by Don Bullis
New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers
Three Spies Stole Los Alamos Secrets
Not many folks around today remember the name, David Greenglass, and a report of his death at 92 in the Albuquerque media recently likely went unnoticed by most. Even so, he left an indelible mark on 20th century New Mexico history. He was one of the three best known spies at Los Alamos during the 1940s development of the atomic bomb at the Manhattan project there.
Born in New York, Greenglass joined the Young Communist League by the early 1940s. He also became an accomplished machinist at a young age. He joined the United States Army during World War II, in 1943, and was assigned to a post in Mississippi where he plied his trade. The quality of his work was noticed, and he was promoted to technical sergeant and shipped off to Los Alamos where he was assigned to work on the development of the atomic bomb.
To be close by, his wife, Ruth, also a member of the Young Communist League, moved to Albuquerque, specifically to a second floor apartment at 209 North High Street.
Greenglass was the brother of Ethel Rosenberg, who was married to Julius Rosenberg, and the Rosenbergs, too, were committed communists. Greenglass, through his wife, and with the assistance of a Soviet agent named Harry Gold, supplied a few secrets of the atomic bomb to communist Russia in June 1945. He received at least $500 for his duplicity, although one source indicated that the information Greenglass provided was of only marginal value to the Soviets because he had little knowledge of the technical aspects of the bomb’s development.
The entire scheme came to light in 1950. The Rosenbergs were convicted of conspiring to commit espionage against the United States and they were executed on June 19, 1953 at Sing Sing prison in New York. Over the years, much debate has surrounded the matter of the Rosenbergs regarding the extent of their participation in the spy ring, and even their guilt or innocence. Their son, Michael Meeropol, acknowledged in 2008 that his father was probably a spy, while his mother may have only been aware of the scheme without participating. Historian E. B. Held, however, reported that Ethel actively recruited her brother to the conspiracy. Greenglass agreed to testify against his sister provided that his wife would not be arrested or prosecuted. Late in his life he professed no regret for having done so. “I sleep very well,” he said. He served about two-thirds of a 15-year prison sentence.
Harry Gold was also the contact man for Klaus Fuchs, another Soviet spy working on the Manhattan Project. Fuchs was a spy for the Russians long before he arrived at Los Alamos, and the information he delivered to the Soviets in 1945—on the University of New Mexico campus—moved their atomic weapons program ahead by several years and the USSR detonated its first nuclear device in 1949.
Fuchs was born in Germany and began his education there before he was obliged to flee to France after the Nazi take-over of Germany in 1933. He moved on to England where he continued his education and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Bristol in 1937. He became a British citizen in 1942. Early-on, he worked on British nuclear research and also monitored German nuclear research progress. His Communist leanings were known to the British. By August 1944, he was working in the Theoretical Physics Division at Los Alamos, as a member of the British Mission. He was renowned for his hard work and the substantial contribution he made to the atomic bomb’s development.
What the folks at Los Alamos did not know was that everything he did for the American effort was being passed along to the Russians, along with any other information he could glean. After the war, he returned to England and continued to work on nuclear projects. But in 1949, American Intelligence agents discovered Fuchs’ role in spying, and notified the British. When confronted, Fuchs admitted his culpability; one source said he was proud of what he’d done. His trial lasted less than two hours, and he was stripped of his British citizenship and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He served fewer than 10 years and was deported to East Germany after his release from prison in 1959. He resumed his career as a scientist. He was awarded the Order of Karl Marx before his death near Dresden in 1988.
Harry Gold ultimately served half of a 30-year sentence for his part in the spying scheme.
The third spy, and probably least known, was Ted Hall. Born as Theodore Alvin Holtzberg in Far Rockaway, New York City, his father changed the family name to Hall in an effort to avoid what he considered anti-Semitic hiring practices during the Great Depression (1929-1941).
A precocious child, Ted attended public school until he was admitted to Harvard University at age 16. He studied physics and graduated two years later and was recruited for the Manhattan Project at age 19. He is said to have been the youngest scientist at Los Alamos.
Those officials responsible for security during the development of the atomic bomb seem to have overlooked Hall’s strong Communist leanings, even though he was not a member of the Communist Party. He volunteered to provide United States atomic secrets to the Soviet Union because, he later said, he feared a nuclear bomb monopoly by the United States would upset the world-wide balance of military power. He was not paid for his duplicity in providing a drawing of the “Fat Man” bomb to the Russians in 1945.
Hall was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigations and strongly suspected of espionage, but he was never prosecuted for his crime. He attended the University of Chicago after he left New Mexico, and studied biology. He died of cancer at Cambridge, England, in 1999. Historian E. B. Held wrote, “Late in life, Hall admitted that as a young man, he had been mistaken in his understanding of the nature of the Soviet Union. However, he expressed no regret for his spying on behalf of the KGB.”
Some of these stories may be a part of the current television series, Manhattan, but it’s hard to tell.
Albuquerque Journal, June 16, 17 & 24; July 7, 13, 1950; October 15, 2014
Associated Press, September 12 & 18, 2008
Howard Bryan, Albuquerque
E. B. Held, A Spy’s Guide to Santa Fe and Albuquerque
Jon Hunner, J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Cold War, and the Atomic West
Richard Melzer, Breakdown: How the Secret of the Atomic Bomb was Stolen during World War II
Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb
Marc Simmons, Albuquerque