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Gregg Herken 2002

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Title
Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller (Henry Holt and Co. 2002)

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Brotherhood of the Bomb is now available in a paperback edition from Owl Books, a division of Henry Holt and Company.

The claim in Brotherhood of the Bomb that Robert Oppenheimer was, with Haakon Chevalier, a member of a secret or so-called closed unit of the Communist Party’s professional section in Berkeley, from 1938 to 1942, has, unsurprisingly, generated some controversy. (See, for example, “Book Contends Chief of A-Bomb Team Was Once a Communist,” 9/9/02, New York Times; and “Oppenheimer Bombshell,” 4/24/04, San Francisco Chronicle). Robert Oppenheimer denied ever being a member of the Communist Party, or belonging to “a Communist Party unit.”

Lost in this controversy, unfortunately, is the real significance of the book’s discovery--which is not the fact of Oppenheimer’s membership in such a group, but the effect that his denials had upon his subsequent life. If, as I contend, Robert Oppenheimer was indeed close enough to the Party before the war to need to hide that fact when Groves chose him to head the bomb project in 1942, this gave Oppie something he continued to have to hide for the rest of his life--including, most notably, during his 1954 loyalty hearing. It also may help to explain why Oppenheimer remained strangely mute while in exile on causes, like nuclear disarmament, that he passionately believed in.

Equally lost in the controversy is a generally overlooked fact that has direct bearing upon Oppenheimer’s place in history: that he was both a communist before the war, and an American patriot then and after. Gordon Griffiths, who served as liaison between Berkeley’s rank-and-file Party and the closed unit to which Oppenheimer and Chevalier belonged, got it exactly right when he wrote in his unpublished memoir: “But the time has come to set the record straight, and to put the question as it should have been put: not whether [Oppenheimer] had or had not been a member of the Communist Party, but whether such membership should, in itself, constitute an impediment to his service in a position of trust.”

Portions of Griffiths’ memoir, and other evidence concerning Oppenheimer’s membership in this closed unit, are posted on the “Documents” section of this website.