Family of Spies
Hear Joan Hall talk about driving along the Hudson River near Sing Sing Prison the night the Rosenbergs were executed there.
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See a photograph of Ted Hall
NOVA: Why did you agree to talk to me about Ted?
Joan Hall: Well, when I understood that the NOVA program was going to be made,
I felt that it would be best for me to participate because it would give us the
best chance of doing justice to Ted and his story.
NOVA: How and when did you first meet Saville Sax? What was your reaction to
Joan Hall: I don't remember my first meeting with Savy. He seemed very
likeable, unconventional, fun, a good sense of humor. I really don't remember
that much about him particularly. He was Ted's friend. [Read an interview with
Boria Sax, Saville Sax's son.]
NOVA: As a personality, what was Savy like when you got to know him?
Joan Hall: He was a one-off. I don't think there's ever been anyone like him.
He was unconventional. He was funny. He was poetic. He used to write poetry and
stories. He had never been properly trained in the niceties of normal social
intercourse. His table manners were bad. He didn't know how to behave, in a
sense, but I liked him a lot. I felt those things weren't important. We were
good friends for awhile. We used to hang out quite a bit together when Ted was
busy actually working, which Savy, to my knowledge, didn't do at all. He was
enrolled in the University of Chicago, but I don't remember him doing any
NOVA: What was your reaction upon first meeting Ted Hall?
Joan Hall: I met Ted for the first time at a meeting of a group that was trying
to start a student cooperative house. I had gone there with another friend who
was a member. I thought I might like to join them and live in that cooperative
house. The meeting was held in a house that was then a functioning student
cooperative. We met around a table, and there were maybe a dozen people or
so. I noticed Ted and another young man at the opposite end of the
table. I just noticed these two very nice-looking young guys.
I don't recall that Ted said anything during the meeting, certainly nothing
much. But after the meeting he came up and asked me what my intentions were
with regard to the coop, because he had the feeling that people were coming
along to these meetings who weren't really serious about joining the coop. I
told him that I wasn't sure I was going to stay in Chicago at that point, but
that if I did I would like to be part of the coop. I can't say he made any
great impression on me the first time we met.
The second time we met he certainly made an impression on me. It must have been
the next Sunday. My friend and I were walking towards this house where the
meeting was to be held, which had a front porch up a few steps. As we
approached the steps, Ted, who was standing at the top, squirted both of us in
the face with a water pistol, saying afterwards that he thought these meetings
had become a bit too solemn, and he wanted to liven things up a little
"Ted squirted us in
the face with a water pistol, saying afterwards he wanted to liven things up a
NOVA: Who was the Ted Hall you fell in love with?
Joan Hall: Ted was quite an attractive young guy. He had a handsome face. Not
terribly well shaven, a few pimples here and there. His clothes were mostly his
old army clothes. He didn't take much trouble over his clothes at all. If they
ripped, he would staple them together. Great big army boots that were too big
for him actually and almost ruined his feet. He had a beautiful face. Lovely
big brown eyes. And he had a very soft and warm way of speaking. He was just a
nice, handsome, rather charming guy.
What I really fell in love with was not so much that persona, nice as it was.
It was the way we could talk together. We used to go around with Savy quite a
lot. We used to have dinners in the little Chinese restaurant in the
neighborhood and have conversations. We would get into discussions, the three
of us, about music or politics or whatever. Somehow or other, we just clicked
on that level. We seemed to speak the same language. It's hard to make it sound
so wonderful, but it really was. The first thing that made me really think yes,
this is something special.
NOVA: You decided to get married earlier than you thought, and then Ted took
you aside and told you something.
Joan Hall: Shortly after we decided to get married, having decided that we
would wait six months to get to know each other, I guess it must have been a
few days after that when Ted told me he had something to tell me. We were lying
on my bed, as it happened, in the middle of the day, fully dressed and talking.
He said he had something to tell me that was very serious. I can't remember his
words, but he told me what he had done at Los Alamos. I knew that he had worked
there. Then he told me the secret part.
I said, "You mean you're going to give information about this to the Russians?"
And he said, "I did, yeah. In the past."
Before he started, if I can backtrack, he looked around the room rather
nervously and he said, "You don't have any microphones in here, do you?" I had
seen a film in which there was a microphone hidden in a lampshade. So I looked
at my lampshade. I thought I knew that lampshade pretty well, and there was not
going to be a microphone in there, so I was able to reassure Ted. I must say
that was the only time we spoke about that subject indoors.
"This was very secret, and
I shouldn't tell anybody about it, not even my mother."
Anyway, after that he started telling me how this was very secret, and I
shouldn't tell anybody about it, not even my mother, not even my brother. And I
thought, Are you crazy, man? There's no way I would dream of telling either of
them. I understood perfectly that it was not to be mentioned to anyone.
NOVA: How did you feel about it?
Joan Hall: Well, I was surprised. But it didn't seem like anything particularly bad
to me because I still believed that the Soviet Union was good,
even though the American propaganda machine had turned completely in the other
direction. And I believed that socialism was good.
I was aware that this was something that was not exactly done. It was something
extraordinary. I suppose I was aware that it was somewhat dangerous, but I
didn't realize how dangerous it was really. I wasn't frightened. I certainly
wasn't turned against Ted. It made me feel more than ever that he was someone
NOVA: What did he say he'd done?
Joan Hall: I can't remember the exact words with which he described his action,
I'm afraid. But they were certainly straightforward and very brief.
NOVA: Did he say why he had done it?
"He was afraid the United States might become a very reactionary power after
Joan Hall: Yes. He told me that he had done it because he was afraid the United
States might become a very reactionary power after the war. Those were his
words. And that this would give the Soviet Union a better chance of standing up
to them—or that he hoped it would. That was the explanation that he
NOVA: Would it be fair to say that he was a dedicated Communist Party member
who was in a robot-like fashion handing over to his handlers whatever they
Joan Hall: It's a completely wrong picture of Ted to suggest that he was either
a Communist Party member—he was not, except briefly—or that he was
robot-like, obeying orders from anybody. This thing was entirely his own
initiative. He was not recruited or brought into it by anybody else. He was a
person with a very independent mind; he wasn't a follower. If he had "handlers"
as they're called, they really didn't handle him much. He wasn't a handleable
NOVA: Did he tell you the story of how he and Savy went about giving away
Joan Hall: The stories about the actual details, the anecdotes involved in the
secret operations came from both of them bit by bit during the next few weeks
and months. It wasn't a sort of single narrative that I was given all at once.
I was told little bits and pieces. I must say that there wasn't that much of
it. It wasn't a long story.
NOVA: The notion of these two nearly teenage boys walking around Manhattan
knocking on doors and being turned away. Did he tell you about that? If so,
tell me what he said.
Joan Hall: The notion of the two nearly teenagers walking around Manhattan
knocking on doors is wrong. This never happened. I believe Savy at some point
did something like that. Ted didn't. Ted made up his mind who he was going to
contact, and it was a man called Sergei Kurnakov, who was a Soviet journalist
in New York. [See a Venona intercept detailing their meeting.]
Actually, the first thing he did was to contact the AMTORG, the Soviet American
Trading Organization. That was the first contact he made. And then he described
walking downtown along one of the avenues of New York, walking very fast as he
could do then. He went in there, and he found somebody unpacking boxes who just
didn't want to know, and who was horrified at the idea. So to get rid of him
this guy sent him to Kurnakov. Ted got in touch with Kurnakov, and he went to
NOVA: There was an anecdote about Kurnakov plying Ted with something. Giving
Ted lots of something to drink.
Joan Hall: The way Ted described his first meeting with Kurnakov was rather
comical. I guess Kurnakov didn't know quite what to make of him. Kurnakov was
consuming considerable quantities of alcohol at the time, and he kept pressing
Ted to drink more. Ted had the impression that he was trying to get him drunk
so that he would reveal his true intentions.
Ted rarely drank any alcohol, but he thought he should cooperate with this
plan. So he drank the stuff, and it had no effect. I've seen that happen at
other times. He would drink quantities of stuff, and it just didn't seem to
affect him at all.
"He would drink
quantities of alcohol, and it just didn't seem to affect him at
Finally, Kurnakov asked him, "Well, how do we know that you're not just an
agent of the U.S. government trying to trap me?" Ted said, "You don't." And
Kurnakov said, "Well, why don't you just write up your ideas or whatever you
want to tell us and give it to me." Ted said, "I've already done that." He
reached into his money belt and put the papers on the table. What it consisted
of was a list of scientists who were working at Los Alamos, and a list of sites
in which research was being done on the subject. I don't believe there was any
technical information in that particular piece of paper.
NOVA: What did Ted think were the most important documents he'd given?
Joan Hall: Ted didn't think the stuff he gave was all that important. Now, this
is at a distance of 50 years. Obviously, I can't judge the importance of any of
it. But all I know is that Ted deprecated the importance of anything that he
had passed; he said it wasn't much. He could have been misremembering or that
could be the truth. Ted thought, and I really think there was no question about
this, that the really important technical information that was given to the
Russians was given by Klaus Fuchs. And that if Ted's contribution had any value
it was as a backup for Fuchs. [Read a Venona intercept concerning klaus fuchs.]
NOVA: Did Ted express at that time any concern about having done what he did?
Any feeling that maybe he made a mistake?
Joan Hall: When Ted made his decision to do it, he thought to himself, what if
it's a mistake? He recognized the possibility that it might be a mistake, but
he decided that it was better to make a mistake, even if it was a very serious
mistake that would affect the rest of his life, than to do nothing. Because to
do nothing is also a decision. Afterwards, I never heard him express any
feeling that it was a mistake to have done what he did. I think there were
plenty of times when he wished the whole thing never happened, but that's
NOVA: You said later in life he thought how arrogant youth is.
Joan Hall: One day Ted and I were walking along the street, sometime probably
in the early '90's, talking about this subject for some reason or other. He
said it was hard for him to imagine how he could have been so arrogant at 19 as
to think that he could decide such things.
NOVA: Did you feel exposed when you knew?
Joan Hall: Not right away. When I first heard about his exploit, I reassured
myself, first of all, with the fact that, I thought, it was all over in the
past. He had done it and nothing had happened to him. I felt pretty secure
NOVA: Did Ted ever express to you any feelings of remorse or sadness at his
playing a part in developing the atomic bomb?
"They all worked on the bomb because they were afraid the
Nazis would build it first."
Joan Hall: Like most of the scientists working on the atomic bomb, it was never
something that Ted wanted to do. He didn't like the idea of weapons at all.
They all did it, and he certainly did it, because they were afraid the Nazis
would build it first, which would have been disastrous. It was that that kept
them all going. They not only worked on it, but they worked very hard on it,
around the clock. They were completely dedicated.
I don't think they had any information as to what the Nazis were actually doing
about it at the time. But they just knew they had to make it happen as soon as
possible. So it wasn't something that he regretted. He didn't like the whole
thing, but he did it because it was necessary, and he had no reason to regret
NOVA: You and Ted joined the Communist Party briefly in the late 1940s? What
did you think of it?
Joan Hall: Before we joined, it obviously represented for us the people who
were fighting against what was happening in the United
States. It represented people who were defending labor unions, who were
defending black people against discrimination, who were defending civil
liberties, and so on.
Once we got in, it continued to be all those things. We got to know a few
people in the local group that we belonged to. They were nice people. They were
good people. We liked them. And I believe now that they were good people,
absolutely. But it wasn't very long before we began to feel that the Party
apparatus was dogmatic, rigid, bureaucratic, undemocratic, and full of
phraseology that became meaningless because it was used in such an automatic
We didn't formulate these thoughts at the time. I think it's just something
that we were both feeling. For our political education we were told to read
The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which we
dutifully did. It was awful. It was heavy, badly written, badly translated, and
incredibly doctrinaire. It was a description of all the various wrong
tendencies that Lenin and Stalin had triumphantly opposed. I don't recall our
being involved in any discussions of it.
At the time we were members, the Yugoslav crisis occurred, when the Soviet
Union turned against the Tito regime in Yugoslavia and broke relations with
Yugoslavia and Tito. There were Yugoslav communists in Chicago who were just
desperately upset by this. There were meetings in which they were all shouting
and screaming at each other. There were splits and an awful lot of bitterness,
which of course on two starry-eyed innocents like us really had a pretty
NOVA: You left the Party then. Why and under what circumstances?
Joan Hall: Our membership in the Party only lasted a very few months. In August
of 1948 we made our usual summer trip to New York from Chicago to visit Ted's
family. Savy was, at that time, living in New York with his wife (he had
married in the meantime). He told us that the Russians wanted to meet with Ted
again. We said there was no need, we told them we were dropping out.
They insisted that they wanted to see him one more time. So Ted and Savy went
off to this meeting. I stayed behind with Savy's wife. Ted and I, before he
went to the meeting, agreed very clearly that we were leaving the Russian
thing, and we were now members of the American Communist Party, and that was
where we saw our future.
But they argued with Ted. He tried afterwards to reconstruct how they managed
to persuade him to leave the Party and come back to them. He thought it was by
appealing to his modesty. They made him think that it was arrogant on his part
to think that he could be of any use in the Party, and that he would be of much
more use to them, which was complete rubbish, because he wasn't being of use
to them at all. He wasn't giving them anything or doing anything. They wanted
to keep him on a string. Anyway, they persuaded him that it was more important
for him to work with them. [Editor's note: Ted Hall never did any further work
for the Russians, according to Joan Hall, though from this point he was back in
contact with them.]
"When Ted turned his back to me and faced
the wall, I knew what had happened."
They were very late getting back. I was waiting with Savy's wife in her flat.
They got back about midnight, as I recall. They walked in the door, and Ted
turned his back to me and faced the wall. And when he did that, I knew what had
happened. I said, "Look, this is not going to happen. You just have to cancel
it, because we made an agreement. We're leaving and that's that." He shook his
head. I ultimately had to accept the fact that there wasn't any going back.
NOVA: Did Ted ever show you material he was going to pass on before he passed
Joan Hall: I was not with Ted when he was passing material. I wasn't with him
in Los Alamos. I didn't know him until 1947, and passing material was all over
with. He didn't have any more access to confidential or secret material, and
therefore he didn't pass anything.
NOVA: Did Ted ever recruit people himself to network?
Joan Hall: I'd prefer not to comment on that. I will say that the whole
question is trivial, that there's simply no importance or significance to it. I
refuse to speak about it because, on principle, I don't want to say anything
involving any other person. But there is nothing of importance concealed behind
that. It's just trivia.
NOVA: Tell me about the day you heard on the radio that Truman had announced
that the USSR had exploded an atomic bomb, and what went on between you and
Joan Hall: He used to come home for lunch. We lived quite close to where he had
his lab at the university. When was it? In 1949? I don't know what month.
Anyway, I must have been pregnant. Yeah, I think I was pregnant at the time. So
we sat in the kitchen and had lunch. It was a very grotty little apartment we
had, but it had a south-facing window in the kitchen, and the table was right
there, and the radio on. And they announced this thing.
Of course, we were very excited about it, but we couldn't speak because we
never spoke about this whole thing in the house. So we just looked at each
other and finished our lunch. Then we went out and took a walk and talked about
NOVA: What did you say?
Joan Hall: I can't remember very well what we said. But I thought it was pretty
wonderful, and so did Ted.
NOVA: Did he feel any sense of pride in having participated in it?
"Ted was not a person for whom pride was
a normal feeling."
Joan Hall: I don't know exactly what Ted felt. I think I felt a sense of pride
for him. Ted was not a person for whom pride was a normal feeling. I would
conjecture that what he felt was pleasure and a sense of satisfaction.
NOVA: What information did Ted give to the Russians about the H-bomb?
Joan Hall: Ted gave no information of any kind about the H-bomb. In fact, he
never had anything whatsoever to do with the H-bomb. He was horrified by it. He
had no possibility of giving any information, and he wouldn't have done so if
he had the chance.
NOVA: Why not?
Joan Hall: He hated the thing. It was just a horrible weapon. We were not at
war with the Nazis; the Nazis had been defeated. The Japanese had been
defeated. The only potential enemy that the government now had in view was the
Soviet Union. That's one thing. The other thing was that it was just too
horrible. The weapon was many times more powerful than the bomb that Ted was
working on. The whole thing had just gotten blown out of all proportion. He was
just sick about it; he hated it.
NOVA: Did you yourself ever give secrets, carry secrets?
Joan Hall: I certainly never gave any secrets. I had no role at all in the
whole thing. Well, only in so far as my feelings about Ted's participation were
concerned. But I myself had no role at all and didn't want any role.
NOVA: Did you resent sometimes your role as dutiful wife?
Joan Hall: The presumption of the Soviets always was that I was an appendage
that was going to follow along after Ted, whatever he decided. I resented it.
Yes, I resented it very much.
Ted was not a male chauvinist. When he was with me he was entirely in agreement
with my attitude about this. But when he was with them, if I wasn't there, he
obviously allowed himself to be swayed. That period in which he returned to—I won't say working with them, because he didn't do any work, he resumed his
affiliation with them—affected me as much as it affected him, probably more.
It wasn't until years later that he acknowledged that he had been wrong, and
that it had really been very damaging for me.
NOVA: What do you mean it had been wrong?
Joan Hall: He had been wrong to make a decision without my participation, make
a decision of that kind that involved me. I have to say that was the only time
anything of the kind ever happened. He was very loyal. He respected me and my
full participation in everything. I never had any occasion to complain about
his presumption of male authority or anything of the sort, except on that one
NOVA: Did you ever think of becoming an agent yourself?
"Ted wasn't an agent. He was a scientist with a
Joan Hall: No. For one thing, I didn't see it as being an agent, somebody who
works for them and carries messages for them or does whatever. What Ted had
done, he wasn't a spy, he wasn't an agent. He was a scientist with a conscience
who shared knowledge with the Soviets that he felt needed to be shared with
them. That was how he saw it, and that was how I saw him.
Obviously, I had nothing to share. I wasn't a scientist, and I didn't come into
it. What I wanted for myself was to be politically active in Chicago as an
American in America, not as a clandestine agent for a foreign country. An idea
like that just didn't make any sense to me.
NOVA: What were the kinds of things that you had to do to accommodate now being
back with Ted doing espionage?
Joan Hall: I had been working as a kind of gofer for a left-wing newspaper in
Chicago, unpaid. It was run by communists, of course. I'd hoped to become a
journalist. I had to give that up, which meant I had nothing to do, so I
decided to become a student. I was going to become a scientist. Took some
courses. Failed chemistry. But I took a course in scientific Russian, at
which I was a whiz, because basically I'm a linguist
NOVA: What did you have to develop as a way of communicating? Did you develop
Joan Hall: From the very start we made a hard-and-fast rule never to speak
about the subject in the house. Later on when we got a car, a cast-off '42
Chevy of my mother's, we didn't speak in the car either. Our theory was that we
just never knew when and where they might put their microphones. So the only
time we would discuss anything secret was outdoors walking along the
NOVA: What did Ted know of Julius Rosenberg before or during the war?
Joan Hall: Before and during the war, Ted had never heard of Julius Rosenberg.
He knew nothing whatsoever about him. The first we knew was when the two of
them were indicted. It was absolutely the first we ever heard of them.
NOVA: What did Ted think of the charges brought against Julius and
Joan Hall: The charges against them were obviously based upon information
supposedly transmitted by David Greenglass, Ethel's brother, who had had a
minor technician's job at Los Alamos. Ted was absolutely certain, from his
thorough knowledge of the place and of the project, that a person in
Greenglass's position could have had no access to any significant scientific or
technical details about the atom bomb and therefore could not have transmitted
them. [Read a Venona cable about Ruth and David Greenglass.]
NOVA: He had some suppositions about Julius, didn't he?
Joan Hall: I really don't know why, but Ted did have a feeling that probably
Julius was involved in something. It was just a hunch. That's all I can say
NOVA: What about Ethel?
"Ethel didn't do anything. Her only crime to was to have
Joan Hall: Ethel, it's perfectly clear from the record, didn't do anything. Her
only crime was to have married Julius. She was used to blackmail Julius. The
government hoped that by threatening her life, they could get Julius to give
them information, which was an unspeakably disgusting and horrible thing
for the government to have done. But even then, I think, there was nobody who
would have actually claimed that Ethel did any espionage whatsoever.
NOVA: Did you follow the case closely?
Joan Hall: Oh, naturally as soon as the thing happened, we were very, very
worried and distressed and upset by it. Of course, we followed it very
NOVA: Now, you had a remarkable experience the night of their execution. Could
you tell me about it?
Joan Hall: We followed the case, but we weren't in a position to do anything at
that time. Ted still had his links with the network. There was no question of
our participating in any of the clemency movement or whatever was going on. So
we watched from the sidelines in horror.
Finally, when everything had been lost and they were going to be executed, the
execution was set for eight o'clock in the evening on a Friday night. Because
of the Jewish Sabbath, to preserve its sanctity, the execution had to be
completed before sundown. The hypocrisy of it is mind-blowing.
Anyway, that evening, we had been invited to an evening gathering at the home
of a colleague of Ted's in Westchester. We were driving up from Queens where we
lived. The road took us parallel to the Hudson River past Ossining, the town
where Sing Sing Prison is. It was eight o'clock, and as we drove by the sun was
setting. It was red, and it was large over the river going down. I
absentmindedly switched on the radio and, believe it or not, they were
broadcasting the last movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, a farewell symphony,
which is some of the most sad, heartbreaking music that exists. It was a
symphony that Ted and I were both very familiar with.
So we rode along listening to Mahler and watching the sun go down and feeling
indescribable. We didn't say anything, not a word. We got to our colleague's
house and did what people have to do in gatherings like that, then went
NOVA: Were you thinking, God, that could have been us?
Joan Hall: Of course.
NOVA: Tell me about that.
Joan Hall: Of course, we had to think that could have been us. But I remember
thinking about those two children. When we saw the photographs of Michael and
Robert in the newspaper, it was so heartbreaking. [Read an interview with
Michael and Robert Meeropol, the Rosenberg's sons.] Of course, we thought our
little girl, who was then two and a half, could have been orphaned like them.
It was just such a terrible thing, such a terrible loss. We didn't know them,
but they were like our brother and sister, the way we felt about them.
Ted wasn't a person who spoke a lot about his feelings. But during the period
when there was some hope of clemency he felt so terrible about the coming
execution that he thought perhaps if he were to confess what he had done and
say that he had done more than they did, that that would take the pressure off
them to some extent.
I said, "That's crazy. It wouldn't do them any good, and it would ruin us." But
he had a meeting coming up with one of the Russians, and he said he
would ask him about it. So I said, "Well, you can ask, but..." As it turned
out he did, and they did not think it would be a good idea. So thank goodness,
it was forgotten. I think Ted was really quite relieved. But it shows how
strongly he felt about it. It wasn't that he felt guilty. He just felt here are
these two people being subjected to the most terrible fate, and here was he
standing on the sidelines. I don't know, perhaps he felt that he should share
their fate in some way.
"Perhaps Ted felt that he should share their
fate in some way."
NOVA: Now let's talk about another difficult time. What happened with the FBI
Joan Hall: Ted was working at the lab, and along came this FBI guy. He got
permission from the head of the lab to take Ted off downtown to the office. At
the same time Savy, who was at the time driving a taxi, was pulled off the
street and brought into the office. Neither knew that the other was
I didn't know anything about it until about the time he normally would have got
home from the lab, say six o'clock, when he phoned and said in a rather strange
voice, "I've been detained." I intuited right away what was going on. He said
he'd get home as soon as he could. So I waited, and eventually he came home,
not too late, maybe seven or eight o'clock.
That was something we obviously had to talk about in the house, this experience
with the FBI. And what we obviously had to do was get rid of anything in the
house that might create a problem in any way. There was certainly nothing
incriminating in the house, but there was a lot of left-wing books and
At the time I was membership secretary for the local branch of the Progressive
Party, so I had a card file with all the people's names and addresses. We took
all the left-wing stuff, packed it in boxes, and put it in the car. I put
Ruthie into her snow suit and strapped her into her car seat. She was then
just over a year. We took the file with the names and addresses and got in the
The first thing we did was to go to some friends who were also members of the
Progressive Party, handed them the card file, and told them we were dropping
out of everything. We couldn't explain why. That left them completely
flabbergasted and mystified. It was hard. It was hard. These were our friends.
Then we got back in the car and drove to the bridge that crosses over the
Chicago drainage canal. We dumped all the stuff into the canal. I don't believe
we were followed on that occasion. I can't be sure, but I don't think we were.
Then we were out of everything. That was 1951. The fact was that either
formally or informally we had parted company with the Soviets.
NOVA: That interrogation was the closest Ted ever came to being caught. What
did he say it was like?
"They were keeping the room very, very warm to make him feel
sweaty and anxious."
Joan Hall: It's hard to remember just what questions Ted told me they had
asked. I remember he told me that he realized after things had been going on
for some time that they had Savy in the next room, and that they were
exchanging information. He told me that at a certain point he realized that
they were keeping the room very, very warm to make him feel
sweaty and anxious. So he said he deliberately relaxed and just watched them
with amusement as they wiped their brows.
He and Savy had agreed beforehand that if they were interrogated, they would
simply deny everything, which they did. And the FBI agents couldn't get
anything out of them. They kept trying to get them to contradict each other,
but since they weren't saying anything, they weren't contradicting each other.
NOVA: In the end, Ted just got up and walked out, and that was the end of it,
Joan Hall: There were actually two meetings with the FBI. The first, I think,
was on a Friday afternoon and evening. And that evening was when we threw the
stuff in the canal and dropped our political activity. When Ted left them that
evening, he promised to come back on Monday morning. They asked him to
reconsider, and he said he would. So he went back on that Monday morning,
having decided during the weekend that the right approach was simply to
cut things short.
He went, and he told them he didn't want to have anything more to do with them,
that he was cutting it off. They became rather demanding and threatened to lock
him up. He didn't react to that. They said, "We're going to lock you up right
now." At that point Ted picked up his coat. He told me, "I walked out of the
room into the hall. They followed me. I pushed the button for the elevator. The
elevator came. I got in. They didn't come in. The elevator went down to the
street. I got out. I walked out of the building. I was on the street. They
didn't follow me."
He called me right away, and he came home. It was hard to believe they let him
go like that after threatening to lock him up. He just called their
NOVA: Were you aware of the FBI surveilling you after that?
Joan Hall: Well, first of all, they came to repair our telephone, meaning that
they put some kind of bug into it, which is what we expected. Then they
followed us when we were in the car. When Ted noticed that there was someone
following behind us, he would signal me by giving a little wiggle with his
little finger to indicate that we had a tail. But as we never went anywhere
that they were interested in, it never created a problem. I guess it made us
laugh a bit—all of this surveillance for nothing.
The rest of what I know about their surveillance, I think, came from [FBI
agent] Robert McQueen's interviews with some other people, in which he said
that they searched our trash. I love to picture them going through our trash.
I'm sorry that it was before the age of disposable diapers. But it's a very
nice picture; it gives me great pleasure. I know they opened our post, which I
believe is illegal, opening people's letters. But the trash is what I liked
NOVA: Joan, you're making light, and that's the way people deal with difficult
things. But what were your fears? What was your worst fear?
"There was a definite chance that the world was going to
collapse around us."
Joan Hall: We knew that there was a definite chance that the world was going to
collapse around us, that our lives were going to be wrecked, that Ted would be
indicted, that there would be a horrible trial. This was before the Rosenberg
affair had become quite as deadly as it eventually proved to be. But it was
It's odd that we were not more frightened than we were. I think we both had a
feeling of why get scared in advance. If the worst happens it will happen, and
then things will be bad, very bad. But there was no point in going through the
whole angst of it before it even happens. I've always felt that way.
I can't remember palpitating with fear, or going hot and cold, or having
nightmares. I just don't. My greatest fear was that Ruthie was going to end up
in the care of my mother, which would have been a disaster. The idea of a death
sentence was something that never even occurred to us at that stage. It was
NOVA: But once the Rosenbergs had been executed....
Joan Hall: That was different. After the Rosenbergs were executed, the
perceptible danger to us was obviously much greater than it had been
before. We had not thought in terms of a possible death sentence.
But there's another part of the story that needs to be told to make that hold
together. For all the following of us around with cars and whatnot, they never
got their money's worth at all. At a certain point they stopped, and we didn't
have any more tails.
Sometime after they stopped, a Soviet guy came to Chicago and made contact with
Savy, who lived not far from us with his wife and baby. Savy came to the door
of the little pre-fab where we were living and said, "I want Ted to come for a
walk right now."
So Ted went out. A little later he returned, took out the magic slate on which
I used to draw funny pictures for the baby, and wrote, "A friend from NY" on
different places on the slate, then scribbled it all over. I had more or less
guessed that that was what it was about.
They hadn't known about the FBI interrogating Ted and Savy; that was the first
they heard about it. They realized that they had to take account of it and if
possible take measures to prevent disaster. That was when they insisted that
since Ted, I think, wanted to change his job anyway, that we should move to New
York. I actually was quite glad to move to New York. It was sort of an
Ted found it very easy to get a job in New York, a very good job, at the
Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. And we upped sticks with our two
and a half year old child. That would have been mid-'52.
NOVA: Were you concerned about putting your kid in jeopardy? Did you think
about that a lot, "Ted, Jesus, what are we doing here?" Especially after your
second child was born.
Joan Hall: We broke all connections with the Soviets before Debbie was born.
She was born in May 1954, and by that time it was definitely, definitely over.
They had accepted that we didn't want anymore to do with it. They said goodbye,
we're sorry to lose you, but we have no guns. They were quite amiable about it
in the end. They just accepted defeat. They'd tried and tried to keep him in.
Oh, God, it was a wonderful relief for me and I imagine for him.
About the children? I do think Ted worried about it a bit. I mean, we had the
children after we knew about this whole thing. Debbie was conceived after the
interrogation. We must have decided that we were safe enough. I don't think we
felt we were risking much at the time, and as it turned out, we were
NOVA: The FBI gave up on you guys. Why?
"We don't know why the FBI gave up on us."
Joan Hall: We don't really know why they gave up on us. From a legal point of
view, they apparently didn't have a leg to stand on. I'm not sure about the
timing of it, but they may well have had one or more of the Venona documents
at that time indicating for sure that Ted
was involved. But the Venona documents were probably not usable as evidence
because there were too many stages in the transmission of these things. They
were written in Russian, put in code, and transmitted. Then they were decoded
in the United States, translated into English but with big gaps and lots and
lots of questions, queries, and unclear points. It just wouldn't stand up as
evidence apparently. The original cables were not available. These were copies
of copies of copies of translations and so on.
So my guess is that they didn't feel they could prosecute Ted without either a
confession or some witness who would testify that Ted had done this. Since Ted
and Savy were not about to confess, and no such witness could be found, they
were flat-footed. They obviously could have produced another frame-up like they
did for the Rosenbergs. In the Rosenbergs' case at least they had something
like a witness in the form of David Greenglass. I can conjecture that they
didn't feel like managing two frame-ups at once.
NOVA: You meet the criteria of an accomplice. Did you ever think that?
Joan Hall: I never thought of myself as an accomplice. I suppose if anybody had
suggested it to me, I would have said, "Well, I suppose so." It was
extraordinary how little frightened we were. I don't understand it myself. But
we took it very coolly. Not only Ted, but me. And Savy. I think Savy rather
liked the kind of cloak and dagger aspect of it.
NOVA: Meetings were arranged with Ted and the Soviets. Some of them were
involved in recognition signals, and some of them were in sort of very
Joan Hall: There were several meetings between Ted and agents in New York City,
both before and after we moved there. They were arranged by previous agreement,
of course. And there was a signal that I recall was in the form of a number
10 written in the lower right-hand corner of a certain advertising poster in a
certain underground subway station in the 8th Avenue subway.
I think there were recognition signals. You wear a hat, you carry a folded
newspaper or something like that. I think also there was some ghastly cuff
links or tie clips with pictures of horses on them, which were used for
recognition. But I don't remember very well about that.
The meetings would be held in various locations in New York. It really is
impossible to fathom the idiocy of how this happened, but apparently they
arranged a meeting in the middle of Harlem, where Ted and his contact would
have been the only white faces visible anywhere. But they were never caught.
Those meetings were always successful.
The thing about those meetings was that nothing happened. There was no exchange
of information. They were nothing but contacts. The meetings were for keeping
the machinery of contact going. They were not for passing any information.
Nothing was happening. So all that risk, all that terrible danger, was for
"All that risk, all that
terrible danger, was for nothing."
NOVA: Are you angry about that?
Joan Hall: Yes. Yes, I think, it was a frightful mistake on the part of the
Soviets and on Ted's part too, for anyone to lend themselves to taking that
kind of risk without having some tangible prospect of gain from it for
NOVA: Did you argue with Ted about him staying in the network?
Joan Hall: Probably, but I don't remember. We had very few chances to argue
about that sort of thing because of the problem of not being able to speak in
the house or the car. When we were out, we had Ruthie with us. It was really
very difficult to find suitable circumstances and times and places to have
that sort of conversation.
NOVA: Did you ever think you'd have to flee to the Soviet Union?
Joan Hall: Of course there was the possibility that if things got really hot
for us that we might be swept away to the Soviet Union. In fact, that was, I
think, one thing they had in mind when they insisted that we move to New
NOVA: How did you feel about that?
Joan Hall: Two ways. One way was I definitely thought it was an exciting idea.
The prospect of seeing the Soviet Union, of seeing Russia, of learning to speak
Russian, the whole thing. I mean, I was very naïve, and I was a baby
socialist. On one level I thought it would be great. But to take up and leave
your whole life behind was something that didn't particularly attract me. It
certainly would have been pretty miserable. I don't think Ted liked the idea at
all. He didn't have that attraction for foreign parts that I had, or the
interest in Russia that I've always had, irrespective of politics.
NOVA: If you knew then what you know now about the Soviet Union, would you have
counseled Ted to do what he did, passing on atomic secrets?
Joan Hall: That is an unanswerable question because I wasn't with him at the
time that he passed on atomic secrets. He has said that if he knew then what he
knew later, he would not have done so. When he was pressed about this, why
wouldn't he—because, after all, if the problem was to break the American
monopoly it shouldn't have mattered—the only answer he could think of was
just on an emotional level that he wouldn't have wanted to do something if he
knew the Soviet Union was a horrible, repressive dictatorship, as it turned out
NOVA: Robert McQueen says Ted Hall was a traitor. Nothing more, nothing
Joan Hall: Robert McQueen would say that Ted Hall betrayed his country. What
was Ted Hall's country? Was it the American government, which was scheming the
whole while to use the atomic bomb as a threat to hold over the heads of the
rest of the world? The American government, which dropped the atomic bomb on
Japanese cities and killed hundreds of thousands of people for no good reason?
(Like many people, I don't believe that this was necessary to end the war,
because it was ending anyway.) Is his country the American government, or is
his country the American people?
He certainly broke the law. He certainly broke his security oath. He certainly
acted against the interest of the American government at the time. But he did
not betray his country. He didn't betray the people. Everything that he did was
done because of his concern for the people of the United States as much as the
people of any other part of the world. It was a humanitarian act. His motive
was a humanitarian motive.
"He certainly broke the law. But
he did not betray his country."
Now, if you want to call that treason, go right ahead. But I can't see it as in
any way reprehensible. It was sad and painful that it was something that had to
be done secretly, that there was any deception involved. Ted was the least
secretive, the least deceptive person you can imagine. He was honest to a
degree that most people never get near. He didn't tell lies at all, even by
omission. He was so truthful.
I was married to him for 52 years, and he never lied to me, not once. Nor did I
lie to him. It was not in his nature to deceive anyone. He hated the deception
involved. But that's not treason. Robert McQueen can say what he wants about
Ted. I don't think very much of him either.
NOVA: On a trip to New Mexico, you wanted to take a side trip to Los Alamos, he
said no, is that right?
Joan Hall: Around 1987 Ted attended a scientific meeting in his honor in
Albuquerque. I said, "How far is Los Alamos? It would be nice to go there." Ted
absolutely didn't want to, so that was the end of that idea.
NOVA: Did he talk about why he didn't want to?
Joan Hall: He didn't say why he didn't want to go, but it was pretty obvious
from his face. The whole thing was just distasteful to him. He didn't want to
remember. He didn't want to go back to that.
NOVA: Were Ted and Saville double agents?
Joan Hall: Hell no! That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard in my life!
The answer is no, they were not double agents. Most certainly not.
NOVA: Anything you'd like to say in closing?
Joan Hall: I'd just like to make it clear, in case it's not already clear from
what I said before, that I have the greatest respect and admiration for what
Ted did. He was a magnificent person, and it was really a great honor to have
lived with him for 52 years. He was a normal guy. We had a normal marriage. It
had its ups and downs. But he was an exceptional person. The way his daughters
talk about him makes that clear. [Read an interview with Ruth Hall, the
Hall's elder daughter.] He was a person who inspired tremendous affection and
confidence in the people he came into contact with.
After he died, I received a letter from a woman who was a scientific colleague
working in the lab next door to his at Sloan-Kettering. Her letter said, "Ted
was simply the best person I have ever known in all my life. The best friend,
the best colleague, the wisest advisor." She went on to say that she respected
him enormously for his integrity in acting on his principles. That kind of
sentiment has been expressed by so many people. He was a person who really,
really made people love him. He certainly made me love him.
NOVA: Are you glad the secret came out?
very glad the secret came out."
Joan Hall: Oh, I'm very glad the secret came out. Even though he wasn't. He
would have been happy to go to his grave without having to think about it
again. But I felt it put together the two ends of his life, so to speak. And he
got rid of the secret. The secret was a burden to him. It was something that
made him feel bad.
Once the secret came out, he was still very nervous about what might happen.
But eventually he was reassured that he wasn't going to be prosecuted, and that
people did not reject him. That was something he was very much afraid of. I
think he could hardly believe it. Although it didn't surprise me, not at
But I think that it made his life whole in a way; it wouldn't have been whole
if he had died before this became known. Most of what I know about that early
time, I've learned in the past few years. I wouldn't have been able to give a
coherent explanation of his motives and his thinking if he had died before
anyone asked me. So I'm very glad that it came out early enough for him and me
to set the record straight, and so that people can understand what kind of
person he was, and why he did what he did, which I feel was right.
Joan Hall |
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