Harold C. Urey taught for years at the University of Chicago and gained renown for his role in the Manhattan Project, which led to the production of the first atomic bombs in the 1940s.
Urey, who was 87 when he died in 1981, was vocal about politics. That brought him the attention of news organizations and also the FBI, according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times and featured in the newspaper’s “The FBI Files” database.
“McCarthy Top U.S.S.R Agent, Says Dr. Urey,” one headline kept by the FBI reads.
Another: “Urey Tells Theory on First Life.”
“Threat to U.S. Gravest Since ‘76, Urey Says,” says another headline, referring to the days of the American Revolutionary War.
Newspapers closely followed Urey, and the FBI followed suit, collecting news articles on him and following his public comments.
One document shows Urey’s travel was being closely monitored by the FBI.
Michael Hall, director of the National Atomic Testing Museum, isn’t surprised Urey and others who worked on the Manhattan Project were observed by the FBI. Because the high-stakes project was kept under wraps, it was “commonplace that everybody was constantly under observation,” Hall says.
The FBI appeared to have been particularly interested in Urey’s possible sympathies with communist thought. One investigation concluded that he was affiliated with many communist-type organizations, while another decided he’d had an interest in communism at one point but soon became openly anti-communist, the records show.
“Subconscious sympathies” with communist thought were common among scientists of the time, according to Roger Meade, a retired laboratory historian at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He says scientists saw capitalism “taking hits” during the Great Depression and might have aligned with communism even if they weren’t overtly involved.
Hall says Urey and others who worked on the Manhattan Project were revered as “heroes” after the end of World War II, so people paid attention when many of them spoke out about politics in the years after the war.
“In the eyes of most people, they built the bomb, and they won the war,” Hall says.
Based on FBI records, Urey appears to have been enthralled by the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, communists who had a role in passing along information on the Manhattan Project to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in 1951, sentenced to death and executed.
Urey, who called the Rosenberg case a “miscarriage of justice,” contacted the judge in the case and ultimately requested clemency for the Rosenbergs.
During the time he lived in Chicago, Urey was investigated by the FBI under the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which was signed by President Harry S Truman. The law established a commission to oversee atomic energy, putting nuclear energy issues in the hands of civilians instead of the military, according to Hall.
Urey also was the subject of an investigation to establish his “current beliefs and activities,” one document shows, though the feds were careful not to push too hard.
“Of course no questions should be asked persons interviewed concerning Urey’s ‘beliefs’ as to do so would likely produce charges that we are ‘thought police,’” a document launching that investigation reads.
In a post-war speech after helping invent the A-bomb, Urey said, “If we could possibly get rid of the darn thing, I’d be glad of it.”