What we know of the Cohens is limited by the nature of their work. And finding out more is increasingly challenging as memories of the Soviet Union fade away, making it difficult to understand the passions and motives that inspired them and many others.
The couple's career began in the Depression. Both were Americans; both were from marginal groups. Morris was a New York Jew, middle-class and sophisticated. Raised as a communist, after graduating from Columbia he joined the Canadian volunteer Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion in the Spanish Civil War. There, apparently, he was recruited by Soviet agents.
Lona was a Polish-American girl from Adams, a textile mill town in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts. The town's economy was built on immigrant labor, with a small ruling class that several times played host to business-friendly President William McKinley.
When Lona met Morris, she was a runaway, working as a governess in New York. Their relationship was a scandal to Morris' parents, who were not amused by the sassy working class girl they feared was taking advantage of him. Lona and Morris were married in 1941.
Eugene Michaelenko, an Adams resident and historian who has researched Lona's early years in the town, said that together they made a great team. "He was the intellectual of the two," Michaelenko said. "He intellectualized the movement, and she went along with her man. And she was damn good at it, which made her want to do it more."
According to the files of KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin, published in 1999, Morris was codenamed "Luis," while Lona became "Leslie." Together, they were the "Dachniki," or "vacationers."
During the war, Morris was drafted and Lona took up much of Morris' work as a courier between the couple's Soviet handlers in New York, and their military, government and industry contacts. At first, much of the Cohens' work centered on obtaining industrial designs, like designs for weapons systems. But then, in 1945, Lona's work brought her to New Mexico.
The Soviets had convinced Theodore Hall, a 19-year old physicist working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, to turn over information about the top secret atomic bomb development program, The Manhattan Project. Lona's job was to courier to New York whatever Hall could sneak out of Los Alamos. She spent weeks in Albuquerque, and was assigned to meet Hall at a designated spot on a Sunday afternoon. For three consecutive weeks, Hall missed his deadline. Then, just one day after the Japanese surrender in August, 1945, Hall showed up and gave to Lona detailed results of the atomic bomb tests made earlier in the year.
Lona went to the station to catch a train back to New York, only to find that a military detachment was searching all passengers and their luggage. With remarkable poise, Lona carefully wrapped the secret documents in a newspaper and, when the soldiers approached her, she fumbled around for a moment before asking a guard to hold her newspaper for a moment. After they'd had a look, they handed her back the newspaper and went on their way.
Another version of this story, reported by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel in their 1997 book, Bombshell, had Lona hiding the papers in a tissue box, which she handed to the guards while she searched for her ticket, then walking away as the guards called after her for her forgotten tissue box.
Mitrokhin reported that the Soviets were so stunned by the quality of what fell into their hands through Lona and Hall's efforts that they feared it was a trap. But it was not: some feel that the first Soviet atomic bomb detonated in 1949 was a direct copy of the Los Alamos bomb.
For the next few years, the Cohens remained spies in and around New York, with a brief sojourn in France. …