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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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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


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