As work progressed on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II, a number of scientists involved in the project began to feel uneasy about the weapon they were creating. Some of those who felt the bomb was a necessity for stopping Hitler didn’t feel quite the same about using it against Japan; they thought the war in the Pacific could be ended without such dire measure. There even were those who thought that peace could be reached just by showing the Japanese a demonstration of the weapon’s power (this idea was dropped because of the disastrous possibility that the bomb might fail during the demo, thus causing embarrassment for the US and renewed incentive for fighting on the part of the Japanese).
Other scientists at Los Alamos were worried about the post-war world. What would happen if the US had a monopoly on this terrible new type of bomb? How would it affect the rest of the world if the US could hold this kind of hammer over it? In particular, why were they keeping it from the Soviet Union? Weren’t they allies in the war? Many thought it would make more sense to make nuclear technology available to all nations; openness would create equality, a kind of weapons draw. After the war, a number of Los Alamos scientists banded together to promote the idea of an international committee that would control nuclear material so that everyone would have a chance to use it for peaceful means, such as energy, but not a destructive force.
Some at Los Alamos didn’t wait until after the war, though, to act on their misgivings about a US nuclear hegemony. Klaus Fuchs, a German communist who had fled to Britain after the Nazis took power in his home country, came to Los Alamos as part of a contingent of British scientists. He deeply hated the Nazis and felt a strong Soviet Union was the best way to fight fascism. He passed on to his Soviet contacts information about the atomic bomb, and after the war, the hydrogen bomb. In 1949, Fuchs was confronted about his spy activity; he confessed, and was sentenced to fourteen years in prison, but served only nine.
Fuch’s confession to British and US intelligence services led to another Los Alamos spy, David Greenglass. He was a machinist who worked at Los Alamos as a member of the military. When Greenglass was caught, he turned in other members of his circle of spies in New York, most notoriously his sister and brother-in-law, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, newly opened KGB archives revealed that there had been other spies at Los Alamos. Around the same time, the Venona files in the United States were released. Venona was a US wartime project that had resulted in the decryption of thousands of Soviet intelligence cables; the information in Venona had helped the FBI identify Fuchs. Now the two newly available sources helped identify Ted Hall, a physicist at Los Alamos, as another Soviet spy (there were several others who have not been identified). Journalists Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel went to interview Hall in Britain, where he and his family had lived since the 1960s. Hall, who was ill and would die in 1999, decided it was time to give his side of the story; the result was Albright and Kunstel’s 1997 book Bombshell: the Secret Story of America’s Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy.
Theodore Holtzberg was born in 1925 in Queens, but grew up in Washington Heights. His father was in the fur business. Edward, Ted’s much older brother, had both his and Ted’s last names legally changed to the non-ethnic Hall after he realized that anti-Semitism was affecting his ability to get a job.
Ted was a prodigy whose talents for math and science were recognized early on—he graduated from high school at age fourteen. He was sent to take classes at Queens College, because of fears that he wasn’t socially mature enough to handle life in a university, but Edward felt that Ted was being held back there and had him sent to Harvard.
Hall always felt a pull between his love of science and pure research and a desire to make the world a better place somehow. Ideally, he wished that he could be some kind of part time academic and part time social worker. Like many bright young people of the time, his interest in wanting to do good drew him to leftist causes and he ended up hanging around with the Communist fringe at Harvard. One of his best friends was Saville Sax, a sometime poet and bohemian type from
After graduating at age nineteen with a degree in physics, Hall was one of four young Harvard men who were brought to Los Alamos to work on what they understood was a top secret project. Hall was the youngest physicist at the camp.
Hall's Los Alamos ID badge--did they really spell Theodore wrong?!!
The two young men approached a number of Russian organizations, asking obliquely who they should talk to if they had information of interest to the Soviets. They lucked out when a workman at Amtorg, a front corporation for Soviet intelligence gathering, gave Hall the name of Sergey Kurnakov, a KGB agent; someone at Artkino, a Russian film organization, gave Sax the same name. They met Kurnakov, and Hall gave him a summary of information about what was going on at Los Alamos that he had drawn up. Kurnakov decided Hall could be trusted. He gave Hall the code name Mlad, which translates to “young.” Hall later passed on more secret information through Sax, who came to New Mexico several times to pick up papers from Hall in person.
One time Lona Cohen was sent instead. Lona, who with her husband Morris, had been spying for the Soviets since before the war, smuggled the papers from Hall back to New York buried in a box of tissues. Disaster was averted when Lona handed the box to a cop at a train station while she was digging in her purse for her ticket. She walked away without the box—which should have been obviously much heavier than normal—but the cop chased after her and returned it. Lona, never the most careful when it came to spycraft, later said that she had felt all right about letting the precious material leave her hands because she was a sure a policeman would be careful with a lady’s belongings.
After the war ended, Hall followed a number of other Los Alamos alumni to the University of Chicago. He got a Ph.D in physics, and married a girl, Joan Krakover, who at age seventeen was already heavily involved in progressive causes. Ted also became affiliated with leftist groups. He told Joan about what he had done before they got married, and she accepted it; they moved on.
The Soviets didn’t feel the same way. They came after Ted to try to get him to continue to work for him in whatever capacity he could. Ted and Joan were both against it, mainly because getting involved again in espionage would require them to stop being politically active; the Soviets thought that kind of thing would draw too much attention to those spying for them (ironically, later it would prove the exact opposite). Moreover, as young post-war communists, they felt little affinity for the Soviets; many communists of their generation regarded the Soviets and their hard-line attitudes as an embarrassment and a hindrance to their more general progressive agenda. The Halls, like others, felt they could help the left more by fighting their own political battles, not by giving information to the Soviets.
However, a face to face meeting with a persuasive KGB handler (forgot to write down name before returning book, sorry…) convinced Ted that he would be doing important work and he agreed to re-up. Reluctantly, he and (an angry) Joan dropped out of politics and laid low while Hall stayed in contact with the Soviets (again, I suffer from having to return the book to the library; I don’t have written down what, if any, information he could have given at this point). Eventually the Halls decided it had to come to an end and refused to do any more for the Soviets. They returned to their political activism. Hall also switched to biophysics, feeling that nuclear research was at a dead end and less interesting.
At this point the spy rings in the US were breaking down. The Venona files were finally decrypted and the US was going through years of cables and piecing together information. They nabbed Fuchs and Greenglass. Further information led them to Hall and Sax in Chicago.
At first, even though all evidence in the intercepted cables pointed to the pair, they didn’t seem to fit the profile; unlike what the Soviets believed, their involvement in leftist politics made them seem innocent because the FBI knew that spies would not have been involved in such thing (as one investigator noted, spies never subscribed to the Daily Worker). Both Hall and Sax were interviewed separately, but didn’t crack. They were followed and suspected their homes were bugged. To talk, they had to leave their homes and go out into places where they knew no one was recording (used as a pretext for going out, the Sax and Hall babies got many park visits in a freezing Chicago winter). Homes of their leftist friends were searched for material that would incriminate Hall and Sax.
Despite all this, the FBI could never come up with quite enough evidence to link the two to the Soviets. The only evidence they had was in the Venona files, but if they introduced them in court, they would reveal that they knew the Soviet codes and lose their source of information, both past and present. They decided it was worth losing the Hall-Sax battle in order to possibly win the Cold War.
Hall worked with x-rays in biology for the rest of his career. He left the University of Chicago for a job at the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, then went to the Cavendish Lab at Cambridge University. Hall received acclaim for his work and, other for his renown in the scientific community, lived quietly until he was identified as the spy Mlad was revealed in the 1990s.
Lona and Morris Cohen were spirited away to the Soviet Union when the Rosenberg-Greenglass spy ring blew up. They were given new identities and went to live in London where Morris’s identity as an antiquarian book shop owner was a cover for their continued spy work. They were eventually caught (much to the surprise of their neighbors, who thought they were such a nice couple) and sent to prison. After their release, they went to live in the Soviet Union, where they helped teach KGB agents in training how to act like Westerners.
Saville Sax, who had always struggled to find his place in the world, eventually became a teacher and somewhat of a guru in a very 1970s sense, the kind who hold seminars and retreats and responds to questions like, “How are you today?” with “The cosmos is eternally swirling but the stars are at rest.” Sax had sometimes hinted at involvement in spying, but his children never took him seriously, as he always had been a spinner of tales.
Albright and Kunstel’s book isn’t just a biography of Ted Hall. While a lot of their information comes from Hall and his wife and the available KGB archives and Venona files, there also are interviews with Sax’s ex-wife and children, the FBI agents who worked on Hall’s case in Chicago in the 1950s, and many others who were not just involved with Hall, but with Soviet espionage in general, and Morris and Lona Cohen in particular.
Whether by intention of the authors or not, the Cohens’ lives provide a fascinating contrast to the Halls how two different generations of American regarded Communism. Morris Cohen fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil war; Lona Cohen, before her marriage, briefly lived in a commune. They felt close ties with the Soviet Union, which was barely more than a decade old when they became active in the 1930s. By the time the Halls came of age, however, American communism had become part of a wider, progressive philosophy. Their involvement in communism was less about becoming part of the Soviet Union than bringing aspects of communism to American life, because they believed it would make life better for those they considered oppressed—the poor, workers, minorities. The differences between the two couples’ philosophies can be summed up in how they regarded their decisions to become spies. For the Cohens, becoming a spy meant surrendering their will to be at the service of the Soviets. If the Soviets wanted Lona to give up her own work as a union shop steward at the factory where she was employed, she did it, no matter that she loved the job and enjoyed fighting for workers’ rights. If the Soviets told them to go to keep spying, they did, whether they wanted to or not. They moved around at the will of their handlers. Hall, however, felt that since he had volunteered to give information to the Soviets, he could just as easily volunteer not to. He spied because he had decided to help them, and if he no longer wanted to, he wasn’t obligated to do it. Spying for the Soviets didn’t turn him into one of them and subject him to their will (or so he thought, at age nineteen). The Soviets pursuit of him over the next decade proved that they didn’t necessarily share his belief.
Albright and Kunstel’s book is expertly researched and assembled. They don’t just present a statement—they provide numerous documents and corroborations to show that it was true, or if not one hundred percent proven, at least very likely. They present as many pieces of a puzzle as can be found. Sometimes, as I read all these checkdowns of evidence, I thought, “Wow, I’m really impressed.” At other times, I thought, “Wow…I’m a little bored.” Despite the occasional laundry list feeling of all the documentation, the book is still a very good read; surprisingly—well, at least to me—the most interesting part of the book was not what went on at Los Alamos, but the years after the war, when Hall was pursued by both the Soviets, who wanted him to keep spying, and the FBI, who wanted to prove that he was. Then again, isn’t that always the way it is with spies? The actual spy work is never as good as the back story.
The book isn’t just important for the information it provides about espionage in the US nuclear program, but about the political climate at the time. It’s so hard for us now to put ourselves into a time period where communism seemed like a viable idea for living; all capitalism had done was bring the Depression so why not try something else? It was a time when Americans weren’t aware of Stalin’s atrocities (Hall later said that if he had known what was really going on in the USSR, he would have acted differently). It was before the Soviet Union was revealed as just a big bust. Word might travel around quietly that people that you knew at work or at school--smart, normal people were communists and while this was offbeat or quirky, it didn't make you contact the police; after all, the Soviets would be our allies in World War II. They weren’t the enemy, the fascists were. And it wasn't illegal to be a communist. All this changed in the post World War II world, of course, when communism did indeed begin to be regarded seriously as a threat to “our way of life” and democracy. But it’s necessary to remember the previous time to understand why someone like Ted Hall would choose to spy, or commit treason by passing on secrets about the US weapons program to the Soviets. The spies in the US for the Soviets at that time didn’t do it for money, unlike the spies of later decades such as Aldrich Ames or Robert Hansson. They didn’t do it because they advocated the destruction of the United States. As Hall explained before his death, he and others honestly believed it was dangerous for the US to have a monopoly on weapons and the best chance the world had for survival was to put everyone on equal footing. They grew up in a world where they had seen what had happened when a group—the Nazis—went power mad. Lona Cohen was convinced that the work she and other atomic spies had done had prevented World War III. This is unlikely—most people agree that the Soviets would have developed their own atomic weapons without the aid of the, US spies, just a little more slowly. Hall never quite admitted that what he had done was spying, even to the authors Kunstel and Albright, and that seems to show that at heart, he knew what he did was wrong. But he was young and most of us did things when we were young that we regret (though usually not at the treason level). Things that seem clear cut and obvious at twenty don’t seem so sharp ten years later and what you thought you knew is often revealed by time and history to not be true. It may be too much to ask to forgive or excuse Hall for what he did, but it is possible to try to understand him.
Decrypted version of the first telegram about Hall from New York to Moscow.
Decrypted version of the first telegram about Hall from New York to Moscow.