An American-born Russian scientist who served during World War II as an agent of Soviet military intelligence, or the GRU, working on the Manhattan Project – and who, according to Russian sources, “drastically reduced the amount of time it took for Russia to develop nuclear weapons.” 1
George Koval was born in December 1913, in Sioux City, Iowa, to a family of immigrants from Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire. His father was a carpenter, his mother a convert to Socialism who welcomed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The parents maintained a correspondence with members of their extended family in Soviet Russia (since 1922, the USSR). In the 1920s, they got involved with an American society set up in 1924 to help with the agricultural resettlement of Jews in the Soviet Union. This organization was called IKOR (the name derives from the Yiddish name, “Idishe Kolonizatzie in Sovetn Farband” – in English, “Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union”). Since 1928, IKOR’s main focus had been Jewish resettlement in Birobidzhan, in the Soviet Far East. 2 George’s father, Abraham, was the secretary of the Sioux City IKOR branch in the 1920s. Meanwhile, George joined the Young Communist League – and in August 1930 was its delegate to the Iowa convention of the Communist Party. 3
In 1932, the Kovals left Sioux City to join their extended family in Birobidzhan, which in May 1934 became the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Republic. The Kovals joined an “IKOR” commune that became a home for settlers from the United States and other foreign countries. The father got a job as a carpenter, and the three sons also worked at the commune. George started with a job at a local lumber mill and later worked on repairing agricultural machinery. But in 1934 he moved to Moscow and entered the D.I. Mendeleev Institute (now University) of Chemical Technologies, from which he graduated cum laude in 1939. He was then admitted to the Institute’s graduate school.
Soon after, Koval was spotted by Soviet Red Army intelligence, which, following several years of purges, was looking for new recruits among the best graduates of Moscow’s institutes of higher learning. Koval was one of those chosen and, after careful vetting, began training for an American mission. Assigned the code name “Delmar,” he left for the United States in 1940. His initial assignment was reportedly to gather information on American chemical weapons research.
Koval settled in New York City, with a cover job at the Raven Electric Company. 4 There is no reliable information on Koval’s espionage activities during his first years in New York. According to his FBI file, however, Raven Electric obtained several occupational draft deferments for Koval, representing him as its “key employee” and a board member.
In April 1943, Koval was finally drafted into the U.S. Army. With his fake documents, which showed that he had an Associate Degree in Chemistry from a local community college, he was selected for a special Army training program at the City College of New York, where he learned about the maintenance of equipment used for handling radioactive materials.
Following his graduation from the CCNY program, Koval was assigned by the U.S. Army to the Manhattan Project’s secret installation in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Placed in charge of radiation control, Koval reportedly had unrestricted access to the installation and could observe first-hand the process utilized in the production of plutonium and polonium, as well as scientific and security procedures and the quantity and quality of the materials produced.
In December 1945, he reported to Moscow that the Americans were producing polonium for use in their atomic project – and also divulged the monthly volume of polonium production in Oak Ridge. In February 1946, Moscow reportedly received an outline of the process used by the United States for polonium production. 5
In 1946, engineer third class George Koval was discharged from the Army as part of a demobilization. The discharge was honorary, with a reference to “brilliant” work. For his service, Koval earned two medals, including one “For Victory in World War II.” He was offered an opportunity to remain at Dayton in a civilian capacity but refused, fearing exposure under the much tighter security measures introduced following the defection in Canada of the Soviet cipher clerk Igor Guzenko. Koval returned to New York and resumed his studies at New York’s City College. In 1948, he told his American acquaintances that he had received an invitation to work on a power station construction project in Europe. He then obtained a passport to travel as the travel agent of a firm called Atlas Trading, and on October 6, 1948, he boarded the SS America en route to Le Havre. 6 From there, he made his way to the Soviet Union.
Back in Moscow in June 1949, Koval was discharged with the rank of a soldier from the Soviet Armed Forces, which he had joined when he was recruited into Soviet military intelligence. He then resumed his graduate studies. Within two years, he completed his thesis and became a Candidate of Engineering (the equivalent of a Ph.D. in science). He could not find a job, however, because of the oddity of his C.V.: for 10 years, from 1939 to 1949, he was listed as having served in the Army, but despite his higher education and his decade of service, he had received no promotion in rank (remaining a common soldier) and no more than one honorary medal, “For Victory over Germany.” Following Stalin’s death in March 1953, Koval decided to appeal to the head of Soviet military intelligence. The latter’s intervention helped him to receive a teaching job at his alma mater – where he would work for the next 40 years and publish some 100 scientific works.
George Koval died in Moscow on January 31, 2006. His role was never officially recognized until November 2, 2007, when the Kremlin announced his posthumous decoration with the highest state honor, “Hero of Russia.” 7 Cited among his major contributions to the Soviet atomic project was the design of the neutron fuse for the first Soviet atomic device, which was exploded on August 23, 1949.
Though Koval’s role was not officially recognized until 2007, details about his brilliant undercover career were revealed in 1999 in several articles and in a book by one Vladimir Lota, a Russian chronicler of the GRU who enjoyed access to some of its records. 8
Amazingly, Koval’s cover was first blown by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, when the first full version of his novel, The First Circle, was published in the West by YMCA-Press in 1978. (The novel begins with a Soviet diplomat calling the U.S. Embassy in Moscow – to warn that a Soviet agent in New York named George Koval was planning to obtain details of American atomic bomb production.) Even more amazing is the fact that the American authorities had actually been aware of Koval’s infiltration of the Manhattan Project beginning in the early 1950s – but had decided not to acknowledge this extraordinary security breach in order to avoid embarrassment. 9 Several months after the Kremlin announcement of Koval’s honorary decoration, the FBI released two volumes of George Koval’s investigative file to Andrey Shitov, a reporter from the Russian ITAR-TASS news agency. Shitov claimed he was told that the file had been declassified “long ago.” [[Andrey Shitov, Op. Cit.]]
- See, for instance, “Agent Del’mar vykhodit na svjaz’,” by Andrei Shitov. Rossiiskaja gazeta, 30 janvarja 2008 (“Agent Delmar Comes into Contact,” by Andrey Shitov, Russian Newspaper, January 30, 2008. ↩
- The Jews in the Soviet Union Since 1917, by Nora Levin, 1988, vol. 1, p. 292. ↩
- Cited from George Koval FBI investigative file, in Andrey Shitov, Op. Cit. ↩
- This fact would later be ascertained by the FBI, which would learn from a Soviet defector that in the early 1940s, an “illegal” agent of Soviet military intelligence (probably, Arthur Adams) had been running a retail electricity trading company in New York City. The FBI began looking into Raven Electric – and found “a man named George Koval” among its employees. – George Koval FBI investigative files released to an ITAR-TASS reporter in Washington, D.C.; Andrey Shitov, Op. Cit., Russian Newspaper, January 30, 2008. ↩
- “Ego zvali ‘Del’mar’”, Vladimir Lota. – Krasnaja Zvezda, 25 ijulja 2007 (“His Name Was ‘Delmar’, ” by Vladimir Lota. – Red Star, July 25, 2007.) ↩
- George Koval F.B.I. file cited in Andrey Shitov, Op. Cit. ↩
- http://www.kremlin.ru/appears/2007/11/02/1558_type63376type122346_ 150140.shtml ↩
- “Kluchi ot ada,” Vladimir Lota, – Sovershenno sekretno, avgust 1999. (Keys to the Inferno, by Vladimir Lota -Top Secret, August, 1999); “Operatsija ‘Del’mar’” – Krasnaja Zvezda, 19 aprelja 2002 (Operation ‘Delmar’, by Vladimir Lota. – Red Star, April 19, 2002); “Ego zvali ‘Del’mar’” – Krasnaja Zvezda, 25 ijulja 2007 (His Name Was ‘Delmar’- Red Star, July 25, 2007. In 2002, the story appeared in a book by the same author: GRU i atomnaja bomba, Vladimir Lota, Moskva: Olma Press, 2002; (GRU and the Atomic Bomb, by Vladimir Lota, Moscow: Olma Press, 2002.) Advertisements for the book have appeared on a number of English-language websites: www.yalepress.yale.edu; allbookstores.com; eastview.com; russianthings.com; store.rulist.com; bodley.ox.ac.uk, and some others. ↩
- “A Spy’s Path: Iowa to A-Bomb to Kremlin Honor,” by William J. Broad, The New York Times, November 12, 2007. ↩