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.
89 at the time of this interview, is retired and living in
Interlaken, New Jersey. Cook was a newspaper reporter for
York World Telegram & Sun
when he was asked by Carey McWilliams, the editor of The
to look into the Hiss case. It was that article that became
the basis for his book.
So how did it begin?
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.
said. "My God, no, Carey. I think he's as guilty as hell.
I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole."
days or so later he called again. "I was wondering if
you had any second thoughts about the case."
I haven't thought any more about it."
I thought I would check."
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?"
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
course, as soon as I looked and really dug into it, I began
to shake my head and say, "Jesus Christ, what is this?"
What first jumped out at you?
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.
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.
What other aspects of the case changed your thinking?
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.
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?"
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."
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."
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
How long did it take you to write it?
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.
You also had trouble with the FBI.
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.
Chester Lane had similar problems with the FBI when he was
working on the motion for a new trial.
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.
Didn't you also have problems with your publisher when The
Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss came out?
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.
Were you hurt financially by working on the case?
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.
Have you ever had any doubts about what you wrote since the
book came out?
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.
Why did the jury accept the prosecution's case?
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.
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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