Biography / The World’s Most Unlikely Secret Agent

One of the most reviled figures in postwar America was a Jewish chemist in Philadelphia who spent 15 years giving the Russians atomic information. But those who knew Harry Gold saw him as the epitome of generosity.

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The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb,
by Allen M. Hornblum. Yale University Press,
446 pages, $32.50


What if you were asked to name the American Jew who, near the end of World War II, handed Soviet agents documents on the U.S. nuclear program that allowed the Russians to explode their own bomb years earlier than anyone expected they would? Julius Rosenberg? The correct answer is Harry Gold, whose name, writes Allen M. Hornblum in “The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb,” was “one of the most reviled in postwar America.”

This description might seem curious to readers born after 1950, the year both Gold and Rosenberg were caught; how many of us have ever heard of Harry Gold? Gold – a chemist for a sugar company in Philadelphia and later a hospital biochemist – spent some 15 years giving the Russians industrial and atomic information, but he was “the world’s most unlikely secret agent,” as Hornblum puts it.

Harry Gold, center, being led into Federal Court, May 1950.Credit: Temple University Library Urban Archives (from the book)

Julius Rosenberg passed on far fewer nuclear secrets than Gold, while his wife Ethel was a victim of both her brother’s perjury and prosecutors’ attempts to make Julius confess by accusing her as well. But whereas Gold told all to the FBI and received a long prison sentence, the Rosenbergs lied about their dealings with the Soviets – Julius at least – and ended up in the electric chair.

When Gold finally confessed, his abundant testimony suggested the psychological profile of the perfect dupe. The author also shows the appeal of the left and the Soviet Union as the Depression bit in the United States and fascism rose in Europe.

Hornblum, an independent journalist whose books include “Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison” (1998), takes the focus off the Rosenbergs and puts it on the duo most responsible for enabling the Soviets to successfully test their bomb on August 29, 1949 – German-born physicist Klaus Fuchs and his only courier, Gold.

Harry Gold was born in Switzerland in 1910 and came to America three and a half years later with his Ukrainian-Jewish parents. He suffered the indignities of a boy growing up in an urban Jewish neighborhood (in his case, in South Philadelphia) surrounded by poor gentile areas; when he was 12 he was beaten up by a mob of youths.

As an adult, Gold is characterized by Hornblum as “a shy nebbish” and “the dumpy fellow with the odd gait and glum expression,” or, as one of the author’s dozens of interviewees says, “the most woebegone person I had ever known.” There was also what Gold called his “trait of bending over backwards to please people,” not to mention an apparent obsessive-compulsive personality disorder that allowed him “to simply cultivate a one-track mind.”

But not everything about Harry or his family was hapless. In high school, he graduated third in a class of 160. His mother stressed to Harry that “whenever anyone was hurt, anguished, or in trouble, and cried out, [he] should be there to answer and to extend aid,” as Gold put it. This advice would prove prophetic.

The Golds needed aid as much as anyone when Harry was laid off from the Pennsylvania Sugar Company in December 1932. Hornblum paints a picture of a time that most Americans born after the Depression can probably scarcely imagine (that is, unless they were born in the Soviet Union, which at the time was creating an artificial famine in Ukraine, while at the same time being celebrated in leftist circles in the West).

In South Philadelphia, nearly one in three workers was unemployed in 1933. Streets were cluttered with the furniture of evicted families; one day, Harry arrived home to find a bailiff seeking unpaid rent from him and his parents. The solution: He withdrew from the University of Pennsylvania. “Jews came here for a better life, but it wasn’t much better,” Hornblum quotes Frances Gabow, a long-time labor and civil rights activist, as saying.

‘Despicable bohemians’

Such was the scene when Gold learned of a job opening at a soap company in 1933. He jumped at the chance, but the man who had alerted him to it pestered him to join the Communist Party. Gold soon returned to work for Pennsylvania Sugar’s chemical operations. He never returned to the University of Pennsylvania, but later earned a chemical engineering diploma at the Drexel Institute Evening School and a full bachelor’s degree at Xavier University in Cincinnati, a city where, dutifully enough, he would spy for the Soviets. He also never came close to joining the “despicable bohemians” in the party, as he called the American Communists he met.

But he quickly acceded to his contact’s next suggestion – stealing information on solvents and varnishes for the Russians. After all, the Soviet Union was leading the fight against anti-Semitism; at least some people like Harry saw it that way. Gold was happy to help the downtrodden people of the Soviet Union. Even a decade later, when he was pilfering nuclear secrets, he never seemed to comprehend that he was doing anything that might threaten his country, which he loved.

“Gold could work a twelve-hour day at his regular job, travel to New York, wait on a cold street corner for two hours to receive a package, promptly pass it on to a third party, and then travel back to Philadelphia and the next day’s work routine without even an hour’s sleep,” Hornblum writes.

And the Soviets were not the most sympathetic of associates. By the time the FBI woke up in the late 1930s, the Russians had hundreds of Americans working for them. Though some of Gold’s handlers were congenial, these engineers of human souls knew how to manipulate their lackey. They awarded Gold the Order of the Red Star, told him the secrets he was passing on were already being put to use in the Soviet Union, and built up his ego, making clear they admired him because he did not spy for money.

Gold’s adventures reached their peak in his dealings with Fuchs, a Communist political refugee from Nazi Germany and the son of a Lutheran pastor. Fuchs, a year younger than Gold, earned his PhD in Britain and was later sent to New York and Los Alamos, New Mexico, to do mathematical calculations for the Manhattan Project.

The theoretical physicist, with his “very aesthetic, intellectual appearance,” as Gold put it, was the very antithesis of Harry; in any case, Fuchs managed five times to pass onto Gold calculations for detonating nuclear weapons, as well as details on bomb design, described in Fuchs’ tiny handwriting. (Gold couldn’t help himself and took a peek a few times.) But a couple of defections led to their undoing.

Gold characterized his spying life as “dreary, monotonous drudgery,” but Hornblum’s recounting of Harry’s meetings both with Fuchs and with his Soviet minders provides plenty of cloak and dagger. The legal shortcomings of the time would prove just as fascinating. Hornblum depicts a compromised justice system; the judge nonchalantly admitted in court that he had (improperly) discussed the case with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. (There would be similar improprieties in the Rosenberg trial.) The judge, a long-time politician, ended up sentencing Gold to 30 years in prison, five more than the prosecution had requested. (Gold would be paroled in 1966.) The penitent Gold gave the FBI hundreds of hours of testimony, many even before he had been arrested or assigned a lawyer. Later, at Harry’s request, his attorneys eschewed a vigorous defense, even though the government had little to go on without Gold’s vast testimony.

Moreover, it was hard to find lawyers willing to risk their reputations and take the case. The two who did – John Hamilton and Augustus Ballard of an elite Philadelphia law firm – did so for nothing. Their efforts, when it came to Gold’s sentencing, would become a textbook example of attorneys representing clients deemed highly undesirable.

Culture wars

Hornblum’s book also provides a good way to revisit the culture wars of the second half of the 20th century that surrounded the Rosenberg case. As political activist and former California state senator Tom Hayden told the New York Times’ Sam Roberts two years ago, “the problem became a whole generation on the left falling into a dogmatic faith in the Rosenbergs’ innocence while another group believed the fantastic proposition that the Soviets only got the bomb because of the Rosenbergs.”

Hornblum, for his part, derides the “cottage industry of Gold detractors” that had formed by the mid-1950s, blasting leftists who “much preferred and steadfastly supported those who were accused of espionage but fervently denied it.” Gold, at least, confessed everything and brought down many others, helping shatter the Soviets’ spy empire in the United States. In his own review, Roberts, whose biography “The Brother” (2001) details spy David Greenglass’ role in implicating his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, calls Hornblum’s criticisms of the left “gratuitous put-downs.”

As the FBI and Gold’s lawyers delved into the case, it was hard to find witnesses with a bad word to say about Gold. Harry “would do anyone in the Heart Station a favor at any time,” said his boss at Philadelphia General Hospital, where he worked from 1948 to 1950. Gold’s attorneys received extraordinarily positive letters and phone calls of support. Gold was someone who regularly volunteered his own blood for laboratory experiments at work and, later, in prison, even though he suffered from hypertension; he also volunteered for experiments in which he would be injected with toxic substances.

He was “the most generous person we have ever known,” the hospital reported. “Everybody liked Harry,” said a correctional officer later at prison. “We all loved him,” added a colleague at Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy Hospital, where Gold worked as a biochemist after his release in 1966, and until his death in 1972.

Gold was guilty of spying for the Soviets; he admitted it, yet his experience resembled a kind of real-life “Shawshank Redemption.” When he began his sentence, only Communist inmates would have anything to do with him, an ironic outcome given that he shuddered at joining the party. He was such a tireless worker in the prison lab that he won a patent in 1960 for a blood-sugar test. But as Hornblum notes, having spied for the Soviets, Gold was denied the kind of fame reserved for the likes of Robert Stroud, the so-called Birdman of Alcatraz.

In May 1966, Ballard came to pick up Gold upon his release. The lawyer wondered what the inmates’ shouting and banging was all about. “As soon as we hit the clearing, the place exploded in cheers,” Ballard told Hornblum. “It was like fans in a stadium cheering a football hero .... Here was this world famous, notorious spy and they’re cheering for him. They were cheering for Harry.”

Still, just as Gold was invisible as a spy and invisible to those of us born after 1950, he was invisible in death. Gold’s family did not publicize his demise during open-heart surgery in August 1972, and the media did not hear about it for another year and a half.

Steven Silber, a frequent contributor to Books, is an editor at Haaretz English Edition.

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