|David Greenglass and Robert Oppenheimer|
(Images: NYT and NDTV)
Greenglass who died quietly on July 1 at age 92 in a nursing home was the atomic spy who ferried secrets from Los Alamos to his sister and her husband, the infamous Rosenbergs. His obituary in the NYT appeared yesterday and it's interesting not only for the bygone era that it evokes, but even more so because it eerily comes on the heels of another article from the NYT two days ago, this one documenting the release of the complete transcript of Robert Oppenheimer's 1954 security hearing. In death Greenglass and Oppenheimer strangely join hands in teaching all of us some valuable lessons.
Their stories are both instructive tales of misguided priorities and the kind of paranoia and intolerance of freedom of expression that war and peace can both engender. The reason why the simultaneous appearance of stories about these two men is so striking is because it reminded me of one of the greatest ironies of the Manhattan Project: the fact that in spite of what was considered watertight security, Klaus Fuchs and David Greenglass were literally carrying out secrets of the highest importance through the front gate while the director of the project had his phone tapped and was being interrogated about past communist "associations". A greater misapplication of the security apparatus has seldom manifested itself.
Greenglass and Fuchs both gave away key secrets on the implosion design of the plutonium bomb - the only real secret as such that the project unearthed - and they did this under the noses of what was supposed to be one of the most sophisticated and tightly controlled security organizations on the face of the planet. Greenglass's life also indicates how sometimes the most ordinary of men can acquire extraordinary significance in the annals of history: Greenglass was a rather lowly machinist, by all accounts not a very intelligent and well-educated man, who by sheer luck ended up in Los Alamos via Oak Ridge, TN. When his brother-in-law Julius found out where he was working he must have drooled at the possibility of getting his hands on crucial atomic information for the Soviets. Julius convinced Greenglass's sister Ethel to convince her brother to pass on secrets, all in the name of camaraderie with Uncle Joe of course.
After the war, when Klaus Fuchs who was the really significant spy confessed, he implicated Harry Gold, the courier who was the go-between between the Rosenbergs, Greenglass and Fuchs. Gold in turn implicated Greenglass and the Rosenbergs. In 1951, in a kind of plea bargain which would spare his wife and give him a lenient sentence, David Greenglass took the stand against his sister and his testimony played an important part in ending the life of this mother of two. The real sinner seems to have been Julius, and how much Ethel really knew has been debated to this day. Nonetheless, it's clear that the Eisenhower administration wanted to make an example of the Rosenbergs so they were executed in the face of public protests in June 1953. In contrast the far more significant spy, Klaus Fuchs, was released after a mere nine years. One wonders how heavily his role in his sister's execution must have weighed on Greenglass's mind for the ensuing 60 years in that obscure nursing home.
Just a year later the monstrosity that was Cold War paranoia brought about the downfall of Robert Oppenheimer. In what will always be a black, shameful blot on the political history of this country, paranoid right-wing enemies of Oppenheimer had the government conduct a security hearing which interrogated Oppenheimer with the zeal of the Inquisition. In a blatantly unconstitutional travesty of justice his phones were tapped and his lawyers were denied access to critical information under the pretext of national security. The father of the atomic bomb, a man who had given so much to his country and whose actions rendered him far more patriotic than those who were accusing him, left the hearing with his security clearance taken away and his spirit broken. The recent NYT article tells us what we knew for 60 years, that Oppenheimer was wholly loyal and exhibited no more than a sensitive liberal's awakening to experiments with different political philosophies. That it took the government 60 years to reveal the blindingly obvious is an indictment of a system of secrecy and classification which has fed upon itself for so long.
Like Shakespeare's tragedies the stories of both these men are timeless and speak to the ages. Just like it spied on Oppenheimer while letting Greenglass get away, the national security apparatus as revealed by Edward Snowden today spies on innocent people while letting the real criminals get away. Just like McCarthy and his acolytes interpreted disagreement with disloyalty, so do today's political extremists equate disagreement with bigotry and treason. Members of both the right wing and the left often squelch dissenting opinion, either through official or legal means or more commonly through creating enough public outrage so that the opposition is silenced. Both public and private organizations worry about political correctness far more than they do about diversity of opinion. It is easy enough to extol freedom of speech on paper but much harder to uphold it in practice. Especially when it applies to others.
This won't do. In death David Greenglass and Robert Oppenheimer once again remind us of the pillars which should uphold a liberal democracy that prides itself on freedom of speech, and this is a lesson that we should take to heart. The age of McCarthy is always closer than we think.