Vol. 16 No. 18 · 22 September 1994

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Strange Claims

When I first heard of a book which claimed that Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and Robert Oppenheimer were Soviet spies, my first reaction was to ignore this as inherently improbable. However, after the experience of finding that Klaus Fuchs, a colleague and collaborator, and, I thought, my friend, was a Soviet spy, I could no longer regard anything as impossible. So one had to look at these things and see what evidence, if any, there was for them.

The book in question, discussed in Mary-Kay Wilmers’s Diary (LRB, 4 August), is called Special Tasks, the memoirs of Pavel Sudoplatov, a former senior official of the KGB, written with the assistance of his son and two American journalists, Gerrold and Leona Schecter. The book is mostly about the history and the internal quarrels of the KGB and might be of interest to historians. It is in Chapter Seven, devoted to atomic energy – which rumour says was added after the completion of the rest of the book, to increase its public appeal – that we find the strange claims. Nowhere in this chapter is there evidence for these claims, nor documentation, nor verbatim quotations of statements by the people involved. The reader depends entirely on the memory of the senior author.

To examine the case a little more closely let us start with Niels Bohr, the most famous and most respected of the alleged spies. After the end of World War Two, when Bohr had returned to Copenhagen, the Soviet atomic energy project sent an agent to ask him questions about points on which the Soviet project had difficulty at the time. The agent was not, as one might imagine, one of Bohr’s old friends, such as Kapitza or Landau (they probably were not trusted), but an intelligence agent, Terletsky, with no particular reputation in physics. He approached Bohr through the Soviet Embassy with a request for a private conversation, and was refused. But Bohr invited him to visit his institute, as he did other physicists. Bohr’s son, Aage, was present throughout the meeting with Terletsky and we have his description of the conversation. After some general talk about common friends, Terletsky started to raise questions about the reactor design. Bohr immediately told him that he had no knowledge or details of reactor design, but gave him a copy of the just published Smyth Report of the US Government, which released what was now declassified information.

This account of the interview agrees with the recollection of Terletsky, who was really disappointed at this failure of his mission. However, it strongly disagrees with the account given to Beria in a letter by Kurchatov. This letter claims that Bohr answered the relevant questions and in fact put his finger on the point which was giving the Soviets difficulty; this claim is repeated in a letter from Beria to Stalin, and it was the basis of the statement about Bohr in Sudoplatov’s book. We are therefore not dealing with lack of evidence, but with statements contrary to well-documented evidence.

Next, let us look at the case of Leo Szilard, which in a sense is even easier. The book claims that Szilard conspired at Los Alamos to transmit information to the Russians about his work on weapons. The facts are that Szilard never set foot in Los Alamos and that he did not work on weapons but on reactors.

About Fermi and Oppenheimer there are no such glaring contradictions in the book, but of course no positive evidence either. The authors have said in interview that Oppenheimer liked to leave secret documents lying around in his office so that moles could copy them at night. This naive story ignores two facts: that the security people made a careful search of offices at night, to find any forgotten documents; and also that Oppenheimer as Director of Los Alamos had opportunities to see anybody he wanted privately and give them whatever documents he wished.

I do not think it is worth trying to add to this list to demonstrate the completely baseless accusations in this book. There do, however, remain some interesting questions. Why was the reaction to it so different on the two sides of the Atlantic? The appearance of Special Tasks caused an uproar among American scientists and innumerable newspaper pages have been filled with refutations and attacks on the book. In the UK, on the other hand, there has been a much more muted response. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that the alleged spies are American folk heroes, in a way they are perhaps not in this country. And perhaps in the United States the shock was increased by the fact that normally reputable news organisations, such as the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, or Time Magazine, appear to have been taken in by the allegations. Whatever the answers, it is clear that the sooner this lamentable piece of pseudo-history is forgotten the better.

Rudolph Peierls


The effect of Erskine Childers’s excellent and challenging article on the UN (LRB, 18 August) was unfortunately spoilt, at least for me as a 1945 foundation member of the UN secretariat, by a serious error in the description of the author. As an international civil servant, he did not represent Ireland. Like all UN civil servants, he was under oath, in conformity with Article 100.1 of the Charter, not to ‘seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organisation’. In the early days of the United Nations its staff members were often shocked to be asked, ‘Which country do you represent?’ by friendly Americans unfamiliar with the idea that one could belong to a nation but serve all nations impartially. And one may well ask how many member states have ever remembered article 100.2, under which they undertook to ‘respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the staff and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities’?

Emile Delavenay

Dark Greene

I recently came across the funny article by Colm Tóibín entitled ‘How many nipples had Graham Greene?’ (LRB, 9 June), but I was much less amused by the subsequent letter by Gerry Dukes (Letters, 7 July) on the role of Graham Greene as adjudicator of the GPA Literary Award. Gerry Dukes had only just been appointed as literary administrator of the prize, with no responsibilities whatsoever for its financial aspects, nor any involvement with Graham Greene’s preconditions as adjudicator. Having given the false impression that he had some say in these matters, he goes overboard to the point of misrepresentation.

My friend Sean Donlon, who was then managing director of Irish Aerospace, a division of GPA, rang me towards the end of 1988 to ask me if Graham Greene, who he knew had been a good friend of mine since the early Seventies, would agree to be the adjudicator of a literary prize which his company was setting up. I spoke to Graham who accepted on the condition that he might be allowed to award the prize to Vincent McDonnell, the young Irish author of a novel entitled The Broken Commandment which he had read in manuscript and which had moved him so much that he had convinced his friend Max Reinhardt to publish it. Sean Donlon accepted this condition without discussion and flew down to Nice shortly afterwards. In my house in the Cap d’Antibes, details were finalised between Graham Greene, Sean Donlon and myself. It was agreed that two lists of books would be established: a long list in which the name of Vincent McDonnell would appear, and a short list selected by a panel of literary assessors. Graham would be free to choose the winner out of one or the other list. Sean Donlon didn’t seem to find these terms ‘unusual’ and there was nothing he ‘did not fully comprehend’. On the contrary he found them to be totally acceptable and indeed confirmed them in writing with the briefest of delays.

However, after having received the books shortlisted by the panel of assessors, Graham rang me to say that he was extremely embarrassed. While he still thought that Vincent McDonnell’s talents deserved recognition, he also praised The Book of Evidence by John Banville. Wouldn’t it be possible, he asked, to split the £50,000 prize in two in order to award two prizes instead of one? I got in touch with Sean Donlon who spontaneously made the offer to create a ‘First Fiction Prize’ of £20,000 to be awarded to Vincent McDonnell, while the main GPA Literary Award would be given to John Banville. Graham heartily welcomed this generous move which assuaged his scruples. The matter was thus solved right from the outset to everybody’s satisfaction without the help of Gerry Dukes, who was never in the position at any stage to have ‘to sell’ anything to GPA. In pretending that he was the ‘fixer’ in this matter, he commits the sin of vanity of which he accuses Graham. Indeed, if Gerry Dukes found the proceedings so distasteful, why did he not dissociate himself from the entire affair and return GPA’s cheque?

Despite ill-informed rumours spread by people who knew nothing of the straightforward nature of this accord, there was never at any time the slightest hint of disagreement between GPA and Graham. No pressure was ever exerted by one on the other. It is true, however, that Graham was extremely tired prior to his departure and in spite of the comfort of his travel arrangements, he returned to Antibes in a state of near exhaustion. Having escorted him on this visit to Co. Tipperary and Dublin, where he received an exceptionally warm welcome from Dr Tony Ryan, chairman of GPA, and his team, may I say that it was only too obvious that Graham was putting a brave face on it despite his considerable discomfort and pain. If Gerry Dukes failed to notice Graham’s state of health, I am sorry for his lack of sensitivity.

Far from receiving the cold-shoulder treatment that one would have normally expected in the circumstances described so inaccurately by your correspondent, Graham was given a standing ovation by all the people gathered for the awards ceremony in the House of Lords of the old 18th-century Irish Parliament on College Green. Now, Gerry Dukes may have resented this ovation. He may even have remained seated in protest at what he describes rather bluntly as the ‘vanity’, ‘foolishness’, ‘mischievousness’, ‘absence of integrity’ of the grand old man of English letters. If he did so, I must say that his dissent was so discreet that it went unnoticed. His acrimonious letter, of the kind that we call in France le coup de pied de l’âne, only confirms what Jonathan Swift once said: ‘When a true Genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the Dunces are all in confederacy against him.’

Pierre Joannon

Closing Time

In his interesting review of Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die (LRB, 18 August), Thomas Laqueur doubts that greater clinical knowledge of the process of dying will help us approach death with more equanimity. This issue figured in many Renaissance debates about the desirability of learning an ars moriendi, one of the most acute responses being that of Francesco Guicciardini in his Ricordi (1530), suggesting that nature has in fact programmed us to ignore death:

It is certainly a remarkable thing that we all know we have to die, and we all live as though we were sure of living for ever. I do not think the reason for this is that we are moved more by what we have before our eyes and impresses our sense, than by distant things which cannot be seen. For death is close at hand and one can say that our daily experience shows it to us at every hour. I think it arises from the fact that nature wishes us to live according to the course or order of this world. Not wishing it to remain as if dead and without feeling, nature has given us the power to ignore death – if we thought about that, the world would be full of indolence and torpor.

The art of dying may be naturally unlearnable.

Brian Vickers
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology,

Thomas Laqueur asserts that our alienation from the experience of death began at the start of this century. This does not seem true of Ireland. I attended university in Ireland, starting in 1948, and in the six following years I was privileged to share the deaths of many friends’ parents, siblings, children etc. In every instance, the body was laid out in the home, where mourners of all ages came to light a candle and pray for the deceased. It astonished me, a stupid Yank, to see death so thoroughly domesticated and, especially, to observe that not even the smallest child was numbed or terrified by the experience. I was all the more impressed because only several years before I had been seeing, and making, lots of dead soldiers in Europe.

The memory of that ancient war experience raises a perhaps more serious reservation about How We Die. These days we die in many ways unmentioned by Dr Nuland, a lot of them much less desirable than even an agonisingly painful lingering illness.

Robert Ostermann
Albuquerque, New Mexico


Richard Clogg’s article on Greece (LRB, 18 August) does not mention that the European Court of Justice turned down the European Commission’s request that it rule to force Greece to lift its embargo on the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia till the case was properly tried. The Court upheld Greece’s position at this stage – the final ruling will not, apparently, be made for eighteen months – which means there must be some arguments in the Greek favour after all.

In the trial concerning the false claims for Brussels subsidies on imported Yugoslavian corn, the defence did indeed remark that the Western Europeans were still eating acorns when the Greeks were building the Parthenon; but the judges were not swayed by this argument and the defendants were duly sentenced to prison terms for their part in the scam.

Parina Stiakaki

Second Sight

I, too, was surprised to find myself saying that Migne gave away a free life of St Theresa of Lisieux two years before she was born (Christopher Howse, Letters, 8 September). That was an editorial lapse that occurred after the proof stage. It was, of course, St Teresa (or Theresa) of Avila (1515-82).

Graham Robb

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