Following the finding of the spies who shared American atomic secrets with the Soviet Union (read more here), the “Red Scare” was sweeping over 1950s Cold War America. And Cold War espionage was not going away. Here Scott Rose explains how Rudolf Abel’s New York-based Soviet spy ring was discovered in 1957.
The United States broke the Soviet atomic spy ring in the early 1950s, after the USSR had already accomplished its goal of acquiring the American information its scientists needed to build an atomic weapon. However, this was not the end of Cold War espionage between the two superpowers; in fact, it was barely the beginning. Both countries used every available method to find out each other’s plans and secrets, and in the process, many participants in this game either died, were sent to prison, or were ruined personally and politically.
When atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried, convicted and executed, they never admitted guilt or gave up any of their contacts. One of their contemporaries in New York was running a Soviet spy ring of his own, which he built for seven years after the Rosenbergs were arrested.
An Espionage Artist
In 1948, an artist and photographer named Emil Goldfus rented a small studio in Brooklyn. While his artistic talents were average at best, Goldfus had a talent for espionage that was anything but average. Mr. Goldfus was actually a Soviet KGB colonel named Rudolf Abel, and he had been one of the Soviet Union’s greatest spies during World War II. Proficient in Russian, English, Polish, German, and Yiddish, Abel was a uniquely versatile spy. He had perfectly impersonated a German military officer and was able to give the Red Army valuable information on German troop movements.
Abel came to New York in 1948, and he quickly built a spy network in America. In addition to his new espionage contacts, he made friends among other artists, who never had any reason to suspect him as being anyone other than who he said he was. Abel would sometimes leave town for weeks at a time, which his friends attributed to his eccentric, bohemian personality.
By 1954, Abel had built a large spying operation, and his methods of transmitting coded messages included placing microfilm inside of hollowed-out bolts, coins, and pencils. The Soviets decided Abel needed an assistant, to which he objected. Nevertheless, the Soviets sent an agent named Reimo Hayhanen to help Abel in New York. Abel quickly found his assistant to be completely incompetent, but tried his best to make an effective spy out of Hayhanen. A year later the KGB was concerned that Abel was becoming exhausted, and recalled him to the USSR for six months of vacation. When Abel returned to Brooklyn, he found his operation in shambles. Hayhanen had been extremely careless, and had spent much of the network’s finances on alcohol and prostitutes. By 1957, Abel had had enough, and demanded that his assistant be recalled to the Soviet Union. Hayhanen received his recall orders, and panicked, fearing he would be executed upon arriving in Moscow. He made it as far as Paris, where he walked into the American embassy, telling his story and pleading for asylum. At first, the CIA suspected Hayhanen was drunk, and he may very well have been. However, they decided to verify the information he had given them, and realized he was telling the truth.
When Hayhanen didn’t arrive in Moscow, the Soviets knew right away that he had defected. Abel was recalled, but didn’t make it out of the United States. Just before he was scheduled to leave, the FBI arrested him at a hotel in New York. He knew he was caught when an FBI agent addressed him as “Colonel.” Ever the professional, Abel didn’t say a word when he was arrested, simply staring ahead. However, Abel had not disposed of the evidence in his studio before he attempted to leave the United States, a surprising error for a spy as seasoned as Abel. When the studio was raided, the FBI realized it had found a goldmine of information. All sorts of spying and transmission equipment were found in the studio, but most importantly, there were photos of Soviet agents in the USA, along with lists of their names. Within weeks, Abel’s entire network of spies was shut down.
The Client Nobody Wanted to Represent
Abel was charged with espionage, and his next predicament was that there were hardly any defense attorneys in America that wanted to represent him. In the late 1950s, the United States was dealing with the lingering effects of the Rosenberg case as well as the “Red Scare” that had been whipped up by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had had ruined many careers by accusing people in all parts of American government and culture of having communist leanings. Not many lawyers, especially ones with political ambitions, could afford to be seen defending a KGB colonel in court. Eventually, the US government found an attorney willing to take on the case. James Donovan, who had previously worked for the American OSS (the precursor to the CIA), agreed to represent Abel. This would seem quite ironic, but Donovan actually did everything he could to defend his client.
When the case went to trial, it probably would not have mattered who his lawyer was, as the evidence against Rudolf Abel was massive and undeniable. In essence, Donovan knew Abel was probably going to be convicted. His main objective at this point was to keep Abel from getting the death penalty, as the Rosenbergs had. He succeeded in this; when the court found Abel guilty, his life was spared in favor of a 30-year prison sentence. Donovan was not finished though, appealing the case to the US Supreme Court. He argued that the evidence from the studio, by which Abel was convicted, had been obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court upheld Abel’s conviction, and he was sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta to begin his sentence.
While in prison, Abel kept himself busy with intellectual activities, such as painting and playing chess. Some days, he even passed the time by writing out tables of mathematical logarithms. Abel befriended several other convicted spies, including the Rosenbergs’ former accomplice, Morton Sobell. A couple of years after beginning his sentence, events on the other side of the globe would begin to work in Abel’s favor.
Gary Powers and the U-2 Incident
In 1960, the Soviets claimed to have shot down an American U-2 spy plane that was performing reconnaissance over the USSR. The pilot, Gary Powers, had ejected and survived, but was captured and brought to trial. The trial was designed to be a major propaganda victory, but it turned into an embarrassment for the Soviets. Powers admitted piloting a spy plane, adding that he had been flying reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union for the past four years. He also told the court that his plane was not shot down at all; the U-2 had suffered a flame-out that had forced him to eject. When the trial ended in August 1960, Powers was sentenced to ten years in a Soviet prison.
James Donovan, who had represented Rudolf Abel at his trial, recognized the opportunity to free both Abel and Powers. He orchestrated a prisoner exchange with the Soviets, who were eager to get Abel back. In February of 1962, Abel was released to the Soviet Union after serving only four years of his sentence. Likewise, Gary Powers was returned to the United States, where after retiring from the Air Force, he became a test pilot, as well as a helicopter traffic reporter for a Los Angeles television station. The prisoner exchange took place on the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin. As part of the swap, an American student named Frederic Pryor was released from the custody of the East Berlin police. In August of 1961, Pryor had been arrested and held by the East Germans, on the false suspicion that he was a spy for the CIA.
The Soviets treated Abel well when he returned, as he had been a valuable Cold War operative before being brought down by a bumbling assistant. He continued working for the KGB, even giving speeches to Soviet schoolchildren about intelligence operations. Just as Morris and Lona Cohen (two of the American atomic spies) were commemorated on Soviet postage stamps, Abel was honored on a stamp in 1990, one year before the fall of the Soviet Union. However, Abel’s luck had run out long before; after a lifetime of chain smoking, he died of lung cancer in 1971.
The story of the prisoner exchange was portrayed in the 2015 film Bridge of Spies.Frederic Pryor, who is still alive, went to see the film and claimed to have enjoyed it, while considering it to be over-dramatized. Pryor told a fellow moviegoer that the film had many inaccuracies, and the other person replied by asking Pryor, “How do you know that?” Pryor answered, “I’m Frederic Pryor.”
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Chester B. Hearn, Spies & Espionage: A Directory, Thunder Bay Press, 2006
James B. Donovan, Strangers On A Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel, Atheneum House, 2015
Ryan Dougherty, “Economist Frederic Pryor Recounts Life as a ‘Spy’”, Swarthmore College News & Events, October 21, 2015
Giles Whittell, Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War, Broadway Books, 2010