Another Quiet American

On May 23, 1950, the FBI arrested Harry Gold, a 49-year-old chemist who lived with his father in Philadelphia. The FBI accused him of being a Soviet espionage agent—the man who, as a courier, literally gave the Russians the secrets of the atomic bomb. Though other Soviet spies from that era—Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—remain notorious to this day, Gold has faded from the story. Allen M. Hornblum offers a welcome corrective with the biography “The Invisible Harry Gold.”

Gold was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants—he was born in Switzerland in 1910 before his parents made their way to America. While studying chemical engineering at Drexel University in the mid-1930s, he was recruited as a Soviet spy. Thus began a 15-year espionage career that began with the theft of industrial secrets—Gold later said that he just wanted to make life easier for the Soviet people—and ended with his passing information from the Manhattan Project, provided by physicist Klaus Fuchs, to the Soviet Union. Gold confessed to his crimes, and his testimony would help convict the Rosenbergs.

Off the Cuffs:Harry Gold, 1950

Gold has long been a riddle. To his supporters, he was a shy, decent man whose total being seemed at odds with his secret life. To his critics— not a few of them on the left—he was a liar and a psychopath who sought fame as a government witness. Mr. Hornblum calls him “one of the most denounced, slandered, and demonized figures in twentieth-century America,” which may be excessive, but Harry Gold was certainly loathed by many.

Mr. Hornblum presents us with a balanced portrait, tracing Gold’s hardscrabble young life, his slow entanglement with the Soviet espionage network and the many unhappy years he spent working on Moscow’s behalf. Gold was never much of an ideologue but was grateful for a job that a communist friend helped him to land. He was naïve enough to believe that the Soviet Union was actually fighting anti-Semitism, and he was easily bullied into continuing to work with the Soviets whenever he tried to return to a normal life. During World War II he could even convince himself that he was sharing secrets with America’s wartime partner—and thus not undermining his own country’s security.

Gold didn’t confess until the FBI tracked him down, but shortly after his arrest he began cooperating fully. Sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment (a longer sentence than the government had requested), he was paroled in 1965. He went to work at a hospital, where Gold was, according to Mr. Hornblum, a beloved employee with many friends. When Gold died in 1972, he had kept such a low profile that a year would pass before newspapers noticed.

“I have never intended any harm to the United States,” Gold wrote from prison. “For I have always steadfastly considered that first and finally I am an American citizen. This is my country and I love it.” If Gold had not cooperated with authorities, Mr. Hornblum writes, it is unlikely that he could have been convicted: Fuchs, the physicist, had confessed, too, but he was being held by the British and would probably not have been allowed to testify. If Gold had not implicated other spies, the author notes, they might well have escaped.

“How did such a gentle, apolitical person,” Mr. Hornblum asks, “get caught up in the ‘crime of the century’?” This finely crafted biography gives us the most complete answer we are ever likely to have.

Mr. Ybarra writes about art, literature and extreme sports for the Journal.


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