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The Secret Story of America's
Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy

Reviews


Current Authors / Reviews

American Spectator Ed Kelly Tom Sandborn
Dennis Dutton Arnold Kramish Stephen T. Shankland
Michael Grunwald Senator Moynihan Scott Shuger
Harvard Magazine The New Yorker Alexander Vassiliev
Gregg Herken Ronald Radosh Ellen Warren
David Holloway Paul Reid Allen Weinstein


Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, in their important new book
"The Haunted Wood" (Random House, 1999) on Soviet espionage in the Stalin
era, writes (p. 197) : "Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel's BOMBSHELL
provides a thorough and reliable account of Ted Hall's brief but important
career as a Soviet source." Their book, which is based on exclusive access
to certain KGB files that have been unavailable to other authors, also said
(p. 191) that BOMBSHELL provides the "best account" of a Soviet
disinformation effort in the 1990s to convince Western scholars that an
undetected agent supposedly codednamed "Perseus" had been responsible for
Soviet atomic espionage triumphs during World War II.

"The American Spectator" listed "Bombshell" in its December 1998
listing of "Holiday Gift Suggestions from distinguished readers and
writers." One of the magazine's contributors, Stephen Hess of the Brookings
Institution, wrote: "From fiction to fact. Read Bombshell, by foreign
correspondents  Joseph Albright  and Marcia Kunstel. They start digging in
Moscow's KGB files and end knocking on a door in Cambridge, England, where
they coax a virtual confession from Ted Hall, an American who delivered atomic secrets to the Soviets."

Book Reviewer Ed Kelly of "The Buffalo News," in his list of the best
mystery/suspense books of 1998, wrote on Dec. 6: "Tom Clancy, a giant in
adventure/suspense, weighed in with another jumbo-size hair-raiser called
"Rainbow Six" (Putnam, $ 27.95). In it, Clancy moves John Clark -- a
supporting warrior in his earlier books starring Jack Ryan -- into the top
job of an international special operations force assigned to do battle with
terrorism.   For those who prefer their espionage reading to be
non-fiction, there's "Bombshell: The Secret Story of America's Unknown Spy Conspiracy" by  Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel  (Times Books, $ 25). Its backdrop: America's race to develop the atomic bomb in the desolate deserts of the Southwest."

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his book "Secrecy" (Yale
University Press, 1998), notes (p. 150) that "Bombshell" contains the most
complete account to date of Theodore Hall's motivations in contacting
Soviet intelligence in 1944.

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For almost 50 years, atomic espionage has inspired a steady stream of books. Klaus Fuchs, who confessed to the British authorities in 1950 that he had passed significant information to the Soviet Union, has been the subject of a number of studies. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for espionage, have been the focus of intense controversy. The key questions, which maintain the continuing interest in these stories, have been: who passed what information, when, and how? And how much did the Soviet Union learn from these spies?

Interest in atomic espionage has received a boost in recent years. Russian sources have provided new information (and disinformation) about Soviet efforts to learn about U.S. nuclear programs. The U.S. National Security Agency has declassified the Venona translations of Soviet intelligence messages sent from the United States to Moscow during and shortly after World War II and released the small proportion of these messages related to Soviet atomic espionage.

Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, former Moscow correspondents for the Cox Newspapers, have drawn on such new sources to write a book devoted mainly to Theodore Hall, the most important--and indeed the only significant--spy to have been uncovered by recent revelations. Hall, who was born in New York, now lives in Cambridge, England. He has not denied the charge that he passed secret information to the Soviet Union; however, he has not admitted in so many words that he did so, nor has he provided details of his work as a spy. Albright and Kunstel were able to interview Hall at length, and to obtain an oblique confession from him, but they have had to piece together his espionage activities from a variety of good and not-so-good sources.

Hall joined the Manhattan Project in January 1944 at the age of 18. He had completed the coursework for a degree in physics at Harvard, and was assigned to the experimental physics division at Los Alamos, where his first task was to measure the fast-neutron fission cross-section of 235U. In October 1944, with the help of his friend Saville Sax, he made contact with Soviet intelligence in New York and provided a report in which he named key people working at Los Alamos. He was given the covername "Mlad."

In December 1944 Hall met Sax in Albuquerque and gave him a short document outlining the concept of implosion, among other things. This information reached Igor Kurchatov, scientific director of the Soviet atomic project, who wrote on 16 March 1945 that "the implosion method is of great interest, correct in principle." Albright and Kunstel argue correctly that this was the first report of implosion, the key concept in the design of the plutonium bomb, to reach the Soviet Union. But they somewhat exaggerate the importance of Hall's action, for on 7 April Kurchatov wrote an evaluation of information from Klaus Fuchs, which indicates quite clearly that Fuchs had provided much more detailed information than Hall about the methods by which the Americans were planning to achieve implosion.

In May and August 1945, Hall provided further information about the design of the atomic bomb. Here too Hall was a less important source than Fuchs, since, by his own account, he did not have access to the kind of detailed design information that Fuchs gave to the Soviet Union. Albright and Kunstel suggest that in the late 1940s Hall passed information about thermonuclear research and about polonium production, but their evidence for this is much weaker than it is for Hall's activities in 1944-45.

How important was Hall to the Soviet Union? Albright and Kunstel argue that he provided confirmation of the material Fuchs had passed on. Yet the information the two men supplied in 1944 and early 1945 did not lead Stalin to convert the Soviet atomic project into a crash program; it was Hiroshima that marked that turning-point. And although Kurchatov and his colleagues took the American plutonium bomb design, which they had received from Fuchs and Hall, as the basis for their first bomb, they still had to check everything in the material they were given.

This is a readable book, with a great deal of information about Hall's life and background, and the basic argument about Hall's espionage activities is established in a careful and plausible way. The book's main defects are an urge (perhaps understandable) to enhance Hall's importance, and speculation and lack of clarity at some key points. There are also specific points of flawed interpretation. Niels Bohr's views about the need to tell Stalin about the Manhattan Project are badly misrepresented, for example. Nevertheless Albright and Kunstel make good use of the new sources to throw light on the history of atomic espionage.

The identification of Hall as a spy changes our perspective on some of the other characters in the story. David Greenglass, whose evidence formed the basis for the charge brought against the Rosenbergs, emerges from this book as an even more insignificant figure (from the point of view of espionage) than he had already seemed. This makes Julius Rosenberg a very marginal figure in the actual business of atomic espionage, and there is no good evidence that Ethel was involved.

The book leaves many questions unanswered. When did the FBI definitively identify Hall as a spy? Was he debriefed, and given immunity in return for information? Who were the still unidentified Soviet spies "Kvant" and "Pers"? There are enough such questions left to ensure that this will be by no means the last book on Soviet atomic espionage.

-- David Holloway, in a review headlined: A Mole Brought to Light. The American Association for the Advancement of Science Journal, Volume 280, Number 5364 Issue of 1 May 1998, pp. 691-692. (Mr. Holloway is in the Departments of Political Science and History, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA) 

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 --Theodore Hall '44 entered Harvard as a junior at the age of  16. He joined the physics staff of the Manhattan Project at the age of 18 and quickly gave the Soviets the secret of making the atomic bomb. His spying continued after the war. He was aided by a Harvard roommate, Saville Sax '46. Hall is alive, in England, and makes no apologies. He says that in 1944 he "was worried about the dangers of an American monopoly of atomic weapons if there should be a postwar depression." The authors refuse to judge him and tell their tale with meticulous care and no sensationalism.

          -- Harvard Magazine (January-February 1998)

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--For a look at the dark side of the Manhattan Project, go read "Bombshell," the freshly released book about physicist Ted Hall and his secret contacts with the Soviet Union. In "Bombshell: The Secret Story of America's Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy (Times Books, $25, published Oct. 1), journalists Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel have compiled a well-researched, detailed history of one American's desire to put the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons program on an equal footing. The book reads like a cross between Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and a spy novel. It traces the chilhood and career of Ted Hall, a child prodigy who entered Harvard as a junior when he was 16 years old.... Albright and Kunstel are very careful in their treatment of whether Hall really was a spy and really did transfer atomic bomb designs to the Soviets. But their book is carefully researched and makes a very strong case that Hall was in fact the spy the KGB had code-named "Mlad."

To come to their conclusion, Albright and Kunstel have connected decoded Soviet cables from the National Security Agency, KGB information released at the end of the Cold War but muddied by disinformation to disguise Soviet tactics, and more than 100 hours of interviews with Hall, who lives in England. "Bombshell," despite its annoyingly sensationalist title, is a good book. As the narrative progresses, nagging questions get answered, the story grows deeper and more credible, the characters take on a certain depth, and their motivations start sounding more believable...

Albright and Kunstel have done an excellent job extracting information from both the U.S. and Russian governments, piecing together a fascinating story. And the authors have succeeded in perhaps the authors' most difficult task: whether to pass judgment. In the end, they carefully avoid the issue, letting others speak....

       
--By Stephen T. Shankland, Managing Editor, Los Alamos Monitor
(Nov. 2, 1997)

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--Readers of Bombshell will have to decide for themselves whether they agree on that contentious point. What everyone will agree is that this book is an important contribution to the history of the Cold War, and a compelling real-life thriller. Read it for the spy-versus-spy action (including the fascinating account of the Venona decyphering project, staffed with eccentric experts on languages living and dead, who decoded Soviet cables). Read it for its recreation of some of the fever-dream excitements of American Communism and anti-Communism. Or read it for its reflections on the complex moral dilemmas posed when national loyalties clash with other treasured values. Just don't miss this book. Competent on all its multiple levels, read as thriller, history, or moral meditation, Bombshell is a wonderful book for the professional historian or the interested lay reader.

By Tom Sandborn; Vancouver Sun -  January 10, 1998
     Copyright 1998 Pacific Press Ltd.

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"Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel make the case that it was Hall who gave the Soviets the priceless details about the innovative way in which the American bomb generated its explosion from the available fissionable materials. (Getting similar data independently from Fuchs greatly lessened the Soviets' fear that they were being had by counterintelligence.) And the authors keep pulling at the threads in the intelligence record until they come face to face with Hall himself--now 71 and retired from an academic career in Cambridge, England--on the other end. After 100 hours of interviews, Hall, finally feeling safely beyond prosecution (all the other key handlers and couriers in his network are dead) essentially confessed to them."

 -- Scott Shuger, at Politics & Current Events at Amazon.com., in a review headlined: Manhattan Transfer.

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-- "Archives opened since the end of the Cold War have brought few revelations more disturbing than this: the American scientist who gave the Russians invaluable information about the atomic bomb was never arrested, and now lives in England. Possibly because the traitor, Ted Hall, agreed to speak freely with the authors, they see merit in his justification: that by denying America a monopoly of atomic weapons he preserved world peace. His further justification -- that the Russians were our allies -- loses persuasivenesss against the book's panormama of Soviet espionage."

-- From The New Yorker (Briefly noted, Nov. 10, 1997)

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--"Authors Albright and Kunstel, relying on recently declassified documents, undercover sources and extensive interviews with the Halls and others central to the story, have written a book that reads better than many fictional spy thrillers, with clandestine meeting places Tony Hillerman fans will relate to -- the Santa Fe River, the UNM campus. But "Bombshell" is an historical account -- one that sheds new light on the secret birth pains of the Cold War."

 --Dennis Dutton, The New Mexican , closing paragraphs of review,
Santa Fe, Sunday, Nov. 16, 1997.

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-- "We have known for a few decades -- since Klaus Fuchs' confession in 1950 -- that the Soviet Union obtained the atomic bomb from espionage sources within the Manhattan Project. Recently Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post, digging through formerly classified Soviet cables, broke the story that in fact there was another major spy at Los Alamos -- a young scientist named Theodore Alvin Hall. Now, with "Bombshell" (Times Books, 399 pages, $25), Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel tell the whole story.

Basing their account on Soviet sources, U.S. government files and, most important, personal conversations with Hall himself (now 71 and living in London), the authors have written a narrative that compares with the best espionage thrillers. Here is an all too true story of how lax security and political naivete combined to give the Soviets access to our nation's top-secret military project..."

 -- Ronald Radosh, Wall Street Journal, in a review headlined: Treason's Hidden Accomplice. Wall Street Journal "BOOKSHELF" Section, Monday, October 20, 1997. (Mr. Radosh is the author, with Joyce Milton, of "The Rosenberg  File." Copyright 1997, Wall Street Journal) 

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--  " With all the drivel being published about aliens in Roswell, N.M., and government conspiracies stretching from Vince Foster to plutonium in space, it is indeed refreshing to see the rationalist intellectual tradition applied with such grace.

The authors' concise reporting is doubly reassuring because this book is a page-turner. It's nonfiction but with the suspense of a tale told around the campfire."

-- Paul Reid, Palm Beach Post,  in a review headlined: The Secret Story of the Spy Who Got Away. Palm Beach Post, Thursday, October 30, 1997.

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 --  " Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel -- two correspondents for the Cox Newspapers who were formerly based in Moscow -- have written the first book on Soviet atomic espionage to draw upon Russian archival sources as well as Venona. It is both a solid, well-researched work of history and a brilliant piece of reportage."

 -- Gregg Herken, The Washington Post, in a review headlined: Traitors In Our Midst. The Washington Post "Book World" Section, Sunday, October 19, 1997, Page 5.

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-- ""Bombshell" is an exhaustive character study as well as a great spy yarn, elevating dry academic questions of nuclear ethics and international relations to the level of high drama. The plans for the bomb are smuggled out of Los Alamos in a Kleenex box. The spies send messages with a code based on Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Even in the era of Oprah, where nothing seems shocking, this saga of a teen rebel genius who betrayed the United States should raise a few eyebrows. And if it doesn't, the film version is already in production, starring Leonardo DiCaprio."

 --  Michael Grunwald, Staff Writer, Boston Globe, in a review headlined: The Harvard Man Who Gave Russia the Bomb. Boston Globe LIVING Section, Tuesday, October 14, 1997, Page E4.

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-- "Key chapters of the Hall spy story were played out on the streets and grassy midway of Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood between 1946 and 1951, including the couple's traumatic fear that they would be arrested and wind up on trial for espionage, like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg...

 "Following leads from previously classified documents, the authors found the Halls in retirement near England's Cambridge University.  Now 72, Hall agreed to talk to the couple in interviews that lasted some 100 hours.  After interviews and research in Washington, Chicago, England and Russia, the result is 'Bombshell, The Secret Story of America's Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy' (Times Books), a spellbinding and meticulously detailed story of the Halls told by Cox Newspapers' Moscow correspondents Albright and Kunstel, now based in Washington."

--  Ellen Warren, Staff Writer, Chicago Tribune, in a story headlined: Unmasking the Hyde Park Spy. A New Book Reveals the 50-Year-Old Story of How a U. of C. Graduate Student Helped the Soviet Union Get the Bomb. Chicago Tribune Tempo Section, Friday, October 10, 1997, Page 1.

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--  "But it is Lona Cohen, brave, quick-witted and vivacious, who serves as Hall's courier, among her many other covert duties, who is in the most interesting figure in the book.  BOMBSHELL's fluid narrative weaves the basically distinct threads of Hall's life with the Cohens' in an absorbing previously untold spy story...

"Albright and Kunstel do an excellent job of clarifying the complex processes involved in making the atomic bomb, pausing even to explain various false starts and unworkable procedures that often preceded the program's periodic breakthroughs.  The authors examine the problems with which Hall and his colleagues wrestled and are critical in understanding exactly what he and other agents at Los Alamos gave to Soviet intelligence."

--  Allen Weinstein, author of the "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case", in a review published in the Los Angeles Times "Book Review" section, 9/28/97.

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