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From Los Angeles Times:

A Soviet spy chief's memoirs published here today claim that the late J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the U.S. atomic bomb project during and after World War II, passed nuclear secrets to Soviet agents.

Was Oppenheimer a spy passing nuclear secrets to Soviet agents?

See also http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-2237826/The-life-J-Robert-Oppenheimer-The-unstable-A-bomb-know-self-destructed.html

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I highly doubt it. –  Mew Jan 10 '13 at 4:50
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1 Answer

up vote 13 down vote accepted

As a (secret at the time) member of the Communist Party in USA (other references here) and considering his scientific platform, it is highly likely that he at least was being approached by recruiters from KGB (GRU).

If he eventually passed secrets to the Russians and became a spy, only the Russians would know as there exist no available evidence of such.

A letter from Boris Merkulov (USSR People’s Commissar for State Security) to Lavrenty Beria (USSR People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs), 2 October 1944 states:

In 1942 one of the leaders of scientific work on [uranium] in the USA, Professor Oppenheimer while being an unlisted (nglastny) member of the apparat of Comrade Browder informed us about the beginning of work.

Source: Cold War International History Project / Wilson Center

Analytics says the following about the letter and Oppenheimer -

Jerrold Schecter, a historian and journalist, writes this:

Why did the NKVD begin an effort to recruit Oppenheimer in 1944 if Oppenheimer had already been working for the NKVD since 1942? The answer is simple. Oppenheimer was never formally recruited as a Soviet agent. He was asked, as a friend of the Soviet Union, to help the American Communist Party obtain information on nuclear secrets. Oppenheimer's role was that of a facilitator, which the document from Merkulov to Beria notes in detail. ("provided cooperation in access to research for several of our tested sources including a relative of Comrade Browder." Sacred Secrets, pp.315-317). Soviet intelligence's appeal to Oppenheimer and other Manhattan Project scientists was to aid a wartime ally to build an atomic bomb before the Germans could build their own.

Both the GRU and the NKVD wanted to recruit Oppenheimer after Kheifetz and the Zarubins were recalled. However, their contacts were broken when Earl Browder and the Communist underground, through Comintern agent Steve Nelson, no longer could work directly with Zarubin and Kheifetz. Kheifetz had served both as the NKVD and the Comintern coordinator for Soviet espionage. When the Comintern was disbanded in 1943 Soviet intelligence was looking for a new channel to contact Oppenheimer.

And he concludes with:

Does Oppenheimer's cooperation make him a spy under American law? Yes, if there is documentary evidence or testimony to back the assertion of Oppenheimer's cooperation in Merkulov's letter to Beria. The Soviets say Oppenheimer was helping a wartime ally, but they knew the materials to which he provided access would make him guilty of espionage if revealed and prosecuted. The Russians are still protecting Oppenheimer's reputation. [...] President Putin admitted on CNN's Larry King Live (September 8, 2000) that American scientists cooperated in Soviet atomic espionage , but he did not name names. Russian intelligence still protects its assets.

The Haunted Wood, by Allan Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev. Weinstein, president of the Center for Democracy, and Vassiliev, a former Soviet agent who had access to KGB archives, write (p. 184):

The fact that station chief Grigory Heifetz was recalled to Moscow in 1944 because of his failure to bring any of 'Enormoz's' scientists into the fold suggests, however, that Oppenheimer never agreed to become a source of information for the Soviets, as some recent writers have asserted.

In a footnote, Weinstein and Vassiliev cite an unpublished KGB document as the source for their conclusion: "File 25748, Vol. 2, pp. 116, 148".

Gregg Herken, a historian and curator at the Smithsonian Institution and author of "Brotherhood of the Bomb, conclude in his comment:

[...] the case for Oppenheimer as a traitor and a spy is not convincing. Absent additional and better evidence, the question raised by the Schecters deserves only a Scotch verdict: not proven. But if the Schecters and their allies are indeed interested in pursuing the truth about Kheifets and Oppenheimer, the KGB file cited by Weinstein and Vassiliev might be a good place to start, the next time they are in Moscow.

Hayden Peake, formerly with U.S. Army intelligence, writes:

The authenticity of the so-called Merkulov letter in Scared Secrets (reproduced on pp. 315-7) has been challenged by analysts who have accepted as authentic another Merkulov letter cited in Weinstein's Haunted Wood (pp. 183-84) which is neither reproduced nor scheduled to available at any time for independent authentication. This may be convenient but it is inconsistent.

Further he writes:

On the point of whether Oppenheimer was a source for the NKGB, the letter states he was if one accepts that antecedent of the "he" in 4th paragraph is Oppenheimer. Providing "cooperation in access to the research" of "tested sources" to a man he knows to be a Soviet agent or officer, makes Oppenheimer a knowing NKGB source. Whether one wishes to call him an agent is semantic quibbling.

He close his comment with:

In short, I accept the letter and its implications.

So in conclusion: until the Russians choose to reveal if Oppenheimer actually worked for them, or informed them, there is no evidence that he did so. Are there indications? yes, was he interesting for the Russians? definitely, could Oppenheimer sympathies with Soviet? As member of the Communist Party it's likely he did.

But nevertheless, without solid evidence one remain innocent until proven guilty.

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s/nglastny/neglasny/ –  DVK Jan 14 '13 at 15:32
    
Without seeing precisely what he shared we can't know if it was disinformation. That seems an equal if not higher probability. Also,the Russians have motive to lie since spying is as much about disinformation as it is about information. Obscuring the truth is always useful from a spy's perspective. –  Tim Quinn Jan 15 '13 at 22:35
    
I agree with you @TimQuinn. Disinformation is always an important part of PSYOP war and the letter being dated at the time and not more recent makes that more likely. There is no reason why Putin and co should hold back this kind of info this long after. I mean, he like to show off and showing that Soviet was able to use a famous scientist would be kind of showing off. On the other side, Oppenheimer was a communist. I think OP must understand that we might not get an absolute answer due to how the current state of things are. I think that is the answer. –  Ken Jan 15 '13 at 23:02
    
I'd point out that in terms of PSYOPS convincing the Americans to try, convict and execute one of their leading atomic researchers as a spy would have been one hell of a coup from a Soviet perspective -- manipulate your enemies into destroying one of their own assets, inflame paranoia and distrust between the US govt and other scientists, severely reduce the overall efficiency of the US nuclear program... I'd have called that a major win in any book. –  Shadur Mar 5 '13 at 9:04
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