George Koval: Oak Ridge's Master Spy

The Soviets' man in East Tennessee, and another contender for our first outdoor cafe

In the recent romantic thriller, Duplicity, about international espionage, actor Clive Owen's reference to Knoxville comes as a loony surprise. It turns out to be a sly hoax. In this movie that's set in the glamour spots of the world—Dubai, London, Zurich, New York, Rome, the Bahamas—any mention of Knoxville seems calculated for laughs.

It's not necessarily that funny. The May issue of Smithsonian fleshes out a story that broke in late 2007: that of one of the most damaging spies in our history, one who infiltrated the American nuclear program as a secret agent. One man who helped lead the Soviet Union to get the atomic bomb in the 1940s spent about a year living, working, and learning too much, in our metropolitan area.

Real spies rarely operate in the glamour spots of the world—"swingin' on the Riviera," like Secret Agent Man. Any spy who's working the Riviera is probably not turning up anything very interesting. The serious spies work at more significant places like Oak Ridge, Tenn.

George—or Zhorzh—Koval was born and raised in Iowa. His parents, disappointed with Depression-era Sioux City, moved back to Russia. The Soviets recruited Koval, a chemistry scholar and a rare Communist with a flawless middle-American accent and an enthusiasm for baseball, as a spy. Koval snuck back to America somehow in 1940, and did all the patriotic American things, like registering for the draft. Getting drafted turned out to be Koval's key to the kingdom. He tested well, and after some training the serviceman found himself at X-10 in Oak Ridge as a health-physics officer with "top-secret clearance" to monitor radiation levels throughout the plant. For months he conveyed information to the Soviets by a contact known as "Clyde."

I don't know who Clyde was, but I've lately been regarding my older friends suspiciously. And as far as I can tell, no one here remembers Koval. In the summer of 1945, three weeks before the first successful explosion of an atomic bomb, Koval was transferred from Oak Ridge to another top-secret lab associated with Oak Ridge in Dayton, Ohio. He did a few months' more spying there. In 1948, he slipped back to Russia. In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, startling American intelligence authorities who thought it was still years off.

It sounds like a novel, and my old friend Jon Jefferson, who with William Bass writes the Body Farm mysteries, confirms that their newest book, Bones of Betrayal, is partly inspired and informed by the Koval revelations, though their story departs in several particulars. Duplicity's screenwriters may have heard of it, too; in the movie, the character who bluffs about having been in Knoxville is named "Ray Koval."

When he died in 2006 at age 92, George Koval was almost unknown both here and in Russia, where he was just the teacher at the Mendeleev Institute who had the funny American accent. His story became public only after Vladimir Putin honored him in a ceremony in 2007. Since then, cold-war historians have been scurrying to try to figure out how it all could have happened. A new paper published in the Journal of Cold War Studies, "George Koval, Manhattan Project Spy," by historian Robert Norris, claims Koval's adventures in the Manhattan Project were mainly just good luck for the Soviets, who couldn't have planned it.

Soon after the war, the Knoxville Journal and Cas Walker led right-wingers in suspecting Communist intent in water fluoridation or rock 'n' roll or TVA. Many of us assumed they were just paranoid reactionaries—but maybe their twitching antennae were detecting something in the East Tennessee air. Maybe it's not so silly to assume that Commies infiltrating East Tennessee might do some serious damage. Our home-grown vigilantes were just looking in the wrong places.

The outdoor cafe debate

Movie spies seem to like outdoor cafes, and reader David Myers weighed in on the interesting—to me, at least—subject of what was the first in Knoxville. Just 15 or 20 years ago, the outdoor cafe still was rare, even exotic. Now it's common and popular. I wondered what the trick was, and who started it. There are more than one criteria for what constitutes an outdoor cafe—but I proposed the first might have been the Bahou Container, the Middle Eastern cafe in Homberg Place, which opened around 1973. However, David remembers a favorite place near the University of Tennessee on Lake Avenue called La Cantina—or perhaps La Canteena—which he also thinks was Knoxville's first Mexican restaurant (but there's another debate). He remembers spending a lot of time there in the summer of 1971. He recalls the proprietor was one Joe Jenkins, the future sheriff of Knox County. It was a fun place for college kids like him, he says, that showed old movies on the walls inside, but offered a large patio outside, facing Lake Avenue.

It was the first outdoor cafe David ever saw in Knoxville; it was there a year or two before the Bahou Container.

Any discussion of firsts in outdoor seating has to acknowledge some informal forerunners, like the hotels and cigar shops of Gay Street in the 19th century which offered cane-bottom chairs for sidewalk seating. Even in the 1790s, some local taverns had front porches overlooking a street. I don't know whether to count them as forerunners. They probably didn't offer table service, or tables. But it's clear that before the Civil War, men were known to sit out on the sidewalk well into the night, smoking, drinking, and talking.

In the 20th century, though, outdoor cafes remained rare until the 1990s. Serving your customers outside might have seemed as strange as turning out the lights, or making them eat on the floor. But now it seems pleasant, and popular.

I still don't know why the practice took so long to catch on with us moderns. Up until the 1950s or so, of course, soot was an issue. Then, I think, a generation or two was overly impressed with the amazing new marvel of air conditioning. Sitting outside would be missing out on an hour of air-conditioning, and life is short.