The Story of Ted Hall, the Atomic Spy

“A Compassionate Spy” is a powerful documentary film that narrates the little-known story of U.S. atom spy Ted Hall, who in 1943 at age eighteen helped design and test the Plutonium bomb at Los Alamos and a year later passed along plans for the bomb to Soviet agents in New York. A teenage physics major at Harvard, Ted Hall thus confirmed bomb secrets concurrently being shared with the Soviets by Klaus Fuchs, a German scientist and British citizen also working at Los Alamos. Neither Hall nor Fuchs knew that the other was a spy for the Soviets. But the fact that they both shared the same nuclear secrets made them more credible in Moscow.

This film directed by Steve James and produced by Mark Mitten and Dave Lindorff skillfully allows Ted Hall and his wife Joan, through interviews in the 1990s, to tell their own life story accompanied by images of younger actors and contemporary figures recreating the Hall narrative of science, love and espionage. Their two surviving daughters also appear on screen. Ted tells his story of an uncompromising adolescent who wanted to do the right thing by sharing atomic secrets with a wartime ally, the Soviet Union. Boria Sax more candidly states that what Ted Hall and his Harvard roommate Saville Sax, also at Los Alamos, did together in 1944 was wrong. Should Hall have been shot as a spy? Given a prize for alerting the world to the ongoing dangers of nuclear war? The viewer can decide.

Joseph Allbright and Marcia Kunstel, former Moscow correspondents and authors of the book on Ted Hall, Bombshell (1997), appear on numerous occasions in the film to offer expert historical commentary on the Hall narrative. Photos of Hiroshima and an interview with the pilot of Enola Gay, Paul Tibbets, provide historical evidence of the nuclear devastation that Ted Hall helped create and wished to end. Well-chosen music evokes past events.

The film helps us understand why a Manhattan Project spy was never prosecuted in the U.S. during the Cold War. Ted himself admits that what he did was worse than what the Rosen- bergs allegedly accomplished (they were executed in June 1953). But the evidence that the FBI had against Ted Hall when they interviewed him in 1951 was largely from VENONA, the super-secret U.S. Arlington Hall project to decipher and decode Soviet communications traffic during and after World War II. (Fuchs was likewise mentioned in Soviet cipher traffic, so that the British had to get him to confess his own sins in 1950.) The FBI could hardly prosecute Hall or Fuchs without revealing in court the existence of VENONA and the fact that Soviet codes had been broken. So they did not.

Ted Hall also had an older brother Edward who worked for the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s on the first ICBMs, especially the Minuteman missile. J. Edgar Hoover knew of them both but was unlikely to go after Ted Hall without additional evidence or provocation. Ted and Ed spoke briefly in 1951 about Ted’s espionage, but both agreed to keep silent. Ted’s courier Lona Cohen went on to achieve notoriety as the Soviet spy “Helen Kroger” in England.

The Soviets hinted in 1952 that they would accept Ted and Joan if they decided to move to Moscow. Joan found the idea of living among Russian communists somewhat romantic. But life moved on so that Ted ended up working in biophysics and electron microscopy, first in New York at Sloan Kettering, then in Cambridge, England, where Joan and Ted lived until his death in 1999. Joan accepted her role as suburban wife and mother, but rages against government agents who trailed and harassed her husband. Here in England Ted felt safe from FBI scrutiny and evaded MI-5 queries about his past, about which British intelligence was well informed. And he remained the love of Joan’s life.

The film, and author Daniel Axelrod, emphasize postwar American plans to launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union until a Soviet atomic bomb test (“Joe 1”, in August 1949) ended the U.S. nuclear monopoly. Ted’s fear all along was that American control of nuclear weapons would increase, not decrease, the chances of a nuclear war. Like many other Los Alamos scientists, he thought sharing secrets with an ally would make nuclear Armageddon less likely. In fact, we embarked on a long Cold War in which peace depended on arms control, deterrence and Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). The nuclear arsenals proliferated worldwide. But deterrence worked. Who is to say that Ted Hall and others did not have the right instincts, even as they disobeyed the rules that forbid them from carrying out their plans.

Ted Hall was not proud of being a spy, but he never regretted his youthful actions. This is a powerful film that challenges our stereotypes, humanizes people we thought we knew (and lets us listen to their stories and memories firsthand) and helps put the Cold War in perspective. It is a love story about war and nuclear espionage that entangles the very young and the scientifically brilliant.  It is a story of compassion, betrayal and delusion. And it helps us empathize with individuals who had to make difficult choices in violent times.

Robert C. Williams is a retired Russian historian and the author of Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy (Harvard          University Press, 1987).