Adjust size of text


Follow us and continue the conversation

Your saved articles

You haven't saved any articles

What are you looking for?

JIFF: The ‘well-intentioned’ American scientist who turned spy

TJI Pick
Print this
JIFF: The 'well-intentioned' American scientist who turned spy

Published: 20 October 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

A documentary showing next week in Australia examines the life of a US nuclear scientist who believed the world would be safer if the US did not have the atomic bomb all to itself.

Theodore Alvin Holtzberg - later known as Ted Hall - was a brilliant mathematician and physicist. So much so that he was plucked from Harvard University at the age of 18 to work under Robert Oppenheimer on the top-secret Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in the wastes of New Mexico.

But Ted Hall was also a “traitor” who gave away key secrets of the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the Soviet Union.

Hall’s “crimes” - with the later acquiescence of his equally left-leaning wife Joan, both of whom had Russian-Jewish pedigrees - are explored in an extraordinary new film, A Compassionate Spy. Directed by Steve James, the film is mainly a documentary but spiced with scenes enacted by talented thespians who bear a striking resemblance to the life-long lovers.

Had either Ted or Joan confessed to the conspiracy, both would have been sentenced to the electric chair like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg - the only spies who disclosed American secrets to the Soviets to be executed during the Cold War.

By coincidence, the Halls drove past Sing Sing Maximum Security Prison, north of Manhattan on the shore of the Hudson River, taking their children to a family outing on the day of Rosenbergs’ execution in 1953.

Klaus Fuchs, a fellow physicist - who unknown to Ted Hall was also giving away secrets of the Manhattan Project to the Soviets - had the sense to move to Britain, where a death sentence was much more unlikely.

The premise of A Compassionate Spy is that the then US president Harry Truman had other atomic bombs in preparation to drop on the Soviet Union, which had lost 20 million people helping the West to defeat Hitler.

One of the most chilling graphics in the film shows the targets and the flight paths of the multiple B-29 heavy bombers, similar to the Enola Gay that dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima, that were ready to deliver the next atomic warheads.

Both Ted and Joan were American communists in their youth, before McCarthyism forced so many left-wingers to flee the US, including Charlie Chaplin.

Which is why the Halls, happily married for over 50 years, moved themselves and their two daughters to Britain when Ted was offered a position at Cambridge University.

Long before that, Ted had told Joan what he had done. According to Joan’s recollection in A Compassionate Spy, they never lied to one another in all their years of marriage.

Ted and Joan Hall
Ted and Joan Hall

Technically speaking, says James, neither Ethel Rosenberg nor Joan Hall were “spies or traitors … they just kept secret what their husbands had done”. It did not save Ethel from the electric chair.

In Joan’s case, she was a willing accomplice - agreeing with Ted that peace would only endure, like a chess game, with a stalemate, and each side realising the consequences of continuing.

Of course, there was still war - not least in Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia. But no more atomic bombs were dropped.

There was a second “spy” in the Halls’ case. Their best friend Saville (Savy) Sax, who shared a room with Ted at Harvard.

As the film describes, the two brilliant academic men were hopeless at espionage. On one of their first “drops” they met a KGB agent openly on the city streets.

Ted’s fears were well-grounded by much of what was truly motivating the creation of the bomb.

Director Steve James

Fortunately, once Ted told Joan what he’d done, Ted and Savy had someone who was just as intellectually intelligent but much smarter in street sense. Ted always took Joan’s advice: which is why he never confessed to the FBI or MI5.

The film reveals that Truman was sent a letter in 1945, signed by many of the leading nuclear scientists working on the atom bomb, saying there was no need to drop either the first bomb, named “Little Boy” or the second bomb, named “Fat Man” on Japan with a risk of civilian deaths.

Japan was on the point of surrendering anyway, they argued. Why not invite the Japanese military to New Mexico and see what this devastating new weapon could do to their Imperial country?

The letter to Truman was never delivered, having been confiscated by Edgar Hoover’s FBI. It may not have mattered anyway.

An academic quoted in the film says Stalin’s troops - having won the race to Hitler’s bunker in Berlin - were now in Vladivostok eager on making a defeated Japan part of the post-war Marxist empire.

Ted’s graphics and descriptions of the technology behind Fat Man made it all the way to the Kremlin. In the film, Ted admits he might not have released the top-secret information had he known what a mass murderer Stalin was.

James, the director, never met Ted, who died in 1999. But he did meet Joan and her daughters in Cambridge in 2019, where Ted and Joan had fled once J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was on their trail in the Cold War. (Joan died this year.)

“I knew nothing about their story until I was introduced to it and decided to make the film in 2019,” James explains from his home in the American Midwest. “We did an initial shoot in Cambridge. I was so taken with Joan and her great storytelling that I decided to pursue the film.”

So, does James think what Ted and Joan Hall did and concealed was “right”?

“I think that what Ted did was courageous and based on genuine fears of what the US having the weapon all to itself in the post-war world could lead to,” James says.

"I think history - and our film - shows that Ted was hardly deluded about what was possible."

“Ted’s fears were well-grounded by much of what was truly motivating the creation of the bomb, and what the US was preparing to possibly do with a pre-emptive attack on the USSR. And we know that the US threw its weight around because of the bomb during those five years following the war before the Soviets got the bomb.

“Did Ted ‘save the world’? Impossible to know really, but that’s what was motivating his actions. Some people watch the film and assume wrongly that the USSR wouldn’t have gotten the bomb without Ted and others who spied. There was never a question of that.

“The only question was how long it would take for the USSR to develop the bomb. US intelligence thought it would take ten years. It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had it taken that long.  The US was clearly ramping up production of more bombs after the war.  One has to ask why, given that the war had ended. 

“Ted may have been wrong about what the US was capable of doing during the post-war time before the USSR got the bomb. But I think history - and our film - shows that he was hardly deluded about what was possible.” 

“The US did drop two bombs on Japan after all.  Ted may have been very left-wing, but his fears did not come out of left field.”

There will be multiple screenings of A Compassionate Spy in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Hobart, Canberra and the Gold Coast as part of the Jewish International Film Festival. Click here for details. After that, the film can watched via DocPlay.

Photo: Ted Hall (Magnolia Films)

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

Enter site