Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Why I Like Traitors

Fresh off a book about Benedict Arnold, my brand new title is full of, well, more traitors.

Bomb: the Race to Make—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon features a cast of thousands! Okay, dozens. Anyway, there are a quite a few who betray their country in one way or another.  

The German-born physicist, Klaus Fuchs, was attracted to communism in the early 1930s, largely because communists were the only ones standing up to Hitler. But when Nazi thugs beat Fuchs and tossed him in a river, he realized it was time to leave his homeland. He fled to Britain, finished his studies, became a citizen, and was recruited into Britain’s atomic bomb program soon after World War II began. Almost immediately he started sharing atomic secrets with Soviet spies, and continued doing so after he was transferred to Los Alamos. He never thought of this as treason. To him, the Soviets were allies of Britain and America, and were doing the bulk of the bloody fighting against Germany. By his own admission, Fuchs never stopped to consider how he was betraying his friends or his adopted country—until after he was caught.
Not a mug shot - Fuchs' Los Alamos ID badge

Mild-mannered Harry Gold, the unlikeliest of spies, was working at a Philadelphia chemical plant during the depths of the Depression. Gold had what one friend called “an almost puppy-like eagerness to please,” and when a pal asked him sneak out some documents with industrial secrets, Gold agreed. He knew they’d be given to the Soviets, but didn’t see any harm, and even liked the idea that these formulas might somehow help Soviet workers build better lives. By the time he decided to quit pilfering the papers, it was too late. A KGB agent met Gold on a dark street corner and warned him he’d be ruined—exposed to his boss and family—unless he continued cooperating. Within a few years, he became the courier who carried atomic bomb plans from Fuchs to the KGB.

Thinking: "Yes, I'm smarter than you."
Math and physics prodigy Ted Hall graduated Harvard at 18, and was immediately assigned to the Manhattan Project. Thrown right into the experiments and tests, he soon knew almost as much as anyone at Los Alamos about atomic bomb construction. Though never recruited, he decided to share these secrets with the Russians. Looking ahead to a post-war future, Hall figured the world would be a safer place if two countries, rather than just one, had atomic bombs. That way, he reasoned, both sides would be afraid to use them. Years later he admitted to another motivating factor: “I was a very arrogant teenager.”

They didn't give these to just anyone

Some spies, like Massachusetts-born Lona Cohen, were simply committed communists. She was a KGB courier during the war, continued spying for the Soviets into the 1950s, and never expressed any regrets, even after being tossed in a British jail. Others, most notably Robert Oppenheimer, were suspected of treason on flimsy evidence. The FBI knew of Oppenheimer’s flirtation with communism in the 1930s, and objected to his appointment as Los Alamos director. Suspicious army intelligence agents tapped his phones and read his mail—even Oppenheimer’s personal driver was a government agent. Though no evidence of disloyalty ever surfaced, many in Washington continued to distrust the physicist, especially after he began speaking out against the escalating arms race. Was it really unpatriotic to oppose development of the hydrogen bomb? Maybe not, but the government publicly stripped him of his security clearance in 1954, declaring him unfit to have access to American secrets.

I guess the real question is: why are traitors so compelling? It’s partly that, as a writer, you get a character who’s doing something dangerous, secret, and controversial, and that certainly helps create engaging scenes. And also, these kinds of characters challenge us to see things from multiple points of view, and maybe even force us to rethink our assumptions of right and wrong.

In a 1938 essay, E.M. Forster famously declared, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” At first glance it’s a shocking suggestion, but it sure makes you think. And that’s the whole idea.


Gretchen Woelfle said...

Dear Readers:
Run, don't walk, to your nearest independent bookstore to buy a copy of BOMB! It's a heartstopping pageturner. Steve's cast of characters is thrilling and his narrative voice masterful!

Well done, Steve!

Steve Sheinkin said...

Thanks, Gretchen! As Barbara says in today's post, you can't make this kind of stuff up.