in the Narrative
of the Hiss Case
Prospects, An Annual of American Cultural Studies,
Vol. 20, 1994
1993 article in the Washington Post about responses
to David Brock's "The Real Anita Hill" argues persuasively
that neither the authors nor reviewers of such books are likely
to be disinterested. Yet Howard
Kurtz oversimplifies when he asks, "Can reviewers fairly
evaluate an investigative work that builds its case upon a
mountain of disputed facts and assertions? Or must the debate
be relegated to a tiny circle of experts, endlessly hashing
over arcane details" as in "some modern-day Hiss
choice need not be so stark. Reviewers cannot evaluate fairly
unless they consider details. If they don't read debates of
the experts, they may choose to avoid the tedium of complex
cases by relying on the reputation of a single expert. That
seems to be what two of the best national newspapers have
done in recent years about the Alger Hiss case - even while
striving to report fairly.
Suppose, however, that one can prove grave malfeasances in
the work of that single expert. What if he has distorted,
even reversed, the meaning of clear documents that show Hiss
and his attorneys trying to cooperate with the FBI while preparing
for trial? What if he has neglected other documents that challenge
his accusation of a conspiracy to conceal evidence, not only
by Hiss but by Hiss's chief attorney?
us begin with the startling announcement by a Russian general
in October, 1992. When General Dmitri
Volkogonov, a biographer of Josef Stalin, declared
in 1992 that he had been unable to find any evidence implicating
Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent between the mid-1930s and 1948,
both The New York Times and the Washington Post
followed what seems to have become conventional practice since
1976. They seek and report, along with any new development
concerning the Hiss case, an immediate response by Allen Weinstein,
the author of "Perjury" (1978).
They don't consult John Chabot Smith, the reporter who covered
the Hiss trials for the New York Herald Tribune in
1949—50 and whose 1976 book, Alger Hiss, the True Story, elicited
the famous review in which Weinstein declared that Hiss had
been guilty of espionage and perjury, whereas Whittaker Chambers,
Hiss's accuser, had "told the truth."
When Peter Irons's pursuit of information under the Freedom
of Information Act forced the FBI to reveal in 1976 that Chambers
had secretly acknowledged a long series of compulsive homosexual
liaisons with anonymous partners, Allen Weinstein was thus
enabled to get his interpretation of the news into the very
stories that first reported the facts.
neither Weinstein nor other doubters had privileged access
in 1992 to the files of Soviet intelligence, they all promptly
agreed that General Volkogonov and his staff could not have
made a reliable search of the vast record in the two or three
months since John Lowenthal had asked the general to investigate.
One could argue that General Volkogonov has at least as good
a sense of where to look as any of these Americans; since
Weinstein (in "Perjury") contends that the USSR
hoped to gain an advantage in 1945 by nominating Alger Hiss
to be the first Secretary General of the United Nations, one
might also assume that seeking evidence about Hiss in the
Soviet records should be less difficult than looking up an
obscure apparatchik. Yet the outcry of Hiss's detractors in
October, 1992, apparently persuaded General Volkogonov to
narrow the range of his statement, and even Victor Navasky,
editor of The Nation, conceded what Hiss's defenders
have argued from the beginning: Nobody can prove the negative.
favorite illustration of that truth is Huckleberry Finn's
immortally fallible logic: "Jim says that bees don't
sting idiots, but I know that isn't true, because I've tried
it lots of times and they don't sting me." The absence
of a document does not prove that none exists. Just as I found
in the prosecution's files sixteen years ago a memorandum
that detoxifies one of the most damaging documents quoted
against Hiss by Allen Weinstein in the New York Review
of Books and again two years later in "Perjury,"
so an incriminating paper could possibly exist somewhere.
Incriminating papers could also have been destroyed. But the
very impossibility of proving that a document does not exist
gives our legal system one of its strongest reasons for presuming
that a defendant is not guilty.
review details of the Hiss case nearly half a century after
the verdict? As Alger Hiss, at age ninety, insists that he
was neither a spy nor a perjurer, the collapse of the Soviet
Union has led some scholars to hope that relevant papers in
Soviet files might be released, as FBI files were made available
in the 1970s. Richard Nixon, who had first won national attention
by pursuing Hiss for the House Committee on Un-American Activities
(HUAC), resigned the Presidency to avoid impeachment in 1974,
and a year later the Supreme Court of Massachusetts readmitted
Hiss to the bar. The release of FBI files under the Freedom
of Information Act, the books by John Chabot Smith and Allen
Weinstein in 1976 and 1978, John Lowenthal's documentary film
about the case in 1978, and Hiss's petition for a writ of
error, filed in 1978 - all these elicited long discussions
of the issues three decades after Whittaker Chambers had first
publicized his accusations in sworn testimony before HUAC.
Twenty-six years after Hiss's conviction, Allen Weinstein's
endorsement of the verdict was reported on the front page
of The New York Times. The federal courts did not finally
reject Hiss's petition until 1983, and then Hiss published
his "Recollection, of a Life" in 1988. Reports and
reviews of these events and books kept the old case alive
through the 1980s, and the dissolution of the USSR led John
Lowenthal to ask General Volkogonov to help settle the central
question in 1992.
sustained intensity of the old controversy burns visibly on
the cover of the National Review for January 18, 1993.
Clad in a black cape with a red lining that matches the blood-dripping
letters in which his name is written, a caricature of Alger
Hiss, with fangs protruding down across both sides of his
lower lip, dominates the cover, which spells out the allusion
to Dracula in the sardonic title: "Bram Stoker's Alger
Hiss: Lies Never Die." Inside, the vampire reappears
at the opening of the first paragraph as a black-and-white
drawing of Hiss in a satin-lined coffin, and a subheading
complains, "Western press reports of General Volkogonov's
revelations and retractions are like the old shell game: Keep
your eye on the Kremlin files (which may have been destroyed),
and ignore the massive evidence we have." To refute General
Volkogonov, then, Jacob Cohen's article "The Hiss File:
Innocent After All?" relies chiefly on Allen Weinstein's
"mighty account of the Hiss Case, [which] remains unshaken
15 years after its publication." Cohen declares that
Chambers's testimony "has found triumphant vindication"
on "every salient point" that Hiss "chose to
of the main sources of such intensity seem to me to be the
bitter disagreements among leftists and liberals about Stalin
in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s; the shifting, complex alignments
of liberals and conservatives regarding Richard Nixon, the
Cold War, and the exposure or recantation of former Communists
in the national government and the universities; and neoconservative
attitudes toward the Cold War and Soviet aid to leftist revolutions
during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Reviews of the evidence
in recent years often include attacks on an antagonist's allegiance:
in the National Review's caricature, John Lowenthal
thus becomes "a longstanding Hiss groupie described in
the press as a historian and filmmaker"; General Volkogonov,
a "propagandist and apologist."
aging civil libertarians, even a few who believe that Hiss
had been involved in Chambers's schemes in the 1930s, one
source of continuing interest in the case is the nature of
Hiss's indictment. Everyone on both aides of the controversy
agrees that prosecution for espionage had become impossible
by the time Chambers confessed to that offense and accused
Hiss of it. Too much time had passed; a statute of limitations
prohibited the charge of espionage after three years. In a
transparent effort to evade the purpose of that statute, U.S.
attorneys therefore induced Hiss to commit what they regarded
as a new crime when they elicited his sworn denials of Chambers's
jury at his second trial in federal court convicted Hiss on
two counts of perjury in January, 1950, after the jury in
his first trial had failed to agree on a verdict. The convicting
jury decided that Hiss had perjured himself before a grand
Jury in 1948 when he had denied two accusations sworn to by
Whittaker Chambers: Hiss swore he had never given any classified
federal documents to Chambers, who described himself as having
been an underground agent of the Soviet Union in the 1930s;
and Hiss swore that until the accusations were made public
in 1948 he had not met Chambers at all after January 1, 1937.
first Chambers had sworn that Hiss's participation in the
underground had not included espionage, but in defending against
a libel suit that Hiss had brought in the autumn of 1948 (and
in further support of HUAC) Chambers had produced some film,
several handwritten notes bearing Hiss's initials, and 65
pages of classified documents (referred to as the Baltimore
documents, because the libel suit had been filed in Baltimore),
all but one of which Chambers said had been typed by Hiss's
wife, at Hiss's request, on the Hiss family's typewriter in
1938. Some of the most persuasive evidence against Hiss was
testimony that the Baltimore documents and some private letters
by members of the Hiss family had been typed on the same machine.
The validity of that testimony, though accepted by both sides
during the trials, has been challenged in recent years, but
also vigorously defended.
interesting question about the continuing debate over Hiss's
guilt asks about errors, distortions, or omissions that color
any debater's version of the evidence and the events. As I
remarked long ago, the advantage in any disagreement about
this case belongs to the questioner who appeals to our sense
of what constitutes plausible behavior.
Why would a guilty man seek out and give the court an incriminating
typewriter? Why and how, on the other hand, would his accuser
fabricate the documents that were apparently typed on that
machine? My professional interest in historical and biographical
narration obliges me also to notice that both those who believe
Hiss and those who believe Chambers challenge the authority
of their antagonists' narratives. Just as I have questioned
the convention of putting Allen Weinstein's interpretation
into the first reports of new information, so the National
Review has protested that the same news accounts gave
General Volkogonov's first "exoneration" of Hiss
much more credence and prominent space than it deserved, and
that the press was very slow to report Volkogonov's clarification
(which the National Review called a retraction).
this kind of wary disagreement leads a partisan or an expert
to shine intense light on arcane details, the questioner's
partisanship may illuminate concealed assumptions or logical
gaps in the antagonist's narrative. Hashing over those details
may thus serve historical understanding. Arguments ad hominem,
as in calling John Lowenthal a Hiss groupie, are a relatively
small price to pay for the vigilant skepticism of observers
who study their antagonists' treatment of the evidence.
Volkogonov's recent statements about Alger Hiss move me to
propose a new look at some of the gaps and questionable procedures
in narratives and analyses by those who believe (as I do not)
that Alger Hiss was guilty. When I first wrote about the case
in the 1970s, I tried to illuminate it by comparing the rhetoric
and some of the narrative strategies of Hiss, Chambers, and
Richard Nixon in their respective memoirs.
In reviews of Allen Weinstein's "Perjury" and "In
Re Alger Hiss," Hiss's brief supporting his petition
for a writ of error, I posed some questions about some of
Weinstein's historiographical procedures.
Now I follow up those questions with further study of the
narrative in "Perjury," doubting if not shaking
its mighty standing as, in the words of Eric Sundqulst, "the
definitive account" of the case, the "conclusive
portrait of Hiss's guilt [that] has never been dislodged."
Toward the end of this essay, I consider several misstatements
of fact in Eric Sundquist's "Witness Recalled,"
errors which tend to inflate the value of Chambers's book.
My examination of arcane details of evidence and narrative
composition may also show that although posthumously awarded
the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan, Chambers
has not yet won triumphant vindication on every salient point
that Hiss elected to challenge.
The Alleged Defense Effort to Hide the Typewriter
August, 1991, I sought some of Weinstein's documents in the
Harry S. Truman Library. I was looking especially for a letter
that Weinstein had cited in Perjury and for a memorandum that
he had not cited; because of some controversy in the press
in 1978 and 1979, I was also curious about several tapes of
disputed interviews. More than one person whom Weinstein had
interviewed for "Perjury" had disclaimed some statements
attributed to them by Weinstein in the book, and Weinstein
had insisted that tapes in his possession would support his
version of the interviews. An effort by Victor Navasky to
examine some of Weinstein's evidence in Weinstein's home had
collapsed amid mutual recriminations in 1979, but Weinstein
had promised to deposit the tapes and other documents in the
own exchanges with Allen Weinstein had given me additional
reason to look closely at his evidence. I protested in a letter
to the New York Review of Books 
that Weinstein's review of "Alger Hiss, the True Story,"
by setting Chambers's revised account of a major episode against
Hiss's first version, had made Chambers seem more accurate
than he actually was - and had done so without telling readers
of any inaccuracies in Chambers's first account, or even that
Chambers had changed any of the details. Especially in a case
of disputed credibility about events twelve years in the past,
a fair summary ought neither to set one witness's original
recollection against the other's revised version nor to withhold
from readers the very existence of revision.
typewriter that Chambers said had been used to copy
the Baltimore documents had been given to Mrs. Hiss by her
father, Thomas Fansler, when he had ended his partnership
in an insurance agency. The Hisses said they had given away
the typewriter in 1937, but Weinstein says they changed the
date after they learned that all of the papers Chambers produced
had been typed in 1938 - just as the Hiss defense pointed
out that Chambers had revised the date of his defection from
the Communist underground, changing 1937 to 1938 for the same
reason. The defense says it sought to find the machine in
hopes of proving that the Baltimore documents had been typed
on a different machine. FBI documents show that agents sought
the Fansler machine in hopes of proving Chambers's veracity
and Hiss's guilt.
letter I wanted to see in the Truman Library in 1991 was one
that I had questioned in my review of "Perjury"
twelve years earlier. I had a
special interest in that letter because Weinstein, without
commenting on it, cites it in his book as the culminating
authority for an abrupt and unexplained reversal in his argument
about one of the most perplexing questions in the Hiss case:
Why would a guilty defendant voluntarily give the court an
incriminating typewriter? When I had raised that question
in the New York Review, Weinstein had replied that
Alger Hiss, having unsuccessfully tried to frustrate his own
attorneys' search for the typewriter, must have felt obliged
to submit the machine in evidence after it had been found
- chiefly because Hiss knew his attorneys to be respectable
men. This reasoning did not seem
to me persuasive when it was printed in the summer of 1976.
Yet I was astonished to read in Weinstein's massive book,
less than two years later, not only that Weinstein had silently
abandoned the argument but that he had now made Hiss's chief
attorney himself, the late Edward McLean, part of the effort
to slow the search for the typewriter - until the FBI, closing
in on the missing machine, "forced [McLean's] hand!"
much for respectability. In Weinstein's narrative, McLean
continues to oppose sharing the typewriter with the court;
he does not tell the court or the prosecution that he has
found it. He hires an expert named Edwin Fearon in hopes of
proving that Whittaker Chambers's documents could not have
been typed on the Hiss machine. Not until Fearon's report
disappoints those hopes does Weinstein's narrative portray
the defense attorneys as willing to submit the typewriter
to the court. And now, in a bizarre invocation of the same
undocumented logic that he had once used to explain why Hiss
had been forced to reveal the typewriter to his own attorneys,
Weinstein declares that the attorneys themselves were forced
to fork over the incriminating machine. In Weinstein's 1976
reasoning, Hiss must surrender the typewriter because he knows
his attorneys are honorable. In the reasoning of 1978, Hiss's
devious or scheming attorneys have "lost the option of
declining to introduce the machine into evidence at the trial."
Why? Because they have shown the typewriter to Edwin Fearon!
narrative says that Lloyd Paul Stryker, the independent trial
lawyer who actually conducts Hiss's defense in court, plans
"a strategy of candor... - as if the defense, having
produced the machine, had nothing to hide in connection with
it." In the reasoning of 1976, Hiss was pretending to
his own attorneys that "he had nothing to hide";
by 1978, after he has failed to conceal the typewriter's location
from them, it is they who manufacture the pretense -- in identical
words, none of which come from the documents.
does Weinstein explain why the consultation of an independent
expert in Pittsburgh would cancel the option of defense attorneys
(whether conscientious and honorable or canny and devious)
to refrain from introducing the typewriter - or any other
evidence that was not subpoenaed - to the court in New York.
The only document cited to support this accusation against
the late Edward McLean or Lloyd Paul Stryker - the deceptive
"strategy of candor" and the even more damaging
as if - was not a letter either attorney had written but a
letter Stryker had received from an unlikely source. That
was the document I sought in the Truman library, Edwin Fearon's
report on Woodstock #N230099. I wanted to see Weinstein's
copy rather than the original in the files of Hiss's defense,
because some notes on Weinstein's copy might help to explain
the Truman Library, I soon learned that nothing I sought was
there. Dennis E. Bilger, curator of manuscripts, gave me a
list he had prepared, "Papers of Allen Weinstein,"
but he assured me that Weinstein had submitted virtually nothing
but two folders of general correspondence, his letters to
the FBI and the American Civil Liberties Union (which had
helped him get access to FBI documents under the Freedom of
Information Act, or FOIA); an ACLU file for that FOIA case;
and photocopies of FBI documents concerning Hiss and Chambers
between 1940 and 1979. Nor had Weinstein, in response to several
requests, executed a deed of gift even for these papers and
copies. Within the next year, I learned that Jon Wiener had
independently discovered the same discrepancy between Weinstein's
actual behavior and his repeated promises.
letters of Edwin Fearon to Stryker (there were two on April
23, 1949, though Weinstein's note cites only one) are accessible
in the Alger Hiss papers at the Harvard Law School library.
Fearon regrets that his examination of #N230099 seems to yield
no evidence helpful to Hiss's defense, and he reports in some
detail on his comparisons of the disputed documents and the
so-called Hiss standards. He says nothing about submitting
the typewriter to the court and nothing about the defense
attorneys' strategy. Nor do Fearon's letters bear any annotations
by Hiss's attorneys. Those letters cannot support Weinstein's
declaration that the defense had lost its options or that
the attorneys had made any decisions about what they had to
hide or pretend. It might be more reasonable, indeed, for
a historian to infer from Fearon's disappointing report that
the defense now had a stronger reason than ever to refrain
from introducing the typewriter. Without labeling his opinion
here, Weinstein has left the misleading impression that the
document he has cited will support his inference. It does
memorandum that I sought in the Truman Library is Edward McLean's
call for a wide-ranging search for the typewriter. In both
the New York Review and "Perjury," Weinstein
quotes a letter dated December 28, 1948, from John F. Davis,
one of the investigators for Hiss's libel suit against Chambers,
which seems to contradict Hiss's statements to the grand jury
and to McLean about the missing typewriter. Hiss had asked
Davis earlier in the month, Davis reported to McLean on the
28th, to check "an old machine which he remembers he
gave to Pat, the son of Claudia
Catlett," a former servant in the Hiss household.
In his 1976 review, Weinstein used this quotation to argue
that Hiss was deceiving his own attorneys, as well as the
grand jury, about the location of the typewriter, by feigning
ignorance of what he and his wife had done with the machine
in 1938 and by reporting falsely that Claudia Catlett was
dead. In 1978, having brought Edward McLean into the effort
to obfuscate or at least slow the search for the typewriter,
Weinstein portrays McLean as dragging his feet (though here
the mixing of metaphors is mine) until the FBI "forced
[his] hand." Until that happened near the end of January,
1949, Weinstein writes, "the Catletts were mentioned
in extant defense files only in a brief notation by McLean
at the bottom of a list of things for (a private investigator
named Horace] Schmahl to
of the most highly respected reviewers of "Perjury"
considered these charges so important that they cited John
F. Davis's report to McLean of his telephone conversation
with Hiss. Not until I prepared
to review Alger Hiss's brief for a writ of error ("In
Re Alger Hiss") in 1979 did I learn that on the very
day of Davis's supposedly damaging report McLean had dictated
an "Outline of Investigation." In this six-page
memorandum, the second item on page 1 is "The Typewriter,"
and the second subheading, still on page 1, not only tells
investigators to "Check Hiss maids and their relatives,"
but names " 'Clytie' Claudia Catlett." It is true
that her sons, one of whom had actually received the typewriter,
are not mentioned until the top of the next page, but they
turn up far nearer to the top of McLean's list than to the
bottom. McLean was looking for the typewriter a month before
the FBI supposedly forced his hand, and it seems evident that
he got the names of Claudia Catlett and her sons, either directly
or indirectly, from the Hisses at a time when Weinstein claims
that Hiss was trying to mislead McLean as well as the grand
jury and the FBI. Although McLean does report falsely that
Claudia Catlett is dead, his identification of her sons by
name, and his suggestion of where they might be sought out,
refute Weinstein's sinister interpretation of the false report
that their mother had died.
In their brief for the writ of error in 1979, Hiss's attorneys
cite this document as part of the strong evidence that the
prosecution, through Horace Schmahl's secret reports on his
work for McLean, was spying on the defense. Schmahl, it seems,
had provoked the FBI's suspicion by posing as an FBI agent
during some investigations unrelated to the Hiss case, and
for that reason or (Weinstein says) because he suspected Hiss
was guilty, had offered to share with the Bureau information
discovered while he worked for McLean. Weinstein cites an
FBI agent's report of having rejected Schmahl's offer. Yet
McLean's memorandum turned up not "in the extant files
of the defense" but in the files of the prosecution.
Weinstein does not cite the memorandum here, and he declares
in a footnote that the FBI's way of locating the Catletts
"remains difficult to determine from the files."
It seems almost certain that the FBI was led to seek out the
Catletts, and had a lead to their whereabouts, through the
memorandum of December 28th that Horace Schmahl or someone
else had delivered (along with other documents) and that turned
up a quarter of a century later in the files of the prosecution.
In "A Note on Documentation" and in questioning
General Volkogonov's 1992 investigation, Weinstein says he
himself and his research assistants had spent years looking
through forty to sixty thousand documents. Perhaps he overlooked
McLean's memorandum of December 28th because nobody would
have expected to find it in the prosecution's files rather
than those of the defense. Weinstein's heavy emphasis on Davis's
report of the same date, and his shifting and weakly documented
charges against both Hiss and McLean on this issue, remind
us that the number of documents one examines can be less important
than the care with which one reads them.
discussing the disputed typewriter, Weinstein's narrative
rhetoric not only neglects or suppresses countervailing evidence
but prejudices the account in these pages with slanted, undocumented
language. Sometimes his language may be merely slipshod rather
than deliberately prejudicial, as when he reports (in a section
called "The Woodstock Cover-up") that "Hiss
told McLean to inform the FBI about" a letter typed in
1933 on the missing machine, "but he did not instruct
his counsel to say anything" about a defense expert's
"'tentative conclusion'" that the letter had been
typed "'on the same machine as the Chambers documents.'"
Notice that Hiss's positive action to share the document with
the FBI is thus coupled with the statement of what Hiss did
not do. Perhaps that coupling prevents an unwary reader from
asking why a guilty man would offer even so much as the one
incriminating letter to the FBI, which (Hiss surely knew)
had its own experts on typewritten documents. With a single
adverb (which I have italicized) in his next paragraph, then,
Weinstein carelessly or subtly transforms his accurate report
that Hiss "did not instruct" McLean to reveal the
expert's opinion; now it becomes an instruction positively
not to report the opinion: "McLean followed his client's
instructions precisely. He told an FBI agent later
that day about the 1933 letter and that the Fansler typewriter
had been identified as a Woodstock, but 'I did not tell him
the expert's opinion as to whether it was the identical Woodstock
upon which the Chambers documents were typed.'"
of this sleight of hand, I retrieved from the Harvard Law
School Library a copy of McLean's memorandum about this old
letter and Hiss's instructions. Not a single word indicates
that Hiss gave McLean any other instruction but to show the
letter "at once" to the FBI. McLean says nothing
about having been told by his client to withhold or supply
any information. Nor does the memorandum indicate that McLean
even told Hiss about the expert's "tentative conclusion."
Weinstein not only foists the word "precisely" onto
his narrative; he also fails to report precisely the words
that McLean attributes to Hiss. Since those words become important
in the culmination of this little fiasco, I repeat them here:
Mr. Hiss told me at once [when I told him on the afternoon
of December 6th about having found the letter] that he wanted
me to bring this letter to the attention of the F.B.I.
talked to Mr. Hiss about 9 A.M. on December 7 about this again.
He again insisted that I show the letter to the F.B.I. at
this point in the narrative, Weinstein has not yet told the
reader about Hiss's promise to the FBI that he would "make
every effort to locate.., specimens known to have been typed
on the Hiss typewriter" between 1933 and 1939. When he
does quote that statement, three pages later, from an FBI
record of the interview, Weinstein is summing up his version
of Hiss's alleged prevarication about the typewriter. He does
not explain why a guilty man would make such a promise, but
by stressing the presence of William
Marbury (Hiss's Baltimore attorney) at the interview,
Weinstein implies that Hiss had no choice, for Marbury had
recently advised Hiss to find and share such letters. Now
at last, then, Hiss's volunteering of the 1933 letter is explained
as if it had been involuntary:
Hiss's attorneys could not withhold the newly found 1933 letter
from the FBI in the light of Marbury's advice, Hiss's own
promise, and simple common sense. But it is worth recalling
that Hiss insisted to McLean that only the letter be shown
to the FBI.
I am puzzled by that allusion to common sense. Simple common
sense, in my version, would move a guilty man to tell defense
attorneys to let the FBI or the eventual prosecution find
the incriminating documents for themselves. Nor can I see
why such a man as Weinstein describes, one who "spent
that entire period pointedly" deceiving the FBI and the
grand jury, and "leading the Bureau in an extensive wild-goose
chase" for the typewriter, would have felt bound by a
promise to share so much as one incriminating letter with
the FBI. As Weinstein and many others have argued in the last
twenty years, the matching of Hiss to Baltimore letters was
much more costly than the typewriter to Hiss's case.
misrepresentation of McLean's memorandum goes beyond the false
report of Hiss's verb "insisted." McLean says that
Hiss told him "at once" to show the FBI the letter
on December 6th, and that Hiss insisted that he do so when
they spoke again on the 7th. What Weinstein says "it
is worth recalling" in his summation of the alleged cover-up
is that "Hiss insisted to McLean that only the letter
be shown to the FBI." As my quotations have shown, that
insistence and the italicized "only" are sheer invention,
and they reverse McLean's actual report of what Hiss had insisted
narrative of this part of the cover-up has escalated, then,
from a weakened report of Hiss's immediate instruction to
show the FBI the letter - not show them the letter, as McLean
did; just "inform" them about it - with emphasis
on what Hiss did not tell McLean to say; next, on to what
McLean, supposedly obeying Hiss "precisely," withheld
from the FBI; and finally, up to "recalling" what
Hiss (we learn for the first time, as Weinstein seems to have
persuaded himself) had "insisted" on keeping from
we read a little further into McLean's straightforward memorandum,
we see that Weinstein has cut off McLean's account of what
he did not tell the FBI - cut it off just at the point most
supportive of a conspiracy to conceal. Consider now what McLean
wrote just after reporting he had not told the FBI agent about
the expert's tentative conclusion, that the old letter and
Chambers's documents had probably been typed on the same Woodstock:
I did tell him, however, that I would not be unduly surprised
if it turned out that that was the case. I said that if it
did so develop, it was apparent to me that Chambers must have
obtained Hiss's typewriter in some fashion and that the most
important thing was to prove what had happened to the typewriter.
He agreed with me that that should be done and that that was
a possible solution.
does not report these lines, and he does not mention McLean's
offer, in the same paragraph, to share with the FBI in the
search for the missing typewriter and for other documents.
(The agent politely declined.)
consider, with my italics pointing to the undocumented judgments,
several statements that slant the narrative to convict McLean
of what has since become known as stonewalling: "McLean
and other defense lawyers did almost nothing"
about finding the Catletts; "Not until late January
did defense attorneys begin searching intensely for
the Woodstock. As late as January 21, McLean compiled
still another list,... which showed that the defense had
at least learned Catlett's approximate address."
McLean's acquisition of the approximate address becomes, with
the historian's gratuitous "at least," evidence
not of successful searching but of foot-dragging. And in light
of the evidence which I accidentally discovered, Weinstein's
grudging detail about an item "near the bottom of a list
of things for Schmahl to do" looks either gratuitously
misleading or careless. Claudia Catlett's name does appear
at the bottom of McLean's first page. Whether Weinstein skipped
the other five pages or referred to another document, I could
not learn in the Truman Library, for his copies of these documents
were not there. So far as I know, he has never acknowledged
the existence of McLean's order dated December 28, 1948, or
of the questions raised by McLean's explicit order that Pat
and Mike Catlett be interviewed about how to find the typewriter.
On this point at least, his narrative needs to be revised,
and McLean's respectability ought to be posthumously restored.
Statements By Whittaker Chambers
"Perjury," the main burden of concealment falls
on Hiss and the defense. Yet Hiss's brief for his petition
for a writ of error proved, with documents released under
the Freedom of Information Act, that Chambers, the FBI, and
the prosecution concealed from both the defense and the judge
the very existence of several statements Chambers had given
to the FBI. The longest of these runs to 184 pages. The defense
had asked to see all such statements before the first trial,
and the judge had examined the few that were actually delivered
to him. Hiss's brief protested that the deliberate concealment
of others had violated a specific order of the court and had
deprived Hiss of access to important discrepancies among Chambers's
brief concentrates on some of the most telling discrepancies-
the revelation, for example, that Priscilla Hiss had withdrawn
$400 from a savings account near the very time at which, Chambers
swore, he had borrowed $400 from Hiss to buy another car.
At Hiss's trial, this coincidence of numbers and dates went
to argue that Hiss was still in close touch with Chambers,
and still under orders from a Russian superior named Colonel
Bykov, as late as November, 1937. In court
the prosecution and its star witness made much of the precise
Not $401 or $399 but $400?
1979, however, one of Chambers's secret statements of 1949,
released under the FOIA, proved to have specified $500 as
the sum borrowed from Priscilla Hiss. At first, moreover,
Chambers had said that Colonel Bykov had offered to put up
narrating the story of the alleged loan of $400, Weinstein
says nothing at all about the question of secrecy, about whether
the defense was denied access to the longest narrative Chambers
had given to the FBI. Nor does he mention here that the prosecuting
attorney had strongly advised the FBI not to have Chambers
sign the statement. Instead Weinstein concentrates on answering
Hiss's charge that Chambers did not claim to remember the
alleged loan, or the amount supposedly borrowed, until early
in 1949, after the FBI (on February 7) had discovered a withdrawal
of $400 from Priscilla Hiss's savings account, dated November
19, 1937. Weinstein says that Chambers remembered the loan
"without apparent prompting" on February 14. 1949,
and that no evidence in FBI files reveals any communication
between the New York and Washington offices on this subject
during the intervening week in February, 1949.
what strikes me as an ingenious diversion, Weinstein uses
Chambers's original error - volunteering $500 as the amount
he had first tried to borrow from his Soviet contact, only
to be ordered to borrow the $500 from Hiss and to promise
that the Soviets would repay Hiss - Weinstein uses Chambers's
very error to refute Hiss's claim that Chambers must have
first learned about Priscilla Hiss's withdrawal of $400. In
Weinstein's narrative, nothing seems odd about Chambers's
$100 error itself, or about Chambers's wife's independent
recollection that the money for this car had come from Chambers's
mother. These appear in "Perjury" as minor errors
does Weinstein express the slightest skepticism about the
timing of Chambers's apparently unprompted memory. Everybody
who has studied the case, even those of us who doubt his veracity
or his reliability, has noticed Chambers's extraordinarily
powerful memory. That memory had recalled the transfer in
1936 of a 1929 Ford to a used-car lot and thence to a Communist.
But not even under the pressure of a ruinous libel suit in
the last few months of 1948, nor in the first month of 1949,
had this superb faculty recalled a loan, amounting to a gift,
of $500 for a 1937 Ford. Nor had this memory, challenged and
threatened for several months to recover evidence of intimate
friendship with the Hiss family, recalled Alger and Priscilla
Hiss's extraordinary ride from Georgetown to pick up Chambers
in Northeast Washington and then take him all the way to Baltimore
(in a time long before freeways) so that Priscilla could close
out her entire account for him. Far from questioning Chambers's
failure to remember that ride until mid-February, 1949, Weinstein
does not even mention the trip. I learned about it only in
1979, when I read Chambers's secret testimony in Hiss's brief
for the writ of error.
skepticism remains dormant in the face of other anomalies
in Chambers's story about this alleged loan. To believe Chambers's
original story about this money, one must accept his statement
(as Weinstein does) that Chambers considered a late-model
car "essential" to his plan to defect from the Communist
underground, and that as early as November, 1937 (though he
eventually said he had not actually defected until April,
1938), he duped his Communist associates into giving him the
money. Because Colonel Bykov did not have $500 with him at
the time, Chambers said in his original version of this transaction,
Bykov ordered him to ask Hiss for the money and Chambers persuaded
the Hisses to drive him to Baltimore so that Priscilla Hiss
could close out her savings account for him. Although Chambers
said Bykov gave Chambers about $2,000 two days later, Chambers
testified that he had never repaid the Hisses, and that more
than a year later, in December, 1938, when Chambers says he
went to plead with the Hisses to leave the Communist Party,
Mrs. Hiss expressed anger only about his derogatory language
concerning the Soviet Union. Not only did these supposedly
close friends and unrepentant Communists - whom Chambers had
duped along with their co-conspirators when he induced them
to drive him to Baltimore, empty a savings account, and lend
him the money for his car - fail to protest his deceit thirteen
months earlier or his failure to repay them; they fed him
dinner and argued with him all night about the movement and
the Moscow trials, and Alger Hiss even wept (not about the
deceit or the money, but) in defense of his own "loyalty
to his friends and principles!" According to Chambers,
moreover, his deceit had gone far beyond the fraudulent loan.
Five months after conning Priscilla Hiss out of the money,
he had kept her at work night after night typing the documents
for his "life preserver," the last of them dated
in April, 1938. Yet during the farewell meeting in the following
December, the Hisses had not reproached him for having used
them in this way after his own decision to defect. Nor had
they expressed any anxiety or suspicion about the use he had
made of those documents, typed though they were in the weeks
immediately before Chambers's sudden disappearance, which
he now explained as his defection. Indeed his story requires
one to believe that he, too, had forgotten those documents
until he went to retrieve his life preserver in the autumn
doublebarreled, contentious account of these anomalies aims
at Weinstein's narrative as well as at Chambers's. "Perjury"
never connects the story of this loan with the story of that
tearful farewell visit. Nor does the narrative of Chambers's
testimony indicate that Chambers connected or failed to connect
them. Instead Weinstein concentrates on elaborate refutation
of Hiss's claim that Chambers invented the loan only after
the FBI had discovered the withdrawal of money from Priscilla
Hiss's account. Even here, in order to dismiss the importance
of Chambers's original error about the size of the loan, Weinstein
infers that it must have been the FBI's research into the
bank accounts that persuaded Chambers to revise the amount:
"Further investigation by the FBI turned up these details
and corrected Chambers's earlier inaccuracies." But this
seeming refutation actually concedes the central point made
by Hisses defense at the time. Even if the New York and Washington
offices of the FBI had not been in touch about Priscilla Hiss's
bank account, the FBI did coach Chambers about the details
before he testified in court. And since neither the defense
nor the jury learned of "these earlier inaccuracies"
until decades after Hiss's conviction, the prosecution's heavy
emphasis on the exact figure of $400 did rely on the FBI's
alleged coaching of the star witness.
Weinstein's narrative, the burden of proof in this matter
as in many others falls on Hiss. Several pages explore every
discrepancy in Hiss's explanation in 1949 of why and how the
$400 had been withdrawn and spent in 1937. Emphasis on these
discrepancies, though admittedly inconclusive, virtually begs
the question by assuming that if the money was not spent on
furniture for the new house into which the Hisses were about
to move, it must have been lent to Chambers. Every belated
inaccuracy of Hiss is presented as another sign of his alleged
deviousness; Chambers's inaccuracies and supposed exaggerations
(such as his false report that Priscilla Hiss had to close
her account in order to fulfill his request) are all subsumed
under the question of timing. Thus Weinstein says "there
was no particular reason for Chambers," if he already
had access to the FBI report on Priscilla Hiss's withdrawal
and other records, "to have made such obvious errors
about the purchase." Here the narrative, then, virtually
begs the question of whether Chambers could have invented
the entire story about the Hisses' participation in the loan
for his car. Here, too, the coincidence of dates in February,
1949, when Priscilla Hiss's transactions with her savings
bank became available to the FBI, receives much less attention
than the coincidental dates of November, 1937.
should remember that much of the secret testimony was not
released until after Weinstein's review had already declared
his belief that Hiss was guilty and Chambers had told the
truth. Peter Irons, a historian doubtful of Hiss's guilt,
persuaded the FBI in 1976 to stop blocking out the words "homosexuality"
and "homosexual" in an eight-page
holograph statement that Chambers had secretly given
the FBI on February 15, 1949, shortly before Hiss's first
trial for perjury began. (Chambers said he was sure that the
defense intended to accuse him of homosexual affairs.) So
far as I know, Weinstein learned of this startling development
when a reporter asked him for his reaction to the news. Since
he was already on record, on both network television and the
front pages of national newspapers as well as in the New
York Review of Books, Weinstein had every reason to try
to fit the new information into the judgment he had publicized.
His chief strategy in Perjury is to avoid speculation,
or what he calls "innuendo," that might weaken the
value of Chambers's testimony against Hiss.
treats the homosexuality straightforwardly in his summary
of Chambers's early life and character, and he quotes in full
Chambers's narrative of the allegedly first liaison with another
man, an indigent stranger, identified only as "a miner's
son," who had accosted Chambers on the street in New
York and had asked him for a night's lodging. "Footloose"
at the time, Chambers wrote, he had taken the young man to
a hotel and had there been introduced to a sexual experience
of whose very existence he had been unaware. That first experience,
Chambers wrote, had opened the way for passions long repressed
and now often - between 1933 and 1938, five of the early years
of his marriage and four of the years of his alleged friendship
with Hiss - "impossible to control." Weinstein and
Chambers even report the names of two hotels, among many anonymous
meeting places, which Chambers said he had frequented in New
York and Washington to meet anonymous partners. Weinstein
also reports Chambers's declaration that although the attraction
to other men had persisted long after 1938, he had learned,
with the discipline of newfound religious faith, to resist
ascending order of importance, the deficiencies of Weinstein's
treatment of this revelation begin with an understandable
reluctance to speculate. "Perjury" was in press
before two jurors who had voted to convict Hiss declared in
John Lowenthal's film about the case that they would have
voted to acquit if they had known about information concealed
by the prosecution concerning the Woodstock typewriter and
Chambers's homosexuality. But
other opportunity for conjecture goes unacknowledged. Perjury
does not report that Chambers first described Hiss to the
Un- American Activities committee as a man who "walks
with a slight mince, if you watch him from behind."
memorable description resounds with new force when one listens
to Chambers's secret confession. In "Class Reunion,"
the novel of Franz Werfel's that Chambers translated in 1929,
Sebastian, the Austrian narrator, tells us in his mid-forties
the story of his love-hate relationship with Adler, a classmate
whose evident superiority provoked young Sebastian, soon after
they met, to begin what he now calls "a work of annihilation."
That work, Sebastian writes, "was to end twenty-five
years later in the detention cell of a prison. Truly, a slow,
a mysterious process of annihilation, which I myself scarcely
suspected, and which I surely could not control." Young
Sebastian ridicules Adler's ineptitude on the parallel bars
and secretly, from behind, mimics "that unmistakable
walk of his," in an unsuccessful effort to impress a
young woman they both admire. Sebastian believes that he is
at once Adler's close friend and secret destroyer. As he tells
the story, he confesses that "I am much the same today
as I was then - resentful without being aware of it."
When he sees young Adler's naked body (he recalls after twenty-five
years), he is awed by its "beauty." But his destructive
efforts are unambiguous. The word "annihilate" appears
several times. Sebastian not only finds "this boy without
guile or malice, so easy to crush, to annihilate," but
presents himself as the "arch-enemy" who plagiarizes
to compete with Adler's genuine literary talent, involves
him in a suicide plot which nearly kills him, and incriminates
him falsely in theft and forgery that force him to flee the
city, and thus to bear the shame for Sebastian's own crimes.
of course, none of this exonerates Alger Hiss. Nor should
we forget that Franz Werfel, rather than Whittaker Chambers,
wrote the novel. If we underline the word "confirms,"
we may even agree with Allen Weinstein that "'Class Reunion'
confirms nothing" about Chambers's treatment of Hiss
in 1948. But surely the coincidence is extraordinary. Instead
of addressing the parallels I have noted, or quoting any of
the language that I have reproduced from Chambers's translation,
and without noting the heavy emphasis on fated motivation
in both the novel and Chambers's version of the actual Hiss
case, Weinstein trivializes the question in two ways. He concentrates
on the defense attorney Harold Rosenwald's silence about the
final twist in the novel's plot, and he argues that since
Chambers did not choose the novels he translated, the plot
of "Class Reunion" has no more significance in the
Hiss case "than comparison of scenes from "Bambi,"
which Chambers translated the year before "Class Reunion,"
would demonstrate that the translator was a gun-shy deer."
reduction to absurdity neglects the obvious fact that the
translator of "Bambi" did not become the sole witness
accusing another deer of revealing hiding places to human
hunters. The translator of a psychological novel told largely
in the first person must enter imaginatively into the character
and language of the fictitious narrator. If his own behavior
and some of his language, years later, echo that narrator's
relationship to another character in the fiction, then the
analogy, though it "confirms" and "demonstrates"
nothing, suggests to me that the translator's testimony ought
to be regarded with an extraordinary care for corroboration.
If both the fictitious narrator and the translator profess
a combination of love and hate for the antagonist, even if
their descriptions of that emotion do not verge on the erotic,
the translator's accusations require still closer testing.
does not acknowledge the possibility of links among Chambers's
strong attraction to other men, his description of Hiss as
a man of extraordinary sweetness, his protestations of continuing
affection for Hiss even while denouncing him to the FBI and
HUAC, his evident dislike for Priscilla Hiss, and his description
of Alger Hiss (in the alleged final interview of 1938) as
a weeping defender of principle and of Priscilla as a woman
who shocked Chambers not only by declaring that Stalin's victims
in the Moscow trials had been guilty but by scorning as "mental
masturbation" Chambers's criticisms of the USSR.
Weinstein quotes this language, but apparently sees no significance
in Chambers's profession of disgust for a woman who had used
such imagery, at a time when Chambers's homosexual desire,
often "impossible to control" during the preceding
five years, was now (Chambers said ten years later) under
his control. "Perjury" does not relate that profession
of disgust to Chambers's subsequent denunciation of both Alger
and Priscilla Hiss, or to the vehemence of Chambers's paradoxical
claim that Alger Hiss was both tearfully loyal to Communist
principles and decent enough to renounce the evil movement
if he had not been swayed by his wife's "fanatical loyalty
to the Communist Party."
treatment of the homosexual question in "Perjury"
runs into more serious difficulty when he tries to forestall
or refute interpretations that do venture to portray the consequences
of Chambers's homosexual feelings as a major source for the
accusations against Hiss. In a brief section of the Appendix
devoted to such interpretations, Weinstein presents a gross
oversimplification of the psychoanalyst Meyer Zeligs's "Friendship
and Fratricide" (1967). He reports falsely that Zeligs
did not give the horrors of Hiss's childhood and youth - the
father's suicide and an older brother's virtual self-destruction
- a central role in forming Alger's character. Then Weinstein
relies chiefly on pointing out that Zeligs obviously admired
Hiss and believed Hiss was not guilty of perjury or espionage,
and he cites Meyer Schapiro's unfavorable review of "Friendship
and Fratricide" as a sufficient refutation, for Schapiro,
though Chambers's friend, is "also one of the world's
leading scholars on the subject of psychoanalysis and artistic
In the narrative itself, Weinstein accepts without question
Chambers's declaration (in the secret statement to the FBI)
that he had never allowed his clandestine sexual life to complicate
his life in the Communist movement. Weinstein even quotes
without correction Chambers's insistence that he had never
even "thought of such relations with Hiss or with anybody
else in the Communist Party or connected with Communist work
of any kind," and that no homosexual partner had ever
known Chambers's name. Weinstein gently corrects Chambers's
recollection that, "with God's help" upon finding
religion and breaking with the Communist movement, he gained
control over his sexual life. By pointing out that here "Chambers's
memory may have tricked him," for his letters of 1937-39
show no interest in religion, Weinstein not only endorses
truth-telling as Chambers's goal, but seems to express a critical
alertness that prepares the reader for the narrative's most
categorical rejection of a link between homosexuality and
issues in the Hiss case:
No evidence has emerged to contradict Chambers's assertion
that he never mixed the Communist Party's secret work with
his private homosexual encounters.
Some evidence of that kind had emerged nine years before anybody
outside the FBI and the prosecution knew of Chambers's secret
confession. One of the excesses in "Friendship and Fratricide"
for which Meyer Schapiro's review had chided Meyer Zeligs
was an anonymous affidavit (Zeligs said he knew the man's
name, had interviewed him twice, and had "extensive correspondence"
with him) by a former Communist about an encounter with Chambers
at a national meeting of John Reed clubs in Chicago in the
early 1930s. The man said he knew Chambers's name and had
worked with him in New York. When I flrst read the affidavit
in Zeligs's book, and on reading it again in Schapiro's review,
I thought it hurt Zeligs's argument more than it helped, and
I still believe that anonymous testimony should not be trusted.
Yet this testimony was not anonymous. The original affidavit,
dated February 7, 1963, and other letters from Leon S. Herald,
are in the Meyer A. Zeligs papers in the Harvard Law School
Library. Although Zeligs, in deference to the revulsion that
Herald said he still felt thirty years after the alleged encounter,
withheld Herald's name from his book, Herald's identity was
known to Mrs. Chambers and to a reporter for United Press
International at the time Zeligs's book was published. Herald
wrote to an official at the Viking Press in 1967 to report
that Mrs. Chambers had "threatened to sue me as a perjurer,"
that UPI "were going to feature, the news," and
that Mrs. Chambers insisted "her husband had never been
to Weinstein's declaration, this evidence had emerged before
the FBI was forced to release Chambers's own description of
his casual meeting in New York with the miner's son. The resemblance
between the two narratives is striking. In Chambers's story,
the indigent young man accosts Chambers on the street in New
York and asks for a night's lodging. In the Chicagoan's tale,
the situation is similar. The narrator says he was obliged,
as a delegate from the home city, to help find a room for
a visiting delegate. He observes Chambers, his former fellow
worker, known to him by name, in a condition so desperately
poor and in clothes so "filthy" that he pities Chambers.
He rents Chambers a room in the house where he himself lives.
Awakened "in the middle of the night" by the sensation
of an orgasm, he finds Chambers "laboring at my penis
still in his mouth." The narrator pushes Chambers away,
but is unable to speak until Chambers asks him to return the
favor: "This was too much. The only words I could manage
to speak were: You get out of here.... He left immediately."
"Perjury," nonetheless, and in Chambers's "Witness"
and other narratives which portray Hiss as guilty, the defense
is rebuked for trying to "smear" Chambers with rumors
of a lurid homosexual past. When those rumors turn out to
be confirmed by Chambers's own secret testimony, Hiss's defense,
which has repeatedly been criticized for having failed to
find a plausible motive that might have impelled Chambers
to accuse Hiss falsely, is asked to prove that Chambers lied
again when he denied the relevance of his sexual behavior.
Then the defense is asked to prove the relevance of Chambers's
revulsion against both the anonymous liaisons (which Weinstein
calls "affairs") and his former radicalism. In making
that demand of Hiss's "sympathizers," after having
dismissed Zeligs's book, Weinstein does not even mention Zeligs's
affidavit about the encounter in Chicago. Though less sensational,
the logic of this response resembles Richard Nixon's demand
for evidence when Alger Hiss, at the first televised hearing
at which both antagonists appeared before HUAC, asked that
Chambers's medical history be examined for signs of mental
illness. Weinstein goes so far as to quote more than once
Hiss's statement in 1948 to McLean that he remembered "no
hint of any unnatural sex interests" - as if the smearer's
own ignorance in 1936 or 1948 contradicted or proved irrelevant
what became known only in 1976. And Weinstein's last word
on the subject taunts Hiss's presumably liberal "sympathizers"
with the general improvement, since 1949, in attitudes toward
homosexuals: "But attempting to 'smear' Chambers as a
homosexual in 1977, [attorney Harold] Rosenwald's strategy
of 1949, may prove less persuasive to Hiss's sympathizers
today than it did thirty years ago"
thus concentrating on the threat of a smear and the lack of
proof, Weinstein avoids considering the consequences of secrecy
in the trial itself. Whether or not it could have been proved
relevant to Chambers's accusations, what would the release
of Chambers's secret statements have done to the jury's evaluation
of his testimony in open court, or of the defense's expert
psychiatric testimony, which Weinstein (following Thomas
Murphy, the prosecutor) ridicules? "Perjury"
was published before the two jurors were known to have declared
in John Lowenthal's film that they would not have voted to
convict, but neglect of the importance of secrecy makes it
much easier for Weinstein's argument to be considered "conclusive"
evidence of Hiss's guilt. How would Chambers's claims about
the new car have held up in court if the defense had known
about the "inaccuracies" in his original story about
the alleged loan? Weinstein does try to answer similar questions
about the prosecution's concealment of evidence concerning
the date on which the typewriter found by the defense had
been manufactured. But here again the selective rebuttals,
in both the narrative and the twenty-page Appendix, give the
misleading impression of completeness.
worst consequence of neglecting the concealment of Chambers's
secret testimony is a failure to reassess his value as a witness,
both in court and in Witness, the long book whose resonant
title evokes admiration for the moral witness of friends and
Chambers's own chosen role as tragic witness to critical issues
in 20th-Century history. Weinstein, Eric Sundquist, and many
others exaggerate the moral and "spiritual courage"
exemplified by Chambers's secret confession to the FBI and
by his other testimony. Perhaps
they are misled by Chambers's literary skill into accepting
at face value the rhetoric of his self-dramatization as he
presents his secret confession to the FBI. Weinstein quotes
the resonant lines:
... in this case I stand for truth. Having testified mercilessly
against others, it has become my function to testify mercilessly
now know, however, that in court and in writing "Witness,"
Chambers did not portray himself mercilessly. He withheld
the secret information from both the jury and the readers
of his book. In his secret statement to the FBI, moreover,
he says he has come forward out of fear - virtual certainty,
he declares - that the defense intends to expose his secret
sexual life in open court. Here, as in his sudden decision
to retrieve the documents that he called his "life preserver"
when both law firms involved in the libel suit were pressing
him for more persuasive evidence, he tells the FBI that his
motive is self-defense. That description of his own motives
underlines a tactical statement Chambers made at least twice
but which Weinstein's narrative understates. In 1938, Chambers
told Herbert Solow that he
intended to use against the Communist movement the very tactics
it had taught him to use as a member of the underground. Perjury
reports Solow's account of that conversation and Solow's testimony
that Chambers soon apologized for having avowed such devious
plans. But Weinstein deletes from Malcolm Cowley's sworn testimony
the sentence that reports an almost identical declaration
Chambers made to Cowley in 1940 .
Understandably, then, but surely without earning new credit
for moral and spiritual courage, Chambers kept silent throughout
Witness about his homosexual activity, including its relevance
(as he had indelibly described it to the FBI) to tactics he
expected the Hiss defense to use. Less understandable in Witness,
and even less deserving of praise for moral courage, is Chambers's
repeated condemnation of Hiss's defenders for enveloping public
opinion "in a smog of smearing whispers" - some
of the most lurid of which Chambers knew to be true. Similarly,
the silence in "Witness" concerning the prosecution's
explicit request that he not sign his long summary, and concerning
the kinds of discrepancy I have reviewed between his testimony
in court and his original account of the alleged loan from
the Hisses in 1937 - that silence cries out for extended discussion
by those who praise "the example of Chambers's spiritual
courage" and his "stand for truth."
had drawn me back into the Hiss case in 1970 because of my
literary interest in historical and autobiographical narrative.
Chambers's narrative made a central issue of the author's
veracity. What happens to the value of "Witness"
if one cannot accept Allen Weinstein's narrative as "a
conclusive portrait of Hiss's guilt"? Eric Sundquist's
essay on "Witness" accepts Chambers's statement,
in a letter written eight years after the book, that Witness
is "chiefly a poem." Yet Sundquist treats the book
as a fundamentally truthful spiritual confession, and the
force of his interpretation dissipates not only as one doubts
how much spiritual courage Witness expresses, but also as
one notices errors of fact.
concedes, as Weinstein did not, that the omission of Chambers's
homosexual life "does bear on the story told in 'Witness,'"
but chiefly "by reminding us of the limits of his 'confession,'
marking off a portion of his soul - and what he came to depict
as his descent into hell - that could not be revealed."
Yet Sundquist's evaluation requires one to believe that in
the book, at least, the portion can be marked off without
spiritual cost and that several questionable or erroneous
statements stand as facts. Over and over again, Sundquist
says that Hiss committed treason, and at least once he declares
that Chambers had committed the same crime. Apparently having
forgotten that treason is one of the few crimes defined by
the Constitution and that both the definition and the evidence
required for conviction are remarkably strict, Sundquist thus
allows Chambers's rhetoric to inflate the real conflict as
well as the poetic version thereof.
as espionage and perjury would have been serious enough, without
being magnified into treason, so the real drama of Hiss's
ordeal was sufficiently intense in 1948, when Hiss was President
of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, rather
than (as Sundquist says), "serving as a high official
in the State Department." Nor was President Truman, in
1948, "working behind the scenes to squelch Hiss's power."
By that time Hiss had no power. These errors serve to validate
the grandeur of Chambers's moral crisis in 1948 and 1949,
and perhaps they help uninformed readers to believe (as Sundquist
apparently believes) Chambers's claim that in 1948 he wanted
"to show mercy to Hiss as an individual" and that
Chambers still regarded Hiss as a friend. Sundquist even overlooks
the accusations Chambers volunteered between 1939 and 1946
to warn federal officials against some of his former associates,
so that the subpoena from HUAC in the summer of 1948 (in Sundquist's
account) forced Chambers to come forth for the first time,
"so deeply troubled [was he] by his own treason and then
by his escape from its demands." Whereas Chambers himself
says that his bungled attempt at suicide in 1948 (foiled,
he says, only by his misreading of the instructions on a packet
of agricultural cyanide) followed Richard Nixon's rebuke concerning
the authenticity of some evidence Chambers had produced, Sundquist
reports that Chambers tried to kill himself "rather than
carry out his destruction of Hiss." At this point in
Witness, Chambers has already turned over the deadly
documents, handwritten notes, and films. Thus the alleged
suicide attempt acquires a motive in Sundquist's version that
makes the bond of Chambers's friendship with Hiss even stronger
than Chambers says it was. And Sundquist does not report Chambers's
subsequent declaration that Hiss behaved in 1948 "like
a complete swine. Not a very bright swine, either."
questioning the reliability of Chambers's testimony in the
official proceedings and in his book, I don't claim to know
what was in his mind or to deny the intensity of the grand
drama as he experienced it. I do insist that the value of
Chambers's seven-hundred-page poem cannot be completely separated
from the question of the author's candor and veracity. In
concluding my essay on Hiss's narrative, I said that if Hiss
remained, in 1976, a septuagenarian confidence man after all,
he had at least written a strong fiction about how, in 1948,
a good reputation and record could be destroyed. But Hiss's
book is not a poem or a confessional memoir. If Hiss really
had committed espionage in the 1930s and perjury in the 1940s,
then the basis for his narrative turns to sand.
Jacob Cohen, Eric Breindel, and Alger Hiss
in "Perjury" nor in the recent brief essays by Jacob
Cohen and Eric M. Breindel can one find minimal summary of
Chambers's false statements about Alger and Priscilla Hiss.
The mass of incriminating evidence that Cohen summarizes in
the National Review includes, for example, the alleged
$400 loan for Chambers's car in 1937 - without any mention
of Chambers's first version but with heavy emphasis on Hiss's
failure to prove that the money Priscilla Hiss withdrew had
been spent on furniture. Besides summarizing the argument
for Hiss's guilt in "Weinstein's mighty account,"
Cohen cites many witnesses to refute General Volkogonov's
declaration that he had not found evidence in Soviet records
to identify Whittaker Chambers as a Soviet agent. I still
do not find in Cohen's mass of evidence or in "Perjury"
any witness besides Whittaker Chambers who claims firsthand
knowledge of Alger Hiss's espionage.
I cannot explain the apparent matching of documents typed
on the Hisses' Woodstock and in Chambers's "life preserver,"
I persist in requiring positive evidence that Alger Hiss procured
them for Chambers and that Priscilla Hiss typed them. My dogged
skepticism in this matter proceeds from large anomalies in
Chambers's testimony, from the strength of Hiss's record of
service, and from my readings in the documents of the Salem
witchcraft trials of 1692. I don't regard Chambers as diabolical,
but I cannot forget the reverend Increase Mather's belated
declaration: "The Father of Lies... mixeth Truth with
Lies, that so those truths giving credit unto lies, Men may
believe both, and so be deceived." Too late, moreover,
Mather added a ringing line which I endorse today: "I
had rather judge a witch to be an honest woman, than judge
an honest woman as a witch."
Breindel's review of Hiss's last book, "Recollections
of a Life," raises the interesting question of Hiss's
behavior in the decades since his release from prison.
Convinced of Hiss's guilt, Breindel carries down to 1988 the
supposition that Garry Wills had expressed in the 1970s: that
Hiss, while protesting his innocence, has remained an unrepentant
Communist all along. Breindel concentrates
not only on evidence of Hiss's guilt in the 1930s but also
on what he considers Hiss's failure to clear up several mysteries
concerning the mid-1930s and the charges of perjury and espionage.
Breindel does not take seriously the substance of Hiss's life
and beliefs in the fourteen chapters that, for many readers,
will seem at least as informative as the three brief chapters
on Hiss's "trial by ordeal" and his subsequent appeals.
In Hiss's text, Breindel finds only two glimpses of the Communist's
real beliefs: Hiss, he reports, says that the New Deal's failure
to cure the national economy was hidden by the stimulus of
World War II; and in a brief chapter called "Stalin,
the Enigmatic Host at Yalta," Hiss portrays Stalin as
conciliatory during the conference. Breindel does not mention
Hiss's emphasis on what made the accommodating host seem enigmatic:
"a vicious dictator," Hiss calls Stalin, "a
man whose paranoid nature had led him to order the imprisonment,
torture, and execution of untold numbers of his fellow citizens,
a rule of terror that sought to eliminate even the hint of
ignores the abundant evidence in Hiss's book of hearty approval
for the New Deal, and he overlooks Hiss's rueful awareness
that Hiss and other "Young Turks" both underestimated
and rejoiced in the complexity of the political system they
were trying to reinvigorate. Most regrettably absent from
Breindel's account of this memoir are the portraits of Alger
Hiss's heroes. To deceive the gullible, would an 85-year-old
Communist spend so much of his memoir on his admiration for
Felix Frankfurter, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Eleanor and Franklin
Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, and Arthur Vandenberg? Would he
write so sympathetically, and with no allusions to ideology,
about the authority of individual prisoners, their underground
system of communication, and the unofficial market in the
federal prison at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he spent
nearly four years? Neither the qualities praised in these
exemplary figures, nor the books Hiss chose to read aloud
when he served as private secretary to Justice Holmes, would
mark the young man or the aging narrator as standing further
to the Left than the New Dealer he claims to have been. But
in the world of masks and conspiracies, of course, exculpatory
evidence may be dismissed as part of the illusion.
also chides Hiss for failing once again to express a "sense
of outrage, even while claiming that a miscarriage of justice
destroyed his life." Thus the reviewer, preoccupied with
Hiss's mask, misses the chief point of Hiss's book: The career
was ruined; the life was not.
Howard Kurtz, "A Revisionist's Nightmare," Washington
Post, June 10, 1993, sec. D, pp. 1, 10. The book in question
is David Brock's "The Real Anita Hill, The Untold Story"
(New York: Free Press, 1993).
2. Allen Weinstein, "Perjury, the Hiss-Chambers Case"
(New York: Alfred Knopf, 1978).
Allen Weinstein, "Was Alger Hiss Framed?" New
York Review of Books 23 (April 1, 1976): 19; New York
Times, February 1,1976; and John Chabot Smith, "Alger
Hiss, the True Story" (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and
4. Irons invoked the Freedom of Information Act. Interview
with Peter Irons, Cambridge, Mass., 1976.
5. William Buckley and Richard Pipes expressed their doubts
in response to reporters' questions in the original news articles,
and Weinstein added an oped article for the Washington
Post a few days later (October 31,1992, sec. A, p.3; and
November 4, 1992, sec. A, p. 19). John Lowenthal, a former
law professor at Rutgers University, has published several
articles on the case and has created a film, The Trials
of Alger Hiss (1978).
See David Levin, "Coram Nobis," The Nation 229 (November
17, 1979): 507; Weinstein, "Was Hiss Framed?" 18;
Weinstein, "Perjury," 289; and "The Hiss Case,
an Exchange," New York Review of Books 13 (May
27, 1976): 36. [For the detoxification, see my argument on
Amos Perlmutter, in an untitled box below Jacob Cohen's "The
Hiss File: Innocent After All?" National Review
45 (January 18,1993): 30-31.
8. David Levin, "Perjury, History, and Unreliable Witnesses,"
Virginia Quarterly Review 54 (Autumn 1978): 726.
Alger Hiss, "In the Court of Public Opinion" (New
York: Alfred Knopf, 1957); Whittaker Chambers, "Witness"
(New York: Random House, 1952); Richard Nixon, "Six Crises"
(Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962); and David Levin, "In
the Court of Historical Criticism," Virginia Quarterly
Review 52 (Winter 1976): 41-78.
Levin, "Unreliable Witnesses," 726—30; and Levin,
"Coram Nobis," 507.
Eric Sundquist, "Witness Recalled," Commentary
88 (December 1988):
In "A Note on Documentation" (Perjury, 691) Weinstein
says that "the entire archive used in preparing the book,"
approximately "50,000 to 60,000 pages of material,"
will be available for inspection "at the Library of Congress
and the Harry S. Truman Library." Navasky and some colleagues,
having flown from New York City to Washington, D.C., actually
presented themselves at Weinstein's door at the appointed
time, a Sunday morning, but were turned away. Weinstein said
that he bad telegraphed a cancellation to Navasky's office
and home in New York on Saturday night, in protest against
both what he considered unfair criticisms in The Nation
and unreasonable demands concerning the meeting (see Weinstein's
explanation of the incident in "Allen Weinstein Clarifies,"
Encounter 62 [March 1979]: 83-85).
See David Levin, "Hiss Case," New York Review,
See Levin, "Unreliable Witnesses," 731-32.
Levin, "Hiss Case," 48: Hiss, after all, was dealing
with well-known lawyers to whom he was accountable. ... The
defense lawyers certainly would not have stood for suborning
or destroying vital evidence in the case, as McLean's willingness
to keep the most damaging defense files indicates. Nor, on
the other hand, could Alger Hiss have reasonably suggested
to his attorneys, without destroying his credibility, that
he did not want the typewriter found. He insisted, after all,
that he had nothing to hide.
Indeed, a Bokhara rug which Chambers had sworn he had given
to Hiss as an expression of gratitude from the USSR was not
subpoenaed by the prosecution, and the defense did not volunteer
a similar rug from Hiss's household, although the defense
claimed that Chambers had sent Hiss the rug as partial payment
in kind for the use of Hiss's apartment.
See Jon Wiener, "The Alger Hiss Case, the Archives, and
Allen Weinstein," Perspectives: American Historical
Association Newsletter 30 (February 1992), 10-12; and
Weiner, "Compromised Positions," Lingua Franca
3 (January-February 1993): 41-48.
See MS Box 38, folder 5, in Alger Hiss Papers, Harvard Law
School Library. I am grateful for the assistance of Ms. Judith
W Mellins, Manuscripts Associate, and Ms. Judy Chernoff.
20. Weinstein, "Perjury," 289, 886, 387.
21. Garry Wills, "The Honor of Alger Hiss," New
York Review of Books, April 20, 1978, p. 29; and Irving
Howe, New York Times Book Review, April 9, 1978, p.
24. Wills calls Weinstein's procedures "impeccably fair....
He is tentative about any charges other than those brought
and proved in court." Surely Weinstein's narratives of
the alleged "Woodstock Coverup" and the alleged
loan for Chambers's second car (to be discussed below) cannot
meet this standard.
22. In an Appendix, "The Double Agent: Horace Schmahl,
Mystery Man" (pp. 584-88), Weinstein denies that the
FBI accepted Schmal's offer to work for both sides, but here
again Weinstein mentions neither McLean's memorandum of December
28th nor the prosecution's possession of it.
Edward C. McLean, Letter of January 30, 1933, December 8,
1948, in Alger Hiss Papers, Harvard Law School Library.
See "In Re Alger Hiss: Petition for a Writ of Error Coram
Nobis," ed. Edith Tiger (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979),
John Lowenthal, The Trials of Alger Hiss (1978).
This unusual phrase has reminded several commentators of Franz
Werfel's novel "Class Reunion," translated by Chambers
(New York: Simon and Schuster), 1929.
At the beginning and end of the novel, a broken man named
Adler is brought before Sebastian, an administrative judge,
as defendant in the murder of a prostitute. At the end, Sebastian
learns that this defendant is not the classmate about whom
the entire story has led him to agonize. Weinstein, too, reports
the conclusion inaccurately, but he is right about the mistaken
identity. By concentrating on the silences of "lawyers
and psychiatrists" about such facts, he avoids treating
the striking similarities in language and psychology.
28. "The rank obscenity of cultured women!" Chambers
wrote in a letter some weeks after the alleged meeting. "I
was more shocked to hear her use such an expression than at
the charge" (quoted by Weinstein on page 264, from an
undated letter to Meyer Schapiro). Another undated letter
to Schapiro describes the final meeting, but neither letter
names the recalcitrant couple. Chambers first described the
scene to the FBI, and (so far as I know) first named Alger
and Priscilla Hiss in 1945. The dating of the first letter
has been the subject of some interest in the 1970s and 1980s,
when some investigators sympathetic to Hiss hoped to be able
to prove that Chambers had broken from the movement in 1937
(as he had repeatedly said until he produced the packet of
documents and film), before the date of the first "Baltimore
document." Of course, Alger Hiss denies that the meeting
ever occurred, and he denies that he was ever one to weep.
Weinstein reports those denials in a note, but accepts Chambers's
story, as most of the jurors apparently did. The two jurors
who appear in John Lowenthal's film expressly rejected Chambers's
claim that Hiss was a Communist.
Leon Srabian Herald to Marshall A. Best, April 3, 1967, quoted
with permission from the Harvard Law School Library. from
the Papers of Meyer A. Zeligs.
Meyer A. Zeligs, "Friendship and Fratricide: An Analysis
of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss" (New York: Viking,
1967), 216. The ellipsis here is in Zeligs's text.
31. Harold Rosenwald was one of Hiss's attorneys and advisers.
Sundquist, "‘Witness Recalled," 58; compare William
Buckley, George Will, and Jacob Cohen.
Article III, Section 3: "Treason against the United States,
shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering
to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No person shall
be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses
to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court."
Neither Chambers nor Hiss levied war against the United States,
and the USSR was not an enemy of the United States in the
years between 1933 and 1945.
Chambers, letter to William Buckley, quoted in Weinstein,
Eric M. Breindel, "Alger Hiss: A Glimpse Behind the Mask,"
Commentary 86 (November 1988): 55-58.
Wills, "Honor of Alger Hiss," 30.
Alger Hiss, "Recollection. of a Life" (New York:
Henry Holt, 1988), 96, 125.