Fat Man Plutonium Bomb
The reader no doubt will first want to know who Theodore Hall is/was and why am I writing about him. In short, Theodore Hall was the atomic spy who passed information to the Soviets on the Manhattan project (development of the first atom bomb), but never went to prison for his deeds: it was mostly by luck that he avoided any prison time. He was born in 1925 in New York. His parents were Jewish, but at age 16, influenced by his older brother Edward, the two brothers changed their last name from Holtzberg to Hall to avoid the existing prejudice against hiring Jews. Theodore was very precocious; he graduated from Harvard University in 1942 at the age of eighteen with a degree in physics. He was hired to work on the Manhattan project, the program that eventually developed the atom bomb. He went to work at Los Alamos, New Mexico, the primary site for the bomb’s development. At Los Alamos his research was primarily to work on implosion devices, the mechanism by which plutonium was used to create a critical mass for a successful explosion.
We probably would never have heard about Theodore Hall if he hadn’t passed information on to the Russians providing them with details about his bomb project. His actions were made public in 1995, when Russian and American files were declassified. The shocking revelation that has come out of this declassified material is that the Americans knew about Hall’s deception all along, because early on the Americans had cracked the Russian coding system, which they used to protect their diplomatic cables using a code system they thought could never be broken. But as luck would have it the Americans broke the code and could read all diplomatic messages relayed by the Russians. The speculation is that the American government did not want to let the Russians know they had cracked their code, and they probably waited for bigger fish to catch, as opposed settling for one young spy. The project that succeeded in unraveling this code, was the Venona Project. Then too, the Americans were uncertain if they could use information from Venona that would stand up in a court of law [contrast that dilemma with the current Patriot Act that allows breaking and entering without a warrant, coupled with no hesitation for fabricating information and putting people in prison, many of whom are entirely innocent of any wrong doing—-acts of collusion!].
Years later, when confronted with public knowledge of his espionage, he came close to admitting his act, but did so indirectly. His motivation for transmitting information to the Soviets was ethical and humanitarian—-he didn’t do it for money, nor did he accept payments of any kind, though the Soviets offered to pay him. He felt that the United States might become a fascist state and use their possession of the atomic bomb to intimidate other nations into hegemonic surrender [which was basically true since Truman, MacArthur and Eisenhower threatened on numerous occasions to use nukes on North Korea during the Korean war]. So, imagine a 19 year old kid trying to decide for himself what action to take, once he got the feel of Los Alamos. What happened in Los Alamos to turn a 19 year old kid into giving bomb secrets to the Russians? Did he harbor suspicions before he went to work in Los Alamos? Did an alarm bell go off? Was he contacted by Russian agents who seduced him into sharing his secrets?
Theodore Hall is dead, he passed away in 1999 in Cambridge England, where he spent the last 39 years of his life, working as a biophysicist at Cambridge University. He had a very influential scientific career, and became, as his colleagues in Cambridge described him as “the great historical figure of biological microanalysis.” Whatever motivated Theodore Hall to divulge atomic secrets, he was brazen about seeking Soviet assistance. While visiting New York in October, 1944, he contacted a Soviet Trade Company, Amtorg, fearing that the FBI might be watching the Russian Embassy. This eventually led to an association with Sergei Kurnakov, with whom he provided information about the plutonium bomb he was working on. It is a matter of some debate whether the information he passed on accelerated the Russian atomic weapons program, though there seems to be a consensus of opinion that the Russians gained through Hall’s information a few years in developing their own atomic bomb.
What I am particularly fascinated with is the pressure that a 19 year old kid was under that encouraged him, at the risk of his life, to pass on atomic secrets to the Soviets. So, my imaginary interview with Theodore Hall would go something like this:
RFM: Why did you switch to Harvard from Queens College in New York.
TH: My brother visited me after becoming an officer in the army and told me flat out that if I wanted to make something of myself I needed to switch colleges. As a result, I applied to Harvard and was quickly admitted as a junior because they had accepted my transcript from Queens College.
RFM: How was that transition?
TH: I was assigned to Leverett House which had a reputation for people with leftist politics; it was sometimes referred to as “Moscow-on-the-Charles.” Students in Leverett had formed the John Reed Club to honor the 1910 Harvard Graduate and Communist Party member who wrote “Ten Days that Shook the World”; it was said to be Harvard’s first pro-Communist organization. I joined the John Reed Society and adopted a very leftist attitude that I would carry with me the rest of my life, but I was already strongly leaning in that direction. As for the academic side, I nearly flunked out the first semester and told my parents that I wanted to quit, but they encouraged me to stay and ultimately I discovered my passion for nuclear physics.
RFM: How did you get your job at Los Alamos?
TH: My Harvard professor John Van Vleck recommended me (Van Vleck would go on to win the Nobel Prize for his work in physics in 1977).
RFM: Theodore, what was the culture like in Los Alamos that led you to divulge secrets about your work to the Soviets?
TH: I found the work there exhilarating, but I also began to have suspicions about the intentions of the Americans and their future plans once the bomb was developed.
RFM: What were your specific concerns?
TH: It was increasingly clear to me that the United States would use their sole possession of the bomb to intimidate other countries. I also felt that the United States was becoming a reactionary, paranoid country and might become a fascist state, especially if there was another depression; the best way to circumvent this was to have the Soviets develop a bomb of their own. I would assist them in any way that I could to help them achieve this objective.
RFM: Leslie Groves was the military man in charge of the Manhattan project. Did you ever have any interactions with him?
TH: Yes, when I was in Los Alamos, I was in the military and he was my commanding officer. It was clear to me, based on the interactions that I had with Lt General Groves, that his motivation was to intimidate the Russians with nuclear black mail. One of my fellow physicists, by the name of Joseph Rotblat told me of a conversation he had with Lt. General Groves in which Groves said that the development of the bomb was not really intended for war against Germany, he went on to say “you realize, of course, that the whole purpose of the project is to subdue the Russians.” In addition, Groves once said that the United States should carry out “a preemptive attack against any potential rival trying to make or possess an atomic weapon.” Because I couldn’t see the United States bombing their closest allies I assume this statement was directed towards the Soviets. Groves was also an anti-Semite and I was afraid to let my Jewish identity be known, especially to him.
RFM: What about the other scientists working on the project, what was their attitude about the bomb that they were developing?
TH: There was increasing concern among the scientists about the future uses of the bomb project they were working on. They thought that once the Germans were defeated, before the bomb was fully developed, work on the bomb should stop because the original fear, that the Germans might develop such a bomb, was no longer a threat; we had learned much earlier that the Germans gave up the development of the bomb in favor of their V1 and V2 rocket programs. In addition, the other scientists working on the bomb became increasingly alarmed that, while they developed the bomb, they would have very little to say about how it was going to be used: they did not want Leslie Groves to be making all the decisions, but as time went on, that was exactly what happened.
RFM: Were other scientists as concerned as you were about keeping the Russians from learning about the bomb?
TH: Yes, there was widespread concern among the scientists. You have to understand that most of the scientists at Los Alamos viewed Russia favorably; after all Russia was our ally during the war. Without their contribution we might have lost the war. We were always cheering for the Russians to succeed in their many historic battles with Nazi Germany and once the Battle of Stalingrad was resolved in favor of the Russians we knew it was just a matter of time before the Germans would lose the war. At one time in 1944, Robert R. Wilson, leader of the cyclotron group was sent as an emissary to Robert Oppenheimer (head of the Manhattan project) to seek his permission to open wider discussions of their responsibilities as scientists to society and to ask whether the scientists should have some say in the future of atomic research. “The word came back from Oppenheimer that he really took a dim view of that sort of thing, and he was certain the General Groves wouldn’t like it at all.” So, it seemed almost natural that someone had to provide the Russians with knowledge of the bomb and provide them with sufficient information so that they could build one themselves. I personally viewed American hegemony of the bomb to have a very destabilizing international influence, which might lead to WW III. As proof of my assertion, once the bombs were dropped on Japan, there has never been another one dropped on any country and I never had any doubts that one reason for that was that Russia developed one of their own. Unfortunately the Russian achievement led to the arms race which was a complete disaster for both the Russians and the Americans.
RFM: Did you know that Klaus Fuchs was providing the Soviets with information from Los Alamos?
TH: At the time, I had no idea that he was feeding the Russians information from Los Alamos, though I later learned this when he was sentenced in England in 1950. I do know that he was passionate about the Russians and felt that they should be aware of the progress the U.S. was making on the Manhattan project.
Note: Klaus Fuchs admitted to being a spy for the Russians and was sentenced to fourteen years in prison and stripped of his British citizenship; he was released in 1959 and went to East Germany where he served with distinction as the head of German Nuclear Research unit. He died in 1988.
RFM: Were you aware of Niels Bohr (1922 Nobel Prize in physics) and his feelings about sharing information on nuclear energy with the Soviets?
TH: Nils Bohr visited Los Alamos many times and even lived there part time. He was a strong advocate of sharing atomic secrets. I understand that he went to see Churchill and tried to convince the prime minister of the need for sharing atomic secrets with Stalin, but Churchill told him something to the effect that after all this new bomb is just going to be bigger than our present bombs. Bohr felt that we were “scolded like two schoolboys.” But Bohr didn’t give up. He composed a memo to Roosevelt (July, 1944) warning that it was best to inform Stalin Straightaway because the Soviets would eventually get the bomb anyway. He met with the President in the White House and came away from that meeting thinking he might be called upon to visit the Soviet Union. But when Roosevelt met with Churchill (Hyde Park, September, 1944), the two of them agreed to have Bohr investigated as a security risk. Churchill later wrote “it seems to me that Bohr ought to be confined, or at any rate made to see that he is very near the edge of mortal crimes.”
RFM: How long did you work on the Manhattan project?
TH: I joined the project at age 19 and worked on it for two years, leaving Los Alamos in the fall of 1946.
RFM: When did you first contact the Soviets
TH: It was in October, 1944, while I was still working at Los Alamos.
RFM: Who was your Soviet contact?
TH: Initially it was Sergei Kurnakov, but later Saville Sax, my old college roommate at Harvard was an intermediary messenger.
RFM: What did you do after you handed information to the Soviets.
TH: I left Los Alamos and completed my PhD in physics at the University of Chicago and immediately switched fields to biophysics where I spent the rest of my research career.
Note: In the Spring of 1950 the first code-breaking effort of an NKGB cable five years earlier that indicated “Teokor Kholl” had given information to Sergei Kurnakov on technology issues related to the Manhattan project.
RFM: You and Sax were interviewed simultaneously by the FBI on March 16, 1951. That must have been very stressful.
TH: Fortunately Sax and I had discussed what we were going to say if interviewed by the FBI. I put my two interrogators on the defensive by making an assertion that Hoover himself had helped organize illegal anti-Red raids in the 1920s. Sax claimed amnesia and couldn’t remember dates or identify specific people. Both Sax and I appeared to cooperate with the interview. We did not ask to see lawyers and appeared to cooperate as much as we could without being specific. In three hours of questioning, neither Sax nor myself admitted to anything. I did however refuse to let the FBI search my home, while Sax allowed them to search his house, but nothing was found. I was going to be interviewed the following Monday, but I let the FBI know that I refused any further interviews on the grounds that they might fabricate information on the basis of my leftist leanings and indict me on false charges. What the FBI would often do is go to one of your future employers and tell them you were under investigation and most likely that employer would retract any job offer.
RFM: That was the same week that the trial of Ethyl and Julius Rosenberg was going on. It must have been very tense for you at the time.
TH: When the Rosenbergs went on trial, Joan (wife) and I were busy supporting the Progressive Party, led by Henry Wallace. Although Wallace had been defeated in the 1948 election, which Truman won, we were hoping that the Progressive Party could eventually lead to something more substantive, like a viable third party. However Joan and I were sufficiently nervous because of my FBI interview, we visited our Progressive Party friends and told them that we were abandoning politics to turn our attention to professional development. That same night we packed up anything that might be incriminating and dumped into the drainage canal.
RFM: How did you feel about the death sentence handed to the Rosenbergs on April 5, 1951.
TH: I was horrified to think that the death sentence would actually be carried out. My act of espionage was far more sinister than that of the Rosenbergs. I did not feel however that I could participate in any of the rallies in the theater district, attended by Paul Robeson, Ruby Dee and Rockwell Kent which secured thousands of dollars for the National Committee to secure Justice in the Rosenberg case. Once Eisenhower denied clemency, the outcome was certain. I was a nervous wreck. I even contemplated turning myself in by admitting that my acts of espionage were far more serious than that of the Rosenberg’s. In fact I went so far as to divulge to my Soviet contact my plan to come clean; he discouraged me from doing that, but I was in agony during their trial and execution.
When Theodore Hall’s espionage was publicly revealed in 1995, he was pilloried in the American news media. As you might guess, the far right dismissed Hall as a traitor and some of them wanted to have him serve a jail sentence, even though he was dying of inoperable kidney cancer when the news broke. By disregarding the nuances of the case, the conservatives refused to learn something about the dilemma that Hall went through, which is par for the ultra-short thinking nature of being a conservative—you don’t learn from your previous mistakes, you simply bury them and resurrect them by repeating the same mistake over and over again, but the outcome is always the same.
Under Article III, Section 3, of the Constitution, any person who levies war against the United States or adheres to its enemies by giving them Aid and Comfort has committed treason within the meaning of the Constitution. The term aid and comfort refers to any act that manifests a betrayal of allegiance to the United States, such as furnishing enemies with arms, troops, transportation, shelter, or classified information. If a subversive act has any tendency to weaken the power of the United States to attack or resist its enemies, aid and comfort has been given.
The Treason Clause applies only to disloyal acts committed during times of war. Acts of dis-loyalty during peacetime are not considered treasonous under the Constitution. Nor do acts of Espionage committed on behalf of an ally constitute treason. For example, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage, in 1951, for helping the Soviet Union steal atomic secrets from the United States during World War II. The Rosenbergs were not tried for treason because the United States and the Soviet Union were allies during World War II. How we put Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg to death for their actions of espionage is a case of supreme injustice. Theodore Hall was not a traitor by the definition within our own constitution.
Hall made a statement when his espionage came to light. It is reprinted here in its entirety. His statement was given to Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel in early 1997, as their book, Bombshell was going to print.
I am grateful to the authors and publishers of this book for giving me the opportunity to express my present views.
During 1944 I was worried about the dangers of an American monopoly of atomic weapons. To help prevent that monopoly I contemplated a brief encounter with a Soviet agent, just to inform them of the existence of the A-bomb project. I anticipated a very limited contact. With any luck it might have turned out that way, but it was not to be. Now I am castigated in some quarters as a traitor, though the Soviet Union at the time was not the enemy but an ally of the United States; the Soviet people fought the Nazis heroically, at tremendous human cost [27 million Russians dead], and this may well have saved the Western Allies from defeat.
It has been alleged that I “Changed the course of history.” Maybe the “course of history,” if unchanged would have led to atomic war in the past fifty years—-for example the bomb might have been dropped on China in 1949 or in the early fifties. Well, if I helped to prevent that, I accept the charge. But such talk is purely hypothetical. Looking at the real world we see that it passed through a very perilous period of imbalance, to reach the slightly less perilous phase of “MAD” (mutually assured destruction)
My fears of severe postwar economic depression were not justified at the time. I might have realized that at the end of War II, pent-up demand would keep factories humming for several years at least. But the dangers have not really abated: automation and economic globalization are generating an intractable world-wide crisis of unemployment, and this has led to an unholy alliance between the weapons industry and the military, some of whom have been quite prepared to blow up the world in their messianic zeal (General Thomas Power, former head to the U.S. Strategic Air Command has been quoted as saying that he would regard it as a victory if two Americans and one Russian survived World War III).
There is now persuasive evidence that until 1965, and during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, military flights over the Soviet Union were ordered without the knowledge of the President and any civilian agency of the nation’s elected government, and against their stated policies. The Strategic Air Command circulated a “Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan” for all out nuclear war, with the explicit instructions to conceal the very existence of this plan from all civilian authorities. All this was not merely an illegal usurpation of power, it was horrifically dangerous—-the overflights were a provocation which put the fate of the world in the hands of any Rambo on either side of the Cold War. Presumably through some quirk in the application of the rule of law, the perpetrators were not punished but were awarded medals and retired with honor. I refrain from spelling out comparisons and conclusions which are all too obvious.
In 1944, I was nineteen years old—-immature, inexperienced and far too sure of myself. I recognize that I easily could have been wrong in my judgement of what was necessary, and that I was indeed mistaken about some things, in particular my view of the nature of the Soviet state. The world has moved a lot since then, and certainly so have I. But in essence from the perspective of my 71 years, I still think that brash youth had the right end of the stick. I am no longer that person; but I am by no means ashamed of him.
I would like to add one strongly felt point about the fallout from the Venona documents. Those who have used revelations of espionage to support their view that McCarthy was right are the real threat to American democracy. In McCarthy’s time the damning label of “Red” was applied not only to Communists, but to all progressives and their organizations—-to all political activity in support of trade unions, minority rights, academic freedom, secure medical care and in fact the whole apparatus of the Welfare state. All this was condoned as part of a sinister plot inspired by foreign devils—-the exact kind of claim that dictators use to suppress dissent. The truth is that while spies no doubt existed, they were never an integral part of American progressive movements. It would be terrible if that cycle of repression happened all over again.
You can see in Hall’s statement that he feels contrition for his act, but he also harbors deep resentment for McCarthyism and stories concerning acts against our own Constitution, supported by our military. He continues to insist that what he did was right, justified by the fact that after the first two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, no other nukes were used in any conflict in any war, though we came very close during the Cuban missile crisis.
For this article I used many sources, including the internet. However one book stood out above all the rest and that was “Bombshell: The Secret Story of America’s Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy” by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel. This is a well written book that does not make judgements about Hall, but instead chronicles the events and outlines the factors that went into Hall’s decisions. If you only read one book on this subject, this is the one that I would recommend. We are a very different country today than we were when Hall revealed atomic secrets to the Soviets. Communism was not a dirty word then and the Soviets had enormous popularity as our ally. Without the Soviets in the war D-day would have been impossible, because the Russians were confronted with ten or more German divisions, where the most the allies confronted was two or three. McCarthyism prevented us from giving a proper thanks to the Russians for what they did for us: without the Russian sacrifices the American death toll from WW II would have been substantially higher. President JFK tried that thank the Russians in his American University speech in 1963, a few months before his assassination. Although Americans have a hard time believing this, Russia won WW II. There is no other way to express it. The certainty of the Russian victory began with the defeat of the vaunted German 6th army at Stalingrad. This was shocking news to German citizens back home, who new then that it was just a matter of time before the Russians would be in Berlin and knocking on their door.
[A personal note: The FBI agent who came to Theodore Hall’s house to check up on his communications with Russia was W. Rulon Paxman the same Paxman that interviewed Seville Sax when Sax and Hall were interrogated at the same time. After my father died in 1975, the same W. Rulon Paxman married my mother in 1981. Rulon later committed suicide after suffering a debilitating stroke in 1994, using his FBI revolver. Before his death he told me many times that his favorite time with the FBI was working in Chicago dealing with foreign espionage. I was grateful to him because he provided for my mother until her death in 2004.]
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