Atomic Spies and Atom Spies are terms that refer to various people in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada who are thought to have illicitly given information about nuclear weapons production or design to the Soviet Union during World War II and the early Cold War. Exactly what was given, and whether everyone on the list gave it, is still a matter of some scholarly dispute, and in some cases what were originally seen as strong testimonies or confessions were admitted as fabricated in later years. Their work constitutes the most publicly well-known and well-documented case of nuclear espionage in the history of nuclear weapons. There was a movement among nuclear scientists to share the information with the world scientific community, but that was firmly quashed by the American government.
The current case of the apparent sharing of nuclear technology with Iran, Libya, and North Korea and possibly other regimes on the part of Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani scientist considered a national hero because of his role in the construction of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, has yet to be fully explored, and it is an open question whether the term "atom spy" will be applied to those operating outside the Cold War orbit.
Whether the espionage information significantly aided the speed of the Soviet atomic bomb project is also disputed. While some of the information given, such as the highly technical theoretical information given by Klaus Fuchs, would be thought to have certainly aided in developing a nuclear weapon, the manner in which the heads of the Soviet bomb project, Igor Kurchatov and Lavrenty Beria, actually used the information has led later scholars to doubt its having had a role in increasing the speed of development. According to this account, Kurchatov and Beria used the information primarily as a "check" against their own scientists' work and did not liberally share the information with them, distrusting both their own scientists as well as the espionage information. Later scholarship has also shown that the decisive brake on early Soviet development was not problems in weapons design but, as in the Manhattan Project, the difficulty in procuring fissile materials, especially since the Soviet Union had no uranium deposits known when it began its program (unlike the United States).
Confirmation about espionage work came from the VENONA project, which intercepted and decrypted Soviet intelligence transcripts during and after World War II, and later records from Soviet archives, were briefly opened to researchers after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Notable atomic spies
- Morris Cohen – "Thanks to Cohen, designers of the Soviet atomic bomb got piles of technical documentation straight from the secret laboratory in Los Alamos," the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda said. Morris and his wife, Lona, served eight years in prison, less than half of their sentences before being released in a prisoner swap with Russia. He died without revealing the name of the American scientist who helped pass vital information about the United States atomic bomb project.
- Klaus Fuchs – German refugee theoretical physicist who worked with the British delegation at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. After Fuchs' confession there was a trial that lasted less than 90 minutes, Lord Goddard sentenced him to fourteen years' imprisonment, the maximum for espionage. In December 1950 he was stripped of his British citizenship. He was released on June 23, 1959, after serving nine years and four months of his sentence at Wakefield prison. He was allowed to emigrate to Dresden, then in the German Democratic Republic.
- Harry Gold – confessed to acting as a courier for Greenglass and Fuchs. He was sentenced in 1951 to thirty years imprisonment. He was paroled in May 1966, after serving just over half of his sentence.
- David Greenglass – a machinist at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Greenglass confessed that he gave crude schematics of lab experiments to the Russians during World War II. Some aspects of his testimony against his sister and brother-in-law (the Rosenbergs, see below) are now thought to have been fabricated in an effort to keep his own wife, Ruth, from prosecution. Greenglass was sentenced to 15 years in prison, served 10 years, and later reunited with his wife.
- Theodore Hall – a young physicist at Los Alamos, whose identity as a spy was not revealed until very late in the twentieth century. He was never tried for his espionage work, though he seems to have admitted to it in later years to reporters and to his family.
- Allan Nunn May – One of the first Soviet spies uncovered during the cold war. He worked on the Manhattan Project and was betrayed by a Soviet defector in Canada. His was uncovered in 1946 and it led the United States to restrict the sharing of atomic secrets with Britain. On May 1 1946, he was sentenced to ten years hard labour. He was released in 1952, after serving six and a half years.
- Ethel and Julius Rosenberg – who were involved in coordinating and recruiting an espionage network that included Thel's brother, David Greenglass. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried for conspiracy to commit espionage, since the prosecution seemed to feel that there was not enough evidence to convict on espionage. Treason charges were not applicable, since the United States and the Soviet Union were allies at the time. The Rosenbergs denied all the charges but were convicted in a trial in which the prosecuter Roy Cohn said he was in daily secret contact with the judge, Irving Kaufman. Despite an international movement demanding clemency, and appeals to President Dwight D. Eisenhower by leading European intellectuals and the Pope, the Rosenbergs were executed at the height of the Korean War. President Eisenhower wrote to his son, serving in Korea, that if he spared Ethel (presumably for the sake of her children), then the Soviets would simply recruit their spies from among women.
- Saville Sax acted as the courier for Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall.
- Morton Sobell - An engineer who was tried and convicted along with the Rosenbergs, was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment but released from Alcatraz in 1969, after serving 17 years and 9 months. After proclaiming his innocence for over half a century, Sobell admitted spying for the Soviets, and implicated Julius Rosenberg, in an interview with the New York Times published on September 11, 2008.
- Alexei Kojevnikov, Stalin's Great Science: The Times and Adventures of Soviet Physicists (Imperial College Press, 2004). ISBN 1-86094-420-5 (use of espionage data by Soviets)
- Gregg Herken, Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2002). ISBN 0-8050-6588-1 (details on Fuchs)
- Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995). ISBN 0-684-80400-X (general overview of Fuchs and Rosenberg cases)