Man of Bretton Woods
Monday, Dec. 15, 1952
National Affairs: Man of Bretton Woods
Elizabeth Bentley, testifying before the Un-American Activities Committee in 1948, brought up the name of Virginius Frank Coe. She remembered him vaguely as an important Treasury official, one of the underground Communists in the Federal Government who passed on information to the Soviet spy ring for which she had worked. Indignantly and categorically, before the same committee, Coe denounced the Bentley testimony as “entirely false.” He swore that he was never a Communist, never followed the Red line, never knowingly gave official data to Soviet agents. How wicked it was, he went on, for innocents like himself to be slandered by the likes of Elizabeth Bentley; he demanded (but was not allowed) to cross-examine his accuser.
On a Davenport. At the time, Coe looked invulnerable. His Washington career had been highly successful. A native of Richmond, a graduate of the University of Chicago, Coe had worked at Johns Hopkins and Toronto Universities and for the Brookings Institute before he came to Washington in 1934 at the age of 27.
His first bureaucratic post was Treasury consultant. Later, he served with the Federal Security Agency, Board of Economic Warfare, Foreign Economic Administration, Joint War Production Committee of the U.S. and Canada. He held responsible jobs in those agencies, and he was in a position to influence important U.S. wartime and postwar decisions.
As monetary research director of the Treasury Department, he worked closely under Assistant Secretary Harry Dexter White, who died soon after Whittaker Chambers called him a key figure in the Red infiltration of Washington. To many of his subordinates, White seemed a rather frightening and unapproachable boss. Coe, who used to stretch out on the davenport in White’s office, became a channel between White and the staff. At the Bretton Woods Conference, Coe did important organizational chores, just as Alger Hiss had done during the founding of the United Nations at San Francisco. In 1946, Coe became secretary of the Bretton Woods offspring, the International Monetary Fund, which uses a kitty of $8 billion to keep a balance in international payments. That job, giving its holder access to sensitive information, ultimately paid him $15,500 a year, taxfree.
On a Familiar Ground. Last week Bureaucrat Coe was summoned to an open hearing of a Senate Internal Security subcommittee. Since the Bentley testimony, his name had popped up in subversion inquiries; for example, in the hearings on the Institute of Pacific Relations, he had been linked repeatedly with proCommunists. Last year the State Department refused him a passport. Just before Election Day, Senator Joe McCarthy publicly denounced him, and Treasury Secretary John Snyder followed that up by requesting his dismissal from the I.M.F.
This time Coe, his old air of self-righteousness completely muffled, made no indignant, categoric denials of Communist membership or espionage. Instead, 65 times, in a flat singsong, he refused to answer committee questions, on the now familiar ground that he might incriminate himself. He refused, for instance, to say whether he had ever known White or Lauchlin Currie. He even refused to say whether he was then and there engaged in espionage against the U.S. Cried the hearing’s exasperated chairman, Senator Herbert O’Conor: “The sorriest spectacle … Very disgraceful … Coe should be dismissed summarily from his post.”
Two days later, the I.M.F.’s Swedish director, Ivar Rooth, tersely announced that Virginius Frank Coe had resigned his job — by request.
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