The Atomic Spy Ring was established by the Soviet Union during World War II and included some of the best known names in the world of espionage. It was named for its goal of acquiring plans and secrets related to development of the atomic bomb (as well as other uses of atomic energy).
In 1941, the Soviet NKVD had received information about atomic development from John Cairncross, a member of the Cambridge Five spy ring and a secretary to Lord Maurice Hankey, chairman of the British committee considering the use of atomic energy. Soviet intelligence began placing assets in place where they could learn more about the US and British atomic programs. Some of these spies worked in the Los Alamos laboratories and in the British government. To support these assets, the Soviets decided to develop a network of spies to pass information back and forth.
Those involved in the network include some of the most well-known spies in history. Three spies worked directly in the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. Ted Hall, a 19 year old Harvard graduate and the youngest person working on the Manhattan Project, delivered information to the Soviets on the creation of a plutonium bomb through his Harvard schoolmate Saville Sax. Hall also passed secrets to Morris Cohen and his wife Lona who smuggled documents and drafts out of the Los Alomos facility in her tissue box. Klaus Fuchs was a primary physicist on the Manhattan Project and divulged specific information about bomb design and construction, passing much of it through Harry Gold. Fuchs would also later pass on secrets that he obtained as the lead scientist at Britain’s nuclear facility in 1949. Gold also picked up information from David Greenglass, a machinist. Greenglass was recruited to the spy ring by his brother-in-law Julius Rosenberg. Rosenberg was an engineer living in New York who actively recruited friends and family to act as spies and couriers. His wife, Ethel, and his sister-in-law Ruth (David’s wife) also were part of the network as part of his support apparatus. David Greenglass sent hand-written notes and sketches of information he came across to Julius who had them retyped and delivered to his Soviet handlers. Alan Nunn May worked as a British physicist who passed secrets related to atomic reactors and Morton Sobell, an engineer, passed secrets on radar and artillery devices through Julius Rosenberg, his classmate at City College of New York. George Koval passed along information regarding implementation and testing of enriched uranium and plutonium for use in bombs.
The atomic spy network helped the Soviet Union to speed up the development of its own atomic bomb by several years, thus taking the United States by surprise and creating the two super powers of the cold war. By and large, the spies involved participated because of their belief in Communism or at least their belief that the only way to ensure peace was to even the playing field for the Soviet Union.
Despite the damage it caused to the United States, the spy ring ultimiately began to fall apart in 1946 when the United States and Britain deciphered a Soviet code used to send telegraph cables. The Venona intercepts, in 1949, revealed that a 1944 message implicated Klaus Fuchs, showing that he had been the author of scientific materials explaining the building blocks of atomic bomb construction. Additional information provided by Fuchs served to inform of and confirm the United States limitations for nuclear preparedness in the event of a multi-front war campaign. Fuchs was interrogated by MI5 in January 1950 and quickly confessed to being a spy.
Fuchs confession revealed that Harry Gold had acted as his courier. Gold, under interrogation also confessed, implicating David Greenglass and relating that he had passed the information to Soviet General Consul Anatoli Yakovlev. Greenglass quickly confessed and implicated the Rosenbergs (Sobell was subsequently caught up in the Rosenbergs investigation). The Cohens escaped authorities by fleeing to Moscow. Allan Nunn May was identified by Igor Gouzenko, a GRU cipher clerk who defected to Canada.
Strangely, the ramifications of the exposure of the espionage activities were uneven and controversial. Fuchs was sentenced to fourteen years in prison and stripped of his British citizenship. David Greenglass cut a deal with prosecutors, receiving a fifteen year sentence, thereby preventing his wife from facing prosecution. However, he testified against his sister Ethel Rosenberg and her husband Julius. Although most of the material that Julius passed was of little value to the Soviets (it simply confirmed what the Soviets already knew) and most observers agree that Ethel knew about her husbands activities but almost certainly was not involved in actual espionage, both were convicted and executed in 1953. Sobell was sentenced to 30 years in prison as was Harry Gold. On the other hand, although the authorities had a vast amount of evidence against them, neither Theodore Hall nor Saville Sax were ever prosecuted. In fact, they were among a long list of Soviet spies identified by the Venona intercepts who ultimately escaped prosecution. The British and American government were so concerned that they might lose the advantage over the Soviets if the existence of the Venona intercepts became known that they chose not to prosecute a number of individuals.
As such, numerous spies and traitors went unidentified until the Venona Project was made public in 1995. Until that time, many of these spies proclaimed their innocence publicly, but the release of the project’s documents made the question moot. Hall would later state that he felt he had done what his conscience had led him to do. “I decided to give atomic secrets to the Russians because it seemed to me that it was important that there should be no monopoly, which could turn one nation into a menace and turn it loose on the world as … as Nazi Germany developed. There seemed to be only one answer to what one should do. The right thing to do was to act to break the American monopoly.”