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Bad book on atomic spying is still good reading; The Atom Bomb Spies, by H. Montgomery Hyde. New York: Atheneum. $14.95

"The Atom Bomb Spies" offers a fine example of a subject inherently so fascinating that even a rather bad book about it makes rather good reading. H. Montgomery Hyde's treatment of nuclear espionage in the early postwar period is poorly organized, gracelessly written, unreliable on small details, infuriatingly underdocumented, and shows no signs that the author has thought carefully about the definition or the meaning of his subject. It is rescued only by its characters and its larger facts.

On Sept. 5, 1945, an obscure young Russian code clerk named Igor Gouzenko walked out of the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa with his shirt stuffed full of secret documents relating to his country's espionage activities in the West. Gouzenko's timely defection led to the successive discoveries that Allan Nunn May, Klaus Fuchs, and Bruno Pontecorvo -- three respected physicists who held sensitive positions within the atomic research establishments of Canada, the US, and Britain -- had been passing classified information to the Russians. And the Fuchs arrest led in turn (though by connections more tenuous and accidental than the others) to that sad grotesquerie of American history, the Rosenberg case.

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This is all interesting and significant stuff, even -- or especially -- the much-told story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which like the story of John Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald grows only more confusing with each re-examination. But the whole business, from Gouzenko's defection to the Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case, suffers under Hyde's handling from three serious faults:

First, and least important, either Hyde or his American editor (or both) has been ludicrously slipshod about details. J. Robert Oppenheimer is called Robert J. Oppenheimer; star witness Harry Gold at one point become Harvey; the date of a watershed article on the Rosenbergs is mis-cited by 20 years; Harold Urey is billed as "the former head of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos," which he never was; and this is just a sampling of many such. In a Thomas Pynchon novel that sort of scrambling wouldn't matter, but Hyde purports to be concerned with the minutiae of factual evidence.

Secondly, Hyde's misconceived organization of this book groups two distinct things -- the confessed espionage of the scientists May, Fuchs, and Pontecorvo, and the prosecution of an improbable New York couple named Rosenberg -- that very much need to be seen and understood separately. True, the Fuchs arrest (along with the first Russian A-bomb test, four months earlier) contributed to a climate of political hysteria that made the Rosenberg prosecution possible. But whatever acts of disloyalty Fuchs performed, and May and Pontecorvo, by passing technical information to their Soviet contacts, were necessarily and fundamentally different from any acts the Rosenbergs were ever accused of -- let alone any they were persuasively proven to have committed. The Rosenberg case, and the story of substantive Soviet espionage into Western nuclear research, are both prickly and engrossing topics; but they probably don't, as Montgomery Hyde has failed to realize, really have that much to do with each other.

Finally, even while his focus remains squarely on the three scientist spies, Hyde persists in a simplistic vision of nuclear technology that has him saying things like "[Fuchs] knew the secret of the atom bomb's manufacture, which Nunn May did not," and "[Fuchs] gave the secret of the atom bomb to the Russians." Virtually every physicist who worked on the early fission bombs, and all the respectable historians of that work, have agreed that there is no such unitary thing as "the secret" of the atom bomb (just as surely as there ism a single secret idea to the H-bomb), and that the main prereqquisites to its production are a thousand small answers to a thousand small engineering questions, plus massive industrial capacity.

Hyde is immune to this last undramatic truth, among others, and so the most interesting and useful question his book might have answered -- What was the actual strategic significance, if any, of the chief "atom bomb spies," May, Pontecorvo, and Klaus Fuchs? -- is left unasked.