Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Klaus Fuchs and the Impact of Atomic Espionage; The Role of Ideology in 1930s Soviet Recruitment

A two for one study on Soviet Espionage!  Mmmmmm... Tasty.

Klaus Fuchs and the Impact of Atomic Espionage

Klaus Fuchs

In May 1941, a young, physicist working on the British version of the Manhattan Project, the US development of the atomic bomb, approached the Soviet Mission in London and offered his services to inform on the British developments.  German-born Klaus Fuchs was a Communist who escaped from Nazi-Germany in 1933, fled to Britain, earned his doctorate in Physics from Edinburgh University, and became a British citizen.  After being asked to work on the British research into atomic weaponry, Fuchs was distraught that the Americans, British, and Canadians all openly shared their research on the possible weaponization of this newly discovered, vast energy potential bound within the atom, yet withheld the program from their erstwhile allies, the Soviet Union (Aiuto n.d.).
Klaus Fuchs
The Soviet Union relied heavily on stealing industrial secrets to advance its own industry.  When Hitler made the stupid mistake of invading Stalin’s Russia, it gave the Allies the opportunity to engage the Germans from the East while preparations were made for the Western invasion.  However, that assistance came with a price.  The Allies supplied a sizable amount of war materiel to the Soviets to support their war efforts (Long n.d.).  That the Soviets largely depended on the Allies for their military hardware is indicative of the inability of the Soviet economy, industry, and scientific know-how to produce their own atomic weaponry without the assistance of stolen information.  The ambitions of Stalin and the Communist party for global domination were not supported by the realities of their planned economy.  Their ambitions had to be therefore, realized ultimately by theft.
Fuchs regularly reported to his handlers in Britain from 1941 to 1943, until he was transferred to the United States as part of the unification of British and American efforts in the Manhattan Project (Hyde 1980, 119, 120).  While in America, Fuchs worked on discovery of practical, efficient methods of extracting the Uranium (U)-235 isotope, the highly reactive Uranium with efficient fissile properties, from the more prevalent U-238.  U-235 was the material used in the weapon dropped on Hiroshima.  From 1943 through 1945, Fuchs reported all of the research to which he was privy to his Soviet (actually American) courier, Harry Gold (Hyde 1980).  Fuchs also worked on the development of the plutonium-fueled bomb dropped on Nagasaki.  He gave the courier specific details on how the very precise implosion took place, crushing the core into a critical mass and initiating the nuclear fission chain reaction (Hyde 1980, 126).
Harry Gold
Though Fuchs was by far the most damaging spy in the Soviet’s penetration of the Manhattan Project, he was not alone.  David Greenglass worked on similar projects as Fuchs and also used Gold as a courier.  Greenglass’ sister, Ethel Rosenberg and her husband, Julius, were Soviet agents as well (Lamphere and Shachtman 1986, 181).  Greenglass gave “actual drawings of the implosion lens” (the very precise method of using explosive shaped-charges to crush the plutonium) to Gold (Hyde 1980, 126).



On September 23, 1949, President Truman publicly announced that the Soviet Union had successfully detonated a test atomic weapon (Lamphere and Shachtman 1986, 132).  The announcement caught the entire world by surprise.  Not only did this catch the greater civilian populous and the general government of the US unawares, it also caught the US Intelligence Community by surprise.  At that time, the FBI was aware of only three major attempts to penetrate the atomic program, though no one could tell if these had produced enough information to significantly help the Soviet program. 
Concurrently, in the culmination of a project started in 1943, a group of US Army cryptanalysts had deciphered what was thought to be the Soviet diplomatic code that enciphered diplomatic dispatches between the Soviet mission to the United States and the Soviet foreign ministry.  In reality, the dispatches were messages relayed between Soviet intelligence case officers in the US and the Soviet foreign intelligence directorate in Moscow (Haynes, Klehr 1999, 9).  When these dispatches were viewed in light of the recent discovery of the Soviet advances in atomic weapons research, the true picture of the Soviet penetration of the Manhattan Project became clear.  Once the FBI had been handed a few of the Venona decrypts, in mid-September of that year, they knew there was one, as-of-yet unidentified source network deep within the Project (Lamphere and Shachtman 1986, 133).  Using the Venona decrypts as direction finders, the FBI, and its British sister agency, MI-5, started to unravel the networks.
Liberal apologists had long argued that the sensational spy stories of the 1950s, the McCarthy hearings, and the House Un-American Activities Committee were overhyped, political charades intended to destroy the Truman presidency, and overturn the New Deal policies of the Roosevelt years.  True, much of the Republican motives for pursuing the Communist infiltration stemmed from vehement domestic policy disagreements with the New Deal as a whole, but the foundation for that overreach by McCarthy-era Republicans was grounded in truth.  The declassification of the Venona intercepts provide evidence of that truth.  The mere fact that Venona survived for almost 50 years without compromise is testimony to the professionalism of the NSA and others involved in the project.*

*Though Christopher Andrew states the Soviets also recruited an Army Security Agency (predecessor to the NSA) who disclosed the Venona project… as well as Philby and the Cambridge spies.  Andrew claims the compromise was never publically acknowledged nor, after research, does this author believe it significantly compromised the Venona intercept project (Andrew 1995, 180, 181).

The Impact

The exact impact of Fuchs’ and the atomic spies is not easily identifiable.  Though the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy estimated that the espionage had “advanced the Soviet atomic energy program by at least eighteen months” (Hyde 1980, 124), the true impact of the atomic espionage of the 1940s is that it forced a dramatic change to the national security strategy of the United States.  At the time of Truman’s revelation in 1949, the US had dealt with Soviet aggression from a position of strength.  But these were tenuous times.  The Berlin blockade had just ended, the Communist Chinese were eight days away from total control of that country (save Formosa), and in a mere nine months, Kim Il Sung’s Communist North Korean forces would pour across the 38th parallel.  The US, since the end of World War II had conducted its foreign policy possessing the ultimate trump card:  the atomic bomb.  The revelation that the Soviets could respond in kind forced a dramatic change in national security strategy.  The US policy of Massive Retaliation threatened unilateral use of atomic weaponry in response to Soviet conventional aggression (Lockwood 1993, 13).  With this policy supported by the fiscal desires to cut military expenditures and the standing Army, its disruption also caused significant economic and budgetary damage.
 Some also may argue that though Fuchs’ espionage only advanced the Soviet program by a mere eighteen months, Fuchs was only one of the many valuable sources the Soviets had in place in the United States.  The Soviet military relied heavily upon stolen technology for advancements (PC Plus Magazine 2009) (Shukovsky 2000).  The aforementioned national security implications of this alone should be evidence enough of the severity of the impact, but that not-withstanding, the US spent billions of dollars on developing and researching its own technology.  That the Soviets blindly stole the fruits of this research and development without an equitable investment of capital, gave them an unnatural leg up in the struggle for global hegemony.
Another effect the atomic espionage episode had on the United States is it served as a clarion call for the need of a far more robust and aggressive Counterintelligence apparatus to counter GRU and KGB operations.  The controversy surrounding the trials of these spies also highlighted the need for evidentiary rules that allowed for legal, evidence-based prosecution that still protected highly-classified intelligence sources.  Former CIA Director of Intelligence, John Ehrmann stated that “it took more than 30 years, until the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978 and the Classified Information Procedures Act in 1980, to create a clear set of rules” for criminal trials of Espionage crimes (Ehrman 2007).

The Role of Ideology in 1930s Soviet Recruitment

The New Deal

In 1932, the US overwhelmingly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Governor of New York, President of the United States.  FDR ran on promises of radical change to the Hoover administration that had the unfortunate position of presiding over the onset of the Great Depression.  He ran promising a “New Deal”.  In his party’s nomination acceptance address he stated, “Throughout the Nation, men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government of the last years look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth” (Roosevelt 1932).  Roosevelt imported a large cadre consisting of the brightest academics the nation’s Ivy League could produce.
It was a revolutionary time.  The Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia only fifteen years before.  Stalin had consolidated power in the Soviet Union.  The appeal of socialism transcended borders.  The Communist Party in the United States attracted many left-wing academics.  The socialist utopia underway in the steppes of North-Central Asia and Eastern Europe as reported by such writers as the noted Communist and New York Times’ Walter Duranty was alluring to many on the left.  This rosy view of Bolshevik Russia is understandable given the context.  Information from the country was strictly controlled.  There was no mass-media.  The oppression of the Stalinists in particular and the Bolsheviks in general was not well-known and was downplayed or minimized if it was disclosed.  Finally, the rise of the National Socialists, and Fascists in Germany and Italy posed a threat to the Soviet Union, and therefore the International Socialist struggle by extension.
It was during this time of change that the new FDR administration officially granted diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union.  Prior to 1933, the date of the opening of diplomacy, the Soviets had practiced limited intelligence collection in the United States through a network of “illegals” (spies without the cover of diplomatic status).  Therefore in 1933, the Soviet Union was confronted with an important question:  how would they proceed with their intelligence collection targeting the United States now that they had received official diplomatic recognition?  The Soviets would clearly benefit from the ability to have “legal” spies under diplomatic cover, but they risked severe consequences in relations with the new Roosevelt government if exposed.  The Soviets decided to compromise.  They would take advantage of this opening of relations in the espionage realm, but they would limit risk by abandoning “mass recruitments” of agents, and giving the Soviet station chief approval authority for all recruitments (Weinstein 1999, 24).
This convergence of liberal idealists in the halls of power in the US government and the increased access of Soviet Intelligence officers in the mid-1930s led to a windfall for Soviet collection.  Vast networks of assets penetrated nigh the entirety of the American government.  Almost every New Deal agency created in the Roosevelt administration had agents in place (Haynes, Klehr 1999, 191).  Allen Weinstein says “The professional and social relationships that linked individuals in the New Deal often blurred their political differences” (Weinstein 1999, 4).  He goes on, ”Soviet intelligence files document the mixture of accidental encounters, underlying ideological beliefs, romantic antifascist views, and Soviet persistence that led some New Dealers on the Left at the time to become espionage agents” (Weinstein 1999, 4).

Lawrence Duggan

Iskhak Akhmerov
It is no surprise then that Ideology played the primary role in the vast majority of these recruitments.  Nearly all of the American agents of the GRU (military intelligence) and the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) were committed communists.  Some were openly so, while others like Harry Gold, hid their involvement (Hyde 1980).  Lawrence Duggan was a State Department diplomat who came to Washington in 1933 with the new administration.  Duggan rose eventually to lead the Latin American Affairs Division at the State Department.  Recruiters under the NKVD spymasters Boris Bazarov and Iskhak Akhmerov courted him for some time before finally persuading him to spy for them.
Duggan, like many of the Soviet recruits in the FDR administration was a true believer.  Ideology was the sole factor for his agreement to work for the Communists.  In fact, the NKVD nearly destroyed their own success by miscalculating their own agents’ motivations.  After several years of work, NKVD leadership discussed giving monetary, or other tangible gifts to their agents in place.  This flew in the face of recommendations from the actual case officers running the sources, to include Duggan’s.  The source handlers knew these New Dealers’ true ideological motivations and believed monetary rewards would be insulting to them (Weinstein 1999, 12).
But what these agents, Duggan especially, did desire, was truth.  Rumors about Stalin’s purges in the mid 1930s had drifted across the Atlantic and worried these agents.  There was great concern that these names would be compromised by NKVD spymasters, targeted for ‘disappearance’ who would defect to the West.  Such an episode was not without precedence as exemplified in the case of defector Ignatz Reiss.  Reiss was murdered by NKVD operatives before he could inform Western intelligence services of the Soviet penetrations of Britain and America (Weinstein 1999, 10, 11).  Duggan, and others, by assumption, were further concerned that, because of the Stalinist purges taking place, if they agreed to work for the Soviets, they could potentially be charged as being a Trotskyite (Andrew, Mitrokhin 1999, 104, 105).
Whittaker Chambers
The fact of the matter is that the Soviet’s own factionary bloody, bickering doomed many of their pre-war intelligence networks in the West.  The infamous Whittaker Chambers mentioned this as a factor for his defection in 1938 (Weinstein 1999, 45).  Duggan gradually withdrew from contact with his handlers, before finally calling it all off completely in 1939 (Weinstein 1999, 16, 17).


The extent of the Communist infiltration of the various departments of the US government in the 1930s was not fully disclosed until the declassification of the Venona project.  The intercepted and decrypted communiqués gave evidence to this extent.  There were twelve Office of Special Services (the precursor to the CIA) agents who spied for the Soviets (Haynes, Klehr 1999, 195).  The Office of War Information (official propaganda arm of the War Department) contained at least one Soviet agent who was influential in the recruitment of others (Haynes, Klehr 1999, 198, 199).  The State Department’s temporary, war-related, subordinate agencies were rife with Soviet penetration.  Venona identified no less than eighteen Soviet agents employed in these various foreign-relations agencies (Haynes, Klehr 1999, 201).  Twenty-six further agents are named in the War Department agencies (Haynes, Klehr 1999, 206).  Eight, including the highest ranking one, Harry Dexter White, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury are identified in the Treasury Department (Haynes, Klehr 1999, 207).  And still others were identified within Congressional representatives’ staffs, the Justice Department, the Interior Department, and the Bureau of Standards (Haynes, Klehr 1999, 207).
Clearly, the socialist tendencies of the academic ideologues in the New Deal administration proved a ‘target-rich’ environment for Soviet recruiters and spotters/assessors.  Some have rightly alleged that “The Roosevelt administration’s indiscriminate outlook, failing to distinguish between idealistic liberals and cynical Communists, allowed Alger Hiss [and people like him,] into the New Deal” administration (Flynn 2008, 229).  Weinstein adds, “In the 1930s … [the Soviets] most reliable American sources were … those individuals driven by an ideological belief in communism and the Soviet experiment.  Paid informants worked mainly for U.S. defense-related industries, while many of the ‘believers’ rose steadily through the ranks of the Roosevelt Administration’s bureaucracy” (Weinstein 1999, 29).
Additionally, this author believes a sense of entitlement and elitism possessed by these New Deal liberals contributed to their treason.  Committing espionage was treated with a very cavalier attitude, with the possible consequences ridiculously downplayed.  Duggan worried not about jail time and felony charges but rather being “fired from the State Department and blacklisted” (Weinstein 1999, 9).
Ultimately, as referenced earlier, the sheer corruption, abuses, and purges of the Soviet system self-destructed the majority of the 1930s networks.  By the time McCarthy started sensationalizing the Soviet espionage threat, the damage had already been done, and the networks abolished (Schweikart 2004, 645).  Unfortunately, the modern politically correct version of history glosses over the actual penetrations of the US government and rather concentrates on the public revelations of the actual acts that had occurred around 15 years earlier.  Rather than soberly acknowledging the failures, the media, pop-culture, and the politicians chose to counterattack those who levied the charges.  Certainly, McCarthy and others involved in the hunt for communists in the early 1950s levied some groundless ones, but it does not take away from the core, true history of the original Soviet spies.  But… that’s politics.

Works Cited

Aiuto, Russell. "Klaus Fuchs: Atom Bomb Spy." TruTV Crim Library. (accessed October 30, 2010).
Andrew, Christopher. For the President's Eyes Only. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1995.
Andrew, Mitrokhin. The Sword and the Shield - The Mitrokhin Archive. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999.
Ehrman, John. "Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials That Shaped American Politics." Intelligence in Recent Public Literature. June 8, 2007. (accessed November 1, 2010).
Flynn, Daniel J. A Conservative History of the American Left. New York, NY: Crown Forum, 2008.
Haynes, Klehr. Venona. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.
Hyde, H. Montgomery. The Atom Bomb Spies. New York, NY: Atheneum, 1980.
Lamphere and Shachtman. The FBI-KGB War. New York, NY: Random House, 1986.
Lockwood, Samuel and Lockwood, Kathleen O'Brien. The Russian View of U.S. Strategy. Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1993.
Long, Jason. "Lend-Lease as a Function of the Soviet War Economy." (accessed November 1, 2010).
National Science Digital Library. "Klaus Fuchs (1911-1988)." 1998-2008. (accessed October 30, 2010).
PC Plus Magazine. "Declassified: The Secrets of Soviet Computing." June 25, 2009. (accessed October 30, 2010).
Roosevelt, Franklin D. "Roosevelt's Nomination Address." The New Deal Network. July 2, 1932. (accessed November 2, 2010).
Schweikart, Allen. A Patriot's History of the United States. New York, NY: Penguin, 2004.
Shukovsky, Paul. "Stealth Secrets Feared Stolen." Seatle Post Intelligencer. October 30, 2000. (accessed October 30, 2010).
Weinstein, Allen. The Haunted Wood. New York, NY: Random House, 1999.

1 comment: