The Kid at Los Alamos Who Gave the Secrets to the Soviet Union

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, August 17, 2023

One of the scientists at Los Alamos with Oppenheimer was 18 years old. While Oppenheimer was publicly and falsely accused of spying for the Societ Union, this young man did in fact give many of the most important secrets from Los Alamos to the Soviets, and the U.S. government chose not to prosecute him. And there is a brand-new movie by a two-time Oscar-nominated director about this other guy that is in many ways a better movie than Oppenheimer, in part because it shows the actual people involved, with only a few minor bits reenacted by actors.

And yet, you’ve probably never heard Ted Hall’s name. The Washington Post review of this movie, A Compassionate Spy, calls it a footnote to Oppenheimer. The same review claims that the only reason Hall was never prosecuted was because the U.S. government had learned about him from Russian cables and did not want Russia to know that the U.S. was successfully decoding its cables. The Post even blames the film for not playing that up more. But the film not only tells us that story, but also tells us — from the face and voice of Ted Hall himself — that another reason he was never prosecuted was that his brother, Ed Hall, was the U.S. military’s top rocket scientist, the man we have most to blame for intercontinental ballistic missiles — devices for delivering the bombs that Ted had helped invent. In fact, one of the film’s producers, Dave Lindorff, has reported on the importance of that reason, which may have been sufficient in itself to keep Ted Hall out of prison and the electric chair. Lindorff has discussed this on my radio show.

Lindorff’s forthcoming book is called Spy for No Country: Ted Hall: The Teenage Atomic Spy Who Saved the World. I can’t wait to read it, but I have watched the movie, and I join in recommending A Compassionate Spy with Roger Ebert, The Guardian, The Guardian (again), The New York Times, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Chicago Sun Times, Variety, and others. Here’s where to watch it. Here’s the trailer.

The film cannot tell us whether Theodore Hall, and his friend who helped him Saville Sax, did the right thing. It includes the viewpoints of people convinced the Hall saved the world and people who passionately believe he should have been shot. Hall says, in an interview from 1998, that he acted out of compassion and that he acted to protect the Soviet people and the people of the world. Hall’s wife says that he told her that if he’d known every horrible thing about Joseph Stalin he might not have had the stomach to do what he did — but not that he wouldn’t have done it.

Not only did Hall have sympathies for Russia in particular, and for leftist politics, but — as the film helps to remind us — during World War II the Soviet Union was an ally of the United States, and one doing most of the killing and dying in the war. Major U.S. media and politicians celebrated Russia as the very best friend and ally of the United States. People put bumper stickers on their cars demanding a second front in Europe to aid the heroic Russians. Hollywood made movies glorifying Russia. Many scientists at Los Alamos believed the Soviets should be included in the Manhattan Project — as well as that Japan should not be bombed.

Yet, it was Hall’s awareness that the U.S. government planned to treat the Soviet Union as an enemy the moment the war ended that led him to share nuclear secrets. Klaus Fuchs (mentioned in Oppenheimer, unlike Hall) was doing the same, and these two independent sources of overlapping information were — unbeknownst to each other — made more credible to the Russians by each other’s information.

Hall wanted to prevent a U.S. nuclear attack, using a large number of bombs, on the Soviet Union. Did he? Well, we know that the U.S. was making those plans and building the bombs for it. We know that President Truman threatened to nuke Russia when Russia moved troops near Iran — after the U.S. cut Russia out of sharing in Iranian oil. We have experts’ opinions that Hall and Fuchs sped the Soviets up by five years. But how can we possibly know? And how can we know that speeding up proliferation didn’t lead to nuclear apocalypse until either the bombs are abolished or used — or even then?

Should Hall have given the bomb secrets to a world government? There wasn’t one.

Should he have given them to other governments? Which ones?

Should he have made them public? Almost certainly not, not even if he could have, as that would have been all the evils of proliferation without any of the good of deterrence.

Should Hall have quit and protested? Well, others did that. Would one more have helped? Well, maybe one more who might have dissuaded the guy who would later create ICBMs was worth trying. Or maybe not. Who knows?

Hall considered confessing in the probably vain hope of saving the Rosenbergs, who he knew were — at most — guilty of much less than he was. Should he have?

He considered confessing simply to tell the truth. Should he have?

The FBI harassed Hall for years after interrogating him and having him do something that Oppenheimer would never have tried, namely refuse to talk to them. Hall and his wife feared being disgraced before all of their friends and family — which suggests that they believed nobody would agree with Hall’s action. Yet, they later did interviews — and others made a movie — that suggest the hope that people would agree with what Ted Hall did. But should we?

And if we entertain the possibility that Ted Hall did a good thing — after participating in a horrendous thing — can we also get people to understand that what’s desperately needed now is abolition — and the world government that Oppenheimer the man, but not the movie, wanted — and not proliferation? A Compassionate Spy does a better job than Oppenheimer of warning us. It also shows us the Japanese victims. It also includes clear debunking of Truman’s escalating lies that initially 20,000 and eventually 1 million U.S. troops were saved by killing 200,000 people. A Compassionate Spy even shows us video of Truman lying that Hiroshima was a military base ( a phrase deceptively edited out of Oppenheimer). We even see Truman — much like George W. Bush in Farenheit 911 — smiling and laughing prior to his lying on camera.

The movie-like question for movie audiences now is: can you handle the truth?

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