In the incredibly overheated, paranoid environment of the Cold War, anything seemed possible. Senator Joe McCarthy saw Communists hiding in every broom closet, Julius and Ehtel Rosenberg were executed as spies — although the evidence we have today suggests that Ethel, at least, wasn’t guilty of anything of the sort — and the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched COINTELPRO, a series of covert actions spying on and disrupting various political organizations, including civil rights leaders and Vietnam war protesters. In 1951, according to a recently declassified FBI file, the agency also became convinced that an atomic bomb built by the Soviet Union could be hiding somewhere in New York City, waiting to be detonated. After receiving a rather flimsy tip from an unnamed informant in Brazil, the FBI spent several years quietly looking for the bomb.
The declassified FBI file comes to us from Government Attic, an anonymously-run website that publishes documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. It’s a treasure trove for government materials, some dull, some hilarious, and some just plain weird. This file is a little of the last two; it’s titled “Atomic Bomb in Unknown Consulate, New York City,” and shows that the FBI was actively looking for a bomb here in 1951 and 52. A redacted version of the document was declassified and released to the public in 2010. It hasn’t been written about before now.
In the summer of 1950, an FBI informant whose name we still don’t know arrived in Brazil. While he was there, the informant received the following tip, which he relayed to the agency. As the file puts it: “[T]he Soviets have placed an atom bomb in a consulate, the identity of which he did not learn, in New York City to be detonated at such time as the Soviets consider expedient.”
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States are the only time a nuclear attack has actually been carried out. But the U.S. government was understandably preoccupied that such a thing could happen here. And so the tip from the Brazil-based informant set off a mad hunt through the city.
The file reveals that the FBI had informants, possibly moles, feeding them information about every agency and company in New York City with ties to the Soviet Union. That includes the Soviet Mission to the United Nations, which sat in a stately home on Park Avenue until 1965, as well as the Hungarian Consulate, the Polish Consulate, and the Czechoslovakian United Nations Delegation, all clustered along East 67th Street. They also had informants at the Amtorg Trading Corporation, a company set up in the ’20s to bolster trade between the USSR and the U.S., which may have actually been stealing trade secrets from American companies. Tass, a Soviet news agency with an office at Rockefeller Plaza had also been infiltrated by informants, as had the Soviet Mission’s diplomatic retreat on Long Island, a country estate called Killenworth.
The FBI began asking their informants at each of these places whether they’d seen anything that looked like atomic-bomb-making materials. None of them had seen anything of the sort, except for the person at the Hungarian Consulate, who wasn’t entirely sure. In November 1951, the agency also began asking customs agents to look out for odd packages with diplomatic seals on them, specifically ones “which appear to be suspiciously heavy in proportion to their dimensions.” They also asked the Atomic Energy Commission to let them know what a disassembled atomic bomb might look like, should they have come across one.
No one ever came across any suspiciously heavy packages or bomb parts. The FBI did learn that the Polish Consulate had recently ordered some armor-plated cabinets; the special agent reporting on them said he would track them if they ever arrived in the U.S.
From the start, though, it seems the FBI wasn’t sure whether the tip from the Brazilian informant was real or just a Communist plot designed to provoke a panic. In September 1951, the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the New York bureau wrote to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that there were two possibilities at work:
(1) The information may be true, in which case we have a major security menace on our hands; or (2) the information may be false. In the latter case the possibility exists of it having been disseminated from a Communist source for the purpose of producing panic. It is even possible, if the information is false, that it was disseminated in the hope of finding out what we would do in such a situation; that is, what means we would take to find out if it is true, what informants we may have in various Consulates, etc.
In the end, seeing as no bombs were discovered, no action was taken. The investigation briefly flared anew in 1954, when yet another confidential informant in Mexico reported that “representatives of the Communist Party of Mexico” had told local Communist leaders that the Polish Legation in Mexico was planning to smuggle “small bombs, even atomic bombs” into the United States “to cause sabotage.” Soviet submarines were supposedly going to covertly drop the bombs off in a bay off the west coast of Mexico. They’d be carried over land and then taken across the border.
That never happened either. The whole matter was quietly shelved by the mid-50s. No one was ever bombed, except the people we’d bombed already.