(COLD WAR: 1945-49 – continued)

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COLD WAR: 1945-49 (7 of 8)

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Russia's Atom Bomb

In September 1949 the Western world learned that the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb. US government officials had predicted that it would take the Soviet Union a decade to develop atomic weapons. The speed with which the Soviets produced a bomb led to charges that development of the device was a product of Soviet espionage. People spoke of the Russians having used German scientists or having stolen secrets. Indeed, a German scientist, Klaus Fuchs, had provided the Russians a detailed description of the plutonium implosion bomb in June 1945, while he was working at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Russia's leading scientist on the bomb project, Igor Kurchatov, and his close associate, Yuli Khariton, had not been sure that Fuch's information was completely reliable. Khariton and his team were assigned the task of verifying everything. Another working on the atomic bomb for the Soviet Union was Andrei Sakharov, aged 27 in 1948, and that year he had already been thinking about the creation of a hydrogen bomb.

The Soviet Union had given its scientists massive resources and privileged living conditions, while those taking part in the project believed that the Soviet Union needed its own bomb in order to defend itself, and they welcomed the challenge of proving the worth of Soviet science.

People in the West saw it differently. For them the prospect of war was now more frightening. In November it was announced in the US that scientists had already created a bomb "six times the effectiveness" of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And in January, 1950, President Truman revealed that he had ordered the Atomic Energy Commission to develop the hydrogen bomb.

The Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss

In addition to Klaus Fuchs passing information to the Russians the US citizen Julius Rosenberg was involved – but not his wife Ethel. Both were Communists and both were indicted for having conspired to commit espionage in 1944-45. Julius Rosenberg must have known that in helping to pass technological knowledge to the Soviet Union he was violating US federal law. He no doubt believed that he was helping the Soviet Union defend itself and that he was thereby helping to defend socialism. His espionage occurred while the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies with a common enemy. No doubt he didn't see himself as a traitor or an enemy of the United States as a nation-state. Most Americans saw it differently. In the US, people had become more concerned about spies and inclined to see communists in the US as traitors. Regarding the Rosenbergs, well-dressed demonstrators with bland smiles carried signs such as "Death to Traitors" and "Burn all Reds."

The issue Americans of communist spies in government arose. In the 1930s a few communists had managed to join the Roosevelt Administration. These were intellectuals who thought that Soviet-style economics was the best solution to the depression, and they saw the Soviet Union as the leading power against fascism and as the hope of humanity. The US and Soviet Union were not enemies during the thirties. And during the war, when the Soviet Union and the US were a few in government and outside government eager to help the Soviet Union. They passed information to Soviet agents, some of it classified.

In 1945 much of the spying for the Soviet Union had ended when a disillusioned communist, Elizabeth Bentley, exposed the Soviet spy operation in the United States. One of the communist spies who became disillusioned with Stalinism in the late thirties, Whittaker Chambers, came forward in the late forties and accused Alger Hiss, a State Department official during the Roosevelt years, as having passed information to Soviet Agents. Beginning in August 1948, A special subcommittee headed by Congressman Richard M. Nixon was investigating an accusation by Whittaker Chambers – a senior editor at Time Magazine – that a former State Department official, Alger Hiss, had spied for the Soviet Union. On December 15, 1948, Hiss was indicted on two counts of perjury. His trial began at the end of May and ended July 7, 1949, with a deadlocked jury. Another trial against Hiss began on November 17, 1949, and ended in January 1950. The jury found Hiss guilty on both counts. He was to serve 44 months in the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

The Rosenbergs, both Julius and Ethel, were sentenced to death in 1951. There were protests and accusations of anti-Semitism. Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso were among the better known who complained. Pope Pius XII would appeal to President Eisenhower to spare the couple. The Rosenbergs were to receive no support from mainstream Jewish organizations or from the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU did not acknowledge any violations of civil liberties. The Rosenbergs were executed in the electric chair at sundown on 19 June 1953. He was 37, she 35.

A book by US Senator Patrick Moynihan, vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, titled Secrecy: the American Experience, published in 1999, included details from which it was concluded that with espionage it took the Soviet Union four years to build the bomb rather five – a gain of one year. Most reviews at would be positive. One would be negative, describing Moynihan as an intelligent man but his book as "bunk."


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