Engineering Communism

engineering-communismThe subtitle of the book by Steven R. Usdin is, “How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley.” I’ve always been interested in why Americans spied for the Soviet Union, and this book tells me at least two of them eagerly spied and believed in Communism to their deaths. The book tells how Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, members of the Rosenberg spy ring, provided technical details of radar, antiaircraft aiming devices, and the proximity fuse to the Soviets during World War II. The KGB, a Russian abbreviation for “Committee for State Security,” helped them escape when the spy ring began to crumble. The KGB then helped them overcome Soviet bureaucracy to build electronics industry with new identities. Barr became Joseph Berg and Sarant became Phillip Staros. Their story is extraordinary because the two led happy and productive lives behind the Iron Curtain while most defectors “…were despised and distrusted by their Soviet counterparts…and quite a few drank themselves to death.” Neither ever admitted their espionage activities. Barr did readily acknowledge that he felt greater loyalty to the USSR than to the United States “…because the Soviet Union was the only nation on earth trying to build the communist utopia he fervently believed in…” Neither Barr nor Sarant ever indicated any remorse that the secrets they passed to the Soviets were used against American pilots and soldiers in Korea and Vietnam.

Barr and Sarant learned engineering at the City College of New York (CCNY). The two were among the half of the 100 engineering students who were communists. Their informal cell, which was led by Julius Rosenberg, included Barr, Sarant, Morton Sobell, Max Elichter, Bill Danziger, and Bill Perl, and all would eventually spy for the Soviet Union. Sobell, Elichter, and Danziger landed jobs the Navy Bureau of Ordnance. Barr started at the Civil Aeronautics Authority and had to hide his Communist affiliation because the Hatch Act barred government employment to anyone belonging to certain organizations, including CPUSA. Barr did distribute literature encouraging fellow employees to join the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians (FAECT). The KGB used FAECT and other similar organizations to recruit agents. By 1940 Lieutenant General Pavel Fitin, head of Soviet foreign intelligence, commanded a covert force in the United States that exceeded the number of FBI agents.

Barr worked at Fort Monmouth and eventually went to work for Western Electric, where he worked on perfecting the Norden bombsight. He was allowed to carry classified documents to his home to “work overtime”

The book mentions that the FBI finally began to wake up to the Soviet espionage threat “…around the time of the Soviet victory over the Nazis at the epic battle of Stalingrad…” The FBI ballooned to 4,380 agents, and many of them were working on surveillance of suspected Soviet activities.

Bill Perl, a friend of Barr and Sarant, gave Alexander Feklisov, the “…rezidentura, a document that rivaled in importance and bulk, anything Barr or Rosenberg provided to the USSR. It was the complete 12,000 page blueprint of the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the plane that marked the U.S. military’s entry into the jet age.”

The Soviets made a point of inviting military observers to the annual “Aviation Day” celebrations on August 3, 1947. “The Westerners were mildly surprised when they saw what appeared to three U.S. B-29 bombers with Soviet markings fly overhead. They knew that the Soviet government had impounded three of the ‘Superfortresses’ after they crash-landed in the Russian Far East during the war, so they initially assumed the Soviets had managed to patch them up. Surprise turned to astonishment when a fourth B-29 lumbered past, incontrovertibly demonstrating that the Russians had managed to reproduce the plane. By the time the news was forwarded to the Pentagon, astonishment became fear. The capability to produce B-29s gave the Soviet Union the ability to reach targets in North America, at least on one-way missions…A top secret Defense Department planning document circulated in 1951 warned: Because of its resemblance to the US B-29, the Soviet TU-4 cold be disguised with US markings and employed for clandestine delivery of atomic bombs. Flying a one-way mission, the TU-4 had sufficient range to reach every important target in the US and the USSR had an adequate number of TU-4s and trained crews to perform such missions.”  The analysis continued to present disturbing information. It said, “…a small number of disguised TU-4s, by taking advantage of gaps in our radar screen, might escape detection.” This would greatly increase the probability of a successful attack on high priority targets, such as the Washington area. Tens of thousands of Russians had been mobilized to take one of the planes apart, analyze and photograph the over 100,000 individual parts, and precisely reproduce them. Barr, Sobell, and other members of the Rosenberg network provided information that allowed the Soviet Union to produce B-29 clones.

The two Americans built and led a successful microelectronics industry in the Soviet Union by avoiding the prevalent bureaucracy and ignoring the stigma attached to hiring Jews. They even convinced officials to build a new town called Zelenograd (Green City). They helped the USSR to launch Sputnik and slam a missile into the moon. They helped develop the missile tipped with a proximity fuse copied from the one Julius Rosenberg had provided that shot down Gary Powers in his U-2. They had staunch allies in the Soviet intelligence services, but they had enemies. Some Soviet officials never accepted that two Jewish Americans were leading a huge Soviet industry. Berg had a perfect accent, but gave away the fact he was a foreigner by smiling all the time. “Russians rarely smile in public’ they consider it a sign of stupidity.”  The two men were eventually forced out of their organizations in a humiliating public “trail” by their peers. However they were allowed to continue living in relative luxury in large apartments.

There is an interesting story about Jews in the Soviet Union. Being a young Jewish woman had an advantage. Under pressure from the United States Jews were among the very few Soviet citizens allowed to emigrate. There was a quote from a popular novel “an automobile is not a luxury, but a means of transportation” that was changed to “a Jewish wife isn’t a luxury, but a means of transportation.”

Berg traveled to the United States after Sarant had died and after forty two years in the Soviet Bloc He easily made it through customs. Ironically there was an article in the New Republic the day he arrived that identified Joel Barr as the one man still alive who could shed light on the Rosenberg case. “The article by Ron Radosh revealed that Barr had lived for more than forty years in the Soviet Union under the name Joseph Berg and that he planned ‘to visit America travelling on a Soviet passport’.”

Berg returned to live in the United States, applied for, and was granted Social Security. He announced one day “I’ve found Communism in America!” He was waving his Medicaid card that signified he was eligible for free medical treatment. He often bragged about voting for Communists in elections.

On the morning of August 1, 1998 Berg asked for an American hot dog and a coke. Those were his last words.

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