The Atomic Spies, Part One


The Trinity test of the Manhattan Project was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, which led J. Robert Oppenheimer to recall verses from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one “… “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

Some previous articles detailed how the USSR infiltrated the USA and UK using spies and agents of influence. When they got wind of the atomic bomb project, the Soviets put in a lot of effort to uncover the secrets. There are estimates that the stolen information saved the Russians five years of development work. They would have produced a bomb eventually but not in 1949. There are rumours that if the Russians hadn’t got their own bomb then they would not have risked starting the Korean War.

It’s fairly common knowledge now that the Allies ended up working together on the atomic bomb in something they called the Manhattan Project. Reputedly because Bernard Baruch , one of the top organisers of the project , lived in Manhattan. The culmination was the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki , the beginning was the result of various work by various people in various places.

In the UK the work was merged into one unit called Tube Alloys. The USA’s effort was much larger. There are reports that the USA spent nearly $2 billion on its development. That’s about $28 billion in 2019 dollars, and this in the middle of a war that was costing significantly more.

The first Moscow heard of this was when John Cairncross delivered them a report on September 25th 1941. At the time he was in the Cabinet Office as private secretary to Lord Hankey, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and he had seen the minutes of a meeting of the British Uranium Committee. This meeting discussed the atomic bomb and concluded it could be developed in two years, being the government they misunderestimated and it took four years. In contrast Harry Truman did not hear about the bomb until April 1945, shortly after being sworn in as president.

Truman told Stalin on July 25th 1945 at Potsdam that he had a new weapon of unusual force, Stalin showed no emotion, he already knew. He even knew about the first test of the weapon on July 16, this had been betrayed by Klaus Fuchs and the youngest of the atomic spies, Theodore Hall. His only comment was that he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make good use of it against Japan. You will see later the he didn’t declare war on the Japanese until two weeks before the end of the war but still collected the spoils.

In March 1942 Beria decided he wanted to set up a committee to investigate this atomic bomb and Stalin agreed. Obviously the Allies wanted to keep this as secret as possible, mostly to stop the Germans and Japanese finding out, the USSR was an ally after the Germans invaded them though it was never invited to join the project. The work was done in the USA, Canada and the UK. Pavel Sudoplatov, a name to remember, was later promoted to head intelligence work on the project. Pavel’s claim to fame was he was an expert in assassinations and was in charge of the successful elimination of Trotsky.

Work on the bomb was undertaken in England, Canada and the USA. All three countries were targeted by Suduplatov’s team. FDR and Truman never seemed to consider that the Soviets were spying on them, Canada was totally unaware and in England the Soviets were allowed to run loose, Churchill was much more concerned with defeating the Nazis. On the night of the 5th September 1945, Igor Gouzenko defected in Canada and once made aware of the scale of Soviet operations alarm bells started ringing in all three countries.

The documents supplied by Gouzenko also identified at least 6 other Soviet agents including Dr Allan Nunn May who by the time he was picked out was back in London where he was arrested. May had supplied actual Uranium samples to the Russians. The good Doctor got 10 years in jail but never showed remorse for his crimes, failed to tell the police how long he had been a Soviet agent for and claimed he had the right to share these secrets because it helped our ally. Typical disingenuous lefty. Canada was a important location in the atomic race. Not only were several universities involved in research, a nuclear reactor was built at Chalk River. Work started in 1944 and by 1945 it had gone operational.

In 1946 the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (aka the McMahon Act) prohibited the US cooperating with its allies in developing nuclear weapons. Fortunately the UK still had access to Chalk River and some American scientists were more than helpful to their counterparts in Canada. I also like to think that the US was shocked by the atomic spies from the UK being involved, they weren’t all known at this time but suspicions must have been raised. Their solution was to ban us from further cooperation. It’s a bit strange because there were far more Americans involved in this spying than others. This level of spying followed by the USSR detonating its own atomic bomb in 1949 helped fire the Cold War to increased levels of paranoia.

As was usually the case, the Soviets trawled the Communist Party for its recruits and, as usual, they were successful. Having identified likely candidates and them getting the seal of approval from the Comintern, it was full steam ahead to either exploit their positions of manoeuvre them into a useful position.

Next time, more about the American side of things.

© well_chuffed 2019

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