Review by Joseph T Major of


The Secret Story of America's Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy

by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel

(Times Books; 1997; ISBN 0-8127-2861-X; $25.00)

But of one thing I am sure. If we ever do smash Enemy Number One it will not be because we defeated them. They will have defeated themselves. Like the Romans, when their empire was crumbling and they had neither the will nor the wit to save themselves. It has been astounding for me to watch them do themselves in. It reminds me of a saying I heard there once: "He shot himself in the foot." (I love their expressions.)

Martyn Burke, The Commissar's Report, pp. 19-20

Patriotic lags in H.M. Prisons tried to anticipate Pierrepont, the Public Executioner, by beating up on William Joyce, before H.M. Courts could try and convict "Lord Haw-Haw". A generation later, across the Atlantic, hardened cons would express a selective disapproval of anti-death penalty court decisions, being provoked by the presence of cryptographic spy John Walker to scream, "There he is! There's the traitor! Kill him! Kill the traitor!"

More advanced persons - did not they themselves say so? - while they usually admire criminals, are beyond such logocentric concepts as "loyalty" and "treason". While most are content merely to admire the deconstructionist transgressors of nations, some are real activists. One such person lives today in Cambridge, not far from the exclusive clubs of the Apostles.

Teddy Holtzberg was born in New York on October 20, 1925. When he was four the family was cast down from its capitalist eminence as furriers (did they ever buy Russian pelts from Armand Hammer?) to a small, crowded apartment on Manhattan. Fearing the wrath of anti-Semites, the Holtzbergs chose to hide their ethnicity, and their youngest boy became Theodore Alvin Hall.

Teddy Hall was a child prodigy, jumping three grades ahead in the New York school system and being admitted to Columbia at the age of fourteen. Fortunately for the feelings of a more prominent Columbia grad, he was too young to be accepted, and avoided Asimov by going to Queens College of the City College of New York (under its later name of CUNY, City University of New York, it was the alma mater of General Colin Powell) and then to Harvard. From there, in January 1944, Harvard's youthful graduate went off from the cheery climes of Cambridge to the acerb accomodations of Alamagordo.

Some people found that a most agreeable turn of events. Harvard men are often advised to join a club. However, the John Reed Society was no Porcellian Club. As you know from having read Klehr's, Haynes's, and Firsov's The Secret World of American Communism, (1995), John Reed (Harvard Class of 1910) was an Elder Pioneer of the Communist Party USA, and the John Reed Club at his alma mater was very much in his spirit.

There, Teddy met Saville "Savy" Sax, a poet, and one of the original red-diaper babies. Growing up in a community of Communist Russian-American Jews, Savy did not rebel against his upbringing, more's the pity. These scouts in the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat would forge a strong comradeship in the years to come.

Meanwhile, the Great Patriotic War demanded the full effort of all activists, and all unknowing so did the Second World War, particularly the Manhattan Engineering District. In late 1943, a recruiter for the Project visited Harvard and offered positions to a number of bright promising students, including Ted Hall '44. Savy said "If this turns out to be a weapon that is really awful, what you should do about it is tell the Russians." [p. 61]

Meanwhile in New York, a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was preparing to show his mettle. Morris Cohen, alias "Israel Altman", had been the All-Soviet Young Pioneer (no true revolutionary Communist would have anything to do with the reactionary bourgeois Boy Scouts) of the International Brigades, having rapturously praised the revolutionary spirit of the liberated workers and peasants in liberated Spain, for example. Comrade Commissar Nikolsky, chief of State Security in Spain, recommended Comrade Altman for advanced training, which also turned out to be long-range training for places beyond Spain. (Comrade Commissar Nikolsky, né Leon Lazarevich Feldbin, better known as Alexander M. Orlov, seems to have expunged "Altman" from his memory after his own defection; he may even have forgotten the connection.)

And when the iron heel of fascism triumphed in Spain, Morris kept his Young Pioneer vigor, and transformed and transferred it into a more Orwellian version imagine, if you will, young Parsons [from 1984] looking up to Morris, his cell leader in his local Ring of the Spies. But Morris would not carry his banner in this struggle all by himself, though surely his parents were horrified at his marrying a shiksa. And such a shiksa, too.

Lona Petka was the sort of governess every family wants, except that during her off hours she had a second career being a Communist party activist. In those comradely hours she met Comrade Morris Cohen, back from fighting fascism abroad to fight fascism at home. And when their passion got to the point where they wanted a committment, Morris mentioned that he had another career on the side, and Lona became just as committed to that one.

Shortly after their marriage on July 13, 1941, Lona began working for the chekists, and very soon she pulled off her first coup, persuading an engineer to steal the parts of an aircraft machine gun. Lona and her Morris, with the help of a few friends, loaded the gun into a car and got it to their controller. Unlike in "David Harding, Counterspy", Winston H. Lord's running mate to "Gangbusters" but for foreign enemies, this time the spies got away with it. Except, or so some reports have it, in the end one of them didn't. It is alleged that the backup agent so liberal with his time and effort who helped Morris carry around the double bass case which was the only thing he had big enough to hold the parts was Julius Rosenberg.

When Morris was drafted since this was after June 22, 1941, it was all right, of course Lona did like a good wife and took over running his agents. One of whom, eventually, was a bright young man from Harvard . . .

On January 27, 1944, an eighteen year old Harvard man arrived at Los Alamos for an insertion into the most exciting and most fertile scientific project in the world. And almost immediately, Teddy Hall found himself working with uranium. Within four months, he had managed to make himself so valuable that he was getting publication citation credits for his research work. At first, Hall was assigned the task of determining the details of high-energy uranium fission; his success got him assigned to working with plutonium, determining the details of implosion. Thanks to the characteristics of Pu-240, it seemed entirely possible that bombs made with plutonium would fizzle, thanks to the more vigorous fissile nature of that trace isotope (the more usably fissile isotope is Pu-239), and to counter that extensive tests were run on more advanced methods of critical mass generation, by a team including Teddy Hall.

Hall knew that he lived in a desperate tyranny, one controlled by undemocratically elected Congressional committee chairmen. It was necessary that this great secret he possessed be shared with a sincerely democratic country; fortunately there was one in the world with the resources and the will to use this great treasure for a lasting peace, for a people's democracy. The efforts of Hall and Savy Sax to find someone from or with Soviet State Security were comical; Hall found his contact by talking to a man stacking boxes at the Amtorg (the Soviet trade and spy cover organization) offices in New York. Even then they had little luck but they perservered and finally Savy met with Anatoly Yatskov, the "Yakovlev" of the Rosenberg Case. From there the information moved quickly and for the first time secret Agents MLAD and STAR came into being in chekist files. MLAD is from the Old Slavonic mladoi, "young". STAR is starii, "old". Sax (STAR) was almost fifteen months older than Hall (MLAD). Yatskov had by then two other sources in the Manhattan Engineering District (Soviet code name ENORMOZ ["enormous"]), David Greenglass and Klaus Fuchs (CHARL'Z).

In February of 1945 Soviet State Security (then the NKGB) presented a remarkably detailed report on the progress of the Allied atom bomb project. Chekist intelligence chief Pavel Fitin knew who to thank: "Mlad's report about work . . . great interest," [p. 125] he said. So when STAR decided to go back to Harvard, Moscow Center had to improvise, and in place of the Cambridge-bound Savy Sax they inserted Lona Cohen. In May Lona handed over a report from Hall and in June Harry Gold brought in some confirmation from Klaus Fuchs. In July Yatskov sent a report to the Center which was in turn passed on to the highest circles, saying: "From several trusted agent sources NKGB USSR is received intelligence that in the USA, in July of this year, is scheduled the carrying out of the first experimental explosion of the atomic bomb." [quoted pp. 141-2] And the report had had added to it its particular definition of "several": "Sources 'Mlad', 'Charl'z.'" [loc. cit.]

And sure enough, on July 16, source MLAD saw the bomb tested himself. Eight days later President Truman was somewhat bewildered at Stalin's blasé acknowledgement of America's possession of this "new weapon of unusual destructive force." Presumably he had been a little more excited when he read the NKGB report with the news from MLAD and CHARL'Z.

Lona Cohen was to prove herself worthy of an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in August. Spending most of that month at a spa town, posing as a tuberculosis patient trying to recover, and going into Albuquerque every Sunday trying to meet her agent was noteworthy. But after Hall passed her the papers, what she did to avoid a search on the train back to New York was remarkable. While losing her ticket and fumbling through her baggage, she handed a box to a guard and forgot it. The guard kindly gave this scatterbrained ditz her Kleenex after she got on the train, but it had been more than just tissues in the box. If he is still alive, will he be chagrinned that he helped (unwittingly) pass on nuclear weapons secrets?

With these spy papers and other information such as Atomic Energy for Military Purposes (the so-called "Smyth Report") in hand, Beria set to work on a special task, and assigned his chief operator for special tasks to get it done: "Beria summoned me to his office and appointed me to be the director of the new autonomous Department S . . . Department S was responsible for direct contacts with the leaders of the Soviet atomic project and the dissemination of information from abroad," said its director, Lieutenant-General of State Security Pavel Anatolievich Sudoplatov [Special Tasks, p. 185]. One of his new subordinates said, "The Central Committee sent me to Sudoplatov. He made the paperwork go incredibly quickly." [p. 155] Sudoplatov made the reports from MLAD and CHARL'Z the principal references of his report. (Probably in order to protect a source, he identified MLAD as already-blown agent the late Bruno Pontecorvo [Special Tasks, p. 200].)

As if working with Sudoplatov wasn't enough, in the afterwar period Hall worked with an even more sinister (in certain quarters) person: Edward Teller. Teller's opposition to secret research sure got a testing there. As well, Hall took graduate-level studies on site (where there were some very good teachers), and in the grossest of ironies met with the assistant lecturer for his hydrodynamics class to review the lectures. The assistant lecturer was Klaus Fuchs. Did they hit it off as well as Alger Hiss and Donald Maclean?

In 1946, completely coincidentally, Hall was investigated as a security risk, but the Counter Intelligence Corps, proving the meaning of its name, couldn't find anything. With this strong hint, he left Los Alamos and went to the University of Chicago, where he pursued a normal life; graduate study in physics, political activism, and marriage. Joan Krakover was another early entrant, having been accepted in the University of Chicago's early-entrance program for gifted students, and at the age of seventeen was a college junior. She too was a progressive political activist, though at first she didn't realize how active her new spouse was.

Meanwhile in another part of the network, Morris and Lona Cohen were meeting in Paris with their old controllers from Moscow Centre, Yatskov and Semyon "Sam" Semyonov. This led to orders to tell Agent MLAD to quit messing around with politics and get back to work spying. In 1948, Hall did just that, even though it meant leaving the Communist Party USA, which he and Joan had joined during the Wallace campaign.

And they had a new controller, too. About that time, a Lithuanian named Andrew Kayotis arrived in Quebec. Shortly thereafter, a man named Emil R. Goldfus turned up in New York. Moscow Center had assigned a top agent, a veteran of Spain where he had worked with Orlov/Nikolsky and Cohen/Altman; the man who would become notorious ten years later as "Rudolf I. Abel" but who had been born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne as William Fisher.

Fisher/"Abel", the Cohens, Hall, Sax, two other agents recruited by Hall who are only known by their codenames ANTA and ADEN, and two other agents not even that identified formed the VOLUNTEERS ring. This network was so productive that its controller Fisher/"Abel" was awarded a medal for his work.

All was going well. Or was it? In 1943 the Army's Signal Intelligence Service (SIS), the ancestor of today's National Security Agency, began to work on Soviet ciphers. PURPLE and ULTRA were shrieking their secrets to the skies, and there were signs that the Axis trying to cut a deal with the Soviets. Hence this effort.

Soviet signals were first encoded, replacing words with numbers. (To take a different, famous, example, this is like "England -> 253; expects -> 269; that -> 863; every -> 261; man -> 471; will -> 958; do -> 220; his -> 370") These numbers were then enciphered, adding numbers from a random-number table, the one-time pad, to the numbers of the code groups of the message. In theory, the one-time pad method is unbreakable, barring a recovery of a copy of the pad. In 1942 the Soviet government was sort of more concerned with survival, and they made duplicate copies of the random-number pads. This error and other more common ones for example, stereotyped message openings, the use of unencoded markers gave the SIS its first crack into the system.

But this could only eliminate the additional encoding, the superencipherment, of the pads. The message was still itself coded. Here is where the notorious "NKVD codebook" came in. The SIS had two old Soviet codebooks one taken from the raid on the Amtorg trading company in 1934 and one recovered by the Finns in the Winter War (presumably the famous one handed over to the Soviets by Bill Donovan) which gave a starting point.

Over the next seven years the messages gradually emerged from their encipherment and encoding. VENONA joined PURPLE and ULTRA in revealing what was meant to be hidden. The first decipherment of a spell table (i.e. the means for encoding a word not in the code tables, like "D -> 4; U -> 21; T -> 20; Y -> 24") turned up a list of scientists from the Manhattan Project. In 1949, the fruits of the labors of MLAD and CHARL'Z ripened when the Soviet Union exploded its first A-Bomb, and FBI Agent Robert Lamphere, the liason with SIS, informed the liason for the other SIS that Klaus Fuchs was a bad'un. Unfortunately, the liason officer was leaving, and his successor was briefed on this, too. The successor, of course, was Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby.

With these two shocks, Hall and Sax decided that it would be a good time to retire. Just in time, too, as the VENONA decryptions had uncovered references to "TEODOR KhOLL" and "SAVIL SAKS" as potential sources.

In 1950, the FBI turned to the search for Agent KALIBR. The search was fuelled by more VENONA decipherments discussing MLAD and STAR. The wartime activities of Hall and Sax soon came under close analysis, but disconcertingly enough, their political activism served as a counter to this; Soviet spies did not subscribe to the Daily Worker. Soon enough, the investigation was turned away when Fuchs's courier Harry Gold was caught, and he had never seen Hall or Sax. While he led the case to KALIBR, David Greenglass, and thence to LIBERAL, Julius Rosenberg, Hall and Sax breathed easy. In fact, Hall was so determined to quit that he rebuffed Lona Cohen and Fisher/"Abel" when they came to Chicago.

The FBI interrogated Hall and he began to think seriously about defecting. In 1952, in fact, he began talking to the MGB again. They suspected him, because he had been questioned but not indicted, so he must have been doubled. But far from turning Hall into a double agent, the FBI had decided he wasn't worth the bother. They had the Rosenbergs, and Hoover hoped he could turn Ethel at least. If the chekists had doubted the sanity of MLAD before, they would surely have lost any doubts when Hall suggested that "perhaps I should give myself up and say 'Don't pin it all on the Rosenbergs because I was more responsible than they were.'" [p. 240] And it was so; when Beria saw the material from KALIBR via LIBERAL he snarled "If this is disinformation, I'll send you off to the basement," [p. 165] and the terrified addressee knew well the reputation of the basement of the Lubyanka. In retrospect, that makes the executions of the Rosenbergs even less justified; what they did was nothing compared to the acts of MLAD, CHARL'Z, and HOMER/LEAF (Donald Maclean).

But after that things settled down. The Cohens vanished in 1950. The Halls moved to Greenwich, Connecticut. "Emil Goldfus" resumed his chats with his bohemian friends. But in time even that unraveled; the defection of Reino Hayhanen unmasked Fisher/"Abel", which in turn led to the uncovering of Morris and Lona Cohen, "Peter and Helen Kroger", the controllers of the Portland Underwater Weapons Establishment spy ring.

So why did the Halls move to Cambridge in 1962? Please recall that Hall was really a scientist, and in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge over the next five years he developed the Hall Method for analyzing the composition of biological specimens. He had grown tired of nuclear physics, which he felt was at a dead end, and found biophysics to be a more rewarding line of endeavor. In the seventies, Hall turned further to biological work; in 1977, for example, he had eleven published papers. But he fell afoul of academic politics and retired in 1984. All should have been well. The "Krogers" and Colonel "Abel" hadn't talked. Savy Sax's letters trailed off. (He died in 1980.) But a new age was coming in the Soviet Union.

In 1989, glasnost and perestroika penetrated even to the halls (if not the basement) of the Lubyanka. The KGB dusted off some old files and prepared a public relations puff piece about their clever atom spies; the late Dr. Fuchs, the resourceful Morris and Lona Cohen, and an American physicist who had a higher loyalty to all humanity, Agent PERSEUS. This triggered another round of misgivings, though none that reached so far as the banks of the Cam. (Sudoplatov said prophetically "It should not be excluded that Perseus is a creation by Yatskov or his colleagues to cover the real name of the sources." [Special Tasks, p. 189])

One good turn deserves another, and after the demise of the Soviet Union the secrets began spilling out. In 1991 the document citing "Sources, Mlad, Charl'z" was published. This was followed by Special Tasks in 1994, which discussed the atomic spy rings in more detail, misnaming (perhaps intentionally) MLAD as Bruno Pontecorvo. Lona Cohen died in 1992, Yatskov in 1993, Morris Cohen in 1995, and Sudoplatov in 1996. In 1994 Morris had given a newspaper interview and said of MLAD, "I assume even in 100 years his name won't be exposed." [p. 277]

A hundred years is awful short these days. In July 1995, one good turn deserved another, and the first VENONA decipherments were released. One of these being the November 1944 message about how "Teodor Kholl" and "Savil Saks" were volunteering. It took a while to make the connection to the Cambridge spy from the other Cambridge, but in 1995 "Teodor Kholl" found himself talking to researchers wanting to know the rest of the story.

At the end of this book the authors present, unedited, a self-justification by Hall. It is all too reminiscent, though more literate, of John Walker's bombastic declaration to Pete Earley that no one had actually died because of his spying, so why the fuck was everyone so upset? [Family of Spies. p. 447] Hall declares, again, that the U.S. government was undemocratic and aggressive while the Soviets were true allies and opponents of fascism.

There existed internal divergence and debate about the use of the American atom bomb. But there was no such qualms about the Soviet one. One has but to read the discussion of Soviet strategy in "Viktor Suvorov's" Inside the Soviet Army (1982) to realize that the learned discussions of "balance of terror", Kahn's elaborate rungs of conflict from On Thermonuclear War, the pious symbolic action of the peace activists invoking their moral equivalents across the hostile border, and all the other debates and qualms of American nuclear strategy were in a different universe, a totally alien plane of belief, to that of the Soviets.

(It is hardly relevant to point out that Stalin and his men had given more than advance warning of their respect for human life. The "American progressive movements" MLAD celebrates had systematically denied these holocausts, the Ukrainian famine, the purges.)

One thinks of another Ted from Harvard, one with smaller bombs, Theodore J. Kaczynski '65. He too knew that what he was doing was right, justified by a higher morality. "I still think that brash youth had the right end of the stick," Teddy Hall said in 1997 of MLAD back in 1944-45 [p. 289].

"For the vile addition of traitor, I do reject and spit upon it. But true it is that, regarding not the god of fools and women, I do steer by mine own lodestar still," said Lord Gro in self-exoneration to the Red Foliot [The Worm Ouroboros, Chapter III]. In the end all Gro's wisdom and self-confidence went for naught, and he found that loyalty is not a game. But for now-aged MLAD and his friends, those he scorned (as Gro put it) with "the rabble's most partial hates and envies" had the right of it:

It was pittie

One so wittie

Malcontent :

Leaving reason

Should to treason

So be bent.

But his gifts

Were but shifts

Void of grace :

And his braverie

Was but knaverie

Vile and base.

Epigram in memory of William Parrie, a "capital traitor".

[adapted by E. R. Eddison in The Worm Ouroboros]

Theodore Alvin Hall

October 20, 1925, New York, New York -- November 1, 1999, Cambridge, England

E mentre ch'andavamo inver' lo mezzo

al quale ogne gravezza si rauna,

e io tremava ne l'etterno rezzo;

se voler fu o destino o fortuna,

non so; ma, passeggiando tra le teste,

forte percossi 'l piè nel viso ad una.

Piangendo mi sgridò: "Perché me peste?

se tu non vieni crescer la vendetta

di Montaperti perché mi moleste?"

[All through the time we progressed

Toward the core where gravity convenes

I quaked in that eternal chill; and next

I don't know by will or fate or chance

Walking along the heads I struck my foot

Hard in the face of one, with violence

That set him weeping as he shouted out,

"Why trample me? And if you have not come

to add more vengeance for Montaperti's defeat,

Then why do you molest me?"]

Inferno, Canto XXXII, 73-81 [Antenora]

So perish all the Queen's enemies!