Study Guide

Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the Worlds Most Dangerous Weapon Lies and Deceit

By Steve Sheinkin

Lies and Deceit

"A torrent of thoughts poured through my mind," Gold later said of this moment. The map could easily be explained—he'd just say he loved Western stories, which was true, and that, out of curiosity, he'd sent to a Santa Fe museum for the map. Surely they didn't keep records of such requests; no one could prove he was lying.

But then he thought about what would happen if he continued claiming innocence: "My family, people with whom I worked, and my friends whom I knew, my lifetime friends—they would all rally around me. And how horrible would be their disappointment, and the letdown, when finally it was shown who I really was." (Prologue.22-23)

This is one of the main problems with espionage: You have to lie to all of your friends and family. Carrying on that level of deceit for so long was a huge source of anxiety for Gold—it cost him the love of his life—and was a major motivating factor in everything he did. Lies can sometimes become all-encompassing.

Some spies do it for the money; others are trying to change the world. Gold's reasons were a lot less dramatic. He was thankful to Black for getting him a job and wanted to repay the debt. Also, Gold had what he described as "an almost puppy-like eagerness to please." Here was a chance to do something nice for Black and help the Soviet people. The chemical processes Black wanted didn't seem so secret, and if the information could really help the Soviets build a better society, why not share it? Who would it hurt? (Tradecraft.(4).23)

This is a question a lot of people ask themselves about lying: "Who would it hurt?" Sometimes the answer is no one, and sometimes the truth can be far more damaging. But in this case, Gold was misled. His deceit started off small, but once they had him he was stuck betraying his country for years.

The message to Soviet leaders was clear. If the Soviets were going to get an atomic bomb any time in the near future, they were going to have to steal it. (Enormoz.(6).8)

It seems like an odd conclusion to jump to. "Oh, we don't have the resources or knowledge with which to make this weapon. Let's just steal it instead." What was it about the Soviets that their first instinct was to do something sneaky?

These were sensible precautions, but the truth is that Groves had more than safety on his mind. Many of Groves's intelligence officers still didn't trust the Los Alamos director. They believed he was secretly a Communist, and perhaps even in touch with Soviet agents. They wanted him under constant surveillance.

Army Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC) agents hid microphones in Oppenheimer's office. They listened in on his phone calls and read his mail. Even Oppenheimer's personal driver and bodyguard—the one Groves insisted he have—was actually an undercover agent. Oppenheimer sensed he was being watched, but he never guessed how closely. (The Gadget.(17).29-30)

The Soviets weren't the only sneaky ones. Groves was one of Oppenheimer's most steadfast supporters, and yet he had all these measures in place to spy on the Los Alamos director.

Americans continued shipping weapons to the Soviets, but the atomic bomb remained a secret. In fact, Roosevelt and Churchill signed a special agreement, vowing to keep it that way. It was the job of Army Counter-Intelligence to guard the world's most dangerous secret—not just from the Germans, but from the Soviets as well. (Laboratory Number 2.(18).4)

This is a betrayal of sorts, because at this point the Soviets were allied with America and Great Britain. Why the distrust? Why lock them out? Well, one of the main answers was Stalin. He was revealing himself to be a dictator of the worst kind (wait…are there good kinds of dictators?), and while Britain and the U.S. needed the Soviets to help fight Hitler, they didn't trust them at all.

Haukelid and Sörlie stepped out from their hiding places. The guard looked them over.

"Hell, John, we're expecting a raid," Lier-Hansen improvised, hoping the guard would assume they needed to hide supplies from the Germans—and hoping he'd sympathize.

The guard pointed to the hatch leading to the bilge and said, "No problem." (Ferry Job.(19).35-37)

The subterfuge committed by the people in the countries occupied by Germany was crucial to Allied success. Sometimes, like on this occasion, a little white lie can be a very useful device.

Then Fuchs handed over what Gold described as "a considerable packet of information."

"I did what I consider to be the worst I have done," Fuchs would say several years later. "Namely, to give information about the principle of the design of the plutonium bomb." (Land of Enchantment.(29).29-30)

That's the thing about most deceptions: They don't feel good. Perhaps it's with the hindsight granted by time and introspection, or maybe he felt bad about it even then, but Fuchs knew that he was committing a betrayal, and a huge one at that.

The Trinity blast was heard in El Paso, Texas, 150 miles from the explosion. The shock wave rattled windows in Silver City, New Mexico, 200 miles from Trinity. People in Amarillo, Texas, 450 miles away, saw the flash.

Newspapers and radio stations all over the region were flooded with calls demanding information. The reporters, of course, had no idea what had happened. But that morning they received a statement from the army—one General Groves had prepared weeks before.

The news went out: "The explosives dump at the Alamogordo Air Base has blown up. No lives are lost. The explosion is what caused the tremendous sound and the light in the sky. I repeat for the benefit of the many phone calls coming in: the explosive dump at the Alamogordo Air Base has blown up." (Little Boy.(32).1-3)

It's kind of incredible that people believed Groves's lie—the Trinity blast was huge. But sometimes people just accept what they're told because they have no way of even conceiving of the truth.

It wasn't lack of passion she was sensing. It was fear. "Fear of exposure," Gold later admitted. "And fear not for myself, but a horror at the thought that the disastrous revelation might come after we had been married for three or four years, with children at home of our own."

Gold could confess, tell her everything. She might stick by him. But the basic problem remained. For most of his adult life, Harry Gold had been a spy for the Soviet Union. Was it really possible to get away with something like that?

"Who knew better than I on what a precarious, tottering house of cards my whole life rested?" (Fallout.(37).5-7)

Lies have a way of building upon themselves until they're so big they're unmanageable. For Gold, the years of deception about his whereabouts and activities grew so huge that there was no way to come clean (at least, not at the time).

After seventy-five minutes of friendly chatter, Skardon suddenly said, "were you not in touch with a Soviet official or a Soviet representative while you were in New York? And did you not pass on information to that person about your work?"

There was a long silence. Fuchs sat perfectly still. Even his face remained frozen.

Finally he said, "I don't think so."

At that moment Skardon knew the man was guilty. (Fallout.(37).34-37)

Yeah, Fuchs, "I don't think so" isn't the most convincing answer. For a spy, he really didn't have much of a poker face.

Oppenheimer had hashed it all out with army security officers back in 1943. But now Robb suggested that Oppenheimer had never told the whole truth about the Chevalier incident. If the incident had really been so innocent, Robb asked, why hadn't Oppenheimer reported it to Leslie Groves right away? Robb was clearly implying that Oppenheimer had closer contact with the Soviets than he was admitting. The judges were swayed—they voted to revoke Oppenheimer's security clearance. "Dr. Oppenheimer is not entitled to the continued confidence of the government," declared the AEC. (Epilogue.59)

So. The guy who is telling the truth gets fired, and the guy who is making stuff up for his own evil purposes gets away with it. Life is not fair.