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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

July 15, 2015: Trinity Sites and Texts: Scientific Spies

[On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was tested at Trinity Site, New Mexico, an explosion with numerous aftereffects and meanings. This week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such Trinity connections, leading up to a special weekend post on a foreign film that’s also profoundly American.]
On two of the many Soviet spies associated with Los Alamos, and a broader context for such espionage.
As I wrote in this post on Cold War Communist spies, both the very nature of espionage and the understandably secretive way in which our government has responded to and documented such activities means that our historical knowledge of such spies remains and perhaps will always be partial and uncertain. Yet as I wrote there, the documents and information to which we now have access do seem to implicate Joseph Rosenberg quite clearly as a Soviet spy who sold atomic secrets; and while (as I understand it) the role of his wife Ethel remains far less certain, it’s also clear that one of Joseph’s main sources for those secrets was Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, a former Army machinist who went to work for Los Alamos in 1944 as a member of the Special Engineering Detachment. Working in tandem with his own wife Ruth, David sent information on the Manhattan Project back to Julius in New York; when he was discovered and arrested in 1950, David confessed to these and many other activities (a confession that as that link indicates became a key part of the Rosenberg trial), admitting, “I was young, stupid, and immature, but I was a good Communist.”
Greenglass was apprehended due to testimony by another Soviet spy, Klaus Fuchs, a British physicist who had worked with the Soviets since 1941 and was assigned to the Theoretical (design) Division during his time at Los Alamos. Fuchs and Greenglass, like Julius Rosenberg, were identified and prosecuted as spies during their lifetimes; but many other Soviet spies were not, and have only been revealed decades later thanks to document declassifications and releases. One complicated example of that history is Theodore Hall, a physics prodigy who was only 19 when he went to work at Los Alamos in 1944 and who apparently passed along at least some classified information to Soviet contacts during his time on the project. His espionage is only “apparently” confirmed for multiple reasons: when he was apprehended by the FBI in the early 1950s he refused to confess, and the agency felt it was more important to keep their ongoing investigations secret than expose their knowledge by bringing Hall to trial; and even when the information became public record in the 1990s, Hall would only discuss his activities obliquely, noting, “To help prevent [a US atomic] monopoly I contemplated a brief encounter with a Soviet agent, just to inform them of the existence of the A-bomb project. I anticipated a very limited contact. With any luck it might easily have turned out that way, but it was not to be.”
Each of these individuals and cases is complex, and it’d be a mistake either to reduce them to one overarching narrative or to assume I can do justice to them in this post. Moreover, I don’t want to pretend that such atomic espionage wasn’t criminal and even traitorous; whatever one’s feelings about the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb, these figures were not at liberty to share their classified efforts and knowledge with anyone else, much less the Soviet Union. Yet at the same time, I would argue that the number of scientists who seemingly took part in such activities highlights a fundamental contradiction of the Manhattan Project: that it required, indeed depended on, the efforts of some of the world’s brightest scientific minds; but that for many such scientists, working to produce a hugely destructive new weapon was at best a fraught and troubling goal. No single text better illustrates that contradiction than Albert Einstein’s famous statement on his “participation in the atom bomb project”; and I think it’s fair to say that Einstein spoke for many if not most of his fellow scientists. That might not excuse the many cases of espionage, but it certainly helps explain them.
Next Trinity connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?


  1. I remember that Richard Feynman mentions Fuchs in his memoir--not in depth, but I think Fuchs drove him to the hospital to see his wife, who was dying of tuberculosis. As you say, there are always layers.

  2. Wow, that's an amazing link, thanks Heidi!