- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2010

By Allen M. Hornblum
Yale University Press, $32.50, 480 pages

Despite the enormity of his crime - he was a key figure in the Rosenberg atomic spy ring of the 1940s - one feels some sympathy for Harry Gold. He was a poster-boy nebbish, an impoverished South Philadelphia Jewish kid, a pudgy runt who suffered bullying throughout school, never had a physical relationship with a woman and worked for the Soviets because they opposed anti-Semitism (or so he thought).

His Soviet spy handlers treated poor Harry abysmally, dispatching him hither and yon for meetings where he passed along pilfered documents. Dreary bus rides and day coach train trips, often at his own expense, stretched his days to 20 hours, juggling a job with college and spying. Many times his contact did not show, leaving Gold standing alone in the rain and dark.

When the FBI finally caught up with him, at age 39, Gold quickly confessed his years of service to Soviet intelligence. He admitted that he transported top-secret documents from the Los Alamos atomic site to intermediaries. He named names, many names. FBI supervisor Robert Lamphere said his statements “opened 49 separate cases.” Many targets were convicted and imprisoned; others fled the country. Gold received a 30-year prison term.

Allen Hornblum’s title is certainly apt, for Gold truly was the “invisible man” in the Rosenberg case that riveted the nation’s attention at midcentury. Communists and other leftists ran a vociferous (and futile) worldwide campaign to stop the 1953 executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Gold was vilified as a “pathological creature” and a “traitor” to his friends.

All the blather was for naught. The last prop was knocked from under the “innocent Rosenbergs” talk in 2008 when Morton Sobell, who was convicted along with them, told Sam Roberts of the New York Times that he and the Rosenbergs in fact had spied for the USSR (he continued to deny that they stole atomic secrets). Recently released KGB archives also confirmed their spying.

Oddly, Mr. Hornblum’s exhaustively researched book, some eight years in the making, overlooks Mr. Sobell’s recantation. No matter. He interviewed more than 50 people, including Gold’s one-time neighbors and guards, and read thousands of pages seeking the answer to why Gold was lured into spying. He obtained hours of recordings of jailhouse interviews with Gold conducted by his legal team (led by a former chairman of the Republican National Committee). His book injects the needed human element into an oft-told story.

Although he dabbled in leftist causes, Gold never was a communist, dismissing them as “despicable bohemians who prattled of free love … lazy bums who would never work under any economic system.” He followed his father’s lead: Work hard and don’t complain. He began as an entry-level chemist at the Pennsylvania Sugar Co., attending night classes off and on.

The Soviets lured Gold into spying through adroit tradecraft that the KGB and GRU mastered over the years. They began by persuading him to steal “harmless” commercial trade secrets from his employer to speed the USSR to modernization. Once hooked, he did not object when their attention turned to more substantive subjects - chemicals suitable for military explosives, for instance.

Despite their cavalier treatment of Gold, his Soviet handlers did instruct him in the rudiments of tradecraft. “To avoid surveillance, he should walk on the dark side of the street, and eat at restaurants with booths rather than at a table in the open.” If he thought he was being followed, he should stop and tie his shoes and look behind him. The side exit of a movie theater was a good place to ditch a trail.

The involved skein of events that led to his arrest - and the roundup of the atomic spies - began with the defection of Soviet agent Elizabeth Bentley, whose information led to the surveillance of her handlers. In due course, a photograph of Gold led to his identification as a courier.

Gold finally found his place in life. While in Holmesburg Penitentiary, he worked in the hospital laboratory and pored over books in the library. His abundant curiosity led him to experiment with a “practical and rapid blood sugar test” that would be of value in remote areas lacking state-of-the-art medical care. His defense attorney put him in touch with a Washington patent specialist and, in 1960, Gold was awarded patent No. 2,963,360. As Mr. Hornblum notes, Gold “had accomplished something that few other chemists had, and he had done it under less than ideal circumstances.”

Gold’s hospital work - he ignored the clock during emergencies - made him a beloved figure at Holmesburg, as Mr. Hornblum found through interviews with retired guards. One called him “the most extraordinary selfless person.” Nonetheless, the parole board regularly rejected his attorneys’ pleas that he be released. The circumstantial evidence is that the refusals were for fear of appearing “soft on a commie spy.”

Gold spent his post-prison years working as chief chemist at the John F. Kennedy Hospital in Philadelphia. When he died in 1972, few colleagues realized that their “endearing, if slightly eccentric” little chemist was the “master spy,” in the words of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, who gave the Soviets “the greatest prize of all: the secrets of the atomic bomb.” Gold was guilty; he admitted it, he served his time, he had a post-prison life. Morton Sobell, by contrast, continued protesting his innocence - in venues such as Vietnam and Cuba - until Soviet documents made further lies futile. One can admire Harry Gold for reconstructing a life torn apart by communism.

Joseph C. Goulden has written 18 nonfiction books.

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