Field of Science

David Greenglass and Robert Oppenheimer: A lesson from history

David Greenglass and Robert Oppenheimer
(Images: NYT and NDTV)
The name of David Greenglass must have almost completely faded from memory for people of my generation. Greenglass himself probably wanted his name to fade from all of history, although history is seldom so kind. The fact remains that not only did he spy for the Soviet Union on the Manhattan Project but he also likely betrayed his sister and sent her to the electric chair.

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.


  1. Discussing spies on the Manhattan Project requires explaining a larger truth. The laws of physics don't obey national boundaries. The secret of the atomic bomb was that it worked. That was revealed to the world at Hiroshima.

  2. Minor correction - Greenglass died on July 1, 2014 - the notice of his death was just now revealed - see the obituary

  3. Fuchs is notorious but we should not forget Ted (Theodore) Hall (born Theodore Holtzberg). He is frequently noted for being the youngest scientist to work at Los Alamos. I dispute this. Hall was bore on October 20, 1925 while Roy Glauber was born on September 1, 1925. Both worked on critical mass calculations so they must have known each other. Hall also worked on implosion experiments. Hall passed that critical information to the Soviets through a separate network from Fucks. Unaware of the others involvement the two sources provided the Soviets important corroboration of the information they received. Hall escaped all the intense searching for Soviet spies that sprang up after the war. Supposedly the Venona Project implicated Hall in espionage but for reasons still unclear the FBI never charged him.

    After the war Hall completed his PhD in physics at the U of Chicago while still doing work for the Soviets. He was passing on information about the hydrogen bomb. Apparently he then began working in the field of biology using X-rays for microanalysis. Later moving to Great Britain he began working at Cambridge University where he retired in 1984. So let’s not forget the successful spies who sold out their country, had successful careers in science, and never had to answer for their crimes.

    Yes, the effectiveness of our “national security apparatus” to prevent espionage or sabotage or terrorist threats is highly questionable and should be thoroughly and publicly examined. Especially since Russia enjoys rubbing our noses in our failures. In 2007 Putin gave posthumously the Hero of the Russian Federation medal (highest civilian honor) to George Koval, another spy who got away. He gave the Soviets information about the initiator used in the implosion bomb. After the war he moved to the Soviet Union where he happily lived out the remainder of his life.

    Great post Ash, thanks!
    M Tucker

    1. Thanks. The initiator was one of the biggest secrets of the implosion device. Hall was certainly one of those who got away. In his "Dark Sun", Rhodes reckons that there were thousands of American-born Soviet agents whose identities we might never know. It would have been so much more productive - and patriotic - if the McCarthy minions had focused on these very real traitors instead of going after imagined "communists" under every bed.

  4. Oppenheimer was a very complicated person. It is obvious that he was willing to develop a bomb in the beginning. But, for someone with that genius and with a great responsibility, he should have been much more careful about his connections and people around him.

    There are so many parts in his testimony that one should be really naive to believe in them. I just can't believe, I don't know.

    1. Oppenheimer was naive and complex and he tempted fate, no doubt it. It's just that the punishment still did not fit the crime and was disgraceful.

  5. This is a little naive. In the first place, Manhattan Engineering District security was certainly as good as was practical, but nobody was foolish enough to believe it was "watertight" in any real sense. Not when thousands of people worked on it. Secondly, security from the Soviets was always a little problematic, as they were, in fact, a wartime ally, and quite a lot of people high in the FDR Administration had a great deal of sympatico with them. It certainly wasn't official policy to give them The Bomb in the 40s, but there were not a few who wouldn't have pressed too hard to ensure it wasn't done. The reason it all changed was largely because of what, to the naive American left, felt like Stalin's incredible and horrifying betrayal in post-war Eastern Europe -- I mean, what did we fight the war against Nazi Germany for if the only people who would end up freed were the French? The failure of Stalin to abide by Potsdam was a seismic shift in all but the hardest core American lefties. *Then* the prospect of Stalin with The Bomb became anathema. Horse, barn door, et cetera.

    Finally, there are a number of places were Oppenheimer clearly dissembled (e.g. about his brother's ties to the CPUSA) and almost certainly lied (Haakon Chevalier). Given the *immensely dangerous* knowledge locked in his head, Oppie's willingness to play games with the strict truth was a very good reason for the government to ride him much harder than any ordinary schmo. Oppie did it to himself. He didn't *need* to give the finger to the admittedly stolid and annoying security rules, he could have just done what he needed to, but his ego and his streak of flakiness wouldn't let him. That he was factually innocent is beside the point: he certainly did enough to raise reasonable fears, and he did so for whimsical and silly reasons (which it's hard for people of less intelligence to understand). He might as well have been Robin Williams making a hilarious joke about bombs in a TSA line. Very funny, yes -- but off you go for the cavity search, and whose fault is that? Do Not Tease The Animals.

    Finally, the assumption that there was an inevitability about the Soviets acquiring the bomb quickly ignores the most important factor in the USSR in the 40s and 50s: the personality of Stalin. He was so unbelievably paranoid that it was *only* by following a design they absolutely knew would work (because it was stolen from the Americans) than any Soviet scientist of the required intelligence was willing to stick his neck out and try for a bomb. Had the exact plans been unavailable -- had the Soviet physicists had to start from scratch, mostly, and proceeded to make the inevitable expensive mistakes, there is quite a good chance that half of them would've ended up in the gulag or dead and the project would've been stillborn, particularly given the expense and the extreme demands of wartime and immediate post-war economy. Stalin was that paranoid. (Note that he put the notorious Beria in charge of the project, whose paranoia Stalin could be confident was no less than his own.)

    And then what...? Had the whole line been shut down until Stalin's death, it would have been eight long years of an American sole possession of the weapon. Perhaps Stalin *would* have felt compelled to honor Potsdam, and Eastern Europe would've been free in 1945, instead of 1991. And without a Soviet A-bomb and Stalin's betrayal (which hit him hard), Truman might not have seen the need for the H-bomb, and might even have pursued an agreement with the Soviets forswearing their use. It's possible the nuclear arsenal of the world might've remained at a few hundred 150kt boosted fission weapons delivered by B-52. Not nearly as hideous and expensive as 20,000 300-750kt thermonuclear warheads on Minutemen for a few decades.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I agree that Oppenheimer dissembled and made up stories. But I disagree that that behavior warranted this kind of unconstitutional and disgraceful hearing. It's a question of the punishment fitting the crime, especially when the so-called "crime" had been dismissed before when Oppenheimer was vetted for the project. Rabi summed up my feeling about the hearing best: "He's a consultant, and if you don't want to consult the guy you don't, period."

    2. > He was so unbelievably paranoid that it was *only* by following a design they absolutely knew would work (because it was stolen from the Americans) than any Soviet scientist of the required intelligence was willing to stick his neck out and try for a bomb.

      Is that really true? The way they did the Uranium isotope separation was very different from the way the Manhattan Project did it (they got the better Germans in that case).


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