The Spy Who Changed the World

Title:                      The Spy Who Changed the World

Author:                  Mike Rossiter

Rossiter, Mike (2014). The Spy Who Changed the World: Klaus Fuchs and the Secrets of the Nuclear Bomb. London : Headline

OCLC:    881346616

UB271.R92 S79 2014

Brilliant German physicist Klaus Fuchs worked on the Manhattan Project and developed many of the significant calculations that led to the creation of nuclear weaponry. He was also a spy. When the three leaders of the victorious allies, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, met at Potsdam in July 1945, President Truman announced to Stalin that the US had a new and devastating weapon. Observers report that Stalin paid no attention to this remark. In fact, Stalin was well aware of the existence of the atomic bomb, and the Soviet Union was rapidly developing its own. Stalin owed his knowledge to the atomic scientist Dr Klaus Fuchs, who can lay claim to being the most successful spy in history. A refugee from Nazi Germany, entrusted with crucial work at the very heart of the British and American nuclear weapons project, Fuchs gave every piece of information he had to the KGB, the Russian intelligence agency. His espionage accelerated the start of the Cold War between Russia and the West, and caused a split between the US and British governments that forced Britain to build its own atomic weapons. The world that Fuchs helped create remained in the grip of a nuclear stand off for a generation

Date Posted:      October 2, 2015

Compiled and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake.[1]

In mid-September 1949, FBI special agent Robert Lamphere “found a startling bit of information in a newly deciphered 1944 KGB message … that seemed to have come from inside the Manhattan Project.” The investigation he conducted pointed directly at British atomic physicist Klaus Fuchs as the KGB source. MI5 was informed, and it began an inquiry. “Over a period of several weeks in December 1949,” Lamphere wrote, MI5 interrogator Jim “Skardon met with Fuchs and started to gain his confidence.”[2] On 24 January 1950, Fuchs confessed. What Skardon said in those meetings remained secret within MI5 for the next 60 years. In The Spy Who Changed the World, military historian Mike Rossiter draws on recently released MI5 files, which revealed details of Skardon’s approach and much more about the Fuchs case.

Fuchs was a committed communist when he arrived in England as a refugee from Nazi Germany in September 1933. Having studied physics at the University of Leipzig, he was accepted at the University of Bristol, where he earned his PhD. He then moved to the University of Edinburgh, where he worked until WWII started. Briefly interned in Canada, he returned to Britain in 1941, with the help of colleagues, and began work on the Tube Alloys project (Britain’s atomic research program). It was then that he started spying for the Soviet Union.

Among the many issues that have puzzled historians about Fuchs’ career is why he was made a British citizen and cleared by MI5 to work on the atomic bomb. According to Rossiter, Fuchs’ communist views and connections in England were well known among his friends and colleagues before the war. And some MI5 officers knew but were ignored. It is now clear from the released MI5 records that had a proper background investigation been conducted, Fuchs would never have been allowed to participate in Tube Alloys. The folly was compounded when Fuchs was assigned to work on the Manhattan Project and the British assured US Army counterintelligence that they had vetted him when they really had not.

While the book’s title, The Spy Who Changed the World, is probably an exaggeration of Fuchs’ contribution to the Soviet atom bomb program, Rossiter’s account of his role leaves little doubt that it was substantial. This view was echoed by the Russian atomic scientists that Rossiter interviewed, though few specifics are provided. The narrative also adds details of Fuchs’ walk-in recruitment, other communists he referred to the KGB, and how he met and worked with his handlers. Rossiter deals at some length with Fuchs’ relationship with his final KGB handler, Alexander Feklisov, the former Rosenberg case officer. Rossiter mistakenly writes that Feklisov once “worked under the name of Yuri Modin” (p. 182); Modin was the KGB officer handling the Cambridge agents at the time.

Rossiter’s account of how Fuchs reluctantly identified Harry Gold as “Raymond,” his KGB contact in the United States, adds some new background details, but nothing that changes Gold’s story. Rossiter con-cludes his bookwith some new material about Fuchs’ life in Britain and East Germany after he was released from prison.

The one question that remains unanswered, Rossiter notes, is why Fuchs confessed. There was no evidence against him that could be used in court. And he could have retracted his confession at any time until sentencing; he didn’t do that, either. Rossiter puzzles over the situation and is forced to acknowledge it will remain a mystery at least until more files are released.

The Spy Who Changed the World is the most comprehensive account pf the Fuchs case to date, but it suffers a major shortcoming. None of the many quotations and facts mentioned are specifically sourced. Thus it is not the last word.

[1] Hayden Peake, “Intelligence Officer Bookshelf,” The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Stuidies (21, 2, Spring/Summer 2015, p. 132)Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of his reviews cited have appeared in recent unclassified editions of ClA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at

[2] Lamphere, Robert J. (1986, 1995). The FBI-KGB War. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, pp. 133-136

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