Frank Coe was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1907. He attended the University of Chicago before joining the staff of the Johns Hopkins University Institute of Law in 1928. Coe worked for the Brookings Institution.
Coe was a supporter of the New Deal and in 1934 he became an adviser to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Coe also taught at the University of Toronto. According to Whittaker Chambers, Coe was also a member of his Soviet spy network. His code-name was "Peak". (1)
In August 1939, Isaac Don Levine arranged for Chambers to meet Adolf Berle, one of the top aides to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After dinner Chambers told Berle about government officials spying for the Soviet Union: "Around midnight, we went into the house. What we said there is not in question because Berle took it in the form of penciled notes. Just inside the front door, he sat at a little desk or table with a telephone on it and while I talked he wrote, abbreviating swiftly as he went along. These notes did not cover the entire conversation on the lawn. They were what we recapitulated quickly at a late hour after a good many drinks. I assumed that they were an exploratory skeleton on which further conversations and investigation would be based." (2)
According to Levine the list of "espionage agents" included Frank Coe, Alger Hiss, Donald Hiss, Laurence Duggan, Lauchlin Currie, Harry Dexter White, John Abt, Marion Bachrach, Nathan Witt, Lee Pressman, Julian Wadleigh and Noel Field. Chambers also named Joszef Peter, as being "responsible for the Washington sector" and "after 1929 the "head of the underground section" of the Communist Party of the United States.
Whittaker Chambers later claimed that Berle reacted to the news with the comment: "We may be in this war within forty-eight hours and we cannot go into it without clean services." John V. Fleming, has argued in The Anti-Communist Manifestos: Four Books that Shaped the Cold War (2009) Chambers had "confessed to Berle the existence of a Communist cell - he did not yet identify it as an espionage team - in Washington." (4) Berle, who was in effect the president's Director of Homeland Security, raised the issue with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "who profanely dismissed it as nonsense."
In 1939 Coe worked as adviser to Paul McNutt, then head of the Federal Security Agency. During the Second World War he was assistant to Leon Henderson in the Office of Price Administration. According to Allen Weinstein, the author of The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999), Coe was part of a spy network led by Nathan Silvermaster that included Harry Dexter White. However, Soviet documents suggest that Coe was a reluctant spy and he "complained frequently to handlers that his agent work was hindering his official career." (5) On 1st October, 1945, Anatoly Gorsky reported to Moscow that “”Peak” gives us very little.” (6)
On 31st July 1948, Elizabeth Bentley appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and during her testimony named several people she believed had been Soviet spies while working for the United States government. This included Frank Coe, Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, Henry Hill Collins, Charles Kramer and Lauchlin Currie. (7)
Frank Coe appeared before the HUAC and denied he had ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States. He also appeared before Joseph McCarthy and his Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) in June, 1953. The subsequent report of the Senate Sub-Committee on Internal Security stated: "Coe refused to answer, on the grounds that the answers might incriminate him, all questions as to whether he was a Communist, whether he was engaged in subversive activities, or whether he was presently a member of a Soviet espionage ring. He refused for the same reason to answer whether he was a member of an espionage ring while Technical Secretary of the Bretton Woods Conference, whether he ever had had access to confidential Government information or security information, whether he had been associated with the Institute of Pacific Relations, or with individuals named on a long list of people associated with that organization." (8)
Coe was blacklisted from work in the United States and in 1958 went to work in China. This included helping Mao Zedong in his Great Leap Forward programme, an attempt to increase agricultural and industrial production. This reform programme included the establishment of large agricultural communes containing as many as 75,000 people. The communes ran their own collective farms and factories. Each family received a share of the profits and also had a small private plot of land. However, three years of floods and bad harvests severely damaged levels of production.
Frank Coe died in Beijing on 2nd June, 1980. (9)
Because of his relationship with Golos, in 1941-42, Silvermaster became the coordinator of several other Soviet sources - economists like himself - within the wartime U.S. government: Frank Coe ("Pick"), William Ludwig Ullman ("Polo"), and David Silverman ("Eleron"). Others would follow, including Treasury's Harry Dexter White, who had been involved during the 1930s with the GRU network for which Whittaker Chambers had been a courier. "According to our information," Moscow cabled New York station chief Vassily Zarubin in November 1942, "at one time (White) was a probationer of the neighbors," confirming his earlier role. Moscow advised "singling out a special illegal' to work with him," considering White's special importance."
The "Silvermaster Group," as it was called by American counterin-telligence experts once it was exposed, was actually an untidy assemblage of agents and sources with little "group" identity. Thus, one member - Frank Coe - complained frequently to handlers that his agent work was hindering his "official" career. Another - Solomon Adler ("Sax") had actually left Washington for duties in China, though Moscow still counted him in Silverrnaster's conspiratorial cohort. Even Harry Dexter White, a veteran Soviet source, was a reluctant recruit: agitated constantly over the possibility of exposure, concerned with career advancement within Treasury, and generally (in Zarnbin's words) "a very nervous and cowardly person."
Despite the organizational disarray, Silverrnaster and his associates produced for the NKVD the most valuable information then being generated from its American stations. Immediately after Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, for example, Silvermaster delivered to Golos and other Soviet operatives documents from the U.S. military attache's office in London and elsewhere containing recent data on the German armed forces and its deployment in Germany and various occupied countries. He also turned over information on U.S. military-industrial plans and on the views held by leading American policymakers concerning developments on the Soviet-German front, much of which presumably reached Silvermaster (a mid-level bureaucrat) from his more highly placed friend Harry Dexter White. Accurate or otherwise, such opinions held great interest for Stalin and his closest colleagues.