Nuclear War Robert Scheer SI Podcast

The Los Alamos Scientist Who Gave the Bomb to the Soviets

Academy Award nominated director Steve James and esteemed journalist David Lindorff join Scheer Intelligence to discuss their new film on the atomic bomb that focuses on an unknown yet critical character in the post nuclear world.
A screenshot from the A Compassionate Spy trailer. Photo credit: YouTube

Click to subscribe on: Apple / Spotify / Google PlayAmazon / YouTube / Rumble

The world has somehow reached a moment where the use of nuclear weapons has possibly never been closer and the interest in nuclear weapons has possibly never been higher. With the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” a compelling dialogue emerges concerning the utilization of nuclear weapons, as the biopic delves into the life of the father of the atomic bomb and his profound doubts about the barbaric weapon he unleashed on the world. An even more captivating narrative about dissent amongst the Los Alamos scientists who created the bomb is close to release, and its timing couldn’t be more perfect. A Compassionate Spy, directed by two time Academy Award nominated Steve James, delves into the intriguing life of an unconventional hero within the world of nuclear development – a character whose history might be viewed with skepticism, yet is undeniably instrumental in shaping the post Cold War nuclear arms race.

Host Robert Scheer sits down with James and journalist David Lindorff, who originally broke the story about the character in question, to discuss the film and the life of Ted Hall. The young, brilliant physicist turned atomic Soviet spy made a decision at an age where most college-bound people would be making their first change in major. This fateful decision to share nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union proved to be a pivotal moment that not only broke the American nuclear monopoly but also averted the potential for further use of these devastating weapons. The film paints a conclusive “ends justify the means” story. Director Steve James said, “[Hall’s] reasons for passing the secrets, whether you agree with them or not, were grounded and not in naivete or brashness, but in real thoughtfulness.”

Lindorff puts it plainly: “[T]here’s been 78 years of no use in wartime since the August 9th Nagasaki bombing and I attribute that completely to mutual assured destruction, because every time it’s come close and when you read the stories, somebody flinched and said, we can’t do this because we can’t pull it off without destroying our own country. It’s a suicide murder pact, so it hasn’t happened.” James goes on to mention the apathy from crucial figures at the time like Harry Truman who, as referenced in the Oppenheimer film, was unconcerned with Oppenheimer’s worry about the future of nuclear weapon use and found himself, as Scheer and James describe, giddy over their use in Japan.

In the end, Lindorff’s hot take that both Hall and fellow physicist turned spy, Klaus Fuchs, were deserving of a Nobel Prize for “for having saved the world from a US with a monopoly on the bomb after the war,” that ended up being the catalyst for the investigation into Hall. His article about Hall prompted Hall’s widow, Joan Hall—a prominent character in the film—to contact him about her late husband and the rest was history.

Support our Independent Journalism — Donate Today!



Robert Scheer


Joshua Scheer


Diego Ramos


This transcript was produced by an automated transcription service. Please refer to the audio interview to ensure accuracy. 

Robert Scheer Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guest and in this case, it’s a very famous director, Steve James, twice nominated for an Oscar and a well-known journalist who actually broke the story that we’re here to discuss, David Lindorff. And it’s interesting with Oppenheimer, the movie, getting so much attention. This is actually, in some ways, a more interesting story. It’s in a documentary called A Compassionate Spy, and it cuts to core issues about the making of the bomb at Los Alamos, the ethics. But it also deals with somebody who I think it’s a very brave documentary because it actually treats with respect someone who, as the title says, is a compassionate spy, a genius young man from Townsend Harris High School in Queens at the age, and then he goes to Harvard, at the age of 18, he’s recruited to work on one of the most sensitive aspects of the making of the atomic bomb, the triggering mechanism, the implosion device. And everybody credits it with having been really brilliant and connected with it and his work. And he decides, along with a close friend consultation that, you know, the original justification for the bomb was not quite there. The Germans were clearly losing the war, and even when the bomb was dropped, Japan was defeated. And he thought, now I’ll let the director and the original journalist talk about it, maybe saying there was no real need to even test, let alone use it to kill hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And what’s involved here is a great mystery story because who is Ted Hall and what did he do? And, you know, talk about the nuanced examination of the morality of all this. Who wants to go first? 

Steve James Go ahead, Dave.

David Lindorff All right. Ted was a remarkable guy who had a strong moral compass. And he felt that, first of all—and people need to know this—the Russians were our key ally against the Nazis. They were, their Red Army was doing the brunt of the fighting against the [inaudible]. And here we were not, we were trying to keep them from even knowing about the Manhattan Project. And then Groves right around the time in the fall, when Ted was thinking about these issues, Groves was at a dinner with the British… 

Scheer Groves is the Army official who was in charge of Los Alamos. 

Lindorff General Groves. And he said at the dinner, well, you know, this target of the bomb never was really the Germans. It’s the Russians. It’s to control the Russians. And this went around the camp. You know, that message. And he was really upset about it. And so he had been thinking already that he should give the bomb to the Russians as the only way he could think of for avoiding a U.S. monopoly on the bomb for years after the war. 

Scheer Yeah, I mean, it should be mentioned. The United States entered the war quite late. In fact, there was a lot of resistance and even considerable pro-German sentiment in the United States. And the question was really, this was a very idealistic young man, obviously quite brilliant. And as the movie reveals, a really fascinating movie. His brother, his older brother actually was the inventor of the Minuteman missile and was a colonel in the Air Force. Right? And so, you know, we talk about patriotism at that time, defeating the Nazis, defeat, you know, stopping fascism. That was very important. Right. And the Russians actually are the ones who fought, did the brunt of the war against Germany. But there was also a question about whether they would enter the war against Japan. And there’s a whole big argument about was the bomb dropped to prevent the Russians from being part of the occupation of Japan? There’s a lot of analysis and so forth. But I want to get to the moral issue and the Oppenheimer movie and the whole Oppenheimer story. Obviously, there are parallels because Oppenheimer, like this young man, had been on the left. He had different views of foreign policy. His patriotism was challenged. He was blacklisted at key points. But here you have an amazing American figure, American hero, brilliant. And he contributes to this war effort and maybe as profoundly as any other person and yet has moral issues that unfortunately others didn’t have. I mean, the bombing targets were picked at the University of California, and they picked a time during the day when you would maximize the number of deaths, for example. So let me ask you, Steve James, why, you got this project from Dave here, what is your goal with the film? And I must say, my hat’s off to you for daring even to suggest that this compassionate spy had a moral basis. I mean, we are at a time where, you know, when Daniel Ellsberg, an expert on nuclear war fighting, revealed things, you know, he faced a long time in jail. And now you have people like Julian Assange facing hard time. So talk about our character here, the key character and his remarkable wife. This story, this movie really works because you have the wife, his wife of, what, 50 years in the movie? Some point it says 60, but I think it was more like 50. I don’t know. But tell us about it. The character that drives this movie and the real, this is a great movie to watch, I want to be unequivocal here. Powerful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this subject explored in this complex and profound way. What was the moral lens? Okay, Spy, You got somebody to kill him. Get him. No. Complex figure. Complex subject. Nuance is a word I think you’ve used. So take it from there. 

James Yeah, well, first of all, thanks for your response to the film, it means a lot to us. A great deal to us. You know, I think when when Dave first told me about Ted, I knew nothing about Ted Hall. Like most people, I knew nothing about him. Dave educated me considerably on that reading the book Bombshell. That’s where we feature the authors. In the end, the film helped a lot, but I think it was when we went to Cambridge, England, and sat down with Joan that it really impacted me personally to want to tell the story of the film. I was totally taken with Joan’s brilliance, with her commitment, with her love for Ted and her steel spine and the way in which she helped Ted through those difficult years. And of course, she’s a great storyteller. And then finding out that there was actual archival video from different sources of Ted so that she could speak to these issues from the grave, as it were. Well, that meant I wanted to do it. And, you know, I think the thing about Ted that’s remarkable to all of us that we’re involved with the film is, you know, he’s a guy that acted on conscious conscience in a profound way. You know, there were a lot of there were a lot of scientists at Los Alamos who had real misgivings about what was going on, who had misgivings about not sharing it with the Soviets. And these misgivings were even voiced in meetings and conversations. And Ted was one of the very few people who actually decided to act on it. And he did it at the age of 19. You know, I mean, it’s just kind of remarkable. And, you know, you could say, well, he was naive, he was young, brash. I don’t think he was any of those things. You know, his analysis of what could potentially happen in the world post-World War II with the U.S. having the bomb all to itself. You know, he didn’t he didn’t have access to intelligence documents that spelled out what you plan to do. He wasn’t meeting with Truman. You know, he wasn’t meeting with the generals, but he was smart enough to understand what could happen. And I think our film demonstrates and history has demonstrated that he was he had good reason to be worried. And his reasons for passing the secrets, whether you agree with them or not, were grounded and not in naivete or brashness, but in real thoughtfulness. 

Scheer Yeah, so introduce the subject more fully. I mean, tell us what he did, why it was so significant. You know, the Rosenberg case had happened and they really were accused of stealing rather minor or conveying rather minor information. These were the crown jewels. This was this serious stuff and would advance the speculation is the Russians would have got it in any way by, say, ten years, but they managed to get it in, what, four years or five years and change the whole balance of power. Right? 

James Yeah. I mean, yeah, I mean, Ted was recruited, you know, as an 18 year old out of Harvard. He was graduating Harvard with a physics degree at the age of 18, which is remarkable. He goes out there as a junior member of the team, along with some other recent graduates, and he proves himself to be very capable. And so he he is then promoted to working on the implosion theory, implosion efforts, which are more vital and crucial to the way the bomb detonated and created the chain reaction. So it was very important work and Ted was excited about the science. I mean, like a lot of the scientists, he was excited about science. He’s Jewish. His parents were from Russia. He he shared a lot of the concerns about Nazi Germany and with Germany doing the bomb. So it’s understandable in so many ways why he and so many of these scientists, many of them Jewish, wanted to work on this bomb and do this. But, you know, while he was out there, it didn’t take him long to recognize and think through what were the ramifications. And this way, you know, I don’t know Oppenheimer’s story well enough to know if Oppenheimer, from the start, had any of these reservations. My sense is that he was so caught up in in leading this effort and doing an amazing job in Libya that he did permit himself those kinds of concerns. Well, Ted did. And so Ted was moved to act one year after he got to Los Alamos. He started to pass secrets to the Soviets. He didn’t wait till after Hiroshima. He didn’t even wait till after the Trinity test. He started to pass them early because he foresaw what Oppenheimer really didn’t see until after the war. 

Scheer But Oppenheimer came under the suspicion of the government because he was on the left. He was in Berkeley on the left and so forth. And the real issue was, you know, the power of this weapon. This is not this was changing. Right. I forget the famous quote from Oppenheimer, but I’ve seen death and humanity. And they were I’ve talked to some of these people, you know, Hans Bethe, the famous German scientist who was very principally involved. And I interviewed Edward Teller when I was working at the L.A. Times on all this stuff. And they were cognizant that this would change everything on this planet. And we’re seeing that right now. The relevance of this movie, A Compassionate Spy, is that is discussing issues right now because we are up against not the Soviet Union, but the anti-Soviet Union in the sense of Putin. I mean, this is the Noncommunist Soviet Union, but nonetheless, they have nuclear weapons. So does China, you know, so does Pakistan, so does Israel and so forth. And the reality is that there’s a limit to what you can do unless—and your movie discusses this a bit—unless you do a preemptive strike. And one of the arguments was that the United States, in your movie under Truman, that there were at least were some people planning a preemptive strike. This is even before they knew how far the Russians were going, to take them out. And they thought you needed 300 of these bombs to do it. I think they were up to 200 or something, if I recall your movie correctly. But that in itself, I mean, to bomb the old Soviet Union back to the Stone Age, you know, And I mean, you know, the fact is we went through decades now where we stopped thinking about the bomb and we’ve gotten [inaudible] So now we have your movie, which I think significantly advances the discussion of Oppenheimer, because, you know, here was someone who actually intruded on history in a way that Oppenheimer didn’t. Oppenheimer went along, you know, with the whole thing here is and we said, no, I don’t believe in American exceptionalism. I don’t think it’s a good thing for one power to have it. And we you know, there’s been a check mate kind of thing. But the fact of the matter is, at this season, amazingly enough, is the season in which Hollywood and I should say your movie is being distributed, made by Magnolia. It’s a Participant film. They make great films, is a legendary history of great documentaries, made at Participant which you acknowledge in the dedication of your movie. But the fact of the matter is we are up against the reality that we have blocked out for decades now. Older people like myself hid under tables and desks. And, you know, when you went through the missile crisis with Cuba and everything, but then we forgot about the bomb. Well actually I don’t know if we came to love the bomb. We certainly came to forget it. How? You can’t. You can’t. It’s right there, a nuclear armed Russia, as you know we’re poking the bear, what’s going to happen? And so the issues you’re discussing are very real. Would a U.S. monopoly of this weapon, which couldn’t be maintained anyway, others found ways to make a bomb once it was seen to be feasible. Would it had been a safer world? And, you know, your protagonist here, he was suspicious of that. Maybe we should discuss. 

Lindorff A funny story. I have a cousin, a very close cousin who was a cop in Arizona, and when I told him I was making a movie and he said, What is it on? I told him the story and he said, So in other words, if Ted Hall hadn’t done what he did, the Russians wouldn’t be able to threaten to use nukes in Ukraine, and it probably wouldn’t have even happened. And I said, well, you know, that might be true. But the only way that the Russians wouldn’t have the bomb today would have been if the US had completely wiped the country out and killed, you know, 20 to 40 million Russians, because that was the plan to keep them from getting the bomb and it probably would have. But you have to think in terms of what the US would have done if it had the bomb. And I think, you know, look at all the history of the people that, the millions of people have been killed in US wars since 1945 and there was no qualms or compunction about killing millions of people in Indo-China and in Korea without the bomb. If they had the bomb. I’m sure it would have been done more often and faster. 

Scheer Yeah, well, why don’t we talk about the movie because you came… You are the original journalist who did this work. And I want to ask you a question. Why was he never prosecuted for this? He was followed, he was observed. 

Lindorff He was identified by Russian spy cables that were known to Hoover in 1950. And he started a full investigation into Ted and interrogated him and Saville Sax, his courier, in 1951. And then at the end of ’51, it all died into nothing. And he wasn’t, they didn’t go after him again until the mid-sixties. And the reason, we talk about it, was in the film suspected that it was because of his brother being so important to the Air Force as the head of their ICBM program. 

Scheer That would be enough of a reason?

Lindorff Well, think about it. I mean, the Russians were ahead of the US in missiles. That was what Kennedy ran on was how far ahead the Russians were. Some of it was bogus, some it was true. I mean, they were the ones who launched Sputnik. They had better rockets and the U.S. was desperate to catch up. They had this genius, Ted’s brother, 11 years older, who knew all about rockets, studied at Caltech and captured V-2 rockets and studied them. And he came up with the solid fuel Minuteman Project. He designed the motors for the Atlas and the Titan. They needed him. They couldn’t have done it without him. And so they they were desperate to make sure that he didn’t get, he wasn’t like a, you know, casualty on the side from arresting Ted. Would he have survived having a younger brother who was a known communist spy in the fifties? I doubt it. And they certainly did. 

James And the other thing the other point we make in the film is that, you know, the FBI felt and I think with good cause that the Venona documents which was the key to them knowing what Ted had done would not be something that they could use for a lot of reasons in court to prosecute Ted. And so they needed Ted. They needed other evidence, either Ted confessing or him having told people who could testify against him. And Ted was extremely careful. He never spoke about this. In fact, he and Joan, before the FBI even came calling, made a point of not speaking about it at home for fear that someone might be bugging their home, even before he even knew that the FBI was on their tail. So that’s how careful he was. 

Scheer Yeah. Talk about this couple and you actually have her in your film I mean I have to teach an ethics class. I could build the whole class around your movie but I will show it and, and so forth. Because, you know, the ethics are complex here. What was the right thing? And you actually have the son of their close friend saying, no, my father was a dangerous man who did the wrong thing. And then by the end of your movie, he’s kind of saying, well, maybe it’s more complex. But as a filmmaker, you know, a very successful filmmaker. You’ve taken on a subject that I think most people in the history of Hollywood would have avoided. Seriously. I mean, you’re asking the audience to respect, at least to the point of considering seriously, the ethics of a man who actually, as you know, maybe as opposed to the Rosenbergs even, was actually a spy. He actually… 

James Absolutely. 

Scheer Yes, he was. And to the end of his days, because you do have him at the end after he’s got serious medical, you know, he’s going to die, still at his position. And he and his wife, I don’t think it was contrived on your part. I think just show on the screen, particularly his wife, as incredible human beings. I’m amazed that that that you got this movie made, frankly. 

James Well, thank you. I mean, we couldn’t have done it without Joan, his wife. Without question. I mean, the thing one of the things that we found that was interesting is, is that, you know, Ted, in later years did have some doubts about what he had done. And he expresses some of those in the film when, you know, when it became very clear what Stalin had done in the Soviet Union, when it became very clear as to what kind of regime that was and what they were capable of and what they had done, it did give Ted pause. And I think what’s important is he said he came to realize that his his reasons for doing what he did want out of a devotion to Stalin or the Soviet government. It was out of a devotion to the lives of Russian people. And that’s where the title comes from, where he says he did it out of compassion. What’s interesting is that Joan, of the two of them, Joan is much more of the hard core in her conviction about what Ted did. She is not interested in any reconsideration of his act. She believes so fully that he did the right thing, but she makes no room for doubt. And I find that really fascinating and interesting because she really did protect him from himself at different junctures. He wanted to confess when the Rosenbergs were on trial because he knew that what he had done was far more serious than the Rosenbergs. And he thought, well, he goes to jail. And he says, Well, maybe if I confess, I can save them. And she said, you won’t save them, you’ll just destroy us. And so she kept him. She kept him from doing something that would have would have been very self-destructive to him and his family. And so, you know, Joan, John was a tough customer. And I loved the fact that we were able to show her strength and conviction as well as her love for Ted. 

Scheer Right and the smarts. 

Lindorff And I should I should mention Joan died on June 14th at 94. She got to see the film. 

Scheer She died this year? 

James Yeah. Yeah, she just died about a month ago. 

Scheer Oh, I didn’t realize. She’s a very attractive person in the film, and it should be made clear that she’s innocent of the act because she didn’t know him. 

James Absolutely. 

Scheer  But people should not have the idea that she somehow was femme fatale who goaded him into doing doing this. You know, on the contrary, he confessed to her after this was all over. He was back at the University of Chicago. Right. And where she was a student. And he was saying, maybe you don’t want to marry me because I’ve got this thing hanging and it’s a big thing. You’re going to end up having children and you can be legitimately accused of the most important theft of a secret. Right. A military secret that has had occurred. Maybe, Fuchs, the British scientist similar ,but you know and she you know, sticks to she says no I agree with the reasoning here And so and she could have bailed then or bailed after you know hey was it on my dime? And in fact, in the Julius Ethel Rosenberg case, Ethel was really quite innocent. Nobody ever nailed her. It was her brother’s had something to do with it, and they used her as bait to get Julius to change. And then she dies. She was killed by the government knowing that they knew Judge Calhoun and the others knew that she was not an agent to this. But tell us more. You know, it’s a great story of journalism in a way. And maybe, David, you should talk about it. You guys knew each other through a previous movie, right? 

Lindorff I was a reporter that was on camera in Steve’s film, Abacus. That was how I got to know Steve. And that was such a brilliant movie. 

Scheer And tell us about the movie. 

Lindorff Oh, he handled a complicated story about a bank scandal in the fiscal crisis. And he did it so well that, you know, anyone watching that movie would have understood it, which is really quite something. I am still impressed with that and with how he humanized the Chinese family that had this little family owned bank that I just thought, oh, my God, he’s got to do this film about Ted. And and he he jumped for it. 

Scheer But tell us how you got involved with the story and how then Joan wrote to you. 

Lindorff I wrote a piece in 2017 to commemorate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I did that. I used to do that every five years or so. I was trying to come up with another up with another angle. So I thought, I look up who these spies were, there’s about eight of them that spied on the Manhattan Project. And there was this rogue’s gallery and the Google search of photographs, and one of them was this pimply faced kid. And it said Ted Hall. I mean, he really looked like a high school kid and he had pimples on his forehead and stuff, you know? 

Scheer No, no. But she his future wife, is very attractive and handsome. I just want to… 

Lindorff Yes, it’s a later, you know, after he got rid of the pimples, you know, he looked up at my picture from. From his badge at the Manhattan Project. You say, this is a spy? You know. And so I looked him up and I thought, my God, if he did that as a teenager and gave critical information to the Russians, he deserves a Nobel Prize posthumously. So I wrote a piece which very provocative, is saying that he and Klaus Fuchs should both get Nobel Peace Prize for having saved the world from a US with a monopoly on the bomb after the war. And about two weeks later, I got a letter saying, Dear Dave, I’m reading your article about Ted Hall with tears in my eyes. I’m his widow and we need to talk. So, you know, I picked up on that right away, and I. 

Scheer Actually you didn’t pick up on it right away. You waited until your own daughter was graduating in England. 

Lindorff Oh, no, when I had the money to go there to graduate from Oxford, I told her I would you were coming. And she said, Oh, you have to come to my house. We were pen pals. 

Scheer Oh okay, okay. 

Lindorff And so she said, Yeah. 

Scheer You may have just said something that is very provocative, that he should have been given the Nobel Prize, Peace Prize for doing this and that Fuchs should be. And now I applaud your courage. I do in saying that. And but make the argument I mean, if you guys got the time because you say it in relation to the film. 

Lindorff Well, my thinking was and I still hold to it, that, you know, the world has come pretty close to nuclear war in a number of times. A couple of times it’s been saved by low ranking people who put the safety of humanity over their own personal safety. Russian and U.S. people have done that. But, you know, in the end, there’s been 78 years of no use in wartime, again, since the August 9th Nagasaki bombing. And I attribute that completely to mutual assured destruction, because every time it’s come close and when you read the stories, somebody flinched and said, you know, we can’t do this because we can’t pull it off without destroying our own country. It’s a suicide murder pact, you know, so it hasn’t happened. And I don’t think it’ll happen in Ukraine for the same reason. But it but it’s it can come very close. So, you know, looking back at the undeniable 78 years, I think that’s quite an accomplishment already. So that’s why I thought a Nobel Peace Prize is in order. 

Scheer You know… 

James  I want to I just want to add that the film doesn’t make that position. We do not, this is Dave’s strong view. I you know, I the film is very sympathetic towards what Ted did and humanize the images, as you said, and helping us understand him and not vilifying him. And to me that was important. Whether he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, that’s a whole different issue. Yeah. 

Scheer But, you know, it’s it’s interesting because many of the scientists. We don’t have a headcount or so forth. This was the tension between them and General Groves and the military people, they knew. You know, the justification was only that the Germans, the Nazis, could get this weapon. Once it was made clear that the Nazis were not going to have this weapon, then the question is, why are you continuing? And what’s more, when the Nazis have surrendered? Why are you using this against the Japanese who were not developing or, as far as we know, didn’t have anything like it? And we should point out to people, the weapon we’re talking about is minor compared to what we go on to develop. You know, Dave, he reminds me of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I don’t know if you come from the same part of the country, but Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a commander in the U.S. Navy, and he visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki right after the bombing. And he said it made him an instant pacifist. And, you know, the recognition and this scientist did have a large number of them, even though there was a party at Los Alamos, even though they celebrated the successful explosion, there’s no question that they knew you. You’re unleashing the potential for the end of all life on the planet. We are, let’s I know you guys have been very patient with your time, but, you know, there’s a reason, I think, why the Oppenheimer movie is so important and successful commercially. And I think hopefully it will extend to Compassionate Spy, your documentary, because I think your argument takes it one step further, an important step further. And that really is the limit of patriotism. What we’re really talking about, because you have a lot of countries, a number of countries that have this weapon or some very higher power variation of it. And they have their nationalism. They have their patriotism, you know. And, you know, one could argue about whether if we had a monopoly, how dangerous would the world be? There’s a scene in your movie you got out of the clippings where Harry Truman seems goofy when he goes on the radio. I mean, I had to go back and rewind it and watch it again and again. He is almost giddy. 

James He is giddy. Well, this is. Yeah, I mean, this is when he announced to the world really what the U.S. had done in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And it was it’s a very important historical announcement. And there’s film of that, which we have. And what’s interesting is, is that between the takes, we also have that, too. So he puts on a serious face when he’s speaking about what they did. But in between, he’s laughing and positively giddy. And, you know, I think history has shown that he was he was beside himself and the U.S. leadership was beside itself with this profound development and this advantage that they knew they had and that they were going to take into the postwar world. And they didn’t fail to exercise that power as needed. And so, yeah, I mean, he was… 

Lindorff Twice in the forties, in ’46 and ’48, they threatened Russia with attack. So they were using it. 

James And that scene in Oppenheimer where Oppenheimer goes to visit Truman is actually quite accurate. The exchange they had when Oppenheimer said he felt like he had the blood of people on his hands. Truman was sort of beside himself with who is this crybaby? You know, it’s like this is what we have to do. And so, you know, it’s rather chilling. And when you see that moment in the film where he’s laughing uproariously and then puts on his serious face to say something serious, it’s very disconcerting. 

Scheer Yeah. And remember that Truman was the haberdasher from St. Louis, and he had been replaced by Henry Wallace, who actually was much more open to trying to understand the Russians and what their concern. And there’s actually lying about this weapon. And, you know, in the conference they had where Stalin was there. And but I think your movie opens up the major argument about where we are now and how we got here. And that’s why I think it’s called A Compassionate Spy. And it’s opening August 4th, I think is the date, and hopefully it’ll get a good distribution, particularly given the attention of Oppenheimer, there should be. But also let’s conclude this, though, with the timeliness of it. The fact of the matter is we’re we’re not just talking, first of all, about the old Soviet Union, which is gone, but the weapons remain. And now we know that in country after country they have these weapons. It turned out once you made the bomb. Then it could be made by others. That is the, you know. Hey, oh, it can be done? Yes, well, we can figure it out. You really didn’t need spying. There is actually not much evidence that other, you know, nations that have developed it relied heavily on the spying. They’re able to do it. You know how to do it. And you actually can advance the weapon. So we are at a moment in history where the concerns of your 18, 19 year old character in here. Right? Are more relevant than ever. And strangely absent from the thoughts of most people of any age. It is a very peculiar moment, at least when the Cuban Missile Crisis was on, it had the attention of all Americans. But we are now poking the bear, whatever you think about what’s happening in Ukraine or whatever you think what’s happening with China and Taiwan and so forth. We are in a situation where most people have lost perspective of what these weapons do. You know, this is really quite startling and underscores the importance of the movie you have made because it confronts it, you know, front and center. Should the bomb have been made? Should it have been used? You know, and there’s a real compelling reason to think, no. That it shouldn’t have been made. You know, now whether it would have been made elsewhere, people would have tried. We don’t know to what degree. But the fact is, we are living in a time right now where the end of life on this planet could happen this week. 

James Yeah. 

Scheer Right. I mean, you know, with conventional weapons, I you know, there’s real damage in Russia. Moscow. Petersburg. And at some point you’ve already called these people war criminals, you know, they’re not going to go into Nuremburg. You know, are there are not people in their system who would say, we have to push the button, we have to do this because there were people… Your movie makes a very important point. I think you said it at the end, we are the only people who’ve ever used these bombs to kill people. Right? You want to conclude on that or then let me ask you one final question. You’re an honored filmmaker. You’re a success. And I you know, you decided to make this movie now. Right. I mean, you. How long did you work on this? 

James I would say it was at least a couple of years in the making, if not a little longer because of the pandemic. 

Scheer Yeah, but, you know, and you were able to find a humanity in the scoundrel. No, seriously. I mean, you. I’m not saying he was a scoundrel. But, you know, people are having trouble finding humanity in Edward Snowden or Julian Assange like they did in Daniel Ellsberg. Well, those people didn’t steal any military secrets. And they, you know, they in any real way. I mean, but, you know, they challenged what the government was doing to us and our privacy and so forth. Ellsberg showed a scholarly study about Vietnam that was withheld from the people. He didn’t give secrets about how you trigger a nuclear explosion. Your me raises the possibility that and you don’t agree, I gather, with Dave that he should get a Nobel Prize. But nonetheless, you just got a message. We should wrap this up. So let me put the $64 question to you. As an artist, tou got into the brain of Ted and Joan. Did it not change your thinking? You were not compelled? 

James Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think one of the I took many things away from this project, but I think one of the things, first and foremost is, in fact, how we define courage and and patriotism like you said earlier, it’s sort of like from Ted’s point of view, he acted on conviction. He acted to try to do right by the world. That was his that was his focus. And he worried about his own country as much as he loved his country and as much as he wanted his country to prevail and the allies to prevail in World War Two, he acted on conscience and out of a deep concern for humanity, and that I admire in him, that I admire in him. And sometimes that takes you know, sometimes that kind of courage and conviction takes a path that we do not expect, especially in this day and age, as you were just saying. When people are ready to vilify everyone for anything. I mean, he really was like Edward Snowden in the sense he went into a situation, a true believer in what he was doing. And then he started to have real questions about what he was doing and where it would lead. And that provoked him to act in a way that some people would would view as traitorous. But he followed his conscience and his convictions, and for that, I think he deserves great respect. 

Scheer And he went on to lead a scientifically productive life. 

James Absolutely. Some people think he might have won a Nobel Prize in physics had he not done what he’d done because he pulled back in so many ways in his subsequent career from some of the things to avoid any suspicion. But some people think that he could very well have won a Nobel Prize in physics. That I think it’s possible. 

Scheer He went. 

Lindorff Into biophysics for that reason. I would say there’s an interesting quote in the movie that Ted said that really explains him. He said when he was older, looking back at it is and knowing what he knows now about Stalin, he said, I probably wouldn’t have had the stomach if I’d known that to do what I did. But I think that the young man who did that did the right thing. 

Scheer And let me just throw in one last because they’re going to pull the plug on me here. We’re always asked the question about the person who objects and does this, the Ted Halls. But what about all the other people who went along? Why didn’t they question it? Why didn’t they challenge it in any kind of way? You know, that question you could ask about Julian Assange and not just, okay, Julian Assange did that or it was done, but what about the other people who all knew all this and don’t speak up? And, you know, your movie forces that issue because you don’t demonize this guy, you make us confront him. On that note, let me end this. I want to thank, the movie, by the way, A Compassionate Spy opening August 4th. And I’ve been talking to Steve James, the director, and David Lindorff, the person who originally broke this story, did the investigative work, to Magnolia Pictures, was created by Participant. And I want to thank Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho at KCRW, the FM NPR station in Santa Monica, for hosting this and posting it. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, Diego Ramos, who writes the intro, Max Jones, who does all the video and the J.K.W. Foundation in memory of Jean Stein, who did a lot of independent journalism worthy of respect. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

* indicates required
CC-BY-NC-ND is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license. CC-BY-NC-ND only applies to ORIGINAL ScheerPost content.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments