“The 18-Year-Old Soviet Spy on the Manhattan Project: Ted Hall” – with Director Steve James
Andrew Hammond: Welcome to SpyCast, the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator. Every week we examine some aspect of the past, present or future of intelligence and espionage. Coming up next on SpyCast.
Steve James: A lot of the scientists who were at Los Alamos really questioned what they were doing, ultimately. They were excited by the science, but - but they questioned the ultimate point of what they were doing. And many of them wanted to do what Ted actually acted on and did, which was to just decide to pass these secrets to the Soviets.
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Andrew Hammond: This week's guest is the Oscar-nominated director and producer Steve James, whose film, Hooked Dreams, has been called by many critics the best film of 1994, placing it above Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump. This time, his subject is Ted Hall, the youngest physicist at Los Alamos, who passed Manhattan Project secrets on to the Soviet Union. Ted Hall's brother, conversely, was the man behind US development of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. In this episode, we discuss why Ted Hall passed secrets to the Soviets, his work on the plutonium Fat Man bomb, the type dropped over the city of Nagasaki, his bohemian lifestyle and unconventional views, and how he was caught and his life afterwards. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are SpyCast. Now, sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
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Andrew Hammond: Well, it's a pleasure to speak to you, Steve. I'm really looking forward to discussing your documentary on Ted Hall, Theodore Hall. Just before we get going, I just wanted to ask, I feel like I have to ask this: Have you seen the Oppenheimer movie [laughter]?
Steve James: I did. I watched it this past weekend. I was determined to see it as soon as it came out.
Andrew Hammond: What did you think?
Steve James: I liked it a lot. I -- you know, for a - for a big film, it really is quite detailed in terms of its exploration of - of that time and of the - of many of the key players and - and what was going on. You know, I mean, Christopher Nolan's an incredibly talented filmmaker, but it really digs in to the - to the weeds, as it were. And - and to me, that's a good thing, because I very much enjoyed how much attention it paid to the real history there.
Andrew Hammond: And just before we dig into Ted Hall, did you do Barbenheimer?
Steve James: No.
Andrew Hammond: No, okay [laughter].
Steve James: I couldn't - I couldn't - I couldn't talk my wife into - into that one, but it -- I didn't - I didn't make much of an effort. I was happy with just Oppenheimer.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, Erin, who works on the podcast with me, she had done it on Thursday night. She really enjoyed the experience [laughter]. Okay, so just for our listeners that - that don't know anything about him, can you just set the stall out for them? Who was Ted Hall? Why did you decide to make him the focus of your - of your film?
Steve James: Yeah, so Ted Hall was the youngest physicist at Los Alamos. He was recruited out of Harvard, and of course he was so precocious he graduated from Harvard at the age of 18. And when the Los Alamos officials came to Harvard to recruit some young physicists, his name popped up. So he went to Los Alamos at the ripe young age of 18 to work in a very junior capacity. And he performed so well that he was promoted and given more responsibility. He ended up working on implosion, and by the time he turned 19, he had decided that what they were doing there was potentially destabilizing for the world, especially in the post-war period. And so he voluntarily started to pass secrets to the Soviets. Now, his family was from Russia, so there was some connection for him, personal connection, but - but nonetheless, he passed secrets to the Russians and he, along with Carl Fuchs and some others, probably played a role in the Soviet Union getting the bomb earlier than the US expected. Now, I got interested in it because the producer -- one of the producers on the film, Dave Lindorf, who's a journalist who I had interviewed in a different film, a completely different film, came to us. And he had met Ted's wife, Joan, who survived him, and was fascinated with this story and said, "I think there's a film here." And the more he told me about it, the more I agreed. And so, here you go.
Andrew Hammond: Before we go on to more about Ted Hall, like, as a - as a filmmaker, can you smell a story from 100 paces, so to speak? Or - or how do you know -- like, are there telltale signs when you're like, "Yeah, this is something that I could work with if - if I wanted to"?
Steve James: Well, yeah, that's a great question. So films for me happen in different ways, but this one happened in a way that's not uncommon, which is, you know, I hear about the story, I read something about it. And in and of itself, it sounds fascinating and - and worth exploring, but then for me, it's really important often to go and do an initial shoot, which we did. So we - we - we flew to Cambridge, England, and we spent three, four days with Joan, and we interviewed her across those three or four days and -- with the idea that I would decide then whether I thought there was a film here to be made. And a - and a big part of it for me going there was, you know, I knew Ted had passed away over 20 years earlier, which was, "How could we possibly do a film about Ted Hall if he's not around and there's" -- and - and I would wonder what kind of documentation there is of him. Well, I was immensely surprised and pleased to find out from Joan that there was documentation. Which you see in the film, there was - there was interviews done with him before he passed away. And then, of course, Joan was just an amazing storyteller and an amazing person. And I kind of fell in love with the idea of telling this story as much for her as for Ted.
Andrew Hammond: For you as a filmmaker, how much did you have to get your head around the - the parameters of the Manhattan Project? You know, did you have to start getting, you know, "Theoretical Physics for Dummies" and that kind of - that kind of thing? Or -- yeah, how much do you have to kind of get your head around all of that to frame the - to frame the person?
Steve James: I might be a lazy filmmaker. I didn't - I didn't do that. You know, I read a fair amount about the Manhattan Project, and I read -- and in particular and we interviewed the authors. I read Bombshell, the book that was written -- that's not just about Ted but mostly about Ted's story. And read lots of articles, and Dave Lindorf is a real kind of expert in this area, and so he was enormously helpful in terms of steering us to - but, you know, the physics part of it. You know, I wasn't a very good science student and so I - I didn't really go in for that. But I didn't think it was as - as important. I mean, I think that the film doesn't deal in - deal in the specifics of how the bomb was made, because ultimately, to me that was -- that was not really the story. The story was Ted's decision to pass along these secrets, and why. And -- and -- and to have the audience grapple with that.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, I was just thinking, you don't need to understand the workings of the combustion engine to go for a drive in the country, right [laughter]? So to get our listeners up to the moment where he crosses this Rubicon, this - this moment where he decides to become a spy, can you just set the scene for them? Where does - where is Ted Hall born? You know, tell us a little about his upbringing. Just - just walk us up to that bit where he's ready to - to cross this Rubicon
Steve James: Sure. So -- so Ted is Jewish, born and raised in New York City. And was always a brilliant kid, as was his older brother, Ed, who figures prominently into the story eventually. Ed was 11 years older, also brilliant. And so Ted ended up going to Harvard at the age of 15 and studying physics. And, you know, one of the things that we - we feature in the film that - that I find kind of extraordinary is, you know, Joan and her daughters, you know, Ruth and Sarah, sit around a kitchen table at one point and they're reading letters that Ted wrote to his brother, Ed, from Harvard. And I think when he wrote these letters he was 16 or 17, and these letters are extraordinary because he's engaged in a kind of very sophisticated critique of what's wrong with Harvard's educational philosophy. And this is a 16 or 17 year old that you think would just be completely enamored with the fact that he's at Harvard. But he wasn't, so that gives you an idea of - of his intellectual prowess. And - and so when he, you know, when he was - when he was much younger, I mean, this isn't in the film and I wish I had put it in the film. Ed, his older brother, told him that he wanted to change their last names and - and -- and Anglify them. So, you know, make them -- make it Hall instead of Holovitz. Because he said you're -- we will encounter much prejudice being Jews in what we want to do. And so Ted had this very Gentile name, Ted Hall [laughter]. And Ed Hall, went off to Harvard, performed so beautifully and wonderfully that he graduated quite early and also was recommended for this project at Los Alamos by his professors. And then he goes to Los Alamos. And at first, like I said, he - he - I mean, he was always a junior physicist. He was quite young and there was all these amazing physicists, world-renowned physicists at Los Alamos. But - but he - he performed so well that they gave him more and more responsibility. He ended up working on the implosion efforts, which was a key to the chain reaction. You can probably speak to this better than me, but to the chain reaction, which causes the bomb to actually explode. And so when he decided on a trip back home to celebrate his 19th birthday in New York, he hooked up with his dear friends, Saville Sacks -- Savy Sacks -- who also came from Russian lineage. His parents were Russians, as were Ted's. And they decide they're going to pass these secrets. And it took - it took a minute for the Soviets to believe that they were legit. I mean, can you imagine a 19-year-old guy? But Savy acted as the go-between to protect Ted. And the -- one of the first things they asked Ted was, "Who are the scientists out there?" The Soviets were pretty much in the dark. I mean, they knew this was going on, but they had very little information about what was going on in Los Alamos. And Ted provided them names of many of the prominent scientists, and the Soviets realized this guy was for real. And so he began to pass secrets, and the most important of which were very specific details about the implosion process. And for the Soviets, they had Klaus Fuchs who was heading up the implosion process at Los Alamos, who was also a spy. And because Fuchs was German, they weren't sure to trust Fuchs. They didn't know if he was a double agent. But Ted's - Ted's reporting on and - and what was going on gave them complete confidence that Fuchs was for real, Ted was for real, and that what they were learning was - was really true and extremely valuable.
Andrew Hammond: Both of them know of each other? Did they know each other personally? And did they know that each other was a Soviet agent?
Steve James: I'm pretty confident that - that Ted knew Fuchs because he was working pretty much probably under him at some point on the implosion process. So I'm sure he probably met him and knew him. But it's clear that neither of them knew what the other was doing, because they were determined to do this as safely as possible, so they weren't going to share it. And, you know, one of the things the film makes clear is that there were many scientists at Los Alamos who had, as - as this went on, who started to have serious misgivings about what they were doing. And in fact, wanted to share the research with the Soviets because, you know, I think it's hard for people to realize today, but at that time during World War II, the Soviets were our allies. And there was -- and this is one thing the Oppenheimer movie doesn't really spell out which our film does. That the US government bent over backwards to convince the American people of how great the Soviet Union was as our allies. Because there had been a history of acrimony and animosity going back to the 1919 Red Scare. So this was, you know, this is a situation where a lot of the scientists who were at Los Alamos really questioned what they were doing ultimately. They were excited by the science, but - but they questioned the ultimate point of what they were doing. And many of them wanted to do what Ted actually acted on and did, which was to just decide to pass these secrets to the Soviets.
Andrew Hammond: And - and just for our listeners, the context of this is the, and, you know I'm no theoretical physicist [laughter], but just the bare bones of it. In 1938, a couple of German scientists come across the idea of splitting the atom and then eventually it happens. And then there's a couple of physicists in England who are worried that it could be developed into -- for an offensive weapon for a bomb, basically. So the British set up their operation under a, you know, a system -- I think it's Tube Alloys or something -- and then eventually when America comes into the war, America carries on the research. But previously, Einstein I think had written a letter as well, that -- so it was already flagged up for FDR before the war broke out. So this is the kind of international context, the splitting the atom, the - the nuclear age and okay, well, who can operationalize it now and the fear was that the Germans had -- were maybe already working on this or maybe, you know, the world -- you know, obviously World War II is existential for -- for the UK anyway. So it's -- everything's at stake. This is the kind of context within which all of this is -- is playing out.
Steve James: That's wonderfully said. And, you know, many of the scientists at Los Alamos were Jewish. Not, you know, there were hundreds but there was a very substantial number of Jewish scientists. And they felt that working on this project was literally a matter of life and death for not just the world, but also for the - the Jewish people, given what was going on in Nazi Germany. And so they felt - they felt a calling to do this, and -- which is totally understandable. And yes, the Germans presumably had been trying and working on this before - before the US, at least, really -- not only entered the war, but really geared up to, you know, to try and - and beat the Germans to this - to this development. Because there was a -- a palpable fear that if the Germans successfully developed the bomb first, that it would be completely catastrophic for the world, and I'm sure it would have been. And so yeah, there were -- there was very compelling reasons why this all happened, and it really was a kind of, you know, awful sort of choice, right, that - that - that people, the world was faced with with this. And -- and that's, you know, and I think Ted shared those same fears and concerns. He was excited about going to work at Los Alamos. He was excited because it was an amazing sort of project of course to be a part of, but the science of it was completely fascinating and -- and he was Jewish and worried about Nazi Germany. So believed in the cause. And so, you know, I think ultimately for Ted, the issue wasn't -- I mean, he came to be, you know, have great misgivings about a lot of things, but the issue for Ted wasn't -- was less that they were building the bomb. It was more his fear of the United States being the only one with the bomb in the post-war world. Because he had this fear that if a right-wing government came to power in the United States, which was not an implausible fear at all, that the US might preemptively bomb the Soviet Union in the post-war world. And, you know, one of the things we go to great lengths I think in the film to demonstrate is is that Ted's fears were not -- they were well founded. There -- there -- there's -- there's clear evidence that the United States in fact was getting -- for that period of time in the post-war world, that it had the bomb exclusively and it did exercise its power in a number of situations. And it was, in fact, doing serious game planning and - and ramping up its bomb making. And they had game planned a -- a way in which they might preemptively strike the Soviet Union.
Andrew Hammond: Can you give our listeners an example of that? You said there were instances where they were, you know, already deploying or using it.
Steve James: Yeah, so we -
Andrew Hammond: Or the threat of it, sorry.
Steve James: Yeah, we - we go into detail and one in particular in the film, which was, again, the Soviets were allies and there had been an understanding between the United States, European powers and the Soviet Union that in the post-war world, that Iran's oil would be divided among them all. And then the United States decided when the war ended that, you know, again, for fear of the Soviet Union's growing power, that they were going to exclude the Soviets from that deal. And the Soviets were not happy. They had an understanding. And so they amassed troops on the border of Iran with the intention of - of, you know, sort of taking over Iran's oil fields. There's strong evidence, clear evidence, that Truman basically told the Soviets that they had 48 hours to remove those troops from Iran's border or they were going to drop the bomb. And, you know, the Soviets, they weren't willing to call that bluff because they'd seen that the US had dropped two bombs in Japan. So I don't think they -- I think they believed that Truman was not playing around. And within 24 hours, the Soviets had abandoned and moved their - their soldiers back. There are other examples we didn't get into. China was threatened with the bomb. North Korea was threatened with the bomb. So, you know, it's - it's -- it was clear that the US felt this enormous powerful presence by having the bomb all to itself. There's no question about that. And they seem to be willing to at least use it as a threat. And if the evidence of what happened in Japan tells us anything is is that they were, you know, we -- this country were willing to actually drop it.
Andrew Hammond: And just for our listeners, the - the -- you came across documentation for these cases for Iran and China and North Korea.
Steve James: Yeah, there's history. There's books and - and documentation, declassified documents and the like that - that - that make clear, I think, that this was -- these situations happened. I mean, in the film, we - we -- we show you some of the declassified documents that shows the actual game planning that was going on at the Pentagon for the preemptive strike of the Soviet Union and how many bombs it was going to take. You know,, because there was a fear that if they didn't - if they weren't completely successful in basically destroying the Soviet Union -- this is according to the game plan -- that the Soviet Union would invade Europe and that it would be, you know, World War III. So the game planning was designed around the fact that it's - it's got to be -- if they do it, they have to have enough bombs to really completely and utterly destroy the Soviet Union to prevent any kind of retaliation. And - and the US didn't have enough bombs for their game plan. I mean, they - they were thinking it would take -- and if you can wrap your mind around this, that it would take over a hundred bombs. I mean, can you imagine? But the Soviets got the bomb about five years earlier than US intelligence thought they were going to get it. And that was the beginning of the Cold War.
Andrew Hammond: And that's 1949, the American nuclear monopoly lasts for around four years.
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Here is a quick primer on splitting the atom to make the bomb so that you can thoroughly digest this episode. We begin with the fundamental nature of the world. What exists? What is there? What are things made of? We are talking about matter. The ancient Greeks proposed that the four elements of matter are earth, water, air, and fire. And I certainly know a few people who are made up of the latter two, but that's to digress. The Greek Democritus revised this understanding with a new theory. If you keep breaking a stone in two, eventually, you would reach the point where it could no longer be divided. He called these tiny pieces atomos, which means indivisible. Skip forward a couple of millennia or so and this idea was taken up by John Dalton. They came up with the term atom. Dalton proposed that all matters composed of atoms that cannot be subdivided, created or destroyed. In the first few decades of the 20th century, the subatomic particles, electron, proton and neutron. were discovered in that order. In other words, the atom or atomos was made up of smaller subunits. We don't have time to go into it, but even these have now been divided. And maybe one day in the future, there will be yet further division. Fast forward to the eve of the Second World War. The foundation of nuclear energy is harnessing the power of atoms by splitting them apart, making them smaller, i.e. fission, or combining them, making them larger, i.e. fusion. In Berlin in 1938, Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann and Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission in a laboratory. Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch, then went on to prove it theoretically. Fission occurs when a neutron slams into a larger atom, which then splits into two smaller atoms. Then these smaller atoms release protons that slam into other atoms, and so the process continues. If you thought chain reaction was a Diana Ross song, think again. This is what it refers to. In this process, a tremendous amount of energy is released. Physicists recognized the momentousness of this discovery, for good and bad. In the US, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt in 1939, warning him of the enormous destructive potential of this scientific discovery. While in the UK, Meitner's nephew, Otto Frisch, and another Jewish expatriate, Rudolf Peierls, demonstrated the feasibility of an airborne atomic bomb in 1940. Five years later, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, using uranium in the first case and plutonium in the second, to initiate fission and the resultant chain reaction, thereby releasing phenomenal amounts of destructive energy. And now, all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put the atom back together again.
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I want to come back to some of these dynamics because I think it's really interesting. But one of the things that I think you do in the -- the film which I really liked was this relationship between Ted Hall, Savy Sacks, and what would go on to become Ted's wife. Can you tell us just a little bit more about that kind of three-way [laughter] you know, kind of relationship? It's kind of interesting.
Steve James: Yeah, well, I, you know, yeah, we haven't talked about Joan at all hardly here. And to me, this - this story is a story of espionage. It's also a love story, and that was a big part of what appealed to me about it. And, you know, I think we - we have a tendency to look at people from that generation and Joan unfortunately recently passed. When we interviewed her, she was 91. And I think there's - there's a sense that many of us who -- and I'm not that much younger, but there are, you know, I think there's a sense that that generation was extremely conservative in so many ways. And, you know, I think that's probably true for a lot. But there were - there were a lot of people of that generation, young people, who were quite radical in their politics, sort of rejecting the norms of - of - of, you know, religious conservative America. And so, you know, Joan was brilliant in her own right, and she - she -- she grew up in Chicago, and she went to the University of Chicago when she was 15. And she met Ted when she was 17. And Ted was all of 22 maybe when he went to the University of Chicago to get his PhD in physics after the war. And they met and they fell in together and they shared the same political views, and they shared the same ideas about -- about lifestyle, and Savy was Ted's best friend there. They - the three of them fell in together and became quite close and Savi was in love with Joan, as was Ted. And there's a really funny and sort of sweet moment in the film where Joan says it was a problem that they both loved her. And I say, "Well, so how did that work out?" Or words to that effect. And she says, "I don't want to talk about those times. They're very private." You know, Joan talks about -- in the film, she talks about when she was at the University of Chicago, you know, she was determined to be a career woman, which, again, was more unusual for that time. And she was determined to not get married for at least 10 years after she graduated from college. Which, in that time period, would have made her, you know, a quote unquote spinster. But she met Ted, she fell head over heels with him, and they were married when she was -- by the time she turned 18, she had married Ted.
Andrew Hammond: And just for the three of them, you know, we - we discussed their - their politics and so forth. So Joan, Savy and Ted, were they members of the Communist Party? Were they just left-wing? Were they socialists? Were they liberals? Like, you know, these labels are always kind of a little bit problematic, but how would you describe to the layperson their politics?
Steve James: Yeah, I would say that they were - they were clearly socialist, I think, at the time. You know, at the time, it's hard for people to realize now, but at the time, the Soviet Union -- again, they were allies during the war. And all of what Stalin had done in terms of the gulags, in terms of the, you know,, the -- the terrible death and destruction that he committed, in particular in Ukraine, of all places. You know, a lot of this was not public knowledge, and - and there were -- there were a lot of people on the left who identified as communists. They didn't join the Communist Party, but I think they would have called themselves communists. And there was this belief that the Soviet Union could represent a kind of legitimate and better alternative to capitalism. And they weren't alone in that. I mean, there were many, many intellectuals and people, including very prominent people. I mean, this is what happened when you had the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the early '50s. It's -- it was - it was about rooting out all these people who in their earlier years had identified as communists and very leftist and more radical. And so there - there was quite, you know, there was quite a movement of people, you know, by far not a majority of people, but -- but it was not an insubstantial number particularly of - of the intellectual and creative folks in -- in America, and they were -- they were swept up in that. They were part of that as young people. And I think the fact that their families were -- both Savy, Ted and Joan's families came from Russia I think also influenced -- they grew up in households where Russia and the Soviet Union was not a terrible place at all. It was their homeland. And so I think all of that influenced their politics. And, you know, it's also hard for people to perhaps remember just how conservative America was politically. I mean, Jews were - were profoundly discriminated against in this country and all three of them were Jewish. And there was - there was substantial right-wing powerful movements going on in the United States that was very sympathetic, actually, to Nazi Germany, which most people don't realize.
Andrew Hammond: There was people like Charles Lindburg and Henry Ford a little bit earlier and so forth. And did Ted Hall know Oppenheimer? Or was Oppenheimer too far removed as the head of the overall project?
Steve James: I'm sure he met Oppenheimer, you know, but I don't -- there's no stories that Joan can tell or that Ted tells or that I've read where they had any - any kind of regular interaction. I --- my guess is, is that he probably met him, shook his hand, and told him how much he admired him. And - and then got back to work. You know, I mean, there was - there weas something like a total of 5,000 people at Los Alamos. Now, they weren't all scientists, because family was out there, there were soldiers out there, there were engineers, there were, you know, there were all kinds of support personnel. But there were hundreds, literally hundreds of scientists working there. So -- and working in all these different areas. So, you know, I don't think he was palling around with Oppenheimer.
Andrew Hammond: It's amazing whenever I read about it, just to think about all of these leading scientists and physicists all just grouped together in one particular area, you know? Can you imagine some of the dinner conversations or, you know, the ego clashes and all these sorts of things? Or even for Ted Hall it must be like, you know, going to a filmmaking convention and Fellini and Ingmar Bergman are in the corner, you know? You're like, "Can I talk to you please?"
Steve James: Exactly, exactly, and so many of them were quite young, too. I mean, they were, you know, I mean, there were some very prominent older scientists, of course, but so many of them were these young, I mean, not as young as Ted, but they were - they were young. I mean, you can only imagine the intellectual ferment that - that was going on there, not only about the building of the bomb, but just across the board. It must have been an incredibly heady time.
Andrew Hammond: I reading somewhere and I can't remember where I read it, that some Soviet scientist, he decided to go to the local library to get up to speed on what had happened in theoretical physics over the past few years. I think this is maybe in 19 -- I can't remember, 43 or 42 or something. And he goes to look at the literature and hardly anything has been written. And then he goes to look at people like Niels Bohr and Fermi to see what they've been up to. And he's, like, these are, like, the leading guys and they haven't been up to anything. And eventually the penny drops that, you know, these people must all be together in some kind of, you know, industrial capacity doing something on probably the nuclear bomb.
Steve James: Yeah, that's amazing. Well, and Niels Bohr, this is not something that - that - that you learn in the Oppenheimer film, but Niels Bohr, he was one of those scientists, you know, hugely prominent, who -- who wanted to share information with the Soviets. Felt like it was their duty to do that, and in fact advocated for that, but of course was turned down.
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Andrew Hammond: Okay, you might be thinking to yourself, so what's the difference between atomic bombs and nuclear bombs? The cute answer is nothing. An atomic bomb is a nuclear bomb. Their energy comes from reactions that take place in their nuclei, where the protons and neutrons are combined, and from where we get the term nuclear. But when people refer to atomic bombs or A-bombs, they are generally referring to the World War II era bombs that rely on fission alone, i.e. they rely on atoms splitting apart. A nuclear bomb is of course nuclear in the sense that energy is still coming from the nuclei. But what makes it different is that it relies on fusion and fission which makes it even more destructive. These are often also called thermonuclear bombs, hydrogen bombs, or H-bombs. This type of bomb starts with a conventional detonation that creates fission. This fission power is then funneled into a uranium chamber to create fusion, which explodes and creates multiple runaway fission detonations, all of which is to say that it is much more destructive than the first-generation nuclear weapons that relied on fission alone. So what about a neutron bomb, Hammond? Jeez, okay, that's like a small thermonuclear bomb that doesn't have this uranium in the secondary chamber, but another substance designed to maximize the amount of radiation emitted at the expense of blast and heat. As a result, they're sometimes called enhanced radiation weapons.
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So Ted is working on the - the Fat Man project, on the implosion bomb. So just tell our listeners like, what, you know, in terms of espionage or - or spying, why is he significant? Like, what kind of information did he give the Soviets? Was it stuff that they already had? Was it novel? Did they just corroborate what they already knew? You know, just help the listeners understand the - the volume and the - and the gravity of the information that he passed on to the Soviets.
Steve James: Yeah, so I -- my understanding is, I mean, again, first thing he did was he passed along the names of the - of many of the scientists, the prominent scientists that were working there, which - which kind of blew the Soviets away. Like, oh my God, this is -- a lot of the best people in the world are there. That not only bought him credibility with the Soviets, it also informed them as the -- to the degree that this was a huge, huge undertaking. Once Ted got promoted to working on implosion, he -- again, I'm not a scientist, so I can't give you the -- get into the weeds on this. But he - he provided -- his primary contribution to the Soviets was the way in which implosion worked. And - and what they had discovered about implosion and the process of implosion, which is -- it creates the chain reaction that causes the bomb to blow up in this massive way. Hugely important. And one of the things that - that - that was hard to figure out how this would work. And so it was hugely important. He was working on it. You know, he wasn't leading the team. Karl Fuchs apparently was - was sort of leading the team. And so what Ted provided was essentially what Karl Fuchs provided, I think. It was very much corroboration as much as anything. Now, my guess is is that they got the information first from Fuchs, but they were very suspicious of Fuchs. They thought that Fuchs might be a double agent and be giving them wrong information, and -- and that was partly because Fuchs was German. So when Ted passed along his information about implosion, it corroborated Fuchs's information and gave them the confidence that this was, in fact, very valid espionage information and very, very important information to help the Soviets along in their own efforts. It helped them skip some steps. You know, there's a belief that the Soviet -- the - the US intelligence thought that it would take the Soviets ten years to develop the bomb and they developed it really in five. And that shocked them. And it was because they developed it so quickly that it became completely clear to US intelligence that there must have been spies at Los Alamos. That that - that was what really sealed the deal for them, that there was no way they - they - they should have gotten it this quickly unless they had help.
Andrew Hammond: And let's move on to how Ted Hall is outed, so to speak, as a - as a Soviet spy or how this - how this is discovered. So for - for some of the spies of this era, the, you know, the stories are quite different. They're - they're caught at the time or sometimes they're discovered, like, decades and decades later. What's - what's Ted Hall's story in terms of how the authorities find out that he's been a Soviet spy?
Steve James: So what happened is is that the Soviets during the war had this supposedly impregnable code called the Venona Code. And it was supposedly, you know, impossible to break this - this code. And it would have been had they not been lazy and some - and not completely followed protocol for the code the US wouldn't have broken it. But there were some lazy agents who didn't follow protocol and it allowed the US to break the code. But they did not want the Soviet Union to know they broke the code because they wanted to continue to collect intelligence, unbeknownst to the Soviet Union. Even after the war, even though the code was broken during the war, I mean, it's - it's somewhat more complicated than - than I think is worth trying to get into here. But essentially what it comes down to is once the --they broke the code, that's how they discovered Ted Hall as a spy. And it didn't - it was pretty easy to figure out who it was because their code name for him was just a slight variation on his real name. Didn't - it didn't take any great brilliance at that point to figure out Ted Hall had been a spy. And so this is around 1951. The FBI decides to go after Ted Hall, and so they bring him in. He's - he's in Chicago at that point. And they bring him in for questioning and - and the -the problem for them was this. They had this information, very detailed information, from having broken the Venona Code, but they didn't have anything else. And they were hamstrung by the fact that they did not want to tell Ted. They didn't want anyone to know. They didn't want the Soviets to know that they knew that they'd broken the code. And so the approach was, we're going to - we're going to lay all this out in front of Ted and get him to confess, bully him into a confession because we've got the information on him. And so they bring Ted in. They brought Savy Sacks in as well, separately, at the same time in a different room. And they - they questioned both of them. And what's fascinating about this is that Ted and Savy had discussed the possibility that this might someday happen, that they might get questioned and how were they going to deal with it. And they had - they had come up with a game plan, which was fairly simple, which was to just say nothing, to admit to nothing, to say nothing. And Ted was smart and steely spined enough that even as they laid out all of this information, which was true, he never admitted to any of it. And in fact, after one long day of interrogation, when he came back the following Monday, at that point he had decided that he was no longer going to cooperate with the FBI because he could see no value in him even cooperating. That he was smart enough to know that if they could, they would have arrested him. They didn't, and so he just declined to participate any further with them. If you flash forward now 40 years, the documents of the Venona Code were eventually declassified. And when the press began to dig into this, then it became clear that there had been spies and it became clear to them that Ted Hall was one of them. And so, you know, the press came knocking at his door to ask him about what he had done during the war. And the FBI continued, you know, in the years following the '51 interrogation, to bug him, to follow him. They - they interviewed people that knew him. They tried to get the goods on him and they never got the goods on him enough to arrest him. And so he got exposed not ultimately by the FBI, well, in the sense that they declassified the documents, but he got exposed by the press when they were declassified. And in the early '90s, then there were a number of articles that were done on Ted.
Andrew Hammond: And in the early '90s, he's living in Cambridge?
Steve James: He's living in Cambridge.
Andrew Hammond: England.
Steve James: Yes. So after the - after the interrogations from the FBI in '51, Ted reached out to his former handlers, spies, and told them what had happened. And they told him that he would be wise to move to New York because he would have a better chance for them to get him out of the country if they were coming to arrest him than in Chicago. So Ted took a job at Sloan Ketterling in New York and they moved to New York. And then after they'd been in New York a while, Ted got this opportunity to work at the Cavendish Lab at Oxford in Great Britain. And they decided to move - to just move out of the country at that point for a variety of reasons, but one of which was they just felt safer being out of this country.
Andrew Hammond: Okay. And so just, you know, I think some of our listeners, you know, we have a broad variety of listeners, but some of them are, you know, quite a lot of them are current or former intelligence community and they're -- some of them are going to be swearing at their, you know, their iPhones and their -- their -- their car radios and stuff. You know, so I -- I guess, you know, they're going to say, well, who the hell is he to, you know, breach these codes? Some 19-year-old kid, he takes it on himself to decide the - the fate of the world and -- and -- and then the other thing is, well, you know, didn't it make the world more dangerous because you can only have mutually assured destruction if you have parties that are prepared to destroy each other. But if it's a nuclear monopoly, sure, the - the US may be, you know, a bit - a bit aggressive in negotiation tactics and stuff. But it's, you know, America's been out of the territorial acquisition game for quite some while. So, you know, actually it would have been safer for America to do nuclear monopoly. So just to wrap up, could you just address some of the criticisms that are made of - of Ted Hall.
Steve James: Yeah, and you hear some of these criticisms in the film itself from Savy's son in particular and -- and some others. Ted eventually had misgivings about what he had done because of finding out more and more about what the Soviet Union was as a country. But I think you have to remember this. Yes, whether you - whether you support what he did or not, the Soviet Union was going to get the bomb eventually. They had very smart scientists. It was not a question of if, it was a question of when. So we were going to end up with mutually assured destruction regardless, unless the US had decided to act and preemptively destroy the Soviet Union. Then maybe we wouldn't have. Would that have been a better outcome? I don't think so. So Ted - Ted was young and naive in some ways, but he was -- his reasons for what he did were not grounded in fantasy. They were grounded in - in - in a reality. And I think that, yes, whether you support what he did or not, I don't know that the US having the bomb all to itself would have been a great thing, given that we are the only nation to have actually dropped the bomb on anyone, period.
Andrew Hammond: And for our listeners, where can they watch your documentary, Steve?
Steve James: It's opening theatrically in a number of cities on August 4th, but it also will be available through various platforms to be rented streaming. So it's - it's - it's -- at the same time it will be available for streaming.
Andrew Hammond: Okay, okay, wow. Well, thanks ever so much for your time. It's been a pleasure to chat. I wish we had more time, but such is the nature of the modern world.
Steve James: Yes.
Andrew Hammond: If you get a chance to come back to DC, let us know and we'll get you around the museum.
Steve James: I can't wait. It'll be fun.
Andrew Hammond: Thank you.
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Thanks for listening to this episode of SpyCast. Please follow us on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at spycast.spymuseum.org, or on Twitter @intlspycast. I'm your host, Andrew Hammond, and my podcast content partner is Erin Dietrich. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughan III, Emily Coletta, Afua Inokwa, Elliott Peltzman, Trey Hester and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, The International Spy Museum.
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