Richard Feynman Was A Suspected Soviet Spy, Say Declassified FBI Documents

So Richard Feynman was a Communist, or at least that’s what the FBI might want us to think. The Feynman files have been released and they reveal information about the FBI’s tabs on the world famous scientist. The recently revealed FBI files, all documented in completeness by MuckRock, show the extent to which the FBI went to in pursuing Feynman.

Why put Feynman on the radar?

So why Richard Feynman? What did one of the most brilliant physicists ever to walk the planet, someone who had been intricately involved in the American atom bomb project – the Manhattan Project – do to have his name tagged by the FBI? The most convincing reason appears to be his “extreme charm” and “unusual personal magnetism which enables him to charm or fascinate individual persons or groups.” Even his personal distrust of religion was a cause for concern of the FBI.

The Nobel winner was close to people like project leader Robert Oppenheimer, who came under the FBI scanner right after the war for his leftist links and views, and Klaus Fuchs, who was outed as a Soviet spy, trying to steal nuclear defense secrets from the Manhattan Project.


The links to the declassified FBI documents as given by MuckRock.

MuckRock Link 1: “The Feynman Files”

MuckRock Link 2: “Feynman: The Master of Deception?”

How it all started

Suspicions were raised by one FBI-sponsored interviewer, who swore on the Bible and reported:

I do not know—but I believe that Richard Feynman is either a Communist or very strongly pro-Communist—and as such is a very definite security risk. This man is, in my opinion, an extremely complex and dangerous person, and a very dangerous person to have in a position of public trust, particularly a position that so vitally affects the safety and welfare of this nation

So that’s nice. Feynman was to be either himself – brash, arrogant, mischevious and blindingly brilliant – or he had to be a Russian spy. His fame as the mischevious lock-picker in the Manhattan project did not help his image. His past came back to haunt him, as an innocent association with the “Young People’s Socialist League” during his high school years figured a number of times in the extensive documents.

His brilliance worked against him. The FBI enlisted a few pointers about Feynman, which included, amongst others, his “technical ability to analyse scientific data”, his “experience in picking locks”, his “experience in devising and deciphering coded messages” and his “unusual ability to influence people”. (See below)

All the ways how Feynman was 'dangerous'. A page from the declassified documents. (Courtesy: MuckRock)

Dislike for all things bureaucratic

Feynman’s intense dislike of all things bureaucratic and his love for all things academic also served against him. Why would a loyal, intelligent American reject all lucrative government positions and then settle for some faculty position, which will involve teaching responsibilities and also offer him much lesser pay? But then, what do bureaucrats understand the beauty of the Universe as a physicist sees it? How do they understand the joy of teaching? What about the ecstasy of knowing something deep about the Universe that no one else in the world knows about at the moment? How can anyone understand the feeling of being Richard Feynman?

Serious Trouble

Trouble really started with an invitation from the Soviets to a physics conference in Moscow in 1955. Feynman hesitated and even informed the State Department of the invitation. He wrote back to the Soviets saying that he was “unable to give a definite answer”. The FBI did not openly get involved, but the State Department did not respond to Feynman’s letter. The first notification from Feynman was followed by two more; none of the three received any reply from the authorities.

Finally Feynman got fed up and decided to take the matter into his own hands. After nearly four months of just sitting waiting for a reply, Feynman replied to the Soviet administration saying that he “shall accept the invitation” and that he was merely waiting for the passport to be renewed. The U.S. State Department again stalled this procedure.

In spite of Feynman’s growing displeasure – and his openness to reveal it in letters – the State Department kept him hanging for two more months. When the reply did come, it was a disappointing “we urge you to decline the invitation”, but there was no non-clearance or directive against him. The government couldn’t act directly against a man, who was, on the other hand, brashly against the government work ethics.

History repeats and it is often ironic

It is indeed ironic that NASA, another American govt. Agency, would, 30 years later, during the Challenger disaster investigation, turn to the Nobel Winner to be a part of the investigation team. The irony deepens since this would be a very man who would crack open the case and expose NASA and its bureaucracy.

Feynman during the press meet after the Challenger disaster enquiry. He was demonstrating the brittle nature of the O-rings.

The ultimate rockstar of physics could never fit the mould.

Published by

Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.