In 1949, three major cases against American communists started: that of Coplon (1949-1967), that of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers (1949-1950), and that of the Smith Act trials of Communist Party leaders (1949-1958).
Work and arrest
Coplon obtained a job in the US Department of Justice shortly after she graduated from Barnard College, cum laude in 1943. She transferred to the Foreign Agents Registration section in 1944, where she had access to counter-intelligence information, and was allegedly recruited as a spy by the NKGB at the end of 1944.
Evidence later emerged that Coplon was recruited as a Soviet spy during the early months of 1945. Coplon had a meeting with Vladimir Pravdin, the NKVD station chief in New York City on 4 January 1945. Pravdin was impressed by Coplon who was described as "very serious, shy, profound girl, ideologically close to us." He went on to argue, "We have no doubts about the sincerity of her desire to work with us. In the course of the conversation (Coplon) underlined how much she appreciated the credit we gave to her and that, now knowing for whom she was working, she would redouble her efforts. At the very first stage of her work (Coplon) thought she was helping the local compatriots (the CPUSA).... She thought the stuff acquired by her couldn't represent an interest to the compatriots but could for an organization like the Comintern or another institution bearing a relationship to us. She added that she hoped she was working specifically for us, since she considered it the highest honor to have an opportunity to provide us with modest help." Soon she was recruited as a Soviet spy (codenamed Sima).
Coplon became one of the NKVD's most valued sources. Her main attention was focused on the main Justice Department counterintelligence archive that collected information from the various government agencies: FBI, OSS, and naval and army intelligence. She passed to her NKVD contact a number of documents from the archive. That included FBI materials on Soviet organizations in the United States and information on leaders of the Communist Party of the United States.
She first came to the attention of the FBI as a result of a Venona message in late 1948. Coplon was known in both Soviet intelligence and the Venona files as "SIMA." She was the first person tried as a result of the Venona project, but for reasons of security, the Venona information was not revealed at her trial.
FBI Special Agent Robert Lamphere testified at her trial that suspicion had fallen on Coplon because of information from a reliable "confidential informant." An extensive counterintelligence operation planted a secret document for her to pass to the Soviets. FBI agents arrested Coplon on March 4, 1949 in Manhattan, as she met with Valentin Gubitchev, a KGB official employed by the United Nations while she was carrying what she believed to be secret US government documents in her purse.
Trials and appeals
Coplon was convicted in two separate trials, one for espionage that began on April 25, 1949 and another for conspiracy along with Gubitchev in 1950. Both convictions were later overturned, in 1950 and 1951 respectively, on appeal.
The appellate court, sitting in New York, concluded that while the evidence showed that she was guilty, FBI agents had lied under oath about the bugging. Moreover, the opinion said that the failure to get a warrant was not justified. The court overturned the verdict, but the indictment was not dismissed. In the appeal of the Washington trial, the verdict was upheld, but because of the possible bugging, a new trial became impossible. For political and evidentiary reasons, it never took place. The legal irregularities ensured that she was never retried, and the government ultimately dropped the case in 1967.
The Coplon trials commanded nationwide attention. After her arrest but before her trials, Coplon received earnest attention from the media. For example, Gertrude Samuels wrote for the New York Times, questioning the situation:
Why do some people become traitors? What turns some native-born Americans, as well as naturalized citizens, into Benedict Arnolds and Quislings? What motivates them to betray their country and themselves?...
Samuels examines four kinds of traitors: professional, people loyal their birth lands, crackpots, and idealists. In this last group, she named Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers. To understand this group, she argues, one must understand their drive for social justice—reasons "beyond FBI jurisdiction" while "few judges are bothered by motivations." NYT Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus wrote in March 2011:
At the time of her trial, Ms. Coplon drew a great deal of interest, particularly in the lively tabloid press of the day. A 27-year-old cum laude graduate of Barnard, employed in the internal security section of the Justice Department, she seemed the model postwar "government girl," fetchingly clad in snug sweaters and New Look skirts . . [with the] sort of attention Lindsay Lohan's courtroom appearances attract today.
She was recruited for Soviet espionage at Columbia University by Flora Wovschin along with Marion Davis Berdecio. She married one of her attorneys, Albert Socolov, and they remained married until her death, in 2011. The couple had four children.
- Preceding case: Hollywood Ten (1947)
- Concurrent cases:
- House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)
- Fitzgerald, Jim (March 2, 2011). "Judith Coplon Socolov -NY woman convicted of spying in '49 dies at 89". The Associated Press. Retrieved March 3, 2011.
- "Judith Coplon '43, political analyst, dies". Barnard College. Retrieved March 8, 2011.
- "Baby Face". TIME. March 14, 1949. Retrieved March 3, 2011.[permanent dead link]
- Weinstein, Allen; Vassiliev, Alexsander (1999). The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America–The Stalin Years. New York: Random House. p. 277. ISBN 0-679-45724-0.
- Vladimir Pravdin, report on Judith Coplon (January 8, 1945)
- Athan Theoharis, Chasing Spies (2002) page 46
- John Simkin. "Judith Coplon". Spartacus Educational.
- Roberts, Sam (March 2, 2011). "Judith Coplon, Haunted by Espionage Case, Dies at 89". The New York Times. Retrieved March 3, 2011.
- Leab, Daniel. "Coplon, Judith". American National Biography Online. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
- "Venona". FBI. Archived from the original on 2 August 2013. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
- Samuels, Gertrude (22 May 1949). "American Traitors: A Study in Motives" (PDF). New York Times. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
- Tanenhaus, Sam (March 4, 2011). "ArtsBeat: A Cold War Spy Trial, Before McCarthy and the Rosenbergs". New York Times. Retrieved March 8, 2011.
- "NY woman convicted of spying in '49 dies at 89". Wall Street Journal. March 2, 2011. Retrieved March 8, 2011.[dead link]
- Fitzgerald, Jim (March 2, 2011). "NY woman convicted of spying in '49 dies at 89". AP via Dallas Morning News. Retrieved March 8, 2011.
- Fitzgerald, Jim (March 3, 2011). "Judith Coplon, accused and cleared of being a Soviet spy, dies at 89". Washington Post. Retrieved March 8, 2011.
- "Judith Coplon, NY woman convicted of Cold War spying, dies at 89; convictions were overturned". Guardian. March 2, 2011. Archived from the original on September 11, 2012. Retrieved March 8, 2011.
- John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999) pp. 157–160 ISBN 0-300-08462-5
- Robert J. Lamphere and Tom Shachtman, The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent's Story (Random House, New York, 1986) pp. 97–124 ISBN 0-86554-477-8
- Marcia Mitchell and Thomas Mitchell, The Spy Who Seduced America: Lies and Betrayal in the Heat of the Cold War - The Judith Coplon Story (Invisible Cities Press, Montpelier, 2002) ISBN 1-931229-22-8
- Alexander Vassiliev and Allen Weinstein, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America - The Stalin Era (Random House, New York, 1999) pp. 277–279, 298 ISBN 0-375-75536-5