How the Russians Got the Bomb

By Roger Pinckney

It was mid-winter of 1943 at Gore Field outside of Great Falls and Major Racey Jordan of the US Army had a problem. He was short morphine in aircraft medical kits. The planes were Douglas C-47’s bound for the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease Act and Jordan monitored the transfer. 

Each plane left Great Falls with two crews, one American, one Russian. The C-47’s flew to Fairbanks where the Americans deplaned and the Russians then flew them on to Siberia. Jordan also noted an unusual amount of sealed “diplomatic” pouches that were supposedly exempt from inspection. Jordan suspected drug smugglers had hidden the missing morphine in many of those pouches.

Jordan’s Soviet counterpart was Comrade Colonel Anatoli N. Kotikov, an effusive and garrulous Soviet, who eventually became Jordan’s “almost friend.”  When Kotikov invited him to a fried chicken dinner in Great Falls, Jordan passed the restaurant’s number to his air traffic controller and ordered no planes would be cleared for takeoff without his permission.

Dinner was predictable, chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes and vodka, lots of vodka, with many toasts to Comrades Roosevelt and Stalin.  Jordan tried to keep his head by “watering” potted plants with every other drink.  Finally, there came the call he was expecting—a C-47 was on the runway asking permission to take off.

“Hold that aircraft till I get there!” Jordan shouted and bolted for the door.

Back at Gore Field, Jordan hailed a guard and boarded the idling plane on the tarmac. As he suspected, the plane was loaded with diplomatic pouches. 

“Diplomatic, diplomatic!” the Russians jabbered but no matter. Jordan’s guard held them at gunpoint while Jordan cut the seals and rifled through the contents. There were blueprints and plans of things he did not understand and a note of White House stationary signed by Harry Hopkins, “Had a hell of a time getting these away from General Groves.” 

Harry Hopkins was one of the president’s closest advisors. General Leslie Groves was head of the Manhattan Project. The blueprints were of the centrifuges to extract U-235 at the new nuclear weapons facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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There was a race in those days between the US, Germany and Japan. Who would be the first to get the bomb? Whoever it was would win the war. The Germans were close, very close. Why not give our Soviet ally a leg up on the bomb? It would be just like giving them C-47’s right?

Harry Hopkins thought as much. So did Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, husband and wife, who passed secrets of the Nagasaki bomb to a Russian spy. 

The two bombs dropped on the Japanese were of different types. Little Boy, the Hiroshima bomb, used a salvaged howitzer barrel to fire a slug of U-235 into a subcritical mass, holding it there for a microsecond to start the chain reaction. The Nagasaki bomb, Fat Man, used pie-shaped subcritical masses driven together by a surrounding charge of shaped high-explosives. The Rosenbergs’ offense was divulging the mathematical formula for the shaped charges, essentially worthless information as the behavior of shaped charges was well-known among combat engineers of the day, even down to the lowest PFC. But the Rosenbergs were executed for that, leaving behind two orphan sons while history hails Harry Hopkins as a hero, a savior of democracy and the designer of the modern welfare state.

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After the war, Jordan returned to his former private life as a businessman in New York City. Things were quiet until the Soviets detonated Joe One, their first atomic bomb, on August 29, 1949, shortly after President Truman predicted the Soviet bomb was still a decade away. We were allies against the Nazis, but bitter enemies within four years.

How did such a thing happen? Who is responsible? The Rosenbergs went to the chair and Jordan’s casual conversations with friends and colleagues put him on the FBI’s radar.

Jordan was interviewed at length and agents found him entirely credible, even though one noted Jordan “didn’t know the difference between uranium and a geranium,” his ignorance of nuclear physics only made his story more believable. Jordan was subpoenaed to testify before a congressional committee but when the trail of espionage and treason led straight to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the investigators predictably and suddenly lost all interest. 

Today the government maintains custody of all documents related to the affair … sort of.  They are available for the average citizen to puzzle over after a Freedom of Information Act request. But the documents, thousands of pages, are heavily redacted, sometimes page after page nothing but black. And each redacted page bears an official government stamp: “Original destroyed as no longer needed.”

 Case closed?




From the FE Films Archive


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