“I will always say that I’m innocent and that I’m being framed,” testified Judith Coplon after being arrested in 1949 with a Russian agent, secret government documents, and after a chase worthy of The French Connection. The pinched Justice Department official always said she was innocent and framed. She certainly never believed that.
By last week, when the New York Times reported Coplon’s death at 89, nobody contested her guilt. Coplon’s name had popped up in an incriminating manner in the Soviet archives and in the Venona intercepts, where she is described as “politically well-developed” and having “no doubts about whom she is working for.”
“Was she a spy?” daughter Emily rhetorically asks in the Times. “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?” She answers, “If these were things that she actually did, she was not defining them as espionage.”
The children of Stalin’s Western minions have largely dropped protestations of parental innocence. They concede their moms and dads guilty—of saving the world, of ushering in peace, of fighting for equality, of trying to eradicate prejudice.
Physicist Theodore Hall gave atomic secrets to the Soviets. He didn’t serve a day in prison. Instead, he led a comfortable life as a biological researcher at Cambridge University. “He did what he did out of a real motive to save people’s lives,” daughter Ruth explained upon his 1999 death. “It was an obligation. He was a principled man of enormous integrity. He did what he did at great personal risk. He had nothing to gain from it personally.”
The Rosenbergs conspired to pass atomic secrets to Stalin too. The macabre outcome for them couldn’t have been more different than Hall’s life in a bucolic English college town. “What would the post-1950 world have looked like if the U.S. had the [nuclear] monopoly?” Michael Meeropol, eldest son of the Rosenbergs, asked on a “Nova” epidsode in 2002. “It would be a very safe prediction to suggest that we would have used it on China in Korea, that we would have used it to help the French in Indochina in 1954. Atomic espionage, he posits, “may have prevented World War III.”
The survivors talk as though their parents aided the Dalai Lama or Bob Geldof. They gave military secrets to one of history’s most prolific mass murderers. Their willingness to commit treason for free is cited as a mark of good character. If they had received money or sex in exchange for their treachery we could at least chalk it up to human weakness. Alas, they needed no such inducement to help Joseph Stalin. Instead, as evidenced even in their offspring, arrogance motivated these would-be world-savers.
They knew better than to believe tales of manufactured famine in the Ukraine, Moscow show trials, the gulag, and Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe. They knew better than the elected officials entrusted by the people what information should be kept secret and what information should be shared. They knew better than the criminal justice system, the public, and in some cases, even their children, so they maintained the ignoble lie of innocence until death.
The baby boomers are often accused of perfidy toward their elders. But that just isn’t so for red-diaper babies. In their fidelity toward their parents, the children of Communists exhibit a traditionalism rarely associated with the political creed they were born into. One can fault the parents for risking to transform their offspring into orphans. One can’t question the love of the children toward their parents—or at least toward the ideals on which their parents raised them.
Lest anyone accuse the children of Communists of uniform zeal in abiding by God’s commandment to honor thy parents, there is the case of Morton Sobell. When a 91-year-old Sobell finally came clean about his atomic espionage, and implicated Julius Rosenberg in the process, filial loyalty demanded too much. Stepdaughter Sydney Gurewitz Clemens groused that Sobell’s 2008 admission “complicated history and the personal histories of the many millions of people, all over the world, who gave time, energy, money, and heart to the struggle to support his claims of innocence.” Put another way: Don’t you dare pull the plug on our collective hallucination.
“If you feel that what you’re doing answers to a higher ideal,” Coplon’s daughter instructs, “it’s not treason.” You can’t take it with you. The illusions that Judith Coplon bequeathed to her daughter affirm that.