The Manhattan Project

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Robert Lamphere's Interview - Part 3

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FBI agent Robert Lamphere supervised investigations of Soviet atomic spies during the early years of the Cold War. He interrogated Klaus Fuchs in London in 1950. In this interview, Lamphere traces the activities of various members of the Soviet spy network in the West, including Fuchs, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the defector Igor Gouzenko. He also gives his opinion on McCarthyism and discusses why the Rosenbergs’ defenders have continued to assert their innocence.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
May 31, 1994
Location of the Interview: 

Richard Rhodes: I really am going to have to go through and revise the Perseus discussion, I think.

Robert Lamphere: It’s got Lona [Cohen] and the tissue thing. I think it became a story that she told. But who’s to know?

I just found that Greenglass’s information on implosion was the first news the Soviets had of it. I just found that fascinating because I learned something.

Rhodes: It’s probably the reason they were willing to cross the two nets.

Lamphere: Did you ever read the book Intrepid? Stephenson, Intrepid? Don’t.

Rhodes: It was a little off my subject.

Lamphere: Sir William Stephenson was the head of the British Security Coordinator’s office in New York City during the war. He had quite a bit to do with setting up the OSS. Years after, another man with a slightly different name of [William] Stevenson wrote a book on Sir William Stephenson called A Man Called Intrepid. I think you use that name.

Rhodes: I saw it on the shelf.

Lamphere: You have him here going to [Igor] Gouzenko’s apartment when Gouzenko was trying to defect. Well, if you read A Man Called Intrepid, I don’t know why we needed [Winston] Churchill or anybody else in high levels because he won the war singlehandedly. It’s the most slanted book I ever read in my life, which makes me have some doubts about him being outside of Gouzenko’s apartment at the time. He may have been. He had something to do with it. I think he had something to do with influencing the RCMP and more importantly, the Canadian government. But I don’t see him there, Stephenson, going to [Norman] Robertson’s after visiting Gouzenko’s building. 

Rhodes: That’s a little too hands-on.

Lamphere: Yeah. 

Rhodes: What page is that?

Lamphere: 306.

Rhodes: Great. I’ll take the reference that if it’s that book.

Lamphere: Well, I guess it doesn’t do any harm for you to have it there.

Rhodes: See, there’s a new book about Gouzenko that was just published a year or two ago by a reporter who went back and interviewed all the people who had contact with Gouzenko. It’s full of wonderful stories because Gouzenko was a typical Russian in a lot of ways. 

Lamphere: One of my best friends was the RCMP in DC during the time when the FBI was – the RCMP representative of the FBI. So you sort of got the inside look in things. The RCMP guy that had to deal with him all the time said he was a bastard to get along with and to handle, and they hated his guts.

Rhodes: That’s what comes through in this book very much. He was a very difficult man.

Lamphere: There’s somebody up there that’s – I haven’t had contact with him yet, but he’s writing a new book on that same era.

Rhodes: Well, this book really is a compilation of interviews with a lot of people. The reporter he talked to at the Ottawa Journal, and so on. It sort of squares things a little. He distorted the story a little bit in his book. Sometimes, I think, to protect people’s identity. 

Lamphere: Well, the Canadian government sure didn’t look good initially on that thing at all.

Rhodes: That’s something I was curious about. I wonder–did you have a feeling that everybody was really wishing this would all disappear under the table somewhere, these revelations as they came out? People didn’t look good.

Lamphere: Well, certainly, not from my end, of course. I mean we were just hungry for anybody. [Inaudible] I personally learned a lot from reading, you know, the stories and lives of those people. And then, as I said earlier, interviewing people that had been part of the history of the Communist movement, etc. The FBI guys were hungry.

But we had in that post war period, we had a lot of–up to Eleanor Roosevelt herself, a lot of people that were very, very sympathetic to what we’d call the “pinkos” and associated with them. I was never way over on the right on the whole subject, but guys like me were actually worried that somehow, this country was going to go in the wrong direction.  

Rhodes: Yeah.

Lamphere: You know I never was where Hoover was or the top people with him at all. Hated [Senator Joseph] McCarthy. I was a lecturer at Hiram College here some years back on McCarthyism. Spent a lot of time preparing a paper on him, and I think McCarthy did more damage than anybody else to the honest cause of anti-Communism. Nobody could’ve hurt us as much as he did. I said so.

Rhodes: It still cascades all the way down to today. I talked to some people about this. They said, “Oh, do you really believe the Rosenbergs were guilty of this thing?”

Lamphere: Well, in my talk, I said that it was unfortunate. I thought that the left–some left liberals, even to this day, refuse to believe that Alger Hiss was guilty or that the Rosenbergs were guilty. [Victor] Navasky, the editor of The Nation, was in the audience. He stood up and spent about eight to ten minutes saying how they had examined all the footnotes in the [Allen] Weinstein book, which proved that these people had not said what Weinstein said in his book, etc., etc., on and on. And finally he said, “What comment do you have to that, Mr. Lamphere?”

I said, “I think you just proved my point.”

But that’s where they were, you know? They refused. Can you imagine spending hundreds of hours examining footnotes to see whether they do or don’t? And Weinstein, a pretty careful writer. I’m sure if you examine anybody’s footnotes, you could find an error in most writers’, somewhere, somehow. 

Rhodes: Sure. No, I think the book that stunned me was the ­­­­[Walter and Miriam] Schneirs’ book. It’s hard to believe they managed to put that paranoid picture together.

Lamphere: I can give you the whole history on that. He wrote the name of the first writer who wrote the thing that was then picked up in the French Communist press and the Italian press, etc., etc., and then by a writer over here and then by the Schneirs, who built that whole damn book around the fact that they didn’t – this registration discrepancy had a different date. As I said, “some forgery if the FBI can’t get the date from the front and back of a card right!”

Rhodes: [Laughter] Yeah.

Lamphere: That whole book is built around that one – they had to discredit that particular piece. Then the lawyer for the Meeropols [the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg] – what was his name? He made a trip over to see [Klaus] Fuchs in East Germany. He came back and he said that Fuchs had never identified [Harry] Gold.

Rhodes: Yeah, we were discussing that.

Lamphere: Here’s a lawyer who goes over, and he didn’t come back with even a documented statement. I’ve got this photo in my book, which shows right on the back in his writing, “I hereby identify this as the man I knew as–” It reached any lengths, and why?

Rhodes: The trouble is people really still believe them.

Lamphere: And people still believe them.

Rhodes: That’s why the [Pavel] Sudoplatov thing is so annoying because it will float around forever.

Lamphere: On page 307, you’ve got Gouzenko “spoke of the Vice Consul at New York,” i.e., [Anatoly] Yakovlev [Anatoly Yatskov]. That’s not correct. The Vice Counsel was Pavel Mikhailov, who was the head of the GRU of New York at that time. Pavel Mikhailov – M-I-K-H-A-I-L.

Rhodes: It’s that Vice Consul that he spoke of. Yakovlev became Vice Consul in ’46 if I remember. He was promoted after the war.

Lamphere: Well, he may have been promoted.

Rhodes: Yeah.

Lamphere: But the guy he’s talking about in any event is Mikhailov.

Rhodes: Great.

Lamphere: I guess I was just sort of curious about Yakovlev with his high level informants in Washington had heard – I didn’t check your source but you’d be referring, I guess, to [Donald] Maclean. How good is your information, you know, or where you got it?

Rhodes: I don’t offhand remember. But I’ll check it and see.

Lamphere: It’s sort of interesting to me that you were saying that there was information out that Fuchs would be returning to England.

Rhodes: Well, according to Gold, Yakovlev asked him to give Fuchs the contact sequence he would need at the September 19 meeting that they had in Santa Fe. I think on that basis, Gold assumed that they knew that Fuchs was leaving or would be going back to England.

Lamphere: Yeah, just sort of interesting to me that they had that good of a source. 

Rhodes: But again, you know, that’s confusing because you remember when Gold finally reconnected with Yakovlev. He met this other guy, Yakovlev’s boss, at the Earl Theatre in the Bronx. That was that last meeting when Yakovlev says, “You ruined everything.”

The man’s first remark to Gold was, “Do you have something for us from the doctor?” Which was a year after his last contact. I was curious that the man would expect that Gold did have something for them from the doctor. There’s something muddled about that whole period of time that I– 

Lamphere: I also think – I think there’s information to support it – that Yakovlev didn’t have a boss. That Yakovlev was the resident in New York. 

Rhodes: Rather than an assistant to the resident.

Lamphere: I interviewed his successor after he was – died before I got there – very briefly. God, the guy started sweating all over the place, perspiration running down his face.

Rhodes: You mean when you went to Moscow?

Lamphere: March of a year ago.

Rhodes: Oh.

Lamphere: What happened was the producer had gotten him into their little apartment suite, and they were sitting there talking to him with another member of the team who was Russian, fluent in Russian. And I was supposed to drop in, which I did. I can’t think of the guy’s name at the moment. But anyway, according to what he said, he followed Yakovlev as the resident there, and I’d never heard of him before. I can’t remember his name. And then somewhere, I heard the name recently. Fedesimov? You didn’t use that name.

Rhodes: No.

Lamphere: As I remember, he was there, but I didn’t know him as KGB at all. But whoever this guy was I talked to briefly–he and I got a little more friendly. I would’ve loved to spend a week with him, you know?

Rhodes: Yeah, sure.

Lamphere: But I spent a few minutes, actually. Of course, it’s expensive to go over there on your own.

Rhodes: Terribly. I was over there because I did some pieces for Rolling Stone magazine about present-day things. They paid the bill, but my God, the hotels were outrageous, two, three hundred dollars a night. It was like New York. 

Lamphere: I stayed in the Ukrainian, which was near where these guys had their apartment. God almighty, I wasn’t feeling good anywhere. I have never seen as noisy a hotel in my life. There must’ve been watchdogs down inside because my room was facing in. They bark all night. And I’m up on, you know, like the fifteenth floor or something or other. I’m not right down next to them. I had a hell of a time sleeping and I wasn’t feeling good anyway.

Rhodes: So as far as you know, [Anatoli] Yatskov was the KGB resident during the war?

Lamphere: I think so. I think so.

Rhodes: Because that was not clear, I think, in the record, to me.

Lamphere: Well, it’s not. I’m not absolutely positive of it either. I don’t know how it would check out. What do you say? “Once again David Greenglass’s ad hoc information would usefully corroborate Fuchs’s scientifically accurate account.” I just liked it because all these years of fighting didn’t make Greenglass–you know, he’s a machinist! He’s no Klaus Fuchs. 

Rhodes: Sure, but he was taking those initiators and shaving them off and polishing it so they could study them.

Lamphere: And he understood from his boss what that whole thing was all about.

Rhodes: His description of the bomb was certainly garbled, but it was certainly helpful. Some of this other information was very helpful.

Lamphere: I always found it sort of interesting, too, that when he came home for Christmas that time, [Julius] Rosenberg describes to him a bomb. Not the bomb he’s working on, but–

Rhodes: That was, without question, because I got the Russian versions. That was the bomb that Georgy Flyorov had originally proposed to [Igor] Kurchatov, to Stalin. It was essentially a gun design, which is what everybody thought of first.

Lamphere: If you want to think about the Rosenbergs–were they involved in espionage for the KGB? What better evidence have you got than that?

Rhodes: Sure. Where would they have gotten this idea? Absolutely.

Lamphere: Oh, on [page] 345. “Later, meeting in Los Alamos.” I just put a question mark.

Rhodes: After the war?

Lamphere: Yeah. 

Rhodes: Yeah. I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m speculating there.

Lamphere: I guess I missed – let me look at it.

Rhodes: I may have stated the case more strongly than I have evidence for it.

Lamphere: “Harry Gold insists he had no further contacts with Fuchs after their September 9 meeting. Fuchs himself confessed in ’50 to several further meetings with a Russian agent in Santa Fe in ’44 and in spring of ’46.” I had forgotten that. Did he confess that to me? 

Rhodes: No, it’s in his interview with [Michael] Perrin.

Lamphere: Oh, okay.

Rhodes: It’s the only reference in any of the interviews with him to that supposedly later set of meetings. And that it seems like an odd thing to make a mistake about.

Lamphere: Absolutely. I’d always been so positive that his only contact – which is what he told me.

Rhodes: But he was very good about not admitting to a contact until you or someone else knew there was such a contact. 

Lamphere: Yeah. From the minute I started talking to him, he was very adamant. He didn’t want to get anybody else in trouble. He was, “I’m guilty but–”. And he was very suspicious–

Rhodes: Denied having a phone call. When Gold and Yatskov reconnected with him in the fall of ’44 after he went to Los Alamos, Gold told that whole story about, “I left a card with a phone number on it that Yatskov gave to me. And Fuchs then called Yatskov. Yatskov came to Philadelphia. Gold remembered vividly because it was a snowy day, and the guy had had trouble getting there and so on.” Fuchs always denied that he ever made that phone call that closed that loop.

Lamphere: Again, this is this conference in Maclean and Fuchs attended. I swear to God, I never knew about that.  How the hell wouldn’t I have known about that? 

Rhodes: You mean that Fuchs attended it or that they both did? 

Lamphere: Yeah, that Fuchs attended it.

Rhodes: It was very thoroughly checked out in the FBI files.

Lamphere: Oh, I have no doubt about it at all. 

Rhodes: Yeah, they tracked everyone he met. He stopped off to see [Hans] Bethe, among others.

Lamphere: Well, I might’ve known about it back in the time, but I read that. The two of them together in a meeting?

Rhodes: I know.

Lamphere: I guess even when I was working the Maclean case, I didn’t really realize how active Maclean had been in the whole atomic energy field. My concentration was primarily on the fact that he knew everything that was going on between the US government and even right down to the cables between Truman and Churchill.

Rhodes: Looks like he maneuvered himself over to be involved in that. He really was the assistant British–whatever the title was of the combined policy committee. As I will show later, he was also at the very top-secret formative meeting of NATO, which was at the Pentagon. It was all elaborately set up so that nobody would know it was happening. He was attending it. This would come the spring of ’48, I think.

Lamphere: Yeah, yeah.

Rhodes: Yeah. He really was in the middle of it all. This is very – well, you know, when I finished the draft of the other book [The Making of the Atomic Bomb], we sent it out to some people to get some quotes, including a couple of Nobel laureate physicists who worked on the bomb. And two of them volunteered to go through the book and fix my physics, which wasn’t always very good. So that’s what this is for. 

Lamphere: Well, I think maybe if I was feeling better, I could’ve done a better job on it. I really – when I went through this yesterday, I thought, “Hell, you haven’t come up with very much.” 

Rhodes: Well, that’s good. 

Lamphere: But I think well of what you do.

Rhodes: Excellent, good. It’s fascinating to put the Russian side together with the American side as much as we can.

Lamphere:  How are you going to finish it up? How much more you got to go?