Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

KLAUS FUCHS: ATOM BOMB SPY

In America

In December of 1943, Norfolk, Virginia, was teeming with wartime activity. Ships were in various stages of construction, sailors and ship builders were everywhere. It was a vibrant, busy place. Klaus and his four colleagues landed there, after an uneventful crossing that was considerably different than the desperate trip of four years before, when he had been packed on the small merchant ship that had brought him to Canada and his nine months of virtual imprisonment. This time he came as a respected British citizen, on his way to further the war effort.

Harry Gold (CORBIS)
Harry Gold (CORBIS)

After some preliminary check-in, the British scientific delegation took a train to Washington, D.C., where loyalty oaths were signed and Klaus's reliability was attested to by Perrin. Then they boarded another train, this time to New York City, where the British were to assist in the research going on at Columbia University. Once established in a small residential hotel, there was an opportunity to visit his sister Kristel, married and living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But first, there was a meeting to be held, a meeting with a man named Harry Gold, who was known to Klaus only as Raymond.

Before leaving England, Klaus had been instructed on how to meet his new American control. For several months prior to leaving England, he had been delivering new information to his Soviet control, Ursula, material that was more than just his own work. He was delving deeper and deeper into espionage. In true clandestine fashion, Klaus was to meet a man in New York City, at a prearranged spot, carrying a book with a yellow cover. His contact would be carrying a package, wrapped with brown paper and tied with string. They would spot one another, take different subway trains to a second prearranged location, and establish contact. And so it was.

With the arrival of the New Year 1944, Klaus Fuchs' career as a spy on American soil had begun.

* * *

The information passed to Harry Gold became more specific. Gold would be instructed to ask Klaus for specific information, questions that had come from the Russian scientists, to the KGB, to the controller, Yakovlev, and then to Gold. In addition to answering the questions posed to him, Klaus was able to provide details about the processing of nuclear material, then being carried out at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, particularly about the process of gaseous diffusion. The separation of Uranium 238 into Uranium 235, and subsequently to Plutonium, was being achieved much more efficiently than the Russians could have imagined. This material became the ultimate substance of the atomic bomb. At the time, Russia had a great deal of Uranium 238, but not much of an idea on how to obtain large quantities of this concentrated fissionable material. Atom bombs could not be as large as garages.

Gold and Klaus had an uneasy relationship. The quiet, introspective Fuchs found that the nervous, furtive Gold made him uncomfortable. He seemed to know something of science, particularly chemistry, but was inept when it came to principles of physics. He was not someone with whom Klaus could discuss the essence of the science of atomic physics. This near ignorance amused and, at the same time, irritated Klaus. It was like discussing physics with someone who had had only the introductory college course, and then had not done very well with it.

Still, Gold tried to develop a sort of friendship with Fuchs, but Klaus was not interested in having dinner, or a couple of social drinks, with his courier. Reluctantly, on two occasions, the odd pair met for dinner. Klaus filled the air of the bar with cigarette smoke, while Gold kept his coat and hat on, squinting across the table at his prize spy through the smoke, attempting to make small talk with this strange man with the English-German accent who would reply to questions with single words, often monosyllables. It was like trying to draw responses from a stone, Gold thought. The courier learned little about his spy, although Fuchs was able to learn that Gold was from Philadelphia, and knew enough chemistry to perhaps have worked in industrial chemistry.

In August 1944, Gold suddenly found himself in a dilemma. Fuchs had failed to keep a planned rendezvous and, even more upsetting for the easily perplexed Harry Gold, Fuchs failed to meet him at an agreed-upon back-up location. Now, Gold was faced with the unpleasant task of reporting to his superior (A.A. Yakovlev) that Fuchs had disappeared. Yakovlev instructed Gold to visit Fuchs's sister in Cambridge.

Kristel was suspicious of the strange little man who was at her door. He claimed to be a friend of her brother, but he didn't seem like the type of person Klaus would have as a friend. He was too common? Insignificant? Colorless? She wasn't sure. Still, he seemed to know something of Klaus's career as a scientist, so, against her better judgment, she told him that Klaus had been transferred "somewhere in the Southwest," and that he would be returning to visit for the Christmas holidays. Gold asked Kristel to tell Klaus to get in touch with him.

They met in January, in Cambridge, with Klaus standing awkwardly on Kristel's front steps. They agreed to meet again, on a date in June, on a bridge in Santa Fe.

Harry Gold reported his success in reestablishing contact with their most important spy to Yakovlev.

David Greenglass (CORBIS)
David Greenglass
(CORBIS)

"Good. Now, when you meet with Fuchs, I want you to meet with another of our operatives," Yakolev told him, according to Gold's confession. "His name is David Greenglass, and he also works at Los Alamos. He may have something of importance for us."

Gold claimed later in his confession that he objected. It was against the principles of espionage to combine assignments. "This is important," Yakovlev told him. "Give him this half of a Jell-O box. It will fit the other half that he has. He will then know you come from us. Pick up his materials, and bring both of them back whatever you get from Fuchs and whatever Greenglass gives you. Do it as soon as you can. We need this information. Understood?"

There was no choice but to accept the assignment. Gold was a courier. That was what couriers did. They picked up information as instructed, asking no questions. The problem was that Gold had never been west of Chicago, and the thought of navigating two meetings in the God-forsaken Southwest was worrisome. When he arrived in Santa Fe, he bought a map. It was a city map of Santa Fe.

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