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Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies  

Joan Hall 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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Family of Spies
Joan Hall
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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 him?

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 work.

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.

"Ted squirted us in the face with a water pistol, saying afterwards he wanted to liven things up a bit."

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 bit.

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."

"This was very secret, and I shouldn't tell anybody about it, not even my mother."

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.

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 exceptional.

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.

"He was afraid the United States might become a very reactionary power after the war."

NOVA: Did he say why he had done it?

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 gave.

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 asked?

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 man.

NOVA: Did he tell you the story of how he and Savy went about giving away secrets?

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 see him.

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.

"He would drink quantities of alcohol, and it just didn't seem to affect him at all."

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.

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 another matter.

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 actually.

"They all worked on the bomb because they were afraid the Nazis would build it first."

NOVA: Did Ted ever express to you any feelings of remorse or sadness at his playing a part in developing the atomic bomb?

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 it.

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 way.

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 negative effect.

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.

"When Ted turned his back to me and faced the wall, I knew what had happened."

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.]

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 it on?

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 Ted.

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 it.

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.

"Ted was not a person for whom pride was a normal feeling."

NOVA: Did he feel any sense of pride in having participated in it?

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 occasion.

"Ted wasn't an agent. He was a scientist with a conscience."

NOVA: Did you ever think of becoming an agent yourself?

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 some rules?

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 street.

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 Ethel?

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 about it.

"Ethel didn't do anything. Her only crime to was to have married Julius."

NOVA: What about Ethel?

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 closely.

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 home.

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.

"Perhaps Ted felt that he should share their fate in some way."

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.

NOVA: Now let's talk about another difficult time. What happened with the FBI interrogation?

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 there.

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 literature.

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 car.

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.

"They were keeping the room very, very warm to make him feel sweaty and anxious."

NOVA: That interrogation was the closest Ted ever came to being caught. What did he say it was like?

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, right?

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 bluff.

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 best.

"There was a definite chance that the world was going to collapse around us."

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?

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 certainly frightening.

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 unimaginable.

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 adventure.

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 right.

"We don't know why the FBI gave up on us."

NOVA: The FBI gave up on you guys. Why?

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 surprising places.

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.

"All that risk, all that terrible danger, was for nothing."

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 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 somebody.

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 York.

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 to be.

NOVA: Robert McQueen says Ted Hall was a traitor. Nothing more, nothing less.

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. But he did not betray his country."

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.

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.

"I'm very glad the secret came out."

NOVA: Are you 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 all.

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 | Ruth Hall | Boria Sax | Robert and Michael Meeropol | William Weisband, Jr.

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