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Was Oppenheimer a Soviet Spy? A Roundtable Discussion

CWIHP e-Dossier No. 11

Last year, Jerrold L. and Leona P. Schecter presented findings from their recently published book: Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History, at a Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) seminar. Comments to the presentation were provided by Kai Bird (author of a forthcoming biography of Oppenheimer and former Wilson Center Fellow), R. Bruce Craig (National Coalition for History), Ronald Radosh (co-editor of Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War) and Hayden Peake (Joint Military Intelligence College)

Much of the discussion during the meeting focused on a previously unknown Russian document obtained by the Schecters, which raised the question as to whether Robert Oppenheimer, one of the leading scientists of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, had been a Soviet spy.

The document in question is a letter by Merkulov to Lavrenti Beria, the head of the Soviet atomic project, 2 October 1944.

Below we present three analytical commentaries on the Merkulov letter.

The Merkulov Letter, by Jerrold and Leona Schecter

The Merkulov letter to Beria raises the question of whether Robert Oppenheimer was a spy for the Soviet Union during the wartime period when he directed the Manhattan project. The letter must be read in the context of Soviet intelligence operations in the United States during World War II. Robert Oppenheimer's long time membership in the Communist Party of the United States was made secret in 1942 because he was being used as a Soviet intelligence asset by the Communist Underground to help obtain atomic secrets. Oppenheimer was being run through the American Communist Party and the Comintern, the Communist International until 1944. Soviet intelligence decided that such operations were too risky because of increased FBI surveillance of Communist Party operatives. At the time that Stalin acceded to President Roosevelt's request and dissolved the Comintern in 1943, Soviet intelligence had to reorganize its espionage channels in the United States. The letter addresses that problem, among others.

The letter is questioned by Gregg Herken,whowrote in Brotherhood of the Bomb "it is difficult to know whether this cable is evidence of Oppenheimer's complicity or reflects the (understandable) desire of Kheifetz and other NKVD operatives to curry favor with their boss." (p.93) Gregory Kheifetz was operating under cover as Soviet vice consul San Francisco from late 1941 to the summer of 1944. Herken argued in a posting on H-Diplo: " I suspect Kheifetz, who was recalled to Moscow in mid-1944, of ‘padding his resume' by claiming that he had recruited Oppenheimer. Kheifetz's motive was simple: he was trying to avoid execution for failure to perform while he was the NKVD's main spy in the Bay area."

Herken is mistaken. Kheifetz was not recalled for failing to perform nor for inactivity. Nor was he sent to the gulag. He was recalled because he was named in a secret letter to Stalin by an NKVD officer in the Washington, DC rezidentura. He was accused of being part of a ring led by the rezident Vasili Zarubin, supposedly working for the Germans and the Japanese. Stalin ordered them all recalled to Moscow to investigate the charges, which were dismissed. The officer, Lieutenant Colonel Vasili Dimitrovich Mironov, also sent an unsigned letter to J. Edgar Hoover, exposing the intelligence activities of the Zarubins and Kheifetz, which the FBI named the Anonymous Letter. The author of the letter to Stalin was revealed only in 1994 by Lieutenant General Pavel Sudoplatov in his memoir Special Tasks (pp.196-197). It is clear from the contents that both the letters to Hoover and Stalin were sent by Mironov.

For those interested, the Anonymous Letter to Hoover, received on August 7, 1943, in the Russian original with English translations, can be found on pp. 51-53 in Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner, eds, VENONA Soviet Espionage and the American Response 1919-1957, NSA, CIA. Washington, DC. 1996.

Soviet intelligence, furious at Sudoplatov for revealing a damaging secret, refused to confirm the story or make Mironov's letter to Stalin public. Instead, Soviet intelligence presented the disinformation that Kheifetz was recalled for "inactivity" and that Sudoplatov had not been in charge of atomic espionage during the critical period of World War II. This line, unfortunately, has been perpetuated by Herken, Amy Knight and others. In fact, Kheifetz was cleared of the charges against him, promoted and given a medal. He was chief of section of Department S, atomic espionage, until he fell victim to the anti-semitic purge of 1947 (Sacred Secrets, p.81.) Mironov's letters to Hoover and Stalin hurt Soviet atomic espionage efforts, but by then the bulk of the damage to the Manhattan Project had been done.

Former intelligence officers we interviewed in Moscow stressed that Oppenheimer's assistance was of great importance during the 1942-1944 period. After that the question of who would run him and how he would be contacted produced competition between the NKVD and GRU. Neither group succeeded because their purpose was overtaken by events. By the end of the war the Soviets had what they needed to build their own bomb and in 1946 Beria called an end to all contacts with American sources in the Manhattan Project. When the Baruch plan to share control of atomic energy was rejected by the Soviet Union in 1947, Oppenheimer, disillusioned, wanted nothing more to do with the American Communist Party or Soviet intelligence.

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. This is the problem Merkulov was trying to solve in his letter to Beria.

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.

The Oppenheimer files in Soviet Intelligence Archives and the Presidential Archives remain under seal. The critical 1944 and 1945 documents in the Soviet history of atomic energy have not been published although earlier and later materials have been released. Oppenheimer is mentioned as an unlisted member of the American Communist Party in a Soviet intelligence document dated January 7, 1946. The document, "The State of Work in the Utilization of Atomic Energy in Capitalist Countries," is published in "Atomic Project in the USSR, Volume II, 1938-54" (Moscow: Ministry of Atomic Energy of Russia, 2000).

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.

Jerrold Schecter is a historian, journalist, and award-winning author. He spent eighteen years with Time, including service as the bureau chief in Tokyo and in Moscow, as the White House correspondent, and as a diplomatic editor. He served on the National Security Council for the Carter administration. He is the author of or collaborator on eight books, including Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes and The Spy Who Saved the World.

Leona Schecter, a historian and literary agent, co-authored Special Tasks with her husband Jerrold. Together with their five children, they wrote about life in the Soviet Union in An American Family in Moscow and Back in the USSR. The Schecters live in Washington, D.C.

A Response, by Gregg Herken

The Schecters write that the Merkulov letter to Beria "raises the question of whether Robert Oppenheimer was a spy for the Soviet Union…" Indeed it does. But it does not answer that question. Before one accuses the chief scientist of the Manhattan Project of treason—and treason is what it would have been—there needs to be more, and better, evidence than the single, contradictory document the Schecters have produced.

The key to understanding that document, I think all agree, is the source of Merkulov's information: Gregori Kheifets, the NKVD/KGB's rezident in San Francisco from 1941-44. As the Schecters themselves acknowledge in Sacred Secrets, Kheifets had been in trouble with his bosses at Moscow Center before: "In June 1938, Kheifetz was recalled to Moscow, discharged from the service, and sent to work as an officer in the labor camp in Vorkuta. Five months later, he was fired from state security because of ‘poor health,' another euphemism of the purges." (pp. 81-82)

Earlier in the book, relating the story of a 1997 "spy tour" of KGB headquarters, the Schecters quote former agent Oleg Tsarev's explanation for Kheifets' recall in 1944: "He was sent home for inactivity…" (p. 2). Subsequently, however, the Schecters claim that Tsarev's account was actually KGB disinformation, and that the real reason Kheifets was recalled was the letter that Mironov had sent to J. Edgar Hoover more than a year earlier. (Since Mironov accused Kheifets of being a double agent, the hapless spy had even more desperate reason to prove his loyalty—and rebut the charge of "inactivity"—by claiming to have recruited Oppenheimer.)

Additional evidence that the Kremlin's spy masters were unhappy with Kheifets' performance comes from the only other book to produce a KGB document that mentions Oppenheimer—a document, incidentally, which confirms that Oppenheimer was not working for the KGB as late as February 1944: 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: "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." (p. 184). In a footnote, Weinstein and Vassiliev cite an unpublished KGB document as the source for their conclusion: "File 25748, Vol. 2, pp. 116, 148."

The fact that Kheifets, according to the Schecters, ultimately received praise and rewards for his spy work suggests that Merkulov and Beria "bought" his story. (Kheifets must have been quite a tale-teller. In their previous book, written in cooperation with Russian spy-master Pavel Sudaplatov, the Schecters wrote that, based upon information received from his agents in America, Sudaplatov believed that Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr were also cooperating with the Soviets.)

While it is notoriously difficult to prove a negative, perhaps the best evidence that Robert Oppenheimer was not a spy is the fact that, had he been, the Russians would have had every secret of the atomic bomb—and had it a lot sooner—than we now know they actually got it. The blueprints of Fat Man and other key secrets were sent to Moscow late in the war by the two men who have been positively identified as Soviet agents at Los Alamos—Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall. Contrary to the Schecters' claim, Oppenheimer had nothing to do with bringing either man to the wartime lab.

In brief, 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.

Gregg Herken is a historian and curator at the Smithsonian Institution and author of "Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller." 

A Response, by Hayden Peake

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.

The content of the Sacred Secrets Merkulov letter is also questioned on the point of whether it is or is not "smoking gun" evidence that Robert Oppenheimer was a Soviet source or agent while he worked on the atom bomb project during WWII. Some have argued that the dates are inconsistent with what the Schecters have written concerning when Oppenheimer informed the Soviets of the decision to proceed with an atom bomb program. That may be true, but the date in the letter 1942 is not inconsistent; attention is better paid to the dates in the text (6-7 Dec 1941). 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.

Finally, the fact that others in the NKGB were arguing for greater efforts by the atomic net in the United States, is not in my judgment inconsistent with the Merkulov letter. One source may get positive comments, while other elements of the program are criticized or urged on.

Questions have also been raised about the severing of ties between the CPUSA and the NKGB, due in part to the "Mironov Affair" as mentioned in the Merkulov letter. As to the former point, that action was entirely consistent with NKGB operational policy and would have raised more questions if it had not been done since by late 1944 the Soviets had good reason to consolidate their operations as for example, they had been trying to do so with Elizabeth Bentley for some time. That the "Mironov Affair" was a factor in that decision comes as no surprise. Mironov was a deranged NKGB officer, so much so that even in Stalin's NKGB he was not shot immediately, but put in a mental hospital. When he was recalled he wrote a letter to Stalin. Whether he mentioned the letter to the FBI is doubtful since he was not summarily executed. Likewise he apparently didn't mention giving up other Soviet assets since they were not disturbed. But he must have mentioned some charges against his boss (Zarubin), either in the letter or interrogation, in the States or in Moscow, since the latter was recalled.

In short, I accept the letter and its implications.

Hayden Peake, formerly with U.S. Army intelligence, has published widely on intelligence issues and co-authored the memoirs of Rufina Philby, The Private Life of Kim Philby: The Moscow Years with Rufina and retired KGB officer Mikhail Lyubimov (New York: Fromm International, 2000). Peake serves as an adjunct professor at the Joint Military Intelligence College in Washington, DC. 


Click below to read the document discussed: 

Letter from Boris Merkulov to Lavrenty Beria


About the Authors

Jerrold Schecter

Leona Schecter

Gregg Herken

Hayden Peake

Cold War International History Project

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