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Who smeared Richard Feynman?

by Alex Wellerstein, published July 11th, 2014

One of the many physicists who came under official FBI scrutiny during the Cold War was Richard Feynman.1 Feynman’s work on the bomb at Los Alamos, combined with his fame, penchant for telling stories about safe-cracking, and occasional consideration for being on government committees led him to be investigated a few times, to see where is loyalties lay. In March 2012, the website MuckRock filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain and release Feynman’s full FBI file (minus deletions). It got a lot of Internet buzz when it first came out, but from the look of most of it, the articles about it didn’t read it very carefully — they just mined it for a few good quotes.

Would you give this man a security clearance? From the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Would you give this man a security clearance? From the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

And good quotes it has. Like most FBI files for people who had security clearances at one point or another, it is mostly concerned with interviews with friends and colleagues about Feynman’s “character and loyalty.” Most of the file was filled out in 1958, when Feynman was apparently being considered for a position on Eisenhower’s President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), a very high-level advisory board created in the wake of Sputnik. Most of the testimonies look like this:

Feynman_FBI_file_1

“…a brilliant physicist… discreet, loyal American citizen of good character and associates and recommended him for a position of trust…” And so on.

And sometimes you can figure out the basics of what the blank spots say from the context. The first blank spot is someone who Feynman worked with during a summer of 1956 visit to Brookhaven National Laboratory, and we can deduce from the text that: 1. the person is a man, and 2. the person is not someone Feynman knew well before that period. We could if we were really tempted to, try to figure out (from archival files or databases), the names of several candidates based on these properties, and then see if they fit into the blank spot (since it is a fixed-width font). The second blank spot is the name of the interviewing FBI agent (SA = Special Agent). In this case, it is such a boring endorsement that it doesn’t seem worth the effort. (The b7C and b7D on the right are FOIA exemption references that indicate that the blanked out parts have been done so to protect the “privacy” and hide the name of the confidential informant.)

Feynman smear 1

But there is a much more interesting letter in the file, and it is one that several blogs and news sites picked up on at the time. It is dated August 8, 1958, and is an epic 9-page attack on Feynman’s character, written directly to J. Edgar Hoover. It argues that “Feynman is a master of deception, and that his greatest talent lies in intrigue, not physics”:

I do not know—but I believe that Richard Feynman is either a Communist or very strongly pro-Communist—and as such as a very definite security risk. This man is, in my opinion, an extremely complex and dangerous person, a very dangerous person to have in a position of public trust… In matters of intrigue Richard Feynman is, I believe immensely clever—indeed a genius—and he is, I further believe, completely ruthless, unhampered by morals, ethics, or religion—and will stop at absolutely nothing to achieve his ends.

You can read the least-redacted version of the letter here.2 A lot of the sites which posted it did so in sort of a confused way — talking about how it reflected that the FBI was dubious about Feynman (the FBI do not issue opinions of this sort, and the letter is just part of his file), and wondering which of his colleagues would be mean enough to write such a thing.

Feynman smear letter, 1958

I’ve read a lot of FBI files of physicists, and plenty of them are full of anonymous, smearing letters to Hoover. This one sticks out as unusual, though, both in its vehemence and its personal specificity. The author of the letter is not some anti-Communist nut who writes nasty letters as a hobby. It hits much closer to home than most smears.

So who smeared Feynman? What can we infer about the letter’s author, reading between the lines?

  • The author is someone who knew Feynman pretty well. This is a letter written by someone who has heard a lot of Richard Feynman stories — they are well-acquainted with his lock-picking Los Alamos stories, for example. (And this was several decades before those stories appeared in books.) They know that he’s very handy with mechanical devices, they know his friends, they claim to know how Feynman has talked about his political positions over the years and how he is registered to vote (Republican).
  • The author is religious and conservative. Among the author’s criticisms of Feynman is that he is irreligious and a fake Republican. The author repeatedly invokes Eisenhower’s name in awe and respect, and offers to swear either on a Bible or to the President himself. The author talks of Feynman’s “long hatred of Republicans,” but knows that Feynman registered as a Republican in 1956 — which the author believes to have been part of a long-game deception to infiltrate the government. The author could be faking it, of course, but it doesn’t read like that to me.
  • The author knows a lot about his scientific contacts and knows he is considered brilliant by his peers, but is probably not a physicist. On page 6 of the letter, the author names lots of Feynman’s scientific associations and acknowledges that they would all give Feynman high marks. But the author also makes some rather elementary errors: some of the names are obviously misspelled — “Enerico Fermi” and “Claus Fuchs.” It is hard for me to believe that any of his Los Alamos peers would misspell those names in 1956, much less that of Fermi’s. Of course, we all make typos. But the tenor of the letter suggests someone who was pretty closely connected with Feynman’s scientific world, but was not a member of it.
  • The person is someone who the FBI had already identified as worth interviewing, prior to the letter. This is obvious from the first sentence (“On July 28, 1958, I was interviewed by a representative of the FBI…”) but was missed by a lot of the sites that wrote on the file. This tells us a few things. For one, it tells us that this person was already someone whose connection to Feynman was superficially obvious — again, not an anonymous ranter, but someone relatively close. For another, it lets us trace through the file and figure out where the interview happened. And indeed, we find that on 7/28/58, an FBI agent from the Butte office interviewed someone in Boise, Idaho, who talked about Feynman’s lock-picking stories, and had a rare negative conclusion about his suitability. Probably the same person.
  • The person who wrote the letter is a woman. Wait, what? Indeed! Despite a lot of redaction to keep the identity of the letter writer and interviewee a secret, there are a few tiny slips: a reference to “her” and “she” in a few of the FBI memos. This is the sort of subtle thing that must make file redactors kick themselves, because it’s the sort of little slip-up that gives away a lot of information.

So who smeared Feynman? I submit a theory: I suspect it was his second wife, Mary Louise Bell, to whom he was married from 1952 until 1956.3 That’s not a long marriage, but it’s plenty of time to hear someone’s stories ad nauseam, and plenty of time to learn to hate someone. From James Gleick’s Feynman biography, Genius:

His friends refused to understand why he finally chose to settle down with Mary Louise Bell of Neodesha, Kansas, who had met him in a Cornell cafeteria and pursued him—they said cattily—all the way to Pasadena and finally accepted his proposal by mail from Rio de Janeiro. … They married as soon as he returned from Brazil, in June 1952, and they honeymooned in Mexico and Guatemala, where they ran up and down Mayan pyramids. He made her laugh, but he also frightened her with what she decided was a violent temper. … She nagged him, they thought. She liked to tell people that he was not “evolved” to the point of appreciating music and that sometimes she thought she was married to an uneducated man with a Ph.D. … Politically she was an extreme conservative, unlike most of Feynman’s colleagues, and as the Oppenheimer security hearings began, she irritated Feynman by saying, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.” He, too, voted Republican, at least for a while. Divorce was inevitable—Feynman realized early that they should not have children, he confided in his sister—but it was nearly four years before they finally separated.

Further evidence from the file: Feynman’s only connection to Boise, Idaho, is through Bell (they were married there in late June 1952). The final divorce settlement was rendered only in May 1958 — two months before the FBI interviewed the letter writer. It was an extremely ugly, long (2 years!) divorce hearing: it made the newspapers because of Bell’s allegations of “extreme cruelty” by Feynman, including the notion that he spent all of his waking hours either doing calculus and playing the bongos.

Another approach to these files is to try and guess missing words based on the fixed-width font size. One possible fit shown here, for example. I am always a little un-sure about this approach, though, since lots of other things could fit, as well.

Another approach to these files is to try and guess missing words based on the fixed-width font size. One possible fit shown here, for example. I am always a little un-sure about this approach, though, since lots of other things could fit, as well.

Of course, there’s always another possibility, such as the idea that it might not be Bell herself, but her mother, sister, close friend, etc. But there’s a level of personal animosity in the letter that is quite deep. There’s a sense that this letter writer is the only person in the entire FBI file who is fed up with Feynman’s self-serving stories and not engaged in any form of hero-worship just because he is a well-respected genius. It really does read like someone who just went through a very messy divorce with the guy.

As an aside, I talked about this with my own wife, and she noted how gendered a lot of the Feynman stuff is. His “smartest man in the room” stories are an awfully common male trope, and the emotional self-denial that comes through in his stories (e.g. about his first wife, Arline) reflects a guy who is trying very hard to put on a public face that is strongly within typical American masculinity. Many of the traits discussed in the smear letter are ones Feynman himself would own up to gladly, but were turned on their head — Feynman’s anti-secrecy exploits at Los Alamos are not seen as evidence of the inefficiency of secrecy, but as evidence of Feynman’s own juvenility. Somehow I don’t see Feynman’s male colleagues making that sort of twist. This isn’t to be essentialist, or to claim that men couldn’t smear — but the male smears usually had more emphasis on the Communism and less emphasis on his emotional stability.

Feynman never became a member of PSAC.4 Was it because of this letter, the one piece of strongly negative testimony in his file? We would need more records (and not the FBI’s) to know that: the FBI did not make recommendations as to whether someone should be hired, it simply produced a summary of the information it received (often with an emphasis on the derogatory information, though), and let the agency in question decide what it wanted to do about it. Feynman’s lack of PSAC participation may have had to do with other factors; it is not clear that he would have even wanted to be on the committee, given his avowed distaste for government work in the Cold War period. But it’s a strong letter, so it might have had an effect — it’s a letter from someone who knew Feynman, and his flaws, very well.

Notes
  1. The FBI and other anti-Communist entities took special interest in theoretical physicists during the war, because of their purported direct line to the development of nuclear weapons, and because of their alleged political naiveté. See David Kaiser, “The Atomic Secret in Red Hands? American Suspicions of Theoretical Physicists During the Early Cold War,” Representations, 90 (Spring 2005),28-60. []
  2. This was the result of a follow-up FOIA asking for the names of all deceased individuals mentioned to be removed; it adds just a few names that the original Muckrock release did not. []
  3. Wikipedia claims 1954 as the divorce date, but this is not what the FBI file says, referencing the records of the divorce trial. Feynman and Bell were legally married in Boise, Idaho, on June 28, 1952; they were separated on May 20, 1956; an “interlocutory decree of divorce” was entered on June 19, 1956, and a final judgment of divorce was rendered on May 5, 1958. []
  4. His name is not included in the roster in the back of Zouyue Wang’s book on PSAC, which is the definitive reference. []

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17 Responses to “Who smeared Richard Feynman?”

  1. Fascinating. I suspect that, if one can get hold of more correspondence by Ms Bell, it may be possible to confirm your hypothesis by comparing the characteristics of the typewriter used (as Sherlock Holmes did in “A case of identity”). There are some obvious characteristics — the lowercase “a”‘s are frequently below the baseline, the fullstops are large and blurry — and I am sure an expert could identify several less-obvious features.

  2. Ward Wilson says:

    Interesting stuff, Alex!

  3. Or-el Vaknin says:

    This was fantastic to read, quite enjoyed it! I do have one small, small question:

    “…they are well-acquainted with his lock-picking Los Alamos stories, for example. (And this was several decades before those stories appeared in books.)”

    The report that you posted the images of has a quote on page 2, saying:

    “It seems to me a curious thing that in each account which he gives to the press he never fails to mention the matter of picking locks and/or opening safes, and in interviews he also mentions sending messages in code and that he knew Claus Fuchs…”

    Is it not possible that the person had heard these interviews and press statements through the press itself, and simply drew deeper conclusions? Am I misreading the text?

    Pretty much the only question I have at the moment, thanks :)!

    • It’s true that variations of these stories did appear in various press accounts, but the full-blown Feynman mystique was not as big then (this was still pre-Nobel Prize, pre-Feynman Lectures, etc.) as it would become later.

  4. Bradley Laing says:

    —I read that when reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes started trying to stop underground testing in Nevada, Lyndon Johnson gathered together advisors for the study who, as the book put it, “were more likely to call an airstrike down on the Las Vegas Strip.” (Hughes was hiding, in very bad mental shape, in the penthouse of a Las Vegas casino.)

    —Maybe PSAC was being “packed” with advisors who would not dissent a pre-chosen path?

    • According to Wang’s book on PSAC (which is the authoritative source), it was very independent and staffed with a good diversity of opinions. It was more the Kistiakowsky/Bethe/York/Rabi types than the hard-liners (e.g. Teller) who were on PSAC. This, especially in the Eisenhower administration, was by design, because he felt that the military-industrial complex types had skewed his information flow. I don’t think Feynman would have been rejected for ideological reasons.

      PSAC was just an advisory committee the President could ask to evaluate various technical questions and reasonably expect them to be more objective/independent than the scientific staffs of various agencies/labs, but their opinions were completely non-binding (and often ignored). They did things like evaluate the Limited Test Ban Treaty’s impact on the stockpile (they concluded that underground testing would be more than adequate), look at the issues raised by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (they concluded that pesticide use should probably be more tightly regulated and studied), and Kennedy’s “Moon shot” proposal (they concluded it was a waste of money). Nixon, who had no love of scientists, disbanded PSAC in the early 1970s.

      I don’t know whether PSAC was consulted on the Hughes matter, but I would not be surprised that they would reject Hughes’ stance. The underground testing regime was seen as completely necessary from a security standpoint at that point in the Cold War.

  5. Raphael says:

    Interesting analysis.
    With regard to the censored words, I would argue that they are probably “my former husband,” instead of “my ex-husband, the”.

    • Yeah, it’s possible. I don’t put a lot of faith in character length analysis, because after a certain length it’s possible to fit a whole bunch of possibilities in there. It can help make certain arguments seem more plausible, or potentially rule out certain words, but it strikes me as much more chancy on the whole than a more contextual approach.

  6. Peter says:

    Are there other known examples of Bell’s writing? The writer of this letter has a distinctive style, namely the use of dashes to set off clauses within sentences (example from early in the letter: 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.) If Bell did not make much use of this style in her known writings it would weaken the case for her authorship.

  7. Tell Memore says:

    Have you considered that it was from Richard Feynman himself co-operating with his ex-wife?
    If Richard didn’t want to have that position, and for some reason, maybe got a kick out of it, did it this way?

    Isn’t it odd that the woman would not want to be interviewed orally?

    Without seeing the whole letter, it’s a wild guess but at least an entertaining one.

    • I really doubt he would have smeared himself as a pro-Communist during the height of the Cold War. He would have known that it was the sort of thing that could end careers, even careers outside of the government. (See, e.g. the example of Frank Oppenheimer.)

    • Bryan Stone says:

      She actually said that she was interviewed (orally) on the 28th of August, 1958. I believe she was so surprised by the Agent showing up that she was flustered and intimidated at the time of the interview. This is very common in FBI interviews and Agents often do not make appointments ahead of time. They like to catch people unprepared. That is why over the next 10 days she decided to exploit this opportunity to get even with him for the “Extreme Cruelty” she perceived she suffered. She left no spurious stone unturned and cleverly incorporated the buzzwords of the day to capitalize on every cultural paranoia that would kill his appointment to the PSAC.

      It is ironic that Feynman probably never knew of the smear, which no doubt killed any chance for his consideration. People often believe that when there is that much shit in the corral, there must be a pony in there somewhere. That shit however was brought in with a dump truck, and there is no pony around.

      Just as well that he didn’t know about this or get selected. I think he made greater contributions in the end, without the distraction. All the same, shame on Mary Louise Bell

  8. Tony says:

    Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn! Honestly you did pretty well with that analysis.

  9. simplicio says:

    The theory she spins, that Feynman’s bragging about his safe cracking, his coded letters to his wife and his friendship with Fuchs was just a gimmick to hide his spying in plain-sight is kind of fun, even if it certainly isn’t true. There’s a good idea in there for a movie screenplay for someone.

  10. Bryan Stone says:

    Alex–

    Awesome article, and your assertions are solid, from the perspective of a former FBI agent. I first heard of the File release in January 2014 and read the entire file in a day. I noticed all the same things you highlighted in your piece, and I too was surprised that none of the articles regarding the release noticed it clues to authorship of the Smear Letter. They all seemed to suggest that the smear letter was written by a colleague, which to me carries greater harm to his reputation than to know it was from a scorned ex-wife who admitted and inferred in a way that she was so bad in the bedroom that Feynman would rather do math problems while in bed. Clearly not a strong relationship.

    The interview of July 28, 1958 (pp.182-188) in the file clearly show it occurred in Boise and that the interviewee was female as you pointed out. The data shared by her and the tone of her comments are wholly consistent with Mary Louise Bell. There is not a shred of doubt in my mind as to her being the interviewee and the writer of the Smear Letter.

    Your writing about this was important in clarifying and putting into context the origins of this grossly aberrant and noxious inclusion into written record of a fascinating scientist.

    Thank you for posting this.

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