admit his own guilt.
What the FBI may not have known was that Ted had fully briefed his brother on his wartime espionage, with which Ed, despite his role at the centre of the American Cold War nuclear program, was complicit, or at least sufficiently loyal to family not to divulge. According to the film, when Ed was threatened by the FBI with the loss of his own security clearance if he did not turn in his brother, he in effect dared them to go ahead, take away his clearance and thus undermine the American strategic nuclear capacity. The FBI stood down.
According to investigative reporter Dave Lindorff in The Nation magazine in 2022, there is more to this story. Drawing on newly declassified FBI documents, Lindorff reports that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had wanted to arrest Ted and had sought to target his brother as part of the investigation, but that this had been effectively blocked by Air Force General Joseph F. Carroll, a former top aide to Hoover at the FBI before he became the head of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). Carroll permitted 1951 FBI interviews with Ed – with a USAF babysitter present – but the FBI was restricted to questions about Ed only, not about his brother. The OSI feared that if Ted were fingered as a Soviet spy the USAF would be forced in the prevailing atmosphere of McCarthyism to drop their top missile expert. Having done their own OSI security investigation of Ed, the USAF promoted him to Lt. Colonel (later Colonel) and made him Director of the entire missile program, where he was personally responsible for the design of the highly successful Minuteman missile which he convinced the Pentagon and President Eisenhower to make a central part of the US strategic nuclear armoury. In 1999, around the time Ted divulged his espionage career publicly, Ed was inducted into the Air Force Aerospace Hall of Fame.
Here the stories of Oppenheimer and Hall come together. Gen. Carroll was to Hall what Gen. Grove was to Oppenheimer. Both generals intervened to protect key figures in the development of American nuclear power from being deemed security risks. Oppenheimer was not a risk although his profile suggested he might have been. Ted Hall’s profile suggested he was the security risk he turned out to be. But Oppenheimer was indispensable to the development of nuclear weapons and Hall’s brother was indispensable to the development of the ICBMs that would deliver America’s nukes. So Cold War strategic interests trumped Cold War security interests.
There are a few quick takeaways from this irony-heavy tale.
First, the secrets that the atom spies provided Stalin did not ‘steal’ the Bomb. The Bomb was not a secret formula that the US could keep locked up. At best, Hall and Fuchs may have sped up the Soviet timetable by a few years. Soviet scientists, mobilized by the Soviet state like the scientists mobilized by the American state at the Manhattan Project, were just as capable of developing nuclear weapons. Indeed by 1957 the Soviets won the initial round of the space race by launching Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite. This set off a massive crise de conscience in Western countries, leading to major new investments in scientific training and development of advanced space and rocket science to ‘catch up’ to the USSR. We should not overestimate the impact of scientific espionage in a highly competitive international environment. No one nation has a monopoly on scientific discovery, nor on the exploitation of scientific knowledge for military purposes.
Second, in the context of the 1940s, the leading motive for espionage appeared to be ideological sympathy with an adversary state. Communist sympathies did inspire Hall and Fuchs to betray the trust they had been accorded. But the era of the great ideological spies, the Cambridge Five etc., was time-limited. As historical circumstances change, so do the motives for spying. Western counter-espionage pursued witch hunts for elusive Communist moles long after they had mostly gone extinct, causing serious internal damage to Western intelligence agencies.
Hall claimed a more subtle motive than simple ideological affinity for the Soviet Union. He believed he was helping rebalance the international order by preventing a dangerous American nuclear monopoly. The balance of terror as it became known did in one sense help prevent a third world war breaking out between the two main adversaries. But the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 brought the nuclear Armageddon clock to one minute to midnight before both sides backed off and backed down. Nuclear superpower parity could be a factor for balance but it was inherently volatile and unstable.
Did America effectively exploit the brief era of its nuclear monopoly to enforce American global hegemony, as Hall feared in his spying rationale? Ironically, this era was precisely when world Communism made its biggest gains of the entire Cold War. Stalin’s army and secret police brought all of eastern Europe, including the eastern half of the defeated Germany, under rigid Soviet control by 1948. The following year, Communist revolutionaries swept to power in China, the world’s most populous state. Nukes were not the ‘winning weapon’ of Cold War diplomacy because they were too big and catastrophic to be used to score diplomatic victories, even when monopolized by one side. The takeaway here is that if counterespionage overestimated the damage nuclear spies could do, so perhaps did the spies themselves.
Today a new Cold War has replaced the old. Once again, the drums of a nuclear arms race are sounding. Counterespionage alarms this time are about Western scientific and technological secrets being stolen by pro-Chinese spies.
History does not repeat itself but it has been said that it sometimes rhymes. Lessons of the past might also rhyme in the present, if anyone is listening.
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