Morris Cohen (spy)

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Morris Cohen
Morris Cohen on Russian stamp.jpg
Morris Cohen on Russian stamp
Born(1910-07-02)July 2, 1910
DiedJuly 23, 1995(1995-07-23) (aged 85)
Alma materColumbia University
Spouse(s)Lona Cohen
Espionage activity
Service years1939–1961 (arrest)
CodenamePeter Kroger

Morris Cohen (July 2, 1910 – June 23, 1995), also known by his alias Peter Kroger, was an American convicted of espionage for the Soviet Union. His wife Lona was also an agent.[1]

Birth and education[edit]

Morris Cohen was born in Harlem, New York City, on July 2, 1910 to a Jewish family. His father immigrated from an area near Kiev in present-day Ukraine. His mother was from Vilnius in present-day Lithuania. Cohen was a football standout at James Monroe High School in the Bronx, and after briefly attending New York University he was awarded an athletic scholarship to Mississippi A&M College (now Mississippi State University). He was injured in a freshman game and was not able to play football after that, but was kept on scholarship as athletic manager. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in business, and after a year of graduate work transferred to the University of Illinois. There he was active in agitprop work for the National Student League, a communist front. He was declared persona non grata after one semester and returned to the Bronx, where he became a full member and organizer for the Communist Party USA. After World War II he received a master's degree in education from Columbia University. [2]


Military service[edit]

Detail of plaque of Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion monument

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.

Soviet espionage[edit]

In mid-1942, Cohen was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in Europe. He was discharged 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, when they secretly left the United States and moved to Lublin, Poland. While in Poland, Morris and Lona engaged in numerous foreign missions for the Soviet Union, traveling to Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands.[3]

Cohen house in Ruislip (found full of transmitting equipment)

In 1954, the Cohens moved to 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.


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.[4] Such exchanges had happened before, such as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for U2 pilot Gary Powers and Gordon Lonsdale for Greville Wynne in 1962, 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.


The Cohens went to Moscow, where Morris then trained spies for the Soviets. 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.[citation needed]

Personal and death[edit]

Lona Cohen on Russian stamp

In 1941, Cohen married Lona Cohen, Communist Party USA activist and courier for Manhattan Project physicist Theodore Hall (part of a ring of atomic spies revealed later to have been far more damaging than the well-known Rosenberg ring).[citation needed]

During some period, Cohen was an employee of Amtorg.[5]

After training Soviet agents in Moscow for decades, he died there on June 23, 1995.[1]


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.


  1. ^ a b "Morris Cohen, 84, Soviet Spy Who Passed Atom Plans in 40's". The New York Times. July 5, 1995. Retrieved July 7, 2008. 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.
  2. ^ Barnes Carr, Operation Whisper: The Capture of Soviet Spies Morris and Lona Cohen. Lebanon NH: The University Press of New England, 2016.
  3. ^ Carr, Barnes. Operation Whisper : The Capture of Soviet Spies Morris and Lona Cohen, University Press of New England, 2016. pp. 200-206.
  4. ^ BBC. "On This Day: 24 July 1969: Briton freed from Soviet prison".
  5. ^ "Red Files: Amtorg". PBS. 1999. Retrieved January 22, 2017.

Further reading[edit]

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