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From "The Crimes of Alger Hiss"

By William A. Reuben

 

The 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
 

I 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 forces

. . . 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 fight.

Chambers's 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.

The 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."

When 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, [1] which would, in fact, cease to exist. Living, I could be nothing to them but a dishonest man. . . .

As 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 upon him

. . . 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 at all.

* * *

Although 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.

When 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.

When 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.

Esther 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.

The following exchange would have great significance in months to come:

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.

Twelve 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 independent income?

A. No.

Q. You were living on what the Communist Party paid?

A. Yes.

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.

Both 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 was tax-exempt.

After 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.

Q. Well, let me ask you, what did you do? Did you stay there during the day?

A. We stayed there all the time.

Q. Never left it?

A. No . . .

Q. Now, I take it that you did not earn any money during that period, or your husband either-

A. No.

Q. From what you have said. What did you live off-accumulated savings then?

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?

Q. Yes.

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 the place.

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. . . .

Pressing 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:

Q. Now, you went to Daytona?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. And stayed there a month?

A. Yes.

Q. . . . 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?

A. Old Court Road, for a very short time, I believe.

Q. And then moved into St. Paul Street?

A. Yes, into St. Paul Street.

Q. Do you remember the time of the year it was you moved there?

A. 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.

As 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.)"

Questioned 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.

Chambers 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.

She 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. [2] 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.

In 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).

Although 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 evening." [3]

Esther 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.

Perhaps 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.

Q. You don't recall ever seeing them and you have absolutely no recollection of what name you used?

A. No, I don't.

Q. And you say -

A. 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. . . .

Before 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.

At 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:

A. Oh yes, did you want those?

Q. . . . Let me ask you this, if the books are just the kind that you can buy anywhere - have they got an inscription in them?

A. No.

Q. No inscription of any kind?

A. No.

Q. Well, then, it would not mean anything. There is nothing in the book itself to show that it comes from Priscilla Hiss?

A. No.

Q. Well, then, I don't care to see it.

After 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.

At 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.

* * *

At 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.

Attending 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:

In 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.

In testifying from the beginning, I have faced two problems.

My first problem was to paralyze and destroy in so far as I was able the Communist conspiracy.

My second problem was to do no more injury than necessary to the individuals involved in that operation.

I 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 Mr. Hiss.

Therefore, I have carefully avoided testifying to certain activities of Mr. Hiss at any place or any time heretofore.

I 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.

Marbury 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 his counsel:

MR. 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?

THE WITNESS: I think so, yes.

MR. MACMILLAN: And does it not start with the words "tel. from" - it is "tel. fro." abbreviated - from Mary Martin, widow of Hugh Martin.

THE WITNESS: Yes.

MR. MACMILLAN: Formerly employed -

THE WITNESS: That is an abbreviation for telegram.

MR. MACMILLAN: Just for identification purposes, beginning with that.

THE WITNESS: Yes.

MR. 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." - Division.

THE WITNESS: Why don't you just have them marked.

MR. 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 No. 1.")

After 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. [4]

Having 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 agreed.

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.

Now-in 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 Bykov.

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. [5] 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. [6]

* * *


Notes

[1] Chambers capitalized his every reference to the controversy.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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

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