Louisa Gilder and Robert Oppenheimer

Louisa Gilder’s book “The Age of Entanglement” is a rather unique and thoroughly engrossing book which tells the story of quantum mechanics and especially the bizarre quantum phenomenon called entanglement through a unique device- recreations of conversations between famous physicists. Although Gilder does take considerable liberty in fictionalizing the conversations, they are based on real events and for the most part the device works.

Gilder’s research seems quite exhaustive and well-referenced, which was why the following observation jumped out of the pages and bothered me even more.

On pg. 189, Gilder describes a paragraph from a very controversial and largely discredited book by Jerrold and Leona Schecter. The book which created a furor extensively quotes a Soviet KGB agent named Pavel Sudoplatov who claimed that, among others, Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer were working for the Soviet Union and that Oppenheimer knew that Klaus Fuchs was a Soviet spy (who knew!). No evidence for these fantastic allegations has ever turned up. In spite of this, Gilder refers to the book and essentially quotes a Soviet handler named Merkulov who says that a KGB agent in California named Grigory Kheifets thought that Oppenheimer was willing to transmit secret information to the Soviets. Gilder says nothing more after this and moves on to a different topic.

Now take a look at the footnotes on pg. 190-191 of Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s authoritative biography of Oppenheimer. B & S also quote exactly the same paragraph, but then emphatically add how there is not a shred of evidence to support what was said and how the whole thing was probably fabricated by Merkulov to save Kheifets’s life (since Kheifets had otherwise turned up empty-handed on potential recruits).

If you want to obtain even more authoritative information on this topic, I would recommend the recent book “Spies” by Haynes, Klehr and Vassiliev, widely regarded as the most complete account of Soviet espionage until now. The book has a detailed chapter which discusses the Merkulov and Kheifets letter procured by the Schecters and cited by Gilder. The chapter clearly says that absolutely no corroboration of the contents of this letter has been found in Kheifets’s own testimony after he returned to the Soviet Union or in the Venona transcripts. You would think that material of such importance would at the very least be corroborated by Kheifets himself. A source as valuable as Oppenheimer would also most certainly be mentioned in other communications. But no such evidence exists. The authors also point out other multiple glaring inconsistencies and fabrications in the documents cited in the Schecter volume. The book quite clearly says that as of 2008, there is absolutely no ambiguity or the slightest hint that Oppenheimer was willing to transmit secrets to the Soviets; the authors emphatically end the chapter saying that the case is closed.

What is troubling is that Gilder quotes the paragraph and simply ends it there, leaving the question of Oppenheimer’s loyalty dangling and tantalizingly open-ended. She does not quote the clear conclusion drawn by B & S that there is no evidence to support this insinuation. She also must surely be aware of several other works on Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, none of which give the slightest credence to such allegations.

You would expect more from an otherwise meticulous author like Gilder. I have no idea why she gives credence to the canard about Oppenheimer. But in an interview with her which I saw, she said that she was first fascinated by Oppenheimer (as most people were and still are) but was then repulsed by his treatment of his student David Bohm who dominates the second half of her book. Bohm was a great physicist and philosopher (his still-in-print textbook on quantum theory is unmatched for its logical and clear exposition), a dedicated left-wing thinker who was Oppenheimer’s student at Berkeley in the 1930s. After the War, he was suspected of being a communist and stripped of his faculty position at Princeton which was then very much an establishment institution. After this unfortunate incident, Bohm lived a peripatetic life in Brazil and Israel before settling down at Birkbeck College in England. Oppenheimer essentially distanced himself from Bohm after the war, had no trouble detailing Bohm’s left-wing associations to security agents and generally did not try to save Bohm from McCarthy’s onslaught.

This is well-known; Robert Oppenheimer was a complex and flawed character. But did Gilder’s personal dislike of Oppenheimer in the context of Bohm color her attitude toward him and cause her to casually toss out a tantalizing allegation which she must have known is not substantiated? I sure hope not.

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