It was in 1978, while researching for a dramatization of the life of Robert Oppenheimer for the BBC, that I visited Santa Fe, N.M. It was the nearest town to the wartime atomic bombs laboratory at Los Alamos which Oppenheimer had detected and where the atom spy Klaus Fuchs had worked.
While there, I looked in at La Fonda, the hotel where, during those wartime years, many of the staff and residents were reputedly security men, intent on keeping secret the activities of the 6,000 men and women working up in the nearby mountains. I also visited the bridge over the Santa Fe River where Fuchs rendezvoused with his contact man, Harry Gold. The bridge and the hotel are no more than 200 yards apart, and yet Fuchs met Gold in broad daylight and actually passed over documents containing crucial information about the implosion mechanism of the new plutonium bomb. It seemed extraordinary to me that with so much security close by, he could have got away with such a blatant act; and yet this inconsistency pales into insignificance beside the anomalies and idiosyncrasies of the world of espionage revealed in these two new biographies of Fuchs.
For two books that have independent origins, they are remarkably complementary. They seldom contradict each other and yet each provides a different emphasis and a different overall approach. Robert Chadwell Williams in his "Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy," provides a wonderfully detailed picture of the shadowy world in which Fuchs operated, while in "Klaus Fuchs, The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb" Norman Moss creates a strong portrait of the man himself.
Both books describe in varying detail Fuch's early political career in Germany. As a student, he was not only a brilliant theoretical physicist but was also active in left-wing politics. He was a member of a paramilitary anti-Nazi group and when, after the Reichstag fire, the Gestapo came looking for him, Fuchs went underground and fled the country. He went to Britain where, according to Moss, he underwent a complete personality change. Only rarely did he allow his political passions to show through, and colleagues described him as an oddball and a recluse. Certainly, few of them guessed at his activist past or even at his Communist sympathies.
Moss carefully details Fuchs' somewhat humdrum existence, first in Britain, than at Los Alamos and finally after the war as a senior member of staff at Britain's atomic bomb laboratory at Harwell. He remained a bachelor, living quietly for much of the time as a paying guest with the families of some of his close colleagues. These colleagues came to terms with his taciturn manner and valued his friendship. He became a reassuring, if somewhat mute, presence during family holidays and family crises. Although one wife described him as "about as sexy as a kipper," Moss does describe weekends away in a hotel with the wife of one of his closest colleagues (the couple booked single rooms). Throughout, some people noticed that sometimes he drank quite heavily or that he had a nervous cough but, according to Moss, nobody suspected anything.
In fact, Fuchs had offered his services to the Russians shortly after Hitler's armies had attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. At the start, he was careless to the point of ineptness over the business of espionage, but he had nevertheless clearly mapped out a psychological strategy for dealing with the conflicting pressures on him. Both books see this strategy as the key to his subsequent behavior.
"I used my Marxist philosophy," Fuchs wrote "to establish in my mind two separate compartments. One compartment in which I allowed myself to make friendships. . . . It appeared at the time that I had become a free man because I had succeeded in the other compartment to establish myself independent of the forces of society. Looking back at it now, the best way of expressing it seems to be to call it a controlled schizophrenia."
The imposition of such a rigid personal discipline led to arrogance. He believed firmly that "the Western allies deliberately allowed Russia and Germany to fight each other to the death." He ignored the oaths and agreements he signed when he became a British subject in 1942. His cause was communism, but his belief was firmly in his own judgment.
Yet paradoxically, as Williams points out, the British were in fact preparing an agreement with the Russians to make available, officially, all information on new weapons systems. The Americans did their best to block the passage of nuclear information, but Fuchs' espionage had for the time being at least, unknown to him, added, unofficially, to an endeavor to provide the Soviet Union with vital information to fight the Germans.