By Frank Close
Published by Allen Lane
‘Trinity’ was the name of the test explosion of the atomic bomb in New Mexico on 16 July 1945. Bitter fruit of the wartime Manhattan Project based at Los Alamos, the explosion inaugurated the nuclear age.
The Allies had won the race with Nazi Germany to build a serviceable nuclear device, but by then the war in Europe was over.
The war in the Pacific was almost over too, but not quite, so it was here that the new weapon was tested on real people, with the bombing of the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August).
In a sense, the Cold War had already begun. One reason the bombs had been used was that the United States wanted to assert its emerging position as global hegemon in the post-war world. Few at the time guessed that the Soviet Union would catch up in the technology of destruction within four years.
That they did so was thanks in no small part to Klaus Fuchs, who has been described as both ‘the spy of the century’ and ‘the most dangerous spy in history’.
Fuchs, a brilliant academic physicist and refugee from Nazi Germany, had been recruited to work on the top-secret British bomb project as early as 1941, subsequently transferring to Los Alamos in 1944 as one of 20 or so British-based scientists seconded to the Manhattan Project. He later returned to Britain and continued working on the British bomb at Harwell in Oxfordshire.
Fuchs had begun ‘sharing’ atomic secrets with the Russians during the war, and he continued doing so afterwards, up until 1949, when he perhaps considered the job done, since this, of course, was the year in which the Soviets acquired their own weapon.
By then, the Americans were already working on the second generation of nuclear weapons, detonating their first hydrogen bomb in 1952. This time, the Soviets caught up even faster, testing their own equivalent device the following year. Information supplied earlier by Fuchs seems, again, to have been critical.
The man himself, though, was already in prison. MI5 had suspected he was spy for two years, but it was the code-breakers of GCHQ who finally provided the proof. Fuchs finally cracked under interrogation in January 1950 and was promptly tried and convicted at the Old Bailey, receiving a 14-year jail sentence. Following his release, he emigrated to East Germany and was granted East German citizenship.
No one could be better qualified to write a biography of Fuchs than Frank Close. Not only is he a leading nuclear physicist superbly well qualified to understand the technical intricacies of Fuchs’ contribution to the Soviet project; he is also that rare bird, a scientist with a knack for clear, crisp, accessible prose, a quality reflected in past awards for ‘excellence in science communication’.
What Close also brings to this – surely definitive? – study of Klaus Fuchs is a ready willingness to set aside Cold War polemic and to understand his subject by his own lights.
In this regard, the title is somewhat misleading. (Was it imposed by the publisher?) For ‘treachery’ is hardly the right word to apply to a man like Fuchs. He belongs to the generation of interwar anti-fascists that also produced the Cambridge spies. Indeed, in Fuchs’ case, he had been an active German Communist who had been beaten up and almost killed by Brownshirts in 1932 and had then had to flee Germany to escape the Gestapo following the Reichstag Fire of February 1933.
Like so many young European academics at the time, he was radicalised by the misery of the depression and the threat of fascism, and he saw Stalin’s Russia (however mistakenly) as a model for an alternative socialist future.
The Soviet Union did the bulk of the land fighting in Europe and lost around 25 million people in the Second World War. To men like Fuchs, it seemed only right that war-winning technologies should be shared. After the war, a US/Western monopoly on nuclear weapons seemed both pernicious and dangerous. Fuchs, true to his politics, sought to even things up.
It is to Close’s credit that he has managed to produce a detailed biography that is not only a compelling mix of science and espionage, but also does justice to an academic who was clearly a man of principle and conscience – especially evident in the fact that he was deeply troubled by the thought that he had betrayed the trust of colleagues in the service of his cause.
Two other things are of particular interest: Close’s answer to the complex technical question of just how important Fuchs’ leaked intelligence was to the Soviet bomb project; and his careful dissection of the serial security lapses of both MI5 and the FBI – they ended up blaming each other – that gave a German Communist activist unlimited access to top-level military secrets for the best part of a decade.
Now and again there may be a little too much extraneous detail, but overall this is a cracking good read for anyone interested in the espionage, the nuclear arms race, and the origins of the Cold War.
Review by Neil Faulkner
This review was published in the October 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.