The Spy Who Sold Russia the Bomb : KLAUS FUCHS Atom Spy<i> by Robert Chadwell Williams (Harvard University Press: $25; 233 pp.) </i> : KLAUS FUCHS The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb<i> by Norman Moss (St. Martin’s Press: $15.95; 216 pp.) </i>
It was in 1978, while researching for a dramatization of the life of Robert Oppenheimer for the BBC, that I visited Santa Fe, N.M. It was the nearest town to the wartime atomic bombs laboratory at Los Alamos which Oppenheimer had detected and where the atom spy Klaus Fuchs had worked.
While there, I looked in at La Fonda, the hotel where, during those wartime years, many of the staff and residents were reputedly security men, intent on keeping secret the activities of the 6,000 men and women working up in the nearby mountains. I also visited the bridge over the Santa Fe River where Fuchs rendezvoused with his contact man, Harry Gold. The bridge and the hotel are no more than 200 yards apart, and yet Fuchs met Gold in broad daylight and actually passed over documents containing crucial information about the implosion mechanism of the new plutonium bomb. It seemed extraordinary to me that with so much security close by, he could have got away with such a blatant act; and yet this inconsistency pales into insignificance beside the anomalies and idiosyncrasies of the world of espionage revealed in these two new biographies of Fuchs.
For two books that have independent origins, they are remarkably complementary. They seldom contradict each other and yet each provides a different emphasis and a different overall approach. Robert Chadwell Williams in his “Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy,” provides a wonderfully detailed picture of the shadowy world in which Fuchs operated, while in “Klaus Fuchs, The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb” Norman Moss creates a strong portrait of the man himself.
Both books describe in varying detail Fuch’s early political career in Germany. As a student, he was not only a brilliant theoretical physicist but was also active in left-wing politics. He was a member of a paramilitary anti-Nazi group and when, after the Reichstag fire, the Gestapo came looking for him, Fuchs went underground and fled the country. He went to Britain where, according to Moss, he underwent a complete personality change. Only rarely did he allow his political passions to show through, and colleagues described him as an oddball and a recluse. Certainly, few of them guessed at his activist past or even at his Communist sympathies.
Moss carefully details Fuchs’ somewhat humdrum existence, first in Britain, than at Los Alamos and finally after the war as a senior member of staff at Britain’s atomic bomb laboratory at Harwell. He remained a bachelor, living quietly for much of the time as a paying guest with the families of some of his close colleagues. These colleagues came to terms with his taciturn manner and valued his friendship. He became a reassuring, if somewhat mute, presence during family holidays and family crises. Although one wife described him as “about as sexy as a kipper,” Moss does describe weekends away in a hotel with the wife of one of his closest colleagues (the couple booked single rooms). Throughout, some people noticed that sometimes he drank quite heavily or that he had a nervous cough but, according to Moss, nobody suspected anything.
In fact, Fuchs had offered his services to the Russians shortly after Hitler’s armies had attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. At the start, he was careless to the point of ineptness over the business of espionage, but he had nevertheless clearly mapped out a psychological strategy for dealing with the conflicting pressures on him. Both books see this strategy as the key to his subsequent behavior.
“I used my Marxist philosophy,” Fuchs wrote “to establish in my mind two separate compartments. One compartment in which I allowed myself to make friendships. . . . It appeared at the time that I had become a free man because I had succeeded in the other compartment to establish myself independent of the forces of society. Looking back at it now, the best way of expressing it seems to be to call it a controlled schizophrenia.”
The imposition of such a rigid personal discipline led to arrogance. He believed firmly that “the Western allies deliberately allowed Russia and Germany to fight each other to the death.” He ignored the oaths and agreements he signed when he became a British subject in 1942. His cause was communism, but his belief was firmly in his own judgment.
Yet paradoxically, as Williams points out, the British were in fact preparing an agreement with the Russians to make available, officially, all information on new weapons systems. The Americans did their best to block the passage of nuclear information, but Fuchs’ espionage had for the time being at least, unknown to him, added, unofficially, to an endeavor to provide the Soviet Union with vital information to fight the Germans.
Such paradoxes fall thick and fast in Williams’ account which, while disappointingly thin on the personal detail of how Fuchs lived out his philosophy, does add a different dimension to the story. For example, he shows that at a time when Fuchs was meeting “Sonia” his early contact in Britain, her brother, also a Soviet agent, was being exploited by the OSS in full knowledge of his Soviet links. It was of course a strange time with enemies turning into allies and vice versa, but later, at the end of the war when the lines between East and West were clearly drawn, the ambiguities were still to continue.
For instance, when Fuchs returned to the United Kingdom from working to great effect on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, he again picked up with “Sonia.” This time, however, she passed him on to another case officer who, according to Williams, had already been turned by the British equivalent of the CIA and was passing information to them. If this was the case, then Fuchs was under British control without even knowing it. Furthermore, Williams shows--as does Moss though less conclusively--that a number of strong clues pointed to Fuchs as a possible spy years before his confession and that the apparent ineptness of British security in picking up these clues was no accident. It was possibly the result of manuevers by one of its chiefs, Sir Roger Hollis, who has since been accused of being under Soviet control.
So there emerges from these two books a fascinating picture of a strange “controlled schizophrenic” acting “independently of the forces of society” and yet being manipulated in a way he knew nothing of. Even his confession was an elaborate blind, according to Williams. Both authors show that security had strong suspicions about Fuchs some months before he confessed, and both show the way in which Fuchs was slowly coaxed into a confession by a British security officer in such a way that Fuchs thought of him from that point onwards as a personal friend. But Williams believes that the confession was simply a cover for the activities of Ultra the secret code-breaking operation from which the information about Fuchs had emerged.
Sometimes I have a suspicion that Williams’ explanations are just a little too clever, but he provides such detailed information of both the political and espionage ploys being played out around Fuchs that Fuchs seems no longer to stand alone or be individually culpable.
What is clear, however, from both these books are the political ramifications of Fuchs’ actions. When in 1949, it was discovered that the Russians had the atomic bomb and that they might know about the H-Bomb as well, it served to crush all opposition to the U.S. development of the H-bomb. This was just at the crucial time when that opposition might have held sway and the worst excesses of the arms race been avoided. Further, the apparent security breakdown created a crisis of confidence between the United States and Britain from which only the Russians were the true beneficiaries.
But perhaps most important of all, it fueled the McCarthyite anti-Communist witch hunts of the early 1950s. Two victims of this anti-Communist fever were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. They, too, were found guilty of passing on atom secrets to the Russians, which were trivial by comparison with those which Fuchs passed on, but while Fuchs spent nine years in prison, they were executed. Equating the existence of the Russian bomb to the nerve needed to start the Korean War, the U.S. Federal judge who sentenced them held them responsible for the deaths during that campaign. When viewed in isolation, the traitorous acts of such people do seem quite clear cut, but when seen against the background of intrigue described in these two books, they too seem more the products of a disjointed world. Indeed, I am left speculating as to whether the endeavors of some security officers--then and now--might not be comparable in their amorality and disruptiveness.
Certainly, Fuchs’ actions and the reactions to them were a major factor in establishing the ever expanding amoral gloom of the security-conscious society. Perhaps this is Fuchs’ final bequest to us, and as befits this tale laden with paradoxes, this is also a paradox. The actions of this one man who acted according to the humanitarian ideals of personal morality that he had learned from his Quaker father, have precipitated what is arguably the biggest threat to those same humanitarian ideals. That threat is the search for a secure society. Williams sums up by quoting the journalist Hanson Baldwin, “Secrecy is not security--security above all is spirit and morale and progression, advance and imaginative thinking, and secrecy is the enemy of these.”
These two books do work so well together that I find it quite difficult to think of them apart. But “Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy” is thin on developing the character of its subject. Thus, if I had to choose between them, I would pick Moss’ fuller more rounded portrayal of the man himself backed up as it is with an adequate perspective on both the politics and the espionage.