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.
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.
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.
Excerpted from Subversives by Seth Rosenfeld. Copyright 2012 by Seth Rosenfeld. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.