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Book Review: Accidental Spy

Temptation and redemption in the atomic age.

Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By RONALD RADOSH
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The Invisible Harry Gold

Book Review: Accidental Spy

Harry Gold in custody, 1950

bettmann / corbis

The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb
by Allen M. Hornblum
Yale, 464 pp., $32.50

You would think that, at this late date, there would be very little left to explore about the  espionage case of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. But Allen Hornblum has proved this wrong: In his riveting page-turner, he sets his sights on a key, neglected figure in the case, a Philadelphia industrial chemist named Harry Gold who, as courier for the German-born British spy Klaus Fuchs, enabled the Soviets to build an atomic bomb. Hornblum finally brings Gold out of the shadows and answers a question that has remained a mystery: What motivated this man who was not a Communist to engage in espionage for almost two decades? He paints a sympathetic portrait of Gold, who, through a set of circumstances, set out on a path that would lead him to betray his country.

The rather nerdy Gold was 39 years old when the FBI came to him in 1950, suspecting that he was Fuchs’s courier. He confessed immediately and told the bureau in detail how he got the material to his Soviet handlers. Not only had he spent years passing nuclear secrets from Fuchs, but he told the agents that he had also been to Albuquerque in 1945 to retrieve other material from a man who worked in the machine shop at Los Alamos, whose name he did not remember, but who was a young sergeant. The soldier turned out to be David Greenglass, the brother of Ethel and brother-in-law of Julius Rosenberg, who had put together a network of Soviet agents composed of relatives and friends he had met while studying engineering at CCNY.

Greenglass, too, would confess, and his testimony against his sister and brother-in-law, combined with Gold’s testimony, led to the conviction for “conspiracy to commit espionage” of the Rosenbergs. While the Rosenbergs were executed, Greenglass was sentenced to 15 years but served 10; codefendant Morton Sobell was also released before his sentence of 30 years was up. But Gold, condemned by the Rosenbergs’ defenders as a liar and traitor, received a longer sentence than the government asked for, despite his cooperation, and was paroled only after serving 15 years. 

Gold, as Hornblum writes, told the truth—often not the most popular thing to do. The left labeled him a “delusional psychotic” and fabulist who had made up a nonexistent life in espionage and did the government’s bidding to condemn an innocent progressive couple. But the fact is, as Hornblum writes, that “it was Gold who told the truth about his career as a spy, and Julius Rosenberg who lied.” Unlike the Rosenbergs and Sobell, Gold was not a Communist. His weakness, however, was easily exploited by those who saw him as the perfect prey. Gold was selfless and always willing to help those in need. Even in the depths of the Depression, when his father lost work and the family was on the verge of starvation, Gold lent some of his meager earnings to friends who had less than he. Always willing to help a friend, he soon fell under the spell of Tom Black, a Communist who took him to party meetings, which Gold found boring, but more important, helped him get a job.

Gold apparently bought what many of the broad left-wing community believed at the time: that the Soviet Union was the only entity standing, in the 1930s, against the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Germany. As Gold himself wrote years later, he believed the propaganda that “the Soviet Union had become the first nation to make ‘anti-Semitism a crime against the state.’ ”

“It seemed all the more necessary,” he explained, “to work with the utmost vigor, to fight any discouragement, and to do everything possible to strengthen the Soviet Union, for there such [anti-Semitic] incidents could not occur. To fight anti-Semitism here seemed so hopeless.” When Black and others urged him to help the Soviets obtain industrial solvents they needed to strengthen their economy, Gold agreed to spy against his own employer, the Pennsylvania Sugar Company, although its boss was Gold’s mentor and had helped him advance in the firm. Gold would quickly learn that, once the Soviet espionage apparatus had its hands on you, they meant it to be for keeps. His handlers threatened him with exposure to both his employers and his relatives, and made veiled threats about what would happen to him if he stopped working for them. He often wanted to stop—especially when, after months of inactivity which he hoped was permanent, the NKVD would suddenly give him new orders. 

Gold would have to work a full day, then depart from Philadelphia to points like Cambridge or New York, wait all night to receive instructions from his handler or make a contact, and then return to work the next morning. The antithesis of a James Bond, no one would suspect that the “dumpy fellow with the odd gait and glum expression was a Soviet spy trading in industrial and military secrets.” He might look odd standing all night on a dark street corner, apparently waiting for someone to appear, but even a skilled counterintelligence agent would not think, if they happened to pass him, that this man was a danger to national security.

Once apprehended, Gold worked hard to give the FBI whatever information he had that could lead to closing down Soviet networks that might still exist. He could have used legal mechanisms to mount a reasonable defense, but Hornblum points out that

he could not fathom becoming some sort of cause célèbre, declaring his innocence, and mounting a public campaign while knowing all along that he was guilty of the crime. He couldn’t imagine dragging family and friends into such a quagmire. “They would all rally around me,” he would one day explain, “and how horrible would be their disappointment and let down when finally it was shown who I really was.” 

Gold even broke up with the woman he described as the love of his life, rather than marry her and risk his secret life being exposed, implicating her.

A different course was taken by the Rosenbergs, who lied to their own sons and handed them the burden of working for the rest of their lives to prove their parents’ innocence. Gold did not want to lie and cause such disillusionment among those he cared for. And of course, since he was not a Communist party member, he did not face having to betray ideological comrades once he decided to cooperate. So it was easy for him to be relieved of the years of dissembling, and to tell the agents, “There is a great deal more to this story. .  .  . I would like to tell it all.” Unlike the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell, Gold did not seek out a Movement lawyer. Instead, he got pro bono aid from one of Philadelphia’s most prestigious law firms, and from one of its partners, John D.M. Hamilton, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and counsel to the Pew family.
Hamilton’s associate defending Gold was Augustus Ballard, a descendant of one of the city’s most prominent legal families. Against advice from those who thought defending Gold would taint them, Hamilton and Ballard worked tirelessly through many years to clear Gold’s name, to emphasize how he had made amends for his treachery, and to point to the many levels at which he was cooperating with the United States in hunting down other Soviet agents.

Hamilton and Ballard took Gold’s case because they believed the system guaranteed every defendant the right to a solid defense. They immediately told Gold that the government’s case against him was weak—it had only Gold’s confession—and the FBI had held him in a hotel room for days, during which they interrogated him constantly. This was done without Gold having legal counsel or advice; it would have been easy to have the case thrown out. Moreover, Klaus Fuchs was imprisoned in Britain and had given no corroboration that Gold had been his courier for the NKVD. Yet Gold refused to seek a way out, preferring to own up to what he had done and pay whatever penalty the court prescribed. He sought no mercy, nor did he seek to appeal to public opinion. As Ballard told Hornblum, “Gold was so full of mea culpa. He wanted to come clean. There was no changing his mind. He was such a decent guy. He was ashamed of having betrayed his country.”

Without romanticizing Harry Gold, or excusing his actions, Allen Hornblum has succeeded in writing a critical study of a man for whom one cannot help but feel sympathy. Gold never meant to harm his own country; ensnared by a so-called friend, and maintaining a gullible belief that the Soviets were fighting anti-Semitism, he was led down the dark path of espionage. Unlike the unrepentant atomic spy Theodore Hall, who admitted his espionage and was proud of what he did, Gold did his best to make up for the lost years in which he betrayed the country he loved. For acknowledging that he was wrong he has been forever anathema to the left; but the truth is that, ultimately, he did the right thing and, compared with the rest of the atom spy crew, may be described as a hero.

Ronald Radosh, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is coauthor of The Rosenberg File and blogs on PajamasMedia.com.

    

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