People & Events|
Klaus Fuchs, (1911 - 1988)
His colleagues at the atomic weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, remembered Klaus Fuchs as a shy, reclusive man, and an exceptionally talented scientist who worked extremely hard. And so most of them were stunned and horrified when, in February 1950, he was charged with having given atom bomb secrets to the Soviets.
In his confession, attempting to explain the terrible betrayal of his friends, colleagues and adoptive country, Fuchs said that his father had taught him to stand up for what he believed, even if his beliefs were at odds with accepted convention. And that, Fuchs explained, was why as a student in Germany, he'd joined the Communist Party. He was convinced the Communists were the only political organization able to fight the increasing influence of the Nazis.
Klaus Fuchs was born on December 29, 1911 in Rüsselsheim, Germany. His father was a Lutheran minister who was deeply committed to socialist ideology. The younger Fuchs became interested in politics as a student. Once Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Fuchs' political affiliations made him a target for the Nazis. He went into hiding for several months before escaping to Britain via France. Years later he explained that the Communist Party sent him out of Germany. "They said I must finish my studies because after the revolution in Germany people would be required with technical knowledge to take part in the building up of the Communist Germany."
Fuchs quickly proved himself to be a brilliant young scientist. After receiving a PhD in physics from the University of Bristol, he was recruited to work in Edinburgh with one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics. After the war broke out, even though his communist past was known, the British granted him security clearance and he was recruited to work on the atom bomb. In his confession, Fuchs remembers being asked to help, "on some war work. I accepted it and started work without knowing at first what the work was... When I learned the purpose of the work I decided to inform Russia and I established contact through another member of the Communist Party."
In 1943 Fuchs was among the British scientists sent to the U.S. to collaborate with Americans working on the atom bomb. At first he was assigned to a team at Columbia University in New York. Later he was transferred to the weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he worked in the theoretical division under Hans Bethe. He couldn't have been better placed to provide the Soviets information about the U.S. atomic bomb program.
Fuchs made contact with a Soviet courier almost as soon as he'd arrived in the U.S, a man he knew only as Raymond, but who was in fact Harry Gold. Fuchs and Gold met several times. At one meeting in Santa Fe, Fuchs gave Gold a precise drawing with measurements of the "Fat Man" bomb, the bomb the United States dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
After the war ended, Fuchs made sure he understood everything U.S. scientists knew about making hydrogen bombs. In April 1946, he attended a top-secret, three-day conference at Los Alamos that reviewed the wartime work on the superbomb. Shortly afterwards he filed a patent with mathematician John von Neumann for an initiator for the hydrogen bomb. And then just before returning to Britain he reviewed every document in the Los Alamos archives on thermonuclear weapons design.
In Britain, Fuchs began working at the Harwell Atomic Research facility. But it didn't take him long to reestablish his Soviet contacts. In September 1947, he met with his new intelligence agent, Alexander Feklisov, in a north London pub. Asked ten questions about the superbomb, Fuchs described to Feklisov certain structural characteristics of the weapon. In March of 1948, he met Feklisov again. This time he handed over material that some Russian physicists now say proved to be of great importance to the Soviet hydrogen bomb. It contained a detailed description of the classical Super, as the first design for the hydrogen bomb was known, as well as Fuchs' own concept for an initiator.
Fuchs' world finally began falling apart at the end of 1949. On December 21, a British intelligence officer informed the physicist that he was suspected of having given classified nuclear weapons information to the Soviet Union. Fuchs repeatedly denied the accusations, but he ultimately broke down and agreed to make a statement. He was brought to trial at the Old Bailey in London, where the audience included some 80 newspaper reporters, two U.S. Embassy representatives, the mayor of London and the Duchess of Kent. The chief prosecutor was Attorney General Hartley Shawcross who was widely known for his role at the Nuremberg Trials.
The trial lasted less than two hours. Fuchs pleaded guilty. He said that he had not wanted to hurt his friends at Harwell, and that he hoped his confession would help atone for his wrongdoing. Until shortly before his trial began, Fuchs assumed the maximum penalty for his crimes was death. In fact, since the USSR had not been an enemy at the time of the crimes for which Fuchs was charged, under British law he could only be sentenced to 14 years. He was released from prison after nine and immediately left Britain for East Germany where he resumed his scientific career.