The Untold History of the Start of the Nuclear Arms Race with Dave Lindorff; & Ongoing Attacks on Freedom of the Press Must Stop

by Kate Horgan
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The Untold History of the Start of the Nuclear Arms Race with Dave Lindorff; & Ongoing Attacks on Freedom of the Press Must Stop

’Tis the season of the bomb. Muckraking investigate reporter and author David Lindorff joins Mickey Huff to discuss his forthcoming book: Spy For No Country: The Story of Ted Hall the Teenage Atomic Spy Who May Have Saved the World. Lindorff is also a producer of the documentary about Hall by filmmaker Steve James, The Compassionate Spy, that’s playing currently in theaters along with the Hollywood Blockbuster Oppenheimer, giving viewers the very important but untold history of the nuclear arms race. In the second half of the show, co-hosts Mickey Huff and Eleanor Goldfield sit down to discuss some of the more egregious recent attacks on free press in the land of the free, and why this issue must be one of the top issues for everyone regardless of what other political issues they’re most passionate about.

Read more about this topic here in an article by the Project’s Associate Director, Andy Lee Roth.

Video of the Interview with Dave Lindorff

Below is a Rough Transcript of the Interview with Dave Lindorff

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Mickey Huff: Welcome to the Project Censored Show on Pacifica Radio. I’m your host, Mickey Huff.

Today on the program in this segment, I am delighted to bring back longtime ally of Project Censored, intrepid, muckraking, independent reporter, author, David Lindorff. It’s been a couple years since we’ve had Dave on the program, and the last time we had Lindorff on the show, we talked about the amazing story of Ted Hall, a little known story of Ted Hall as a teenage science prodigy who worked on the World War Two Manhattan Project and turns out shared atomic secrets with the USSR to ensure the U. S. wouldn’t be the world’s only possessor of nuclear weapons. Lindorff, of course, has gone on to be a consultant on a version of this that has been made into a film, A Compassionate Spy, by documentary filmmaker Steve James. Very quickly, I want to give a proper introduction to our guest, Dave Lindorff, because it’s been a minute since, we’ve had him on the program.

Dave is a veteran investigative journalist, having worked as a Businessweek correspondent, Los Angeles County Government Bureau Chief, For the Los Angeles Daily News and later a reporter, producer of Los Angeles PBS station KCET, Peabody award winning investigative news program 28 Tonight, Lindorff’s won major journalism awards, including the 2019 Izzy Award for Outstanding Independent Media at the Park Center for Independent Media.

And of course, I just talked to their executive director, Raza Rumi, not long ago. But, Dave Lindorff, you’ve also been a Fulbright professor. You’ve got many, many other accolades. And of course, you’ve had numerous stories over the years featured in the Project Censored’s Top 25, because of your great muckraking and independent investigative reporting.

Dave Lindorff, warm welcome back to the program.

David Lindorff: Thanks for having me.

Mickey Huff: It is certainly my pleasure. Dave, you also have authored a book coming out this fall on Prometheus. It is, Spy for No Country, the story of Ted Hall, the teenage atomic spy, who may have saved the world. That’s supposed to be out later this fall, but Dave Lindorf, again, we talked about this last time you were on the show, Let’s dive in from there.

You’ve now completed the book, the film has been hitting the festival circuit, and there’s a renewed interest and attention to Oppenheimer, right? The great Hollywood blockbuster of the summer. I had Peter Kuznick on, historian, talking about that not long ago, sort of what was missed, but I think people’s attention is kind of turned toward this, interestingly, right now, which makes your story, I think, even more significant and important, and it might have some pretty long legs. Dave Lindorff.

David Lindorff: Yeah, I’m pretty excited. Actually, I’m actually going down to Washington tomorrow to speak after the screening of the film at a theater, which has sold out. I mean, they told me that all the seats are full. So they’re pretty excited. You know, we’re getting a good response.

People who see it walk away stunned. And that story and stunned at the information about what the world was like back then, because you don’t get that in American history, this, this movie and the book, especially really shows the hidden history of the atomic bomb, because you have to know that, and I know for young people, this is going to be shocking news.

Our main ally in World War Two in Europe was the Soviet Union, and most Americans just assume, you know, 1939 the US declared war on Japan and Germany, and then we went in and beat the crap out of them and at the end we won the war. Well, we didn’t even go in until late 1943. And that was in a minor way in Italy. And we really didn’t go in in a majorly way, z until D Day, which was in June of 1944. And so the, the major U. S. fighting in Europe was less than a year. It was 11 months. And the reason we were able to do it in that time to get where we got was that the Red Army had beaten the crap out of the Wehrmacht.

And they, by the time The U. S. came in German troops were fleeing from the Red Army to get back into Germany as fast as they could, and most of their military hardware was left in Russia, destroyed and, you know, smashed up, unusable

Mickey Huff: and the Soviets lost millions of people.

David Lindorff: 20 million.

Mickey Huff: Yeah, yeah, it’s incredible. It’s an incredible story that is part of the story that you’re going to tell here.

And I just started the semester again the other day, and a mutual friend of ours, Peter Kuznick, I use the untold history book in class, and I was starting to talk about some of the story. And, you know, given that people’s attention has been usually in the United States, people’s attention about the past requires some kind of, you know, some kind of cajolery or some kind of pop culture trickery, like at the movies, like right now with Oppenheimer, right? Where Americans unfortunately are treated to a, well, let’s just say not a very full history or a complete history, and the stuff that you’re talking about is more of that untold or that hidden history.

That really gives a more of a proper context on what happened in the world after World War II, and of course, you situate Ted Hall’s story kind of, basically in the middle of that.

David Lindorff: Yeah, it’s very important to know this history because Ted Hall was 18 when he was hired. He was actually 17 when he was interviewed, and by the Manhattan Project.

And he was, he was a Harvard junior when he was interviewed at 18. Not just an ordinary junior, a brilliant junior and a physics major. And he was recommended by John van Fleck, you know, a major astrophysicist and, he started working the 28th of January of 1944, which at which point he had finished his junior year, and he worked on the bomb for about nine months until September, and as he was working there, Germany was getting defeated by the Red Army, and by September, it was being bombed on an all day, all night basis.

And the and the Wehrmacht was in full flight and, back to back to Germany’s borders and, and Ted started to wonder for and not just him, but but, you know, a large number of senior scientists worried what are we building this bomb for if Germany is never going to get the bomb, which they clearly are not at this point, and and some of them were going, you know, like Szilard and, Leo Szilard and, Niels Bohr were going to the government and saying, Don’t do this, you know, don’t use it on Japan.

Don’t make the bomb in some cases. Joseph Rotblat, another senior scientist quit the project because he said, this shouldn’t be made anymore. And I don’t want to be part of it. And, because of that, he had the FBI on his tail. They were not letting him leave the country. And the same with Niels Bohr. He was also followed.

Roosevelt had the FBI you know, watch him to make sure he didn’t leave the country. The ally Russia at that time was suddenly turned into our new enemy. And, and there actually was a moment when Leslie Groves, the head of the project, the military guy, general, he was at a dinner in September with, that hosted by the British scientists at the project in Los Alamos, and at, during dessert, he said, You know, of course, Germany was never the real target for building this bomb.

It was controlling the Soviet Union, and that went around the camp because in Los Alamos, the deal was inside the camp, you could talk about anything .Outside the camp, it was, you know, you couldn’t talk about a thing. Couldn’t even say what was being made or that it was nuclear or anything. So inside the camp, this rocketed around and a lot of people were pretty upset.

And one of them was Ted Hall, unlike the others who were sending, you know, there was a petition of 70 senior scientists saying, don’t use the bomb on Japan. There were, there was a lot of, a lot of dissension, a lot of meetings being held of saying, what are we going to do with it? Why are we doing this? And that kind of thing that Oppenheimer was upset about that’s shown in the movie sort of, but, but at any rate, Ted felt that something more direct had to be done and he had to take action because he first of all, he didn’t know there were other spies in this in the program. He thought he was the only one because the Russians kept everybody siloed so they wouldn’t spill the beans if they got caught. And so he thought it fell, fell to him. His term was I, it fell to me to do something.

So he decided he had to give all the information he had about the plutonium bomb, which was everything because that was what he was working on, especially the implosion system, which was the crucial fact of how to make the plutonium bomb work, to the Soviet Union and to allow them to get a bomb, not because he thought, Stalin was great.

He understood that there were some, some bad things going on, but because as, as David Swanson said in reviewing the film: What else could he have done? Could he have told, you know, could he have gone public? No. Could he have just quit the project like Roadblatt? Would that have stopped it? No. You know, could he, could he turn to another country? England? You know, France, would they stop the Americans? No, there was only one country that could stop the Americans from using the bomb at will when it got a monopoly on it, which was what was going to happen, unless the Russians got the bombs and they weren’t going to get it either before, you know, they could be attacked to prevent them from doing it.

So he said, I got to give them the ability to get the bomb quickly, which is what he did.

Mickey Huff: It’s a remarkable story, again, certainly not in the Oppenheimer film, the Christopher Nolan, you know, summer blockbuster that we’re seeing here, and, and the book on which it’s based, American Prometheus, you, you had mentioned off air that there were a couple pages in the book itself that mentioned or go talk a little bit about about Hall. But again, that stuff gets cut on the editing room floor or perhaps was never considered at all. You conducted some interviews, you had access to newly released files. You know, tell us a little bit about some of the people you interacted with talk with, you know, spoke with that that really help make this story come to life.

David Lindorff: Well, you know, first of all, I want to say that the real reason the movie came to life was because I got a great director interested, Steve James, who immediately saw after, after I told him about Joan Hall, the widow of Ted Hall, the only one alive in this whole story, who just died, by the way, on June 14th of this year, at 94.

Mickey Huff: Wow.

David Lindorff: She got to see the movie, though. She was very excited. She saw it last October in a Cambridge film festival. I was there, she got on stage, talked about it from her wheelchair. She’s an amazing woman, very sharp minded right to, till the end. But, you know, I, I told Steve, you gotta see this woman.

And he said, yep. Okay, we do. It’s all gonna hang on how compelling she is. And she, you know, he fell in love with her as a film subject, and as I had for a book subject in the first place. And, so we, we decided that we could make a film. I was a producer on the film, not just a consultant.

And, Steve saw her and he said, we can make a documentary with Joan. So he committed to it. He got it bought by Participant. And so we had all the money we needed to do the film the way he wanted to do it. But he saw this as a love story and it’s cast that way. And I think if I had made the film, which was originally what I thought I might have to do, it would have been a political film, dry as dust, nobody would have watched it.

And, you know, it would have gone into some can somewhere. And, maybe they’d dredge it up 50 years later. It just would have gone nowhere, but the love story really has done it. Everybody, even people who think that, you know, we’re being one sided or whatever some of the criticisms have been in presenting this story, say that Joan Hall is an amazing character and carries the film and I totally agree.

But, that said, that I think the other key person that I brought into the film was finding Daniel Axelrod.

Now, Daniel Axelrod is a nuclear physicist, and he, wrote a book back in the middle of the 1980s with Michio Kaku, who’s an astrophysicist, who’s somewhat of a celebrity, you know, as a popularizer of physics and astrophysics, on the faculty of CUNY’s physics department.

Mickey Huff: And on Pacifica and NPR. Kaku is a very well known force for decades. Yes.

David Lindorff: Yeah. So, so these guys wrote this book, which was, you know, effusively footnoted using top secret nuclear strategy documents from the 40s and the 50s. And what they showed is that the US began, and I had never known this before and the book, the book didn’t have many sales and nobody even knows about it, but I stumbled on it and then found Dan, and what they show is that the U. S. even before the war ended, decided to start trying to industrialize production of the plutonium bomb and the uranium bomb. And they had difficulty for the first two years, but by 1947, they were making about 10 a month. And the goal, they also found letters and, and communications between Truman and his national security advisors and the military strategists at the Pentagon that the Pentagon estimated that they would need 400 bombs the size of Nagasaki in order to destroy Russia as a industrial society and prevent it from getting its own bomb. And that was a strat, that was a plan. And they, they developed these, these plans as the number of bombs increased, they developed plans with names like Pinscher, Broiler, Scorcher, you know, lovely names, what they were going to do to the Soviet Union. And the limitation was they didn’t have enough bombs to totally destroy Russia. They were afraid that the Red Army would move into Europe as a, you know, reaction to that and to take take over Western European countries, which were destroyed right then and couldn’t have fought him off.

I think it was a wacky fear, but that’s what they thought. And they didn’t have the bombers, more importantly, to carry all these bombs into the interior industrial areas of Russia that had been built during the war to get them away from where the Nazis were. And so They the B 29 was the only bomber that could carry the bomb and it couldn’t go that far.

They talked about having suicide runs where they would just crash them in Siberia and let the crew try to make their way out of Russia. They dropped that plan and decided to wait until just before A-day, which was when they thought the Russians would have enough bombs to retaliate effectively. So, so really A-day was in 1954, and so they held off after the Russians got the bomb. And that’s the important point.

The Russians got the bomb in August 29th, 1949. The U. S. had 250, 230 bombs at that point, 230. And that wasn’t enough. So that, that whole story about building those bombs to attack Russia in a preemptive attack is not known by the American people.

Mickey Huff: By and large, yeah, that’s not told, but so I just want to remind our listeners I’m speaking to Dave Lindorff, independent journalist and producer of this new film, A Compassionate Spy, which is, which is made by Steve James an engrossing documentary telling the story of Ted Hall.

Of course, Dave Lindorff is the author of the book Spy for No Country, the story of Ted Hall, the teenage atomic spy who may have saved the world. That book will be out later this fall. But Dave Lindorff, again, continue. Ted Hall then, as you see, the, the spy who may have saved the world, by creating this mutually assured destruction type thing. That’s the deal.

David Lindorff: That’s right.

So for him, that was the key, you know, that, that if he didn’t want mutual assured destruction, I don’t think he, in his wildest imagination, thought that that kind of thing could happen. It was crazy to spend trillions of dollars competing with each other to try one upsmanship. Usually with, always with the US doing the one upsmanship and the Russians racing to try to keep up close enough that they couldn’t be attacked, and, and it’s been that way ever since.

He thought, I think rationally that if the Soviets had the bomb, the US had the bomb, they both realized that it was pointless because they couldn’t use them against each other or anywhere else. And that did work for 78 years so far. Which is quite amazing.

But, he thought that once they realized that, they would talk and come to a conclusion to do, you know, through the UN or whatever, what, was done with chemical weapons and germ weapons after World War I, when people saw the, the horrors of that, he thought. When they see the horrors of the bomb, they’re going to do the same thing, or even the potential horrors of the bomb, and he was pretty upset at the results that happened instead.

But nonetheless, he did say, you know, I was, he says something to the effect that, you know, I was a naïve and, you know, a sort of, cocky young man when I was a spy. And I wouldn’t probably have had the stomach to do what I did if I had known fully how horrible the crimes of Stalin were.

Looking back, I’m glad that the kid I was did what he did.

Mickey Huff: Yeah, that’s a fascinating story. So, a young person with conscience who, I mean, in another sense, one might argue, is a, is a whistleblower. And, I mean, that’s not an inaccurate depiction of that, that kind of work that Ted Hall did.

David Lindorff: Well, where would he, you know, I think Dave Swanson…[glitchy internet]

where would he have gone with that information? You know, nobody would have published it, first of all, and, quitting wouldn’t have helped. And so he really was, in a sense, blowing the whistle to the only place he could, which was the Soviet Union.

Mickey Huff: Well, I mean, Hoover, FBI director J Edgar Hoover was investigating Hall, right?

David Lindorff: Yeah, he he was exposed in 1950 with one of the first known cables translated the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB actually goofed up in their cable and mentioned his name and his courier roommate friend, Savile Sacks, by name, in code, of course, but by name, and, and also their spy name, Malad, for, for young one, for Ted, and Star, for old one, for, Savile Sacks, who was a year older, and so it was really easy once they cracked the code, to find out who the spy was.

And so right away, Hoover did, had the whole FBI looking for where he was, found out he was at the University of Chicago, working on his doctorate and sicked the FBI on him and he got grilled in 1951 for 3 hours by the head of the investigation and another guy and his roommate was investigated at the same time in another room without him knowing it.

But then they dropped the case within a, within half a year. [digital glitching]

He was promoted, and he, I’m sorry this happened…His brother, 11 years older, Ed Hall, was the top rocket scientist for the Air Force, and was the inventor of the Minuteman, so the Air Force shut down Hoover in 1951.

Mickey Huff: So, really quickly, David, David Lindorff, you cut out a little bit there, we had a glitch, but we did hear, I think we did hear, that the, the case was eventually dropped, so there was the investigation, and you say by 1953, the Air Force pressured the F B I to stop investigating?

David Lindorff: Yeah. I got Ed Hall’s, the, the older brother Ed Hall’s, F B I file, which they first denied having. And, the Air Force said it was destroyed, even though he was promoted to Colonel and is in the Space and Missile Hall of Fame for the Air Force. So, of course, they have a file on him, but he was not a spy but his importance to the Air Force was so great that they knew that in the 50s, [digital glitching] and McCarthy and everything, if Ted was a nuclear spy, they would immediately, well, Hoover already had discovered that Ed Hall was his brother, and was working on top secret, you know, projects, building the motors for the Atlas, the Titan, the Polaris, and the whole concept of a solid fuel ICBM, the Minuteman was his missile.

And so the Air Force knew they’d lose him and they didn’t want to lose him. So they just shut Hoover down.

Mickey Huff: Selective McCarthyism.

David Lindorff: Selective, really, really selective McCarthyism. I’m sure that really burned Hoover to not be able to go after Ted because he really didn’t ever get a real nuclear spy. He didn’t get credit for Fuchs because the MI5 did it.

And so he really didn’t get, he had a minor spy, you know, he had, he had Julius who wasn’t even in the Manhattan Project, and he had Greenglass, who found, who drew a bad drawing of a lens used for the plutonium thing. He didn’t know anything about the bomb. He just was outside of the research.

Mickey Huff: Well, Dave, this is a riveting story and when we talked two years ago, when you were embarking really on this project, I remember, you know, you, you were knocking on a lot of doors and, you seemed to have a hard time finding a publisher and, but that’s all changed of course, and now that the film, and I remember you, you pitched and predicted this basically, you said, I know that if this story is told and that this film comes out, that it will be, it’ll be a great companion for people to do a deep dive into the research through the book.

And so these things really pair well together. This film that’s been out, making the film festival rounds, and now, the film of course is called A Compassionate Spy, and the book is Spy for No Country: the story of Ted Hall, the teenage atomic spy who may have saved the world. It’s, it’s been a pretty nice, synergistic, past year for you.

David Lindorff: I think it’s going to continue because next year is the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so there’s still going to be a lot to write about, what the nuclear era has been all about. I mean, our film makes it clear what happened [digital glitching] to the post bomb… That did not show up in Oppenheimer at all.

Just in a surrealistic way when, when all the people supporting him and clapping were suddenly roasted, you know, but, there’s plenty of pictures of the real destruction that are mind boggling where people are, bodies are just ash in the, where they fell.

Mickey Huff: And of course we also have, we also know through other documents , right?

Oh, Dave, we’re having another issue with the, some of the internet connection.

But, it, it’s true. There are other documentaries and projects that have looked more deeply at the human cost, the environmental cost downwind from Trinity, the atomic tests and the Marshall Islands bikini attoll, the documentary Nuclear Savage documents the extraordinary sort of racist decimation of people’s lives, communities, indigenous peoples, whether in the southwestern United States or around the world. So, Dave Lindorff, we only have a couple minutes left, I wanted you to give information to people where they can find information, where they might, the book is not out yet, but it’ll be out, this fall.

David Lindorff: Sometime this fall, and hopefully early.

Mickey Huff: I know it’s slated for December, but you said there’s hope that it might be out early. Is the film available to see for people?

David Lindorff: The film is now available in theaters. Tell your theater to contact Magnolia, the distributor, and this, and get, and that, you know, because it’s being received really well when it’s, when it’s played. It also is available now for streaming on Amazon Prime and Vudu. I think it’s called.

Mickey Huff: So, so Dave Lindorff, can you give information, a website for you, a way people can follow more of your work? I mean, again, this is an extraordinary project that you’ve been working on for some time, both producing the film and also the book that’s coming out this fall on Ted Hall.

But again, I want to remind listeners that you are a veteran investigative muckraking reporter in every great way, in every way that that entails. You’ve been doing this for a very long time. And you just have a treasure trove of amazing independent journalism that, that, people should really know about if they don’t already.

So can you please give some people some places to find your work? I know you’ve done counterpunch, this can’t be happening, but give people a couple of places to find your work.

David Lindorff: [digital glitch] if people go to this can’t be, which is a collectively run journalism news site I founded. I put everything I do on that site…[digital glitch]

Mickey Huff: So the website for Dave Lindorff’s work is this can’t be happening. net. You can see all of his work there. His new book will be out this fall, Spy for No Country, the story of Ted Hall, the teenage atomic spy who may have saved the world will be out on Prometheus and also, producer behind the film about the same subject with Steve James, a compassionate spy.

Dave Lindorff, as ever and always, thanks for your very important work historically, journalistically, always amazing to catch up with you and talk with you. I really appreciate you taking the time to come back to the Project Censored show today.

David Lindorff: And thank you for having me on, Mickey.

Mickey Huff: Always a pleasure, Dave, always.

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