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Review

Blueprinting the bomb
by Arnold Kramish

As Published in the
IEEE Spectrum Magazine
April 1998

Going one better than those guilty of turning to last chapters first, most readers of Bombshell will profit by scanning its final two pages before the rest of the book. They contain the signed partial "confession" of Theodore Alvin Hall, an atomic spy as important as, if less notorious than, Klaus Fuchs. These pages reveal not merely a young idealist who felt that his cause was just, but also an adult who never wavered in his belief, even after Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin, that the United States was the more dangerous and aggressive of the superpowers. He stood by his ideology throughout his life, which included a brilliant scientific career at England's Cambridge University, near which he presently resides in retirement.

Having been a fellow soldier with Hall at Los Alamos in New Mexico, I naturally found the recent unmasking of him as a spy disturbing. Trying to understand him, I turned to Rebecca West's superb The New Meaning of Treason (Viking Press, New York, 1964). She concluded: "The man tempted to become a traitor will be helped if public opinion keeps it clear before him that treachery is a sordid and undignified form of crime. It is not necessary to hate him."

The unresolved problem for those who knew and respected Hall is whether to hate him for his confessed sins. If confession in some manner diminishes the enormity of treacherous deeds, what he told the authors of Bombshell is not enough to meet the standard. Hall spied for the Soviets at least until 1953, and he has yet to admit to what he did for them for those eight years following the end of World War II.

The existence of a spy known as "MAD," the Soviet code name for Hall, was made known by the Soviet spy master Anatoly Yatskov in the early post-Soviet years. A new "atomic spy" writing industry began to flourish, and soon produced, most notoriously, the revelations of Pavel Sudoplatov as rendered by Jerrold and Leona Schecter in Special Tasks (Little Brown, Boston, 1994). While that book was quite valuable for those interested in wartime Soviet espionage in general, and though it relied heavily on the largely authoritative Yatskov revelations, the authors were essentially oblivious of widely published nuclear history and made unsupported accusations about certain scientists. Accordingly, many prominent scientists attached the book as a whole.

Happily, the authors of Bombshell, Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, have done their homework. For several years, while Moscow correspondents for the Cox newspapers, they interviewed former KGB agents who were the controllers for spies such as Fuchs and Hall. They also interviewed Los Alamos veterans, taking care that they, as authors, as well as potential readers, would understand the technical aspects and importance of Hall's activities as a spy. In 100 interviews over 18 months with Hall and his wife Joan, in Cambridge, the authors achieved a rapport with the subjects, which yielded this exceptional tale. Some readers may feel that the rapport came to be too close.

The son of a New York City furrier, Hall grew up during the Depression, graduated from Harvard University at age 18, and then became the youngest physicist at Los Alamos. I was two years older, having been transferred to Los Alamos for health reasons, after being exposed to large doses of uranium hexafluoride at the Oak Ridge complex in Tennessee. On the famed New Mexico mesa, I encounter a more healthy environment of high explosives transportation and experimentation.

I came to know Ted as a soldier in the Special Engineering Detachment (SED) of the U.S. Army, largely composed of young soldiers with technical educations. As a civilian, Ted had been recruited from Harvard early in 1944 to work at Los Alamos, but after being drafted a year later, he returned to the laboratory as a rather unconventional soldier of some means, who kept his civilian apartment, refusing to move into the barracks. He never cashed his paychecks.

Many of us in the SED had significant responsibilities at Los Alamos: Ted was attached to a group conducting implosion experiments using conventional explosives. I had sole responsibility for the quality control of the detonators for those experiments and, eventually, for the implosion system used in the test bomb at Alamogordo on 16 July 1945 and for the Nagasaki bomb. Thus, Ted was my "customer," although we seldom interacted in that context. Mainly, we related to each other just as one SED soldier and one civilian scientist, who made no distinction - as was customary in that time and place - between civilian and military colleagues.

The badge system at Los Alamos was "Red, Blue, and White." The Red badge provided only the lower access, while Blue was intermediate, and White the highest. Sergeant David Greenglass, who was recruited to spy by his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, was a Blue badge machinist and therefore allowed to know only something about the substance of what he was machining.

Ted and I were privileged to have White badges, which gave us access to all the technical seminars and buildings. Thus Ted was in a position to provide the Soviets with detailed technical descriptions of methods, bomb design, and the names of project scientists. His information, supplemented by the mostly theoretical reports of Klaus Fuchs, gave the Soviets, by the end of World War II, essentially the recipe for the implosion-type atomic bomb.

Although convivial and likable, Ted held himself aloof from most other SED soldiers. His devotion to mysticism, which he shared with the project's director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, also set him apart from the group. During home leave, as a civilian, Ted and a Harvard pal, Saville Saks, in scenes reminiscent of a Keystone Cops comedy, attempted to contact and finally did connect in New York City with the Yatskov ring.

The Soviet locals could hardly believe their luck with the "walk in." Their first coded secret cable to Moscow on 12 November 1944 reported on Hall's family background and affiliation with the Young Communist Party, and concluded that "we consider it expedient to maintain liaison with H.," which they did for nine more years. Subsequent cables assigned him the code name MLAD (YOUNGSTER).

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, but not of its intelligence services, the U.S. government began to release the decrypts of such cables, which remain a gold mine for atomic espionage writers. Much remains to be gleaned, including the identities and specific activities of other atomic spies, whom Hall admits have yet to be named. This is another undischarged part of his "confession."

Bombshell is a well-written, captivating account of a major spy, whose full story, and that of others, remains to be told.


Arnold Kramish, a physicist and electrical engineer who served on the Manhattan Project, has written about nuclear proliferation problems and currently works as a science historian. He is author of The Griffin (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1960), a biography of Paul Rosbaud, the Berlin science editor who spied fir the British during World War II.

Note: We would like to thank Bill Sweet, Senior Editor, Spectrum
Magazine
for graciously allowing us to reprint this review


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