We’re talking G-Men, Feds and rogue elephants in our notorious spies series.

At the end of World War II and with East-West relations cooling considerably, the United States government took comfort in the fact that the Soviet Union was still years away from building a working atomic bomb. If for no other reason, then, on August 29, 1949 the U.S. was puzzled and alarmed to learn that a mushroom cloud had boiled from the earth at Semipalatins in northeast Kazakhstan. It quickly became clear that someone had given the Soviets a copy of America’s doomsday recipe—the so-called “Oak Ridge cocktail.” As stolen secrets go, the Bomb is a pretty big one—if not the biggest—and the man perhaps most responsible for the USSR’s entry into the atomic age is Dr. George Koval, a Soviet agent who was posthumously declared by President Vladimir Putin to be a Hero of the Russian Federation.


When we talk about spies and leakers generally, motivations tend to revolve around money or love—the man who runs up too much gambling debt and needs a way out, or the woman who says too much to the person she brought home from a bar. But there is another, much simpler reason that people violate their security clearance: they really want to. That is to say, they are philosophically disposed toward another power. One’s place of birth is happenstance, and from an objectively rational perspective, that person should hold little allegiance to an accident of geography. George Koval was born in the United States, but the circumstances of his life would make him sympathetic to the Soviet cause and later bring him to the East where he could be recruited. To understand how Koval managed the hat trick of receiving classical Soviet spy training abroad, maintaining an All-American-boy image at home, and acquiring unlimited access to America’s atomic secrets, the best place to start is the beginning.

Koval was born in Sioux City, Iowa, to Abram Koval and Ethel Shenitsky. (What is is about Ethels and national security disasters?) His father, an immigrant from Belarus, was secretary for the local office of IKOR, the Association for Jewish Colonization of the Soviet Union. The organization was founded to foster and encourage Jewish migration to a predetermined Soviet territory in order to found a secular, autonomous settlement. (In short, Russia’s version of Israel.) It was an alternative to the Zionist movement and given urgency with the rise of Hitler in Germany. Leaders of the Communist Party understandably supported the idea of such a zone, as it would have the effect of discrediting religious ideology while simultaneously strengthening a remote part of the Soviet empire with loyal, enthusiastic settlements.

IKOR and the Soviets eventually decided on Birobidzhan, adjacent with the Chinese border in the Far East. Koval’s family, and by extension, Koval, were true believers in the cause, and moved there in 1932, when Koval was a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. He had gone to American schools, had American friends, was on the debate team, and had a perfect American accent. He even played baseball. After immigrating, he learned the Russian language and attended the Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology, where he excelled. He married and received citizenship in the Soviet Union, and attended graduate school.


Around that time, the GRU—the USSR’s military intelligence service—was looking for a few good spies. During the purges, spies were recalled and new ones were needed for the field. Koval must have seemed too good to be true. He was brilliant and indistinguishable from Americans, and operated not from a profit motive but from a yearning to do good. In 1939, under the cover of being drafted into the Soviet army, he vanished from Moscow. The following year he arrived in San Francisco. He then traveled to New York City, where he was stationed at a GRU listening post. The cover was Raven Electric Company.

Koval’s mission in the United States focused on chemical weaponry, and as World War II gathered steam and the draft was instated, Koval registered and Raven helped him receive deferments. (Raven was a defense contractor and argued that Koval was essential to their operation.) His Soviet handlers recognized that if Koval were drafted, he could end up anywhere, and might never hear the first word about—let alone see—an American chemical weapon. Eventually the deferments ran out, however, and Koval was made a private in the U.S. Army.


Koval was brilliant, with a keen brain and top-flight spy training. When he excelled on his military aptitude test, the army assigned him to a detachment of scholars that studied at the City College of New York (CCNY). According to Michael Walsh of Smithsonian, who wrote the definitive history of Koval and his activities, classmates would later recall that Koval was a kind of genius father figure who had a way with the ladies. He never did any homework, which added to his perceived brilliance, though nobody knew he already had a graduate degree.

Working under the code name Delmar, Koval was sent in 1944 to the Oak Ridge laboratories of the Manhattan Project where he was given the responsibility of tracking radiation the base’s radiation levels. The job entailed a top secret security clearance, and Koval had total access to the facility. (“Hold on,” you might be thinking. “Why did the army give a guy who lived in the Soviet Union a top secret security clearance?” Good question. At the time, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies.) Scientists at Oak Ridge found that plutonium was too unstable for their bomb, and focused their efforts on producing polonium. Koval was tasked by the Soviets with keeping tabs on that polonium and the methodology of the project’s scientists. He also discovered that it was being sent to Los Alamos, which was a eureka moment for the Soviets, who now had a fuller understanding of the roles of the two laboratories, and how atomic bombs could be manufactured.


After the war, the United States military got really good, really fast, at finding and prosecuting spies in its ranks. Koval played it cool. The U.S. focused initially on those with German connections, of which he had none. (Koval’s counterpart at Los Alamos, Klaus Fuchs, wasn’t so lucky.) He returned to New York to receive a bachelors degree at CCNY, and idly suggested to friends that he was thinking of taking a vacation, which he finally did in 1948, whereupon he slipped back into Russia.

During his lifetime, Koval never received any formal recognition by the Soviet authorities for his work in the spy program. Though he was the only GRU officer to ever successfully penetrate the Manhattan Project, it’s possible that the Soviet Union didn’t want to tarnish its scientific “achievement” by noting that it had stolen the recipe from the US. Likewise, the United States kept the episode quiet until the turn of the millennium. (This isn’t so strange; information on Klaus Fuchs is still withheld by the British government). Koval lived out his days in the Soviet Union, eking out a living as a school teacher.

Near the end of his life, word of his deeds became known, and he offered no hint of apology. “I could have left the service, and I could have joined the Communist Party, and I could have sold the Daily Worker at a street corner, and many people would say that would have been a more honourable cause… But I felt that I could do more for the cause, make a far greater contribution if I set aside my scruples.” He died in 2006.

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. His most recent book, THE MISSION (Custom House, 2021), is now available in bookstores everywhere in hardcover and paperback. He can be found online at https://www.dwb.io.