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At what point did ideology cease to compel and the decision get made to spy for the Soviets simply because they were the most competent and efficient at international intrigue? Today's New York Times brings word that the biggest non-catch … Read More

By / November 12, 2007

At what point did ideology cease to compel and the decision get made to spy for the Soviets simply because they were the most competent and efficient at international intrigue?

Today's New York Times brings word that the biggest non-catch of them all — George Koval — has died a nonagenarian in Moscow and been made a posthumous Hero of the Russian Federation by Vladimir Putin. He stole the American nuclear secrets that allowed Stalin to build his own bomb.

By 1934, Dr. Koval was in Moscow, excelling in difficult studies at the Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology. Upon graduating with honors, he was recruited and trained by the G.R.U. and was sent back to the United States for nearly a decade of scientific espionage, from roughly 1940 to 1948.

How he communicated with his controllers is unknown, as is what specifically he gave the Soviets in terms of atomic secrets. However, it is clear that Moscow mastered the atom very quickly compared with all subsequent nuclear powers.

In the United States under a false name, Dr. Koval initially gathered information about new toxins that might find use in chemical arms. Then his G.R.U. controllers took a gamble and had him work under his own name. Dr. Koval was drafted into the Army, and by chance found himself moving toward the bomb project, then in its infancy.

The Army judged him smart and by 1943 sent him for special wartime training at City College in Manhattan. Considered a Harvard for the poor, it was famous for brilliant students, Communists and, after the war, Julius Rosenberg, who was executed for conspiring to steal atomic secrets for the Soviets.

But Dr. Koval steered clear of all debate on socialism and Russia, Dr. Bloom said. “He discussed no politics that I can recall. Never. He never talked about the Soviet Union, never ever, not a word.”

Which might have told you all you needed to know right there. It's actually a small feat that the Soviets even contrived to build a nuke at all. Lavrentia Beria was put in the charge of the project, and Stalin was given to remark that the theoretical physics required to bring it to completion sounded like so much "bourgeois mystification." That of course didn't stop him from threatening to shoot the scientists if they failed.

I kibbitz with Stephen Schwartz all the time about how the mere suggestion that someone was a Russian spy can almost be taken for proof in itself these days. Consider how many unsuspected moles there were and in what upper reaches of industry and government, and you come away feeling that McCarthyism was an ostentatious street brawl for a world championship fight that never happened.

A Spy’s Path: Iowa to A-Bomb to Kremlin Honor – New York Times

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