Why spy?

by Alex Wellerstein, published December 4th, 2015

It’s impossible to talk about the work at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project without mentioning the spies. And yet, for the first five years of the atomic age, nobody would have mentioned them, because they had escaped the view of the security services. It’s one of the great ironies of the top-secret atmosphere: despite listening to phone lines, reading mail, and endlessly snooping, the security forces of General Groves caught not one spy at Los Alamos.

"Security theater" at Los Alamos — lots of effort made, but no spies were caught this way. Source: LANL.

Security theater” at Los Alamos — lots of effort was made to create the culture of a top-secret, security-conscious environment, but no spies were caught this way. Source: LANL.

The Los Alamos spies are the ones we spend the most time talking about, because they were the ones who were closest to the parts of the bomb we associate with real “secrets”: the designs, the experiments. They were also the most sensational. There is a bit of an error in looking at them in this way, an over-exaggeration of the work at Los Alamos at the expense, say, of Oak Ridge. But they do make for fascinating study. None of them were James Bonds — crack-trained intelligence experts who could kill you as much as look at you. (I appreciate that in the latest James Bond movie, much is made of the fact that Bond is more assassin than spy.) They are really “moles,” volunteers who were doing more or less their normal jobs, just working for two masters at once.

This sense of the term “mole,” as an aside, was popularized (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) by John Le Carré’s classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974): “Ivlov’s task was to service a mole. A mole is a deep penetration agent so called because he burrows deep into the fabric of Western imperialism.” It is remarkable to me how much of our language of intelligence work is indebted to fictional depictions. I admit I am much more a fan of the Le Carré approach to espionage writing than the Ian Fleming approach — I like my spies conflicted, middle-aged, and tormented. In a word, I like them human. James Bond seems to me to be nothing but a standard male ego fantasy (a well-dressed killer with gadgets who gets and then promptly discards the girl), and it makes him boring. (Daniel Craig’s Bond is, at least, middle-aged and tormented, so it makes the character tolerable, even if the plots are just as silly as ever.) Even this, though, is misleading, because occasionally there are spies who are in something like a Bond mode, destroying factories and assassinating enemies and wielding gadget-guns. But I suspect most intelligence workers look more like George Smiley (or, even more to the point, Connie Sachs, the “librarian” of Smiley’s “Circus” who is crucial but ever behind-the-scenes) than Bond.1

Why would someone become a mole? There are several short-hand ways of talking about motivations for espionage, like M.I.C.E.: Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego. They are as valuable as these kinds of short-hands can ever be — tools for generalizing cases, not understanding the individual motivations, which are always tailored by a million tiny specifics.

The invisible, bland, inconspicuous Harry Gold. Source: NARA, via Wikimedia Commons.

The invisible, bland, inconspicuous Harry Gold. Source: NARA, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of my favorite members of the atomic spy rings, for example, is Harry Gold, a “courier” to others. Gold was the one who ferried information between the moles (scientists at the lab) and the “real” Soviet espionage agents (NKVD officers working under diplomatic cover at the Soviet embassy). The courier was a crucial part of the network, because without him you have the problem of two “watched” groups (weapons scientists and Soviet officials) having to come together, a conspicuous thing. Gold, by contrast, was completely inconspicuous: a chubby little man with a dim-witted facial appearance. But he was a hard worker. Why’d he do it? Not for money — he wouldn’t take any, not in any great amounts. Not so much for ideology — he had favorable thoughts towards the Soviet Union, but he doesn’t appear to have been especially radicalized. He wasn’t being coerced.

So that leaves ego, and that isn’t the worst way to think about Gold, though it doesn’t quite do him credit. As Allen Hornblum explains in great detail in his fascinating The Invisible Harry Gold (Yale University Press, 2010), Gold had a “needy,” vulnerable personality that made him desperate for friendship and approval. He fell in with a group of Communists who realized how far he would go for that approval, and gradually worked towards bigger and bigger assignments. All the agents needed to do to get Gold to work his damnest, and to put his life on the line, was to give him encouragement. In the end, this same trait made Gold a nightmare for the other spies, because once he was caught, he wanted the FBI agents to be his friends, too. So he told them everything. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

Klaus Fuchs — the quiet enigma, the man against himself.

Klaus Fuchs — the quiet enigma, the man against himself.

What about Fuchs? Ideology, all the way. Fuchs wasn’t new to that game — he had been putting his life on the line years before he became a spy, as a Communist student in Germany during the rise of the Nazis. It’s probably a very a different thing to go from a very proud, spoken form of politics to the quiet subterfuge of becoming a mole. Fuchs himself, in his various confessions and later statements, indicated that he found this work to be an unpleasant struggle. In his 1950 confession to William Skardon, he put it this way:

In the course of this work, I began naturally to form bonds of personal friendship and I had to conceal from them my inner thoughts. I used my Marxist philosophy 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 to be in all personal ways the kind of man I wanted to be and the kind of man which, in a personal way, 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 the other compartment would step in if I approached the danger point. I could forget the other compartment and still rely on it. It appeared to me at the time that I had become a “free man” because I had succeeded in the other compartments to establish myself completely independent of the surrounding forces of society. Looking back at it now the best way of expressing it seems to be to call it a controlled schizophrenia.2

From the point of view of those who knew him at Los Alamos, Fuchs succeeded greatly — they were entirely caught off-guard by the revelation that he was a spy. Hans Bethe took pains to emphasize (to a fault, the FBI seems to have thought) that Fuchs worked very hard for everyone he worked for: the Americans, the British, and the Russians.

(I have written elsewhere on David Greenglass and will not go back over him. He is another curious case, to be sure.)

And what about Ted Hall? Hall was the youngest scientist at Los Alamos, and, as such, the youngest atomic spy of note. He was only 19 years old when he decided that he ought to be giving secrets to the Soviet Union. 19! Just a baby, and his Soviet codename, “MLAD,” reflected that: it means “youngster.” (In retrospect, that is a pretty bad codename, a little too identifying.) When I show his Los Alamos badge photograph to my students, I always emphasize that they’ve met this kid — the 19-year-old genius who thinks he knows better than everyone else, who thinks he has the world figured out, who is just idealistic enough, and just confident enough, to do something really terribly stupid if the opportunity was made available.

Ted Hall's Los Alamos badge photograph — teenage angst, Soviet mole.

Ted Hall’s Los Alamos badge photograph — teenage angst, Soviet mole.

Why did Hall spy? Ideology, apparently. I say “apparently” because most of what we know about Hall’s motivations is what he said, or seemed to have said, much later, far after the fact, decades later. A much-older Hall rationalized his spy work as being about the balance of power, an easier thing to say in 1997 than in 1944. Having known 19-year-olds, and having been one, I view this post-hoc rationalization with a bit of suspicion. Even Hall himself seems to recognize that his 19-year-old was brash and arrogant, that ego might have played a large role in his decision.

I have been thinking about Hall a lot recently while watching Manhattan. Towards the end of season 1, it is revealed that one of the scientists the show has been following was a spy, based loosely on the case of Hall. I don’t want to speak too much to the specifics on here, because if you haven’t been watching the show, there are many spoilers involved with just talking about this aspect of the plot, but it’s been pretty interesting to see how the writers handled a spy. He’s not a James Bond, to say the least. He’s someone who, like most real people, see himself as a “good” person fundamentally — but whose actions give him grave doubts as to this proposition. This season there is another figure in the show who is loosely based on Lona Cohen, a courier of Hall and a fascinating figure in her own right, and a complicating factor for the spy scientist. Those interested in learning more about Hall and Cohen should definitely take a look at Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel’s Bombshell (Times Books, 1997).

In current season of Manhattan, the spy character has realized that what started as something of a “game” is no game at all, no game any sane or sensitive person would want to play. The actor who plays him (who I regret not naming, do to aforementioned spoiler concerns!) manages to convey perfectly that panicky feeling one gets when one realizes one has gotten in too far, that one has taken on too much risk, that one cannot turn back, cannot turn off the ride, cannot get off the carousel. It’s a sickening feeling, that feeling of being trapped.

Did Hall feel trapped? One wonders. Of the identified wartime Los Alamos spies (Fuchs, Greenglass, Hall), he is the one who got away, the one who lived out a free life until the end, even though the FBI had a pretty good idea of what he had done by the 1950s. The lack of enough evidence for a “clean case” against him (Hall used a different courier than Fuchs and Greenglass, so the testimony of Harry Gold was worthless in his case), and his isolation for further work on weapons, seems to have allowed them to let him alone. But does one ever “get away” with such a thing? Was there any time in which he was truly at ease, wondering if the hammer might drop? His spying was eventually revealed two year before his death, but he was still never charged with anything.

Ted Hall in his 70s, being interviewed for CNN's Cold War series (episode 21).

Ted Hall in his 70s, being interviewed for CNN’s Cold War series (episode 21): “We were pretty close to being consumed.”

Hall was interviewed for CNN’s (excellent) Cold War documentary miniseries in the late 1990s. To my eyes, he seems somewhat hollow. Is this just how he was, or an artifact of his age? (He died not too long afterwards, at the age of 74.) Or an artifact of a life staring down the barrel of a gun? On the Rosenberg execution, Hall is recorded saying, grimly: “It certainly brought home the fact that there were flames consuming people, and that we were pretty close to being consumed.”

Can you come out of the cold without resolution of one form or another? Maybe Hall was lucky that, by the end of his life, he got to contribute to the narrative about himself, about his actions, even if he did it in a roundabout admitting-but-not-quite-confessing way. Hall claimed, in his 70s, that the youth of 19-years-old had the right idea, in the end, even if the Cold War went places that that youth couldn’t have anticipated. Hall’s motivations seem to come somewhere out of that unconscious land between ideology and ego, where many monsters live.

Hall, Fuchs, Gold, and Greenglass — not a James Bond among them. They are strictly out of the Le Carréan mold. Conflicted, scared, self-sabotaging: the Le Carréan spy is always his own worst enemy, his friends barely friends at all, his punishment always of his own making. There’s no right way out of a John Le Carré story. If you think things are going to end up well, just you wait — any victory will be bittersweet, if you can call it a victory at all.

  1. My greatest disappointment with the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, is that it focuses almost exclusively on the Bond-like persona, to the extent of devoting a large amount of their space to stupid James Bond plots as opposed to actual history. The best thing in the entire museum, in my opinion, is an exhibit on the catching of Aldrich Ames. Ames was no Bond, and he was caught by no Bond. The women who caught him look unassuming, but were shrewd, clever, and careful. No gadgets, just a lot of hard work, and the experienced application of psychology. []
  2. Klaus Fuchs statement (27 January 1950), copy online here. []

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20 Responses to “Why spy?”

  1. Patrick McCray says:

    Thanks for the post. Although it’s an ugly topic, the post begs the question – why were so many atomic spies from Jewish families? Hall, Gold, Greenglass, Rosenbergs…Does this reflect the leftist politics or eastern European emigrant backgrounds of many in this demographic in the 1930s and 1940s? Something else in the social fabric? Curious as to your thoughts…But I agree the La Carré template is far more interesting.

    • I think it’s mostly about leftist politics and the circles they were popular in at the time of the mid-1930s to early 1940s. East Coast Jews (Hall = New York, Gold = Philadelphia, Greenglass and Rosenbergs = New York) were a prominent demographic there.

  2. Alex,
    Fascinating, as usual. You mention Groves’s security team “listening to phone calls.” I’ve collected several Manhattan transcripts of confidential calls — published by you and others and from various archives — that mention or involve my late father-jn-law, an AAF officer who served on Manhattan. Do you how this listening and transcribing was organized, or perhaps another source that describes this?


    • That’s a great question — I’m not sure. The transcripts I have seen lack any kind of note as to who recorded them (unlike dictated memos). I wonder if Stan Norris would know about this.

  3. Random Walk says:

    In an odd bit of coincidence, the Los Alamos County Council might seem to be encouraging more of the same . . .

    The Los Alamos County Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to adopt “Discover our Secrets” as the official county strapline. The phrase has served as the county’s unofficial slogan since 2005, when it was the winning slogan in a competition conducted by the Los Alamos Commerce & Development Corporation.

  4. Howard Morland says:

    I think it is worth noting that the Manhattan Project spies were all working for an ally, not an enemy. They assumed, correctly, that keeping the project secret from Russia was a signal that Russia was the ultimate intended target of the vast, permanent industry they were creating. I am not aware that the Germans or the Japanese learned anything about the bomb from spies.

    I agree that the role of Los Alamos is highly overrated. The question of what to do with fissile material, once they had it, was never very difficult. It certainly didn’t require all that brain power. The real question was how many critical masses of fissile material could be gathered before the war ended. The answer for the war in Europe was none.

    The spies most in the news these days are spies for the press, leakers. I assume that spies for governments generally don’t get caught and that governments pretty much know each other’s secrets. Secrets kept from the public are the real concern of governments. Leakers pay a high price when caught, and they don’t get paid. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Mordechai Vanunu come to mind in that regard.

  5. Spies both real and fictional are fascinating in part because they embody a dichotomy in all of us between our mind and the world, the fact that there’s some part of ourselves that’s not directly accessible from the outside. Though our speech and our other behavior may reflect that inner self, it can just as well conceal it, thus leading to the “controlled schizophrenia” that Fuchs spoke of. That others don’t know what we’re thinking is, for me, one thing that makes social life possible; regardless, it’s definitely what makes spies possible.

    I’m not surprised to learn that Manhattan involves a spy. I’m zipping through the first season and haven’t yet come across him or her, but there are enough other instances of deception, divided loyalty, and the like that I’d be disappointed not to find espionage turning up in the mix. Not that it matters much here, but the current season of the Showtime series Homeland also involves a character who’s serving multiple masters, and this has been a major dimension of the show from the beginning.

    Your reference to “the identified wartime Los Alamos spies” cleverly leaves open the possibility that there were others who were not, or haven’t yet been, identified. This is part of the dilemma of becoming a spy, part of the reason one’s success must always be, as you call it, “bittersweet”: one may reach the end of one’s life with an intact reputation and yet be found out later. A spy has never finally pulled it off.

    Is there any reason (that you know of) to believe that there must have been other spies at work on the Manhattan Project? Maybe some Soviet-era archival documents referring to code names that haven’t been pinned down?

    • On the unidentified spies, the one that has dogged historians for a long time is that there was another spy, codenamed “Perseus,” at Los Alamos. This long discussion will give you some indication as to how this has been parsed over with a variety of unusual conclusions — it might be a hoax, a mistranslation, or an actual spy. I haven’t waded into that discussion at all, myself, but maybe someday…

  6. Kert VanderMeulen says:

    For all the drama, what vital information did any of those guys ever convey to their “masters”? What critical data that allowed the Russians to build their first bomb did they get from the American spies, as opposed to that data which was developed by their own scientists?

    • Collectively, the spies gave quite a lot of information about the details of the American work. Fuchs and the others gave them a reasonably complete understanding of how implosion was meant to work, and Fuchs also passed on work relating to the H-bomb. Among other things. The Soviets did not, of course, exclusively use that information, and they did not entirely trust it, but it was an additional resource for them. Sorting out what the Soviets did with the information is at least as interesting as the information itself, in my opinion. I think it is quite difficult, though, to try and quantify how much time or effort it might or might not have saved them, because they re-did all of the work independently as well. There is an entirely separate question as to what the value of this kind of “secret” really is towards making a bomb — the bulk of the work of making a nuclear weapon is making the fissile material. They had some espionage information on those processes, but they had to figure out the bulk of that work themselves.

      • Peter says:

        For a spy who accomplished essentially nothing, it’s hard to top Rudolf Abel, the top Soviet spy in the United States for most of the 1950’s. Unlike the Los Alamos spies Abel had no access to any sort of classified information and had no meaningful network following the Rosenbergs’ arrest. He posed as a retired businessman who had taken up art and photography. He occasionally associated with some vaguely left-wing artists such as Jules Feiffer, none of whom had any classified access themselves.
        As best the FBI could determine, the closest Abel ever came to anything sensitive is that he *may* have observed a couple.of the earliest satellite launches from Cape.Canaveral

      • Bradley Laing says:

        Phillip Knightley wrote in “The Second Oldest Profession” that the biggest secret, or the most important secret, was that the Atomic Bomb could work, something that was obvious from dropping one on Hiroshima.

        His idea, and I would like your thoughts on this, was that the idea of official secrecy had outstripped its ability to do what the politicians wanted, but they did not act like it. The institutions, believing in secrecy, security, and authority, refused to believe that they had defeated themselves by detonating a bomb on Hiroshima.

        So they continued to believe that secrecy could “keep the nuclear secret” from the Russians until 1949 rolled around, defeating their assumptions.

        • This argument, that there was only one secret and Hiroshima made it clear to the world, was a common one in the late 1940s, put forward originally by scientists who were trying to resist calls for increased secrecy, and to devalue the importance of “secrets” in general. It’s correct if you buy into some of the assumptions embedded in it about the goal of secrecy and the nature of technology. They are construing the goal of secrecy as the maintenance of a permanent US monopoly over the bomb, and the nature of technology as flowing from universal scientific facts available to all people. They’re arguing that you can’t keep a scientific fact secret because other scientists too have access to nature, and thus the purpose of secrecy won’t work.

          The better-informed generals (like Groves) would not see it in these terms at all. They’d argue that while the underlying technology of the atomic bomb (including enrichment, etc.) is based on nature, there are so many inventive “tricks of the trade” and industrial “know-how” aspects that you can expect re-inventing them to be quite laborious and difficult for a country that had to do it from scratch, and that having some of them given away in the form of written-down information would indeed speed up development elsewhere. More to the point, they’d argue that secrecy was not about trying to absolutely deny a country the weapons, but to increase the resources necessary to acquire them (which itself might be discouraging), and to increase the time until they get them (and time, for them, is a valuable commodity).

          There’s something to be said for both sides of this kind of argument, but I think it’s worth pulling out the assumptions of both sides and examining them. This is separate from the question of whether politicians and the lay public assigned a somewhat totemic aspect to the idea of “the secret” in the late 1940s and early 1950s — they certainly did. David Kaiser’s article on “The Atomic Secret in Red Hands” goes over this quite wonderfully.

          • Alex,
            As one of my dear friends was wont to say, “you have a gift.” Thank you for your thoughtful, reasoned replies throughout your blog.

          • I was just thinking much the same thing. My favorite teacher in college was really good at responding to questions and ideas and so forth, in a way that didn’t neglect or invalidate anyone but didn’t sidetrack the discussion either. I see the same kind of thing here. It’s one reason I like this blog, apart from the subject matter.

          • Ross Mallett says:

            One piece of “know-how” that they were very concerned about was details of the radar proximity fuzes used in the Fat Man. If the spies had given the Soviets this, the Soviets could have jammed the fuzes and made atomic bombs explode prematurely.

            You being the expert on nuclear secrecy, I’d be interested in any ideas about what Groves should have done but didn’t to make the project more secure.

          • The irony is that those fuzes were among the least classified pieces of the bomb, by themselves, if you removed them from their nuclear context. They were modified from radars used to help airplanes recognize whether they were being followed by an enemy fighter. The patent on the technology was declassified and released by 1948 — much earlier than any of the strictly atomic patents.

            As for the question of Groves — that’s a tough one! We can imagine what policies might have led to the catching of three major Los Alamos spies:

            • Klaus Fuchs: If Groves had been able to do a thorough background check on Fuchs and vetted him using his own security forces, would he have figured out he had been a die-hard Communist in Germany? Maybe, maybe not. Groves always claimed, though, that the reason he slipped through is because they didn’t get to check out his background, because the British vouched for him and forbid the US from investigating their own countrymen (or nominal countrymen).
            • David Greenglass: Greenglass was incredibly indiscreet with his bunkmates and fellow SEDs, making it clear he was a Communist and Stalinist. If Groves had made it more clear to those people that they should report any form of strong political speech, would they have reported Greenglass? Or would that have kept Greenglass from being so indiscreet?
            • Ted Hall: This one is a tricky one. The only really obvious thing I can imagine is that if the FBI had been watching whether Americans approached Soviet embassies, and cross-listed any of that information with information about who was working on secret projects of this sort, they would have picked up Hall, because he just walked into the Soviet consulate at one point (which was tremendously risky of him).

            Those are just some brief answers. Obviously, hindsight is 20:20 — Groves didn’t really grapple what the threat of “moles” really looked like, and American counterintelligence was learning everything from scratch, practically. A well-disciplined mole is going to be very hard to pick out from the normal human “noise” of politics, trips out of the site, and so on. If Groves had banned all recreational travel from the Los Alamos site, that might have fixed his problems with spies — but probably created new ones in its place, in the form of a restless and unhappy workforce.

  7. etudiant says:

    It was reported earlier, also in this blog, that the initial Soviet piles were carbon copies of the US reactors at Hanford, which suggests a very large scale leak in the infrastructure engineering effort.
    The source of this leak, which from appearances is at least as material as anything Fuchs provided, seems to have escaped public identification as well.

    • I’m not as familiar with Soviet interests in reactor information, or how similar the Soviet Reactor A was to the American B Reactor. Superficially they had a lot of similarities (graphite moderated, water-cooled, unenriched fuel, etc.), but there were also some differences (the Soviet model loaded from the top, not the side; the Soviet model also ran at higher power). There was apparently some spying at Hanford. The US also published a fair amount of information on the Hanford pile in the Smyth Report — not a blueprint for a reactor by any means, but a decent outline for anyone starting a reactor development program.

      The actual Soviet timeline of getting a production reactor online does not seem to be that much more accelerated than the Manhattan Project’s. The US prototype reactor, CP-1, went critical in December 1942. The first US production-sized reactor, B Reactor, went critical in September 1944 — so around 22 months between the two events. The first Soviet prototype reactor, F-1, went critical in December 1946. The first Soviet production-sized reactor, Reactor A, went online in June 1948 — so around 19 months. If espionage saved them three months… that’s not a whole lot. (This is obviously a rough way to gauge these things, of course.)

  8. Joe Van Cleave says:

    Though the subject of Manhattan-era espionage is fascinating, I most enjoyed your descriptions of Le Carre’s fiction, of which I’ve been a fan for years.

    My grandparents were running a boarding house in Albuquerque during the war, and Harry Gold had stayed there, as the family story goes. The FBI came by their house inquiring of him, just before his arrest.