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Were the Atomic Scientists Spies?

Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness—A Soviet Spymaster

by Pavel Sudoplatov, and Anatoli Sudoplatov, with L. Jerrold, and Leona P. Schecter, foreword by Robert Conquest
Little, Brown, 509 pp., $24.95

When wars end the belligerents begin to speak and write about what happened—indeed, their willingness to tell the truth is one sign that the fighting is really over. Truth-telling about the cold war took a new turn following the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and there has been no pause since in the flood of memoirs, documents, and declassified files published or simply opened to the public in Moscow and other capitals of onetime members of the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet murder of thousands of Polish army officers at the Katyn Forest in 1940, Stalin’s agreement to let Kim Il Sung’s armies invade South Korea in 1950, the crimes and triumphs of the KGB and other Soviet intelligence organizations, and a long list of other revelations, large and small, eventually will make it possible for scholars to write a true history of the cold war.

But this relentless exposure of the past is not merely useful for tidying up the record of what happened; it also helps to restore peace by feeding the public hunger for truth after decades of accusation, lies, and secrecy. “Conjecture abounds when the truth is hushed up for political reasons,” said the Soviet physicist and bomb-builder Yuli Khariton in a lecture in Moscow a year ago. “If there is no truth today, there will be myths tomorrow.”1 But if truth heals, it also hurts, as the Poles and the Germans have discovered from secret files proving that all sorts of people—some once considered heroes of principled resistance—in fact were reporting to the police, betraying friends and allies.2

A painful disclosure of the kind already familiar in Europe was visited on Americans by Time magazine on Monday, April 18, with an eight-page excerpt from a new book claiming that leading scientists involved in the Manhattan Project to invent atomic bombs—J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, and the Danish physicist Niels Bohr—had served as spies for the Soviet Union during the Second World War. That evening a twenty-minute report on the Mac-Neil/Lehrer News Hour repeated the sensational claims without qualification or reservation and presented filmed interviews with the books’ four “authors” along with archival footage of Oppenheimer and other atomic scientists, Stalin and his Politburo, the Red Army goosestepping through Red Square, and similar images of the red menace of yesteryear. The principal “author” or “source” of these charges—we shall consider below which if either should apply—was also on camera: a shuffling, stoop-shouldered, rambling former officer of Soviet intelligence3 named Pavel Sudoplatov, whose “special assignments” for Stalin and Lavrenti Beria included the assassination of Leon Trotsky in addition allegedly to managing the flow of intelligence concerning the Soviet scientific program to invent atomic bombs during and immediately after the war.

That Oppenheimer was a Soviet spy was not the most shocking of Sudoplatov’s claims. A substantial literature has argued and re-argued similar charges brought in the early 1950s which prompted a formal hearing by the Atomic Energy Commission and the stripping of Oppenheimer’s security clearance—not, in the end, as a spy, for which indeed there was no evidence, but as a “security risk” whose judgment could not be trusted. Even disproven charges have a way of sticking, however; when I first heard of the Time excerpt it struck me as possible someone really had the goods on Oppenheimer or at least some plausible facts which a reasonable person might say suggested collaboration with a foreign power. But the bald claim that Fermi, Szilard, and Bohr—especially Bohr—were Soviet spies seemed utterly incredible. It would be hard to describe to someone not steeped in the history of the time and the men why these charges are so deeply implausible; it is a bit like saying that Martin Luther King was a paid informant of the FBI or had been taking secret orders from the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

But sometimes incredible news is true; in a time of truth-telling one must keep an open mind. It all depends on the evidence, in this case what purports to be the memoirs of Sudoplatov in a 509-page volume, with a cluttered title page: Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness—A Soviet Spymaster, by Pavel Sudoplatov and his son Anatoli Sudoplatov with Jerrold L. and Leona P. Schecter, the latter two being American journalists. The distinguished historian Robert Conquest has provided an enthusiastic foreword, claiming Sudoplatov’s “autobiography…is perhaps the most important single contribution to our knowledge [of the Stalin regime] since Khrushchev’s Secret Speech.” Included are new accounts of many episodes such as the assassination of Trotsky, the arrest and murder of Raoul Wallenburg, the “Doctors’ Plot” cooked up by Stalin after the war to introduce a new purge, this time mainly of Jews; and the fall of Beria after Stalin’s death, when Khrushchev moved vigorously to take Stalin’s place and to keep secret his own complicity in Stalin’s crimes.

These are all important episodes in Soviet history. But by far the most sensational charges in the book are to be found in Chapter 7 on “Atomic Spies.” The text is unequivocal:

The most vital information for developing the first Soviet atomic bomb came from scientists designing the American bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico—Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard…. At first they were motivated by fear of Hitler…. Then the Danish physicist Niels Bohr helped strengthen their own inclinations to share nuclear secrets … with the Soviet Union…

These claims, if true, would suggest a degree of Communist subversion of Western science and society beyond anything charged by anti-Communist zealots in the 1950s. If the evidence cited in Special Tasks for atomic treason by Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard, Bohr, and others is solid and persuasive, then we may generally trust and make use of the book as a whole; but if not, then we must question its other claims as well.

The penetration of the Manhattan Project by Soviet spies is not in dispute, and Soviet dependence on American bomb designs has even been conceded by scientists who helped build the first Soviet bomb, which was tested in August 1949. By far the most important Soviet atomic spy identified so far was the German physicist Klaus Fuchs, a member of the Communist Party who escaped after the rise of Hitler in 1933 to Britain, where he took his doctor’s degree under another émigré, Max Born, in Edinburgh. After briefly being interned at the beginning of the war he found a job in May 1941 with yet another émigré, Rudolf Peierls, at the University of Birmingham. There Fuchs, a physicist of high ability, helped Peierls with the calculations of critical mass (the amount of fissionable material required for a bomb), which had an important part in persuading first the British, and later the Americans, to undertake a serious bomb program. The two scientists, who became very close, also made a study of probable German efforts in the field.

Following the critical mass study, submitted in June 1941, Peierls was quickly inducted into the British bomb program, and from the careful accounts we have of Fuchs’s activities and confessions it seems likely that Fuchs was also privy to the most important fact—the seriousness of British and American interest.4 But Fuchs remained a Communist, as well, and sometime after the German invasion of Russia in June 1941 he made contact with a highly experienced Soviet spy, Ruth Werner, who met with him five or six times before Fuchs and a team of British scientists left for America in late 1943 to join the Manhattan Project. At his last meeting with Werner, Fuchs was given instructions for making contact in New York with “Raymond,” actually an American chemist named Harry Gold, who had volunteered his services for some years to the Soviet intelligence apparat.

Fuchs arrived in the United States in December 1943 and spent the following six months in New York City, working principally on gaseous diffusion of uranium isotopes at Columbia University. Detailed information on this work was passed on in five meetings with Harry Gold, who turned it over to the Soviet intelligence officer Anatoli Yatskov, who died in 1993. In the summer of 1944 the head of the theoretical division at Los Alamos, Hans Bethe, offered Peierls a job there and Peierls in turn asked if he might bring two British scientists as assistants, Tony Skyrme and Klaus Fuchs. By mid-August Fuchs had joined the laboratory run by Oppenheimer in the New Mexican desert, which was then embarked on a crash effort to develop what came to be known as the implosion method to detonate bombs using plutonium.

In early 1945, during a post-Christmas visit to his sister in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fuchs delivered details of the new detonation system to Harry Gold. Further materials were passed to Gold in Santa Fe in June and September 1945. Sometime after returning to Britain in June 1946 Fuchs joined the British nuclear research station at Harwell and reestablished contact with Soviet intelligence.

In 1949 American code-breakers read a wartime Soviet cable from New York to Moscow which provided an unmistakable clue to Fuchs’s espionage. He confessed to a British interrogator in January 1950, at the height of the argument among American policy-makers whether to embark on a crash program to develop hydrogen bombs in response to the first Soviet atomic bomb test in August 1949. The announcement of Fuchs’s arrest set off much excited commentary that the West was in peril, but within a year or two the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Gordon Dean, adopted a more relaxed view, telling a congressional committee, “I don’t think you would be taking too extreme a position if you said he [Fuchs] had advanced them [the Soviets] between a year and two years.”5

More recently the Soviets have conceded roughly the same estimate. Retired intelligence officers and scientists who worked on the Soviet bomb have engaged in a public squabble in the last two years about who ought to get credit for the first bomb. In his Moscow lecture Yuli Khariton confirmed that he and his colleagues had used an American design, stolen by Soviet spies, since speed was essential and the Americans had proved theirs worked. But Khariton also insisted that the team under Igor Kurchatov did much of the scientific work on their own and came up with a superior bomb design, which soon replaced the American model. In the heat of argument the contending parties have released a substantial number of documents, including secret messages of 1941 and 1942 from the British diplomat John Cairncross (misidentified in Special Tasks as Donald Maclean), who reported on early bomb discussions by the War Cabinet, and some extensive papers by Igor Kurchatov, commenting on stolen Western documents and listing further information he’d like to have. Special Tasks conveniently reproduces a number of these documents, which are very helpful in evaluating the text.

  1. 1

    Yuli Khariton and Yuri Smirnov, “The Khariton version,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1993.

  2. 2

    The Hiss case provides an example of how one “revelation” can cancel another. The Russian historian General Dmitri Volkogonov later withdrew his blanket claim that “not a single document” had been found implicating Hiss, which was originally made in a letter to a lawyer who had long struggled to vindicate Hiss, John Lowenthal. See Jeffrey A. Frank, “Stalin Biographer Offers Latest Twist in Hiss Case,” The Washington Post, October 31, 1992. Statements implicating Hiss in a Washington, DC, spy ring of the 1930s are included in a confession by Noel Field, given to Hungarian intelligence officers in 1954, and described by the writer Sam Tannenhaus, “Hiss Case ‘Smoking Gun’?” The New York Times, October 15, 1993.

  3. 3

    Sudoplatov’s career ended in August 1953 following his arrest as a protégé of Beria; by then the OGPU he had joined in the 1920s had gone through six name changes. In 1954 the principal Soviet intelligence service was renamed yet again as the Committee for State Security or KGB, the longest of its many incarnations, ending only with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Sudoplatov never worked for the KGB per se, but I shall use that term here for simplicity’s sake. Sudoplatov first emerges in the Western literature on the KGB following the 1954 defection of Nikolai Khokhlov, who was sent to Germany to murder a Ukrainian émigré. See Kokhlov, In the Name of Conscience (David McKay, 1959), pp. 30 ff. This was a major embarassment for Sudoplatov, who was Khokhlov’s superior, and it may partly explain why he was arrested.

  4. 4

    The definitive account of the Fuchs case is Robert Chadwell Williams, Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy (Harvard University Press, 1987).

  5. 5

    Soviet Atomic Espionage, US Government Printing Office, quoted in Alan Moorehead, The Traitors (Harper and Row, 1963), p. 215.

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