Morris Cohen (spy)

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Morris Cohen on a Russian stamp

Morris Cohen, also known in Britain by his alias Peter Kroger, (July 2, 1910 – June 23, 1995) was an American convicted of espionage for the Soviet Union. His wife Lona was also an agent.

Birth and education[edit]

He was born in New York City. His father was from an area near Kiev in present-day Ukraine, and his mother was born in Vilnius in present-day Lithuania. Cohen received an athletic scholarship as an outstanding rugby union player to attend Columbia University.

In 1937, Cohen joined the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion and fought as a foreign national volunteer in the Spanish Civil War with compatriot Amadeo Sabatini, veteran and career Soviet spy. Cohen was injured and in November 1938 returned to the United States where he began serving Soviet foreign intelligence.

Marriage[edit]

The Cohens’ house in Ruislip was found to be full of transmitting equipment

In 1941, Cohen married Lona Cohen who was an activist in the Communist Party USA and a courier for Manhattan Project physicist Theodore Hall, part of a ring of atomic spies that was revealed later to have been far more damaging than the well-known Rosenberg ring.

In mid-1942, Cohen was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in Europe. Cohen was demobilized from the Army in November 1945 and returned to the United States where he resumed his espionage work for the Soviet Union.

As Soviet spy networks were compromised in this period, connection with Soviet intelligence was temporarily ended, but resumed in 1948, when the Rezidentura ascertained that Cohen could be approached. Together with Lona Cohen, they ensured the continued secret connection with a number of the most valuable sources of the Rezidentura. They began working with Col. Rudolph Abel up to 1950, at which time they secretly left the United States and went to the Soviet Union.

In 1954, the Cohens reappeared in London, living at 45 Cranley Drive in Ruislip, where they had numerous pieces of disguised spy equipment, and an antenna looping around their attic, used for their transmissions to Moscow. Their cover was as antiquarian book dealers under the names of Peter and Helen Kroger, and they worked with Gordon Lonsdale of Soviet intelligence. Morris became the British illegal resident.

Arrest[edit]

British security officials arrested the Cohens on January 7, 1961, for their part in a Soviet espionage network known as the Portland Spy Ring that had penetrated the Royal Navy. Morris and Lona served eight years in prison, less than half of their sentences.

Prisoner exchange[edit]

In 1967, the Soviet Union admitted that the Cohens were spies, and, in July 1969, Britain exchanged them for Gerald Brooke, a British subject held in the Soviet Union.[1] Such exchanges had happened before. Notable examples included Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for U2 pilot Gary Powers and Gordon Lonsdale for Greville Wynne; but Harold Wilson's Labour Government was criticised by the opposition for agreeing to release dangerous Soviet agents like Peter and Helen Kroger (i.e., the Cohens) in exchange for Brooke, a mere propagandist. Opponents claimed that it set a dangerous precedent and was an example of blackmail rather than a fair exchange.

Moscow[edit]

The Cohens returned to Moscow, and Morris continued to train younger colleagues for intelligence gathering. It is said that Cohen once came across George Blake, another spy whom he had met while serving in Wormwood Scrubs prison. The two agreed to stay in touch but were then told by the Soviet authorities to stay away from each other. There is evidence that Blake was well acquainted with fellow defector Kim Philby.

Death[edit]

After training Russian agents in Moscow for decades, he died there on June 23, 1995.[2]

Legacy[edit]

The Cohens were awarded the Order of the Red Banner and the Order of Friendship of Nations for their espionage work. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they also were given the title of Hero of the Russian Federation by the Yeltsin government. They lived out their lives on KGB pensions until their deaths — Lona in 1992 and Morris in 1995.

The Cohens are referenced in Venona decrypts 1239 KGB New York to Moscow, August 30, 1944; 50 KGB New York to Moscow, January 11, 1945, regarding an erroneous report Morris had been killed in Europe. The Cohens helped pass Manhattan Project secrets to the Soviet Union. His code name in Soviet intelligence and the Venona files is "Volunteer".

In 1983, the British playwright Hugh Whitemore dramatized the case as Pack of Lies, which was performed in London's West End theatre district starring Judi Dench and Michael Williams. It played on Broadway for 3½ months in 1985, for which Rosemary Harris won the best actress Tony award for her portrayal of the British neighbor of the Cohens/Krogers. It was made into a TV movie starring Ellen Burstyn, Alan Bates, Teri Garr and Daniel Benzali (as "Peter Schaefer," i.e., "Peter Kroger," i.e., Morris Cohen) which aired in the U.S. on CBS in 1987. The plot centered on the neighbors (and seeming friends) whose house was used as a base from which the security services could spy on the Cohens, and the way paranoia, suspicion and betrayal gradually destroyed their lives during that time.

The Cohens’ cover as antiquarian book dealers Peter and Helen Kroger is mentioned in Helene Hanff’s The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street because they were friends of London book dealer Frank Doel, recipient of the letters and book orders that inspired the bestseller 84 Charing Cross Road.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ BBC article, on the exchange
  2. ^ "Morris Cohen, 84, Soviet Spy Who Passed Atom Plans in 40's". New York Times. July 5, 1995. Retrieved 2008-07-07. "Morris Cohen, an American who spied for the Soviet Union and was instrumental in relaying atomic bomb secrets to the Kremlin in the 1940s, has died, Russian newspapers reported today. Mr. Cohen, best known in the West as Peter Kroger, died of heart failure in a Moscow hospital on June 23 at age 84, according to news reports." 

Further reading[edit]

  • Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) [1]
  • Russian Federal Foreign Intelligence Service, Veterany vneshnei razvedki Rosii (Veterans of Russian foreign intelligence service), Moscow: Russian Federal Foreign Intelligence Service, (1995).
  • FBI Morris and Lona Cohen file, 100–406659.
  • Rebecca West, The New Meaning of Treason, New York: Viking (1964), pgs. 281–288.
  • Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, Bombshell: The Secret Story of America's Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy, New York: Times Books (1997) pgs. 244–253.
  • John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, Yale University Press, pgs. 316, 317–319, 320, 321, 334.
  • Richard C.S. Trahair and Robert Miller, Encyclopedia of Cold War Espionage, Spies, and Secret Operations, New York: Enigma Books (2009). ISBN 978-1-929631-75-9.
  • Interview with Dr. Svetlana Chervonnaya.

External links[edit]