A Spy’s Path

By Guest Contributor

Eric La Forest


He had all-American cover: born in Iowa, college in Manhattan, army buddies with whom he played baseball.

George Koval also had a secret. During World War II, he was a top Soviet spy, code named Delmar and trained by Stalin’s ruthless bureau of military intelligence.


From Iowa to an A-Bomb to a Kremlin honor – he was the American-born spy who infiltrated the Manhattan Project.


Atomic spies are old stuff.  But being one of the most important spies of the 20th century and being recognized posthumously as a Hero of the Russian Federation, the highest honorary title that can be bestowed on a Russian citizen, is not.  Dr. Koval performed as a Soviet agent who penetrated the Manhattan Project to build the atom bomb.


Dr. Koval, the athlete, the guy everyone liked, the genius at technical studies, has been hailed as the only Soviet intelligence officer to infiltrate the project’s secret plants; his work speeding up considerably during the time it took for the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its own.


American intelligence agencies have known of his betrayal at least since the early 1950s, when investigators interviewed his fellow scientists and swore them to secrecy.



The spy’s success hinged on an unusual family history of migration from Russia to Iowa and back. That gave him a strong commitment to Communism, a relaxed familiarity with American mores and no foreign accent.


“He was very friendly, compassionate and very smart,” said Arnold Kramish, a retired physicist who studied with Dr. Koval at City College and later worked with him on the bomb project. “He never did homework.”


Over the years, scholars and federal agents have identified a half-dozen individuals who spied on the bomb project for the Soviets, especially at Los Alamos in New Mexico. All were ‘walk ins’, spies by impulse and sympathetic leaning rather than rigorous training.


By contrast, Dr. Koval was a mole groomed in the Soviet Union by the feared G.R.U., the military intelligence agency.  Moreover, he gained wide access to America’s atomic plants, a feat unknown for any other Soviet spy. Nuclear experts say the secrets of bomb manufacturing can be more important than those of design.


Los Alamos devised the bomb, while its parts and fuel were made at secret plants in such places as Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Dayton, Ohio – sites Dr. Koval not only penetrated but also assessed as an army sergeant with wide responsibilities and authority.  He had access to everything.  He had his own Jeep. Very few had their own Jeeps. He was clever.  His status was unique in the history of atomic espionage, a judgment historians echo.


George Koval was born in 1913 to Abraham and Ethel Koval in Sioux City, Iowa, which had a large Jewish community and a half-dozen synagogues. In 1932, during the Great Depression, his family emigrated to Birobidzhan, a Siberian city that Stalin promoted as a secular Jewish homeland, becoming part of a popular front organization, as did most American Jews who emigrated to Birobidzhan.


By 1934, Dr. Koval was in Moscow, excelling in difficult studies at the Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology. Upon graduating with honors, he was recruited and trained by the G.R.U. and sent back to the United States for nearly a decade of scientific espionage, from roughly 1940 to 1948.


How he communicated with his controllers is unknown, as is what specifically he gave the Soviets in terms of atomic secrets. However, it is clear that Moscow mastered the atom very quickly compared with all subsequent nuclear powers.


In the United States under a false name, Dr. Koval initially gathered information about new toxins that might find use in chemical arms. Then his G.R.U. controllers took a gamble and had him work under his own name. Dr. Koval was drafted into the Army and by chance found himself moving toward the bomb project, then in its infancy.


Meanwhile, the Manhattan Project was suffering severe manpower shortages and asked the Army for technically adept recruits. In 1944, Dr. Koval and Dr. Kramish headed to Oak Ridge, where the main job was to make bomb fuel, considered the hardest part of the atomic endeavor.


Dr. Koval gained wide access to the sprawling complex because he was assigned to health safety and drove from building to building making sure no stray radiation harmed workers.  His duties expanded to include top-secret plants near Dayton where he found the factories refined polonium 210, a highly radioactive material used in initiators to help start the bomb’s chain reaction.


In July 1945, the United States tested its first atomic device and a month later it dropped two bombs on Japan.


After the war, Dr. Koval fled the United States and, in 1949, Moscow detonated its first bomb, surprising Washington at the quick loss of what had been an atomic monopoly.


In Russia, Dr. Koval returned to the Mendeleev Institute, earning his doctorate and teaching there for many years.  He’d become a soccer fanatic, even in old age, and people at the stadium who knew of his secret past would quietly point him out.


Dr. Koval died in Moscow on Jan. 31, 2006, according to Russian accounts.  He was the biggest of the atomic spies.


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