Every day, it seems, The New York Times reports on the death of another American Communist, or an American Communist who saw fit to join up with the KGB as an espionage agent for Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. This time, the obituary by Sam Roberts is about Judith Coplon, who over sixty years ago was arrested by the FBI in a classic sting operation. The Bureau’s agents, having received solid data from the then secret Venona decrypts of KGB messages from Moscow Central to its American agents, fed her false data about atomic power. As they hoped, the 27-year-old Coplon, who was then working at the Justice Department as a political analyst, took off to meet her lover and handler, KGB agent Valentin A. Gubitchev, to whom she planned to hand over the materials.
The Russian and Coplon were both arrested in 1949 under the Third Avenue subway line (which no longer exists) in Manhattan, and Coplon was caught red-handed. As it turned out, America’s democratic legal system protects even those Americans who were actual Soviet agents. Coplon, although found guilty by the jury of espionage in 1949 and conspiracy with Gubitchev in 1950, had both of the convictions overturned. The FBI neglected to follow protocol; they illegally heard conversations with her lawyer, and also had arrested her on “probable cause” without a necessary warrant for her arrest.
Thus the civil liberties of the system Coplon wanted to destroy worked to protect her, even though she was totally guilty. Like Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, Coplon went to her death proclaiming that she was not a Communist and that she was innocent. “The only crime I can be said to be guilty of,” Coplon had later said, “is that I knew a Russian.” She also said: “I will always say that I’m innocent and that I’m being framed.”
What is most amazing about her passing, however, is the defense on her behalf told to Roberts by Coplon’s daughter, Emily Socolov. Like historian Staughton Lynd, whom I noted a week ago acknowledged the Rosenbergs’ guilt but argued that the couple had a moral obligation as Communists and “citizens of the world” to spy for the Soviet Union. Socolov told the following to journalist Roberts:
The subject of her innocence or guilt was something that she would strictly not address…It’s very hair-raising to read about your mother being given a code name and moved around like a chess piece. Was she a spy? I think it’s another question that I ask: Was she part of a community that felt that they were going to bring, by their actions, an age of peace and justice and an equal share for all and the abolishing of color lines and class lines?
If these were things that she actually did, she was not defining them as espionage. If you feel that what you’re doing answers to a higher ideal, it’s not treason.