Trinity by Frank Close: Klaus Fuchs: the ‘most dangerous spy in history’
Allen Lane, hardback, 528 pages, €35
The chief lesson of Frank Close's superlative biography of Klaus Fuchs, "the most dangerous spy in the history of nations," is that John le Carré never needed to invent a single thing. It's all here - the tradecraft, reptile fund, circus characters, coded recognition signals, letter drops in hollow trees; the endemic shabbiness and shadowiness. It fits perfectly that Fuchs lived in a dreary tin pre-fab near Oxford in England.
When Fuchs went to meet his contact in a pub in London, the passwords were "Stout is not so good, I prefer lager", to which the response had to be "I think Guinness is best. Do you know Big Hannah?"
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He'd check for signs of MI5 surveillance by getting on and off buses, going in and out of department stores, doubling back on his tracks, and glancing at reflections in shop windows: "Only when satisfied that all was clear did he get into a car." Did you know that radio transmitters were hidden inside a child's teddy bear, or that if you walked past the Metropolitan Museum in New York carrying a green book and a tennis ball, don't be shocked if someone sidles up and talks Russian? This is the sort of knowledge Frank Close divulges.
In January 1950, after enduring many interrogations - always very civilised; some took place over lunch at a hotel "famed for its linen tablecloths, its waiters dressed in dark suits" - Fuchs had made "a full confession of espionage on behalf of the Russians from 1942 until February 1949". He'd passed on to his handlers everything he could find about the atomic bomb, such that, during the war, Stalin knew more about the advanced weaponry than any of the other Allies. Harry Truman was utterly in the dark until April 1945, when he was sworn in as president after the death of Roosevelt.
It is an astonishing story. Fuchs was born near Frankfurt in 1911, and studied mathematics at Leipzig. His father was a theologian, his mother died by suicide, and he joined the Communist Party after witnessing the thuggery of the Nazis. Indeed, for wearing a hammer-and-sickle lapel pin, Fuchs was himself harassed by the Brownshirts, who knocked out his teeth. By 1933, he was on the Gestapo "wanted" list, so fled to Bristol, his passage facilitated by the party's network of sympathisers.
Fuchs enrolled at Bristol University, receiving a doctorate in 1937. In the early months of the war, he was interned as an enemy alien, but was released at the end of 1940, as two professors who'd known him recognised that his scientific skills were going to be useful against Hitler.
There was no end of German and Jewish refugees in Britain, secretly working in the universities on a "superbomb", which "in less than one-thousandth of a second... would be hotter than the centre of the sun". What I found sinister, however, reading this book, is that these boffins - dons, misfits, loners, cranks - were so absorbed in solving the mathematical puzzles and framing the algebra, they rather forgot that there would come into being an actual atomic bomb, capable of destroying the planet.
A physicist called Edward Teller, for example, sounds like Dr Strangelove, in his hope to build a doomsday device, "a single fission bomb with enough power to destroy all life on Earth" by igniting the nitrogen in the atmosphere.
Fuchs, who never concealed his anti-fascist and socialist views, saw what he was up to as a utopian exercise. His belief in the future of Communism never wavering, he decided to share information with the Soviet Union - Britain's ally at that time. It's as if, when Churchill, in June 1941, had announced that the UK "shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people", Fuchs took him at his word.
At a party in Hampstead in London, Fuchs had made contact with an intelligence officer at the Soviet embassy. In due course, he passed on the formulae and data for determining the destructive power of atomic bombs, the "basic ideas of gaseous diffusion", the practical guides for the bomb's construction, the calculations for the optimum height at which the bomb should be detonated to maximise the amount of damage, and speculations about the effects of radiation.
In 1944, Fuchs and his colleagues went to America to join the Manhattan Project where, at a cost of $2.6bn, the 'Trinity' test was to be conducted in the New Mexico desert, under J Robert Oppenheimer. Here, for the first time, the nuclear blasts and mushroom clouds were observed. The following month, the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At one time, "the fear that Hitler might get there first" was the spur - but when Germany surrendered, and later Japan, work was not suspended but accelerated. The Americans and British were already planning the post-war era, with the Soviet Union deemed the aggressor in Western Europe. Hence, the Cold War.
In April 1947, Fuchs resumed his espionage tricks, letting the Russians know about the nuclear plant at Windscale in the north of England. By now, MI5 was monitoring him. Why didn't they pounce? Expediency. According to a memo, "the advantages gained [...] through the undoubted abilities of Dr Fuchs outweigh the slight security risk".
He was blown, so to speak, when messages his handler had sent to Moscow were decrypted - at which point double-agent Kim Philby advised the KGB to cut off all contact with Fuchs. Fuchs himself gave nothing away at first, then decided to give himself up, whilst admitting neither guilt nor remorse.
He was arrested in February 1950 and sentenced to 14 years for breaching the Official Secrets Act. Released early, in 1959, he moved to Dresden, East Germany, as the deputy head of the Central Institute for Nuclear Power.
While in prison, Fuchs continued to give advice. In 1952, Britain's own nuclear bomb, "based on a design Fuchs had inspired," was detonated in Australia. "Fuchs is continuing to collaborate in various other matters," wrote the controller for Atomic Energy in February 1953.
With hindsight, Fuchs was no traitor or villain. It must be remembered that in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, hawks at the Pentagon "openly advocated a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union, so America could establish global hegemony".
What stopped this was news of the Soviet arsenal, which suddenly established a balance of terror - the promise of mutually assured destruction, which in precarious fashion has maintained the peace for over 70 years. Paradoxically, Fuchs, who died in 1988, is the man who kept the world safe.
© The Sunday Telegraph