AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVI, No. 2, Fall 1994

 

HISTORIANS, PHYSICISTS MOBILIZE TO REFUTE SPY STORIES


Scientists and historians of science were quick to reply to shocking allegations of treason published last spring. In its April 15, 1994 issue Time magazine printed excerpts from a book asserting that Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, J. Robert Oppenheimer and other eminent physicists had knowingly allowed nuclear weapon secrets to be transmitted to the Soviet Union. The book, Special Tasks, is based on the recollections of Pavel Sudoplatov, a former Soviet spymaster and assassin, as reported by his son Anatoli and journalists Jerrold and Leona Shechter. Their charges were also reported uncritically on The McNeil-Lehrer News Hour. Although the tales of physicists as spies took up only one chapter of the book, these were what instantly caught public attention in the United States.

A Look Ahead

o The Physics Community Replies
o Science Historians Jump In
o Was Bohr a Traitor?
o Russian Historians Lend A Hand
o More on This Story

THE PHYSICS COMMUNITY REPLIES

An early response came from three Manhattan Project physicists in a letter of protest to McNeil-Lehrer. Hans Bethe, Robert R. Wilson and Victor Weisskopf expressed amazement that the program would broadcast such scandalous charges without trying to check the facts. "As a result," they wrote, "you helped a criminal, who has mounted a highly skilled effort to make himself rich, to slander some of the greatest scientists of this century." The American Physical Society promptly organized a press conference in which physicists and historians combined to warn that there were strong reasons to doubt Sudoplatov's claims.

In some quarters any reply by physicists seemed self-serving. "It is now obvious that McCarthy was right," said the London Sunday Times (April 24); the National Review (May 30) speculated that the APS's call for opening relevant archives might produce "unhappy surprises of the sort that greeted Hiss and Rosenberg partisans when they demanded access to the FBI's archives." A special responsibility fell upon historians of science for an objective evaluation.

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HISTORIANS OF SCIENCE JUMP IN

A swift response was essential, for even the most unsupported slander can become "common knowledge" unless it is addressed at once. Fortunately historians of nuclear research had already done all the necessary groundwork. It was quickly seen that not one of the new claims about atomic espionage could hold water. Some of Sudoplatov's statements did not even make sense (such as assertions that George Gamow or Leo Szilard had revealed secrets to which in fact they never had access). In other cases, however, uncovering the truth relied on an extensive research background.

Thus Priscilla Johnson McMillan, in the middle of work on the history of the postwar American weapons program, could fire off a letter to The New York Times with devastating demonstrations of Sudoplatov's egregious errors. Likewise historian Stanley Goldberg, having devoted years of work to a biography of Manhattan Project leader General Leslie Groves, could immediately point out mistakes in a letter to The New York Times, in a special conference held by the Smithsonian Institution where he debated the Schechters face to face, and in an interview on National Public Radio. Meanwhile David Holloway (working on a history of the Soviet nuclear project) and William Lanouette (biographer of Leo Szilard) had the ammunition they needed to debate the Schechters on The McNeil-Lehrer News Hour. Richard Rhodes, Barton Bernstein, and other historians of nuclear affairs were equally well placed to defend the physicists' reputation on television and radio and in print.

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WAS BOHR A TRAITOR?

An allegation concerning Niels Bohr became the crucial test of the book's credibility. In this single case Sudoplatov claimed to describe an actual incident with full particulars. He said that in 1945 Bohr had met with the Soviet physicist Yakov Terletsky, "alone with our translator," and explained the problems that Fermi had encountered in building the first nuclear reactor. Bohr "made valuable suggestions that enabled us to overcome our failures," the book claimed. "This meeting was essential to starting the Soviet reactor."

Finn Aaserud, director of the Niels Bohr Archive in Copenhagen, reports that the charge made a sensation in Denmark. Bohr's son Aage, himself a noted physicist, announced that his father had indeed met with Terletsky but not alone. Aage Bohr had been present, and he recalled that his father had carefully given no information except what the United States had already published to the world in the "Smyth Report." A Danish journalist with contacts in Soviet archives tracked down a memorandum from Sudoplatov's boss Beria to Stalin reporting on the meeting; it shows that Beria had tried to make the meeting appear as a success, but conveyed no information that was not in the Smyth report.

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RUSSIAN HISTORIANS LEND A HAND

The most cutting criticism came from historians of science in Russia itself. Alexei Kozhevnikov reports that in the winter of 1992-1993, he and Andrei Andreev, his colleague at the Institute for History of Science and Technology in Moscow, interviewed Terletsky himself within the framework of an oral history project on the history of Soviet physics. At the end of the interviews Terletsky unexpectedly released a tape with the story, at that time completely unknown, of his Copenhagen mission. The account, tape-recorded in 1990, was based on short diary notes of 1945. The recording was subsequently transcribed, edited and signed by the author before he died in late 1993. Gained Gorelik, who helped direct the oral history program, informs us that Terletsky had been isolated from many in the Soviet physics community because of his Communist party loyalties which was what made him attractive to the KGB. Nevertheless his account, backed up by subsequent research in Moscow archives, is clearly far more reliable than Sudoplatov's.

"Bohr answered calmly," Terletsky recalled, " but just in very general terms, having explained that he did not know details... Bohr told us nothing new beyond the Smith [i.e., Smyth] report published recently in the US..." When Terletsky reported these negligible results to Beria, the KGB head interrupted "with crude curses addressed to Bohr and Americans." The whole operation, Gorelik suggests, "was a Soviet administrative game, reflecting the complicated relationship between atomic scientific and KGB heads before the eyes of Stalin."

The memoir that the Schechters prepared from Sudoplatov's reminiscences, in the unanimous opinion of those familiar with the history of nuclear research, is likewise a reflection of immediate concerns rather than a document that can shed light on the actual history of our times.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION...

A particularly detailed historical discussion of the Sudoplatov affair was published as the Federation of American Scientists' F.A.S. Public Interest Report vol. 47, no. 3 (May/June 1994). Among a number of informative reviews of the book by historians are ones by David Holloway in Science 264 (27 May 1994), pp. 1346-47; Thomas Powers in the New York Review vol. 41, no. 11 (9 June 1994), pp. 10-17, and Priscilla Johnson McMillan and Sergei Leskov in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists vol. 50, no. 4 (July/Aug. 1994) pp. 30-36. Information about other references on the affair (newspaper articles, etc.) is available.


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