of the many fascinating sidelights of the Hiss case was how
this rare bird became one of the more enduring symbols of
Cold War treachery.
happened before HUAC in August 1948, when Hiss's answer to
a question about whether he had ever seen a prothonotary warbler
convinced many people that Hiss was lying about his relationship
with Whittaker Chambers.
had testified publicly on August 3 that he and Hiss had been
close friends while both were members of the Communist Party
in the 1930s. On August 5, Hiss testified that although Chambers
had a certain familiarity, he didn't know anyone by that name.
He also denied being a Communist and asked that the committee
arrange a face-to-face meeting with Chambers as soon as possible.
the Committee met with Chambers alone, in executive session,
on August 7. To bolster his claim that he knew Hiss, Chambers
offered a number of details about Hiss's life (many of them
wrong; click here for more
on Chambers' August 7 testimony). One of the things he said
was that Hiss was an amateur ornithologist and had once mentioned
seeing a prothonotary warbler, a prized sighting for a bird
to a story told to Meyer Zeligs by former HUAC investigator
Donald Wheeler, the Committee was convinced that Chambers,
not Hiss, was telling the truth and became fearful that Hiss
might remember his mentioning the bird to Chambers but would
deny it if he were asked directly. Wheeler said a plan was
constructed, whereby the next time Hiss testified before HUAC
(which turned out to be the 16th), McDowell, a bird watcher
himself, would casually ask Hiss about his hobby during a
break in testimony. That way they could "trap" Hiss
into confirming Chambers' testimony.
did so, and when Hiss's response, that he had seen the bird,
was subsequently leaked to the press (his testimony was also
taken in secret), it appeared to many people that HUAC had
caught him lying when he denied knowing Chambers.
Lost amidst the leaks was a different story, in which Chambers
later indirectly confirmed that it was Hiss who had been telling
the truth. Chambers had told the committee for the first time
on August 7 that Hiss did not know him by the name of Chambers,
but rather as "Carl." A few days later, Hiss realized
he had known Chambers, but not as Chambers or "Carl,"
but rather as a freelance writer he had befriended for a while
named "George Crosley." Later in the year, Chambers
conceded he might have used the name Crosley.
well had the two men known each other? Hiss, in his book,
In the Court of Public Opinion, maintained that as an avid
bird watcher he would have told even casual acquaintances
about his rare sighting of a prothonotary warbler.
contention during the televised confrontation between Hiss
and Chambers on August 25, when he said, "I would like
to point out Mr. Chairman....that....to discover a rare bird
or an unusual bird or identify a bird that many other people
have seen is a great discovery in the life of an amateur ornithologist.
You can usually recall almost everything around it. It is
like winning the ball game or the yacht regatta. You can recall
the time of day, how high the sun was, and all the other things."