OUT ON A LIMB: Oppenheimer Was a Communist.

In addition to his bewildering behavior about the Chevalier incident, over the years Oppenheimer lied on numerous government security questionnaires. He flatly denied that he had ever been a party member, admitting only that he had been a left-winger with numerous Communist friends and a contributor to causes also supported by Communists. When he faced a hearing on the revocation of his security clearance, Oppenheimer could have taken the option of being honest and candid about his Communist past and explained why he had dropped out. After all, many Communists of the time became ex-Communists and even anti-Communists. But his record of lies might have cost him his security clearance in any case. Perjury is obvious grounds for the denial of a security clearance, since it opens up the perjurer to blackmail—or prosecution. Oppenheimer might have hesitated about getting friends and relatives into trouble, or deeper trouble. Or he might have been reluctant to give ammunition to the many enemies he had made among military leaders and such physicists as Edward Teller by opposing development of the hydrogen bomb after World War II.

Just as important, admitting past false statements may have been particularly psychologically difficult for Oppenheimer, whose arrogance was considerable and whose tolerance for those he regarded as fools was very limited. (Haakon Chevalier wrote a thinly disguised novel about him with the title The Man Who Would Be God that provides glimpses of Oppenheimer’s imperious nature.) Whatever the reason, confessing to lies about his political past was not a step Oppenheimer was willing to take. In the end, he made a particularly poor witness and his testimony did not help his case to maintain his security clearance. In the movie, Kitty angrily confronts Robert for refusing to fight back more strongly against the attacks on his character and actions. Left unexplored is whether his knowledge of his own deceit helped paralyze him.

Knowing what we know now, America’s public interest would have been best served if Oppenheimer had been able to continue in his role as a consultant to the government on various atomic projects. The evidence by the mid-1940s was that he had left his earlier Communist allegiance behind and was anything but a party sympathizer. But one of the major contributing factors to his loss of security access was his own unwillingness to provide a candid and honest account of his earlier Communist ties and why he had put them aside. If he continued to lie about such matters, how could he now be trusted?

None of this detracts from the greatest achievement of Oppenheimer’s life and one of the great scientific and engineering achievements in human history. It does, however, complicate the morality-play version of his life. Unquestionably, the hearing that denied the renewal of his security clearance (and that is portrayed so powerfully throughout the movie) was stacked against him. His archnemesis, Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr.), orchestrated a dishonest and biased attack, deprived Oppenheimer and his lawyer the opportunity to see key evidence, and distorted some of his views and behavior. But Oppenheimer’s lack of candor made him a contributor to his own destruction. That truly makes the story of his life a Greek tragedy. As good a movie as it is, Oppenheimer would have been richer still if it had plumbed these deep waters.

There are great moments in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster new movie (seeing — and hearing — the film’s recreation of the Trinity explosion on the big screen is worth it alone), but this is what happens when your source material is a book written by leftists from Nation magazine: Hollywood Shocker: The Authors of the Book Behind Nolan’s Oppenheimer Were Both Editors and Writers at The Nation.