Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy
Klaus Fuchs: The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb
In America these days, idealism is out of fashion, even in bad taste. Men of principle make us uncomfortable. Their enthusiasm is suspect; their refusal to compromise looks at worst unscrupulous, at best naive. Ours is less a scoundrel time, as Lillian Hellman called the McCarthy years, than a time for freebooters, when the people who win sneaking public sympathy are a pirate apprentice like Oliver North and a devious financier like John Z. DeLorean.
Lulled into egocentric apathy, Americans in the 1980s find this sort of worldliness easier to accept than the singleminded commitment of Islamic fundamentalists today, or the perverse secrecy of European Communists in the 1930s. So it is a bad time for an American historian to tackle the 1930s and 1940s, when the stakes of serious politics were defined in terms more idealistic than those we use nowadays; it is a difficult time to reconstruct the life and give us a feeling for the motives of a physicist who (by today’s standards) was a dupe entangled in the web of Soviet intelligence, and who escaped the fate of the Rosenbergs only thanks to the sloppiness of British security and the pedantic niceties of English law.
Certainly Robert Chadwell Williams, a historian at Davidson College in North Carolina, has little sympathy for the political idealism of Klaus Fuchs, who is now a retired physics professor in Dresden, East Germany, having served the years 1950 to 1959 in an English prison. Far from it: his biography of Fuchs is a cautionary tale, and its very last words are a warning against political naiveté:
In matters of politics [Fuchs] remains an idealist; a visiting western scientist who heard him lecture noted that “his face lit up and he began to talk like a religious revivalist” about the achievements of socialism. As another physicist put it, “I have never before known a person who possesses such a marvelous ability to think in abstract terms who is at the same time so helpless when it comes to either observe or evaluate reality.”
These reports are Professor Williams’s last judgments on a man to whom he has devoted years of research. Yet what does this deadpan conclusion imply? At first, it seems to echo Dr. Johnson’s distaste for enthusiasm—“Heaven preserve us from such vulgarity!” But this can hardly be the whole story. So, one needs to ask, How could anyone think it worth investing so much effort in so ungrateful a task? What message should we carry away? And why is such a biography written and published just now?
Reading the book, I tried to get some sense of Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs (born in Rüsselsheim, 1911), the man who is Williams’s ostensible subject. Yet, as I did so, my picture became not richer or more detailed, but thinner and sketchier. This was frustrating, since I met Fuchs briefly in the summer of 1949, in the company of a woman cousin of his who visited my family from…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.