spy in from the cold(cont’d)

In a somewhat selfish way, I decided to allow Alexander to take me to one more expensive restaurants in London. One evening, I sensed that he was rather distracted and nervous. He asked me if I had ever heard of a Russian physicist, Pyotr Kapitsa – which of course I had. He was one of the leading researchers in low temperature physics and known all over the world. I knew that Kapitsa was spending a sabbatical year working at Manchester University. I thought of this question from Alexander a few weeks later when a photograph appeared on the front page of the London Times of a group of men hustling the 71 year old Kapitsa across the tarmac at Heathrow airport and into a plane to fly him back to Russia. A chill went down my spine as I recognised one of the men handling the famous physicist. It was my dear friend Alexander. Later, I spoke to him about the incident and he was completely non-communicable. He said he was unable to say anything about Kapitsa’s abduction and denied that he was involved, but the picture of him was unmistakable.

Now things were getting pretty intense for us. My wife was nearing the end of the term of her pregnancy. I was on the third and last year of my grant from RCA and was feeling pressure to finish the dissertation. I decided I would have one final evening out with the Russian attaché and chose a Spanish restaurant just off Leicester Square. We had fajitas and a delicious Rioja which I chose from the top of the menu.

And then it happened . . . I remember the conversation almost completely, it went something like this.

Alexander: Joseph, what are you going to do when your wife goes into the hospital to have the baby. Who’s going to take care of your children ?

My answer: I am personally going to stop my research for a few weeks until my wife can handle the new baby and our two sons on her own and I can return to Imperial to finish my dissertation.

A :This is not a very good idea, your work is important, you must finish it.

J: I realise this but this has all been worked out in advance and there is no problem. This is the only way it can be done as we cannot afford to hire an au pair or a nanny in any case.

A: I can help you.
J: What do you mean you can help me?

A: I am prepared to offer you £500 to help you pay for the care of your children whilst your wife is in the hospital so that you can continue your work on the dissertation.

J : £500 ! . . . and what do I have to do for this help ?
A : Just send us a copy of your dissertation when it is complete.
J : A copy of my dissertation! Who wants a copy of my dissertation? A : Abrikosov in Moscow wants a copy.

This was one of the most absurd conversations I have ever had in my life. First of all, here I was, an American working abroad and being offered a bribe by the scientific attaché of the Soviet embassy for a copy of my dissertation. Secondly, If A.A. Abrikosov, one of the leading Russian scientists of the day, had requested my dissertation from Imperial College, they would have sent a dozen copies by air mail express as soon as it was ready. (Years later, Abrikosov received The Nobel Prize for his work on superconductivity).

It was outrageous and I almost felt sick as I looked around at the diners in this Spanish restaurant. Was our conversation being tape recorded or was I was under a closed-circuit camera? It was the first time I had felt fear or trepidation about what I had let myself into. I suddenly realised I was being bribed by the Russians. In order to get the intense and very serious Alexander off my back, I told him that I would think about his offer and quickly went home to talk over the situation with my wife.

That same evening over a couple of mugs of hot Ovaltine, my heavily pregnant wife and I decided that this was no longer a joke, that something must be done. We agreed that I would go to the American Embassy the next day and report what had taken place.

It was a bright sunny morning when I got off the tube for Grosvenor Square instead of my usual stop. I had made an appointment with a special branch of the US Embassy though I cannot remember anything else about the meeting except the man’s name who interviewed me. His name was John Dean. (Memories of Richard Nixon, but the name was only coincidental). He wore a grey silk suit and a silk tie. I told him the complete tale and he asked me all sorts of questions about Alexander, many of which I could not answer. Then he asked me questions about my own educational background, my political leanings etc. which made me very anxious and somewhat angry. Though I had been naïve and somewhat selfish in manipulating this very unsophisticated Russian to pick up the tab for all those wonderful dinners, I had done nothing wrong. I just wanted to report the incident of the attempted bribe so that our family’s status in the UK and my US passport would not be in jeopardy.

But the American Embassy took it further. I was about to be recruited as a counter spy and to continue this farcical episode. Dean and his colleague who interviewed me on two or three different occasions asked me to see Alexander again and try and find out more about why the Russians would wish to have a copy of my thesis and pay me £500, a rather large sum at the time.

Continuing on my way from the US Embassy back to South Kensington, I was struck by the memory of a somewhat similar hysterical situation in the Aldwych Theatre at a marvellous production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In this play, Gorky’s The Governor Inspector, the main character is mistaken for an inspector sent by the government to assess the efficiency of a town’s political officials. He is bribed left, right and centre by the locals because it is believed that he has a certain position of power – which of course, he does not. The great Paul Schofield played the hapless inspector and I remember at the conclusion his being surrounded by sycophants attempting to win favour from him. He was crowded towards the edge of the stage almost spilling into the audience. It was one of the hilarious pieces of theatre we enjoyed during our early days in London. Now the play reminded me of the what I was engaged in. It paralleled my own situation as a young researcher working on a completely innocuous problem in physics, suddenly being thrust into international intrigue between the Russian and American embassies in London.

After two more meetings with Alexander, I was totally bored and angry because I was being drawn away from completing my thesis. Furthermore, my wife was now dilating. (Our third son, Mark, was born in Charing Cross Hospital on April 15 1967). I vowed that my career as a counter-spy would have to end. A few days later I went back to the American Embassy and explained my situation. I had too many responsibilities and could do no more ‘counter-spying’ even though I wished to do as much as anyone for my native country. The whole thing by now seemed totally ridiculous and I tried to explain to Mr Dean and his colleagues something about Gorky’s play but they missed the point completely.

My frustration and anger reached a boiling point when Dean asked me to tell him about our recent trip to the Crimea after the Low Temperature Physics Conference in Moscow. This I could not believe and will always be for me an indication of how much of the taxpayers’ funds, both in America and Russia, is wasted on tracking down would-be spies. I refused to be drawn in to the discussion. In any case, I left these frustrated gentlemen in a huff but slightly worried that I might not have done as much as I could for my country. Later, I told Alexander our affair was over. I was too busy. I now father of three children and could certainly not accept his offer of financial help. I also told him I would make sure that Abrikosov received a copy of my thesis as soon as it was available.

By now it was approaching summer of 1967 and I was working feverishly on organising the enormous collection of experimental data into some form of an organic whole. I have never been so stressed in my entire life. It was not that I had more work to do, but rather a case of which material to include and which not to. I had sufficient results for three theses ! I recall vividly one moment during this time when I burst into tears whilst I was in the toilet on the 10th floor of the physics building of Imperial College. I have never revealed this incident to anyone before, except my dear, long- suffering wife. I also recall clearly what I was reading during breaks to relieve the tension . . . a collection of short stories by Bernard Malamud, a favourite of mine. This is the end of the 2nd part of this blog

Once you have submitted your thesis you are invited to defend your doctorate at a ‘viva voce’ (Latin for ‘by live voice’) or oral examination. The thesis defence can be a daunting prospect, but many people really enjoy this experience of discussing their PhD research with genuinely interested experts. It can also be a useful networking opportunity. Every institution will have specific regulations for the defence of a doctoral thesis. In some countries or institutions, the convention is for thesis defences to be public events where one gives a lecture explaining the research followed by a discussion with a panel of examiners. Both your examiners and the audience are able to ask questions. In other countries, including the UK, the oral examination is usually conducted behind closed doors by at least two examiners, usually with at least one being from another institution (external examiner) and an expert in your topic of research. In the UK the the thesis supervisor does not participate in the viva, but may be allowed to observe. Most PhD candidates take the viva very seriously and devote a substantial amount of time to preparation. I was told that my work will have strengths and weaknesses and it is essential that I am prepared to discuss both.

After the viva there are several possible outcomes of a thesis defence. Most commonly, your examiners will recommend to your institution that you are awarded your degree subject to minor corrections, although in some instances they might ask for more substantial work.

It was here that my friend . . . by now . . . and thesis advisor Gavin Park decided to play a joke on me. When I expressed a slight anxiety regarding the defence, he assured me the examiners were all colleagues of his and that I should not have any worries. I remember one was Professor Rose- Innes from Manchester University but Gavin would not tell me who the other examiner would be. In the course of my writing I had referred many times to the publications of one of the key people in this field, Professor Bruce Goodman. British by birth and education he was presently the Director of the Low Temperature Research Lab in Grenoble, France and was to me a brilliant writer and researcher. Abrikosov himself had written that Goodman was the key researcher in the field of Type II superconductivity. How startled I was on the morning I arrived for my viva to find Goodman himself sitting across the table with about 40 little yellow slips of paper sticking out of my thick dissertation. It was a trying examination but I managed to get through it with the proviso that I make certain corrections, mainly to satisfy the excruciating high standards of Goodman.

It took two weeks to complete these changes after which time I carried the new version of my thesis to Goodman at his hotel on the Gloucester Road in South Kensington. It was a rainy night and I remember it well as I delivered it for his deliberations before he left to return to France. So in the end, I had passed the viva and was now truly free. With a great deal of pride, I took my wife to our favourite restaurant in Covent Garden where we drank good wine and enjoyed a wonderful celebratory meal. I sent a telegram to my parents in the USA and signed it Dr. Joseph P. McEvoy.

In November 1967 we sailed back to the US with 23 cases and trunks plus our three sons on the SS United States, arriving at the Port of New York on one of that ship’s final journeys across the Atlantic. We returned to our suburban house in Pennsauken, New Jersey and I arrived with my new PhD at the RCA Laboratories in Princeton to start a career in basic research. During the previous year Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been shot and the political temperature of protest and revolt in American universities had become intense. Now, somewhat jaded from the commercial world of industrial research, my wife and I agreed that this might be the time to make a move to a university. With the kind consent of the RCA Labs who had supported my three years of research in London for the doctorate degree, I accepted the position as an assistant professor of physics at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts where I continued my research in superconductivity.

Some time after returning to the U.S, I travelled to Grenoble, France coincidentally the home of my external examiner Bruce Goodman and managed to speak to him and to some Russian scientists there who were engaged in the same specialisation as I during the time – the effect of high pressures on the superconductivity of metals. When I returned to Worcester I continued my research and teaching and some radical activities on the campus as my wife and I and our three children started a rather radical phase of our life in the USA.

A few months after the Grenoble trip, I returned from a class at Clark and was informed by the secretary of the physics department that a gentleman from the CIA had rung and arranged an appointment for the following day during an opening in my schedule. I immediately thought, as based on some experience in the past, that it must be an investigation of some kind being carried out on a colleague at the university or perhaps even a neighbour who might be applying for a job with the FBI or whatever. The next day, the pleasant, congenial gentleman with patches on the elbows of his sports jacket arrived and began to interview me regarding certain aspects of my own activities. He started by asking me if I had spoken to any Russian scientists during the recent conference in Grenoble.

I became apprehensive.

Then, came the blockbuster . . . He very calmly said: Could you tell me a little about Vera ? The fact that somehow – by methods I am still not aware – the American authorities had found out about our contact with the wonderful Russian female engineer was outrageous. Now I was sure she never received the package I so carefully sent by special delivery containing the Russian translations of The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway and Ulysses by James Joyce. I had never heard from her about the package.

No doubt, the USA was following the activities of Vera in Moscow, Alexander at the Russian Embassy in London and of course my own movements starting from the Low Temperature Physics Conference in Moscow a few years before. I was livid and can remember that during the last exchange I had with the nice man from the CIA, I was totally rude.

He looked at me and said . . .

Fine, I will leave and I am sorry you are offended. I am only doing my job. I have children to put through college and this is the way I earn my salary.

I never heard another word from him again.

9 thoughts on “spy in from the cold(cont’d)”

  1. Joe, I have always loved hearing these stories over many years and this is great to see it set out so clearly. What a great film this would make as Mary says! It’s wonderful to see Vera finally! Thanks so much for sharing and keep these coming – it’s wonderful family history!

  2. What a story ! What a life ! WhAt a family ! And to imagine that I actually know you ! Amazing !
    And I must add “2 World Wars and 1 World Cup … do da do da” and also the Dacras was my favourite restaurant too ! I wondered about the people and what their stories were, they looked so interesting … ha now I know why ! And the food was great !
    Joe thank you for a great story … had me in the edge of my seat .. and an excellent birthday present for Mark too !
    You need to write a book ! A best seller for sure ! 😘

  3. Wow Dad! This is a pretty amazing tale…told very well! I’m glad that your run in with the CIA didn’t hamper any of you radical anti-war activties. Fearless to the max! (or should I say the ‘fearless Mac!’)

  4. Hi Mac,
    I enjoyed this outstanding and captivating report with greatest interest from my German lock down.
    What a perfect story teller you are! Please go on. When are you going to publish such entertaining stories?
    Best regards

  5. Really enjoying the tale, JoeBoy! It flows beautifully and keeps me engaged, anticipating hungrily for what is coming next!
    Looking forward to more!

  6. Joe, I can not believe this story. This is your film, your opera, your play. IT would make such a brilliant theater piece. I remember bits of the Alexander story but this story is so beautifully written and the
    photographs are fabulous! Thank you…keep writing! Who shall we cast as you? hmm, Damian Lewis? and for Pat..Rachel Weisz? Let’s get Sam to direct it! xoxoMary

  7. Just loved it! Joe, you have such a gift for storytelling (you think?). I’m sure that you could tweak your factual narrative as fiction and have another career. Go for it. You have some spare time, don’t you? Seriously, you’re good!

  8. A very interesting and compelling story. I have one friend who taught in Moscow for a semester and experienced attempts by the Russians to try to compromise him by sending prostitutes to his hotel room. Fortunately he knew not to have anything to do with the offers.

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