Discover more from The Bulwark
A Misleading New Portrait of an Atomic Spy
From the director of ‘Hoop Dreams’ comes a credulous documentary about Ted Hall, who gave Manhattan Project secrets to the Soviet Union.
PRESUMABLY HOPING TO CAPITALIZE on the publicity surrounding Christopher Nolan’s movie Oppenheimer, Magnolia Films last week released in the United States a documentary about the atomic scientist Ted Hall (1925–1999), who willingly offered the major secrets of how the atomic bomb was made to the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin.
Readers familiar with the history of the Manhattan Project and the atomic spy ring that infiltrated it will already be familiar with Hall’s story, which received much publicity when he was unmasked as a Soviet spy in the 1995 release of the top-secret Venona Project files, decoded messages from KGB headquarters to its agents in the United States. The full story of his espionage was then explored by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel in their 1997 book Bombshell: The Secret Story of America’s Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy.
In a review of the movie Red Joan in these pages in 2019, I asked how many times the film industry would make movies “about a Westerner who spied for the Soviet Union” with the “message . . . that they did it for the sake of humanity, and for permanent peace in the world”— and always claiming that the spy’s treachery had nothing at all to do with a desire to help the Soviet Union, Stalin, and world communism.
A Compassionate Spy is another such film. Director Steve James—best known for his award-winning 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams—takes the new documentary’s title from a claim by Hall, interviewed on camera shortly before his passing in 1999, and seconded a few years ago by his widow Joan Hall, that his motive for espionage was his deep “compassion” for the fate of humanity and his desire that an atomic bomb never be used again.
Hall said in a CNN interview back in 1998—and repeats much the same in this film—that he gave the secrets to the Russians “because it seemed to me that it was important that there should be no monopoly, which could turn one nation into a menace and turn it loose on the world” and hence he did the right thing: “act[ed] to break the American monopoly.” In the new film, Hall adds that he wanted to prevent the coming fascism that the United States was preparing to create—not noting that the government when he spied was led by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.
Of course, Hall and his wife both acknowledge that they subsequently learned the truth about Stalin and the crimes he committed, but like other exposed Western Soviet spies, fail to note that the very truth was readily available at the time for those willing to seek it out. Hall claims that had he known it back then, he is certain he would have acted differently. Yet even so, he says that in retrospect, “I still feel I did the right thing.” Or, as he wrote to Albright and Kunstel, “I still think that the brash youth”—referring to his younger self in an statement written when he was age 71—“had the right end of the stick.”
Viewers of A Compassionate Spy won’t hear or see on the screen what Ted Hall said to his very first NKVD contact in 1944. Hall’s contemporaneous explanation had nothing to do giving the Soviets the bomb secrets in the interests of peace and what later was called the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. Here, in his own words at the time, was why Hall went to a Soviet agent and offered to spy:
[Hall] told me that the new secret weapon was an ‘atomic bomb’ of colossal destructive capacity. I interrupted him: Do you understand what you are doing? What makes you think you should reveal the USA’s secrets for the USSR’s sake? He replied: The S.U. is the only country that could be trusted with such a terrible thing. But since we cannot take it away from other countries—the USSR ought to be aware of its existence and stay abreast of the progress of experiments and construction. This way, at a peace conference, the USSR—on which the fate of my generation depends—will not find itself in the position of a power subjected to blackmail. [Emphasis added.]
So if Hall had had his way, there would have been no balance; only Stalin would have the bomb. We already know that when Stalin finally had an A-bomb ready—a copy of the implosion bomb made at Los Alamos and obtained through the work of Hall, Klaus Fuchs, and others—Stalin gave permission to Kim Il-sung to invade South Korea. We can only guess what else Stalin would have done had he been the sole possessor.
A COMPASSIONATE SPY COMBINES INTERVIEWS—an old one made with Ted Hall in the 1990s, as well as a recent one with Joan Hall and the couple’s two daughters—along with reenactments made by professional actors who simulate major scenes in Hall’s life. These help the viewers capture the feel of the Forties and Fifties and to see how life was in the period during which Hall carried out his decision to help the Soviet Union—aided by a good friend from his college days, Saville Sax. Sax, also a Communist, agreed to walk into the Soviet consulate in New York City to ask if they were interested in receiving atomic bomb information from a friend of his—referring to Hall.
There are also interviews with Albright and Kunstel, and with Sax’s son Boria (author of his own memoir, Stealing Fire, about growing up in a boyhood in the shadow of espionage for the Soviets).
And there are lengthy segments in which one of the documentary’s producers, Dave Lindorff, holds forth. An investigative journalist who has written for various left-wing outlets, and who has his own book on Hall coming out in December, Lindorff is perhaps the single most egregious and misleading figure in the film. His comments, purportedly included to put the events depicted in the film and the facts of Hall’s espionage in historical and political context, are presented as gospel to be believed; there is no indication whatsoever that any other writers and historians have completely different interpretations. Had the filmmakers chosen, they easily could have interviewed such Cold War historians as John Lewis Gaddis, Wilson D. Miscamble, Robert Gellately, and Mark Kramer.
Lindorff rehashes points made by a long parade of Soviet-sympathizing revisionist writers. Several of his myths and distortions echo those promoted by Oliver Stone in his tendentious 2012 Showtime series on postwar America (which I critically reviewed for the Weekly Standard). Among these is the claim that the atomic bomb did not have to be dropped. This is a hotly debated question, but Lindorff evinces no familiarity with, say, Wilson Miscamble’s The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, The Atomic Bomb and the Defeat of Japan (2011), the latest book examining why Truman made the decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan, or the most essential older book, Richard B. Frank’s Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (1999). Lindorff could at least have spared some time to read Jack Schwartz’s comprehensive, lengthy article that appeared in the Daily Beast on the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima.
Instead of even mentioning these sources, Lindorff apparently prefers to rely on the type of history one associates with Stone or Howard Zinn. Still, as bad as Lindorff is in the documentary, the fault of this signal omission of different perspectives is ultimately that of director James, who obviously shares the views of Lindorff and the Halls, and prefers to paint Ted Hall as a hero.
THE DOCUMENTARY fails to exonerate Ted Hall. The argument made by Hall and his wife is essentially that Hall’s act stopped the United States from using the bomb again, thereby avoiding a potential nuclear conflict. The contention that had Hall not given Russia the A-bomb, the United States would have used the weapon against its major ideological and political enemy, the Soviet Union, is more than ridiculous. The United States held a monopoly for four years; it never considered using it when it had a hundred deliverable bombs that could have been used against the Soviet Union during the Berlin Blockade in 1948 without any fear of Russian retaliation, since they had not obtained a working nuclear weapon at that time. None of the B-29s sent to Europe during the Berlin crisis could even carry an A-bomb.
As for Stalin’s monstrous rule, Joan Hall says that charges against him made by critics were “some true, some not,” as if Stalin were a regular leader who made some mistakes. Nor do viewers learn that in 1950, Ted Hall circulated the “Stockholm Peace Appeal,” which demanded unilateral and immediate nuclear disarmament by the United States, a petition created in Moscow and formally initiated by a Western Soviet-created Communist front group, meant as propaganda and circulated by Western Communists and fellow travelers.
Viewers of the documentary do learn that there were two times Hall seriously considered confessing and surrendering to the authorities (while still in the United States), but each time, he was dissuaded by his wife. Eventually, fearing that the clock was ticking and they could be exposed in the future, the couple packed up and moved permanently to Great Britain, where Hall found years of gainful employment as an academic in Cambridge.