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Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies  

Boria Sax Hear Boria Sax recite one of his father's poems and discuss its significance vis-á-vis his father's espionage.

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Family of Spies
Boria Sax
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See a photograph of Saville Sax

NOVA: How would you describe your father's upbringing, the Russianness of it?

Sax: Well, he lived in a very enclosed community. Yiddish was spoken, a little of Russian, virtually no English. He didn't start to learn English until he went to school. It was a community that was very set apart from the rest of American society, and it had its own expectations. The people in the community were all Russian Jews. They tended to be very suspicious of American society at large. They identified mainstream society with their former persecutors and just didn't want to have too much to do with it.

Communism was a sort of substitute Judaism for the people in that community. My grandmother thought of herself as a Jew. She never doubted her own Jewishness even for a moment, but at the same time she didn't celebrate any Jewish holidays. So far as I'm aware, they didn't seem to really celebrate any holidays at all except for Hanukkah, which I think was a kind of lesser evil to keep the kids from celebrating Christmas.

NOVA: What did they think about Russia?

Sax: They idealized Russia. It's true that their attitude was not entirely uncritical. They understood that everything wasn't perfect in Russia, but they always looked to Russia for their inspiration. They had, I guess, a sort of sentimental regard for Russia.

NOVA: What was your father's first language? And when did he learn English?

Sax: His first language was Yiddish. He didn't speak any English at all until he went to school. And then he found himself very abruptly in an all-English environment.

NOVA: What was your grandmother Bluma's temperament like?

Sax: When we were little kids, everybody was afraid of her. She was sort of domineering. She was lovable, but she was also domineering. Later, towards the end of her life, she mellowed; she became a lot gentler and a lot quieter. But she was rather dogmatic, and was very insistent about getting her way.

"She blamed him for killing his father."

NOVA: She could be very cruel to your dad.

Sax: Well, when my father was asked to watch his father in the night and give him medicine at certain intervals, my father fell asleep. A short time later, my grandfather—that's his father—died. She blamed him for killing his father.

NOVA: Did she actually tell him that?

Sax: Yes. Yes, she did.

NOVA: What did she say?

Sax: Well, I don't know the exact words. But I have heard from several people that she did blame him, very overtly, very clearly.

NOVA: What was your father's temperament when you were a kid?

Sax: Very tense, very nervous. He was prone to displays of temper. He could also be quite gentle and quite loving at times. He was very mercurial, very unpredictable. He would get swept up in all kinds of enthusiasms, and then he was also subject to all kinds of terrible, sometimes suicidal depressions. For a couple of months, he had a revolver in the house, and he was threatening to shoot himself.

NOVA: Your father once told you what he'd done with atomic secrets. Can you tell me what you heard?

Sax: I can't remember the exact circumstances. I think it was probably around 1970 or so. He did say that he had smuggled atomic secrets to the Russians, that he had obtained them from Ted Hall. He did mention taking some sort of a valise to the Russian Consulate and leaving it there. That's about all. At the time, I didn't believe him. I thought it was a joke or crazy boast or something. Only much later did I begin to think that perhaps it might be true.

"I don't have any doubt that the espionage took place."

NOVA: Now what do you think?

Sax: Well, I don't have any doubt that he did, in fact, pass atomic secrets to the Russians. A lot of the particulars are still unclear. But I don't have any doubt at all that the espionage took place.

NOVA: Some people, like the Rosenberg kids, doubt the authenticity of the Venona decodes they've read. [Hear the views of the Rosenberg's sons Michael and Robert Meeropol about Venona.] How do you feel?

Sax: I don't doubt the authenticity of the ones pertaining to my father. I can't judge as to the rest. But it just seems too believable. It fits in with too many things that I recall to really seem questionable at all.

NOVA: You were in a movie theater when something happened to your father. Can you describe that?

Sax: Yes. We were kids. We were going to Michael Todds Theater in Chicago. That's one of these old fashioned theater palaces with carvings painted in gold in the balconies and plush velvet seats, a very festive place, and a very festive occasion. Just as the movie was about to start—the movie was "My Fair Lady"—my father said, "I just had a terrible thought." Then he continued, "What if an atomic bomb were suddenly to fall on Chicago, right now, and all these people would be locked together in this movie theater? Pretty soon, there would be cannibalism."

Then, I think, a little disturbed at what he had said, he tried to restore the festive mood by making a joke of it, and he said, "Say, I wonder who would get eaten first?" And then the movie began, and I looked over to him, and he seemed to be lost in a kind of reverie. I think he was remembering the espionage. I think he was thinking back on Ted Hall, the Manhattan Project, and the Soviet Embassy, and trying to make sense of it. I think he was feeling guilty, uneasy, uncomfortable.

NOVA: So why was he feeling this?

Sax: Well, after all, the bomb that he had passed to them, should it be used, would have been used on us. The bomb that he imagined dropped on Chicago would have been his bomb.

"He saw himself as a kind of Prometheus."

NOVA: Do you think this troubled him, through his life?

Sax: Most definitely. I think that the guilt and uneasiness about what he had done did trouble him. I think that it contributed to his depressions, and with the depressions came the violent fits of temper. He was, probably from the beginning, a rather troubled person. He never really felt, I think, very comfortable in American society. But this certainly exacerbated it a great deal.

NOVA: What do you imagine your father's motive was? You've said that he saw himself first as a kind of Prometheus with the atomic secrets?

Sax: Well, yes, I do think he saw himself as a kind of Prometheus. Prometheus was constantly invoked in talking about the atomic bomb, by Oppenheimer, by many, many journalists and scientists and politicians. But either they didn't know their mythology very well or else they forgot about it. Prometheus, you remember, stole fire from heaven and gave it to humanity, spread it in hearts all across the world.

I think he saw himself in about the same sort of light. The Manhattan Project was a very glamorous place, and he saw it as a kind of Mount Olympus. In taking the atomic secrets, he was passing them from this abode of the gods and giving them to all humanity.

Now, I think for both him and for Ted Hall and for people in general at the time, they were awed by the atomic bomb, by the drama of it, by the technical accomplishment of it. It wasn't simply a weapon for them. It was a sort of talisman. It was a symbol of scientific accomplishment. It was a symbol of human liberation. I think that perhaps the symbolism of the atomic bomb overshadowed and even obscured its practical potential. I think they thought of themselves, perhaps, not as passing a weapon so much as passing a sort of magic charm, a magic charm that would be a sort of gift to all humanity.

"I don't think either he or Hall ever really knew why they did it."

NOVA: Do you think your father did it because he wanted to help humanity or because he was a Russian nationalist?

Sax: Well, I think these and other motives were very confused. I don't think that either he or Hall, in my opinion, ever really knew why they did it. I think they were both pretty confused. I find Ted Hall's own explanations rather implausible. [Hear the views of Joan Hall, Ted Hall's wife, on her husband's motivations.]

There was certainly a great deal of nationalism on my father's part. He had grown up with a great deal of Russian nationalism. The people that he grew up with, particularly his parents, constantly longed for an idealized Russia. But they conflated this image of Russia with all humanity. And in a similar way, I think they conflated their own Russian nationalism with communism. They confused the desire to help Russia with the aspiration to produce something that would benefit all humanity.

NOVA: What are your contacts with the Halls that you remember?

Sax: I do remember visiting them in childhood. The memories are not very clear. I think it was probably at their home in Queens. I have very good memories of it. The family seemed, well, in the best sense, what we call all-American. It seemed a rather relaxed and happy family.

NOVA: What do you think your father's attitude was toward Ted Hall?

Sax: My father's feelings toward Ted Hall were probably ambivalent. I think he felt comfortable with Ted Hall and liked him a great deal. At the same time, I think he felt somewhat dominated by him. Ted Hall had all of the various status symbols and the position and the home that he really wanted, even though perhaps he would not acknowledge that completely. Ted Hall, I think, it seemed to him, was a lot of things that he might like to be. I think perhaps that when for a short time he tried to study physics, when he switched his major to physics at Harvard, that must have been in emulation of Ted Hall.

NOVA: You told me you have many feelings about your father, and some of them are angry, at him and at Hall. Partly about the lack of apology about Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Sax: Well, I think I would find the rationale that my father and Ted Hall had given for their atomic espionage a little bit more plausible if they had expressed at least some regret about the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. I've never heard of such a thing from either of them. And to me, that makes me wonder to what extent they were really motivated by concern about the destructive potential of nuclear weapons. I don't think that they were thinking very clearly, either of them.

"The atomic bomb seemed more magical than scientific."

I think they saw the bomb, as I said before, not so much as a weapon as a kind of talisman. I think that a lot of people were intoxicated by the bomb at the time. There were all kinds of wild, extravagant ideas about how atomic energy would create a new utopia. There were plans to improve the climate by melting the polar ice caps or to use atomic energy to electrify the soil and improve crop yields, and so on. The atomic bomb seemed more magical than scientific in a lot of ways, even for the scientists, perhaps particularly for them. I think that the proximity to this and their own role in this was intoxicating for them.

NOVA: You said something to me earlier about feeling kind of mad at Ted Hall, in a way, for involving your dad.

Sax: Well, yes. I do feel angry at Ted Hall for involving my father. My father was mentally ill. I think this did not cause his problems, but I have no doubt that it did exacerbate them. I think that perhaps he would, in any case, have been prone to sudden enthusiasms and depressions. I think that certainly simply from his upbringing, he would have had a lot of trouble finding his way in American society, finding a place for himself. But I think that this made it far worse, far more difficult.

And I've wondered even whether perhaps my father might have felt a certain anger at Ted Hall on that account as well. Ted Hall, you know, had the status symbols and the career and all of those things, as he did not. And I think it may have sometimes seemed to my father that they had done this together, and Ted Hall had sort of left him to take the consequences. Not fair or accurate, I realize. But I suspect perhaps he might have felt something like that.

NOVA: Some people say your dad was a traitor. How do you feel about that?

Sax: Well, I don't use the word myself. I don't really have a word for it. I just say that he committed atomic espionage. I think that what he did was terribly wrong. It's hard to assimilate it, though, to a particular category. I don't object to that word, but I prefer not to use it myself.

NOVA: Why not?

Sax: Well, "traitor" seems very, very strong, one of the strongest words there is. I try to take a more differentiated view of it. Condemning what they did, I can at least see some possibly extenuating circumstances. I'm also a little wary of using the word traitor because I think the word has often been abused. It was, for example, often used to describe the dissidents in eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union. It's a word that is very easily subject to abuse.

NOVA: But your dad kept a secret, and that secret kept you and your mom's family in jeopardy.

Sax: It most certainly did.

"It left us feeling very alienated, very cut off from other people."

NOVA: Tell me about that.

Sax: Well, there was always a nervous edge when we were growing up. My parents were always very nervous about whose mailing list they would get on and anything about us that might be mentioned in the papers. I think the fact that my father was keeping this secret made it a lot harder for us to participate in what we would call the normal life of American society. I think it left us feeling very alienated, very cut off from institutions, from other people.

NOVA: How did you find out about Venona?

Sax: I received a phone call from the reporter Michael Dobbs, who had looked at the materials and realized that my father and Ted Hall had committed atomic espionage. When he told it to me, I wasn't really overwhelmed with surprise, because by that time I had already begun to think that what had once seemed like a wild boast or joke on my father's part might actually have been the truth.

I didn't react very strongly immediately on hearing the news. But later, as I thought about it more and more, I began to feel more and more disconcerted and more and more troubled. It's taken me awhile to at least begin, I hope, to put it in perspective.

NOVA: You read the transcripts of the FBI interrogation of your father. What did you think of it? What feelings did it evoke?

Sax: Well, the FBI files were very disconcerting. They evoked all kinds of buried memories of the time when my parents were constantly shifting from one neighborhood to another, mostly in the slums of Chicago. It was a time of a great deal of insecurity. My father seemed very lost. Now, to an extent, I'm sure some of that was put on or at least emphasized for the purposes of the interview. Yet I think a good deal of it was real. A good deal of it was just talking the way he really felt and giving it a certain kind of spin to evade the questions posed by the FBI officers.

NOVA: Knowing this about your dad now, does this leave questions about him unanswered? If he were here again, what would you want to ask him about this?

Sax: It wouldn't be easy asking him anything about this. If my father were here, it wouldn't be easy for me to ask him questions about that. He never really talked about it openly. He perhaps didn't hide it as diligently as the Halls would have wanted him to, but he never spoke about it openly. And if he were here now, I think I would still be very inhibited about asking questions.

But there certainly are a lot of questions that remain. For one thing, there is the question of whether Ted Hall and my father as well had any role at all in smuggling secrets of the hydrogen bomb. I would be very interested to know that. Another question is whether his mother—my grandmother—had anything to do with that. Some people have alleged that she made the initial contact with the Russians.

NOVA: Would you like to ask your father about the role his mother played in getting him into espionage?

Sax: I'm not sure. I would like to know what role, if any, my grandmother played in the espionage. At first, I thought it's totally implausible, unbelievable, that she could have played any role at all. She was somebody who didn't dissemble, who always prided herself on her forthrightness, on her bluntness. Indeed, she always seemed to say just what she thought. She didn't really seem like somebody who would be engaged in espionage, who would be involved with secrets.

"My father was a most unlikely spy."

Later I began to think that perhaps she might. After all, my father himself was in most respects—in all respects—a very unlikely spy. Now, what makes me wonder a little bit is that I heard that after my father had been rejected by the Army in World War II on account of a somewhat crippled hand, he worked in a defense plant for awhile. I think that was perhaps, in his life, the closest that he came to really participating in the endeavors of mainstream society, the closest he came to overcoming his alienation. From accounts that I have heard, he was happy at that time.

I also heard, however, that his mother didn't like the idea of him working in a factory and went and got him out. Observers seem to think that maybe it was a kind of class snobbery, that they didn't want to be a family of factory workers, even though that would contradict their Marxist ideology. But now I begin to wonder whether she asked him to leave the factory because she'd made contact with the Russians.

She did work for an organization called Russian War Relief. It's considered to have been a front organization, which of course does not mean that all the people, or even very many of them, were involved in covert activities. But it certainly is at least conceivable that in that organization she might have been able to set up some contacts with the Soviet government.

NOVA: When you learned your dad was a spy, you knew that if he had been caught, he could have been imprisoned, might have been executed. Did those thoughts come to you, and how did you feel?

Sax: They certainly did come to me, and it was pretty eerie. It was a really uncomfortable, really spooky kind of feeling. He must have been afraid that perhaps he could be executed, as were the Rosenbergs. It's hard to think how he could not have been afraid. The charges were brought against the Rosenbergs just a few weeks after he had been interrogated by the FBI. I think he may indeed have been terrified.

But yet he never talked about that. I have no recollection of him ever mentioning the Rosenberg trial. And other people confirmed for me that he never talked about it. I think it was taboo in our house, but I think the very fact that this should be made taboo testifies to the extent of the fear he must have felt. This was something that perhaps was just so frightening that you couldn't even mention it, you couldn't even talk about it.

NOVA: Do you think the Rosenbergs died for a crime your dad really committed?

Sax: I haven't studied the case. I don't know the particulars of the Rosenberg case. And so I prefer not to say anything about their case. I don't really know why they were brought to trial and my father and Ted Hall were not. That's another thing that's never been entirely explained to my knowledge.

In a sense, I suppose, you could say that perhaps the Rosenbergs were tried instead of my father and Ted Hall in that perhaps the authorities wanted one trial because they wanted to dramatize what had happened, and they wanted to dramatize their anger at it. Perhaps they just didn't feel up for two. So they may have chosen the Rosenbergs simply because, for whatever reason, the evidence seemed a little bit stronger or the case seemed a little bit more dramatic, rather than my father's. I suppose we'll never really know why. I don't think my father was exactly spared in place of the Rosenbergs, at least I don't think my father was ever guilty of the particular things that the Rosenbergs were accused of.

"The code they used to pass atomic secrets was based on 'Leaves of Grass.'"

NOVA: Your father wrote poetry, did he not?

Sax: As a young man, my father wrote poetry. His model was Walt Whitman. As you may know, the code that he and Ted Hall used to pass atomic secrets was based on Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." In a way it's a bit ironic, because Walt Whitman is the great celebrator of American capitalism. But maybe not, because in lots of ways, what we call the American dream is quite a bit like the communist utopia.

I've looked back over some of the poems he wrote since learning about the atomic espionage, and I've looked for possible references to it. There is nothing unequivocal, which does not surprise me. He did not tend to talk about these things in a very specific way but rather in a very abstract way.

At the same time, there are passages that are at least suggestive and evocative. One of them is this. This is from a poem of his entitled "First Light Substance":
I was life like fire,
changing my course
with the wind and fuel.
I flowed with the tide
and merged with the sea.
This is evocative, because Prometheus, as I mentioned before, was a sort of patron deity of the Manhattan Project. Prometheus was a thief and a spy, even though the people who constantly invoked his legacy in talking about the building of the atomic bomb seemed to forget that. In a lot of ways, I sometimes wonder if my father was simply acting out the Promethean fantasy that he absorbed from all of those journalists who kept calling the atomic bomb a Promethean act. Prometheus, of course, was the god of fire, and in this poem, he invokes fire as his element.

"Often he apologized for things when no apology was required."

The next poem is untitled. It's about judgment. Often he apologized for things when no apology was required. He could be very assertive; he could also, at certain times, be very humble. I wonder if perhaps in all of these apologies for all kinds of ridiculously little things—for what he had for dinner or who knows what—there might have been a sort of amorphous guilt, as if he was apologizing for all of these little things because he didn't dare apologize for the big one, because he couldn't acknowledge it. Here is his poem:
Judge the man you see before you.
Look deeply past the appearance
Till his cone absorbs your cone.
See the government through you, through him,
The sky, the sun, the streets, the avenues.
Through you, through him, look deep
And see what is in you is in him.
Then as you condemn him, you condemn yourself.
Well, again, it's hard to be sure about the context, but at the very least, I think it is suggestive. I don't really want to endorse the sentiment in the last poem as philosophy. After all, we do have our own particular guilts, and his was certainly if not unique, pretty close to it. One certainly does not need to always refrain from judgment, as the poem seems to suggest. But yet as a reflection of how he felt a lot of the time, I think it's pretty accurate.

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

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