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Espionage In Early Los Alamos

on September 25, 2017 - 10:07am
The Manhattan Project Gallery in the Los Alamos History Museum includes an exhibit on espionage. Courtesy photo
Los Alamos History Museum
Of all the stories about Los Alamos history, visitors find ones about spies to be some of the most intriguing.
Without a doubt, the three known Manhattan Project spies in Los Alamos helped usher in the Cold War. When we think of spies, their methods, and their weapons and instruments, we think of the tropes and technologies developed during the Cold War.
“Atomic spies” is a name often given to those who operated during the Manhattan Project and on into the Cold War, stealing the secrets from the laboratories in Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and elsewhere, and delivering them to foreign governments—primarily the Soviet Union.
The most famous of the Los Alamos cases is arguably that of Klaus Fuchs. Fuchs was originally German by birth and had been a member of the communist party in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s before moving to England to study physics. When the Nazi party took control of Germany and World War II began, Fuchs was initially imprisoned for his associations but soon was released because of his potential as a nuclear physicist.
He began working in England on the atomic bomb efforts before moving to Los Alamos with the British Mission to work on the Manhattan Project. Fuchs passed
information he learned from his job in the Theoretical Physics division on to his informant, Harry Gold.
Gold had been involved in the Communist Party of America and had been recruited by the Soviet Union to serve as an informant for spies at Los Alamos. He was also the informant for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, infamous spies who were later executed for treason. David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, worked a machinist in Los Alamos and was able to corroborate many of Fuchs’ reports.
After the war ended, Fuchs went on to work for highly sensitive weapons projects in the United States and Great Britain, before ultimately being discovered by an FBI
investigation in 1950. Fuchs’ case is often used to highlight the security failures of the British and United States governments at the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War—the British government’s knowledge of Fuchs’ continued involvement and devotion to the Communist party in particular raising questions.
Perhaps less well known than the story of Klaus Fuchs and David Greenglass is the story of Theodore Hall. A prodigy from Harvard, Theodore, or Ted, was one of the youngest Manhattan Project scientists. He was not an avowed communist like the other atomic spies and seemed motivated to give the Soviets atomic secrets mainly to help balance the power between the United States and the other world leaders. Hall’s informants were Morris and Lona Cohen, another married couple with communist convictions involved in espionage.
Hall’s case is a stark contrast to Fuchs: while Fuchs and his network seemed to fly under the radar due to their own expertise, Hall remained undiscovered in spite of his own rather bumbling efforts. Between attempting to walk in completely unannounced to a well-known spy’s office and volunteer information, to forgetting his code phrase when first meeting with the Cohens, it’s amazing that Hall was able to deliver to the Soviets their first schematic of an atomic bomb.
Though Fuchs and Hall are two interesting and very different cases, they are likely not the only atomic spies who operated in Los Alamos during the Cold War and beyond.
To learn more about atomic spies, as well as other aspects of the Cold War, stop by for a visit at the Los Alamos History Museum.
Editor's note: Samantha Lippard has a master’s degree in history from Texas Tech University where she studied Russian and Soviet/American relations during the Cold War. She works weekends in the Harold Agnew Cold War Gallery in the Hans Bethe House.