How We Gave the Russians the Bomb
See also Harry Hopkins Hosted Soviet Spy Cell
There's a certain irony, and even dark humor, in the current hysteria in Washington over the possibility that in the near future, relatively weak and distant Iran might have the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons. After all, Iran is a country that has hardly had imperial ambitions since the days of ancient Persia. Furthermore, to Iran's east, the unstable and second largest Muslim country in the world, Pakistan, already has nuclear weapons in great supply, as does that bellicose and expansionist little ethnic-supremacist European transplant two country's to the west, Israel. In the existing situation in the region, the prospective counterbalancing force of Iranian nuclear weapons looks more like a generator of stability than instability.
The real irony, though, is that when the United States faced a genuine, threatening enemy with global ambitions, many of which that country was beginning to realize, and when no one yet had the bomb—so a nuclear-weapon capability really meant quite a lot—the United States simply gave the bomb to its soon-to-be enemy. Do I exaggerate? The full story is in the long forgotten 1952 book by Major George Racey Jordan entitled From Major Jordan's Diaries.
Major Jordan was a citizen soldier in the truest sense of the term. He was a businessman in his forties when World War II broke out. He volunteered to serve and was made a captain. He was appointed to the post of chief Lend-Lease expediter working with our Soviet allies to supply them with war materials, first at Newark Airport in New Jersey, and then when the U-boat dangers became too great, at an air base in Great Falls, Montana. At the urging and through the influence of his Soviet counterpart on the scene, Colonel Anatoli Kotikov, he was soon made a major to give him more clout with military officers in other venues with whom he had to work.
The other main character in Jordan's book was the second most powerful man in the United States during World War II, that is, President Franklin Roosevelt's live-in White House aide, Harry Hopkins. Although future Secretary of State Edward Stettinius replaced Hopkins on August 28, 1941, as titular chief of Lend-Lease, Hopkins continued to run the operation in reality. As Jordan put it, "...never once, during my two years at Newark and Great Falls, did I hear so much as a mention of Stettinius, though reference to Hopkins was daily on the lips of the Russians." (p. 121)
Here are some more key excerpts from Jordan's book:
At this time I knew nothing whatever about the atomic bomb. The words "uranium" and "Manhattan Engineering District" were unknown to me. But I became aware that certain folders were being held to one side on Colonel Kotikov's desk for the accumulation of a very special chemical plant. In fact, this chemical plant was referred to by Colonel Kotikov as a "bomb powder" factory. By referring to my diary, and checking the items I now know went into the atomic energy plant, I am able to show the following records starting with the year 1942, while I was still at Newark. These materials, which are necessary for the creation of an atomic pile, moved to Russia in 1942:
Graphite: natural, flake, lump or chip, costing American taxpayers $812,437. Over thirteen million dollars' worth of aluminum tubes (used in the atomic pile to "cook" or transmute the uranium into plutonium), the exact amount being $13,041,152.* We sent 834,989 pounds of cadmium metal for rods to control the intensity of an atomic pile; the cost was $781, 472. The really secret material, thorium, finally showed up and started going through immediately. The amount during 1942 was 13,440 pounds at a cost of $22,848. [Note: On Jan. 30, 1943 we shipped an additional 11,912 pounds of thorium nitrate to Russia from Philadelphia on the S.S. John C. Fremont. It is significant that there were no shipments in 1944 and 1945, due undoubtedly to General [Leslie] Groves' vigilance. Regarding thorium the Smyth Report (p. 5) says: "The only natural elements which exhibit this property of emitting alpha and beta particles are (with a few minor exceptions) those of very high atomic numbers, such as uranium, thorium, radium, and actinium, i.e., those known to have the most complicated nuclear structures." (pp. 33-34)
One morning in April, 1943 Colonel Kotikov asked whether I could find space for an important consignment of nearly 2,000 pounds. I said: "No, we have a quarter of a million pounds' backlog already." He directed me to put through a call to Washington for him, and spoke for a while in his own tongue. Then he put a hand over the mouthpiece and confided to me in English: "Very special shipment--experimental chemicals--going through soon."
There was an interval of Slavic gutturals, and he turned to me again. "Mr. Hopkins--coming on now," he reported. Then he gave me the surprise of his life. He handed me the phone and announced: "Big boss, Mr. Hopkins, wants you."
It was quite a moment. I was about to speak for the first time with a legendary figure of the day, the top man in the world of Lend-Lease in which I lived. I have been careful to following account as accurate in substance and language as I can. My memory, normally good, was stimulated by the thrill of the occasion. Moreover, the incident was stamped on my mind because it was unique in my experience of almost 25 months in Newark and Great Falls.
A bit in awe, I stammered: "Jordan speaking." A male voice began at once: "This is Mr. Hopkins. Are you my expediter out there?" I answered that I was the United Nations** Representative at Great Falls, working with Colonel Kotikov.
Under the circumstances, who could have doubted that the speaker was Harry Hopkins? Friends have since asked me whether it might not have been a Soviet agent who was an American. I doubt this, because his next remark brought up a subject which only Mr. Hopkins and myself could have known. He asked: "Did you get those pilots I sent you?"
"Oh yes, sir," I responded, "They were very much appreciated, and helped us in unblocking the jam in the Pipeline. We were accused of going out of channels, and got the dickens for it."
Mr. Hopkins let that one go by, and moved on to the heart of things. "Now, Jordan," he said, "there's a certain shipment of chemicals going through that I want you to expedite. This is something very special."
"Shall I take it up," I asked, "with the Commanding Colonel?"
"I don't want you to discuss this with anyone," Mr. Hopkins ordered, "and it is not to go on the records. Don't make a big production of it, but just send it through quietly, in a hurry."
I asked how I was to identify the shipment when it arrived. He turned from the phone, and I could hear his voice: "How will Jordan know the shipment when it gets there?" He came back on the line and said: "The Russian Colonel out there will designate it for you. Now send this through as speedily as possible, and be sure to leave it off the records!"
Then a Russian voice broke in with a demand for Colonel Kotikov. I was full of curiosity when Kotikov had finished, and I wanted to know what it was all about and where the shipment was coming from. He said there would be more chemicals and that they would arrive from Canada.
"I show you," he announced. Presumably, after the talk with Mr. Hopkins, I had been accepted as a member of the "lodge." From his bundle on war chemicals the Colonel took the folder called "Bomb Powder." He drew out a paper sheet and set a finger against one entry. For a second time my eyes encountered the word "uranium." I repeat that in 1943 it meant as little to me as to most Americans, which was nothing.
This shipment was the one and only cash item to pass through my hands, except for private Russian purchases of clothing a liquor. It was the only one, out of a tremendous multitude of consignments, that I was ordered not to enter on my tally sheets. It was the only one I was forbidden to discuss with my superiors, and the only one I was directed to keep secret from everybody...."
Fifteen wooden crates were put aboard the transports, which took off for Moscow by way of Alaska. At Fairbanks, Lieutenant [Ben L.] Brown has related, one box fell from the plane, smashing a corner and spilling a small quantity of chocolate-brown powder. Out of curiosity, he picked up a handful of the unfamiliar grains, with a notion of asking someone what they were. A Soviet officer slapped the crystals from his palm and explained nervously: "No, no--burn hands!"
Not until the latter part of 1949 was it definitely proved, from responsible records, that during the war Federal agencies delivered to Russia at least three consignments of uranium chemicals, totaling 1,465 pounds, or nearly three-quarters of a ton. Confirmed also was the shipment of one kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of uranium metal at a time when the total American stock was 4.5 pounds.
Implicated by name were the Lend-Lease Administration, the Department of Commerce, the Procurement Division of the Treasury, and the Board of Economic Warfare. The State Department became involved to the extent of refusing access to files of Lend-Lease and its successor, the Foreign Economic Administration.
The first two uranium shipments traveled through Great Falls, by air. The third was dispatched by truck and railway from Rochester, N.Y., to Portland, Ore., and then by ship to Vladivostok. The dates were March and June, 1943, and July, 1944. No doubt was left that the transaction discussed by Mr. Hopkins and myself was the one of June, 1943. (pp. 92-96)
Authors Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel, in their 2000 book, The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America's Traitors, argue that Hopkins was an agent for the Soviet Union. Their evidence is, first, that Soviet KGB defector, Oleg Gordievsky, said that Hopkins was in regular communication with top Soviet covert operative, Iskhak Akhmerov, in New York City. This was more than just a "back channel" for communication between Roosevelt and Stalin because Hopkins had existing back channels at the Soviet embassy that he used, and Akhmerov's identity as an operative was not supposed to be known to the the U.S. government. Second, the Venona project decrypts of Soviet communications with its spies, which came to light only in the 1990s, reveal a report on a Washington discussion between Roosevelt and Winston Churchill by an "agent 19." Only Harry Hopkins among suspected Soviet agents would have been privy to that conversation. Third, former Communist Whittaker Chambers testified to Congress in 1948 about the formation of Communist "study groups" within the U.S. government from which espionage agents were recruited. One of those groups, led by Lee Pressman, was established within the Department of Agriculture in late 1933, and Hopkins was a member of that group. Fourth, his policies were strongly pro-Soviet, particularly in his work as head of the Lend-Lease program. Major Jordan's book, as these few excerpts make clear, provides ample support for this last assertion. There's lots more support to be found in this valuable little book.
Those reading the Romerstein-Breindel book, with its revelations that Harry Hopkins was a likely Soviet agent, might think, "Imagine what a sensation this would have been in the press had it come to light at the same time that Jordan was making his own revelations in 1949." Such readers, as this little episode with the dominant news organization of the day demonstrates, have a lot to learn about America's news media.
*The aluminum tubes alone, using the rough calculation of the consumer price index increase, would be worth more than $161 million in 2006 dollars. Aluminum tubes, readers may recall, were among those items that the Bush administration claimed Iraq had imported for what turned out to be a non-existent nuclear weapons program.
**Readers might be surprised to see Major Jordan describe himself as "United Nations Representative" as early as 1943. Here's what he says about that elsewhere in the book:
My orders designated me as "United Nations Representative." Few people realize that although the United Nations Organization was not set up in San Francisco until September, 1945, the name "United Nations" was being used in the Lend-Lease organization as early as 1942, as in my original orders to Newark.
For the record, I want to quote my orders to Great Falls, with one phrase italicized. One reason for this is that in 1949 the New York Times printed the following statement of a "spokesman" for the United Nations: "Jordan never worked for the United Nations." I thereupon took the original copy of my orders in person to the Times, explained that this was an Army designation as early as 1942, and asked them in fairness to run a correction (which they did not do), since I never claimed to have "worked for the United Nations" and their story left the impression that I was lying. Here are my orders, with the original Army abbreviations:
Army Air Forces
Headquarters, 34th Sub Depot
Air Service Command
Office of the Commanding Officer
Capt. GEORGE R. JORDAN, 0-468248, AC, having reported for duty this sta per Par 1 SO No 50, AAF, ASC, Hq New Nork Air Serv Port Area Comd, Newark Airport, N.J., dated 2 January 43, is hereby asgd United Nations Representative, 34th Sub Depot, Great Falls, Montana, effective this date.
By order of Lt. Colonel MEREDITH.
David Martin, 05327800
December 3, 2006