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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: A Case of Deception

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2004

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator We have reason to believe that playing the law game gives us a skill, perhaps an intuition, that tells us whether the person we happen to be dealing with is on the level, whether he is trying to deceive us. Some people are better at it than others. Those who deal with big events, people such as Winston Churchill and Harry Truman, probably would not have climbed so high without a way-above-average skill in knowing who to believe and who not to believe. But I should add that even the best of them can be fooled.

There were certain events that took place in July 1945 in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin, Germany, that make the point. Winston Churchill and Harry Truman were meeting with Joseph Stalin. Germany had just surrendered. The war against Japan continued. Churchill and Truman wanted a firm commitment from Stalin that Russia would declare war on Japan and join with the allies in the Japanese invasion. In exchange Stalin wanted new boundaries favorable to Russia.

Churchill, in volume 6 of his history of the Second World War, describes what happened. At the outset Stalin gave his unqualified commitment that Russia was ready to declare war against Japan and provide troops as needed. He then turned to his own wish list.

The meeting and the world changed when Secretary of War Henry Stimson handed Churchill a sheet of paper on which was written “Babies satisfactorily born.” Stimson said the words meant the atomic bomb was a reality. The next day they received a detailed description of the explosion and its unequaled destructive power. The Russians were no longer needed. The negotiating leverage had shifted. The war would be over without any need for Russia’s help.

Churchill and Truman had to decide what to say to Stalin. They were certain that the atomic bomb project was a closely held secret and unknown to the Russians. Stalin must be told something. It would not sit well for him to learn of it days later when Japan was to be given an ultimatum.

Should it be in writing or by word of mouth? Should it be at a formal and special meeting or in the course of the daily conferences, or after the meetings?

Truman thought it best to give the word in an informal way by describing the atomic bomb as an entirely novel form of bomb that would have a decisive effect on Japan’s willingness to continue the war. Say nothing more, nothing less.

As the Potsdam meeting drew to its close (after some significant drinking), Churchill watched as Truman approached Stalin. The two spoke to each other through their interpreters.

Here is Churchill describing what he saw: “I was perhaps five yards away, and I watched with the closest attention the momentous talk. I knew what the President was going to do. What was vital to measure was its effect on Stalin. I can see it all as if it were yesterday. He seemed to be delighted.”

Churchill and Truman were convinced that Stalin had no idea of the significance of what he was being told. “If he had had the slightest idea of the revolution in world affairs which was in progress, his reactions would have been obvious. Nothing would have been easier than for him to say, thank you so much for telling me about your new bomb. I of course have no technical knowledge. May I send my expert in these nuclear sciences to see your expert tomorrow morning?”

What if Stalin did in fact know all about the atomic bomb project and knew of the test? What if beforehand he had spoken with his advisers concerning what to say if he was told about the atomic bomb? How should he react? He certainly would not want to give away his own secret knowledge. The best way to deal with it would be to mislead by passing it off with a casual comment of his own.

The fact of the matter is that Stalin knew about the atomic bomb project even before Harry Truman. Truman, as vice president, knew nothing about it until one month after President Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945.

The disclosures that have come to light within the past 50 years confirm that the Kremlin received top-secret information concerning the atomic bomb project as early as 1942.

Klaus Fuchs (1911–1988) was a physicist who was born in Germany, left Germany and went to England, and became a British citizen. In 1942 he worked in England on what became the atomic bomb project. In 1943 the British sent him to the United States to continue with the project. He was present when the first bomb exploded.

Fuchs confessed to the British secret service on January 24, 1950, that he began spying for the Russians as early as 1942.

His trial lasted only an hour and a half. The indictment did not mention that Fuchs admitted committing espionage from 1942 through 1949. When asked to enter his plea, Fuchs stated he was guilty and that he hoped his confession would mitigate his wrongdoing.

There was no jury. The only witness was the person who took Fuchs’s confession. A full trial would have been a great embarrassment to the British, who had ignored early warnings that Fuchs was not to be trusted. There were even rumors that people at the very top of the British secret service had protected Fuchs.

Fuchs was sentenced to 14 years.

In his written confession Fuchs said he passed to Russia all the information he had. He commented on his own state of mind. One compartment consisted of his personal relations with friends. With them he wished to be honorable and helpful. In the other compartment he was a spy, on his own, independent of the society within which he worked. Each compartment was closed to the other. “Looking back at it now the best way of expressing it seems to be to call it a controlled schizophrenia.”

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.