A Compassionate Spy: What Happened Next?

Twenty-three years after Ted Hall’s death, his family are relieved and rejoicing to see his legacy recorded on film.  “A Compassionate Spy” will be an inspiration to all those who find themselves asking – Should I walk through that door? Should I share that information? Should I speak out? Do I know enough? Am I sure enough? What are the risks, to me, to my family, to others in the world, if I do that?  And what are the risks if I do not?  

There was a lot of angst in our family about what should be the title of this film.  We wanted, “Something I Need to Tell You”.  Or “A Secret Shared” or …   

We did not want the word “Spy” in it. Ted did not see himself as a spy. He saw himself as a responsible scientist, impelled to share what he knew because the implications of keeping this knowledge confined to a few individuals in one country were too appalling for him to contemplate. He passed information to the Soviet Union (by the way, not to “Russia”, not to one country, but many) as an insurance policy. Not as a career. Not for derring-do, skulduggery, not for money, or for glory, or because of an allegiance to any government or power. At the age of 19, with his whole future in front of him, he took a step without regard to personal risk, which would in fact determine the course of his life and his family’s. He had this in common with whistle-blowers through the ages, and in fact, with millions who at that time were risking their lives in a war. 

Nor are we happy with the tagline of the film – “Did he betray his country to save the world?” The rampant nationalism of the USA – in Madeleine Albright’s words “the indispensable nation”, America first, flags on every building, “MY country”  – was already a force, though perhaps not as entrenched and compulsory as it has since then become. But like many others, Ted did not identify with one country, which he would “betray”. He was acting not for or against any government, but, as he says quietly in the film, out of fear for the suffering of people who might be bombed, in the Soviet Union and everywhere. He was hoping to prevent “an overall holocaust which would affect the entire world, really”.

In another way too, the tagline is wide of the mark. Ted had no delusions of grandeur. The world is manifestly not “saved”. 

However, we have all, in Ted’s family, come to appreciate warmly the strength of the title chosen by Participant. Compassion. When asked why he did what he did, Ted thought for a minute, in the way he had, and came out with what he called a “stab at a description”.  It was that one word.

At this moment, in the UK, we have just received a Prime Minister who says the NHS – our national health service, once the envy of the world and still commanding the loyalty and gratitude of millions, “should not be put on a pedestal”. She has advocated the end of free appointments with a GP – the family doctor. No room for compassion, there.  Nor in the rampant ideology of “look after number 1” that is sweeping all before it in the USA and all over the world.  

It was not always thus. For two generations, after the end of the second world war, there was a balance of forces. I was born in 1950. My own generation, and the next one, grew up in a world where a vision of a compassionate society was part of the background of our lives. In some places, from the Soviet Union and China to Venezuela, Tanzania, South Africa, Iceland, Spain, and to a degree in movements everywhere, there was the memory of a moment, sometimes even longer than a moment, of hope, joy, solidarity, confidence in our neighbors and our comrades working for a better future – unforgettable, though often buried deep and denied. In 1980 the UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher declared, “There is no alternative” – no alternative to brutal, life-curtailing cuts to the lives and standards of living of UK citizens, no possibility of compassion. She kept repeating that statement, nicknamed TINA – There Is No Alternative – because people widely believed that there was an alternative.  

That had everything to do with the existence of the Soviet Union. 

Not that that megalith continued to actually BE an alternative. The Soviet state, under Stalin, and now under Putin, became a repressive, exploitative monster, rivaling and in many ways mirroring the repression and exploitation of the American government. The arms race between the two – and now three – superpowers consumed the technological and productive resources that could have gone to creating a world of plenty, a world of sustainable economies in harmony with nature and with each other. 

But that should not obscure the fact that in Europe and some other “liberal democracies”, and for a time in the United States, the worst excesses of inequality, the most brutal exploitation of workers and impoverishment of communities, was constrained to a degree by capital’s fear of world revolution. This fear was expressed in the anti-communism and the panicked repression of the McCarthy years in the US, as shown in the film – remember, this was not long after Ted took his decision based on fear that the US might turn fascist.  But it was also reflected in higher wages, shorter hours, social security, welfare, health services, free education and freedoms that many (but not all!) women, men, and children of my generation enjoyed and learned to take for granted. These benefits were in some places called “socialism” but were always a product of that existential threat to an uncompassionate economy. 

Meanwhile, in the global South, the more naked exploitation and inequality imposed by mega-corporations with the help of Western governments and their military/secret service agents, were for some time challenged and occasionally held in check by the foreign policies of Cuba, and China.

That was the world for two generations, the 50 years that were bought for all of us by those who helped prevent the USSR from being obliterated by the bankers and industrialists who were shown, in this film, to have been in charge of the government of the USA. That time is over now.  With the political hegemony of the forces Ted feared, and with the physical climate rapidly changing, the window of opportunity for a world of compassion and plenty is closing very fast. It would grieve my father beyond all words and in some ways, though I long to have him at our side, on our side, I’m glad he’s not here to see it. Instead, we have this plea for compassion. I pray for a wide audience for his final words, at the end of this remarkable film.   

Ruth London, Ted Hall’s first daughter, was a baby when he was interviewed by the FBI and knew nothing about his actions until she was in her forties.  She organised for decades against rape, then threw herself into the climate movement, and now coordinates Fuel Poverty Action in the UK.