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Were the Atomic Scientists Spies?

Jim,” I said, “you’ll be interested to know that the Italian navigator has just landed in the new world.” Then, half apologetically, because I had led the S-1 Committee to believe that it would be another week or more before the pile could be completed, I added, “the earth was not as large as he had estimated, and he arrived at the new world sooner than he had expected.”8

In a second MacNeil/Lehrer program devoted to Special Tasks, prompted by protests to the first, the Schecters said Pontecorvo must have known about Compton’s plan to use the phrase. This only compounds the error, since Compton himself made it clear that he did not know what he would be saying or when he would be saying it. The plain fact of the matter is that an old and familiar story found its way into what purports to be Sudoplatov’s memoirs. The authors of Special Tasks also claim that either Pontecorvo or Fuchs delivered to Lona Cohen “a thirty-three-page design of the bomb” which had been dropped from the official report written by Henry DeWolf Smythe. But according to William Shurcliff, Smythe’s manuscript, handwritten in blue ink, was given to him in the first half of June 1945 for editing by General Groves’s personal science advisor, Richard Tollman. About two weeks later fifty copies of the revised report were mimeographed by Shurcliff and circulated for comment. Shurcliff told me that he handled the report at every stage from original manuscript through its final version printed shortly before its release a week after Hiroshima. Only a few sentences were added or altered, and nothing was dropped. Whatever crimes may have been committed by Fuchs and Pontecorvo, the delivery of this document was not among them.

The most specific of all the charges brought in Special Tasks, and the most shocking if true, claims that Niels Bohr gave secret information in the fall of 1945 to Y.P. Terletsky, a young Russian physicist who was also working as an intelligence officer. Terletsky allegedly laid out plans for the first Soviet nuclear reactor and told Bohr they couldn’t seem to make it work. In Special Tasks Sudoplatov is reported as saying:

I met with Terletsky in 1993, just before he died. He recalled that at first Bohr was nervous and his hands trembled, but he soon controlled his emotions. Bohr understood, perhaps for the first time, that the decision that he, Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Szilard had made to allow their trusted scientific protégés [i.e., the “moles”] to share atomic secrets had led him to meet agents of the Soviet government.

Nevertheless, according to the book, Bohr explained how Fermi had achieved success, pointed to a spot on the plans laid out by Terletsky, and said, “That’s the trouble spot.”

We have only Sudoplatov’s word (if the book quotes him accurately) for what Terletsky told him. But a twenty-nine-page account in Russian, dictated by Terletsky before his death, flatly contradicts the story in Special Tasks on every detail suggesting that Bohr engaged in a secret effort to aid the Soviet bomb program.9 In particular, Terletsky said nothing whatever about laying out blueprints for a Soviet reactor; nor did he claim that Bohr pointed out “the trouble spot” (which is scientifically ridiculous on its face).

Bohr’s son, Aage, himself a winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, has recently issued a statement about the Terletsky story in Special Tasks, saying he attended the meeting in question. When Terletsky raised “some technical questions concerning atomic energy,” the elder Bohr referred him to the recently released official report by Henry DeWolf Smythe on the military uses of atomic energy. Aage Bohr adds that the Danish, British, and American authorities were all informed of the visit, a claim confirmed by a letter of November 7, 1945, to General Groves from the British embassy in Washington. This letter was written following the first approach to Bohr by a member of the Danish Communist Party, Mogens Fog, but before Terletsky’s visit to Bohr.

Bohr recently received a friendly letter from Professor [Peter] Kapitza in Moscow. This was followed some days later by a visit from a Danish friend of Bohr’s who stated that a Russian scientist was visiting Denmark and had a secret letter to Bohr from Kapitza which he had orders to deliver to Bohr under conditions of absolute secrecy so as to ensure that no other government would have been aware that the meeting had taken place.

Bohr replied that he would gladly receive the letter but that it was quite impossible for him to have any secrets from his British and American friends.10

In his tape-recorded account Terletsky mentions the ubiquitous security officers who followed him about Copenhagen at the time of the Bohr visit, and confirms that he returned to Moscow with nothing of use beyond a copy of the Smythe report, given to him by Bohr. Indeed, Bohr seems to have gathered most by way of intelligence from their conversation: he asked many questions about his friend Kapitza, and others, equally awkward, about the Soviet physicist Lev Landau, a colleague of Kapitza’s who had previously been arrested by Beria.

The claims of espionage by Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard, and Bohr are not only contradicted by known facts11 and unsupported by collateral detail but they are contradicted as well by Igor Kurchatov’s letters and reports printed as an appendix to Special Tasks. With two modest exceptions, these documents were all published in Russia two years ago. The book says Sudoplatov was in charge of handling documents about atomic energy obtained by Soviet intelligence, and that he briefed Kurchatov on everything that had been learned on or shortly before March 7, 1943. Kurchatov’s six-page response, addressed to another Soviet official on March 7, together with a second letter of March 22, makes it clear, however, that Kurchatov had been shown only intelligence documents obtained in Britain (where Fuchs had been active since at least early 1942); that Kurchatov thought Enrico Fermi was still working at Columbia University in New York; that he did not know of Fermi’s successful reactor experiment in Chicago three months earlier, or even what sort of reactor it was; that he knew nothing of work at Los Alamos or Oak Ridge; that he was familiar only with American documents which had been openly published; that he was not sure whether the Americans had a bomb program under way, and that he (like other leading scientists in Britain, the United States, and Germany) had independently figured out how reactors might be used to make a new fissionable material (plutonium).

By mid-summer 1943 Soviet intelligence had apparently obtained a large batch of American documents, but these appear to have been part of a National Academy of Sciences study completed before the United States entered the war. The first document showing Soviet knowledge of the location of laboratories at Oak Ridge, Handford, and Los Alamos is dated February 28, 1945, and is apparently based entirely on information obtained from Klaus Fuchs. In a letter of April 7, 1945, a few months after Fuchs delivered documents to Harry Gold in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about the design of plutonium bombs, Kurchatov refers to “the implosion method of activating the bomb, which we found out about only recently …” [my italics].

In short, genuine documents about the Soviet bomb program demonstrate that the alleged Oppenheimer-Fermi-Szilard conspiracy to pass secret atomic documents to Soviet intelligence could not have delivered anything before the summer 1943, or anything about current research before early 1945. Even then, Soviet knowledge was very sketchy; Oak Ridge, for example, was not expected to be fully functional until 1948. These genuine documents refer almost entirely to materials obtained from Fuchs, and make no reference to the sort of high-level intelligence that ought to have been available from Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Szilard. The account of atomic espionage printed in Special Tasks is an unrelieved mess—contradictory, often incoherent, riddled with error, and unsupported in its major claims that the leading scientists who are named committed espionage. Behind the many small falsities there appears to be a big one: on May 5 in Moscow the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, successor to the KGB, punctured the book’s principal balloon when it issued a statement saying that, far from being in charge of atomic intelligence during the war, “Pavel Sudoplatov had access to atomic problems during a relatively brief period of time, a mere twelve months, from September 1945 to October 1946….” This, if confirmed, would make hash of the Schecters’ claim in their introduction that it would be “impossible for anyone other than Sudoplatov, who supervised their efforts, to put the full story together.” But before historians and biographers attempt the laborious task of deciding whether any of these things really happened, they should first address the more basic question whether Sudoplatov actually said they happened.

As soon as we inquire who wrote Special Tasks we begin to sense the problem. The book has more authors than a Hollywood movie with script trouble; four names are listed in the copyright notice, the Sudoplatovs, father and son, and the Schecters husband and wife. In their introduction the Schecters have claimed the book was built from “transcripts of twenty hours of taped reminiscences” and “a first draft [prepared] for Pavel Anatolievich’s confirmation and approval.” The elder Sudoplatov reminisced in Russian; we must assume the transcript was in Russian, and presumably the “first draft,” purporting to be Sudoplatov’s words, was in Russian. But no translator is credited. How did this book get from Russian to English?

The Schecters have declined a request to deliver to this reviewer the Russian “originals” on which Special Tasks is presumably based, saying they will eventually be given to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. But a five-page transcript of a videotape prepared for journalists suggests the nature of the difficulty the Schecters must have faced in putting the book together. We must imagine that these passages, chosen for publicity, are as good as it gets, but the elder Sudoplatov’s remarks have a rambling, confused, inexact, slippery quality. None clearly supports or justifies the charges brought in the book. An excerpt will give the feel of the whole:

Answer [from the elder Sudoplatov]: The first reports were from Grigory Markovich Kheifetz. There were Oppenheimer’s plans for the atomic bomb, and the development of his work into industrial areas.

Question [the younger Sudoplatov]: When was that?

A: This was approximately 1942 and ‘43. Again in ‘43, were the results of Fermi’s experiments received from Pontecorvo. Here I would like to underline to you all the time that we are talking not about these comrades; comrades, that’s an old way of speaking. These scientists were not our agents. Lord save us. We’re not talking about that. An agent is someone under your command. They were not under our command. Not one of these people.

Q: But they passed material to you?

A: We received material all the same. But it wasn’t from agents that we received materials. We received materials from people who were fearful of the spread of the atomic plague, people who were worried about the future of the world… In 1944 we received from Szilard material about his work at Los Alamos. This was very important, and received with great approval and interest by our scientists: Kurchatov, Alikhanov, Kikoin… Don’t forget one thing I want to specify: not every scientist communicating with our workers overseas was one of our agents. We didn’t have to recruit anyone into a network agents…

Q: Do you remember the pseudonyms used in the telegrams that we looked at yesterday?

A: Charles is Fuchs, Star is Szilard. [According to the book “Star” was also used as a codename for Oppenheimer, for Oppenheimer and Fermi jointly, and for “other physicists and scientists in the Manhattan Project…”]

Q: And Mlad, another source, is Pontecorvo?

A: I think so. Yes. These weren’t people who could be bought.

Q: But they gave you information in written form?

A: Sometimes they gave us information in written form when we asked for it. They gave it in written form. These were people who liked the Soviet Union very much…

Q: What is known about the relationship between Oppenheimer and Fuchs?

A: Well, what is known is that they worked together first of all, and Oppenheimer valued Fuchs highly as a physicist…

Q: Did Oppenheimer know about Fuchs’s sympathies to the Soviet Union?

A: Maybe Oppenheimer knew about his feelings, and this may have made them closer to some degree. But of course we’re not talking about his knowing there was a connection to Soviet espionage. Soviet espionage was never mentioned.

How twenty hours of this stuff was transformed into Special Tasks has more to do with carpentry than with composition. It is impossible to distinguish Sudoplatov’s real memories, however confused by age and years, from the Schecters’ own research and general editorial tidying up. If Special Tasks were truly Sudoplatov’s autobiography, a found object like a manuscript washed ashore in a bottle, then we ought to expect a phalanx of editorial warnings from the Schecters urging extreme caution. Standard editorial practice, after all, would have been to check the book against the published record, to consult historians and surviving participants, and to lay out the book’s numerous textual problems frankly before the reader with an injunction to proceed with care. Instead, the book was hurried secretly into print in the manner now reserved by publishers for sensational revelations. No catalog announcement was made, no advance copies, so far as I know, were read by experts in the field, no bound galleys or early copies were sent to reviewers. A sudden avalanche of finished books came into the bookstores to coincide with a media blitz—in this case, Time magazine and the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, which both abandoned all accepted journalistic practice by treating what amounts to unsupported charges as proven. The result is widespread public acceptance of claims that Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard, and Bohr were spies for the Russians, which no amount of debunking in reviews like this one can ever hope to erase.

But the greatest danger of a book like Special Tasks is that it can poison the stream and cast into disrepute the entire effort to coax forth the true history of the cold war. Many other books drawing on secret files and the memories of old men have already emerged from Moscow, and others are planned. The Soviets had a gift amounting to genius for intelligence work and espionage; indeed, one principal source of the failure of the regime was its tendency to rely excessively on secret information and hidden manipulation. Questions of loyalty and allegiance were often raised during the cold war, and many have not been settled yet. One must keep an open mind, because sometimes the incredible news is true.

But not this time.


Were the Atom Scientists Spies?’: An Exchange September 22, 1994

  1. 8

    Arthur Compton, Atomic Quest (Oxford University Press, 1956), p. 144.

  2. 9

    I am indebted to David Holloway of Stanford University for a copy of Terletsky’s account, which will be cited in Holloway’s forthcoming history of the Soviet atomic weapons program, to be published by Yale University Press this fall (Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939–1956). In writing this review I also benefited from conversations with many others who write about the history of nuclear weapons, including Priscilla McMillan, Gregg Herken, Stanley Goldberg, William Lanouette, and Richard Rhodes.

  3. 10

    Manhattan Engineering District files, M 1109, File 11, Item F, National Archives.

  4. 11

    In an article in the Wall Street Journal published on May 11, Edward Teller rejected the charges against Fermi, writing, “I never detected—not even in revealing side remarks—any tendency in Fermi to be anything but critical of communism and the Soviet Union. Fermi was apolitical. But he simply and clearly opposed the Stalinist nightmare even more than he opposed Mussolini.”

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