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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. 

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