Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Invisible Harry Gold - book

The Invisible Harry Gold The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atomic Bomb, Allen M. Hornblum (Yale University Press, 2010)

This is an incredible true story of Soviet espionage in the United States in which Heinrich Golodnitsky, born in the Ukraine in 1910, came with his parents to the United States at age three, became Harry Gold, grew up in poverty, a victim of extreme anti-Semitism in South Philadelphia, went on to become a talented chemist, secretly spied for the Soviet Union for eleven years before being exposed, went to prison in disgrace for fifteen years, was finally released to the cheers and encouragement of his fellow inmates, was happily reunited with his father and brother, and continued to make important contributions to medical science until his death in 1972. I loved this book and had trouble putting it down until I had finished it. It is fascinating for several reasons, and on different levels.

First, it is about spies, Soviet spies in the United States. But there are no car chases, shootings, high tech gadgets, trysts on the beach with nubile young ladies in bikinis, no disappearing ink, or other romantic accounts of how exciting it is to be a spy. In fact it reveals the truth about espionage, the basic nitty gritty of the occupation, the endless hours spent waiting for someone, the sacrifice of time and money, the almost unbelievable security, the small rewards for time spent, and the constant fear of exposure. There is little or nothing romantic about it, a sordid business at best, but also enormously successful for the Russians who managed to steal the secrets of the atomic bomb and much, much more for many years.

Second, it demonstrates that the most common motive for spying had little or nothing to do with money (in fact the Soviets looked down on spies who did it for money). The most dedicated spies, like Harry Gold, Klaus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs, and others, were true believers in the promise of the great Soviet experiment. Although Gold was offered money on many occasions he always declined. In fact his spying career cost him dearly both financially and in time away from his family and his work. When he was first recruited as a spy he believed he was helping Russia, not damaging the United States (remember at this time Russia and the U.S. were more allies than enemies). Gold was led to believe, as were many others, that Russia was passing laws to outlaw anti-Semitism and was, in fact, the greatest bulwark against Hitler and Fascism. They were embarked on what was thought was a grand experiment to better the lives of all people. Although he was repeatedly urged to join the Communist Party, Gold consistently refused and was never a member. In fact, he thought the people he saw at the few meeting he attended were disgusting. He truly believed he was helping his homeland to bring about a better world. It is true that later, when Communism was known to have failed and Stalinism was at its worst, Gold had serious doubts, but by that time he was so involved and so fearful of being exposed he had little choice but to continue. He knew he was doing wrong but was in the clutches of the KGB.

Third, this is a remarkable account of how persistence, patience and hard work eventually brought about success. Harry Gold was fascinated by chemistry at an early age and wanted desperately to go to college to study. But it was during the worst of the depression, his father, a cabinet maker who barely spoke English, could not find work, his mother who taught Hebrew part time saw her students disappear, his brother Yus (Joe) was too young. Harry withdrew from the University and found whatever jobs he could to keep the family going. Later, when he had fallen into disgrace, his father and brother stood by him, visiting him in jail regularly, defending him as best they could, and always believing he had done what he believed in to the best of his ability. It is a remarkable tale of family loyalty.

Fourth, there are the two extraordinary lawyers who agreed to defend a Soviet spy during the worst of the great Communist scare. No lawyer wanted to touch the case, so when a famous lawyer who had once been head of the Republican Party was asked, he agreed, risking his reputation, and taking on the defense for no fee whatsoever. He chose a young assistant who also risked his career, but the two of them did everything possible for years to help Gold and finally helped him get an early release from prison. They became friends after their years of collaboration and believed that Harry had received an unfair sentence due to the political climate of the time. Although they had to endure all kinds of hate mail and criticism, even from their own firm, they believed in justice for all and set a standard that has never been surpassed.

Fifth, and perhaps the most important, there was the remarkable character of Harry Gold himself. Small and sickly as a child, subjected to vicious anti-Semitism, and watching his father be even more persecuted, he never gave up, never complained, never faltered. He loved sports of all kinds and followed them even though he could not participate. He had an almost superhuman capacity for work, putting in extremely long days at whatever he was doing, willing to help others at all times, pleasant and soft-spoken, shy, and in many ways rather nondescript, he was nevertheless intelligent and driven to succeed. His greatest failure was apparently his inability to say “no” to people, a trait that many thought had to do with his recruitment to spying. Even in prison he was an exemplary inmate, working long hours in the prison laboratory, volunteering for experimental drugs, and so on. When he entered prison he was a truly despised figure, not only a spy, but worse, a “snitcher,” a “stool pigeon” who had “ratted” on his friends and colleagues, including the Rosenbergs who were executed partly as a result of his testimony. But in fact Gold had only told the truth as he set out to do once he was exposed. He admitted his great mistake and tried to compensate for it by cooperating completely with the authorities and virtually destroying the Soviet spying apparatus for a time. He was viciously attacked by those who supported the Rosenbergs and tried to show he had collaborated with the FBI to falsely accuse them. Of course we know now that Julius Rosenberg was guilty (his wife less so, but I do not believe they should have been executed), and the terrible accusations against Gold were false. Gold was such a remarkable person that when he died some claimed that “Everybody loved Harry,” not bad for a Soviet spy that helped turn over our atomic secrets, and was probably the least selfish person who ever lived.

I cannot do justice to this really fine, meticulously researched, and informative book. I think it is one of the best and most interesting books I have ever read, and I have read a good many by now.

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