Cornell Simpson on J. Robert Oppenheimer

The American physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, is famous for having headed up the team of scientists that developed the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.  Los Alamos, however, is also infamous for having been almost sieve-like in its leakage of important scientific secrets to the Soviet Union. In an act that is seen, depending upon one's political orientation, as a case of too little and too late, or a show of monumental ingratitude for service to his country, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance in 1954.

As one can see from his Wikipedia page,  the first decade of the 21st century has seen a veritable blizzard of books about Oppenheimer.  Although they have not been reported upon widely, the public impression of the scientist as just another victim of the Red Scare era has probably eroded significantly in recent years.  

The erosion of Oppenheimer's reputation need not have taken so long.  In 1966, as one example among many showing that Secretary of Defense James Forrestal's concerns over Communist infiltration of the government were well warranted, author Cornell Simpson* had some damning revelations about Oppenheimer.  Simpson's book was The Death of James Forrestal.  For all the attention it got, it might as well have not been written.  It received no reviews and very few libraries purchased it.  

Now, through the miracle of the Internet, you can read what has been kept out of your sight for so long:

And finally, after the leakage to Russia of a number of our nuclear fission secrets, legislative investigations revealed appalling testimony concerning Dr. J. Robert Oppenmeimer, who was for a long time director of the Los Alamos A-bomb establishment and was then our top atomic scientist.  Much of this was information previously unearthed in a wartime military investigation that had been abruptly halted in August 1943 on orders from someone high in the Roosevelt administration.  Oppenheimer, despite his notorious record was retained for years afterward in his sensitive position and was chiefly responsible for delaying the U.S. H-bomb development for four critical years.

Oppenheimer's brother, Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, and his brother's wife had been Communists.  During the Spanish Civil War Oppenheimer's own wife traveled with and subsequently remained an intimate friend of the infamous Joseph Fleishinger, alias Steve Nelson.  Nelson was a U.S. Communist party official, GPU agent, and Russian atom spy.  One of Mrs. Oppenheimer's former husbands (her second) had for years been a high Communist party official in Ohio and had been killed with the Communist forces in Spain.  During the years of that marriage, as she later admitted in testimony, she herself had been active in the Communist party.

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer himself habitually consorted with known Communists, including Steve Nelson; he had an acknowledged Communist mistress; for years he contributed $150 a month to the Communist party; and he held at least one closed meeting of two special-section units (or secret cells) of the Communist party in his own home!

In fact, the June 1943 report of the military intelligence officer Colonel Boris T. Pash stated:

Information available to this office indicates that subject [Oppenheimer] may still be connected with the Communist Party.

(a) Bernadett Doyle, organizer of the Communist Party in Alameda County, Calif., has referred to subject and his brother, Frank, as being regularly registered within the party.

The Russian ambassador could scarcely have been a worse security risk.  And remember, most of these facts, suppressed from the public while left-wingers hysterically defended the "maligned" "innocent" Oppenheimer, were known to our government back in 1943. (pp. 57-58)

To buttress his suggestion that James Forrestal's fall from a 16th floor window of the Bethesda Naval Hospital in May 1949 could well have been orchestrated by the Communists, working with infiltrators within the Truman administration, Simpson lists a number of examples of suspicious deaths that were very convenient for the Reds:

One or more unusual deaths meshed with the Oppenheimer case, just as sudden deaths studded the [Alger] Hiss case.

First, there was the mysterious demise of Jean Tatlock, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer's Communist mistress.  Oppenheimer (discussed earlier in chapter four) had headed wartime atomic research at the University of California's radiation laboratories at Berkeley--and was director of the Los Alamos atom bomb plant.  He was the nation's top nuclear fission scientist.  It was not until many years later, 1954, that the Atomic Energy Commission's loyalty board finally barred Oppenheimer as a security risk from access to nuclear fission secrets—a perfect example of locking the barn door after the horse had been stolen.

Dr. Jean Tatlock, twenty-nine years old, was a psychiatrist at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco.  She was found drowned in her bathtub on January 6, 1944.  Receiving no answer to phone calls, her father entered her apartment by a window, moved the dripping body to a couch and then hastily burned various photographs and papers before police arrived.  This, of course, was criminal destruction of possible evidence.  Her father, friends and professional associates all said the victim had given no inkling of suicidal intentions.  The police, however, wrote off the death as "apparent suicide by drowning."

Let's take a moment to look at the basic facts:

Obviously, the drowning had to be either an accident, suicide or murder.  And the accident possibility was immediately ruled out by the presence of a "suicide" note—leaving the death either suicide or murder disguised as suicide.

In this case the manner of death is highly illuminating.  It is possible for an adult to drown accidentally in a bathtub while unconscious after having fainted or fallen; but it is difficult indeed for an adult to drown deliberately in only a few inches of water.

Furthermore, Jean Tatlock was a doctor.  She knew far easier methods for suicide than drowning and could have readily obtained barbiturates and other lethal but painless drugs.  It is improbable that a doctor would employ anything so clumsy and unpleasant as drowning for self-destruction.  Thus, all the immediate clues spelled out murder.  And ten years later these significant facts were piled upon them:

Oppenheimer then admitted in testimony before the Personnel Security Board of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission that he had had an intimate personal relationship with Miss Tatlock for eight years, lasting until her death; that he had known from the beginning that she was a Communist because she had told him she was; that it had been she who introduced him to most of his Communist friends, one of whom persuaded him to give large cash sums repeatedly to the Communist party.

Coilonel Boris T. Pash, of U.S. military intelligence, testified before the same board that during the summer of 1943 he investigated Oppenheimer's Communist associations, but that after he made a preliminary report urgently recommending Oppenheimer's immediate dismissal, he received orders from Washington to drop the entire investigation.

Furthermore, Colonel Pash testified that Oppenheimer then came to him and volunteered a highly unlikely story about how he had been approached by spies but had turned them down.  This indicated that Oppenheimer had been warned that he was under surveillance and to divert suspicion from himself he invented this story, which he later admitted had been a complete lie.

Just a few months after Colonel Pash had been forced by orders from Washington to abandon his investigation of Oppenheimer, Jean Tatlock was drowned in her bathtub.

An obvious deduction is that the well-informed GPU was panicked by Colonel Pash's investigation, even though this had been halted temporarily.  To protect Oppenheimer from exposure the GPU murdered the one most incriminating possible witness against him, Dr. Jean Tatlock, who for eight years had been both his mistress and his mentor with the Communists.

After Washington quashed the military intelligence investigation and his mistress was so opportunely drowned, Oppenheimer continued untouched in top strategic positions where he was able to delay our H-bomb project for four critical years while Russia was catching up with our lead in nuclear fission weapons.  He would have been far less able to do this had he been publicly exposed and branded a security risk in 1943 or 1944.

Still another death may be distantly connected with the Oppenheimer case.  Emmanuel H. "Manny" Bloch, Communist lawyer for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, died from one of those timely heart attacks that have carried off so many persons whom Moscow had compulsive reasons to liquidate.  Bloch had previously served as attorney for the notorious Communist Steve Nelson, who had been boss of the atomic spy ring in the University of California radiation laboratories at Berkeley while Oppenheimer was engaged in atomic research there, and with whom Oppenheimer had fraternized.

Manny Bloch's death occurred shortly after he had successfully finished the most important job of his Communist career.  As attorney and sole advisor to the Rosenbergs, it was his job to keep their mouths shut about important members of their spy network until they had been silenced forever by the electric chair.

When the Rosenbergs' lips had been safely sealed by the electric chair, Moscow's next important piece of business was to "clean up the case" by also permanently stilling the voice of the man who probably knew most of their secrets and who could testify that, despite the phony "save the Rosenbergs" propaganda drive, Moscow had wanted the couple executed.

A third timely death closely linked to the Oppenheimer case was that of the former Communist official Paul Crouch.  He died in San Francisco in November 1955, presumably as an aftermath of the tuberculosis for which Communist doctors had treated him years earlier.

Crouch had appeared before juries, grand juries and state and congressional investigating committees sixty-three times to testify against Communists and was the first man to publicly accuse Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer of Communist activity.  Thereafter, he testified repeatedly about the scientist to congressional investigative committees.  Furthermore, he was the prime witness against Oppenheimer.  Death prevented him from ever repeating his testimony against Oppenheimer in a court of law. (pp.139-141)

Had Simpson known what was revealed about Oppenheimer's history in the 2005 book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, he might have written that Oppenheimer, himself, should have been as much of a suspect as the Communists in the likely murder of his mistress.  The following passage is from a review of the book in Asia Times:

When Oppenheimer was a graduate student at Cambridge in England (having completed his Harvard undergraduate study in three years), he developed a dislike of a certain Professor Patrick Blackett. Prometheus states:

   In the fall of 1925, Oppenheimer poisoned an apple with chemicals 
   from the laboratory and put it on Blackett's desk ... As Robert's
   parents were still visiting Cambridge, the university authorities
   immediately informed them of what had happened. Julius Oppenheimer
   [Robert's father] frantically - and successfully - lobbied the
   university not to press criminal charges. After protracted
   negotiations, it was agreed that Robert would be put on probation
   and have regular sessions with a prominent Harley Street
   psychiatrist in London. This Freudian analyst diagnosed dementia
   praecox, a now archaic label for symptoms associated with
   schizophrenia. He concluded that Oppenheimer was a hopeless case and
   that "further analysis would do more harm than good".

Whatever his intellectual gifts, J. Robert Oppenheimer was a man of questionable character, stability, judgment, associations, and loyalty.  It's hard to imagine how anyone could have been less deserving of any sort of security clearance, much less entrusted with the nation's biggest secrets.  That he was made America's top atomic bomb scientist is just one more indictment of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration.

David Martin

January 25, 2009

* I wrote originally in Part 4 of "Who Killed James Forrestal," that "Cornell Simpson" was the pen name that Medford Evans used to write The Death of James Forrestal.   Now the conclusion that “Cornell Simpson” was actually Medford Evans has been fairly effectively refuted by his son, M. Stanton Evans.  Stay tuned.



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