20.

GOOD INTENTIONS GONE AWRY

The U.S. military code breakers and the FBI did catch up with Theodore Hall and Saville “Savy” Sax after the Soviet codes were finally broken. The Russians had been careless enough to give the real names of both men in the initial cable from the New York rezidentura on November 12, 1944, reporting to Moscow Center that they had volunteered to conduct atomic espionage. Subsequent cables had employed code names—Mlad, taken from an old Slavonic adjective meaning “young,” for Hall, and Star, an abbreviation of an adjective meaning “old,” for Sax—but there were enough identifying details, even in the cables where code names were henceforth used, to pinpoint them. The FBI was alerted after the initial cable was broken in 1950. By mid-March 1951 the agents thought they had developed the case to the point where they might succeed in getting one or both men to snap during separate but simultaneous interrogations. Hall and Sax had been shrewd enough, however, to foresee that such a day might eventually arise and had rehearsed what they would say. Over three hours of questioning on March 16, 1951, the agents could break neither.

Nonetheless, while they controlled themselves and displayed no trepidation, the interrogations were terrifying for both men and for the young women they had since married and with whom they had begun families. The nation had been at war in Korea, first with Kim Il Sung’s North Korean army and then with the forces of Communist China’s Mao Tse-tung, since June 1950. The country was in a frenzy of spy fear. Alger Hiss, a senior State Department official, turned out to be a Soviet agent. He had been convicted in January 1950 of perjury for denying that he passed diplomatic reports to Moscow. (He could not be tried for the espionage itself because the statute of limitations had run out.) In February 1951, the Wisconsin demagogue, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, who was about to launch his madcap witch hunt in which innumerable careers and lives would be ruined, waved a sheet of paper during a speech to the Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia. He announced that it listed the names of 205 active Communist Party members in the State Department. (It would be years before anyone discovered that the sheet of paper had been blank.) That same month Klaus Fuchs confessed in England to giving the Russians the plans for the Nagasaki bomb. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were on trial for their lives in New York for transmitting a great deal less to the Soviets than Hall had through Sax and Lona Cohen. In April the Rosenbergs would be sentenced to death in the electric chair at New York State’s Sing Sing Prison. The American public was appalled by these revelations. In these years before the disillusionment of the Vietnam War, it was an article of faith for patriotic Americans that the United States was innately good in motive and deed. We had been justified in using the bomb against Japan to shorten the Second World War and save lives and we would never employ it unjustly. We had been safe and humanity had been safe as long as the secret remained with us. Communists were not to be trusted with anything, least of all with the atomic bomb. Giving it to Stalin’s Russia was a monstrous act.

Hall and Sax eluded the hounds. The decoded cables could not be submitted as evidence in court, nor could the FBI agents show them or mention them to Hall or Sax in order to help break them down, because the military cryptologists did not want the Soviets to learn that their code had been compromised. (Moscow already knew. Kim Philby, the mole in the British Secret Intelligence Service, had informed them. He was so highly regarded by his superiors in MI6 that he was considered a candidate to one day become head of the service and in 1949 had been given the extremely sensitive post of liaison to the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington.) Although they had enough information for an interrogation, the FBI investigators could not reach the higher threshold of sufficient independently corroborating evidence for a grand jury indictment. And so the case was placed in bureaucratic limbo and then, as the years went by, dropped.

Ted Hall became bored with nuclear physics by the time he was awarded his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1950. He decided that biology was more interesting and worthwhile and turned to the new field of biophysics. After nine years at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, the cancer center in New York, he gained sufficient recognition in the highly specialized field of X-ray microanalysis, a technique to detect and measure concentrations of chemicals in human tissue, that he was able to seek and receive an invitation to spend the academic year of 1962–63 at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in England, which had continued to be a home of genius. (Most recently, James Watson and Francis Crick had won a Nobel for creating their “double helix” model, the first accurate rendition of a DNA molecule, at the Cavendish in 1953.)

The one year turned into twenty-two as Hall and his wife, Joan (she was as intensely left-wing as he was and he had told her everything), and their three daughters settled in at Cambridge and he won international distinction for his work, retiring in 1984 after his research had played itself out. At the request of the FBI, a British counterintelligence officer interrogated him in 1963 in another attempt to crack him, and renewal of his labor permit was held up for a few months. Otherwise, he was left in peace. Nor did anyone ever approach his brother, Ed Hall, the U.S. Air Force rocket engine guru, who held highly secret clearances for his work with Bennie Schriever, including a super-sensitive “Q” clearance that gave Ed access to nuclear weapons designs.

The Halls remained in England after Ted’s retirement, occasionally traveling to the United States for scientific conferences, once even to Albuquerque and the University of New Mexico campus where he had passed the atomic secrets to Lona Cohen that went back to New York in her Kleenex box. He assumed that the perilous adventure of his youth would never catch up with him publicly. Then the decoded cables in the Venona documents were published in 1995 and 1996 and brought him precisely the notoriety he had most wanted to avoid. (Savy Sax, who went on to be a teacher and psychological counselor in the Midwest, openly boasted of his role in the spying prior to his premature death from a heart attack in 1980. By that time, however, he had become something of an adult hippie, disheveled in his personal habits and given to LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs. Apparently, no one who heard his stories ever took them seriously enough to tip off the FBI.)

In the few years until his death from cancer in November 1999, Ted Hall would never formally admit in writing to his espionage, apparently fearful that such an admission might still bring prosecution, but neither would he deny it. In 1997, he gave Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, the two American journalists who wrote a book about his spying, a written statement that, while again making no explicit admission, sought to justify what he had done and expressed no substantial regret. One reflective paragraph said that, given what he knew at the time, he would commit treason again:

In 1944 I was nineteen years old—immature, inexperienced and far too sure of myself. I recognize that I could easily have been wrong in my judgement of what was necessary, and that I was indeed mistaken about some things, in particular my view of the nature of the Soviet state. The world has moved on a lot since then, and certainly so have I. But in essence, from the perspective of my 71 years, I still think that brash youth had the right end of the stick. I am no longer that person; but I am by no means ashamed of him.

The accomplishment of Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall in gaining the Soviets a year to two years in their race for an atomic bomb may not, however, have been without a grim postscript. It may have helped to bring on the Korean War in June 1950. There were several causes for the war in Korea and the principal one was undoubtedly the foolish decision by the Truman administration and the American military leaders of the time to place South Korea outside the U.S. defense perimeter in Asia on the grounds that it was of “little strategic interest” to the United States. (Truman and Stalin had divided Korea at the 38th Parallel at the end of the Second World War, with the Red Army occupying the North and U.S. forces the South.) The decision was twice affirmed by the National Security Council and separately by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and publicized in a speech by Douglas MacArthur, then commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Far East as head of the occupation in Japan. In January 1950, Acheson conveyed the same position in a speech before the National Press Club in Washington. Furthermore, the declarations were given credence by American actions. The last of the U.S. combat troops were withdrawn in mid-1949 and Syngman Rhee, the rightist dictator in Seoul, was left with a fledgling army equipped with secondhand infantry weapons, outmoded artillery, and a 482-man U.S. military advisory group to guide it.

Rhee and Kim Il Sung, his Communist rival in Pyongyang in the North, were poles apart in their politics, but identical in the intensity of their nationalism. Each dreamt of reunifying his homeland. Kim was now in a position to persuade Stalin to provide his troops with tanks and other heavy armament and to give him permission to invade the South and unite Korea. Mao Tse-tung also went along. Everything on the Communist side was posited on the assumption that the victory would be quick and that the United States would not intervene. Stalin’s act in arming a rival claimant to Korea was aggression, of course, but the aim was the attainment of a friendly regime throughout the neighboring Korean Peninsula without the danger of arousing an American reaction.

When what the Truman administration and its military chiefs had invited then occurred, as Kim’s freshly armored columns attacked south across the 38th Parallel dividing line in the predawn hours of Sunday, June 25, 1950, the administration reversed itself. Forgetting what they had said and done and misreading their opponent yet again, Truman and Acheson interpreted the invasion as the first bold move by Stalin in the Russian master plan Paul Nitze had warned about just that April in NSC-68, the intent of the Soviet Union “to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.” This was a challenge they had to meet to preserve the credibility of American power and prestige. If they did not do so Stalin might next attempt to overrun all of Western Europe with the Red Army. Truman ordered MacArthur’s troops occupying Japan into South Korea. Acheson described the stakes with high tension to a group of congressional leaders in a briefing six months after the war began: “Since the end of June, it had been clear that the Soviet Union has begun an all-out attack against the power position of the United States. It was clear that the Soviet leaders recognized that their policy might bring on a general war, and it was equally clear that they were prepared to run this risk.” (In fact, once the invasion occurred, there was ample strategic justification for reversing what had been a bad decision and frustrating Kim’s ambition. Korea had been a Japanese colony until the end of the Second World War and the Japanese were sensitive to what occurred on the peninsula, just eighty miles away across the Korea Strait. A reunified Korea ruled by a pro-Soviet dictator would have shaken their confidence in the United States as a protecting power. The United States had to hold on to South Korea in order to retain that confidence.) The ensuing war dragged on for three years. It took the lives of 54,246 Americans and millions of Koreans, civilian and military, as the entire peninsula was devastated. Untold tens of thousands of Chinese fighting men died as well after Mao joined in when MacArthur rashly pushed U.S. troops into the mountains below the border with China and then all the way up to the Yalu River boundary itself.

Would Stalin have said yes to Kim and provided him with the necessary weaponry for the invasion, despite the assumption that the United States would not intervene, if he had not had the self-confidence provided by the bomb? The question goes directly to the insecurity at the center of Stalin’s character, an insecurity that governed so many of his actions. There is thus good reason to think that, with the United States still holding an atomic monopoly, he might well have said no. His subsequent conduct in Korea tends to support this conclusion. As soon as Truman did intervene, a surprised Stalin abandoned Kim. He told the Politburo he was prepared to accept a U.S.-occupied North Korea rather than risk war with the United States. Mao turned out to be of a different mind because he believed that, with Chiang Kai-shek holding on in Taiwan, American troops along China’s Korean border would constitute a threat to his newly triumphant revolution. Stalin cleverly maneuvered the Chinese into rescuing Kim. He supported both the Chinese and the North Koreans with arms and equipment and later provided limited air cover along the border itself with the first-generation Soviet jet fighter, the MiG-15, painted with Chinese insignia. Otherwise, he carefully kept his regular forces out of the fight for fear of a clash with the United States.

In the written statement Ted Hall gave Albright and Kunstel two years before his death, the statement in which he sought to justify his espionage, he took pride in the possibility that he might have helped to prevent the use of the atomic bomb against China, presumably for fear of Soviet nuclear retaliation, during the years of Mao’s conquest of the mainland and the Korean War. But the stone tossed into the pond has many ripples. It presumably did not occur to him that, while saving lives in China, his actions may have played a part in snuffing out other lives in another place.

The Korean War was a strategic disaster for Stalin. The Truman administration took advantage of it to array Western Europe against him. By fiscal 1953 the American military budget had nearly quadrupled, to $50.4 billion, from the $13 billion of 1949. Some of the additional funds were paying for the war. More were going into the U.S. conventional and nuclear buildup recommended by Nitze’s NSC-68 and into rearming, through American military aid, the members of the newly joined North Atlantic Treaty Organization, consisting of the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The U.S. aircraft industry rejoiced in the headiness of wartime production, the plants turning out planes at the 1944 level, the peak year of the Second World War. NATO was to confront Stalin and his successors for decades. Worse, by giving Kim Il Sung permission to strike south, Stalin, who was to die in March 1953, had brought to fruition one of his own nightmares. He had made so many West Europeans fearful they might be next that the former victims of Germany were now prepared to accept German rearmament. The Federal Republic of Germany, the new West German state, was being welcomed into NATO, and a new German army, the Bundeswehr, was being formed to march alongside the NATO forces.

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