I was just reading something by Freeman Dyson, a review of a biography of Bruno Pontecorvo. He explains that technical spies, like Pontecorvo or Klaus Fuchs or Ted Hall, are unimportant because the Soviet Union had plenty of first-rate scientists already, people like Yuri Khariton and Zeldovich and Sakharov, and would have eventually gotten to the same place anyhow. He thinks that people like Hall only accelerated the Soviet bomb program by two or three years. But tactical spies, people like Aldrich Ames or Kim Philby , who burned fellow agents and got them killed – they’re quite naughty.
So I guess being a atomic spy in the service of the Soviet Union was almost a peccadillo. Right-thinking people certainly want to think that, since so many of them were sympathetic to Uncle Joe (‘ he rolls the executions on his tongue like berries’ ) and his antics. Of course, right-thinking people are always wrong.
Gee, what happened in those two or three years? Anything bad? Anything that wouldn’t have happened if Stalin was Bombless? The Korean War, certainly. Heard of it? Moreover, those technical spies saved the Soviets money as well as time – we explored all the possible approaches to manufacturing fissionables in the Manhattan Project, most of which were expensive failures, but the Soviets didn’t have to. Their resources were limited: this helped. Their first bomb was made from Los Alamos engineering blueprints (thanks, Ted Hall !)
Usually, you have to be careful not to be too hard on public intellectuals, since they’re not very smart and don’t know jack about anything. You really can’t expect anything from them. Dyson, however, is smart – very smart – actually knows some things, and has accomplished a lot. But he’s still utterly full of shit, when it comes to making excuses for ‘his kind of people’.
Let me make a few suggestions for the next crop of foolish scientists considering aiding the next noxious ism. I think there’s a ‘due diligence’ principle – maybe, just maybe, before changing sides, you really need to check if the guys you’re aiding are tyrants and mass murderers, And if they are, that’s a bad thing, not a proof of how serious they are. Check before you defect. Pontecorvo didn’t check: I think he was a a damn fool, worse than stupid. He came to agree: “The simple explanation is this: I was a cretin,’ he said. ‘The fact that I could be so stupid, and many people close to me should have been quite so stupid . . .’ The sentence was left unfinished. Communism, he went on, was ‘like a religion, a revealed religion . . . with myths or rites to explain it. It was the absolute absence of logic.’ ”
I know that means reading something other than Nature or Phys Rev. It might even mean listening to the Lithuanians in the neighborhood bar as they complain about their cousins being shot – but I don’t think that’s asking too much. Parenthetically, why is it that intellectuals feel attracted to monsters like Stalin or Lenin, but hardly ever become agents/disciples of Switzerland or Canada or Uruguay? Nice countries finish last?
Perhaps nothing can really be done: it may be that a high fraction of the psychological types that produce scientific advances are just silly people, without a bit of common sense. Born that way. Maybe we could work hard at making executions more certain, frequent and terrifying: in a better world, Ted Hall would have shit in his pants at the mere thought of committing treason.