Chill blast

Did American scientists help Russia acquire its atomic bomb? A new book triggers off a major post-Cold War controversy

By Rita Anand
Published: Saturday 15 April 1995

Chill blast

Los Alamos, New Mexico: JULY 16, 1945. With a deafening roar, a part of the New Mexico desert blew up into an umbrella, with the brightness of a thousand suns: America had exploded its first atomic bomb. Only 4 years later, rival Russia echoed that blast in Semiplatinsk.

And 40 years after the dust had settled down...40 years after 2 Japanese cities had been reduced to nothingness, and now almost a decade into the end of the Cold War, a fresh storm has blown up over the "revelations" by a former Russian espionage boss: that American scientists had helped Russia make its own bomb.

Special Tasks: Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness, by Pavel Anatoliviech Sudoplatov, narrates how the scientists designing the American bomb -- Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard -- had squirreled out information to the Soviets. Physicist Niels Bohr, he says, had assisted the Reds in making their first nuclear reactor.

The Soviet bomb was constructed within 3 years of the New Mexico explosion, thanks only to the intelligence supplied by the Soviet spy network, Sudoplatov emphasises. He eulogises Igor Kurchatov, who fathered the Soviet bomb, as a "genius -- the Russian Oppenheimer", but says that "his efforts would have been for naught without Lavrenti Beria's talent in mobilising resources".

Sudoplatov had worked for 30 long years at the heart of the secret security system in the Stalin era, under the fabled Lavreti Beria, chief of the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs). As the director, Administration for Special Tasks, Sudoplatov ran spy networks in Europe and North America, and plotted the killing of Leon Trotsky.

Sudoplatov explains that the paranoia generated by the Nazi aggression had convinced the American scientists that Hitler would get the bomb before them. The pro-peace, no-war politics of the scientists had also led them to chase the mirrage of a global balance of power.

Talking to the Soviet scientist and undercover operator, Yakob Terlensky, Niels Bohr had said on November 14, 1945: "Only the internationalisation of scientific achievements can lead to the elimination of war. Scientists who have worked on the atomic project are indignant with the great discoveries becoming the property of a group of politicians."

Soviet scientists Igor Kurchatov and Pyotr Kapitsa had suggested that Russia should approach Britain and America to share their atomic research findings with her. But Stalin had been dismissive: "You are politically naive if you think they would share information with you about weapons which will dominate the world in the future." It was in October 1941, when the Germans were knocking at Moscow's gate, that Stalin greatly intensified Russian espionage activities in the USA.

Gregory Kheifitz, the NKVD resident in San Francisco, reported that the Americans were on the threshold of building an atomic bomb. Kheifitz's information came from Robert Oppenheimer, whom he had met and befriended at a party hosted for raising money for the Spanish civil war refugees.

Oppenheimer had expressed a deep concern that the Nazis might build the atom bomb. Albert Einstein, he revealed, had urged President Roosevelt to explore the possibility of using nuclear energy as a weapon of war. Oppenheimer was upset that Roosevelt had not yet replied to this letter.

Kheifitz, a professional spy, knew that sources like Oppenheimer, Szilard or Fermi could not be bribed, or forced to work as agents. He encashed Oppenheimer's idealism and the anti-Nazi sentiments they all shared.

Semyon Semyonov, another agent was sent to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and told to "integrate himself into the American life". He reported that the atomic project was being taken seriously by the US government and identified many of the scientists working on the project.

When Oppenheimer, then only 38, was appointed as the head of the Manhattan Project to build the bomb, the Soviets also opted for the young Igor Kurchatov to head their mission.

At the end of January 1943 the Soviets received a full report, describing Fermi's first nuclear chain reaction conducted in Chicago on December 2, 1942. And when the British bombed a heavy water installation at Vemork, Stalin was convinced that the bomb could become a reality.

On February 11, 1943, Stalin signed a decree organising a special committee to develop atomic weapons. Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Beria were placed in charge. Beria deputed Sudoplatov to produce scientific material for the physicists Kurchatov, Ioffe and Isaac Kikoin. Kurchatov requested for information on the physics of the fission process. This would mean the tapping of eminent American scientists as intelligence sources.

In February 1944, Beria appointed Sudoplatov as the director of Department "S". His mission would be to organise a spy network in America which would collect atomic secrets for the Soviet scientists.

Since the atomic project was a heavily guarded American priority, Sudoplatov instructed Vassili Zarubin and Kheifitz to divorce all intelligence operations from those linked with the American Communist Party, which would be closely watched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Instead, new networks were to be used.

Soviet agents were to target Los Alamos and the research laboratories servicing it, especially the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the nuclear reactor was being constructed. The Soviets also attempted to infiltrate into the companies handling the actual manufacturing work for the government.

Vassili Zarubin, his attractive wife Elisabeth, and Kheifitz charmed the Oppenheimers. They persuaded him to share information with "anti-fascists of German origin". Oppenheimer, a Hungarian German Jew, agreed, provided he received proof of their opposition to Nazism.

It was Oppenheimer who engineered the inclusion of Klaus Fuchs into the Los Alamos team. Fuchs, a German Communist and physicists, identified himself to Oppenheimer as the only one on a British team to have escaped from a German prison camp, and won his trust. Fuchs, though, had never seen the insides of a German camp, let alone escape from one.

Together with Fermi and Szilard, Oppenheimer helped the Soviets place Russian moles as laboratory assistants in Tennessee and Chicago. Documents were transferred from the laboratories here to New York, and then channeled to a drugstore at Santa Fe in New Mexico.

The long chain of informers included George Gamow, a Russian-born physicist who had defected to the US in 1933. Gamow provided names of left wing scientists who might be recruited. The Rosenburg's, who were executed in 1950 in America for conspiring to commit espionage, were at the tail-end of this spy network. "They were a naive couple, overeager to cooperate" writes Sudoplatov.

Red countdown
Information on the progress of the Manhattan Project was provided by Oppenheimer and his friends orally, through comments and asides, and from the documents. In all, there were 5 classified reports by Oppenheimer describing the progress of the work on the bomb.

On April 6, Kurchatov received from Sudoplatov the detailed methodology of activating an atom bomb, and on the electromagnetic method of the disintegration of uranium isotopes. "The material was so important that he assessed it the next day and presented the report to Stalin," writes Sudoplatov.

Twelve days before the first American atom bomb was assembled, the Soviets received a detailed description from their sources. And on July 4, 1945 two agents simultaneously reported the imminent explosion of a nuclear device.

Fuchs and Pontecorvo presented the Soviets with a 33-page design of the bomb. Oppenheimer procured the deleted portions of the Smyth report, declassified data on the creation of the atomic bomb published by the US government, plus photos of the facilities at Los Alamos.

Detailed reports contained design specifications for the operation of the nuclear reactors and for the production of uranium and plutonium.

Fuchs' contribution was substantial: from the principle of the lens-mold system to a discussion on the principles of implosion developed at Los Alamos. Soviet spies also received from Fuchs the plans for a plant to refine and separate uranium isotopes.

"A pivotal moment in the Soviet nuclear program occurred in April or May 1946," writes Sudoplatov. "The first Soviet nuclear reactor had been built, but all attempts to put it into operation ended in failure, and there had been an accident with plutonium."

Sudaplatov says that after this failure, Bohr was contacted by two Russian agents, and, though a bit jittery, agreed to help. Going by his version, this gave the Soviet programme the final push towards success, and in 1949 they exploded their first atomic bomb.

But the trouble starts here: did the Soviets direly need so much of active help from the US scientists? In June 1994, Beria's top secret memo to Stalin on the interrogation of Niels Bohr, and an evaluation by Igor Kurchatov of the material sent by Terlensky were located at the State Archive of the Russian Federation, shedding much light on the matter.

The "KGB officers were only conveyor belts of information between their foriegn sources and the Soviet scientists," states Vladislav Zubok, a senior scholar at the National Security Archives in Washington, DC. The spies knew nothing about scientific research and the scientists were innocent of the espionage methods.

Yuli Khariton, the scientific director of Arzamas 16, the ultra-secret Soviet nuclear laboratory, points out that inspite of a good haul of atomic secrets the Soviets still required an enormous amount of work before these could be put to use. According to David Holloway, author of the book Stalin and the Bomb, and a professor of political science and co-director of the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University, even without espionage the Soviet bomb would have been delayed by 2 years only.

Sudoplatov seems to have got some of his dates mixed up. Says Yuri N Smirnov, a senior researcher at the Rusian scientific centre, Kruchatov Institute, and a veteran of the Soviet nuclear weapons programme, "His statement that the Soviets could not start their nuclear reactor, and therefore approached Bohr, is false. The reactor itself was started without any complications on 25th December 1946."

Smirnov believes that Bohr crossed the limits laid down by the Smyth Report just once, when he said that every split uranium atom emits more than 2 neutrons. In the Smyth Report, a less definite formula is used: "somewhere between 1 and 3 neutrons".

"But Bohr did not reveal any secret, because before the war, physicists such as Ralph Lapp in New Power had revealed that 2.3 neutrons are emitted in the course of the disintegration of the uranium atom".

According to the statements of Aage, Niels Bohr's son, Bohr had always been against the idea of a secret meeting. Then, again, Bohr's answers to Terlensky could not have been reported precisely. The translator did not understand the esoteric subject, and Terlensky did not know English.

The relationship between a totalitarian state hellbent on appropriating scientific research at gun point, and the free thinking scientists, was based on suspicion and fear. Pyotr Kapitsa complained to Stalin that Beria conducted himself like a superman. The bamdmaster must not only weild the baton, he said, but also understand the score, he said. "Comrade Beria lacks there."

"Stalin had reliable espionage material from abroad, and at home, utterly loyal physicists who had done breakthrough work even before the war -- and he did not trust either," states Holloway. Neither he nor Beria knew anything about science. Likewise Beria was suspicious of his own agents. "If this is disinformation," he threatened, "I'll put you all in the cellar."

Holloway, who was able to spend some time with Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet hyrogen bomb, and with physicist Yuli Khariton, says, "Scientists somehow managed to preserve some degree of intellectual freedom and autonomy, even while locked behind barbed wires in secret cities."

Their sources of motivation varied from a chance to address a challenging task in physics, to proving the value of Soviet science, or simply, to create the atomic weapons absolutely necessary for their country's defense.

Even before the atomic bomb of 1949, Sakharov and his colleagues were busy working on the next megaweapon: the H-bomb. Once again, they worked with enthusiasm, because, as Sakharov wrote, "We beleived that our work was absolutely necessary as a means of achieving a balance in the world."

In 1953, they carried out the test Joe-4 of a modified hydrogen weapon, based on Sakharov's layer-cake design; and in 1955 they tested an H-bomb based on the concept of radiation implosion -- without any espionage help, whatsoever.

The fact remains that Shakharov and his colleagues, including Yuli Khariton, had built up the railway-wagon nuclear laboratory where all the reasearch required was conducted, without the help of the cloak-and-dagger Berias and Sudoplatovs, or the unsuspecting American scientists revealing esoteric formulae entirely for reasons of idealism.

These experiments had resulted, finally, in the USSR exploding the massive, 50 MT nuclear bomb in October 30, 1961. The bomb, which was exploded 4,000 meters above the Novaya Zemlya island in the Soviet-controlled area of the Arctic Circle, was more powerful than all the explosives -- including the 2 atom bombs -- used in World War II put together. This, needeless to say, was part of the intimidatory tactics mutually indulged in by the two Super Powers during the Cold War days.

And now, officials and veterans of the Soviet intelligence services have rejected Sudoplatov's perceptions about atomic intelligence. On May 4, 1994, the foreign intelligence service of Russia admitted that Soviet espionage had collected a lot of information from America, but all that had "played only a subsidiary role in the development of the atomic bomb".

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