"The Crimes of Alger Hiss"
William A. Reuben
result on Election Day, 1948, was an unpleasant surprise for
me and all Republicans. It really jolted Whittaker Chambers.
A few days after the election I stopped to see him and his
wife in Westminster. . . . He was in a mood of deep depression
. . . [and] mentioned in passing that he was to go to Baltimore
in a day or two for the purpose of answering questions by
Hiss's attorneys in a deposition hearing.
- Richard M. Nixon, "Six Crises," p. 46
am a man who grudgingly and reluctantly, step by step, has
been destroying himself so that this nation and the faith
it lives by may continue to exist.
- Whittaker Chambers, as quoted in the Washington Post,
July 10, 1949
Two days of tough questioning by Hiss's lawyer in Baltimore
made Chambers realize, he wrote in Witness, that the Hiss
. . . had turned the tables with the libel suit. The issue
had ceased almost completely to be whether Alger Hiss had
been a Communist. The whole strategy of the Hiss defense consisted
in making Chambers a defendant in a trial of his past, real
or imaginary. . . . I saw that I might well lose the libel
suit, though it was not in my nature to lose it without a
deposition did not end on November 5. It was to be continued.
After an adjournment, his deposition was scheduled to be resumed
at eleven o'clock on the morning of November 16. Chambers's
recollection in Witness was that this hiatus was a period
of turmoil in which he had to decide whether to tell the "full"
story. Such a telling would be "a kind of death,"
and in this time of indecision, he was filled "with despair."
This inner struggle followed what Chambers characterized as
Marbury's "precipitating question": to produce anything
in writing he had ever received from Alger or Priscilla Hiss.
Richard Cleveland [Chambers's lawyer] warned me that if I
did have anything of Hiss's I had better get it. What I might
have had seemed to me of so little importance that we had
scarcely touched on it.
materials which he had "forgotten" and which he
did not believe "were of much importance," wrote
Chambers, "meant that there had been given into my hands
the power to prove the existence of the Communist conspiracy."
He had debated with himself whether or not to destroy this
evidence that he "did not know" still existed. "I
knew," he added, "that whatever else I destroyed,
I could do what I had to do only if I was first of all willing
to destroy myself."
he took his wife to Baltimore on November 16 to give her deposition
(though Marbury and colleagues were expecting him), he watched
her drive off in a cab and thought: "I did not know whether
I would see my wife again." Returning to the farm at
Westminster, he spent the entire day in an "agony of
indecision," contemplating suicide:
My family would be better off without me, not simply because
my act would liberate them from their own connection with
the Case,  which would, in fact,
cease to exist. Living, I could be nothing to them but a dishonest
man. . . .
Chambers recollected the events of that soul-delving day of
November 16, he debated whether to put an end to his life
with his shotgun or with a cyanide compound. He walked to
a far edge of the farm, having decided on the cyanide. In
the end he could not go through with it. "The meaning
of [his] life" was to carry on, for there finally settled
. . . a sense that . . . I must continue to bear a living
witness, which would only mean my destruction by slower means.
That was my penalty, but what happened to me was not the point
Chambers had been scheduled to continue his deposition on
the morning of November 16, Esther Chambers appeared, without
explanation, in her husband's stead. She was deposed for the
entire day of the 16th and the morning of the 17th. She testified
that she was born in New Haven, Connecticut, as Esther Shemitz.
She moved to New York City in her early teens, completed high
school and worked as a typist for the Ladies Garment Workers
Union, Local 125, Mt. Vernon, New York. She also said she
sold advertising for New Masses, and then worked as a secretary
at Amtorg Trading Corporation, the Soviet purchasing agency,
for several years, beginning in 1930. She was married in 1931,
she testified, and was the mother of two children: a girl,
Ellen, born in 1933, and a boy, John, born in 1936. Although
sympathetic to its aims, she was never a member of the Communist
Party. Esther Chambers said she had no knowledge of any of
her husband's activities other than his work as a translator.
asked what her husband's occupation was when they married,
Esther Chambers replied, "I am not sure." She was
unable to say precisely when, or for how long, her husband
was at New Masses. "Just a matter of months, I think,"
she said. "I do know his salary was $15 a week,"
she added, contradicting her husband's earlier claim that
he earned $35 a week at New Masses.
did Whittaker go underground? "I don't know when he went
into the underground," she testified. What was his salary
in the underground? "I haven't any idea." Unable
to say when her husband made his break with the Communist
Party, she acknowledged that they were listed in 1937 in the
Baltimore telephone directory in their own names at Auchentoroly
Terrace, thereby contradicting her husband's testimony that
they were first so listed after he broke with the CP.
Chambers testified that she moved from New York to Baltimore
in 1934. For the next three and a half years, until Whittaker
got a job with the United States government in October 1937,
the family "lived off [sic] entirely from what he was
paid by the Communist Party." Under Marbury's questioning,
Esther Chambers was hard pressed to explain the source of
funds that enabled the Chamberses in this period to afford
a maid named Julia Rankin and two other domestics whose last
names she was unable to recall; the complete furnishing for
a four-room apartment; the purchase of a farm in Westminster
in the spring of 1937; a house in Baltimore in 1938; and a
new Ford for $800 in November 1937.
following exchange would have great significance in months
Q. How about the automobile?
A. Mother comes in there some place. Mother did help us out
at various times. She probably gave us the money for that.
Q. Well now, how many times did your mother give you money.
That is your husband's mother, is it not?
A. Yes. Mother helped us out in many ways very often.
Q. . . . Now you tell us that his mother helped him out. Now,
to what extent did she help out financially?
A. . . . I am not certain. These things were taken care of
by him, and I don't know. But in the instance of the car,
for instance, she did help on that.
days earlier, Whittaker Chambers had testified that he broke
with the Communist Party in "February or March 1938,"
and with his family went into hiding thereafter until he was
hired at Time in April 1939. Marbury sought to discover
from Esther how and where the Chamberses had managed to subsist
during this thirteen-month period:
Q: During the time your husband was in the underground his
only source of income were the payments made to him by the
Communist Party, and you yourself had no other income, no
Q. You were living on what the Communist Party paid?
Q. During the whole period. Now, you bought that farm in Westminster
[in 1937]. Did the Communist Party pay for that?
A. Oh, I don't - excuse me - . . . I don't know where that
money came from. I think it was $250.
Q. . . . And you don't know where the money came from?
A. No. . . . I cannot tell you that. I don't know. . . . I
am not certain.
Esther Chambers and her husband had now given sworn testimony
that the Communist Party provided their only source of income.
My own research has established that these statements were
false. The Amtorg Trading Corporation's records show that
Esther was a employed as a typist by that organization for
several years in the 1930s, from 1930 to 1933. There was also
Chambers's income from his translating activities (discussed
in the previous chapter). Whittaker Chambers was also a beneficiary
in the estates of his father and both grandmothers. At the
Hall of Records, Suffolk County, Long Island, New York, are
documents showing that on February 19, 1930, Whittaker Chambers
received $3,296.67 from the estate of his father, Jay, who
died on October 29, 1929. His paternal grandmother, Dora Elizabeth
Chambers, died in Lynbrook on May 3, 1931, leaving an estate
of $4,000. Whittaker Chambers was the sole heir. His maternal
grandmother, Mary Whittaker, died in a Long Island mental
institution, Kings Park State Hospital, on December 22, 1931.
Her estate, settled by court order on September 8, 1933, awarded
to Whittaker Chambers, her sole heir, the sum of $1,626, which
Marbury got Esther Chambers to acknowledge that she and her
husband had purchased a house on St. Paul Street in their
own names in the summer of 1938, he sought to discover where
they had been in hiding up until then. Mrs. Chambers replied
that from Mt. Royal Terrace the family found a hideaway on
the outskirts of Baltimore on the Old Court Road.
Well, let me ask you, what did you do? Did you stay there
during the day?
We stayed there all the time.
Never left it?
No . . .
Now, I take it that you did not earn any money during that
period, or your husband either-
Q. From what you have said. What did you live off-accumulated
A. I don't know what we lived off. I know that we lived on
very little. And I don't remember whether he got a translation
at that time or not. I believe he did, because it was what
he had when we went to Florida. I believe he got the translation,
and then we decided we would go down to Florida. And we stayed
there a month and perhaps several days.
Q. . . . Do you know how he got the translation?
A. How he got the translation?
A. . . . I just think he went up to New York and got it.
Q. Well, then, he did leave the place. You said he never left
A. Well, well, perhaps I should not have been so cut-and-dried.
All I meant to imply there was that we had to keep a very
strict watch and to keep very close. Yes, I think he did have
to go then. Now, mind, I don't say that he did because I don't
remember, but it could be. . . .
on, Marbury elicited details about the trip to Florida in
the spring of 1938 - a sequence of events never hinted at
in her husband's testimony:
Now, you went to Daytona?
And stayed there a month?
. . . Now, you came back from Daytona, and you say you returned
to the Old Court Road? . . . You spent a month in Florida
and then you came back to Old Court Road?
Old Court Road, for a very short time, I believe.
And then moved into St. Paul Street?
Yes, into St. Paul Street.
Do you remember the time of the year it was you moved there?
Well, I think it was - well, the fact that we had been in
Florida would establish it. The Florida trip was somewhere
in mid-March or April.
Esther Chambers tried to explain how her husband had gone
to New York, met openly with publishers and landed the advance
that made possible the trip to Florida, at a time when he
had sworn he was in hiding, she suddenly found it impossible
to continue. The transcript reads: "(Witness breaks down.)"
"(A short recess was taken, during which the Witness
left the hearing room.)" "(The Witness then returned.)"
on a crucial point, Esther Chambers testified that she and
her husband had become intimate friends with Alger and Priscilla
Hiss about "two months" after the Chamberses moved
to Baltimore in the spring of 1934. Thereafter, she said,
the two couples visited each other's homes continually until
her husband broke with the Communist Party. To test her story,
Marbury asked her about many details of her family's past.
In virtually every answer she gave, her recollection contradicted
that of her husband.
had said that he used his own name only after he had quit
the Communist Party in 1937 and ceased his underground activities,
but Esther testified that under the name Chambers they had
lived in 1932 at Glen Gardner, New Jersey, and at Lynbrook,
Long Island; in 1933 at Fort Lee, New Jersey, and again at
Lynbrook; in 1935 in New York City and once again at Lynbrook;
in 1936 at New Hope, Pennsylvania, and again at Lynbrook;
in 1937 at two different residences in Baltimore, Auchentoroly
Terrace and Mt. Royal Terrace.
was unable to remember what name she and her husband had used
in the summer of 1935 when they had lived at the Hisses' 28th
Street apartment in Washington for six weeks and when they
stayed at the Hisses' P Street house for three days. 
Insisting that the Hisses had never known them under the name
Chambers or any other last name, she said they were known
to the Hisses only as "Carl" and "Liza."
But this assertion left her floundering, unable to come up
with an answer, when Marbury - after Esther testified that
the Hisses had visited the Chamberses many times in Baltimore
at their apartments at St. Paul Street and Auchentoroly Terrace
- asked how the Hisses had been able to find them.
Chambers's testimony on August 7 before the Committee he said
he had known Alger Hiss, whom he described as the best friend
he had ever had in the Communist Party, "between the
years 1935-1937." Echoing this assertion in her deposition,
Esther said, "The Hisses were family to us." But
under questioning, Esther conceded that she had not seen the
Hisses for an entire year, from April 1936 to 1937; that her
memory was "vague" about ever seeing the Hisses
in the summer of 1937; and that she had never visited the
Hisses at their house on 30th Street (which the Hisses occupied
from July 1, 1936, to December 29, 1937).
declaring under oath that her family's intimate, familial
relationship with the Hisses had spanned some three or four
years, she was unable to supply the identity of anyone who
might ever have seen them together. Asked about visits she
claimed the Hisses had paid to various Chambers residences
in Baltimore, Esther gave these answers: "Nobody was
there but ourselves when the Hisses were there." "I
had no maid at the moment." "I don't remember the
name of the maid." "We had a colored woman called
Edith. I have not been able to recall what her last name was."
"The Hisses always visited after the maid left for the
Chambers's most elaborate and vivid testimony came in her
description of a celebration of the Hisses' wedding anniversary
in 1937. She said the party was at the Hisses' Volta Place
house. Marbury, a friend of Alger Hiss since childhood, had
personal knowledge that this account was false. The Hisses'
wedding anniversary was December 11, which was more than a
month before they moved into their new house on Volta Place
early in 1938.
the most truthful testimony given by Esther Chambers came
during an exchange relating to her family's occupancy of the
Hiss apartment on 28th Street.
You don't recall ever seeing them and you have absolutely
no recollection of what name you used?
No, I don't.
And you say -
And furthermore I cannot recall that we had our name on
the bell there in that place. You see, the apartment was
already in the Hisses' name and there was not any need for
our name on the bell. We were just there for a short sub-lease
and I cannot recall that there was any name on the bell.
. . .
the Committee, on August 16, 17, and 25, 1948, Hiss had testified
that in the summer of 1935 he had sublet his apartment on
28th street to a man he knew as "George Crosley,"
at a time when the lease on that apartment overlapped the
lease on the new house at 205 P Street that the Hisses moved
into on April 19, 1935. Chambers had insisted, in his HUAC
testimony, that it was not a sublease, but merely a friendly
gesture from one Communist to another. On this point, Esther
Chambers evidently agreed with Hiss.
the close of Esther's testimony on November 16, Marbury made
the same request he had made to her husband: "If you
have any letters or books or notes and so on, papers of any
kind, from Priscilla Hiss or Alger Hiss, I ask that we be
given an opportunity to see them." Esther said she had
two books Priscilla Hiss had given her. The next day she produced
nothing, and this colloquy ensued:
Oh yes, did you want those?
. . . Let me ask you this, if the books are just the kind
that you can buy anywhere - have they got an inscription
No inscription of any kind?
Well, then, it would not mean anything. There is nothing
in the book itself to show that it comes from Priscilla
Well, then, I don't care to see it.
a day and a half of questioning, Esther Chambers was as unable
as her husband to produce a single scrap of paper to document
the close ties they claimed existed in the mid-1930s between
them and Alger and Priscilla Hiss.
the end of Esther Chambers's deposition, William Marbury made
one final attempt to fix her family's whereabouts in 1938.
After the break with the Communist Party they moved from Mt.
Royal Terrace to Old Court Road and then, after some time,
with the funds from the advance on the translation, visited
Florida "somewhere in mid-March or April," wasn't
that right? "What significance is that date you just
gave me?" she asked.
two o'clock in the afternoon of Wednesday, November 17, 1948,
Whittaker Chambers, accompanied by his lawyers, William MacMillan,
Sr., Richard C. Cleveland, and Harold Medina, Jr., resumed
his testimony after a nearly two-week break.
to his affairs in New York as president of the Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace, Alger Hiss was satisfied to let his
attorneys, William L. Marbury and Harold Rosenwald, handle
the deposition without his presence, a clear indication of
how little he felt threatened by Chambers's allegations, of
how he viewed Chambers's charges as just another smear from
the right against the New Deal policies of Franklin Roosevelt
with which Hiss so closely identified himself. Before questioning
of the defendant could begin, Mr. MacMillan said: "Mr.
Chambers desires to make a statement at this time in connection
with certain testimony that has been given by him heretofore."
Chambers then spoke:
response to your request to produce papers from Mr. Hiss,
I made a search, and I have certain papers in Mr. Hiss's
handwriting and certain other papers.
testifying from the beginning, I have faced two problems.
first problem was to paralyze and destroy in so far as I
was able the Communist conspiracy.
second problem was to do no more injury than necessary to
the individuals involved in that operation.
was particularly anxious, for reason of friendship, and
because Mr. Hiss is one of the most brilliant young men
in the country, not to do injury more than necessary to
I have carefully avoided testifying to certain activities
of Mr. Hiss at any place or any time heretofore.
found when I looked at the papers which I had put by certain
documents which I had forgotten I had put by. I thought
I had destroyed them. I supposed that the documents I had
put away were the handwriting specimens of Mr. Hiss. The
documents I refer to reveal a kind of activity, the revelation
of which is somewhat different from anything I have testified
about before. I first saw those documents last Sunday evening.
I first brought them to the attention of my counsel on Monday.
I was incapable of deciding at that time whether or not
to present them in evidence. My counsel very strongly urged
me, in the nature of the case, that I had practically no
other choice. But I left them on Monday not strongly convinced,
but without having reached a decision. And I waited until
Tuesday to finally make up my mind. That is why I was unable
to depose on Tuesday. The result of my turmoil, which is
merely the last act of the turmoil that has been going on
for a decade, was the decision to give you the material.
asked to see the papers. MacMillan replied, "We don't
want the originals to leave our possession," adding that
his side was willing "to leave with you a photostatic
set of the various documents." Marbury accepted this
procedure without objection. There was a brief discussion
as to how the papers ought to be marked and identified for
the record. This colloquy then ensued between Chambers and
MACMILLAN: Now, the first paper I show you, Mr. Chambers,
is a paper that starts with - it is a memorandum, a small
piece of paper marked M-28, isn't that right?
WITNESS: I think so, yes.
MACMILLAN: And does it not start with the words "tel.
from" - it is "tel. fro." abbreviated - from
Mary Martin, widow of Hugh Martin.
MACMILLAN: Formerly employed -
WITNESS: That is an abbreviation for telegram.
MACMILLAN: Just for identification purposes, beginning with
MACMILLAN: And ending with the sentence reading "Remember
Rubens while working for Hugh be strict if needed. Write
Lib." I guess that is Library - "Cong. Law Div."
WITNESS: Why don't you just have them marked.
MACMILLAN: I will start with that and have it marked. I
will ask that that be marked No. 1. (Paper identified as
M-28, starting with the words "tel. fro." and
ending with the "Lib. Cong. Law Div.", marked,
the original and photostat thereof, respectively, "Exhibit
the papers had been marked and identified, Marbury resumed
his examination. But he did not ask a single question about
the papers, nor did Chambers say anything specific about them,
other than the twelve words cited above. The record of the
deposition on November 17 is barren of any description of
them. We must rely on the evidence introduced later at Hiss's
trials to determine what Chambers produced. There were four
notes, handwritten in a sort of a gibberish shorthand indecipherable
on their face, and marked Exhibits 1, 2, 3, and 4. In addition,
there were sixty-five typewritten pages on onion-skin paper.
Thirty-five of these pages related to the same subject: a
twenty-two-page report that Richard F. Boyce, U.S. Consul
in Yokohama, Japan, had sent by mail to the State Department
on economic conditions in Manchuria, together with related
memoranda; this collection of papers was typed verbatim. The
rest of the typed exhibits included some verbatim copies of
official papers, most of which were non-classified incoming
telegrams from U.S. embassies and/or consulates in London,
Paris, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo, Vienna, and lesser outposts. These
exhibits also included summaries or brief quoted extracts
of documents, summarizing long and short telegrams. 
introduced this new batch of documents, Chambers now proceeded
to tell an entirely new story:
In the year 1937 a new development took place in the Washington
apparatus between Mr. Hiss's activities prior to that date
and afterwards. Sometime in 1937, I think about the middle
of the year, J. Peters introduced me to a Russian who identified
himself under the pseudonym Peter, I presume for purpose of
confusion between his name and J. Peters. I subsequently learned
that the Russian Peter was one Colonel
Bykov - and I propose to refer to him as Bykov hereafter
to avoid confusion between his pseudonym and the name J. Peters.
Colonel Bykov was extremely interested in the Washington apparatus
about which he questioned me endlessly. . . . he raised the
question of procuring documents through them. I should think
that in August or the early fall of 1937 I arranged a meeting
between Alger Hiss and Colonel Bykov. For that purpose, Mr.
Hiss came to New York, where I met him. I have forgotten where
our rendezvous was held but I believe it was somewhere near
the Brooklyn Bridge. We . . . had supper, the three of us
together, at the Port Arthur restaurant in Chinatown. Colonel
Bykov spoke no English, or refused to speak English. He spoke
with a very bad Yiddish accent. He raised the question of
procuring documents from the State Department, and Mr. Hiss
Following that meeting Alger Hiss began a fairly consistent
flow of such material as we have before us here. The method
was for him to bring home documents in his brief case, which
Mrs. Hiss usually typed. I am not sure that she typed all
of them. Alger Hiss may have typed some of them himself. But
it became a function for her to help to solve the problem
of Mrs. Hiss's longing for activity, that is Communist activity.
Nevertheless, there occasionally came to Mr. Hiss's knowledge,
certain things, or he saw certain papers which he was not
able to bring out of the department for one reason or another,
either because they merely passed through his hands quickly,
or because he thought it inadvisable, but notations in his
handwriting are notes of such documents, such information,
which he made and brought out in that form.
In his appearances before HUAC in August, Chambers had testified
under oath that: (1) he had never engaged in espionage; (2)
he had quit the Communist Party in 1937; (3) the underground
apparatus to which he and Hiss had belonged had no connection
to Russia but was a special branch of the Communist Party
of the United States; and (4) the head of this underground
group was a Hungarian-born functionary of the American party
named J. Peters.
a version of his, and Hiss's, past activities that, he testified,
he had never mentioned "at any place or anytime heretofore"-Chambers
was saying that: (1) he and Hiss had engaged in espionage;
(2) he, Chambers, had quit the Communist Party in 1938 (the
original State Department documents of which he produced copies
and/or extracts were dated from January to April 1938); (3)
his and Hiss's underground activities were on behalf of Russia,
directed by a Russian and not said to be connected with the
American Communist Party; and (4) their chief in the underground
was not a Hungarian named Peters but a Russian colonel named
In three days of questioning in Baltimore (November 4, 5,
and 17), Chambers came up with the full names of three persons
other than Hiss he said he had worked with in the Washington
underground: Harold Ware, J. Peters, and a Colonel Bykov.
Ware had been dead for more than a dozen years before Chambers
first brought him into his own narrative. Peters had been
arrested in June 1948 by U.S. immigration authorities on the
charge that he was an illegal immigrant and was about to be
deported to his native Hungary. 
Exhaustive dossiers about Ware and J. Peters had been published
by the Committee on Un-American Activities before Chambers
said anything about them. As for the third man Chambers named,
the mysterious Colonel Bykov, the FBI spent hundreds of hours
trying to find him and was never able to ascertain whether
such a person had ever existed. 
* * *
Chambers capitalized his every reference to the controversy.
In his testimony before the Committee in August 1948, Hiss
had described the circumstances under which Esther and Whittaker
Chambers had been at his 28th Street and P Street homes, the
only ones, he said, they had ever visited.
Hiss's investigators had established that the Chamberses had
occupied, between 1934 and 1938, apartments at the following
residences in Baltimore: 903 St. Paul Street, 3310 Auchentoroly
Terrace, 2124 Mt. Royal Terrace; and their own house at 2616
St. Paul Street. In the fall of 1948, in preparation for the
libel suit, Hiss investigators questioned the Chamberses'
former neighbors at all four residences and found no one who
had ever seen Alger or Priscilla Hiss.
At Hiss's trials, the prosecution offered in evidence the
original State Department documents for comparison with the
typed copies and/or summaries produced by Chambers on November
17, 1948. Walter Anderson, the State Department official who
at trial gave testimony about these documents, stated that
none of them was secret or classified in any way. One document
was dated in January 1938. The remainder of the original documents
were dated in either February or March 1938 - except for two
cables that reached the State Department in April 1938.
On April 13, 1949, one month before the beginning of the first
Hiss trial, the Justice Department announced that a deportation
order had been issued against Peters. He was deported from
the U.S. to Hungary a few weeks afterward.
 Prior to the first Hiss trial, more than a score of FBI
agents were involved in an investigation, headed by special
agents Robert Blount and James Nagel, to identify Colonel
Boris Bykov. (See memorandum from special agent in charge
of the Bureau's Washington field office to Hoover, FBI document
2030, Hiss file, dated February 1, 1949.) After three months,
the "investigation has failed to identify or locate Bykov,"
wrote the Special Agent in Charge of the New York office to
Hoover. (See JAHAM file, serial #2429, dated March 8, 1949.)
William A. Reuben, 2002
to "Libel" from The Crimes of Alger Hiss
to Book Excerpts