The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power

Seth Rosenfeld


Spies in the Hills

On the night of November 9, 1945, two FBI agents huddled in a sedan on a dark street in the hills above the green slopes, quiet stone lecture halls, and towering Campanile of the University of California’s Berkeley campus.
As fog blew through the eucalyptus trees along Grizzly Peak, obscuring the lights of San Francisco across the bay, the agents tried to stay alert and peered down the road at the front door of a bungalow at 790 Keeler Avenue. They were tailing a suspected Soviet spy named George Eltenton, who was visiting the chemist who lived there. Herve Voge was a former graduate student of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Berkeley physicist already known as the father of the atomic bomb.
The war had ended only three months before, when the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with two atomic devices built at the top-secret laboratories managed by the university. Uneasy allies during the war, America and the Soviet Union were becoming fierce adversaries as the Soviets imposed what Winston Churchill would soon call an “iron curtain” across Europe. The USSR seemed bent on world domination, and fear of nuclear conflict spread.
Federal officials saw the American Communist Party as the secretive arm of a foreign enemy, a Soviet-controlled organization whose members infiltrated government and private institutions, subverted official policy by fomenting unrest, and might engage in sabotage and espionage.
J. Edgar Hoover suspected that Eltenton and other Soviet spies had targeted the Berkeley campus and were using party members in their effort to obtain nuclear secrets from Oppenheimer and other Berkeley scientists. The FBI director feared that if these spies obtained those Promethean powers, the Soviet Union would use them against the United States. Urgently trying to stop this foreign plot, he opened a massive investigation of Soviet espionage at the university’s atomic laboratories. On his orders, FBI agents conducted illegal break-ins, planted microphones, and tapped telephones. They kept suspects under constant surveillance, tracking them to their offices, dinner parties, and hotel rooms.
And on that cold and foggy night, they watched and waited for Eltenton outside the house on Keeler Avenue. By and by, he pulled his car to the curb and went in. Soon after, another car parked nearby, and its two occupants also entered the house. The agents took down the Washington State license number, A-24916. They soon traced the car to its owner, a young Berkeley professor named Clark Kerr.
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Just below those same green hills almost a hundred years earlier, the Very Reverend Henry Durant and several other men with top hats and great expectations assembled by an outcropping. They gathered that day in May 1866 to dedicate the fields of glistening grain and grand oaks that unfurled toward the bay before them as the site for their College of California.
This land had been inhabited by Indian tribes for thousands of years, and by the late 1700s it was home to the Huichin, hunters and gatherers who were part of the Ohlone peoples. In 1769 Spanish explorers sailed into the bay, established missions, and began converting the “heathen.” By the 1820s, European diseases had wiped out most of the Huichin. Around that time, the Spanish governor of California rewarded one of his loyal soldiers, Sergeant Luis Maria Peralta, with a grant of 48,000 acres along the east side of the bay. Peralta’s family lost most of their land after the Gold Rush began in 1848 and, as the historian J. S. Holliday wrote, “the world rushed in.” Several years later, the men in top hats acquired some of that land as the prospective grounds for their college.
The trustees gazed toward the shimmering bay, the red rocks of the Golden Gate, and the seemingly infinite horizon beyond. This western view had inspired them to name the site of their school after George Berkeley, the poet, philosopher, and Anglican bishop of Cloyne, who had posed the question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, has it really fallen? He answered, in essence: To be is to be heard. The iconoclastic Berkeley also held that entrenched bureaucracy was stifling the scholarly pursuit of truth in the Old World, and that it could be accomplished more freely in the New World. His vision of America as the “westward hope for humanity” encouraged the trustees gathered by the outcropping. One of them recited from Berkeley’s poem “Verse on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America,” in which he wrote, “The Muse, disgusted at an Age and Clime / Barren of every glorious Theme, / In distant Lands now waits a better Time / … Where men shall not impose for truth and sense / the pedantry of courts and schools…”
Despite their high hopes, the trustees encountered financial trouble and their private college faltered. A separate plan for a state university, meanwhile, also had stalled. But in 1862 President Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which radically changed the course of higher education in America and events in Berkeley. The act gave states large tracts of federal land they could sell to fund the establishment of universities. Until then, colleges had mostly served the elite, but the act required land-grant universities to advance the national welfare by teaching practical courses in agriculture and industry and by offering instruction to the public.
Four years later, the California legislature passed the Organic Act of 1866, establishing the University of California as a land-grant college. With the Organic Act of 1868, the legislators placed the university under the authority of a largely autonomous Board of Regents and declared that the school should be free from political, partisan, or sectarian influence. Reverend Durant and his fellow trustees donated their college and land to the state, which absorbed it into the University of California. Opening in 1873 on the land dedicated to Bishop Berkeley, the university from the beginning embodied independence, civil liberties, and national security, fundamental values inherently in tension with one another.
By the 1920s, the campus was distinguished by nearly two dozen massive buildings of the classically inspired Beaux-Arts style, white stone structures with grand columns that paid homage to ancient ideals of truth and beauty and signaled the university’s academic ambitions. In the center of campus, rising 303 feet and visible for miles, stood the Campanile, the great granite clock tower topped with a pyramid spire and lantern symbolizing “aspiration for enlightenment.” The university’s goals were furthered in 1928, when two outstanding young professors were recruited to Berkeley. Ernest O. Lawrence, an experimental physicist, soon began work on the cyclotron, or “atom smasher,” a device that enabled him to separate and study the components of the atom. In 1939, he became the university’s first Nobel Prize laureate. J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist, possessed an extraordinary capacity to synthesize different fields of knowledge. The two scientists drew other talented researchers to the university, and as World War II approached they became vitally involved in federally funded weapons research. Paramount among these efforts was the army’s top-secret Manhattan Project to build the world’s first atomic bomb. The university operated a vast radiation laboratory on a hill above the Berkeley campus and another at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Oppenheimer and Lawrence were soon hard at work—and so were Soviet spies.
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The microphone hidden inside the Communist Party’s Alameda County headquarters was identified in FBI reports only as “Confidential Informant SF-631.” A special team of agents had installed the bug during an illegal “black bag job,” surreptitiously breaking into the party’s Oakland office without a warrant. It was risky business, but the agents had become adept at these “special assignments,” which Hoover rewarded with cash bonuses.
The job of monitoring the microphones and telephone taps on Communist Party members around the clock, however, could be numbingly dull. The “commies” seemed to be involved in every social or political cause out there, and they were always going on about some grievance, party minutia, or petty personal matter. So bored was one agent assigned to the listening post hidden in a tiny, unmarked commercial space a few miles from the Berkeley campus that he risked censure from Hoover to play a prank, placing a lipstick-smeared cigarette butt in the ashtray and leaving the next agent on duty to wonder.
The tedium was broken on the evening of October 10, 1942. The bug was picking up Steve Nelson, the head of the Communist Party in Alameda County, a member of the party’s national committee, and an associate of officials at the Soviet consulate in San Francisco.
Nelson was discussing his keen interest in learning more about the secret experiments at the university’s radiation lab on the hill. He was talking to Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz, a Berkeley physicist and fellow Communist Party member. “Rossi” was telling Nelson about his research on what was cryptically described as “a very dangerous weapon.” But he added that he was thinking of quitting his research job at the lab so he could openly advocate the party’s goals to workers in local shipyards.
Nelson deftly dissuaded him. He told the young scientist he was considered an undercover member of the Communist Party, which needed to know about “these discoveries and research developments.” His help was all the more important, Nelson said, because another scientist at the lab placed his research there above his support of the party. Though Nelson did not name this person, FBI agents believed he was J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer was perhaps the single most important scientist involved in the race to beat the Nazis in developing the bomb, and the FBI already had compiled a thick dossier on him. A New York native, he was the elder of two sons of a well-to-do textile merchant father and an artist mother. He attended Harvard, Cambridge, and Göttingen universities, and by 1929 was teaching physics at Berkeley. He spoke eight languages, was an authority on baroque music, and was well versed in art and literature. Gangly and kinetic, he sported a broad-brimmed porkpie hat and was given to jabbing the air with his pipe to emphasize a point. He seemed to vibrate with the energy of the atoms he studied and was often the nucleus of a crowd of awestruck students.
“Oppie” had been avowedly apolitical, known for his eccentricities and the strong martinis he served at his home on Shasta Road in the Berkeley Hills. But by late 1936 he had become interested in left-wing causes. He’d grown concerned about the Depression and the Nazis’ treatment of German Jews. “I began to understand how deeply political and economic events could affect men’s lives,” he would later say. As he became involved in organizations supporting unions, better working conditions for migrant farmworkers, and the fight against fascism in Spain, he met other activists, including members of the Communist Party. Party membership grew during the Depression years, and in the 1930s about 250,000 Americans joined at least briefly, among them some 6,000 members in California, and 500 to 600 members in Alameda County.
FBI agents had spotted Oppenheimer at a social gathering in Berkeley attended by Communists in December 1940. They had obtained phone records showing he called Communists in the years before the war. They knew that his wife, Kitty, had been a Communist, and that her previous husband, Joseph Dallet, was a prominent Communist who had died fighting in the Spanish Civil War. They also knew his brother, Frank Oppenheimer, had been a member of the Communist Party as recently as 1941, and perhaps later. At least one informer claimed, in 1938, that Oppenheimer himself was a member of the Communist Party, but Oppenheimer always denied it and the FBI had been unable to prove it.
Now the bug inside the Alameda County office of the Communist Party had picked up Steve Nelson talking about his efforts to get some very dangerous secrets from him.
N.J.L. “Nat” Pieper, the special agent in charge of the San Francisco FBI office, sent an urgent report about Nelson’s conversation to Hoover at headquarters.
There is, he said, a “situation” in Berkeley.
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With his snub nose, piercing eyes, and rapid-fire speech, J. Edgar Hoover was as fearsome a figure as a Washington bureaucrat can hope to be. Close acquaintances had the privilege of addressing him as Edgar, the name by which his domineering mother summoned him. Clyde Tolson, his second in command at the FBI and his close companion, called him Eddie or Speed. Senators, who knew he collected secrets, deferred to him as Mr. Hoover. The agents who worked under his dictatorial supervision simply referred to him as the Boss.
He was driven, detail-oriented, and tough, and he adroitly administered the bureau’s myriad investigations of government applicants, criminals, spies, and those he deemed subversive. He dealt deftly with the elected officials who ostensibly oversaw the bureau and he became virtually autonomous. Presidents came and went, but over the decades Hoover remained. He effectively manipulated press coverage of his operations, and used his position not only for law enforcement but to promote proper “American” values. He was, above all, suspicious of anyone who deviated from the mainstream, especially aliens.
John Edgar Hoover was born on January 1, 1895, in his parents’ home at 413 Seward Square, in a predominantly white and Protestant neighborhood in southeast Washington, D.C. The government clerks and their families who lived there, like most people in the District of Columbia during the years Hoover was growing up, observed Jim Crow customs. His father, like his father’s father, was a minor government functionary.
The youngest of four children, Hoover as a boy was “skinny, high strung, sickly, and excessively fearful, clinging to his mother whenever he could,” according to The Boss, a biography by Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox. At Central High School, a public school for whites only, he never went on dates and was “known for his morality and celibacy,” wrote Ovid Demaris in The Director. Rejected by the football team, he joined the school’s ROTC program and eventually became captain of his company. He proudly wore his uniform when he taught Sunday school at his Presbyterian church. Although he would later say he had contemplated becoming a minister, as an adult he would rarely attend services.
In 1912, Hoover’s senior year at Central, his father, Dickerson Hoover, suffered a psychiatric breakdown and spent time in a sanitarium. Hoover’s mother, Annie, was the stronger personality, a disciplinarian “rewarding obedience and punishing disobedience with military impartiality,” as she was described in a 1937 New Yorker profile. Hoover was afflicted with a stammer, but worked hard to overcome it by practicing elocution in his room at night. He became a leading member of the debate team, earned excellent grades, and was voted class valedictorian.
On graduating, Hoover took a job as a clerk in the Library of Congress and enrolled in night classes on law at George Washington University. In 1916 he earned a Bachelor of Law degree, without honors, and in 1917 a Master of Law degree. That April, the United States declared war on Germany, but through the help of a family friend Hoover secured a draft-exempt clerk’s post at the U.S. Department of Justice. He worked in the Alien Enemy Bureau, and by war’s end was the department’s expert on foreign-inspired radicalism.
On June 2, 1919, a bomb exploded on the front porch of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home in northwest Washington, D.C. The bomber was killed in the blast and never identified, but anarchist literature was found in the rubble. Palmer began an antiradical campaign, promoting Hoover, now twenty-four, to be his special assistant and putting him in charge of it. Hoover studied the writings of Marx and other Communists. He built a network of informers. And he created an index of sixty thousand suspected radicals, according to Secrecy and Power, The Life of J. Edgar Hoover, by Richard Gid Powers. He developed the administrative techniques, theories of guilt by association, and alliances with self-styled patriotic organizations that would define his career. He also came to believe radicals not only held dangerous political theories, according to The Boss, but were “intellectual perverts.”
Hoover oversaw a Justice Department program to round up and deport noncitizen immigrants whom he had concluded were radicals. Under immigration laws, department officials could use relatively loose administrative procedures to deport aliens who advocated anarchism or political violence, or who belonged to organizations that did. The officials were not required to meet the higher standards of evidence for criminal cases. They did not have to prove, for example, that an alien had actually resorted, or would resort, to violence. Aliens had no right to counsel while being questioned.
Based on Hoover’s evidence, police and immigration agents conducted raids in twelve cities on November 7, 1919, arresting more than four hundred people. Most were poor and could not speak English. They had committed no violent crime and were guilty only of the technical charge of being aliens and members of a proscribed organization. To generate publicity, Hoover also gave special attention to the nation’s most famous radical, a diminutive Russian immigrant named Emma Goldman, who wore pince-nez spectacles and high-collared blouses. He sought to deport her also on technical grounds: that she was not a citizen because her prior marriage to an American was invalid. An administrative judge agreed, and soon Goldman and 248 other foreign-born radical aliens ensnared in the raids were on a boat bound for Russia. Goldman’s forced return there further disillusioned her about Soviet communism, and she moved to Britain. The deportations were Hoover’s first big victory and, as he had hoped, they made front-page news.
Hoover next targeted thousands of aliens who were members of two radical organizations—the American Communist Party and the American Communist Labor Party—both of which took inspiration from the Russian Revolution. He prepared legal briefs alleging that each group had a manifesto advocating the violent overthrow of the government, and that each of their members was required to know it. On the basis of membership alone, he argued, they should all be deported. Relying on Hoover’s assertions, Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson, who had jurisdiction over immigration laws, authorized arrest warrants. On January 2, 1920, Justice Department agents led raids in thirty-three cities, this time detaining some six thousand alien radicals.
At first, the so-called Palmer Raids brought Hoover and Palmer more praise, but soon they became a scandal. The detention facilities were inadequate and unsanitary. Many detainees were held incommunicado for days. The inhumane conditions of confinement sparked public outcry. Louis Post, the assistant secretary of labor who was to rule on whether each arrestee should be deported, discovered that Hoover’s legal briefs blurred important differences between the two organizations. Contrary to Hoover’s claims, the evidence showed that most members of the American Communist Labor Party did not know their organization professed violent overthrow of the government. Moreover, he found, the evidence showed that most of the immigrants were harmless.
Calling the raids a “gigantic and cruel hoax,” Post ordered the release of about three thousand of the four thousand detainees who had been formally arrested and were facing deportation. On May 5, his boss, Secretary of Labor Wilson, also ruled against Hoover, concluding that membership in the Communist Labor Party was not cause for deportation. On June 23, a federal judge in Boston went further, finding membership in neither of the radical groups was ground for expulsion. The judge also condemned Hoover’s use of informers and agents provocateurs. Ultimately, only 556 people would be deported.
Hoover fought back. He accused Post of being a Bolshevik and tried to get him impeached, but Congress instead criticized the sweeps. Hoover had hoped the raids would prompt Congress to enact a peacetime sedition law banning radical activities not only of aliens but also of citizens, but the debacle stymied his plans. By the spring of 1920, Communist revolts in Europe had fizzled and membership in domestic radical groups had fallen. The Red Scare faded. No one ever was charged for the bombing of Palmer’s porch that had ostensibly triggered the dragnets.
Blamed for the disastrous raids that now bore his name, Attorney General Palmer’s hopes for winning the Democratic nomination for president were ruined.
Hoover, however, suffered only a temporary setback on his continuing ascent. When the director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation was fired for his part in a scandal involving bribes for government oil leases near Teapot Dome, Wyoming, Hoover got his big chance. In 1924, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone named him head of the bureau. Hoover boldly began to build a modern investigative agency. Firing scores of incompetent and unreliable agents, he replaced them with men trained in law or accounting. He tightened their supervision, ordering agents to report directly to him about other agents’ “use of intoxicating liquors, the neglect of duties as well as other indiscretions.” All agents were required to file detailed reports on their daily activities, and strict standards were set for securely handling bureau records. Using the latest technology, he established the bureau as a central clearinghouse for fingerprint-linked crime records, which helped local police track fugitives and positioned Hoover as a leader of the nation’s law-enforcement community.
Hoover was still living at home with his mother. His father had died in 1921, and he was supporting her. Now slightly stocky, he had become a bit of a dandy, favoring summertime suits of white linen with a silk handkerchief tucked in the breast pocket. In 1928, he met Clyde Tolson, a Missouri native who had been confidential secretary to the secretary of war and had joined the bureau as an agent that year. Tolson was an excellent administrator, and within two years Hoover named him assistant director. They quickly became close, dining, commuting, and vacationing together.
Hoover, meanwhile, had not fully honored Attorney General Stone’s admonition to refrain from engaging in domestic intelligence, and he would soon be deeply involved in political spying during the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On taking office in 1933, FDR inherited an economic, social, and moral crisis. The Roaring Twenties had imploded. A decade of unregulated stock market speculation ended in the Great Crash of 1929 and the worst economic depression in the nation’s history. Prohibition added to the national hangover. The constitutional ban on liquor from 1920 through 1933 not only failed to stop drinking but fostered widespread disrespect for the law and gave powerful mobsters such as Al Capone the opportunity to build lucrative and violent organizations running bootleg booze.
Roosevelt responded with the New Deal, the series of unprecedented federal programs intended to provide relief, recovery, and reform, and tapped Hoover to lead the New Deal’s war on crime. Hoover’s immediate mission was to take down the notorious gangsters—the “public enemies”—terrorizing the Midwest in a wave of sensational bank robberies, kidnappings, and shootings. In 1933 and 1934, Hoover’s men caught or killed George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and George “Baby Face” Nelson. These cases brought Hoover tremendous publicity, which he exploited with the help of newspaper editors, radio station executives, and motion picture producers hungry for heroic tales. Hoover’s agents became known as G-Men—short for government men—and soon there were G-Man radio shows, G-Man comic strips, and a series of Warner Brothers’ G-Man movies.
By the time the Bureau of Investigation was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935, Hoover had become one of the president’s stars. And as Europe edged toward war, FDR turned to him to combat possible foreign espionage and sabotage at home. Although known as a great liberal, the patrician Democrat secretly expanded the FBI’s domestic intelligence operations without consulting Congress or adhering to court-ordered limitations.
On August 24, 1936, Roosevelt summoned Hoover to the White House for a private discussion that would determine the course of the FBI’s internal security operations far into the future. Hoover told the president that Communists were planning to “get control” of three major unions—the West Coast longshoremen’s union, headed by Harry Bridges; the United Mine Workers Union; and the Newspaper Guild—“and by doing so they would be able at any time to paralyze the country.” Hoover also claimed Communists had “inspired” activities in some federal agencies, including the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled on disputes between employers and unions.
Hoover had exaggerated the threat, but Roosevelt could hardly ignore such dire allegations. The president already was concerned that domestic Communists and fascists might be acting as foreign agents. According to Hoover’s memo on the meeting, FDR requested a more systematic intelligence investigation of “subversive activities in the United States, particularly Fascism and Communism.”
Roosevelt subsequently issued other directives secretly expanding the FBI’s internal security powers. Although the president had planned to seek funding from Congress for broader bureau operations, Hoover argued this could spark troublesome public debate, and Roosevelt instead requested a general appropriation, avoiding controversy over an intelligence expansion that went far beyond that authorized by statute. FDR also approved Hoover’s request for exclusive jurisdiction over domestic intelligence investigations concerning civilians. The president was acting during a national emergency, but this exercise of executive power created what would become a permanent domestic intelligence structure centered on the FBI.
Seizing the opportunity, Hoover started several programs expanding the bureau’s political surveillance. In 1940 he secured approval from the attorney general for the FBI’s American Legion Contact Program, in which bureau agents would enlist more than fifty thousand members of the patriotic organization to clandestinely gather intelligence on suspected subversives.
That year, the FBI began using illegal wiretaps to gather intelligence. Roosevelt—in another secret and unilateral action—had issued a directive declaring that a U.S. Supreme Court order that banned wiretapping did not apply to national defense investigations of enemies inside the United States. Roosevelt did require that Hoover get prior approval from the attorney general for wiretaps, keep them to a minimum, “and limit them insofar as possible to aliens,” but he mandated no other guidelines, no oversight of their use, and no limit on their duration.
In 1942, Hoover began a program of unauthorized break-ins of homes and offices of people suspected of “subversive activities” in order to install microphones and photograph documents. He acknowledged in internal memos that these surreptitious entries were “clearly illegal,” but he deemed them an “invaluable technique.” The agents called them “black bag jobs” because of the equipment kit they took along.
To supervise and conceal these activities, Hoover devised special systems of records. Sensitive communications among top FBI officials were written on pink paper “to be destroyed after action was taken.” Field office memos requesting headquarters’ permission to conduct break-ins were marked “Do Not File” to ensure they would not be indexed in the FBI’s Central Records System, and were routed to senior bureau officials and then destroyed.
Roosevelt knew the bureau was breaking the law when agents made surreptitious entries to install telephone taps. Yet Hoover was giving him intelligence he wanted during an emergency. He was also passing along politically useful information about FDR’s congressional opponents and press critics, and gossip about his friends and enemies.
Besides, Hoover was generating positive publicity for the president. FBI investigations during the war led to the convictions of several American fascists involved in German espionage. Bureau agents also captured eight German saboteurs who had landed on the East Coast by submarine. During this period, Congress exercised virtually no oversight of the FBI, even as it was growing more than tenfold from fewer than 400 agents in 1932 to 4,370 in 1945.
By this time Hoover’s mother had died. He moved out of her Seward Square house and settled in a tract home closer to Tolson’s house in northwest Washington. The FBI’s two top officials had become more intimate, and as Richard Gid Powers put it, “The relationship was so close, so enduring, and so affectionate that it took the place of marriage for both bachelors.” They could be seen three or four times each week at their reserved table at Harvey’s Restaurant on Connecticut Avenue, where they were not charged for their meals and miniature cocktails. There were suspicions that the two men were homosexual, but in this era the press rarely examined the private lives of public figures and their relationship never became an issue.
Hoover had become a folk hero. With no small help from his public relations machine, he had become famous and was widely seen as impartial and incorruptible. He used this prominence as a pulpit to decry the degeneration of American institutions and to promote moral values based on church, home, and school. In a 1942 speech, he declared, “What we need is a return to God, more individually a return to the practice of religion. That is, without doubt, the greatest need in America today.” In another talk that year, he contended schools were being undermined by modern teachers using “an insidious and unsound educational quackery that would rule out all the principles of discipline and control which, if carried to its illogical conclusion, would produce a generation of iconoclastic morons and criminals.”
And by that fall Hoover already was focusing on another school matter: the Soviet spies at Berkeley.
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Hoover read with great alarm Pieper’s report on Steve Nelson’s conversation about “a very dangerous weapon.” So secret was the bomb project that not even the FBI had been officially told about it. Yet here was evidence that the Russians—with help from American Communists—were seeking to extract its secrets from the university’s lab in the Berkeley hills.
FBI agents already were investigating thousands of Communist Party members as part of the bureau’s routine domestic intelligence operations. Now Hoover intensified the effort, ordering FBI field offices to target party efforts to spy on the atomic research not only at Berkeley but at other labs around the country. The investigation was titled “Communist Infiltration of the Radiation Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley, California.” The code name: CINRAD.
Late on March 29, 1943, FBI agents monitoring the microphone inside Steve Nelson’s home at 3720 Grove Street, in Oakland, overheard another disturbing conversation.
Speaking in whispers, Nelson and a man named Joseph Weinberg were discussing “the project.” Weinberg was a research physicist at the radiation lab. He worked under the supervision of Oppenheimer, who had recommended him for the job.
Nelson was saying he had talked with Oppenheimer but the physicist had been reluctant to reveal anything. He attributed Oppenheimer’s reticence to his not being “politically mature,” or as the FBI agents later paraphrased it, to the fact that “he was not a true and complete fanatical Marxist.”
Weinberg, however, was willing. He told Nelson about the establishment of the secret laboratory at Los Alamos and gave him a scientific formula. Nelson warned him to be careful and assured him the party had people in factories all over the country gathering information for the Soviet cause.
Three days later, FBI agents watched Nelson as he walked from his home to a drugstore at MacArthur Boulevard and Grove Street and stepped into a phone booth. They traced the call he placed at 9:26 a.m. that Thursday to a house at 570 Belvedere Street in San Francisco’s Cole Valley. It was the home of Peter Ivanov, vice-consul of the Soviet consulate in San Francisco.
Nelson failed to reach the Russian, but the following Tuesday agents watched as he drove to another drugstore, pushed more coins into a pay phone, and made contact. He hung up, got into his car, and drove across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, the agents following as he erratically sped up, slowed down, and made random U-turns. He finally parked a block from St. Joseph’s Hospital, at the corner of Park Hill and Buena Vista streets, not far from Ivanov’s home. Setting out on foot, Nelson lost the agents on the darkened hospital grounds before climbing back into his car and speeding away.
That Saturday, agents monitoring the microphone in Nelson’s home overheard another meeting, this time with Vassili Zubilin, the third secretary to the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. They heard Zubilin count out cash and give it to Nelson. “Jesus!” Nelson said. “You count money like a banker.”
Meanwhile, FBI and army intelligence agents were investigating Lomanitz, Weinberg, and a third young scientist at the Berkeley lab. All three had been Oppenheimer’s students. Suspecting they were under scrutiny, they complained to him on August 23, 1943, that they were being targeted because of their leftist political activities. He warned them to stay away from politics and “get straight” with security officials. He then advised the lab’s security officer to look into a man named Eltenton.
Military officials arrived at Berkeley a few days later to question Oppenheimer. He told them three lab employees had reported being solicited to supply information to the Soviets. Eltenton, he said, had sent an intermediary to each one. Oppenheimer, however, declined to divulge the employees’ names, saying they had not cooperated in the scheme and had spoken to him in confidence.
Dissatisfied, army officials again interrogated Oppenheimer on December 14, 1943. This time he named the intermediary as Haakon Maurice Chevalier, a French professor at Berkeley. He still refused to name the three men Chevalier had approached.
Three months later, General Leslie Groves, the head of the bomb project, questioned Oppenheimer and got a different story. Now he claimed Chevalier had contacted only one person—his brother, Frank, also a physicist working on the bomb project. Oppenheimer said that after his brother had told him about it, he phoned Chevalier and “gave him hell.”
As FBI agents pursued their inquiry, they discovered that Chevalier was a well-known author and translator of French literary works. He had associated with prominent members of the Communist Party. He was one of Oppenheimer’s close friends.
Eltenton, the agents learned, was a Briton who had worked as a senior physicist in Leningrad in the thirties and sought Soviet citizenship. In 1938 he moved to Berkeley and took a job at the Shell Development Company laboratory in nearby Emeryville. The agents investigated his contacts with Berkeley scientists, Communist Party members, and officials at the Soviet consulate in San Francisco, including Ivanov. And on that November night in the Berkeley hills, they followed him from Keeler Avenue on the twisting roads, into the fog.
Finally, the FBI struck.
Just after 2:00 p.m. on June 26, 1946, two agents entered the reception room of the Shell Development Company and asked for Eltenton. When he emerged they said they merely wanted to discuss his application for U.S. citizenship. He went with them to their office in Oakland. En route in their sedan, they asked casual questions. He acknowledged having lived in the Soviet Union but denied he had tried to become a citizen, citing the lack of freedom there and the “fear of being arrested and held on vague charges.”
At the FBI office, the agents confronted him about his spying. He acknowledged he was friends with Ivanov, describing the vice-consul as a “pleasant person.” He also admitted that Ivanov had asked him to get information about the Radiation Lab. Ivanov had said that without the atomic bomb, millions of Russians would needlessly die in battle against the Germans, and that Oppenheimer had the necessary data. If they brought Ivanov documents, he would photograph and return them quickly. He offered to pay them.
Eltenton insisted he had declined the offer, saying it would be absurd for him to approach Oppenheimer, because he hardly knew him. Instead, he had agreed to ask their mutual friend, Chevalier, to make the approach. Chevalier went to see Oppenheimer, but returned only to say the physicist had rebuffed him.
Even as these agents were picking up Eltenton, others were knocking on Chevalier’s front door in the town of Stinson Beach, on the coast an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Chevalier, too, agreed to go with them. As they drove into San Francisco, he described his work as a translator at the Nuremberg trials, praising the Allies’ fairness to the Nazis. At the FBI’s office at 111 Sutter Street, the agents explained he “was merely being afforded an opportunity to explain.”
Chevalier admitted he knew Eltenton, that he knew Ivanov, that he was friends with Oppenheimer. Sure, he might have contacted people at the lab, but this would have been for his union work. Yes, he knew the lab was involved in “smashing atoms,” but he had no idea this concerned an atomic bomb.
An agent confronted Chevalier: the bureau had reports that he had asked three different lab employees to turn over secrets about the project. A fabrication, he replied. Only after “considerable delay,” the agents later wrote, did Chevalier finally admit Eltenton had asked him to procure data from Oppenheimer for the Russians. He insisted, however, that Oppenheimer had refused to participate. The interrogation over, the agents released him, as they had Eltenton.
At FBI headquarters, Hoover reviewed the Berkeley cases and concluded there was ample proof of a conspiracy to commit espionage by Eltenton, Chevalier, Nelson, Weinberg, and Ivanov. In early 1947, he sent the U.S. Department of Justice a summary of the evidence against Weinberg and Nelson. But the department did not prosecute them, according to an FBI memo that confirmed the bureau’s evidence derived from an illegal bug and consequently was “not admissible” in court. The FBI’s investigation of Eltenton, Chevalier, and Ivanov also had relied on black bag jobs and bugs, and when Hoover sought their prosecution the Justice Department declined. The spies escaped prosecution because of the bureau’s illegal investigative methods. Hoover had placed counterintelligence above constitutional rights.
Ivanov was recalled to the Soviet Union. Eltenton returned to England, declining to comment on the matter. Chevalier moved to France and wrote in his 1965 book, Oppenheimer, Story of a Friendship, “If there was ever a plot in which either Eltenton or myself were even remotely involved, no trace was ever found of it.” Nelson said in his autobiography, American Radical, “I never had any links with Soviet espionage in the United States.” Weinberg denied spying, and was unsuccessfully prosecuted for perjuring himself when he denied being a member of the Communist Party, again because of the FBI’s illegal investigative methods.
As for Oppenheimer, there is no doubt the brilliant Berkeley physicist was involved in causes supported by Communists in the late 1930s and early 1940s. But he was an independent liberal concerned with the cause, not the party. The government never proved he had been a Communist Party member, let alone engaged in espionage, and in 1954 a panel of the Atomic Energy Commission reached the “clear conclusion” that he was “a loyal citizen.” But for reasons personal or professional, he had delayed notifying security officials that he and his associates had been asked to spy, then gave contradictory accounts about it. He paid dearly for his lapses, with the commission revoking his security clearance. As Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin concluded in American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, this was seen as a defeat not only for him but for liberalism.
The most damaging of the Soviet spies now known would not be detected for years. They operated not at Berkeley but at other Manhattan Project facilities. They were uncovered as a result of the army’s top-secret Venona Project, which beginning in 1948 decoded telegrams sent between Moscow and Soviet diplomatic offices during the war. In one of the most sensationalized of these cases, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, both Communists, were arrested in 1950, convicted of espionage, and executed. Scientists and historians have since questioned the significance of the information they might have supplied the Soviets. Alhough Hoover touted the case as the “Crime of the Century,” he acknowledged in confidential memoranda that the Soviets likely obtained the secret of the bomb elsewhere. It is now known that evidently far more effective spies, such as the Los Alamos scientist Theodore Hall, eluded bureau agents.
As the Cold War intensified, the FBI saw its mission as nothing less than protecting the American way of life. So sweeping were the presidential directives granting the FBI domestic intelligence authority that bureau officials could investigate any person or organization they deemed “subversive.”
Operating in a crisis atmosphere with little oversight, the FBI would soon begin to misuse its intelligence machinery to destroy the careers of university employees engaged in lawful dissent.

Copyright © 2012 by Seth Rosenfeld
Map copyright © 2012 by Dan Hubig