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Blog Topic: Theodore Hall, Soviet Spy on the Manhattan Project

May 3 , 2015

Theodore Hall, Soviet spy on the Manhattan Project

Theodore Hall, Soviet spy who worked on the Manhattan Project. UK National Archives photo.

Theodore Hall was the scientist that stole the atomic bomb plans and got away with it. He was never put on trial. The Soviets spent a tremendous amount of effort to try to steal information on the atomic bomb, but the key was Klaus Fuchs (see previous blog article), and Theodore Hall.

Various people inside the United States were involved in gathering information about the atom bomb and passing it on to the Soviets during World War II - people who were couriers, machinists, and others associated in some way with the bomb. But they were not scientists who were actually working on the bomb. Without Fuchs and Hall, the Soviets never would have gotten the plans for the atom bomb during WWII. And instead of four years, it probably would have taken the Soviets eight or ten years to develop an atomic bomb.

Born in New York City, New York, Theodore Hall graduated from high school at age fourteen, received a degree from Harvard by age eighteen, and at that point Hall thought he would be soon be drafted. Instead, a recruiter for the Manhattan Project had a different proposition for him. Hall was told he was wanted to work on a project that was both top secret, and important to the war effort.

Hall agreed to become involved in the Manhattan Project, and traveled to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he became the youngest scientist to work on the atomic bomb. But Hall proved to be a rebellious young man. He decided that if the atom bomb worked, it would be too dangerous for just one country to have because there would be no consequences if that country used it. And he was afraid the United Stated would use the bomb to bully other countries.

Even at that stage of the war, it was apparent that the only other super power was going to be Russia. So Theodore Hall, with one week leave, took a trip home to New York, tracked down the KGB, and told them he had information on a super bomb. The KGB was just flabbergasted that someone this young and immature, could have such information. At first they didn't believe him, but they sent a copy of his report back to Moscow, which was reviewed by Soviet physicists. And they definitely wanted all the information they could get from this young man.

Eventually, Theodore Hall gave the Soviets complete plans to the plutonium bomb, and the United States did not figure out that Hall was spying for the Soviets until after the war. In the mid-1950s the Americans broke the code that was being used by the Soviet embassy in New York. When they decoded messages they'd been collecting for many many years, they found evidence that Hall had been supplying information to the Soviets and the FBI went to have a long talk with Theodore Hall.

Unlike Klaus Fuchs,Theodore Hall knew that this day was coming and had already planned it in advance. He had carefully expunged any evidence that he had turned over anything to the Soviets. Hall knew that the only way the government could convict him was if they revealed the decoded Soviet transmission which incriminated him as a spy. He also knew the U.S. would not want the Soviets to know that the code had been broken. And he was right. The United States had to make a decision – to prosecute Theodore Hall and reveal to the world that they'd broken the Soviet code or, let Hall go and keep reading Soviet messages from the embassy back to Moscow. And they chose to keep reading the messages rather than prosecute Hall.

So Theodore Hall continued his life without government interference, raised his family, and continued doing research physics (but not doing anymore spying). Eventually he moved to England and worked in a physics lab in Cambridge. In 1995, the fact that the Americans had broken the Soviet code became public knowledge – the secret was leaked. The press had a short interview with Hall at Cambridge, regarding his being a Soviet spy during WWII. All that Theodore Hall would say was that when it happened he was young, and if he had to do it over again, he would have done things very differently. Four years later he died at age seventy-four in Great Britain.

~ Jon

Steve Sheinkin. Bomb – The Race to Build – and Steal – the World's most Dangerous Weapon. New York; Scholastic Inc. 2012.


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