F. E. Close. Half Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy. New York: Basic Books, 2015. 400 pp. $29.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-06998-9.
Reviewed by Paul Rubinson (Bridgewater State University)
Published on H-War (September, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Spoiler alert: Bruno Pontecorvo was a spy. Or, at least, he probably was. As Frank Close explains it in Half-Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy, his biography of the physicist, Pontecorvo is the “prime suspect” (p. 309) in two important Cold War espionage incidents. To believe he was not a spy involves far too much tortured logic and twisted reasoning; far easier, Close argues, to accept the simplest explanation—that Pontecorvo passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.
Pontecorvo worked on an Anglo-Canadian nuclear reactor project during World War II and afterward joined Britain’s nuclear reactor program, until he infamously defected to Moscow in 1950. His colleagues, friends, and family in the West heard not a word from him until he emerged in 1955, stating in a Soviet newspaper interview that he had defected because of the West’s militaristic atomic policies and harassment of leftists. He claimed that he had neither spied while in the West, nor assisted the Soviet Union with its thermonuclear program after defecting. He remained in Russia until his death in 1993. While no evidence yet links him concretely to espionage, the circumstantial evidence amassed by Close strongly indicates the exact opposite of Pontecorvo’s claims, however.
Pontecorvo grew up in Pisa, Italy, with communist family members, when communism was seen by many as a defense against fascism. He studied physics with the legendary scientist Enrico Fermi, probing the rapidly evolving field of atomic science. After the rise of fascism disrupted Fermi’s lab, Pontecorvo moved on to Paris where he studied with the ardent leftists Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie. With his cousin prominently placed in the Communist Party, Pontecorvo was surrounded by communists and antifascists; he himself joined the Party on the day of the nonaggression pact in August 1939. (Notably, Stalin’s deal-making with Hitler was a deal-breaker for many other communists.) After fleeing the Nazi invasion of Paris on bicycle, a trek richly detailed by Close, Pontecorvo relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he used radiation detection techniques he developed to discover likely locations of oil. Although a member of the Communist Party, Pontecorvo raised no eyebrows until US agents, interviewing his wife in Tulsa, noticed a bookshelf heavy with communist literature.
When World War II began, Pontecorvo worked with British scientists at a remote Manhattan Project location: the Chalk River nuclear reactor in Canada. Close thoroughly documents how Pontecorvo repeatedly “slipped through the net” (p. 89) of security; British intelligence comes across as especially lackadaisical in his case. With rogue scientists, including Alan Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, conspiring to pass information to the Soviets at the time, Close convincingly makes the case that the Soviets undoubtedly would have approached Pontecorvo, who they knew to be communist. And when approached, Close reasons further, Pontecorvo would have willingly passed information since he frequently stated that belief in communism meant unswerving loyalty to Moscow. During his time at Chalk River, blueprints and a sample of uranium made their way to the Soviet Union, which Close argues could only have come from Pontecorvo. After the war, flush with offers of employment at prestigious labs around the world, Pontecorvo dithered and ultimately decided to stay at Chalk River, presumably under the orders of Communist Party operatives.
In February 1949, Pontecorvo moved his family to the United Kingdom to work on the British reactor program at Harwell. And in a deft feat of historical writing, Close recounts moment by moment the Pontecorvos’ summer trip to Italy in 1950, parsing out the rapid succession of events that turned a family vacation into an urgent—and slapdash—escape to the Soviet Union. The instigator was Kim Philby, a Soviet agent working in British intelligence, who alerted the Soviets that FBI investigators were closing in on Pontecorvo.
Soviet agents scurried Pontecorvo and his family to the Soviet Union, where, as Close demonstrates, he was treated not like a heroic defector but an untrustworthy spy. Much of what sets Close’s book apart from others on Pontecorvo are the sections on his life in the Soviet Union, where he was all but unable to communicate, travel, or socialize. Official distrust of Pontecorvo extended even to his sons, one of whom was an oceanographer but was not allowed on the ocean, lest he attempt to escape to the West. Pontecorvo’s exile also took a toll—ultimately fatal—on his wife, who suffered severe depression that worsened in the physical and social isolation in which she and her family existed.
Pontecorvo stood by his decision to cast his lot with the Soviet Union, even defending the brutal 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. But late in life, after the fall of the Soviet Union, he finally admitted second thoughts. “I was a cretin,” he told a reporter (p. 280), although he never admitted espionage. Close manages nevertheless to evoke pity for Pontecorvo, when he shrewdly points out that Britain treated Soviet spies better than the Soviet Union did. Fuchs and Nunn May each served less than ten years in prison for espionage, and upon release they enjoyed academic positions in Ghana and East Germany. Meanwhile, “Pontecorvo spent forty-three years in Russia, where his scientific career was frustrated, his family was traumatized, and his ideals were slowly crushed in the face of Soviet repression. If Bruno Pontecorvo was a spy, he was punished more than the others” (p. 304).
Close’s excellently written book is full of exquisite details, such as the neighbors who watched the Pontecorvos’ pet ducks when they went on vacation in August 1950, and waited until it was “clear that the Pontecorvos would not return” before eating them (p. 184). Close has also produced first-rate detective work, aided by interviews with Pontecorvo’s son among many others. Close does have an unconventional habit of referring to Pontecorvo by his first, rather than last, name throughout the book, though given the extensive number of family members who play a role in the book, this is understandable. The chapters that describe Pontecorvo’s scientific research on neutrinos and antineutrinos are lucidly written but pale in comparison to Pontecorvo’s enigmatic and fascinating human story.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Paul Rubinson. Review of Close, F. E., Half Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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