'Father of atomic bomb' shared secrets, book says

April 18, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

LONDON -- A Soviet spy chief's memoir published here claims 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.

The allegations were made by Gen. Pavel Sudoplatov, who was in charge of efforts to obtain atomic secrets from the West, and excerpts of them ran in the Sunday Telegraph. Time magazine will print excerpts of the book in today's issue.

The memoir charges that Dr. Oppenheimer, a University of California physicist known as the "father of the atomic bomb," condoned and assisted in the flow of vital nuclear secrets.

Dr. Oppenheimer was director of the Los Alamos project in New Mexico, which built the bomb. The entire operation was known by the code name "Manhattan Project."

After the first test explosion July 16, 1945, two bombs were dropped over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, ending World War II.

From 1947 to 1952, Dr. Oppenheimer was chairman of the general advisory committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, but in December 1953 his top-secret security clearance was revoked because of his alleged Communist associations in the 1930s and 1940s. He was never charged with a crime.

At the time, many liberal Americans thought that Dr. Oppenheimer was a victim of a witch hunt led by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and his followers. Dr. Oppenheimer, known as "Oppie," became the focus of a bitter fight between liberals and fierce anti-Communists.

But Dr. Oppenheimer's reputation appeared to have been rehabilitated by President John F. Kennedy, who invited him to a dinner at the White House for Nobel Prize winners in 1962. He died in 1967.

Of the new book, British historian Robert Conquest, contacted in California by the Sunday Telegraph, declared: "These memoirs show that Oppenheimer was on the edge of committing treason."

General Sudoplatov charges that Elizabeth Zarubina, wife of the Soviet intelligence chief in Washington, cultivated Dr. Oppenheimer socially.

Ms. Zarubina persuaded Dr. Oppenheimer to share atomic secrets with "anti-fascists of German origin," the general says.

The memoir, "Special Tasks," published by Little, Brown, declares: "We received reports on the Manhattan Project from Oppenheimer and his friends in oral form, through comments and asides, and from documents transferred through clandestine methods with their full knowledge that the information they were sharing would be passed on."

The Soviet spy chief says the Soviets took pains not to enlist Dr. Oppenheimer as an agent.

"We understood that he and other members of the scientific community were best approached as friends, not as agents."

"The Soviet bomb was constructed in three years," he says. "Without the intelligence contribution, there could have been no Soviet bomb that quickly."

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