Study Guide

Theodore Hall in Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

By Steve Sheinkin

Theodore Hall

Lucky Devil

Theodore—or Ted, as most people called him—was a genius physicist who graduated high school at the age of fourteen and went on to revel in the difficulty of Harvard's most challenging math and physics courses. He was recruited to work for Oppenheimer right out of college at the age of eighteen, making him the youngest scientist at Los Alamos.

His youth and its accompanying naiveté were huge contributing factors as to why he decided to become a spy for the Soviets. After the war he admitted that he was a "rather arrogant" teenager, which perhaps explains why he so casually waltzed along the borders of moral culpability. Sheinkin explains Hall's thought process as one that is remarkable for its adolescent simplicity:

"I shared the general sympathy for our allies, the Soviet Union," Hall explained. "After they were attacked, everybody knew that they were bearing the main load in the fight against Nazi Germany."

It looked like the Germans would be defeated, but what then? Hall tried to imagine what the post-war world would be like.

"I shared a common belief that the horrors of war would bring our various leaders to their senses and usher in a period of peace and harmony," Hall said. But what if this didn't happen? What if Americans succeeded in building atomic bombs and they were the only ones to have them? Would the United States be more likely to use atomic bombs, knowing no one else could strike back? Wouldn't the world be safer if a second major power also knew how to build atomic bombs? That way, neither country would use the bomb—knowing they'd have the bomb used on them.

"It seemed to me," Hall said, "that an American monopoly was dangerous and should be prevented." (Born Rebel.(23).31-34)

And just like that, Ted Hall came up with the political theory of nuclear deterrence. He makes it all sound so simple, doesn't he? Like national leaders are people who above all adhere to common sense and decency and would never act purely to benefit their own personal gain, right? Unfortunately, Ted's wide-eyed idealism helped usher in the Cold War and the nuclear arms race that we are still trying to de-escalate.

His ability to work the system didn't fade with age, either. Hall was the only one of the spies in our story who didn't end up serving time for his crimes—even though the FBI totally knew he was guilty. Ted used the fact that the FBI didn't want to use the decoded KGB cables in court, understanding that this meant that without a confession from him their hands were tied. So he just remained silent and held on for dear life.

Much later, in 1995, the KGB's decoded messages were made public, and Ted Hall told reporters, "If confronted with the same problem today, I would respond quite differently" (Epilogue.34). Age does tend to grant you a different perspective over time.