J. Ransom Clark

Not So Invisible to History

Allen M. Hornblum, The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010)

Author Posting. (c) "International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence," 2011. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of "International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence," for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Volume 24 Issue 2, June 2011. doi:10.1080/08850607.2010.548236 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08850607.2010.548236).

In the 60 years since becoming headline news, Harry Gold has usually been portrayed in nondescript or overtly hostile terms. Now, journalist Allen Hornblum has placed Gold at the center of the story, no longer just a bit player in the narrative of other Soviet spies. Author of three previous books(1), Hornblum is making his first foray into the world of intelligence. He offers what is at heart a sympathetic portrait of a traitor--not just any traitor but an integral part of the Soviet Union's World War II spy network the activities of which have been referred to (with some hyperbole) as the "crime of the century." Hornblum presents Gold as basically a decent human being, misguided and flawed but possessing more positive attributes than generally acknowledged.

The basic outline of Harry Gold's perfidy was well established before Hornblum's entry on the scene, given Gold's confession and his testimony in court and to a Senate subcommittee. In addition, his actions as a Soviet agent have been documented by recent works drawing on the Venona decryptions of Soviet communications before and during the war years and by the brief opening of some KGB files to access by Western and Soviet scholars.(2) As a consequence, Hornblum's biography does not change the broad picture of Gold's career as a Soviet spy. Nevertheless, the author has mined the extensive original and secondary documentation, supplementing it with interviews from a wide range of Gold's acquaintances, and produced an in-depth and coherent narrative that focuses on Gold and his crimes within both a personal and historical context. That he accomplishes this in a highly readable account is commendable.


Hornblum seeks to create a clearer picture of Harry Gold the person. That Gold was obsessive, easily manipulated, and eager to please others are three recurring themes. Also looming large in Gold's persona was an intense hatred of Fascism and anti-Semitism, and an idealistic view of the Soviet Union. However, the author's effort to get at the "who" question, even when combined with the careful delineation of the "what" of Gold's 15 years as a Soviet agent, still falls short of answering the "why" question--that is, why did this man, professing great love for the United States, choose to become a witting tool of Soviet intelligence in stealing American industrial and military secrets.

The first 60 percent of Hornblum's study takes the reader from Gold's birth to his arrest in 1950. Born to Russian Jewish parents in Bern, Switzerland, in 1910, Heinrich Golodnitsky became Harry Gold on the family's immigration to America when he was 3 years old. That both parents had vaguely "radical" political views was not unusual among those who fled Tsarist Russia. After a few false starts, the family settled in Philadelphia, where young Harry grew up in circumstances that were at times difficult financially but also in a household environment where he could aspire to go to college. Although that dream was initially cut short by the onset of the Depression, he eventually earned a degree in chemistry. By then, however, he was already working for Soviet intelligence.

In 1934, Gold was "pitched" by his communist friend Thomas Black, a recruiter for Soviet intelligence, to provide details on industrial solvents used by his employer, the Pennsylvania Sugar Company, which would be passed on to the Soviet Union where such knowledge was desperately needed. Although Harry had resisted Black's earlier efforts to get him involved in Communist Party activities, he took so many company documents home that they had to be transported for copying to the New York City office of Amtorg, the Soviet trading company. Whatever his immediate or retrospective qualms about betraying his employer and his mentor at the company, Gold had become an industrial spy for the Soviet Union.


By late 1935, Gold had the first of several case officers from KGB predecessor organizations. It is possible to conclude from the way the KGB deployed Harry over time that, in its view, he developed into a valuable and trusted agent, a point Hornblum does not develop until the book's "Epilogue." For instance, Gold was among the small number of American spies who were granted the "Order of the Red Star." After a couple of years of stealing from Pennsylvania Sugar, Gold had sucked the company dry of useful secrets. When he resisted efforts to get him to change jobs into something more productive, the KGB pushed him into trying to be a talent spotter (identifying potential recruits for the KGB), a task for which the nonsocial Harry was ill suited, and later into keeping tabs on people suspected of being Trotskyists. Finally, the KGB came up with a plan that would draw Gold deeper into the world of espionage but also enable him to fulfill his dream of getting a college degree.

With the KGB's financial assistance, Gold enrolled at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, for the fall term of 1938. The KGB was not, however, being philanthropic; Harry's mission was to recruit an engineer working at the Aeronautical Experimental Station in Dayton, Ohio. The MIT-graduate was not interested, and Harry endured tongue-lashings and threats from his case officer. In July 1940, after graduating from Xavier, Gold returned to work as a chemist at the Pennsylvania Sugar Company. Harry's failure as a recruiter seems to have bought him a several-months hiatus in his work for the KGB. In fact, it is possible to wonder at this point what the KGB saw in the little chemist.


Recontacted by the KGB in September 1941, Gold could have opted out of the espionage business. However, the overly pliant (in Hornblum's characterization) Harry readily agreed to resume his espionage activities. He became the contact and courier for Alfred Dean Slack, employed at Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York. In this and later assignments, Gold proved to be more proficient in working with individuals already committed to spy work than recruiting "cold" contacts. After Slack moved to the Holston Ordnance Works in Kingston, Tennessee, from where he passed military instead of industrial secrets, Gold continued as his contact and courier. In a fateful decision, the KGB also replaced Elizabeth Bentley with Gold as the contact for Abe Brothman. A chemical engineer, Brothman supplied information on a range of industrial products and processes, including a synthetic rubber. Hornblum does not explain how a source in Jacob Golos's stable of spies ended up being passed to Gold.

In February 1944, Gold moved to the big time in the world of Soviet spying--he became the contact person and courier for Klaus Fuchs. The expatriate-German physicist was part of the team of British scientists sent to New York to work on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. He was also a committed communist, and had contacted Soviet intelligence soon after joining the group working on Britain's atomic bomb project. Fuchs's handler in Britain had been veteran GRU (Soviet military intelligence) agent and illegal Ruth Kuczynski, recognized as "in the superstar category"(3) in espionage legend. Hornblum misses the opportunity afforded by Fuchs's transition from Kuczynski to Gold to stress that Harry was more than just another cog in the KGB's network. While in New York, Fuchs passed to the Soviets, via Gold, information describing the progress and participants in the design of the first atomic weapon.

By early August 1944, Fuchs had been transferred to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Gold and the KGB lost contact with him. Contact (and the flow of information) was reestablished in January 1945 when Gold met with Fuchs at his sister's home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The conspirators agreed to meet in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in June. At this point, the KGB made a fateful deviation from sound tradecraft. They used Harry to activate another source working at Los Alamos. Already carrying Fuchs's outline of the plutonium bomb, Gold met with Army Sergeant David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother. Harry and Fuchs met again in Santa Fe in September 1945. After that Gold successively lost contact with Fuchs and his KGB handler, and in February 1946 was let go from his job at Pennsylvania Sugar, his only employer over the last 18 years.


At this point, Gold violated clandestine tradecraft by going to work for his former agent, Abe Brothman, and telling him his real name. Because Elizabeth Bentley had earlier handled Brothman and because Bentley was talking to the FBI, the end of the ball of string that was attached to Bentley eventually reached to Brothman, then to Gold, and on to those attached to him, particularly Slack and Greenglass--and from Greenglass, of course, to the Rosenbergs. Beginning in May 1947, Gold and Brothman were able to lie their way through an initial FBI investigation and a grand jury. Harry eventually left Brothman, returned to Philadelphia, and begun work as a research biochemist at Philadelphia General Hospital's Heart Station. Hornblum uses Gold's two years in that job to emphasize how hard working, dedicated to task, and well accepted he was.

Meanwhile, leads developed by the FBI from the Army Security Agency's decryptions in the Venona project had been passed to MI5, which was on the trail of Klaus Fuchs. In January 1950, Fuchs confessed, and by March he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 14 years in prison for violating the Official Secrets Act. Meantime, the FBI was hunting for Fuchs's American contact. Winnowing through bits and pieces of information, including physical descriptions and indications that the contact known to Fuchs only as "Raymond" might be a chemist, the FBI decided that Harry Gold could be their man. In mid-May 1950, the FBI launched a full-court press that Hornblum suggests stretched the bounds of legality. The FBI subjected Gold to long interrogations without an attorney present, and Harry tried to lie his way out of trouble. Finally, a search of his home uncovered enough incriminating evidence that Harry broke and confessed. He was arraigned on espionage charges on May 23, 1950. Hornblum's detailing of the sequence of events refutes the accusation by Alexander Feklisov, Julius Rosenberg's KGB case officer, that Gold had betrayed Fuchs to the FBI in 1949.(4)


The part of The Invisible Harry Gold that begins with Gold's arrest takes the reader through his trial; his moments on center stage testifying at various trials, including as a corroborating witness at the trial of the Rosenbergs, and to a Senate subcommittee; his 16 years in prison; and, from his release in 1966 until his death in 1972, his later life working at John F. Kennedy Hospital in Philadelphia. Throughout this part of the story, the focus is on Gold the person and the many positive things he did in prison and out, such as developing a blood sugar test for which he received a patent. Regrettably, there are repetitions of earlier parts of the book, especially in reciting the attitudes of acquaintances and coworkers (there are only so many ways to say that someone is kind, generous, and gentle). However, Hornblum's effort certainly documents the resilience of the person that was Harry Gold.

To this reader, the heroes in these later years are the court-appointed attorneys who took on Gold's case for no reason other than a belief that every defendant deserves competent counsel. Former chair of the Republican National Committee John D. M. Hamilton and the young associate he picked to assist him, Augustus S. Ballard, worked assiduously to assist a defendant whose guilty plea and confession had already doomed him. They were, nonetheless, shocked when the judge sentenced Gold to 30 years in prison. (Slack had been given 10 years; David Greenglass received 15 years.) The invective directed against the two lawyers was intense, but they persevered through the trial and during Harry's time in prison. It was Ballard who was at the prison with Harry's brother to pick him on his release in 1966. That level of dedication by attorneys to a controversial and non-paying client deserves special mention.

The author succeeds in making Gold a more fully realized individual than he has been seen previously. Hornblum also manages to relate the career of an important Soviet spy without getting mired in the jargon of the world of espionage, a failing of some who write about intelligence without sufficient background in the field. Given this fresh look, how do I feel about Harry Gold? It is relatively easy to accept the conclusion of the author and of Gold's attorneys that Harry was a basically decent person. That does not, however, make him a sympathetic character in the dramas of his day--or in retrospect. He remains a person who willingly allowed himself to be used for purposes that he knew from the outset were wrong. Gold's description of his actions as "a horrible mistake" does not begin to excuse him for 15 years of such mistakes. The years he spent in prison seem to be a fair punishment for the crime he committed.


1. Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison (London and Portland, OR: Routledge, 1998); Confessions of a Second Story Man: Junior Kripplebauer and the K & A Gang (Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2006); and Sentenced to Science: One Black Man's Story of Imprisonment in America (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007).

2. See, for example, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009); John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999); and Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America--The Stalin Era (New York: Random House, 1999).

3. Benjamin B. Fischer, "Farewell to Sonia, the Spy Who Haunted Britain," International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 15, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 70. See also, Kuczynski's autobiography, published under her nom de plume: Ruth Werner, Sonya's Report: The Fascinating Autobiography of One of Russia's Most Remarkable Secret Agents (London: Chatto & Windrus, 1991).

4. Alexander Feklisov and Sergei Kostin, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs: Memoirs of the KGB Spymaster Who Also Controlled Klaus Fuchs and Helped Resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Enigma Books, 2001), p. 240.

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