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In April 1950, three months before Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested as Soviet atomic spies, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover began chasing a bigger fish: the physics wunderkind Theodore Alvin Hall. Hired at 18 as a Harvard junior by the Manhattan Project, Hall arrived at Los Alamos on January 28, 1944, and learned he’d be helping to create an atomic bomb. Although the project was a response to fears that Germany might develop nuclear weapons, by that summer, with the German army in retreat, Hall grew concerned that the bomb’s real target would be the USSR, America’s wartime ally.
While still at Harvard and unaware what he was being recruited for, Hall and his friend and roommate Saville Sax (the only person he told about his new job) shared their concerns that the Soviet Union was being left out of what was clearly the development of some new weapon. When he learned that he was working on a bomb of unimaginable destructive power, Hall, like some other scientists on the project—notably Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard, and Joseph Rotblat—worried about what might happen if the United States ended up with a postwar monopoly on atomic bombs. Bohr urged President Franklin Roosevelt to share information about the project with the Soviets—and for his efforts had the FBI monitoring him. Rotblat, a Polish exile to Britain, quit the Manhattan Project over the issue of Soviet exclusion. Perhaps thanks to youthful impulsivity, Hall, in his discussions with Sax, arrived at a different and more treacherous solution: He would give the Soviets information about the implosion trigger he was working on, in the hope that the Soviets’ development of their own bomb would deter US use of the weapon.
By late October, on the pretext of joining his family for his 19th birthday, Hall went to New York City and met up with Sax to try and locate a Soviet agent. Each managed to find one, though the agents were skeptical until Hall showed them convincing information about the project. With Sax acting as courier, Hall immediately began providing crucial information.
Code-named Mlad (Russian for “young one”), Hall, the youngest scientist on the Manhattan Project, was the first Los Alamos spy to be identified in 1949 by the US Army’s Signal Intelligence Service in the intercepted and decrypted transmissions—later known as the Venona cables—sent between Soviet agents in the US and Moscow. Sax, code-named Star (Russian for “old one”), was also among the first to be identified.
Assigning FBI agents across the country to the case, Hoover quickly learned that the young spy, a child of Russian Jewish immigrants in New York, had been working since the war’s end on a doctorate in biophysics at the University of Chicago and had married in 1947. He also learned that Hall’s older brother, Air Force Maj. Edward Nathaniel Hall, was designing rocket engines for nuclear-capable missiles at a top secret facility on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio…
For the rest of this article which appears in the Jan. 10 issue of the Nation magazine, please go to: https://www.thenation.com/article/world/ted-hall-espionage-fbi