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 Germany. All I retained from that meeting was a recollection of his terse conversation and monk-like face, and I looked forward to finding out more about him. But Robert Williams’s biography threw little fresh light on his personality, for reasons that become clear only after a time. Unlike other authors writing on similar subjects, e.g., Alan Moorehead and Rebecca West, he is not interested in helping his readers to get inside the heads of the “atom spies” of the 1940s and 1950s. His story has a distinctive theme, it is true, but this is more visible in his varied subplots than in his direct and rather pedestrian narrative. His central interest is not in Fuchs’s personality: indeed, as we read, Fuchs fades into the background and his place is taken by more familiar and politically loaded characters. By the time we reach the end, the questions are not about Fuchs, but about other more highly placed “enemies of freedom” whose supposed protection helped him betray the United States and the free world.
The 1949 encounter with Fuchs may even have been instrumental in his decision to reveal his espionage. His cousin brought important news, that his father had decided to leave West Germany and take a chair of theology at Leipzig in the DDR; and this gave Fuchs an occasion for the self-unmasking confession from which Robert Williams’s book begins. As he said when he confessed, he could not hope to keep his position as a leading theoretician in the British nuclear weapons team at Harwell, outside Oxford, once his close connections with East Germany were known. Or that was what he said when he first began to open up to his guardedly suspicious friend in the Harwell security division, Henry Arnold; but, as was soon clear, Fuchs had reached a point at which he was ready to get his serious doubts about his years of espionage off his chest, in an unrealistic hope of redeeming his hopeless situation. Before long he was volunteering the whole story.
By mid-1949, both British and American security authorities had in any case begun to suspect him. Retrospectively decoding the recorded wartime cables to Moscow from a Soviet office in New York, cryptographers at the US National Security Agency identified a report by Fuchs on the Los Alamos atomic project and passed this on to their colleagues in London, who decided that it was time to interrogate him. This one belated piece of evidence, based on classified decoding techniques, was the first pointer security agencies had acquired to all those years during which Fuchs had served as a Soviet informant. Taken by itself, it would scarcely have supported the formal prosecution that followed his confession. Why, then, did he volunteer as he did the information that eventually implicated his immediate contact, Harry Gold, and also (less directly) the Rosenbergs?
Professor Williams gives us for the first time a good deal of material that helps in answering that question. In particular, he reprints the texts of Fuchs’s two confessions, as forwarded by J. Edgar Hoover to the White House in 1950. (These copies come from the Truman Presidential Library at Independence, Missouri: the original confessions are still classified as “official secrets” in Britain.) Fuchs told his British interrogator, William Skardon, that he had long had doubts about Russian policy, but after the Second World War they became too grave to ignore. As early as 1939,
I had my doubts for the first time on acts of foreign policies of Russia; the Russo-German pact was difficult to understand, but in the end I did accept that Russia had done it to gain time, that during that time she was expanding her own influence in the Balkans against the influence of Germany.
His faith in the Soviet Union’s mission, unlike that of many of his fellow Communists in Europe, weathered the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the takeover of the Baltic states, and the invasion of Finland; but after 1945 it was more severely shaken:
In the postwar period I began again to have my doubts about Russian policy…. Eventually I came to a point where I knew I disapproved of a great many actions of the Russian Government and of the Communist Party, but I still believed that they would build a new world and that one day I would take part in it and that on that day I would also have to stand up and say to them that there are things which they are doing wrong. [Here, deeply unrealistic elements in Fuchs’s personality begin to surface.] During this time I was not sure that I could give all the information that I had. However, it became more and more evident that the time when Russia would expand her influence over Europe was far away, and that, therefore, I had to decide for myself whether I could go on for many years to continue handing over information without being sure in my own mind whether I was doing right. I decided that I could not do so.
Skardon began to ask about the scientific details of the espionage, but at that point Fuchs clammed up and agreed to give these details only to an interrogator who was scientifically trained and had security clearance to receive them. In that second interview Michael Perrin, his scientific interrogator, was impressed by the amount of information that Fuchs had in fact refrained from passing to his Russian contacts after the war, and by his willingness, now that he had revealed himself, to give the British authorities all that he knew about the Russian nuclear program:
I formed the impression that, throughout the interview, Fuchs was genuinely trying to remember and report all the information that he had given to the Russian agents with whom he had been in contact, and that he was not withholding anything. He seemed, on the contrary, to be trying his best to help me to evaluate the present position of atomic energy works in Russia in the light of the information that he had, and had not, passed to them.
We are here faced, it seems, with that rare and curious phenomenon, the conscientious spy who does not automatically hand over anything his spymaster asks for, without discrimination, but reserves to himself the right to pick and choose among those requests and inquiries, and exercise his own judgment in deciding what he will or will not pass on.
In reconstructing Fuchs’s reasons for embarking on espionage in the first place, we need to see the situation in prewar Europe in proportion. People who grew up (as I did) in the Europe of the 1930s shared one thing with those, like Fuchs, who were a dozen years older. Our political vision was shaped by the rise of the Nazis in Germany, by the civil war in Spain, and by the gallant attempt of “premature antifascists” to piece together a popular front against the radical right. For many of us, therefore, an outline of Klaus Fuchs’s life provokes painfully nostalgic memories of that earlier struggle between idealists and cynics.
Fuchs’s father, the Reverend Emil Fuchs (born 1874), was a friend and colleague of Paul Tillich’s, and a Protestant minister with a nationwide reputation for integrity and commitment to social reform. His theological training and practical experience both drew him to socialism. His working-class flock was butchered in the trenches of the First World War: this only made him the more committed to a practical, political interpretation of the Gospel. In the early 1920s, he was involved in the German Christian socialist and pacifist movements, along with Tillich and Karl Barth. Ultimately, having admired and worked with English Quakers, he joined the Society of Friends in 1925 and, from then on, was one of the best known and most eminent of the German Quakers.
Emil Fuchs was a thorn in the side of the Nazis, and left a deep mark on his children. Klaus, the third child and second son, was born in 1911 in the Rhineland, but grew up in Thuringia, where Emil’s ministry called him in 1918. Being born into such a family, and living in childhood through the hyperinflation of the 1920s, Klaus reached the University of Leipzig at the start of the Great Depression, and could not remain a passive onlooker at the political events of the time. Initially, he worked with the student branch of the German Socialist party, or SPD. (Emil had been one of the first Protestant ministers to join the SPD.) But when the SPD backed Marshal Hindenburg for president in 1932, Klaus broke with it, suspecting a deal with Hitler. Instead, he joined the Communist KPD, which he had hitherto opposed as dogmatic and totalitarian but was now, in his eyes, the only party still committed to fighting the Nazis.
When the Reichstag fire gave Hitler an excuse to arrest and persecute his liberal, socialist, and Communist opponents, Klaus Fuchs recognized that his family were prime targets for the Nazis, and went underground. In 1933 his father lost his teaching job, and was held for Gestapo interrogation for five weeks, and in 1934 his older sister and brother were sentenced to prison for eighteen months and two years respectively. In July 1933 the chance presented itself to leave Germany for Paris, under the wing of the Communist party, and he did so, moving on to Britain in September with the help of a fellow traveler, who arranged for Nevill Mott, head of the physics department at Bristol University, to take him on as a graduate assistant, alongside Hans Bethe and other refugee physicists. So Fuchs was initially welcomed to the British scientific world as a victim of Nazi persecution. Once there, he climbed the ladder on his merits. His hard work and his reputation for intellectual brilliance established his position. He took his Ph.D. in 1936, and went on to Edinburgh with a postdoctoral fellowship.
Given Hitler’s growing power, Fuchs kept in touch with his comrades in the German Communist party. At this stage, of course, a decision to study physics had nothing sinister about it. In 1933, nuclear power and atomic weapons were still visionary topics for science fiction writers like Olaf Stapledon and H.G. Wells. (Ernest Rutherford, the father of atomic physics, still pooh-poohed them as late as 1938.) But the demonstration in 1939 by Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner that the nuclei of radioactive heavy elements can spontaneously divide, with the release of nuclear energy, confronted physicists with at least the theoretical possibility that this energy might be harnessed for military use; and that possibility was quickly recognized and discussed among scientists in Britain and France, as well as in Russia and America.
Only in Britain did preliminary studies, undertaken for the government by a committee of scientists known as the Maud Committee, yield results that were promising enough to follow up in a serious way. (In both Russia and America, the initial conclusion was that nuclear weapons would be too large to be feasible: US scientists changed their minds after Rudolph Peierls and Frisch calculated the critical mass for a uranium bomb, as some pounds, not tons.) Early in 1941, as a result, Peierls and his colleagues at Birmingham University were instructed to pursue the project, and Fuchs seemed a natural addition to the team. He was back in Edinburgh, after being interned for several months in Canada in a camp for “enemy aliens,” and he was more than happy to take up serious work again.
His political situation was doubly ambiguous. Despite his continued faith in communism, he was in most ways a critically minded intellectual who insisted on thinking for himself. We have seen that he was troubled about the Soviet pact with Hitler and he added in his confession that Russia’s attack on Finland “was more difficult to understand.” After the German invasion of Russia in June, he apparently distrusted the British Conservatives whose enmity with Nazi Germany was qualified by a sense that Hitler was the lesser (because anticommunist) evil, and who followed Churchill only grudgingly into alliance with the Soviet Union. As the atomic bomb project took shape, he felt, as he indicated in his confession, a conflict between a duty to his British hosts, who gave him a chance to do wartime work in theoretical physics, and his older commitment to working as a Communist for a more humane, socialist Germany.
He was not alone in such a quandary. Other scientists who did war work in Britain after 1939 were aware of political ironies. To speak of what I myself knew at firsthand: having recognized the leading military role of the Eastern Front in the fight against Hitler, Churchill insisted on sending “massive military aid” to the Soviet Union—not least, as Williams notes, “Mark II radars, fighter planes, bombers, antiaircraft guns, destroyers, ammunition, and three million pairs of boots for the impending Russian winter.” Despite the volume of this military aid, however, there were limits on the technological sophistication of what was sent. Thus, a crucial component for high power microwave radar, the magnetron, was developed in England in 1940, and shared with the US well before Pearl Harbor, at a time when joint Anglo-American research and development programs were set up in electronics, as well as in the field of nuclear weapons. Still, for years after Russia became Britain’s fighting ally in June 1941 (at a time when an isolationist US Congress still hung back), the British made every effort to limit Soviet access to advanced radar equipment.
How did Klaus Fuchs handle what he saw as a conflict of obligations? He took a road that other intellectuals have chosen before and since, resorting to a kind of equivocation known traditionally as “mental reservation,” used long ago by Catholic recusants under Queen Elizabeth and, half a century later, by dissident Anglicans and Royalists under Cromwell. If questioned by state interrogators whose authority they challenged about (e.g.) the whereabouts of an illegal priest, Catholic recusants replied out loud, “I do not know,” but added silently to themselves (“before God”) the extra unspoken clause, “anything you are entitled to hear.”1 Faced with a dilemma, Fuchs evaded it by accepting both incompatible horns: in doing so, he reinvented “mental reservation” for himself. In signing the Official Secrets Act, he publicly bound himself in British eyes, but he “mentally reserved” his obligation to do anything he could to work for a future socialist Germany, by giving the Russians information about the atom bomb project.
Overtly he acted as a wholehearted member of the atom bomb teams, first at Birmingham and Los Alamos, later at Harwell: he did so to such effect that many of his Harwell colleagues could not at first credit his confession. He set out.
to establish in my mind two separate compartments. One compartment in which I allowed myself to make friendships, to have personal relations, to help people and be in all personal ways the kind of man I wanted to be and the kind of man which, in personal ways, I had been before with my friends in or near the Communist Party. I could be free and easy and happy with other people without fear of disclosing myself because I knew that the other compartment would step in if I approached the danger point. I could forget the other compartment and still rely on it…. Looking back at it now the best way of expressing it seems to be to call it a controlled schizophrenia.
His parallel obligations as a “good” German socialist, that is, led him to interpret the war against Nazi Germany as the first step toward building a new socialist Germany. Working with Soviet intelligence was to serve the socialist goals he and his father had always shared.
So long as Russia was a wartime ally of Britain, this “schizophrenia” was manageable. After the end of the war, his doubts about the Russians were so strong that he could no longer be an unquestioning agent, and his self-doubts also became stronger. Finally, he stopped passing any further information, and tried to cement his position at Harwell. But his former actions continued to haunt him, the need to confess became more urgent, and finally, in summer 1949, the conjunction of the cryptographers’ discovery of his report from Los Alamos and the news of Emil Fuchs’s move to Leipzig—Klaus’s old university—gave him a way out.
All in all, this is not a pretty story, but it is an intelligible one. Klaus Fuchs comes out of it as no run-of-the mill or dollar-in-the-pocket spy. He was made of the same stuff as Ignatius Loyola’s early recruits, knowing how to balance intellectual brilliance on an abstract level against a hidden commitment to a far from ignoble cause. To say this is not to approve his chosen course of action; nor is it to make him out as an agreeable person. The styles of personality encouraged by the habits of mental reservation seldom help anyone to be outgoing or spontaneous, and many of those who spoke about him after his trial cited his chief personal characteristics as “coldness” and “detachment.” Still, he created his own dilemma, and he was ready, at least at first, to live with its inevitable outcome. This does not make him any more sympathetic now than he was at the time, but it does help to sharpen our ideas about his motives for being involved in what was in so many other ways a shabby business.
The final words of Fuchs’s confession betray a dawning awareness of all that his prewar commitment to the KPD was leading him to forfeit:
Before I joined the [British nuclear] project most of the British people with whom I had made personal contacts were left wing, and affected, to some degree or other, by the same kind of philosophy. Since coming to Harwell I have met English people of all kinds, and I have come to see in many of them a deep-rooted firmness which enables them to lead a decent way of life. I do not know where this springs from and I don’t think they do, but it is there.
By this time, he had come to appreciate his adopted country and colleagues better than he had at the outset. He did not try to extenuate his actions: to the end, he was more regretful than repentant. Yet, if only history had dealt him a cleaner hand, how happy he would have been to go on living and working alongside these decent, practical-minded English!
Here, for once, Klaus the son of Emil was speaking from the heart. All his mental life (he had not had much other life) had been lived within one or another of two theoretical systems—quantum physics and Marxism. Now, too late, he found that ordinary people are sustained by an everyday practicality that Quakers understand better than Marxists, and this was a discovery that got past his guard. Even when Lord Goddard, the Lord Chief Justice, gave him the maximum fourteen-year sentence for “passing information capable of being of value to an enemy”—not, as Sir Hartley Shawcross took care to emphasize for the prosecution, passing it to an actual enemy, but to an ally unauthorized to be given it—Fuchs still hoped he would be given credit for cooperation and so might purge his guilt by imprisonment, without losing his British citizenship.
This hope was of course vain. While England observed the passions of McCarthyism from a distance and with distaste, and avoided following this example of intolerance and persecution, nobody argued for sparing Fuchs the natural penalty for betraying the vows of loyalty he had taken at his naturalization. At first, he was indignant at this decision to strip him of British citizenship. But at the end of a sentence reduced for good behavior from fourteen years to nine, he was content to go back to a life of science and respect in the DDR. It was time to head home to his native country, and the father who gave him his stern conscience and social commitment. In this respect, fate was kind. After his release from prison, Klaus Fuchs was able to spend ten more years with Emil, who was a trusted negotiator with the East German regime for the Protestant Church, up to his death in 1971 at the age of ninety-seven.
Most of this story can be found in Robert Williams’s biography, though it comes across more clearly in the parallel account by Norman Moss, an English journalist and broadcaster whose book on Fuchs was recently published in London. For the main subject of Professor Williams’s book is not Fuchs the man: Williams is after bigger game. His larger aim is to establish that Fuchs’s espionage was merely one part of “a much larger Soviet effort to penetrate and control British intelligence,” and we must look carefully at his argument in support of this claim. It involves several steps, and relies on evidence of variable quality.
Williams begins with a background picture of Europe in the 1930s, in which he recalls that the Soviet Union took any chance to build a network of potential agents. Next, he documents Fuchs’s links with other left-wing émigrés in Britain, with the implication that he was well on the way to being an agent in place from the time he left Germany in 1933. With Fuchs safely in a senior position in the Manhattan Project, he turns to consider how British security agencies handled questions about Fuchs’s communist leanings from their counterparts in the United States: these, he argues, were sidetracked by the “moles” who are notorious from other cases:
Some people in the highest realms of British intelligence had a grave interest in making sure that the Fuchs case did not lead to disclosures about these Soviet inroads.
The names of Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, and Kim Philby make the first of many appearances on page 6 of the book.
Williams’s strongest arguments concern the political consequences of the Fuchs case. For a start, it gravely damaged Anglo-American relations, and played into the hands of those people on both sides of the Atlantic who wanted to see the countries go their own ways. In America, the published reports of Fuchs’s treachery were exaggerated. They depicted him as a “master spy” with a network of subagents, and assumed that he had given the Russians full details of the hydrogen bomb. In Britain, the anxiety was different: it was to ensure that Fuchs’s arrest did not hamper the progress of the independent nuclear program being pursued under wraps at Harwell and Fort Halstead without American help or approval. It is now clear that Fuchs gave the Russians the fullest possible information about design and production of the first uranium and plutonium bombs—enough to save them eighteen to twenty-four months of work on their own atom bomb—but he did so chiefly because he was so closely involved in the work on these first bombs, and felt entitled to pass these results to his Soviet friends. (In his own eyes, he was sharing, not stealing, the atom bomb.) In the case of the hydrogen “super,” his knowledge was sketchier and less firsthand. Williams concludes, “he had not given the Russians any information of value concerning the hydrogen bomb.” By 1948, in any event, he was being much more selective in what he passed on. Nor did he even know the other Soviet agents working at Los Alamos: he was a loner, not part of a “network” or “cell.”
In the meantime, however, J. Edgar Hoover and his allies had a field day, and a general alarm sounded all across the political spectrum. Within the United States, the immediate consequence was a tightening of security in scientific work for the military, and the adoption of “positive vetting” (deep background checks) to keep “security risks” out of sensitive positions. As Williams says in his concluding summary,
the Allies took security risks during the war that they would not have taken afterward. The war effort made for unlikely bedfellows. British and American intelligence used the expertise of German refugees wherever they could find it; having communist sympathies was, if anything, a guarantee of anti-Nazi sentiment. There was no “positive vetting” or background investigation. If there had been, it is possible that the homosexual cryptographer [sic] Alan Turing in Britain would never have been allowed to help break the Ultra code. As it was, the arrest of Fuchs and the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean helped produce the positive vetting system that ultimately drove Turing to suicide in 1954.
William’s general argument may be sound, but the details of his criticism are ambiguous and inaccurate. They are ambiguous, because he does not show what good “positive vetting” would have done for the scientific work undertaken during the Second World War. Did Alan Turing’s sexual inclinations really make this mathematical genius a threat to the secrecy of Bletchley Park’s work? In the war against Nazi Germany, there was rarely any reason to doubt people’s immediate loyalty. At most a handful of people in England, of whom Turing was surely not one, were actively pro-Nazi; so to have denied Allied intelligence the energy of a person outstandingly equipped for the work on the Ultra code would have hurt the war effort. They are also inaccurate because, as Andrew Hodges showed, Turing’s suicide had nothing to do with security. In 1954, he was no longer a “homosexual cryptographer” (if he ever was), but had become Britain’s leading pioneer in computer science, and he died as a victim of the antiquated British prejudices about homosexuality.2 Williams is right to see that the Fuchs case triggered a new wave of security mania in the United States, but he might well have considered more carefully whether the resulting measures did not damage, as much as protect, America’s true interests.
The earlier parts of Williams’s argument about Europe in the 1930s are seriously overdrawn. Two things anyone will concede. The Russians stuck their fingers into any situation they could profit from, whether through the Communist International or otherwise, and many worthy, spontaneous antifascist ventures were compromised by Soviet meddling. In addition, the activism of young European party members like Fuchs makes it harder to draw the line between “sympathizers” and outright “agents.” That said, one must avoid exaggerating. The Popular Front of the 1930s was not just a Soviet fiction, and Fuchs’s role during his early years in England was still that of a sympathizer, not yet a mole. He was not a spy during the Soviet alliance with Hitler. Before 1942, there was a world of difference between Fuchs’s standing and that of (say) Blunt or Philby.
These distinctions are not trivial. In several places, Williams lacks a feel for the situation at the time, notably for the differences between the various European countries. He presents the whole of Fuchs’s life between 1930 and 1939 as a byproduct of manipulation from Moscow, often without specific evidence. Fuchs, he says, “managed to get out of [Germany] in July 1933, probably with the help of Willi Munzenberg’s giant International Workers’ Aid organization”—“perhaps” is closer to the mark—and he implies that the IWA was among “dozens of front organizations publicly opposed to fascism and secretly funded by the Soviet Union.” In the 1930s, of course, it was common form for spokesmen on the right to caricature the democratic antifascist movements as financed by Moscow gold, but serious historians today need to pick their words more carefully.
Williams is also misled about the sentiments of university students in England in the 1930s. When Fuchs arrived in Bristol, he tells us, “student pacifism and communism were as strong as at Oxford.” Yet his only evidence of their strength at Oxford is the famous 1933 Oxford Union vote against fighting “for king and country.” Let historians be warned. The Oxford Union was and is a peculiar institution, with its own culture and customs: a place where future politicians cut their teeth as public speakers. Then as now, people often cast votes less as expressions of a personal opinion than to approve the quality of the speeches. Observers who were alive and sentient at the time recognized that many of the 1933 participants, not least the speakers, took the phrase “fight for King and Country” to mean “fight for Baldwin’s Conservative Party.” Far from this motion being the product of lily-livered pacifism or left-wing subversion (as the Colonel Blimps of the time also assumed) many who voted Aye were readier to oppose Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, if necessary by war, than those who voted Nay.
Professor Williams adds the comment that “for British writers like W.H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, and Stephen Spender, fascism was the real enemy, and communism a moral parable of hope in an age of anxiety.” That may be true enough. Yet, writing as an historian, does he really doubt that during the late 1930s Nazi Germany posed a more immediate military threat to the democracies of Western Europe than did the USSR? Granted, in Europe, many left-wing writers gave Stalin and the USSR the benefit of any doubt, until the time of the great purges: they overlooked, for example, the deaths of millions in the Ukraine, as a result of starvation and terror. But illusions about the Soviet Union were even more widespread and deeper in the US than in Europe. (Europe is closer to Russia.) Most well-informed people in England saw the significance of both the Kristallnacht and the Moscow show trials; they knew that neither Soviet Russia nor Nazi Germany was a tolerable regime.
Finally, it must never be forgotten what a powerful voice the general economic situation added to the debate. After the 1929 crash, pragmatic reformism was apparently powerless to solve the urgent problems of daily existence in the European liberal democracies; so the question of whether the misery of the hungry and unemployed could be justified any longer, as a necessary price to pay for complete economic and political freedom, could not be ignored even there. In countries lacking an established tradition of democratic institutions like Germany, “politics” was meanwhile boiling down to the harsh choice between the Nazis and the KPD.
Robert Williams’s picture of the Spanish Civil War is equally one-sided. When he plays up the role of Soviet money in “subsidizing pro-Republican journalists and funneling volunteers for the international brigades of the Comintern,” his choice of words is again unhappy. In the 1930s the right tried to undermine democratic antifascist movements such as recruiting volunteers for the international brigades by treating them as Soviet pawns: here, too, serious historians today must take care. The success of the brigades made them an obvious takeover target for the Russians: much firsthand testimony from members of the American Lincoln Brigade has confirmed the trouble Soviet agents created. But the prewar right-wing charge that the volunteers who went to Spain to fight the Franco rebellion were so many mercenaries of the Comintern conspiracy is less history than it is propaganda.
In both these respects, Professor Williams describes Europe between 1930 and 1939 from a standpoint irrelevant to the period of which he is writing. Nobody in Baldwin’s time knew that nuclear physics would soon be a subject of political importance. Nor did anyone in 1939 see how the Soviet Union would develop politically during the Second World War, or how Soviet arms would change the structure of Europe after 1945. Even at Yalta, neither Churchill nor Roosevelt—both of them too shrewd for us to second-guess them forty years on—thought the subsequent descent into the cold war inevitable. In writing about the years before Yalta, the subjugation of Eastern Europe and the Czech coup, historians must therefore avoid seeing all Soviet sympathizers as would-be traitors. A failure to take the idealism of the 1930s seriously blinds historians to a central and powerful feature of the time.
The climax of Robert Williams’s book is the “subversion” of the British security agencies from the 1930s on. In handling this topic, he warms up material familiar from recent books on Philby, Blunt, Burgess, and Maclean, and rehashes the controversy over a very different character, Roger Hollis. (“Was he, or wasn’t he, the fifth and deepest mole in the British counterintelligence service?”) Yet, when we reach the end of the book, we are still asking, “What does this have to do with Klaus Fuchs, the atom spy?” Professor Williams never demonstrates any links between Fuchs and the Blunt group, which he calls “the Cambridge Comintern”: even less does he show that Fuchs was personally acquainted with any of the group. Given a more nuanced sense of British social distinctions, he might have found it worthwhile to explore the contrasting backgrounds and interests of the Cambridge Soviet agents, on the one hand—all predominantly literary—and their contemporaries in science, on the other. From Rutherford on, Cambridge scientists were pioneers in twentieth-century subatomic physics, but they had little contact with their literary contemporaries in, e.g., the Apostles, even when belonging to the same Cambridge college.3 Are there special reasons why the Russians had less success in recruiting scientists at Cambridge than they had with people with literary or historical interests?
Instead of looking for closer links than in fact existed between Fuchs and these notorious Cambridge agents, one would find it more illuminating to focus on the things that kept them apart. If Blunt and Burgess were out of touch with scientists at Cambridge, the chance of their meeting a silent young German émigré physicist like Fuchs, who never worked there, were much slighter. In the end, indeed, the only link between Fuchs and the rest for which Robert Williams argues with any weight is his claim that “the failure to uncover Fuchs was deliberate,” and that Hollis played a key part in organizing, or abetting, this concealment.
This is much less than Professor Williams originally led us to expect, and his evidence for this last conclusion is thin: i.e., the fact that Roger Hollis helped to review Fuchs’s security status in 1941 and took a leading (and highly apologetic) part in Anglo-American post-mortems after Fuchs’s confession. In any event, the implication that Fuchs might have been seen to be a “security risk” as early as 1941 or 1942 is again anachronistic. In the primary decisions to grant Fuchs British citizenship and let him work on the atomic weapons project, “positive vetting” could have revealed nothing that either Fuchs himself, or Hollis, tried at the time to conceal: it would only have shown that he was active in the KPD when a student in Germany, and that he still sympathized with Hitler’s vigorous opponent and Britain’s 1941 ally, the USSR. When Fuchs’s spying was revealed, Clement Attlee, as prime minister, denied that the British authorities had ever known of his Communist affiliations; but this statement needs to be seen in its 1950s context.
While the Second World War was in progress, Soviet sympathies were no disqualification. Even Bill Donovan, heading the American Office of Strategic Services, declared, in a remark Professor Williams quotes, “I’d put Stalin on the OSS payroll if I thought it would help defeat Hitler.” After the war, when the truculence of Russian policy had turned into frank expansionism, all this changed. But from 1950 on the recriminations between the British and American intelligence and security services had to do chiefly with water that had flowed under the bridges long before, at a time when Russia was still an ally, and Allied energies were concentrated elsewhere.
Many of the questions that Robert Williams’s biography leaves without answers are covered more satisfactorily in Norman Moss’s book. Moss has no hidden agenda, nothing to “prove.” As an Englishman, one might expect him to be especially offended by Fuchs’s disregard for the duties toward his adopted country he took on at naturalization. If anything, he leans over backward to figure out how Fuchs’s family background and upbringing gave him the sense of mission and egotistical stubbornness that marked his history as a spy. In this respect, we shall see, he has significant details to add to the picture of Fuchs’s life and personality.
Moss also adds significant details on other subjects. For instance, he goes at length into evidence about the timing of the USSR’s own program of work on nuclear weapons. This helps us to evaluate just how much time and money the Russians were saved by information that Fuchs passed over to them. But it also highlights some fundamental issues of political history: e.g., how far Stalin’s knowledge that the Western allies deliberately kept him in the dark about the nuclear weapons project until after Hiroshima may have affected his policies. Unlike Robert Williams, Norman Moss is careful to write about events before 1948 from a standpoint outside the superpower confrontation, which came to dominate world politics and political attitudes after that time.
Most of us have grown up in a world in which the Western powers and the Soviet Union are adversaries, in which espionage is a normal weapon in this adversarial contest, and both sides try to suborn the nationals of the other. But in 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the victory that Russia and the Western powers had won together, such ideas were remote from the minds of the public, and played a very small part in the thinking even of Western governments.
On the political level, he provides us with some necessary reminders. Not surprisingly, scientists working on the atom bomb recognized the long-term implications of the new weapons for war and international policy quicker than their political masters. Niels Bohr, who stands alongside Rutherford among the founders of subatomic physics, reached Los Alamos at an advanced stage of the Manhattan Project:
[Bohr] was revered by physicists. He wanted to bring the Soviet Union in on the atom bomb project. He worried that keeping the secret from the Russians would sow suspicion, and he foresaw the nightmare of a competition between the former allies in building atomic bombs. With his habit of wandering about and engaging anyone in a rambling conversation about whatever was on his mind, he told others at Los Alamos about his views, as he was later to tell Roosevelt and then Churchill, to little effect.
(When he finally saw Winston Churchill, the prime minister is said to have asked his assistant, “How did that silly old man get in here?” 4 )
After forty years of nuclear arms race and cold war, it is helpful to recall that Bohr’s attempts to influence the politicians were not always so unsuccessful. In 1945, Moss writes,
the idea of sharing the atomic bomb with the Soviet Union was not so outlandish. A number of people in high places thought that keeping the project secret from Russia was certain to create suspicion, and would sow the seeds of future conflict. After Bohr put this view in Washington,…Felix Frankfurter urged Roosevelt to bring the Russians in on the bomb project, and the British ambassador…and former Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, agreed with him. Even the postwar British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, a doughty Cold War warrior, believed at one stage after the bomb was dropped that America and Britain should give Russia information about it, and some in the American administration agreed with him.
Nothing in the history of the 1940s makes it clearer than the decision to keep the Russians outside the initial “nuclear club” how far the seeds of the cold war were already present in the pre-1939 antagonisms between the Soviet Union and the West.
Of course, in “sharing” the secrets of the bomb as he did—by himself—Klaus Fuchs showed the overweening confidence in the rightness of his own moral decisions that is characteristic not only of believers in classic Marxism-Leninism but in other systems of apocalyptic doctrine as well. Reading Moss’s analysis, indeed, I began to doubt whether the best seventeenth-century analogy to Fuchs was really the worldly wise, politically savvy Jesuits: rather, the self-righteousness of Fuchs’s communist convictions reminds one of the more enthusiastic Jansenists and Calvinists.
This brings us back to the problems about Klaus Fuchs’s personality and motives that Robert Williams’s book leaves unresolved. Here, too, Norman Moss has useful additions to make. He is particularly perceptive about the probable sources of Fuchs’s all too evident emotional inhibitions. At Los Alamos, he had a reputation for “neutered innocence.” The obvious source of Klaus Fuchs’s personality traits might seem to be his liberal but strongminded father, Emil, but Moss has also usefully inquired into the kinds of influence he may have had from his mother. Else Fuchs was highly disturbed, taking her own life when Klaus was nineteen; seven years later, in 1938, his sister Elizabeth also died by her own hand; and his surviving sister Kristel has also had spells of mental affliction and hospitalization. So the autobiographical declaration with which Fuchs’s confession begins, “I was born in Rüsselsheim on 29th December, 1911. My father was a parson and I had a very happy childhood,” displays a lack of candor or, more likely, an element of self-deceit.
One of the things life at Harwell evidently did, at long last, was to give him the chance to soften this prematurely frosted side of his nature, and to begin learning the art of making, and enjoying, close friends. Looking back on his time at Harwell, in his conversations with Gordon Hawkins, an assistant governor at Wakefield Prison, where he served much of his sentence,
he discussed his crime…and said again that he regretted deeply having betrayed his friends at Harwell and, in particular, Henry Arnold [the Harwell security officer]. He said nothing about any other betrayal.
The heart of the Klaus Fuchs episode, of course, does not lie in such psychobiographical details. As to that, Norman Moss’s peroration is very different from Robert Williams’s complaint about Fuchs’s deluded idealism, and the sloppiness of British security. Moss writes:
Speculations along these [psychoanalytic] lines should not be taken as an attempt to explain away Fuchs’s political beliefs, to invalidate them by describing them in terms of unconscious motivations. He deserves to have his belief in Communism and his later change of mind treated at his own assessment. For one thing, they parallel the changing beliefs of a lot of other people during this period. His story belongs in the real world of politics and ethics.
His crime was treason. But it cannot be answered simply by an appeal to patriotism. Other causes besides Communism are international. No democrat would have blamed Fuchs because, while a German citizen, he helped the war effort against Nazi Germany, nor would a democrat accept an accusation of treason against Soviet citizens who oppose the Communist system. Today there is a possibility of a war that threatens not merely one nation, but the planet, the whole biosphere. Many major issues—in fact, all the really major issues—transcend national boundaries. Now more than ever, patriotism is not enough.
Fuchs was not motivated in what he did by ambition, or greed. He was selfless. More than most people, he was driven by a moral passion to do what is right.
In the last resort, perhaps, the fact that Klaus Fuchs was born a German is at least as significant as the fact that he became a Communist. Like his father, he wished to serve not Russia, but Germany, and with it the world: not the Germany of the Nazis, of course, but a future Germany of his rosy socialist dreams. Certainly, it was a catastrophic mistake to think that he could ever “use” the Russians for the good of Germany, when it was they who were using him for their own ends. But that is only one more installment in a much older story. The Germans have always been tempted to underrate the Slavs, and the DDR is still paying for that mistake.
November 19, 1987
At the time, advocacy of mental reservation was attributed to the Jesuit teachers at the English Seminary of Douai-Rheims, where Catholic émigrés were prepared to return to underground service in Britain. As a result, the English regarded mental reservation as a “Jesuitical” mode of arguing. The classic text was an anonymous Treatise of Equivocation (1595), by the Jesuit Provincial of the time, Henry Garnet. This posed the question, ↩
Cf. Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma (Simon and Schuster, 1983), reviewed in The New York Review, January 19, 1984. At first, I read Williams’s cavalier response to Alan Turing’s intellectual distinction as one more slap at the British, but there is more to it. It comes from his tunnel vision, which does not spare Turing’s American counterparts. He identifies, for example, a noted Harvard professor of chemistry and chairman of the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Science and Public Policy, on page 79, as “George Kistiakowsky, the Russian-born ordnance expert.” (Maybe vetting would have kept Russian émigrés as well as queers out of Los Alamos!) He fails to note that, after the Russian Revolution, Kistiakowsky was on the White Russian side; and that he was in later years President Eisenhower’s science adviser, continuing long afterward to take an important part in American debates about science policy. ↩
This separation between colleagues in “the two cultures” made matters harder than they need have been for Alan Turing, whose long affiliation with King’s might otherwise have been expected to save him. But it does help explain why, as a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, C.P. Snow was so taken up with, and so perceptive about, the continuing social divorce between the “two cultures” in the England of the 1940s and 1950s. ↩
On this story, see Margaret Gowing’s Britain and Atomic Energy, 1939–1945 (St. Martin’s, 1964). ↩