George Koval: Atomic Spy Unmasked | History | Smithsonian
Koval in an undated photograph from his FBI file. (FBI)

George Koval: Atomic Spy Unmasked

Iowa-born and army-trained, how did George Koval manage to steal a critical U.S. atom bomb secret for the Soviets?

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The old man had always been fiercely independent, and he entered his tenth decade with his mind clear, his memory keen and his fluent Russian still tinged with an American accent. His wife had died in 1999, and when his legs began to go he had trouble accepting help from his relatives in Moscow. He gradually withdrew from most human contact and died quietly on January 31, 2006, at age 92, taking his secrets to the grave.

A singular confluence of developments forced Zhorzh Abramovich Koval out of obscurity. First, over the past decade Western intelligence analysts and cold war historians began to grasp the role of the GRU, the Soviet (now Russian) military intelligence agency, in the development of the USSR's nuclear weapons program in the 1940s. Then in 2002, Russian historian Vladimir Lota published The GRU and the Atom Bomb. The book, which has yet to be translated into English, recounts the exploits of a GRU spy code-named Delmar, who, with the exception of the British scientist Klaus Fuchs, may have done more than anyone to help the Soviet Union achieve its sudden, shocking nuclear parity with the United States in 1949.

Most tellingly, in November 2007 Russian President Vladimir Putin posthumously awarded Koval, who had mustered out of the Red Army as a lowly private in 1949, a gold star marking him as a Hero of the Russian Federation—then publicly named him as Delmar. The spy's identity had been such a closely held secret that Putin himself, a former KGB officer, may have learned of it only in 2006, after he saw the man's portrait at a GRU museum opening and asked, in effect: who's that?

Ever since the award ceremony effectively blew Koval's cover, Western scholars have been revising the narrative of cold war espionage to account for his activities during the two years he worked at top-secret nuclear laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Dayton, Ohio. Beginning in the 1940s, intercepted Soviet intelligence cables helped implicate such KGB-run spies as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Harry Dexter White, a senior Treasury Department official under President Franklin Roosevelt who died of a heart attack shortly after he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948. But except for Whittaker Chambers—the American writer who spied for the GRU in the 1930s but became a prominent anti-Communist and a principal in the 1950 perjury conviction of former State Department official Alger Hiss over his Communist ties—"we knew next to nothing about the extent of the GRU's espionage operation against the Manhattan Project until the Koval thing came up," says John Earl Haynes, a historian at the Library of Congress and an authority on the cold war.

What can be gleaned so far—from Western and Soviet archives, FBI documents, current scholarship and interviews with Koval's surviving former colleagues in the United States and his relatives in Russia—is that he was perfectly positioned to steal information about one of the most crucial parts of the bomb, the device that initiates the nuclear reaction. This required not only careful planning, rigorous training and brazen lying, but also astounding turns of luck. And in contrast to the known KGB spies, Haynes notes, "Koval was a trained agent, not an American civilian. He was that rarity, which you see a lot in fiction but rarely in real life—a sleeper agent. A penetration agent. A professional officer."

Most unsettling, he was born in the United States. Scholars knew that much from Lota's book. Now, after Koval's unmasking, it is possible to trace the roots of his betrayal of his native land all the way back to Sioux City, Iowa.

Its official name was Central High School, but the red-brick Victorian fortress in Sioux City was better known as the Castle on the Hill. Built in 1892, it was a monument to the city's sense of itself at the turn of the century, when Sioux City seemed poised to become another Chicago, a center of culture and commerce that attracted migrants from back east and immigrants from Europe and Russia.

Those newcomers included a sizable Jewish community of merchants and craftsmen, who quickly erected synagogues and formed groups to support the chalutzim ("pioneers," in Hebrew) who were already beginning to settle in what would become Israel. Others brought with them some of the political and ideological movements then swirling across their homelands—including communism. Among these was Abram Koval, a carpenter who emigrated in 1910 from the Belorussian shtetl of Telekhany, near Minsk. He and his wife, Ethel Shenitsky Koval, raised three sons—Isaya, born in 1912; Zhorzh, or George, born on Christmas Day, 1913; and Gabriel, born in 1919—in a comfortable house not far from the Castle on the Hill.

In the 1950s, when the FBI assembled a dossier on Koval that ran to more than a thousand pages, neighbors recalled that young George spoke openly of his communist beliefs. In 1929, when he graduated from the Castle at the age of 15, he was in the Honor Society and the leading member of the debate squad. (That June he also had a prominent role in the class play: Nothing But the Truth.)

After graduation, George studied electrical engineering at the University of Iowa for two and a half years. But about the time the Great Depression put an end to Sioux City's hopes of becoming another Chicago, Abram Koval packed up his wife and sons to seek his fortune elsewhere. He was secretary of an organization known as ICOR, a Yiddish acronym for the Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union. ICOR was a communist organization that functioned as a rival to the Zionist movement's hopes for a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, and it was to the Soviet Union that the Kovals moved in 1932.

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