In the early days of the Cold War, during the years after World War II, spies became a key weapon for the USSR and USA. But perhaps the most important spies were those American-born Soviet spies who provided secrets about America’s nuclear weapons program, the Manhattan Project, to the Soviet Union. Scott Rose tells us about Cold War nuclear weapons spying in the USA.
In summer this year, an alleged Russian spy named Maria Butina was arrested in Washington, DC, where she currently awaits trial, charged with conspiring to act as an agent for a foreign government. However, Russian espionage in the United States is not a new phenomenon, actually beginning in earnest during the Soviet era, particularly during World War Two. During the war and the years immediately afterward, Russian spies in the U.S. gained unprecedented access to the American atomic research community.
Soviet spying took on all sorts of forms through the years, from homegrown Russian agents who took on American appearances to American citizens who betrayed their country and stole highly sensitive information, including the data needed to build the Soviet Union’s first atomic weapon.
The Race to Build the Bomb
The United States knew that Nazi Germany was actively trying to develop atomic power during World War Two. In 1942, the U.S., along with Great Britain and Canada, began what was called the Manhattan Project, with the purpose of building atomic weapons before the Germans could develop their own. The Soviets also started an atomic development program, though much smaller than the American project. The Soviet research team consisted of about 550 people; whereas the Manhattan Project at its peak employed over 130,000. With so much more money and manpower at work, the Americans were seemingly light years ahead of Soviet atomic research.
The Germans surrendered in April of 1945 without succeeding in building atomic weapons, and in July, the Manhattan Project tested its first atomic device at Los Alamos, New Mexico. On August 6th, the Japanese city of Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atomic bomb. Three days later, the second bomb destroyed Nagasaki, and the Japanese surrendered six days later.
The Soviets realized that the United States had become the world’s first superpower with its development of the atomic bomb. They also knew it would take many years to catch up with American atomic abilities, unless they gained access to the Manhattan Project’s research. Even before the war ended, the Soviets used espionage for the purpose of acquiring America’s atomic secrets.
The scientists that worked on the Manhattan Project included some of the top researchers and mathematicians from America, Britain, and Canada. The Soviets aimed to glean information from scientists with leftist leanings, and in time these efforts bore fruit. In the 1940s, a young American from Philadelphia named Harry Gold began working for the Soviet Union. His orders were to make contact with a Manhattan Project scientist named Klaus Fuchs, and to move atomic information from Fuchs to the Soviets. Born in Germany, Fuchs had emigrated to Britain, becoming a citizen there. By the time he reached his early 30s, Fuchs was respected as a brilliant physicist, and his work would contribute greatly to the American development of the atomic bomb. Fuchs gave critical information on the Manhattan Project’s research to Gold during the war, unbeknownst to the Americans. In 1946, he returned to Britain to work for the new British atomic program, and he continued to pass information to Soviet agents in Britain.
Another of Gold’s sources was David Greenglass, a U.S. Army machinist from New York who had worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. Greenglass had been recruited into espionage by his sister and brother-in-law, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were committed Communist Party members, and some of the information Greenglass collected was passed to them. They in turn passed the same information along to their Soviet handlers.
The Soviets had taken several German atomic scientists back to the U.S.S.R. after the war, and although the Germans had failed to produce an atomic bomb, these scientists were a huge boost to the Soviet atomic program. With the accelerated pace of Soviet research, and stolen atomic secrets from America, the Soviets were able to make up ground quickly. Still, America was shocked when the Soviets tested their first atomic device in August of 1949. Now the world had two superpowers instead of one.
The American military distrusted the Soviets, even during the war, when the two countries were allies, and the U.S. suspected the Soviets were in the business of using Americans to gather intelligence. In 1943, the Army launched the Venona Project, a program using complex mathematics to decode secret messages from the Soviets to their operatives in other nations. Venona was so secret that President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t even know about the program when it commenced.
The Dominos Fall
One month after the Soviet atomic test, Venona hit a home run when it identified Klaus Fuchs as a Soviet spy. This information was passed along to British intelligence, and Fuchs was questioned about his activities. Fuchs denied having ever been a spy, and was not held in custody. However, in January of 1950, Fuchs contacted the British authorities and confessed to having passed atomic information to the Soviets through Harry Gold. Immediately arrested and put on trial for espionage, Fuchs was convicted, sentenced to 14 years in prison, and stripped of his British citizenship. He served just over nine years before being released early for “good behavior.” Upon release, Fuchs left Britain for East Germany, where he got married and went to work for that country’s nuclear research program, before passing away in 1988 at the age of 76.
When Fuchs was arrested in 1950, his confession led to the arrest of Harry Gold in the United States. Gold was interrogated, and confessed to having been a Soviet spy since 1934; he admitted to passing Fuchs’ atomic information to the Soviet General Consul. During Gold’s confession, he spilled the beans about his other espionage contacts, David Greenglass and the Rosenbergs. At the beginning of the year when Fuchs was arrested, Julius Rosenberg had given Greenglass $5,000 in order for Greenglass to escape to Mexico with his wife and children. Instead, the Greenglasses had stayed put and used the money to hire a lawyer. In June of 1950, the FBI arrested David Greenglass, charging him with espionage.
Not long after Greenglass was arrested, he gave up his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, and at first, Greenglass denied his sister Ethel’s involvement in the spy ring. A couple of months later, Greenglass changed his story and implicated his sister as well, claiming Ethel had typed the notes he had passed from the Manhattan Project. Greenglass stated that Ethel had originally recruited him to become a spy, after being persuaded by her husband Julius. One of the Rosenbergs’ assistants, Morton Sobell, was arrested while on the run in Mexico City, and he was extradited to stand trial along with the Rosenbergs.
The trial began in early March and lasted 3 weeks. Greenglass testified that he had given Julius Rosenberg illustrations of atomic bomb research, and Harry Gold testified that he had worked as a courier for the Rosenbergs, who never admitted their guilt. The couple and Sobell were convicted; while Sobell got a 30 year sentence and was sent to Alcatraz, the Rosenbergs were sentenced to death. Judge Irving Kaufman, during sentencing, claimed the Rosenbergs crime was “worse than murder”. He blamed the Rosenbergs for giving the Soviet Union access to atomic weapons, which he argued had led to the communist aggression in Korea that cost thousands of American lives.
Many people around the world felt the sentence was overly harsh. There was a worldwide campaign for clemency, and many leading artists, writers, and scientists of the day joined the movement. Even Pope Pius XII asked President Eisenhower to reduce the Rosenbergs’ sentence, but the president refused. After two years of appealing their sentence, the Rosenbergs were executed on July 19th, 1953, meeting their fate via the electric chair at New York’s Sing Sing prison.
The other members of the spy ring were much luckier than the Rosenbergs. Sobell was released from prison in 1969 and wrote a book, spoke on the lecture circuit, and maintained his innocence for many years before finally admitting his guilt in 2008, claiming that by aiding the Soviets, he had simply “bet on the wrong horse.” Sobell is still alive and residing in New York at the age of 101. Harry Gold was sentenced to 30 years in prison, but didn’t serve even half of his sentence before being paroled. He died in 1972 and was buried in his hometown of Philadelphia. David Greenglass only served nine years in prison before returning to New York and changing his name. He gave an interview to the New York Timesin 1996, claiming he had exaggerated his sister Ethel’s involvement in the spy ring in order to protect his own wife from prosecution. During the rambling interview, Greenglass declared “My wife is more important to me than my sister. Or my mother or my father. OK?”
To Russia with Love
The Rosenbergs were not the only American couple to help the Soviets attain atomic secrets. Another New York couple, Morris and Lona Cohen, were united by their Marxist ideologies, and proved to be valuable agents for the U.S.S.R. Morris had served in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, and he was recruited into Soviet intelligence at that time. Lona was an eager partner in her husband’s espionage activities, and the couple established contact with several Manhattan Project scientists. When Klaus Fuchs was arrested in Britain, the Cohens didn’t wait for the trail to lead back to New York, leaving immediately for the Soviet Union. In 1954, the childless Cohens re-emerged in London as “Peter and Helen Kroger”, operating a small antique book shop. They were also operating a new espionage network for the Soviets. Seven years after their arrival in England, the Cohens were caught with a houseful of spying equipment and arrested. Put on trial and convicted, luck would intervene for the “Krogers” in 1969, when they were traded to the Soviet Union for British prisoner Gerald Brooke. Many Britons criticized the exchange, claiming the Soviet Union should have been forced to pay a higher price for the Cohens, as by this time it was known that they were two of the most dangerous spies on the planet. They would live out the remainder of their lives in Russia, where they died in the early 1990s.
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, old Soviet espionage files were opened that detailed the contributions made by spies to the Soviet atomic program. These files showed that while the Rosenbergs gave valuable information to the Soviets, the secrets gathered by the Cohens were most vital to Soviet development of the atomic bomb. Seemingly confirming the Cohens’ importance was the fact that during the last years of the Soviet Union’s existence, commemorative Soviet stamps were printed honoring both Morris and Lona Cohen. The honors bestowed on the couple in Russia seem an ironic twist, given the fact that these Americans did so much, in the name of idealism, to hurt their own country.
What do you think about Soviet spies in the USA during the Cold War? Let us know below.
Chester B. Hearn, Spies & Espionage: A Directory, Thunder Bay Press, 2006
Slava Katamidze, Loyal Comrades, Ruthless Killers: The Secret Services of the USSR 1917-1991, Barnes & Noble, 2003
Robert McFadden, “David Greenglass, the Brother who Doomed Ethel Rosenberg, Dies at 92”, The New York Times, October 14, 2014
Sam Roberts, “For First Time, Figure in Rosenberg Case Admits Spying for Soviets”, The New York Times, September 12, 2008
Allen Hornblum, The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb, Yale University Press, 2010
Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995
Robert Chadwell Williams, Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy, Harvard University Press, 1987