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The Conscientious Spy

Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy

by Robert Chadwell Williams
Harvard University Press, 267 pp., $25.00

Klaus Fuchs: The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb

by Norman Moss
Grafton Books (London), 216 pp., £12.95


In America these days, idealism is out of fashion, even in bad taste. Men of principle make us uncomfortable. Their enthusiasm is suspect; their refusal to compromise looks at worst unscrupulous, at best naive. Ours is less a scoundrel time, as Lillian Hellman called the McCarthy years, than a time for freebooters, when the people who win sneaking public sympathy are a pirate apprentice like Oliver North and a devious financier like John Z. DeLorean.

Lulled into egocentric apathy, Americans in the 1980s find this sort of worldliness easier to accept than the singleminded commitment of Islamic fundamentalists today, or the perverse secrecy of European Communists in the 1930s. So it is a bad time for an American historian to tackle the 1930s and 1940s, when the stakes of serious politics were defined in terms more idealistic than those we use nowadays; it is a difficult time to reconstruct the life and give us a feeling for the motives of a physicist who (by today’s standards) was a dupe entangled in the web of Soviet intelligence, and who escaped the fate of the Rosenbergs only thanks to the sloppiness of British security and the pedantic niceties of English law.

Certainly Robert Chadwell Williams, a historian at Davidson College in North Carolina, has little sympathy for the political idealism of Klaus Fuchs, who is now a retired physics professor in Dresden, East Germany, having served the years 1950 to 1959 in an English prison. Far from it: his biography of Fuchs is a cautionary tale, and its very last words are a warning against political naiveté:

In matters of politics [Fuchs] remains an idealist; a visiting western scientist who heard him lecture noted that “his face lit up and he began to talk like a religious revivalist” about the achievements of socialism. As another physicist put it, “I have never before known a person who possesses such a marvelous ability to think in abstract terms who is at the same time so helpless when it comes to either observe or evaluate reality.”

These reports are Professor Williams’s last judgments on a man to whom he has devoted years of research. Yet what does this deadpan conclusion imply? At first, it seems to echo Dr. Johnson’s distaste for enthusiasm—“Heaven preserve us from such vulgarity!” But this can hardly be the whole story. So, one needs to ask, How could anyone think it worth investing so much effort in so ungrateful a task? What message should we carry away? And why is such a biography written and published just now?

Reading the book, I tried to get some sense of Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs (born in Rüsselsheim, 1911), the man who is Williams’s ostensible subject. Yet, as I did so, my picture became not richer or more detailed, but thinner and sketchier. This was frustrating, since I met Fuchs briefly in the summer of 1949, in the company of a woman cousin of his who visited my family from Germany. All I retained from that meeting was a recollection of his terse conversation and monk-like face, and I looked forward to finding out more about him. But Robert Williams’s biography threw little fresh light on his personality, for reasons that become clear only after a time. Unlike other authors writing on similar subjects, e.g., Alan Moorehead and Rebecca West, he is not interested in helping his readers to get inside the heads of the “atom spies” of the 1940s and 1950s. His story has a distinctive theme, it is true, but this is more visible in his varied subplots than in his direct and rather pedestrian narrative. His central interest is not in Fuchs’s personality: indeed, as we read, Fuchs fades into the background and his place is taken by more familiar and politically loaded characters. By the time we reach the end, the questions are not about Fuchs, but about other more highly placed “enemies of freedom” whose supposed protection helped him betray the United States and the free world.

The 1949 encounter with Fuchs may even have been instrumental in his decision to reveal his espionage. His cousin brought important news, that his father had decided to leave West Germany and take a chair of theology at Leipzig in the DDR; and this gave Fuchs an occasion for the self-unmasking confession from which Robert Williams’s book begins. As he said when he confessed, he could not hope to keep his position as a leading theoretician in the British nuclear weapons team at Harwell, outside Oxford, once his close connections with East Germany were known. Or that was what he said when he first began to open up to his guardedly suspicious friend in the Harwell security division, Henry Arnold; but, as was soon clear, Fuchs had reached a point at which he was ready to get his serious doubts about his years of espionage off his chest, in an unrealistic hope of redeeming his hopeless situation. Before long he was volunteering the whole story.

By mid-1949, both British and American security authorities had in any case begun to suspect him. Retrospectively decoding the recorded wartime cables to Moscow from a Soviet office in New York, cryptographers at the US National Security Agency identified a report by Fuchs on the Los Alamos atomic project and passed this on to their colleagues in London, who decided that it was time to interrogate him. This one belated piece of evidence, based on classified decoding techniques, was the first pointer security agencies had acquired to all those years during which Fuchs had served as a Soviet informant. Taken by itself, it would scarcely have supported the formal prosecution that followed his confession. Why, then, did he volunteer as he did the information that eventually implicated his immediate contact, Harry Gold, and also (less directly) the Rosenbergs?

Professor Williams gives us for the first time a good deal of material that helps in answering that question. In particular, he reprints the texts of Fuchs’s two confessions, as forwarded by J. Edgar Hoover to the White House in 1950. (These copies come from the Truman Presidential Library at Independence, Missouri: the original confessions are still classified as “official secrets” in Britain.) Fuchs told his British interrogator, William Skardon, that he had long had doubts about Russian policy, but after the Second World War they became too grave to ignore. As early as 1939,

I had my doubts for the first time on acts of foreign policies of Russia; the Russo-German pact was difficult to understand, but in the end I did accept that Russia had done it to gain time, that during that time she was expanding her own influence in the Balkans against the influence of Germany.

His faith in the Soviet Union’s mission, unlike that of many of his fellow Communists in Europe, weathered the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the takeover of the Baltic states, and the invasion of Finland; but after 1945 it was more severely shaken:

In the postwar period I began again to have my doubts about Russian policy…. Eventually I came to a point where I knew I disapproved of a great many actions of the Russian Government and of the Communist Party, but I still believed that they would build a new world and that one day I would take part in it and that on that day I would also have to stand up and say to them that there are things which they are doing wrong. [Here, deeply unrealistic elements in Fuchs’s personality begin to surface.] During this time I was not sure that I could give all the information that I had. However, it became more and more evident that the time when Russia would expand her influence over Europe was far away, and that, therefore, I had to decide for myself whether I could go on for many years to continue handing over information without being sure in my own mind whether I was doing right. I decided that I could not do so.

Skardon began to ask about the scientific details of the espionage, but at that point Fuchs clammed up and agreed to give these details only to an interrogator who was scientifically trained and had security clearance to receive them. In that second interview Michael Perrin, his scientific interrogator, was impressed by the amount of information that Fuchs had in fact refrained from passing to his Russian contacts after the war, and by his willingness, now that he had revealed himself, to give the British authorities all that he knew about the Russian nuclear program:

I formed the impression that, throughout the interview, Fuchs was genuinely trying to remember and report all the information that he had given to the Russian agents with whom he had been in contact, and that he was not withholding anything. He seemed, on the contrary, to be trying his best to help me to evaluate the present position of atomic energy works in Russia in the light of the information that he had, and had not, passed to them.

We are here faced, it seems, with that rare and curious phenomenon, the conscientious spy who does not automatically hand over anything his spymaster asks for, without discrimination, but reserves to himself the right to pick and choose among those requests and inquiries, and exercise his own judgment in deciding what he will or will not pass on.

In reconstructing Fuchs’s reasons for embarking on espionage in the first place, we need to see the situation in prewar Europe in proportion. People who grew up (as I did) in the Europe of the 1930s shared one thing with those, like Fuchs, who were a dozen years older. Our political vision was shaped by the rise of the Nazis in Germany, by the civil war in Spain, and by the gallant attempt of “premature antifascists” to piece together a popular front against the radical right. For many of us, therefore, an outline of Klaus Fuchs’s life provokes painfully nostalgic memories of that earlier struggle between idealists and cynics.

Fuchs’s father, the Reverend Emil Fuchs (born 1874), was a friend and colleague of Paul Tillich’s, and a Protestant minister with a nationwide reputation for integrity and commitment to social reform. His theological training and practical experience both drew him to socialism. His working-class flock was butchered in the trenches of the First World War: this only made him the more committed to a practical, political interpretation of the Gospel. In the early 1920s, he was involved in the German Christian socialist and pacifist movements, along with Tillich and Karl Barth. Ultimately, having admired and worked with English Quakers, he joined the Society of Friends in 1925 and, from then on, was one of the best known and most eminent of the German Quakers.

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