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A Map That Was Worth 1,000 Words

Chris Mead on Monday, April 20, 2015 at 12:00:00 am

Chambers of commerce affect history in strange ways.

Harry Gold watched nervously as FBI agents ransacked his Philadelphia apartment. They had been tipped off by a spy for the Soviets, British citizen Klaus Fuchs, that someone had been a courier between Fuchs and others in an atomic spy ring. Fuchs couldn’t name the person, but the FBI managed to infer from Fuchs and other evidence that the individual might be Gold.

It was May 22, 1950. The Soviets had detonated an atomic bomb nine months earlier, which President Truman had announced to the nation. The resulting hysteria, fanned by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, was gripping the country. The idea that one of the most murderous regimes in history, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, now had a weapon of mass destruction, was too much to bear. Yes, without spies the Soviets sooner or later would have devised their own bomb, but for them to have it years ahead of schedule represented an obvious danger for America and her allies. (Indeed, as some pointed out later in the year, the Soviets’ having the atomic bomb may have been what emboldened Kim Il Sung of North Korea to invade South Korea in June 1950, setting off a war that would cost 35,000 U.S. lives.)

Who had leaked our secrets to Moscow? Harry Gold, an unassuming, pudgy chemist, considered kind and likeable by those who knew him, was not a likely suspect. Moreover, when the federal agents asked him if he had been to the Manhattan Project laboratories in Los Alamos, N. M., he said no, he hadn’t even been west of the Mississippi.

The G-men, Scotty Miller and Richard Brennan, continued their search. Miller reached behind a bookcase and found a brochure. It included a detailed map of Santa Fe, N.M. It was published by the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce.

“I thought you said you’d never been out West,” Miller said to Gold. Taken aback, Gold opened his mouth, sat down and said, “I am the man to whom Fuchs gave the information.”[i]

The evidence against Gold was not conclusive. He might have escaped arrest if he had kept his mouth shut.[ii] But somehow that map, and perhaps his own feelings of guilt or his desire to be helpful, undermined his instinct for self-preservation. He opened up to the agents. Two days later, Fuchs, shown a photo of Gold, confirmed that he was the man Fuchs had worked with. Gold would go on to help the FBI on dozens of investigations, many of which he suggested. The atomic spy ring case was about to be blown wide open.

Gold fingered David Greenglass, a former Army officer assigned to Los Alamos in 1944 and 1945. Greenglass, in turn, implicated his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, and eventually Rosenberg’s wife (and David Greenglass’s sister) Ethel, too. Greenglass had bargained to save his wife from prosecution.[iii]

The results were soon delivered by the courts. Gold received a 30-year sentence and served 14 years of it; Greenglass got a 15-year sentence and served 9 ½ years of it; and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison on June 19, 1953.

Thus did a simple chamber of commerce map play a role in the greatest spy drama in American history. In events of not only national, but sometimes of world importance, chambers of commerce stubbornly, often in unexpected and even unintended ways, kept at their business. In the atomic age, when communities could be blown off the face of the earth, towns’ and cities’ chambers of commerce still would remain, one way or another, on the map.

 


 

[i] Robert J. Lamphere and Tom Schactman, The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent’s Story (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1995; previous edition, 1986), 151. Lamphere was the agent dealing with Klaus Fuchs in London while his colleagues were handling Gold in Philadelphia.

 

[ii] Gold’s biographer has written that the spy from Philadelphia could have escaped arrest if he had not confessed. See: Allen Hornblum, “Convicted Spy Harry Gold was Philadelphia’s Benedict Arnold,” Web posting on Philly.com, November 3, 2010. Hornblum’s biography was: The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010 ).

 

[iii] Among the many sources describing the spy ring and its unraveling is this version from the FBI: “The Atom Spy Case,” from “Famous Cases and Criminals,” Federal Bureau of Investigation: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/history/famous-cases/the-atom-spy-case

 

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