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Q & A: Fred J.Cook

Fred J. CookFred J. Cook, whom Studs Terkel called "the finest investigative reporter in the land," is the author of 45 books, including "The Nightmare Decade" (Random House, 1971), about the life and times of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and "The FBI Nobody Knows" (MacMillan, 1964), a critical look at the bureau's history under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover. His book on the Hiss case, "The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss" (Morrow, 1957), was one of the first to revisit the case and new arguments for Hiss's innocence.

Cook, 89 at the time of this interview, is retired and living in Interlaken, New Jersey. Cook was a newspaper reporter for the New York World Telegram & Sun when he was asked by Carey McWilliams, the editor of The Nation, to look into the Hiss case. It was that article that became the basis for his book.

Q: So how did it begin?

A: I had done some reporting on the William Remington case, which was similar to the Hiss case, and Carey had read the articles. One day, I had just gotten back from lunch and was sitting at the rewrite desk when the phone rang. It was Carey. He wanted to know if I would do an article for him on Alger Hiss.

I said. "My God, no, Carey. I think he's as guilty as hell. I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole."

Ten days or so later he called again. "I was wondering if you had any second thoughts about the case."

"No, I haven't thought any more about it."

"Ok, I thought I would check."

Two weeks later, he called a third time. "Look, I have a proposition to make you. I know how you feel about the case, but I've talked to a lot of people who I trust. They say if anybody looked hard at the evidence they'd have a different opinion. You're known as a fact man. Will you do this for me? No obligation. Will you at least look at the facts?"

He had me by the short hairs. How can a journalist who prides himself on being a good fact researcher refuse to even look? So I said, "All right. It won't change my mind, but I'll look."

Of course, as soon as I looked and really dug into it, I began to shake my head and say, "Jesus Christ, what is this?"

Q: What first jumped out at you?

A: Whittaker Chambers. It was the prosecutor, Thomas Murphy, who said in the first trial, "If you don't believe Whittaker Chambers we have no case." Well, here was a guy who committed perjury so many times -- admittedly so. I didn't see how anybody could trust anything he said.

The typing process as he described it didn't make sense. Why would the Hisses spend all that time typing the documents when they supposedly had a whole system set up to photograph them? It was like that with the whole damn thing. When you looked at the government's case, it didn't make any sense down the line, anywhere. One after another as the arguments against Hiss fell apart, I realized I had been brainwashed by my own profession. Until then, I thought that if the story against him was generally accepted, then it had to be true. I should have known better, but I didn't.

Q: What other aspects of the case changed your thinking?

A: The typewriter always got me. I spent a lot of time trying to track where it came from, but I never could quite solve it. Still, I knew the whole typewriter aspect of the case was a fraud. The FBI went searching for it with teams of agents, and yet the Hiss's found it. It didn't make any sense.

Before I made my final decision to write about the case, I had this discussion back and forth with myself. I said, "Look, Fred, if you do this you're probably going to lose your job because the Hiss case is the prize exhibit of Roy Howard [the owner of the Telegram]. What is in your background that they can go after?"

I thought about that. "Well, I've never run around with women. I've always been faithful to my wife. And I've never taken dirty money from anybody either to kill a story or write a story. So, I don't see how I can be attacked even though I will be."

And then I began to get mad. I thought, What the hell kind of country do we live in if an honest journalist can't write a story that he feels has to be told without subjecting himself to harassment and being fired from his job? I kept getting madder and madder until I finally said, "That's it, I'm going to write it."

So I called Carey, and I said, "Look, this isn't a 1000 word essay. It's got to have space." And he said that was fine, and he would give me the whole magazine, which he did.

Q: How long did it take you to write it?

A: About six weeks. When it came it out, there was a great silence in the newsroom. I found out later that Roy Howard wanted to fire me, but they were afraid they would get in trouble with the union because there weren't really any grounds for letting me go.

Q: You also had trouble with the FBI.

A: That's true. I got word that the agents talked to the cops here to see if they could get any dirt on me. I knew they were watching. My mail was being opened all the time. It seemed like anything that had my name on it, or even my return address was fair game. This went on until the late 1970s. As late as 1979, a press announcement from Hiss came opened and clumsily sealed together with tape.

Q: Chester Lane had similar problems with the FBI when he was working on the motion for a new trial.

A: He touched a nerve with them when ever he probed too deeply and get into facts they didn't want to come out. People clammed up all along the line when Chester tried to talk to them, and the FBI had something to do with that. I can't prove it but they did.

Q: Didn't you also have problems with your publisher when The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss came out?

A: The Hiss defense hired an investigator named Ray Schindler to work on their motion for a new trial. Schindler turned out to be a stooge, who was reporting to the FBI everything that he got. He also worked with Erle Stanley Gardner, the mystery writer, who was also a Morrow author. Through Gardner, he tried to get Morrow to kill the book. He didn't succeed, but Morrow let the book drop by the wayside, despite all the publicity it got.

Q: Were you hurt financially by working on the case?

A: I don't think so. In the long run was probably the best thing I ever did, because when The Nation piece came out there was an explosion of publicity because this kind of thing just wasn't being done in that period. I got a two-book contract from Morrow, but more importantly before that happened, I was just a newspaperman in New York, and nobody paid much attention to me. But after the piece came out it opened up a lot of eyes.

Q: Have you ever had any doubts about what you wrote since the book came out?

A: No. And as a matter of fact, I don't think the book was ever challenged. If I had made some grievous error, they would have been down on my head right away, but it didn't happen. That said to me that I was pretty damned accurate. And everything I saw in the FBI documents in the 1970s just confirmed that I was right.

Q: Why did the jury accept the prosecution's case?

A: It was the times. There was this great wave of hysteria about the great Russian communist menace, and I think the jury was susceptible to that. A lot of average people were.

When you have an hysteria like that built in and bastards like Joe McCarthy are beating the drums, it affects the average person. They figure when there's smoke, there has to be fire.

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