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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.

A number of other wartime Soviet intelligence efforts to obtain information and documents on the Manhattan Project are known to have taken place. Among the people used by the Soviets were a scientist named Clarence Hiskey at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago, where the first reactor designs were produced; a soldier stationed at Los Alamos, David Greenglass, who passed crude drawings of plutonium bomb design on to his sister and brother-in-law, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg; and the British scientist Alan Nunn May, attached to a joint American-British heavy-water project in Canada, who provided the Soviets with an actual sample of U-235. A young colleague of Enrico Fermi in Rome in the 1930s, the Italian physicist Bruno Pontecorvo, defected to the Soviet Union in 1950 and security officials concluded he had probably been working for Soviet intelligence during the war as well. Best known, of course, is Oppenheimer himself, who was the target of an effort directed by a Communist Party organizer in San Francisco, Steve Nelson, who sent confederates seeking information in the early days of the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer rebuffed another approach from his friend Haakon Chevalier, but failed to give a full and candid account of it to security officers, thereby arousing a storm of suspicion which never died.

On a train trip from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Chicago in September 1943 Oppenheimer confessed to General Leslie Groves, military director of the Manhattan Project, that “he had probably belonged to every Communist front organization on the West Coast.”6 Oppenheimer was married to a former Communist, was the brother of a former Communist, had conducted a love affair with a Communist, and had admittedly been approached by Communists, sent by Communists, seeking classified data about the project. But Oppenheimer insisted to Groves that he was not a Communist himself and could be trusted, and Groves believed him. Groves’s chief security officer on the west coast, Colonel Boris Pash, emphatically didn’t believe him, and he refused to grant Oppenheimer a security clearance until Groves issued a written order for him to do so. Historians are in general agreement that Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance in 1954 primarily for his failure to support the H-bomb program enthusiastically, not because he couldn’t be trusted to keep secrets.

But the record of Soviet intelligence efforts to find out about the bomb includes a recent, still unresolved, claim. In 1992 the aged Anatoli Yatskov, who has since died, claimed in a series of interviews with Michael Dobbs of The Washington Post that there was another major Soviet spy at Los Alamos, a physicist given the code name of Perseus. Yatskov claimed that Perseus was in contact with Soviet intelligence in 1942, more than a year before Fuchs’s arrival, that the courier who contacted Perseus in New Mexico was Lona Cohen, a figure of importance in other Soviet espionage cases; and that Perseus was still alive.7 Precisely what secrets Perseus stole and when he stole them Yatskov did not say. This story set off a frenzied search for Perseus by historians and journalists, and resulted in some unpleasant moments as spotlights of suspicion were directed at aging scientists living in quiet retirement. But Yatskov’s claim was too vague, and provided too few clues, and Perseus remains without a name, if indeed he existed at all. This, briefly described, is the roster of known Soviet intelligence agents or assets to which we must now add the names of Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard, and Niels Bohr, if the authors of Special Tasks can be believed.

The lives of intelligence officers involved in espionage are built around cases—either the recruitment and running, or the discovery and exposure, of agents engaged in secret work. These cases are always highly particular, and the file of even the most routine case can run to hundreds or thousands of pages. Until they are claimed by death or Alzheimer’s disease, intelligence officers can usually recount their cases in painstaking, voluminous detail—just how and when the agent was spotted and recruited, what he obtained, how he was handled and looked after, when and how the case was terminated, every stage of it accompanied at the time by minute analysis and much conjecture. Years are sometimes spent in supervising a single case; every detail involving the assignment of tasks and making contact may be hashed out in committee meetings lasting late into the night. Intelligence officers joining an operation already in progress may spend weeks just reading into the case. They learn their cases backward and forward; success or failure is usually the result of details anticipated or overlooked. When an intelligence officer feels free to recount an old case the narrative can last for hours.

What distinguishes the account of atomic espionage presented in Special Tasks is its complete lack of the establishing and supporting details that are the signature of genuine espionage cases. When charges are made almost nothing is offered by way of circumstance, and in the very few cases where details are cited they are irrelevant, misleading, or blatantly wrong. “It is in the record,” the book says, “that on several occasions they [Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard, and Szilard’s secretary] agreed to share information on nuclear weapons with Soviet scientists.” This sounds vaguely like espionage, but no prosecutor could frame an indictment without knowing what sort of agreement was reached, with whom, on which occasions, for sharing what information. If Special Tasks is to be taken seriously it must provide such particulars; without them the most far-reaching charges evaporate, and we are spared the spectacle of a libel case only by the Anglo-Saxon common law precept that one cannot libel the dead. “Giving secrets to the Russians” is not espionage; knowingly passing a copy of a classified document or classified information to an unauthorized person on or about a certain date is espionage.

Only two charges brought in Special Tasks even approach this standard for espionage, one against Oppenheimer in 1941, and a second against Bohr in 1945. The first claims that Oppenheimer told a Soviet diplomat, Gregory Kheifetz, over lunch in California in December 1941 about a letter to President Roosevelt from Albert Einstein urging a research effort to study the feasibility of making atomic bombs. It is possible but far from certain that Oppenheimer knew about this letter, written in the summer of 1940. In any event the letter contained no secrets, and was not itself an official secret. Oppenheimer had no official position with any secret program in December 1941, and the Manhattan Project did not yet exist. Lest this seem a pettifogging defense I ought to add that I do not believe the lunch ever took place, or that the authors of Special Tasks can provide a lucid taped or videotaped claim by the elder Sudoplatov dating or describing it.

The rest of the charges against Oppenheimer in Sudoplatov’s book tend to evaporate on scrutiny. The principal ones are as follows: (1) that he deliberately recruited Fuchs to work at Los Alamos, but the huge record on the British mission establishes beyond doubt that Oppenheimer had nothing to do with bringing Fuchs either to America or to Los Alamos; (2) that he allowed Fuchs to persuade him to oppose the building of the hydrogen bomb, but the question did not come up until three years later; (3) that he allowed himself to be talked into unspecific acts of treason by his wife, Kitty, who was herself under the influence of Elizabeth Zarubin, wife of the chief Soviet intelligence officer in Washington, Vassili Zarubin; but Kitty was in Berkeley, Los Alamos, or Pittsburgh throughout the war, and there is no evidence Mrs. Zarubin left Washington until she left for good in 1944; (4) that he deliberately made secret documents available (by leaving them out on his desk at night, according to Leona Schecter on the MacNeil/Lehrer show) to a Soviet spy (“mole”) he had himself placed in the Los Alamos laboratory, but no evidence including the name of the “mole” is presented to support this.

Fermi and Szilard are also charged with having arranged, in secret concert with Oppenheimer, to give secret documents to young moles they themselves placed in their several laboratories. It is separately charged that Szilard’s “secretary” was working for the Soviets. In fact Szilard had no secretary, but called upon the stenographic pool at Chicago’s Met Lab. The authors of Special Tasks appear to believe that Szilard worked at Los Alamos—he was never there during the war—and was close to Oppenheimer; in fact they met only once, in May 1945, according to William Lanouette, Szilard’s biographer, and they did so in the office of General Groves.

These moles all remain unidentified, and nothing is said of when they went to work or what documents they spirited away. Leona Schecter’s claim that Oppenheimer and his colleagues left documents out on their desks at night betrays a deep ignorance of the security measures prevailing throughout the Manhattan Project, which included nightly checks to see that doors and safes were locked, trash baskets were empty, and desk tops were clear. Sudoplatov as an intelligence officer would have known that any attempt to leave documents out at night would have instantly attracted the attention of security officers. The basis for Mrs. Schecter’s extremely implausible claim is never made clear.

Other errors are just as glaring. Special Tasks alleges that Gregory Kheifetz reported in December 1941 that Oppenheimer told him he “and his colleagues were planning to move from Berkeley, California, to a new site to conduct research in nuclear weapons.” In fact, the first proposal to send scientists to a remote laboratory site came nearly a year later, and the move itself did not occur until the spring of 1943. Kheifetz simply could not have sent such a report in late 1941. How then did it get into the book?

An even more troubling claim concerns Bruno Pontecorvo, the young Italian physicist who had worked with Fermi in Rome in the 1930s. Only hours after Fermi succeeded in creating the world’s first self-sustaining chain reaction in Chicago on December 2, 1942, Pontecorvo is said to have reported the news to his Soviet case officer. The report was “a prearranged telephone message saying, ‘The Italian sailor reached the new world.’ ” This story is suspect, to say the least. In the first place Pontecorvo was not in Chicago at the time of the experiment, but working as an acoustics expert with an oil-drilling rig in Oklahoma. But the account raises deeper questions of veracity as well. According to one of the best-known stories in the history of the Manhattan Project, Arthur Compton, director of the Met Lab where Fermi’s experiment was conducted, telephoned James Conant, president of Harvard University, after the reactor became self-sustaining to report the success in a transparent code, which he said he invented on the spur of the moment:

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.

Letters

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

  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.

  6. 6

    In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (US Government Printing Office, 1954; MIT Press, 1971), p. 59.

  7. 7

    Michael Dobbs, “How Soviets Stole US Atom Secrets,” Washington Post, October 4, 1992. Yatskov’s claim that Lona Cohen was the contact for Perseus in New Mexico may have a bearing on the Rosenberg case; Harry Gold, in his confession to the FBI, claimed that Yatskov asked him to contact David Greenglass in Albuquerque in June 1945 because Greenglass’s regular contact was unavailable. No comprehensive general history of the Soviet atomic espionage efforts exists, but accounts of the different episodes may be found in Robert Lamphere, The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent’s Story (Random House, 1986); Philip Stern, The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial (Harper and Row, 1969); and David J. Dallin, Soviet Espionage (Yale University Press, 1955).

  8. 8

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

  9. 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.

  10. 10

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

  11. 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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