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?

Koval in an undated photograph from his FBI file. (FBI)
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"They had a different view of patriotism," Ronald Radosh says of the expatriate Russians. "Communism may have been a bad dream, but it was a dream that had merit in their eyes," adds Radosh, co-author (with Joyce Milton) of The Rosenberg File and a leading scholar of Soviet espionage during and after World War II. "It was, in part, a legacy of the czarist past and the pogroms—the czar was the enemy of the Jews."

Traveling on a U.S. family passport, the Kovals had planned to return to Minsk, "but the Soviet authorities did not allow them to do that," says Maya Koval, George's 28-year-old grandniece, who lives in Moscow. "They were forced to stay in the Vladivostok area," in the so-called Jewish Autonomous Region that Stalin had established in the 1920s. They settled in the town of Birobidzhan, near the Soviet border with Manchuria. In 1936, an American named Paul Novick, who edited a Communist Yiddish-language daily in New York City, visited the town and met the Kovals. The family, he would assert to his readers, "had exchanged the uncertainty of life as small storekeepers in Sioux City for a worry-free existence for themselves and their children," according to a book Canadian political scientist Henry Srebrnik is writing on ICOR and Birobidzhan.

Working on a collective farm, Isaya, the eldest Koval son, became a champion tractor driver and married a Jewish girl from Kiev, with whom he had three girls and a boy. (He died in May 1987, in a village near Birobidzhan.) George, after improving his Russian on the collective, was accepted in 1934 to study at the Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology in Moscow; there he met and married Lyudmila Ivanova, a fellow student whose father owned a small chocolate factory in Moscow. Five years later he graduated with honors, and he received Soviet citizenship along the way. His brother Gabriel also attended Mendeleev, but was killed in August 1943, fighting with the Red Army.

Exactly how and when the GRU recruited George is unclear, but after he received his degree he left Moscow as part of a subterfuge: "I was drafted into the army in 1939 to cover up my disappearance from Moscow," Koval would later write to Arnold Kramish, an American scientist he would befriend. "I did not accept an offer of military training and service as an army officer at that time, was never sworn in, or wore a uniform here." Kramish is now 86 and living outside Washington, D.C. after a long career at the RAND Corporation and the Atomic Energy Commission. Partly out of a professional interest in Soviet nuclear programs, he re-established contact with Koval in 2000 and kept in touch by letter and e-mail over the last five years of Koval's life.

One thing Koval's correspondence does explain is how he returned to the United States in 1940, even though his parents had relinquished their U.S. passport: "I entered the U.S. in October 1940 at San Francisco," he wrote to Kramish. "Came over on a small tanker and just walked out through the control point together with the captain, his wife and little daughter, who sailed together with him."

Koval made his way to New York City and, Kramish says, assumed deputy command of the GRU station there. The station went under the cover of the Raven Electric Company, a supplier to General Electric and other U.S. firms, with two Manhattan offices. Koval told colleagues he was a native New Yorker, an only child and an unmarried orphan. Standing six feet tall, with a penetrating gaze and a bohemian's distracted air, Koval came across as a baseball fan and an overall boon companion. "I don't know anybody who hated George," Kramish says.

On January 2, 1941—just months after he walked into the United States—Koval registered for the draft, listing a Bronx home address. Raven secured him a job-related deferment for a year beginning in February 1942; according to the Russian historian Lota, Koval's Soviet handlers wanted him to steal information about chemical wea­pons and believed that his ability to do so would be compromised if he were drafted. But the deferment expired, and on February 4, 1943, George A. Koval was inducted into the United States Army.

After basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Private Koval was sent to the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, to join the 3410th Specialized Training and Reassignment Unit. And on August 11 of that year he was admitted to a new unit, the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). One of his colleagues there, Duane Weise, believes Koval scored particularly high on the Army's analog to the IQ test. The move marked Koval's first step toward the nation's nuclear labs.

The Army had established the ASTP in December 1942 to provide academically talented enlisted men with an undergraduate education and specialized technical training at colleges and universities across the country. Koval was sent to study electrical engineering at the City College of New York (CCNY); his surviving former ASTP fellows say he became something of a role model, even a father figure, to them. "At the time his classmates believed there was no better man than George," says Kramish, who was also in the program. "He was superb at every job he had."

Koval was a decade older than the others, Kramish says, and acted more maturely. "That was one of the anomalies about him," Kramish recalls. "In retrospect, there were mysteries that made him stand out." One, he says, was that Koval never seemed to do any homework. ("Of course, that was because he was already a college graduate back in Moscow, although we didn't know that at the time.") Another talent was helping his chums evade bed check by arranging pillows and blankets into "sleeping" bodies. ("He was famous for that," Kramish says.) And he smoked his cigarettes down to where they almost burned his fingers as he pinched the butt. ("That was a very distinctive Eastern European habit," Kramish adds, "which I never knew about until I went to Europe after the war.") Koval's surviving classmates (who at the time knew nothing of a wife in the Soviet Union) also say he was a notable ladies' man.

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