An unprepossessing introvert who would not say boo to a goose, Fuchs seemed to his colleagues to be entirely absorbed in his science. Yet he was also the most cunning of traitors, as we know from the many accounts of his life and work. The physicist Frank Close has outdone them all in Trinity, a well-researched account of the man often called “the spy of the century”, his relationships with his colleagues and the fumbling attempts of the British security services to unmask him... Close’s narrative is clear and fluent though some of it reads like a chronicle, burdened by inessential detail. However, his account of how an admission of guilt was gradually prised from Fuchs is a masterclass in thriller writing, and bears comparison with the most gripping spy sagas of Ben Macintyre.
It is an astonishing story, as gripping as Smiley’s People. Fuchs was born near Frankfurt in 1911, and studied mathematics at Leipzig. His father was a theologian, his mother committed suicide, and he joined the Communist Party after witnessing the thuggery of the Nazis. Indeed, for wearing a hammer-and-sickle lapel pin, Fuchs was himself harassed by the Brownshirts, who knocked out his teeth. By 1933, he was on the Gestapo “wanted” list, so fled to France, crossed the Channel, and arrived in Bristol, his passage facilitated by the party’s network of sympathisers.
Frank Close, a retired nuclear physicist with a distinguished academic career, explains at the beginning of Trinity that he met Peierls in September 1967 at Oxford University as a postgraduate student. Close has produced a work that could go toe-to-toe with any historian specialising in events surrounding the beginnings of the nuclear age. He has delved into the archives to produce a remarkable story involving a man described by a US congressional report as “the most dangerous spy in the history of nations”... Close makes the interesting point that in the late 1940s some in the US military were already advocating a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. His “sharing of atomic knowledge with the Soviet Union has affected history for the better — or the less bad”, he says. By bringing about some parity he ensured that the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” became a sobering reality, giving neither side the incentive to launch a strike.
The principal interest in this retelling of the story derives from its authorship. Frank Close is one of Britain’s most distinguished physicists. He studied under Peierls and eventually occupied the post held by Fuchs as head of theoretical physics at Harwell’s Rutherford laboratory. Close’s narrative weaves the tale of treason into that of the development of the atomic bomb... Close is a fluent writer who retells the bomb story very well. His bitterness is apparent, when writing of the American takeover of British knowledge and brains for what became the Manhattan Project, in return for almost nothing. The August 1943 Quebec Agreement between Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt asserted collaboration, but proved a fire sale of British nuclear research.
The scale of Fuchs’s spying was astounding, as were its consequences. It’s Close’s judgment that the information he betrayed formed the basis of the Soviet atom bomb project. But despite the enormity of the betrayal, and the possibility that he passed secrets to Nazi-aligned Moscow, Close gives no explicit verdict on Fuchs. This leaves an unanswered question, which hangs over the book: did Klaus Fuchs do wrong? His justification for disclosing nuclear secrets was that the science was too important to remain the sole property of one faction. His duplicity was a betrayal of his friends, especially of Peierls, and of the country that had welcomed him. But it also played a part in ensuring that the Cold War ended not in the nuclear fire but in stalemate. Does that justify his actions?