• Email
  • Print

Were the Atom Scientists Spies?’: An Exchange

In response to:

Were the Atomic Scientists Spies? from the June 9, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Special Tasks by Pavel Sudoplatov and Anatoli Sudoplatov [NYR, June 9] Thomas Powers assumes that Sudoplatov’s story cannot be true. Mr. Powers does not want to believe that Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard, and Bohr were manipulated and used by Soviet intelligence.

Niels Bohr’s encounters with Soviet intelligence officer and physicist, Yakov Terletsky, in 1945 are a source of major controversy, but they shouldn’t be. Terletsky met with Sudoplatov before his death in 1993 and told Sudoplatov of his interview with the Discovery channel, which has yet to be released. On May 10, 1994 the Moscow Independent Television Channel Five (NTV) program, Documents and Fate, revealed materials from the Russian Archives showing that Bohr and Terletsky had not one, but three meetings. The first brief meeting was at the Russian Embassy in Copenhagen, the second and third at Bohr’s institute on November 14 and November 16, 1945. Terletsky raised 22 questions which had been prepared by Soviet atomic scientists and which Bohr answered providing insight into questions troubling Soviet scientists working on the atomic bomb. The documents from the Russian State Archive, including the questions and answers, reveal that Kurchatov, head of the Soviet atomic program, considered the material valuable. Sudoplatov is identified as the officer in charge in Beria’s report of this mission to Stalin. Finally Beria reported all this in a letter to Stalin and the intelligence officer who accompanied Terletsky was rewarded. These newly released documents confirm Sudoplatov’s account.

Who were the spies? Mr. Powers recounts Klaus Fuchs’ role. The late Anatoli Yatskov, who worked in New York on Sudoplatov’s team, said in an interview with Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post in October 1992 that the FBI had succeeded in uncovering “only half, perhaps less than half” of his network of agents in the United States. In a recent article in Izvestia the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service claims there were ten major agents whose names have never been disclosed, six in the United States and four in Great Britain. Sudoplatov refused to name people who still might be alive, but in 1982 in his secret letter to the Central Committee requesting rehabilitation Sudoplatov names Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Fuchs and describes the mission to meet with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen.

Mr. Powers says the charges against Oppenheimer “tend to evaporate on scrutiny.” Let us examine them:

  1. Powers asserts it was impossible that Oppenheimer deliberately recruited Fuchs to Los Alamos. But Fuchs’ former case officer in London, Aleksandr Feklisov, who is still alive, wrote in Voyenni Istorischeski Zhurnal (Journal of Military History) December 1990, p. 25, that Oppenheimer “asked to include Fuchs as part of the British scientific mission coming to the USA to assist the project.” Feklisov’s article is footnoted in the book but Mr. Powers ignores his account. Powers himself describes a conversation when Hans Bethe offered Rudolph Peierls a job at Los Alamos; Peierls asked if he might bring Tony Skyrme and Klaus Fuchs. This contradicts the claim that there were no previous discussions about Fuchs or who would be included in the British team.

  2. Mr. Powers denies that Oppenheimer could have allowed Fuchs to persuade him to oppose the building of the hydrogen bomb, because the question did not come up until three years later.

In 1946 Beria instructed that Fuchs be told to plant the idea of opposition to the hydrogen bomb. This was based on Fuchs’ report that there was disagreement among the leading physicists over whether to build a hydrogen bomb. Nowhere does Sudoplatov claim that Fuchs was successful in this effort. That is Mr. Powers’ own conjecture and interpretation.

  1. Mr. Powers contests Elizabeth Zarubin’s influence over Kitty Oppenheimer because “there is no evidence Mrs. Zarubin left Washington until she left for good in 1944.” The present unavailability of FBI surveillance records on Mrs. Zarubin proves nothing. Sudoplatov, who was a close friend of Mrs. Zarubin, was very specific about Mrs. Zarubin being introduced to Mrs. Oppenheimer in San Francisco by Kheifetz and getting her to influence her husband. Mrs. Zarubin also activated illegals in place in California since the 1930s.

  2. Mr. Powers demands evidence to support Sudoplatov’s statement that Oppenheimer made documents available to a mole in the Los Alamos laboratory.

Does Mr. Powers expect to find dated and signed receipts with fingerprints to prove it? Sudoplatov described the method used to obtain material. The proof is a total of 690 documents and reports that were received by Soviet intelligence.

Sudoplatov does not give December 1941 as the date of Kheifetz’s report that Oppenheimer and his colleagues were planning to move from Berkeley to a new site. That is Mr. Powers’ misreading of the text.

As to the “even more troubling claim concerning Bruno Pontecorvo,” the text of Special Tasks reads: “A few hours after the pile of graphite went critical, Semyonov had received a prearranged telephone call saying, ‘The Italian sailor reached the new world.”’ Mr. Powers identifies Pontecorvo as the source of the call, another careless misreading. Mr. Powers quotes Arthur Compton’s book on the origin of the phrase and the same story is also recounted by James Hershberg in his biography of James Conant. Sudoplatov never read these accounts, nor did we until after we had interviewed him and heard him explain how word of the first nuclear chain reaction was reported to Moscow. The story is well known within the Russian intelligence service and is included in KGB textbooks. It appears in The Bomb for Stalin, by V.A. Andrianov and A.V. Gogol, Resurrection Publishers, Moscow, 1992. Is it so difficult to conceive of more than one person in the Chicago group being delighted after hearing the same phrase and using it that day?

Powers thinks he knows better than Sudoplatov and Soviet intelligence who supplied the Tube Alloys information and the cabinet minutes on the first British atomic bomb efforts in 1941. The documents prepared by the KGB which appeared in the Academy of Science Journal, Questions of the History of Natural Sciences and Technology, identified the source as Donald Maclean, code named Leaf. That is a KGB written footnote, not ours. In a telephone conversation John Cairncross, who readily acknowledged passing decoded Engima traffic, denied he reported the Tube Alloys information to Soviet intelligence and provided a written denial.*

Mr. Powers’ questioning of who wrote Special Tasks demonstrates his lack of understanding of oral history and the use of recorded testimony. As with Nikita Khrushchev, Sudoplatov’s stories were told and retold with varying particulars. The final Russian language Chapter Seven was checked by Sudoplatov and signed by him. He added a few details about the Russian scientists which are not in the English text and clarified some terms of tradecraft but otherwise they correspond fully. These will appear in the Russian language edition to be published by Ogonyok Publishers in Moscow, first in serial form and then as a book.

Mr. Powers says we should have consulted historians and laid out the book’s textual problems with an injunction to the reader to proceed with care. The book does both, first in Robert Conquest’s Foreword and then in our Introduction. Conquest notes that “individual reminiscences must, indeed, be treated critically—but so must documents. Both are simply historical evidence, none of which is perfect and none of which is complete.”

We have acknowledged that Szilard did not work at Los Alamos and that Sudoplatov’s reference to Szilard at Los Alamos was a generic reference to the work of the Manhattan Project and should have been so stated.

In his rush to judgment Mr. Powers makes a mistake when he says that the defection of Nikolai Khokhlov in 1954 “may partly explain” why Sudoplatov was arrested. Lieutenant General Sudoplatov was arrested in August 1953, charged with plotting with Beria. Sudoplatov was already in jail when Khokhlov defected.

Mr. Powers chooses to believe those who knew the scientists in question. Expertise in physics or the American documents does not make them knowledgeable about Soviet intelligence practices, which Sudoplatov reveals for the first time.

Since Mr. Powers’ whole purpose was to refute Chapter Seven it is unfortunate that a publication as important as the NYR ends up discussing only one of the book’s thirteen chapters and none of the other revelations. We would have thought that the NYR would have welcomed the disclosure of information by participants in the cold war. It is odd for the NYR to be put in the position of saying that the oral history of the most successful intelligence operation in history should be presented only when there is clear documentary evidence for each and every assertion.

Special Tasks, as a whole, has been hailed in Europe and by other American critics. Le Monde reviewer Alexandre Adler (May 6, 1994) wrote: “Pavel Sudoplatov’s work is until this day the most important historical testimony to appear since the death of Stalin.” Oxford University historian Norman Stone, writing in the Spectator (May 14, 1994), said, “In any event, here is a book that, including the Khrushchev memoirs, is the most revealing document that we have had from inside the Soviet Union.”

Sudoplatov’s memoirs are an oral history which by definition mean they are recounted from the perspective of the witness. They should be evaluated and amplified from records and further interviews with participants still living. This process is already actively underway in Russia, stimulated by the publication of Special Tasks.

Jerrold L. Schecter
Leona P. Schecter

Washington, DC

Thomas Powers replies:

The reader should be cautioned that the Schecters’ letter and the details of my reply below inevitably will look very much like the give-and-take of a genuine scholarly debate. This is unfortunate, because misleading. The Schecters’ book, based on conversations with the retired Russian intelligence officer Pavel Sudoplatov, claims that four leading scientists associated with the American Manhattan Project—J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, and Niels Bohr—were atomic spies for the Russians. Two months of vigorous public debate of these claims have refuted them in substance and detail, and I do not know of a single historian who now takes them seriously.

The reader may be suspicious of this unanimity, perhaps thinking it is only a closing of the ranks of orthodoxy against painful truths. But in this case the charges have been dismissed because crucial details are demonstrably in error, because the charges lack supporting detail and are contradicted by the known record of the Soviet atomic bomb program, and above all because it is unclear that the charges have in fact been coherently offered by their purported source—the aging, rambling, self-important but forgetful old spy-runner, Sudoplatov himself.

The Schecters claim their book is oral history, based on twenty hours of taped conversations, but we have been offered no Russian original, no transcript we can check to ensure that Sudoplatov really made all the claims published in the book. The Schecters admit that they have supported Sudoplatov’s reminiscences with factual datas gleaned from other published sources:How then are we to distinguish which words are his and which the Schecters’? Only a handful of sentences actually embody the sensational charges that Oppenheimer and the others were atomic spies—whom shall we credit as author of those?

Oral history begins with a reliable text, one we can trust as representing the real testimony of the subject. This fundamental test Special Tasks fails utterly. The Schecters concede that “Sudoplatov’s stories were told and retold with varying particulars. The final Russian language Chapter Seven was checked by Sudoplatov and signed by him.” I interpret this to mean that there is no original Russian transcript of Sudoplatov’s reminiscences, that Sudoplatov frequently contradicts or forgets his own tales, that the Schecters wrote Chapter Seven from their own notes, and that the “Russian” version was translated from the Schecters’ English. In short, the book is the work of the Schecters, not of Sudoplatov, and whatever value Sudoplatov’s genuine testimony might have had was lost on the way to the printer.

Finally, the reader ought to be reminded thatSoviet penetration of the Manhattan Project is not in contention; this has been known for nearly fifty years. Nor do I or other historians insist that the identity of all Soviet spies is known. What I object to are the Schecters’ flat claims, utterly without supporting evidence, that Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard, and Bohr were Soviet spies. Many claims are simply repeated in their letter, although the attention of the Schecters has been directed to contradictory documents published in their own book. These show that Igor Kurchatov and other Soviet scientists received no intelligence material from the United States until mid-1943 at the earliest—three years after the Schecters claim Oppenheimer first met with a Soviet intelligence officer—and that the material they did receive is easily identified as coming from Klaus Fuchs. The most important research effort during the first two years of the Manhattan Project was the chain reaction achieved by Enrico Fermi in Chicago on December 2, 1942. But three months later the very Soviet scientists in closest contact with Soviet intelligence, as argued by the Schecters themselves, still thought Fermi was in New York and had no idea what sort of reactor the Americans hoped to build, much less the fact they had already succeeded. This is the sort of information that can be written on the back of an envelope or passed on in a whisper at a street corner while the light changes. The failure of Soviet intelligence to learn of so fundamental a development is strong evidence, to say the least, that Fermi and Szilard, who were present when the first reactor went critical, were not Soviet spies.

But the Schecters ignore the clear implication of their own materials and continue to insist that Soviet spies somehow stumbled on the same veiled language—“the Italian navigator has just landed in the New World”—spontaneously used by Arthur Compton to report the success of Fermi’s reactor. The Schecters say the story is included in KGB textbooks. Oh? Perhaps they have a copy they would like to share with us. They claim the story also appears in a book published in Moscow in 1992. How interesting. What was the source for that story? If the Schecters want to prove that spies informed the Soviets of Fermi’s experiment within a matter of hours, let them start at the beginning, by demonstrating that somebody actually received the information.

The Schecters’ response to my review, as to so many others, is frequently beside the point. To support their claim that Oppenheimer recruited Klaus Fuchs for Los Alamos, for example, they cite an article by Aleksandr Feklisov, identified as Fuchs’s case officer in London, claiming that Oppenheimer “asked to include Fuchs….” Asked whom? British officials who chose the members of the team? The American officials who dealt with the British officials? There exists a huge paper record documenting every detail of choosing the British team sent to Los Alamos. It contains no evidence of any kind that Oppenheimer had ever heard of Fuchs before he arrived at Los Alamos, much less engineered his choice.

The Schecters object to my demand for evidence that Oppenheimer was in fact making secret Los Alamos documents available to a Soviet mole—do I expect dated and signed receipts? Of course not. What I’d like are names of documents and dates of transmission, even approximate ones, and some sign they were actually received by the Soviets. Oppenheimer ran the Los Alamos lab from the day of his arrival in early 1943. When did he start delivering secret materials? The Soviet documents cited by the Schecters show that the Soviets got their first American reports about July 1943. An analysis of them by the physicist Philip Morrison says the first batch appears to have been only a list of titles with some abstracts of lab reports, most apparently from the Met Lab in Chicago. A report by Kurchatov demonstrates that as late as December 1944—two years after the establishment of Los Alamos, three years after Oppenheimer’s alleged meeting with a Soviet intelligence officer—Kurchatov still did not know of the existence of Los Alamos nor did he have any idea what was going on there.

Typical of the Schecters’ operating procedure is their charge against Bohr, based entirely on a series of November 1945 meetings with the Soviet physicist Y.P. Terletsky during which, the Schecters claim, “Bohr answered [questions] providing insight into questions troubling Soviet scientists working on the atomic bomb.” That’s a far cry from the language of the book, which says Bohr pointed a stubby finger at a set of reactor blueprints and said, “That’s the trouble spot.” We must be grateful for their progress toward sobriety.

In their letter the Schecters hint that their case will be powerfully supported by the explosive contents of a report of the meetings prepared for Stalin and signed by the NKVD chief Lavrenti Beria. But the Schecters had not yet seen the Beria memo when they wrote their book. One phrase in Special Tasks—a note that Bohr’s hand trembled—suggests that they had seen Terletsky’s account of the meetings with Bohr which Terletsky wrote sometime before his death in 1993, a careful document of fifty-five pages in English translation. The reader is reminded, as I pointed out in my review, that Bohr had reported the Soviet contact to Danish and British intelligence officers before inviting Terletsky to his institute on November 14, 1945, that the meeting was carefully monitored by intelligence agents, and that Bohr’s son Aage was present throughout while another son (as I have since learned) listened from the next room.

Much embarrassed by the presence of Aage, Terletsky finally posed his technical questions as if they were matters of interest to Bohr’s old Russian colleague and friend, Peter Kapitska: “Bohr calmly answered them,” Terletsky says, “but the answers were very general: each time he made reference to the fact that in Los Alamos he was not acquainted with the details of the project, and that he had not been at all to the laboratories in the eastern part of the US.” At a brief second meeting on November 16, “Bohr answered all my remaining questions, once again explaining that he did not know the details….” By way of a parting gift Bohr gave Terletsky a copy of Atomic Energy for Military Purposes by the Princeton physicist Henry De. W. Smythe, an account of the Manhattan Project released by the US government a few days after Hiroshima.

The Smythe report was new to Terletsky, who still believed he had scored a mighty intelligence coup at the time of his death nearly fifty years later, but in fact it had already been published in toto in The New York Times in August 1945, over three months before he saw Bohr. And only a few months after the Copenhagen meeting James Conant, a civilian leader of the Manhattan Project, personally handed a copy to Stalin in Moscow.

The detailed Smythe report had been prepared by America authorities specifically in order to establish the boundary between the secret and the known, so atomic scientists would be on guard against disclosing secrets. Both Terletsky’s late reminiscence of the meeting with Bohr and the written report submitted to Stalin by Beria show unmistakably that Bohr confined his scientific remarks to the Smythe report and otherwise used the meetings to press his own views about international control of the bomb on Terletsky as well as to express his concern and support for Soviet scientists, especially Lev Landau, who had been arrested by Beria on crazy spying charges in the 1930s. Neither Terletsky’s report of 1945 nor his reminiscence half a century later makes any mention of drawings or blueprints, and certainly they do not claim that Bohr pointed out any “trouble spot”—that story appears to have been a complete fabrication.

I am afraid that a certain note of asperity has been making its way into my review of the Schecters’ book and my response to their letter. The reason for it is that the Schecters should, and in fact almost certainly do, know better. Jerrold Schecter was for years a reporter for Time magazine. He has a journalist’s nose for a story, which he has let run wild in Special Tasks, but he also knows what a story needs to hold up. The Bohr-Terletsky story, by far the most substantial and detailed account used to support the Schecters’ general charge of Allied spying for the Soviets, takes a bald fact not in contention—Bohr met Terletsky—and argues that Bohr’s willingness to talk to Russians proves he was a spy for the Soviets. This is a child’s view of espionage.

It seems apparent that until recently the Schecters had no idea that the meeting was known to Western historians, or that it was known to and monitored by Western intelligence officers at the time it occurred. A little checking, which journalists are supposed to do as routine, could have informed them of both. The Schecters used their account of their meeting to deliver a global charge of espionage by Bohr and others. Evidently echoing Terletsky’s account, the book notes that Bohr’s hand trembled, and adds—this is supposed to be Sudoplatov’s own verbatim testimony—“Bohr understood…that the decision he, Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Szilard had made to allow their trusted scientific protégés to share atomic secrets had led him to meet agents [i.e. Terletsky and his translator] of the Soviet government.” Nothing else in the book supports this description of Bohr as a spy and conspirator. Terletsky’s own account and Beria’s report of 1945 both refute it.

The fact of the matter is that the Schecters have completely misconstrued the real character of Terletsky’s visit to Bohr. Intended as an intelligence gathering effort by Beria and Sudoplatov, the meeting in fact disclosed nothing new and led to unexpected results. Soon after Terletsky’s return to Moscow, Bohr’s old friend Peter Kapitsa, who had been pressed to provide Terletsky with a letter of introduction, abruptly resigned in protest from the Soviet bomb program. The Schecters’ ignorance of Western accounts of the meeting and of the long friendship between Bohr and Kapitsa, closely monitored by Western intelligence services since 1943, does nothing to excuse the real failing of their account of the episode—the egregious argument, based on the fact of the meeting alone, that Bohr was a spy for the Russians.

But instead of doing the decent thing and withdrawing the charge with an apology, the Schecters strive to keep the claim somehow alive, promising us that still secret documents, or future television shows, or further research already underway, will prove the Dane was deceiving his family and friends and spying for Stalin. Lawyers are sometimes required to perform the noisome and demeaning task of defending the indefensible. Journalists are free to choose. Why do the Schecters persist in this ignoble effort? I don’t know, but if they are in it for the glory, I believe they are making a mistake. > Signed, John Cairncross

  1. *

    (Christopher) Andrews’ charge that I was “probably the first atomic spy” has no foundation in fact. The reason advanced by him for this sweeping innuendo is that my name appears on the cover page of the minutes of a meeting of the Cabinet Scientific Advisory Committee as Joint Secretary. I was never secretary of the SAC which was a Cabinet post. As a matter of fact, my designation was a clerical error, and, as far as I can ascertain, the mistake only occurred once. The confusion was natural, for I was the private secretary to the Chairman of the Committee, Lord Hankey, but his Cabinet committees were run, as might be expected, by Cabinet Office staff. As Hankey’s private secretary my role in connection with the SAC was confined to such matters as finding a passage on a transatlantic flight—no easy matter—for eminent American scientists. I explained the situation, which I had hoped would easily be confirmed by a call to the Cabinet Office, to Ms. Kerr, one of Andrew’s assistants, who showed up at my home shortly before the publications of Andrews’ Inside the KGB. But no notice was taken of this correction, and my comments were not taken into account. In any case, the KGB records, as edited by Costello and Tsarev, show that the leak from the SAC was traceable to Maclean who had access to the SAC papers in 1942.

  • Email
  • Print