In 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for stealing the secret of the atom bomb. Now–through never-before-seen interviews–NOVA uncovers who really stole it.
NOVA presents "Secrets, Lies & Atomic Spies": Tuesday, February 5, 2002, at 8 PM ET on PBS
It's Friday, June 19, 1953. Ted Hall, a 28 year-old biophysicist from New York, and his wife, Joan, 24, are driving to a dinner north of the city. The road takes them past Sing Sing Prison. Joan Hall remembers, "As we drove by, the sun was setting. ... It was large over the river going down." At the same time, inside Sing Sing, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were being executed in the electric chair–the only Americans ever to die for conspiracy to commit espionage.
Joan Hall: "We rode ... watching the sun go down and feeling indescribable. And we didn't say anything, not a word."
The judge who sentenced the Rosenbergs claimed they´d stolen the secret of America's atom bomb and given it to the Soviet Union. But that wasn't true; the spy who stole some of the most important secrets of the atom bomb was Ted Hall. He'd had been the youngest physicist working on the bomb at Los Alamo. What Hall and his fellow scientist/spy, Klaus Fuchs, gave to the Soviets saved them enormous amounts of time and money. The Washington Post's Michael Dobbs explains: "It probably helped the Soviet Union build a bomb two or three years before they would otherwise have managed to do so."
The government uncovered these spies by reading secret Soviet espionage cables sent in an unbreakable code. In one of the greatest counter-intelligence exploits ever, American and British code breakers found a way to read the secret Soviet messages. The code breaking project was given the meaningless code name, VENONA. "In terms of sheer determination and sheer marshalling of machine and man power in innovative ways it I think it was extraordinary," says Stephen Budiansky, author of Battle of Wits, "because the odds were so stacked against any success. "
The VENONA decodes reveal that a massive Soviet spy network penetrated the US government during World War Two. "There was not a single agency of the American government that the Soviets had not infiltrated," insists historian Harvey Klehr, "ranging from the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, to the Justice Department, to the Treasury Department, to the State Department, to all of the wartime defense agencies."
Even more incredible, the government knew about these spies ... as early as 1948 but kept the information secret until the end of the cold war. The decodes raise serious concerns about the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Their older son, Michael, was ten when his parents died: "They arrested a small fry spy ... took his wife as a hostage, put a gun to her head and told him, 'Talk or we'll not only kill you, we'll kill her.' And when he wouldn't talk, they murdered her in cold blood."
The government knew that Ted Hall had done far more damage than the Rosenbergs, but he never was prosecuted. And the truth about Soviet espionage was kept from the American public for nearly fifty years.