The Nation, November 3, 1997
The Hiss-Chambers Case. By Allen Weinstein. Random House.
622 pp. Paper $20.
FROM THE UNDERGROUND: The Whittaker Chambers & Ralph
de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960. Introduction by Terry Teachout.
Regnery. 342 pp. $24.95.
Let's start with the Random House press release, replete with
"Praise for 'Perjury'" a reissue of Allen Weinstein's
book on the Hiss-Chambers case. Here is Alfred Kazin twenty
years ago, on the original 1978 Knopf edition: "It is impossible
to imagine anything new in the case except an admission by
Alger Hiss." Other hyperbolic kudos follow from an impressive
and ideologically motley crew of reviewers: Irving Howe, Arthur
Schlesinger Jr., Garry Wills, John Kenneth Galbraith, George
Will, Walter Goodman, Murray Kempton, Merle Miller, William
F. Buckley. The list goes on and on.
turns out Alfred Kazin's imagination wasn't what it used to
be, that there is something new to be said about the case
after all. Indeed, the press release continues, the "newly
revised edition...incorporat[es] recently released critical
evidence from the KGB archives opened exclusively to the author,"
and Weinstein adds "a new concluding chapter...examining the
public controversy over the Hiss-Chambers case" that has erupted
since his book was first published. Finally, for those still
in doubt, the denouement: "a conclusive, comprehensive and
dramatic book that points to one inescapable conclusion: Alger
Hiss was guilty."
release ends with a bio. The good professor, it seems, is
also founder, president and C.E.O. of the Center for Democracy
(which recently co-sponsored a conference with the National
Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency on the
so-called Venona files) and the author of, forthcoming in
1997, "The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America
with Alexander Vassiliev."
to its genre, the press release omits information that is
not, how shall I say it, on message. We are not told that,
aside from their enthusiasm, the one thing all the "Perjury"
endorsers have in common is that they were each previously
on record as believing in Hiss's guilt. And, of course, it
is not for a press release to reveal that Weinstein has, at
long last, come out of the scholar's closet. If in edition
one he portrayed himself as the honest scholar impartially
weighing the evidence, with the publication of the "conclusive"
edition, he is quite openly in the business of protecting
his earlier verdict.
news that "The Haunted Wood" is "forthcoming
in 1997" is more important than one might suspect. Here's
an example of why. As early as page 4 we're told that a major
player in the old domestic spy wars, Elizabeth ("Red Spy Queen")
Bentley thought by the late Richard Rovere and by Herbert
Packer, author of "Ex-Communist Witnesses," to be
a witness of dubious reliability wasn't so unreliable
after all. "Recently released material from the KGB archives,"
writes Weinstein, "amply confirm [sic] the substance of Bentley's
testimony." The proof? A footnote says, "See Allen Weinstein
and Alexander Vassiliev, "The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage
in America" (New York: Random House, forthcoming), passim."
by the way, once claimed that she turned over to the Russians
the exact time and date of the D-Day invasion, when in fact
(a) because of the weather and logistics the Allies had set
a time bracket rather than an exact date, and (b) according
to Winston Churchill and the head of our own military mission
to Moscow at the time, the Allies kept the Soviets posted
on invasion planning day by day.
mind that reviewing a book based in significant part on K.G.B.
archives is like evaluating the translation of a novel without
having read the original. When I saw the "forthcoming" footnote,
a part of me wondered if Weinstein was up to his old tricks.
Let me explain my preoccupation with "Perjury's"
footnotes. As longtime readers of this magazine may recall,
almost twenty years ago Professor Weinstein and I had a dispute
over the question of his documentation for assertions in the
original "Perjury" [see
Navasky, "The Case Not Proved Against Alger Hiss," April 8,
of documentation may on the surface seem technical, but the
imagery of espionage "spies," "traitors," "betrayers"
is incendiary and in tension with the subtleties of
tradecraft. Only by studying the footnotes can one make critical
distinctions and track the nether regions of a prose where
"underground" overlaps with "secret," "study group" is transformed
into "cell," witting fades into unwitting. Especially in a
world where intelligence is compromised by ideology, agents
are double and documents shredded, and where the whole process
is further complicated by translation into cable-ese and codes
that are decoded across cultures, the need for scholarly precision
and a healthy tolerance for ambiguity couldn't be greater.
in brief, is what happened. When I tried to check citations
in the first edition, I found that frequently there would
be one footnote at the end of the paragraph listing a half-dozen
sources, leaving the reader in a quandary as to which fact
or quotation came from which source. Often Whittaker Chambers'
autobiography, "Witness," was one of the cited sources.
Were we getting Chambers's version of events, sometimes in
his voice, sometimes in Weinstein's, sometimes imputed to
other characters in the drama, without knowing which was which?
Psychologically, that ambiguity lent Chambers undeserved credibility.
He was being used to corroborate himself.
decided to conduct a modest source check with seven of Weinstein's
most impressive interview finds. Six of the seven responded
and each of the six claimed he or she was misquoted
or quoted out of context. Subjects often do disown even accurate
reportage once they see it in cold print, especially if they
don't like or are embarrassed by the uses to which it has
been put. In this case all except one freely conceded that
part of what Weinstein wrote was accurate, but what each denied
saying invariably included the espionage part and invariably
came from Chambers.
I published the results of my mini-survey, Weinstein told
the press that if I had contacted him he would have invited
me to examine the material in his archive proving he cited
all six accurately. He denounced these six sources as "recanters"
and said he had three of them on tape to prove it. The case
of Maxim Lieber, Chambers's literary agent one whom
Weinstein says he has on tape is representative. Weinstein
cited Lieber sixteen times as "confirming," "corroborating"
or "participating in" "underground" work with Chambers. He
described Lieber's role in organizing the American Feature
Writers Syndicate, which Weinstein called a "front for Soviet
espionage." He quoted Lieber saying "some things are romanticized
in "Witness," but most of it as I know the
incidents is true."
who freely admitted to having been in the Communist Party,
took exception. Here is what he told me:
"I never read "Witness" Weinstein is quoting
me out of context."
"I was never a member of any underground and I never worked
with Chambers on any underground project."
Weinstein's "account of the American Feature Writers Syndicate
(which was designed to sell the works of my clients such as
Erskine Caldwell and Josephine Herbst overseas, and was not
an underground project at all) is an amalgam of a little truth
and a lot of fiction I don't know where Weinstein got
that stuff unless it was from "Witness" but
it did not come from me, which is what he makes it sound like."
Lieber was, indeed, a lying "recanter." Either way one would
think Weinstein owes it to readers of "Perjury II"
to let them know that his subject no longer stood by his story.
But only in one case out of the six that of Sam Krieger
has he made any adjustment, and in Krieger's case there
were, ah, special circumstances.
I wrote Krieger who took Chambers to his first Communist
Party meeting and asked whether "Perjury's"
pages accurately reflected his conversations with Weinstein,
he replied, "No, Weinstein's account does not correspond to
what I told him, nor did I tell Weinstein, in our interview,
that I was the Clarence Miller [his party pseudonym] of the
Gastonia, N.C., textile strike, who subsequently fled to the
this was published in The Nation, and not long afterward
Weinstein responded in The New Republic ("A scholar
has the right to choose his forum," he explained). Here is
Weinstein on Krieger:
too, is on tape, and his words are also quoted verbatim where
they appear in "Perjury," from two interviews in
1974. Krieger denies having told me that he posed as Clarence
Miller during the Gastonia, North Carolina textile strike
and later fled to the Soviet Union. I never say in the book
that he told me that. I learned these crucial facts from FBI
documents and from conversations with two people who had been
contacted by an émigré Russian woman whose mother
had lived with 'Clarence Miller' in the Soviet Union during
the 1930s. In 1975 this woman visited Krieger and identified
him as Clarence Miller."
things happened as a result of Weinstein's response. First,
because on the "Today" show and elsewhere he challenged
"Navasky and Hiss and anyone else they want to bring along"
to hear his tapes and inspect his files, I decided to take
him up on his offer. And second, Krieger, who resented being
mistaken for a fugitive from a murder rap, sued Weinstein,
his publisher and The New Republic.
won a settlement and in 1979 Weinstein apologized, as did
The New Republic, and Knopf inserted an erratum slip
in subsequent copies of the book. I didn't fare as well. The
negotiations to see Weinstein's files, while not as delicate
as, say, the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, were no more
productive. To prevent what he called "a time-consuming 'fishing
expedition' in my 50,000-page archive," he asked for an advance
list of the specific items I wished to see. I sent him an
inventory of twenty-four items (including the file of Nadya
Ulanovskaya, a key Weinstein source on Chambers's alleged
underground life and the only one of the seven who did not
respond to my original letters). He finally agreed to set
aside three hours on a Sunday morning for a date with me (along
with The Nation's White House correspondent Robert
Sherrill and assistant editor Phil Pochoda) to examine his
files; but at the last minute, offended by something I had
written, on the Saturday before our Sunday morning meeting,
he sent a wire that said "...meeting canceled. All my files
will be deposited later this year at Truman Library. Allen
the wire was sent so late and we had spent the night at Sherrill's
Baltimore home, you can imagine the consternation on Mrs.
Weinstein's face when the three of us arrived at the Weinsteins'
door the following morning for the inspection that never took
place. But that's another story.
is not another story, however, that almost twenty years later
those files have yet to appear at the Truman Library, so his
critical documentation remains unchecked. The new edition
of "Perjury" contains this "Note on Documentation":
"When "Perjury's" original edition was published
in 1978, my intention was to deposit the 60,000 pages of material
used in preparing the book at the Harry S Truman Library.
A lawsuit apparently encouraged by supporters of Alger Hiss
against the author, his publisher, and The New Republic
magazine subsequently settled without trial
made it advisable to maintain the files accumulated through
personal research.... Also, various scholars, including Sam
Tanenhaus, recent biographer of Whittaker Chambers, have made
extensive use of my personal research files with permission."
is true that the lawsuit was settled out of court. That was
because Weinstein and Co. agreed to corrections and apologies
and, according to New York, a payment to Krieger of $17,500.
The F.B.I. files Weinstein forwarded to the Truman Library
are a non sequitur because they had already been publicly
available at the F.B.I. building in Washington. It's nice
to know that unlike those who disagreed with Weinstein's findings,
Tanenhaus had access to his files. But neither Weinstein nor
Tanenhaus had the scholarly integrity to deal with the protests
of those interviewees who didn't take him to court. Weinstein
has simply reprinted the challenged interviews without indicating
that they've been challenged.
is this important, one may ask? Certainly Lieber, Krieger
et al. don't go to the heart of the case against Hiss. But
"Perjury" is generally considered to be the authoritative
statement of the case against Hiss. Since Weinstein found
no new witnesses who could directly implicate Hiss, he cites
the people and documents he tracked down as validating Chambers's
account. The architecture of his argument: If Chambers was
telling the truth about such important matters as his life
as a courier, his life in the underground, his role in setting
up espionage fronts, his attendance at cell meetings, etc.,
then he was telling the truth about Hiss.
so to the new chapter, purporting to deal with the new controversies.
I skip over Hiss's unsuccessful attempt to get his case reopened
by filing a voluminous coram nobis petition, other than to
observe that Weinstein attempts to refute rather than report
and weigh its challenging propositions.
I pass quickly over the matter of General Dmitry Volkogonov,
adviser to President Boris Yeltsin and chairman of the military
intelligence archives. It was Volkogonov who, in response
to a request from Hiss, issued his finding that "not a single
document, and a great amount of materials have been studied,
substantiates the allegation that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated
with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union." In a
conversation on film with Hiss's representative, lawyer-filmmaker
John Lowenthal, Volkogonov called the espionage accusation
"completely groundless" and said, "You can tell Alger Hiss
that the heavy weight should be lifted from his heart." Subsequently,
under pressure from various Western representatives, Nixon
emissaries and Chambers acolytes, all of whom correctly pointed
out the impossibility of proving a negative, Volkogonov retracted
his gloss, but he never "recanted" his finding. In "Perjury"
Weinstein tries to make much of a Volkogonov comment about
having spent only "two days swallowing dust." In fact he had
his staff search the archives thoroughly and asked Yevgeny
Primakov, director of the Russian Intelligence Service, to
instruct his staff to find all materials on the Hiss case.
scholar-turned-prosecutor turns warrior as he unloads what
he calls "two additional documentary bombshells." The first
concerns Noel Field, who in
1949 had been arrested in Prague and imprisoned in Hungary,
where he was subjected to torture and solitary confinement
as an American master spy. (They thought he was working for
the C.I.A., while the U.S. government seemed to think he was
working for the Russians.) In 1993 the Hungarian historian
Maria Schmidt who first leaked her findings to Tanenhaus,
who said in Commentary that they "sealed the case"
against Hiss presented a paper summarizing the 1954
interrogations of Field prior to his release from prison.
As Weinstein puts it, "If Field told the truth in those interviews
which confirmed, among other points,
Hede Massing's testimony at Hiss's trial that Field
discussed their joint involvement in Soviet espionage with
Hiss then Chambers's biographer Sam Tanenhaus's description
of the Schmidt findings as an evidentiary 'smoking gun' in
the Hiss case is valid."
Ethan Klingsberg, an attorney and former executive director
of the Soros Foundation's Institute for Constitutionalism
and Legislative Policy, also reviewed Noel Field's 2,500-page
dossier, particularly the documents relating to Hiss [see
Klingsberg in The Nation:
"Case Closed on Alger Hiss?" November 8, 1993]. According
to Gabor Baczoni, director of Hungary's Interior Ministry
archive, Klingsberg "saw everything that Maria Schmidt saw."
But Klingsberg, who takes no position on the Hiss case, came
to a very different conclusion. "What I saw turns out to provide
a case study in why this new game of using uncritical readings
of Communist secret-police files to make definitive historical
pronouncements is misguided and does not serve the interests
the Field dossier includes some apparently incriminating materials,
but it also includes some apparently exculpatory material.
For example, in the fall of 1948, after Hiss wrote Field about
Chambers's testimony, Field replied, "I need hardly tell you
how angered and outraged I was over the irresponsible allegations
made against you. Your testimony fully harmonizes with the
memory I had of you during our all-too-brief acquaintance
in Washington." And after he was released, Field offered to
provide an affidavit attesting to the falsehood of the evidence
implicating Hiss (as it related to Field).
sees no logical reason why the Hungarians would want to implicate
Hiss, but Klingsberg speculates that: (1) "Anybody held in
solitary confinement for three years on charges of being an
American spy would try to think of any remotely believable
stories to relate to his accusers about how he was in fact
connected with supporters of Communism." (2) From 1948 to
1953 there was a reign of terror in Hungary. The Communist
Party "executed thousands, imprisoned tens of thousands and
purged approximately 200,000." Baczoni said, "The more names
[prisoners] mentioned the better. This rule applied in the
Field case for sure." (3) Erica Wallach, Field's foster daughter,
also imprisoned (as were Field's wife and brother), told Klingsberg
she would "intentionally create false stories about Communist
contacts in the West to appease her interrogators' demands
because she knew that those individuals were safe from the
Stalinist terror." "All the documents written under noncoercive
circumstances," Klingsberg notes, "assume Hiss's innocence
on their face, while the apparently incriminating statements
were made under questionable, indeed brutal, circumstances."
Does this mean these speculations are fact? Not necessarily.
it does suggest the need for further investigation. The second
"bombshell" has to do with the Venona
files. In 1996 the C.I.A. and National Security Agency published
2,900 documents said to be decoded and annotated cable traffic
from 1939 to 1957 between Moscow and its U.S. agents. One
of them, dated March 30, 1945, refers to a person code-named
"Ales." In an unsigned footnote dated twenty-four years after
the original cable was sent, we are told that Ales is "probably
finds "a convergence of collateral evidence" to support the
presumption that Ales is Alger Hiss. Thus, he asks, "How else
to account for [K.G.B. defector] Oleg Gordievsky's identification
in 1988, over a half-decade before the decoded VENONA cable
was made public, of Hiss's Soviet alias as ALES?" The answer
to Weinstein's rhetorical question is at hand. As Eric Alterman
pointed out in The Nation on April 29 of last year
(in time for Weinstein to include a mention in the revised
"Perjury," but he didn't), Gordievsky's cited source
was a New York Review of Books essay by Tom Powers,
whose source was a counterintelligence agent who had seen
the same Venona cable. So here is Weinstein using Venona to
is more. The cable says that Ales works "on military information
only." But the Chambers material included mostly nonmilitary
intelligence. Weinstein takes this as evidence that Hiss branched
out in his espionage activities. Perhaps, or perhaps Weinstein
has fingered the wrong guy.
yes. On the next page Weinstein expresses consternation over
media neglect of a second Venona cable that mentions Hiss's
name. This 1943 document is partial and says cryptically "2.
The NEIGHBOR [i.e., military intelligence or GRU] has reported
that [words unrecovered] from the State Department by the
name of HISS...[end of recovered wording]." But if Hiss is
mentioned by name, doesn't this argue that he isn't Ales,
since under Venona rules agents were not supposed to be referred
to by their real names?
point here is not that Hiss was or wasn't Ales. To resolve
that would require reconciling many other contradictory pieces
of the puzzle, not to mention coming to terms with an archive
that, if it is taken at face value, also enlists in the espionage
brigades such worthy improbables as F.D.R. adviser Harry Hopkins,
Monthly Review editor Harry Magdoff and I.F. Stone.
Rather it is that unraveling all the mysteries of Cold War
skullduggery may take as long as the Cold War itself, and
it is at best a hazardous enterprise to attempt definitive
readings of the tea leaves as soon as they are leaked, sold
or selectively released by this or that intelligence source.
Yet Allen Weinstein is so intent on finding certainty where
the record exudes ambiguity that he even engages in argument-by-index.
Look up "Ales" in the index of the new edition and one finds
"'ALES' (pseud. of Hiss)." The real mystery is why Weinstein
is so intent on this quixotic mission. It could, of course,
simply be a predilection for what he regards as the winning
side. Thus in the early seventies, when campuses across the
country were questioning Cold War pieties, he represented
himself as sympathetic to Hiss and succeeded in getting a
grant from the progressive Rabinowitz Foundation, on whose
board sat Victor Rabinowitz, who later served as Hiss's counsel
on his coram nobis petition.
the late seventies, as the political pendulum began to swing
back to the right, he declared himself reluctantly persuaded
by the weight of evidence against Hiss. By the eighties he
was on Reagan's transition team, and in the nineties, with
the centrist Democrats back in power, he succeeded in conscripting
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan as the keynote speaker for
his Venona Conference. But Weinstein is not alone. Others,
such as Eric Breindel, David Horowitz, Harvey Klehr and Hilton
Kramer, are equally impassioned, taking every occasion to
purge themselves of the last vestiges of leftism. Like crazed
lepidopterists with their butterfly nets, they wildly try
to capture every fugitive document that flutters into view
to pin on their post-Cold War specimen boards. Their manic
goal: to prove that the forties and fifties red-hunters with
whom they now identify were right all along. The Cold War
may be over, but the symbolic Cold War lives on, perhaps fueled
by the residual guilt of those who abandoned their Communist
and fellow-traveling friends during the days of anti-Communist
hysteria. If progressives were accomplices in a worldwide
conspiracy on behalf of a foreign power rather than do-gooders
out to change the world for the better, perhaps the wholesale
suspension of liberties that characterized the Cold War years
was justifiable after all.
a new collection of correspondence, "Notes From the Underground:
The Whittaker Chambers & Ralph de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960,"
we learn that when he is not trying to manipulate reviews
for "Witness," musing on a suicide pact with his
loyal wife, Esther (and seriously considering the murder of
their children rather than letting them fall into the hands
of the "enemy world"), or worrying that the election of John
Kennedy means the reopening of the Hiss case, Chambers sounds
like he might be saying that the facts of the case ought to
yield to the deeper currents of history: "I venture to
say that, if the Hiss case could be set out realistically,
it could not have occurred in the first place. Any attempt
to reduce it to realism is self-defeating.... In terms of
realism, neither Alger nor I can exist, because in terms of
the real world...people do not die for their beliefs. People
clip coupons, or try to apply the general line correctly,
or pass production norms. Hiss and I are asserting something
beyond this reality."
the characters in "Witness," Chambers writes, "These
are not people, these are forces." Whichever, they are more
complicated than Allen Weinstein's "conclusive" edition would
lead us to believe.