The Race for the Atom Bomb: How Soviet Russia Stole the Secrets of the Manhattan Project

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Release Date: 
September 30, 2023
Pen and Sword Military
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The Race for the Atom Bomb is less the story of how the Soviet Union stole the secrets of the Manhattan Project as it is a defense of J. Robert Oppenheimer . . .”

John Harte’s The Race for the Atom Bomb is less the story of how the Soviet Union stole the secrets of the Manhattan Project as it is a defense of J. Robert Oppenheimer against those historians and scholars who believe Oppenheimer, the leading scientist in America’s quest for the bomb, was a communist and a security threat. And while Harte notes some of Oppenheimer’s communist associations, he downplays those associations and almost excuses the American and British officials who spied for or aided Stalin’s Soviet Union during and after the Second World War.

Oppenheimer, Harte admits, knowingly contributed money to the American Communist Party. Harte acknowledges that Robert’s brother Frank, who also worked on the Manhattan Project, was a communist, and that Robert himself may have joined the Party in 1937. Harte notes that Oppenheimer’s landlady in California was an active member of the Communist Party, and his girlfriend Jean Tatlock was a communist who introduced Oppenheimer to many of her communist friends. “Friend by friend, and step by step,” Harte writes, “Oppenheimer was drawn further and further into political activism.” Furthermore, Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty was also a communist who had previously worked with British spy Donald Maclean on behalf of Stalin’s Russia.

Harte excuses Oppenheimer for his communist associations because he “appeared to be unaware that he was being used by . . . the Communist Party.” Harte writes that many Americans aided the Soviet Union because Stalin was fighting against fascism, as if providing your country’s secrets to another country was okay as long as you were fighting fascism. He also excuses Oppenheimer’s communist associations because Oppenheimer was “extraordinarily naive or remarkably ignorant of the real world outside of [his] own [life] and career.”

Harte is also aware that NKVD officer Gregory Kheifetyz, who was involved in Soviet efforts at atomic espionage, “managed to befriend Robert Oppenheimer” in 1941. Oppenheimer’s communist associations caused the FBI to open a file on him in 1941—a file that would eventually grow to 7000 pages. This dossier included information that Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty met with KGB officer Elizabeth Zarubin, whose “main duty at the time was to co-ordinate atomic energy information and other activities for Moscow Centre.”

Harte even labels as ambiguous the following cable sent by Vsevolod Merkulov to Soviet intelligence chief Lavrentiy Beria in October 1944: “In 1942 one of the leaders of scientific work in uranium in the USA, Professor R. Oppenheimer, while being an unlisted member of the apparatus of Comrade Browder, informed us about the beginning of work. On the request of Comrade Browder, he provided co-operation in access to research for several of our tested sources including a relative of Comrade Browder.” Comrade Browder is Earl Browder—the leader of the U.S. Communist Party. “Whatever it might infer,” Harte writes of this cable, “was only vague in translation.”

Scholars far more expert than Harte on the workings of the Soviet espionage networks in America and the activities of the American Communist Party, such as Jerrold and Leona Shecter and Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, see no ambiguity at all in this cable. The Shecters have written that Oppenheimer is noted in a Soviet intelligence document dated January 7, 1946, as a member of the American Communist Party. Klehr and Haynes have pointed out that proof that Oppenheimer had been a communist could be found in memoirs and interviews of his friends, acquaintances, and students. They also note that Oppenheimer supported the Soviet invasion of Finland at a time when Stalin was allied with the Nazi fascists. But Harte, instead, relies on the favorable biography of Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, American Prometheus, to absolve Oppenheimer of any wrongdoing.

The real “villains” of Harte’s book are the American communist-hunters—Senator Joseph McCarthy, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and Lewis Strauss, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, which pulled Oppenheimer’s security clearance in the mid-1950s. Harte rails against the “witch hunts” of “McCarthy’s HUAC,” perhaps forgetting that McCarthy was a Senator and was not a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He even writes this sentence: “Hoover’s old friend Senator McCarthy still led his House Un-American Activities Committee with political energy and a flair for publicity by confronting rich celebrities.” He accuses Strauss and fellow scientist Edward Teller of carrying out personal vendettas to ruin Oppenheimer in the hearings that resulted in Oppenheimer losing his security clearance.

Harte just cannot seem to get his head around the idea that before, during, and after the Second World War, there was what James Burnham called a “web of subversion” in which communists infiltrated U.S. government agencies, including the Manhattan Project, for the benefit of Stalin’s Soviet Union and later Mao’s Red China. The testimonies of Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley and others who had once worked on behalf of the Soviet Union, and the revelations of the Venona intercepts proved this beyond any reasonable doubt. It was those communists, not Senator McCarthy or J. Edgar Hoover, who were the real villains.