Out of the multiple aspects behind the success of Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster Oppenheimer, the still-young fascination with nuclear warfare and its developments among the general populace is a noteworthy one. Nolan’s detailed scrutiny of Robert J. Oppenheimer’s time at Los Alamos and the workings of Project Manhattan is surely a fresh subject in recent times. Feeding into this fascination comes a new documentary film by Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame), titled A Compassionate Spy, which looks back at the same time and events. But instead of any Promethean figure at its center, the documentary is on Ted Hall, perhaps an equally conflicted man as Oppenheimer, who shared secret details of the nuclear bombs with Soviet intelligence.
Who was Ted Hall?
Born and raised in New York City, Theodore Hall hailed from a Jewish family with roots in Russia. Always interested in the fields of mathematics and physics, Ted began college at Queens College before transferring to Harvard University. In 1943, Ted was noticed by General Leslie Groves and the council of scientists working under Project Manhattan, who soon invited him to join the project. Ted Hall became the youngest scientist, at the age of 18, to be at Los Alamos and help build the first nuclear bomb in the world. As becomes clear through the many archival interviews and recreations of scenes present in A Compassionate Spy, Ted knew that he was being called up for something big and secret, even guessing that it would be a weapon to help the American government. While he did not necessarily have objections against doing so, Ted was not one with extreme nationalist or patriotic beliefs. Having thoroughly read about the history of the world and being intelligent enough to see past American propaganda, he seems to have never feared questioning authority. Added to this was his Russian heritage and also that of his best friend Saville Sax, which made Ted Hall inclined towards Left-wing ideology.
Yet, when asked why he had agreed to go build the first nuclear bomb for the United States of America, Ted talked about his scientific interest, which can be considered the reason behind most of these nuclear scientists’ involvement in Project Manhattan. Like Oppenheimer himself, Hall had an indomitable interest in nuclear science, and as he states in an old interview, he was also quite fascinated by the prospect of an evidently new world. It was common knowledge in 1944 that the World War was coming to an end, and so what would follow after this intrigued many. For Ted Hall, too, the shaping of this new world had piqued his interest, but the man was always wary of the accumulation of power in the hands of a select few. At Los Alamos, Ted was involved with the study of Plutonium, and he was made well aware of the bomb that was being built. At that time, the US government posed this nuclear development as a race against Nazi Germany, which was reportedly building its own bomb under the guidance of Werner Heisenberg.
But Ted was also skeptical about the use of nuclear bombs if the USA happened to be the only nation to have them. According to him, he always saw the possibility that the world could see a repeat of the evil spread by Nazi Germany, except it could be done by some other country supported by the USA’s nuclear power. He even feared that America, too, someday in the future, could turn evil and oppressive towards other nations of the world with the help of its nuclear armaments. When the Trinity Test was successfully completed, most scientists at Los Alamos celebrated the event, but Ted was apparently already concerned about what the future would look like.
A Compassionate Spy also talks about a number of scientists, including, most notably, Niels Bohr, who never wanted their research and inventions to be used for warfare or as armament. Forming a council, they had written a letter addressed to President Truman about not using nuclear bombs in the war against Japan, with the signatures of all of them on the document. The idea proposed was to bring some of the Japanese government and military officials to the deserts of New Mexico and show them the devastating power of the newly invented bombs. While this would obviously involve a show of power and essentially flexing America’s nuclear muscles, it would at least not involve bloodshed and the deaths of thousands. Other scientists also suggested that the nuclear arms project be completely dropped altogether, as military intercepted messages at the time suggested that Japan was about to surrender to the Allied forces soon. However, the problem was posed by Leslie Groves, the military officer and director of the Manhattan Project, who did not agree with any of these proposed plans. Groves never let the letter reach Truman, and although the President most probably would not have been swayed by the plea either, the scientists opposing nuclear warfare at the time were not listened to.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed by the US, and horrible death and destruction were released onto the face of the world. Sections of the American public and government celebrated this event, for it was indeed a success for what the nation had been trying to achieve for a long time now. Most considered this an apt response to the Pearl Harbor attacks, and the general American population indulged in joyful merrymaking. On the other hand, the likes of Ted Hall and Saville Sax were absolutely devastated, along with most of the other scientists who had participated in the project. Soon after the end of WWII, there were reports of plans being made in the USA to shift their targets to a new enemy—the Soviet Union. In the old interview, Ted talks about how multiple nuclear bombs were being planned and developed to be dropped on Russia, and an extensively researched list of the Russian cities to be attacked was also made. The fear among the American government and Wall Street businessmen at the time was that the USSR might replace Germany and invade the Western nations in Europe, growing stronger than the Reich and posing a much greater threat to the USA.
A direct conflict even arose right after the end of the war, when the four Allied powers decided to equally share the oil reserves in Iran among themselves. However, the USA administration decided not to let the USSR take a share of this oil, which led to Joseph Stalin ordering his troops to move to the Iranian border. With a potential armed conflict about to begin, President Truman warned the Soviets against bombing their troops, and it was very much implied that it would be nuclear bombs that would be dropped. The USSR did remove its troops from Iran, but this gradually gave birth to the Cold War that would wage on for decades. According to Ted Hall, there was always a threat that the likes of Truman would go on threatening the world and rival leaders and soon exercise a total monopoly economically and politically over the rest of the world.
It was in order to avoid this monopoly and potentially avoid any further world wars that Ted Hall first decided to take his controversial steps. With the help of his best friend Sax, Hall met with a Soviet spy in the USA and, over time, handed over documents and plans for the nuclear bomb that was being developed at Los Alamos. The use of nuclear power was still an extremely new and cutting-edge technology at the time, with all major nations embroiled in costly warfare. He believed that sharing this technology with the Soviets would take away America’s monopolistic power over the weapon and thus maintain some balance in the world. As fate would have it, the USSR developed their first nuclear bomb and showed it to the world soon after, through their testing at Semipalatinsk in 1949. To Ted, this was indeed a success, for America’s biggest rivals also now held the same power.
How did Ted Hall spend his later life?
After the Los Alamos project was over and Ted returned to Chicago, he first met Joan, who swiftly went on to be the love of his life until his death in 1999. A major source of charm in A Compassionate Spy is indeed Joan Hall herself, who gives lengthy interviews about her late husband and their beliefs and ideologies at the time. Before their marriage, Ted had confessed to Joan about what he had been involved in and that he had shared nuclear bomb secrets with the Soviets. Like him, Joan too had Russian roots, and she too was educated in Left-wing ideology. From then on, the couple took a very personal oath to never reveal what Ted had done, and there was never any guilt or remorse in them for what he had done.
During the 1950s, the FBI finally picked up on Ted, as they now suspected him of having been involved in sharing secret military documents with the USSR. So far, only Klaus Fuchs had been identified as a Soviet spy who stole assets from the Manhattan Project. Interestingly, it is also Fuchs we see being mentioned as the Soviet spy in Nolan’s Oppenheimer, because, at the time period in which the film is set, it was still believed that Fuchs was the sole Soviet asset. But in the 1950s, as America had entered its second Red Scare phase, the FBI investigated individuals with much more scrutiny. This was also the time when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were found to have Soviet connections and were both executed on charges of espionage. One intercepted Soviet document mentioned someone named “Teodor Kholl” as a Russian asset. The name quite obviously lined up with Theodor Hall, and the scientist was picked up and questioned. Both Ted and Joan had discussed this possibility, along with Saville Sax, and they all stuck to their version of innocence. Ted eventually refused to continue his discussions with the FBI any longer, and soon the Bureau moved on to other methods. Hall’s home was bugged with tapping devices, and the family would often be tailed around by FBI personnel, but the couple remained as calm yet cautious as ever. But being members of the Communist Party and the Progressive Party, Ted, and Joan had to cancel their memberships following the FBI’s scrutiny of them.
After the war and his time at the University of Chicago, Ted took on a research position at the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Later on, in the 1960s, he was offered a position as a researcher at Cambridge University, which the Hall family accepted with wide arms. Moving to England, away from the United States, meant being able to express their political beliefs and worldviews more openly. However, a painful disillusionment with leftist ideology also followed the Halls, as they themselves later admitted. During their younger days, reports of Stalin’s atrocities were always either heightened and more propagandized by American media or completely tossed off as false lies by Soviet mouthpieces. In the later part of the century, when the Soviet Republic posed as the opposition to free-thought and liberation revolutions in multiple Eastern European countries, the Halls did realize that the ones they had supported were not very great either.
The FBI investigation did not reveal much at the time, and the Halls lived their lives normally until much later when the Venona project details were declassified and made public. The Venona project had been a secret FBI investigation in which Soviet communications were intercepted during and after WWII, and it was in these interceptions that Ted’s name was found out. After this became public knowledge, there was indeed an uproar against Ted from certain sections of the American populace, but the man was never arrested or charged with any crime. Despite having made his choices and having supported them for a long time, Ted Hall does admit in the interview that although he was satisfied by avoiding the American monopoly in nuclear warfare, he could not totally be at peace with his decision to go against his own country. Ted Hall passed away in 1999 from renal cancer, while Joan continues to live during the time of filming, aged in her 90s.