Case Not Proved Against Alger Hiss
editorial appeared in The Nation on April 8,
"The Hiss case," Whittaker Chambers wrote William F. Buckley
Jr. in 1954 "is a permanent war . . . I am not really a free
agent and scarcely even an individual man. I am the witness
on whom, to a great degree it still swings. . . . My reactions
are a kind of public trust. They call for the most vigilant
intelligence and careful judgment."
With the publication of "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case,"
Chambers has been joined by a new "witness," one Allen Weinstein,
who wishes to act as opinion trustee for a new generation,
unfamiliar with the facts of the case. Chambers, Weinstein
believes, told the truth about Alger Hiss at his two trials,
and thereafter "weighed his political activities against a
single yardstick of how they might affect public response
to his earlier role in helping to convict Alger Hiss." Weinstein's
scholarship will not, if our sample of those who claim to
have been misquoted and misrepresented is accurate and representative,
stand the test of time. And yet false history is a disservice
to the present as well as to the future.
H.R. Haldeman's book, "The Ends of Power," reported
that the Soviets had asked the United States in 1969 to join
in an attack on China, Kissinger and Rogers immediately denied
the account, prompting a round of debate on just what a publisher's
obligations were to check out an author's assertions. Mr.
Haldeman's publisher, Thomas Lipscomb of Times Books, said
at the time, "A book publisher's function is different from
a newspaper publisher's. We are not under obligation to check
on the accuracy of every claim or opinion by an author. Our
job is to provide a forum. We do not choose liars but then
everyone from Talleyrand to Kissinger has been accused of
telling less than the truth."
publishers said they follow the practice of sending specialized
manuscripts to outside experts for an independent reading.
Ashbel Green, the Knopf editor who worked on Allen Weinstein's
book, tells us they didn't subject it to an outside reading
because "Allen showed portions of the manuscript to his own
group of experts, some of whom know the Hiss case inside out
and others of whom were experts on the period."
Our own view, after witnessing the eager acceptance "Perjury"
has achieved among the generalists, is that all of us - the
public, the publisher, the critics, the author and history
itself - would have been better served if the early reviews
had been exposed to the vetting of a Fred Cook or a John Lowenthal,
whose arguments in The Nation on the case have never
been adequately answered (Cook's book on the case, incidentally,
ought to be updated and reissued). Or, more interestingly,
if they had been shown to William Reuben, co-plaintiff in
the suit to liberate the Hiss papers from the FBI, who has
spent fifteen years researching the life of Whittaker Chambers,
is preparing a book called "Richard Nixon and the Frameup
of Alger Hiss," and probably knows more about the facts
and figures of the case (either because or in spite of his
intense belief in Hiss's innocence) than anyone not directly
many questions raised as a result of our own mini-investigation
into Weinstein's "Perjury" suggest how important
it is, in the absence of other procedures to guarantee the
integrity of advocacy scholarship, that the future publishers
of books on a case which is far from over provide their authors
with the resources and informed vetting required to protect
them from the pitfalls of partisanship. For the ultimate test
of Weinstein's scholarship has less to do with daily or weekly
reviewers' reactions to his intimidating pose of fairness
and thoroughness than with how it will survive the independent
studies of men like Cook, Reuben, Peter Irons and others,
and Alger Hiss's own impending coram nobis petition to set
aside the verdict in his case.
interviews, advance publicity and his publisher's advertising
and jacket copy for "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case,"
Allen Weinstein, the Smith College historian temporarily at
the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif., has presented
himself to the world as a young man who "set out to write
the definitive, objective work in the belief that Hiss was
innocent" and that Whittaker Chambers had "falsely accused
him of Communist ties and espionage," but who concluded after
five years of intensive research that Hiss had indeed been
Time, to which an advance copy of the book "was made
"available" two months before publication, put it in
a three-page feature, "Weinstein turned up previously undisclosed
evidence that inexorably led him to his unqualified verdict:
'The jurors made no mistake in finding Alger Hiss guilty as
charged.'" It is, at first, difficult not to be swept along
by the avalanche of people and documents which, according
to the author, "confirm" or "corroborate" one or another aspect
of Chambers's story.
image Weinstein projects is of the truth-seeking scholar who
traveled 125,000 miles, interviewed "over eighty people who
had special knowledge of the case or its protagonists," carefully
studied the transcripts of a score of Congressional hearings,
two trials and various appeals, analyzed 80,000 documents
made available under the Freedom of Information Act, and diligently
plowed through archive after archive in this country and abroad,
files at departments throughout the federal government, and
the voluminous Hiss defense files, before painfully deciding
that Alger Hiss indeed passed stolen State Department papers
to Chambers as part of an underground Soviet espionage apparatus
in the late 1930s.
wonder the first round of reviewers are stampeding to honor
this historian who ostensibly altered his beliefs to fit the
facts as he found them, and to proclaim that this unfinished
Cold-War business is at last resolved. George Will writes
in Newsweek that Weinstein's book is a "historic event.
. . . It is stunningly meticulous and a monument to the intellectual
ideal of truth stalked to its hiding place. It is also a substantial
public service. . . . The myth of Hiss's innocence suffers
the death of a thousand cuts, delicate destruction by a scholar's
scalpel." Alfred Kazin in Esquire calls "Perjury"
"an impressively unemotional blockbuster of fact." He writes:
"After this book, it is impossible to imagine anything
new in this case except an admission by Alger Hiss that he
has been lying for thirty years."
book is important because the case is important. Not merely
Hiss, wrote Alistair Cooke in 1950, but a generation was on
trial. Chambers himself called the case an epitomizing one.
"It epitomized a basic conflict. And Alger Hiss and I were
archetypes. That is of course what gave the peculiar intensity
to the struggle." Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (who believes Hiss
guilty) complained of Chambers's writings - after Hiss was
convicted of perjury at a second trial (the first ended in
a hung jury) that they divided the world into "messianic Christian
anti-Communists" and "atheistic Communists"; but for many
others, if Hiss was guilty then the New Deal was corrupt,
the State Department had been subverted, Yalta was a sellout,
the U.N. was a Communist plot, the possibilities of peaceful
coexistence with the Soviet Union were shattered, incipient
Cold-War repression became defensible. While Weinstein gives
the Hiss case too much credit for inciting the Cold-War hysteria
(the Un-American Activities Committee hearings on Hollywood,
preparation for the trial of Communist Party leaders under
the Smith Act, the Truman Executive Order on loyalty, the
Mundt-Nixon bill all predated Hiss), it undoubtedly facilitated
and accelerated the meteoric rise of McCarthy and McCarthyism.
Strachey, writing in 1962, put the case in its most cosmic
context when he identified Chambers as part of the literature
of reaction, "not only against Communism but against five
hundred years of rationalism and empiricism; against, in short,
Weinstein takes it upon himself to update what he calls the
"iconography" of the Cold War with the iconography of Watergate.
He quotes philosopher Richard Popkin, who argued that "Unravelling
the Ellsberg burglary will unravel what was involved in Richard
M. Nixon's whole career: fraud, fakery, framing of innocent
victims. . . . When we know more about how the Ellsberg case
was plotted, we will know how the Hiss case itself was constructed
. . . the Hiss case may turn out to be the American Dreyfus
Weinstein seems put out that many liberals and moderates began
to view Hiss as a spiritual ancestor of the Ellsbergs, Berrigans,
Spocks and Coffins - conspicuous for having fought government
injustice and illegality during politically motivated trials.
"As anti-war sentiment converged with popular outrage over
Watergate," he writes, "Hiss found himself transformed from
a symbol of deception into one of injured innocence. Watergate
and more responsive media brought Hiss, in short, a renewed
measure of public acceptance. . . . Watergate helped create
a new generation of believers in Hiss's innocence. The cultural
verdict of the previous quarter century - indeed, the jury's
verdict itself - was abruptly brought into question by Americans
unfamiliar with the complex facts and history of the case."
has aligned himself with those Cold-War intellectuals who
presumably sleep better at night secure in the knowledge that
there was an internal Communist espionage menace (Hiss, the
Rosenbergs, Remington, Sobell, Coplon, et al.) which might
have justified the Cold- War repression with which they collaborated
and/or helped rationalize.
it should be noted that Weinstein himself seems not above
enjoying a little iconographic con, so to speak, of his own.
A review of his previous writings reveals no commitment to
the innocence of Alger Hiss. If he did believe Hiss to be
innocent, he never said so in print - certainly not in his
major writings on the case in The American Scholar
(1971), Esquire (1975), The New York Times (1976)
and The New York Review of Books (1976). And even though
he recently told the editor of The Daily Hampshire Gazette
(Northampton, Mass.) in a front-page interview that in 1974
he wrote with R. Jackson Wilson a high school textbook, "Freedom
and Crisis: An American History," "which concluded that
Hiss was innocent," a close reading of the chapter on the
case fails to reveal any such conclusion (although in fairness
it should be pointed out that, as in his American Scholar
article, he raises real questions about Chambers's reliability).
My own suspicion that Weinstein was not quite as scholarly
as he appears to be commenced, I should confess, a few years
ago when I was shown a copy of his letter to the Justice Department
requesting access to materials on the Rosenberg case. He assured
the U.S. Attorney General that, unlike some other writers
whom he proceeded to name with quite reckless abandon, he
believed the Rosenbergs guilty. I say "reckless," because
I was one of the writers he named (although his reference
to me was syntactically ambiguous) despite the fact that at
the time I had written nothing about my views on the Rosenbergs'
innocence or guilt. Anyway, my suspicion was sufficient to
cause me, after rereading Weinstein's earlier articles on
the Hiss case, to conduct an elementary source check with
some of the people he interviewed for "Perjury"
(to see if they were accurately quoted), and to examine some
of the documents he cites (to see if they are cited in context).
The preliminary results suggest that the hurry to any sort
of judgment on the case based on "Perjury" alone,
may be somewhat premature.
his American Scholar article ("The Hiss Case Revisited"),
Weinstein concluded a rigorous, tough-minded and generally
fair discussion of the pros and cons of the case by restating
the uncertainties which he seemed to feel made contemporary
assessments of innocence or guilt incautious. He wrote: "Perhaps
only a master novelist can bridge our present impasse, but
the historian still must attempt to establish the facts where
possible and where not, to expose the inconsistencies of partisan
accounts." The time has come for a thoroughly researched
reassessment of the Hiss case, but without the release of
the grand jury records, the executive files of HUAC and the
relevant records, the "complete" story of that controversial
affair may never be known. Granting the episode's pivotal
importance in the political life of recent America, however,
historians must begin to confront the case itself to prevent
either of its partisan versions from hardening into myth.
reading and rereading "Perjury," I couldn't agree
more. Whatever his original motives and aspirations, Professor
Weinstein is now an embattled partisan, hopelessly mired in
the perspective of one side, his narrative obfuscatory, his
interpretations improbable, his omissions strategic, his vocabulary
manipulative, his standards double, his "corroborations" circular
and suspect, his reporting astonishingly erratic (brilliantly
enterprising where it serves, nonexistent where it complicates,
and frequently unreliable). His conversion from scholar to
partisan, along with a rhetoric and methodology that confuse
his beliefs with his data, make it impossible for the nonspecialist
to render an honest verdict on the case. This condition, however,
should not inhibit us from rendering a necessarily negative
verdict on the scholarship itself.
of the Hiss case have heard much about the Woodstock typewriter
(Was it a forgery? Did Chambers have secret access to it?
Was the machine at the trial the one which really typed the
letters introduced in evidence?, etc.), the Bokhara rugs (What
sort of secret agent would give four identical rugs as presents
to his four most secret operatives?), the dispute over how
well and for how long and under what names ("Carl," "George
Crosley" or "Karl") the Hisses knew Chambers, under what circumstances
they met and when and where, and did Hiss give Chambers an
apartment, a car, a loan, etc.? All of these matters came
up at the two perjury trials and have been fought and refought
in court appeals and in the magazine articles and books which
have been coming out regularly since the last court appeal
But until Weinstein came along we have heard nothing outside
of Chambers's own memoir, "Witness," to corroborate
Chambers's version of what he claimed were his six years in
the Communist underground. Since Weinstein found no new witnesses
who could directly implicate Hiss, he places great stress
on the many people he talked with and the many documents he
consulted which appear to corroborate Chambers's statements
on matters other than Hiss. His reasoning is clearly that
if Chambers was telling the truth about such matters as J.
Peters and Colonel Bykov's being the head of the Communist
underground, and telling the truth about how he was recruited
into the party by "Charles" (Sam) Krieger, and telling the
truth about Felix Inslerman, the microfilm photographer with
whom he said he worked in the C.P. underground, and telling
the truth about setting up with literary agent Max Lieber
an espionage front called the American Feature Writers Syndicate,
then it might be reasonable to assume that Chambers was a
Weinstein does not tell us, however, is that he has transposed
"Witness" from the first to the third person and
that much more of "Perjury" than one might deduce
from the footnotes draws on material in the earlier book.
Such a narrative strategy gives us Chambers's version of events
sometimes in his own voice, sometimes in Weinstein's voice,
and sometimes imputed to other characters in the drama, without
our ever being quite sure which is which, but all of it adding
up to a psychological structure that lends Chambers a perhaps
undeserved credibility, and in which any inconsistencies in
Chambers's story are concealed or glossed over. The problem
is compounded by Weinstein's failure to flag contested claims
as they arise.
example, the extremely important matter of the date on which
Chambers quit the party. That date is critical because the
papers Chambers produced, allegedly from Hiss, were all dated
between January and April 1938. If Chambers quit the party
in 1937, as he stated under oath on at least sixteen separate
occasions, then his story is seriously compromised. It was
only after he produced the seemingly incriminating papers
in November 1948 that he "remembered" leaving the party in
April 1938 and mentioned espionage for the first time. How
does Weinstein handle this matter?
early as the introduction we are told that Paul Willert, an
Oxford University Press editor, "gave Chambers translating
work prior to the latter's break with the CP in April 1938
and later that year warned Chambers that a Comintern agent
had arrived from Europe looking for him." The story is purportedly
Willert's (I say purportedly because Willert told me he never
knew Chambers was a Communist or warned him about a Comintern
agent), but the 1938 date given for Chambers's break is Weinstein's.
Again, on page 5, Weinstein describes Chambers in the HUAC
witness chair. "After defecting in 1938, Chambers asserted
he had lived in hiding, sleeping by day and watching through
the night with gun and revolver. . . ." But if he had not
intruded as narrator, Weinstein would have had to cite Chambers
as saying he left the party in 1937, which was Chambers's
story at the time, and which he repeated on six subsequent
appearances that same month. Moreover, in April 1949 Chambers
told the FBI that he left the party one month before he had
received the manuscript from Oxford. Throughout the book we
encounter entries like: "When Chambers defected in April 1938
he took with him as evidence...."
one time Weinstein mentions the discrepancy in dates, he says,
"More than a decade had passed since his described friendship
with the Hisses and Chambers later admitted inaccuracies in
his original August 3 testimony and in some cases at the August
7 hearing. Thus he met Hiss in 1934, not 1935, and his defection
from Communism came in 1938 rather than in 1937."
But these were not "admissions." They were adjustments, essential
to the credibility of Chambers's tale, and Weinstein never
lets the reader in on the grand dimensions of Chambers's conflicting
court and committee testimony and FBI statements.
The Scholar as Reporter?
Weinstein's deceptive narration could be cured by proper footnoting,
but the confusion it creates in terms of who is corroborating
what, is compounded by what turn out to be the author's considerable
limitations as a reporter.
historian-detective, Weinstein deserves the highest compliments
for tracking down and sitting down with such as J. Peters
(a major character in Chambers's memoir, who accepted voluntary
deportation to Hungary in February 1949); Ella Winter, whom
Chambers allegedly tried to recruit; Karel Kaplan, a Czech
historian privy to accused spy Noel Field's interrogation
about Hiss and Maxim Lieber, Chambers's literary agent, and
alleged co-conspirator, who was forced to live outside the
country for eighteen years. And on principle Weinstein should
be credited with unearthing long-forgotten conflicting memorandums
in the Hiss legal files. But one should closely examine the
way he uses what he was told by these historically important
characters (some of whom I reached in an attempt to check
out Weinstein's "corroborations"), and carefully scrutinize
the interpretation he puts on the Hiss legal documents.
J. Peters (Joszef Peter)
Weinstein's much-trumpeted interview with this man, whom he
confidently describes, despite Peters's "pro forma denials,"
as "the head of the Communist underground in this country,"
a "professional Soviet agent." To help document his description
of Peters, he cites David Dallin's account of Soviet espionage,
which characterizes Peters as: "Indefatigable . . . an
outstanding leader, man of many aliases and a multitude of
clandestine assignments, who remained at his American post
from 1933 to 1941. His era was marked by great exploits [and]
. . . [he was] the most active, energetic, and resourceful
man in those obscure depths of the underground where Soviet
espionage borders on American communism."
Weinstein neglects to mention is that the passage in question
was unfootnoted, that Dallin's papers, which were promised
to Yale by 1970, have never arrived, and that Dallin's chief
source is none other than Whittaker Chambers (so he is corroborating
Chambers with Chambers). Credentials aside, however, what
is the new, albeit inadvertent, evidence Peters has provided?
Here, believe it or not, is the totality of what Weinstein
refers to when he says that he heard Peters "confirm details
of Chambers's underground work." It occurs in footnote 95,
Chapter 1: "My long talk with Peter in Budapest was his first
with a non-Communist Western scholar since his 1949 deportation
and included his first public comments on the Hiss-Chambers
case. Peter smiled once during our talk when I suggested that
his frequent use of the terms 'open' and 'secret' Communist
parties when describing the division in American CP ranks
indicated an awareness of that second realm which most Party
'functionaries' would deny having possessed."
anything more than Peter's smile was involved in his confirmation
of Chambers's activities, we are given no evidence of it.
He tracks down Lincoln Steffens's widow, Ella Winter, in London,
and reports her recollection:
walking along a Manhattan street with a friend during the
mid-Thirties, Chambers, who had previously tried - and failed
- to recruit her for the underground using the name 'Harold
Phillips' suddenly came into view. 'Don't take any notice
of that man,' her friend, a leading film distributor, quickly
cautioned her. 'That was Whittaker Chambers, who is doing
secret work for the Party.'"
But when I wrote Ella Winter to ask whether that was indeed
her recollection she replied: "My film friend did not say
'who is doing secret work for the party.' On the contrary,
we had just passed Sidney Howard on Fifth Avenue and the bogus
Chambers, who knew my film friend, asked me if I knew Sidney
Howard and would I introduce him.' I did not introduce him
to Sidney Howard.
never 'tried to recruit me for underground work' or even for
the CP," Miss Winter adds.
With an introduction from Alden Whitman of The New York
Times, Weinstein travels to Rhonert Park, Calif., where
he interviews Sam Krieger, the man who recruited Chambers
into the Communist Party and, according to Weinstein, "an
important Communist organizer during the Gastonia textile
strike of 1929," who "fled to the Soviet Union" during the
1930s before he returned to California where he now lives
in retirement. He also reports that Krieger took Chambers
to his first C.P. meeting, whereupon he was immediately signed
up, and shortly thereafter joined the IWW [International Workers
of the World] too.
when I sent Mr. Krieger photostats of the pages in Weinstein's
book concerning him, he replied, "No, Weinstein's account
does not correspond with what I told him, nor did I tell Weinstein,
in our interview, that I was the Clarence Miller of the Gastonia,
N.C. textile strike, who subsequently fled to the Soviet Union.
Chambers was not admitted to the party at his first meeting
nor did he bring two Columbia University friends, whom he
was trying to recruit, to a branch meeting. Likewise, I never
told Weinstein that Whittaker Chambers became a member of
the IWW after joining the Communist Party." (The sources Weinstein
cites for these latter "facts" are an FBI summary report on
One of Weinstein's more spectacular finds was Prof. Karel
Kaplan, who left Czechoslovakia in 1976 with a significant
archive collected during his eight years as archivist for
the Czech Communist Party's Central Committee. According to
Weinstein, Kaplan, a member of the Dubcek 1968 commission
which investigated the political purge trials of the late
Stalin era in which Noel Field figured prominently, had read
the long interrogations of both Noel and Herta Field by Czech
and Hungarian security officials (after they went to live
in Czechoslovakia) and he shared his findings with Weinstein
in Munich where "he described to me the material in those
files that dealt with Alger Hiss."
Kaplan, according to Weinstein, confirmed Hiss's relationship
with Field "in the Communist underground."
to Kaplan, Field named Alger Hiss as a fellow Communist underground
agent in the State Department during the mid-thirties," writes
Weinstein, quoting Kaplan: "Field said that he had been involved
[while at the State Department] and that Hiss was the other
one involved after he joined the Department. One major reason
Field gave to his interrogators for not having returned to
the United States in 1948 was to avoid testifying in the Hiss-Chambers
cites but does not quote extensively a two-page letter Field
wrote Hiss after he got out of prison and read Hiss's book,
"In the Court of Public Opinion." Field offers to
provide an affidavit attesting to the falseness of the evidence
implicating Hiss (as it related to Field) and expresses his
belief in Hiss's innocence. Weinstein cites but does not quote
from Flora Lewis's account, in her biography of Noel Field,
of the torture he endured in prison - torture, one assumes,
which has a bearing on the reliability of anything he may
wrote to Kaplan, now employed with Radio Free Europe in Munich,
and he wrote back, among other things: "N. Field testimony,
as far as I can remember, did not contain any facts or explicit
statements which would indicate that A. Hiss was delivering
U.S. documents to the Soviet Union."
states in his introduction that "the revelations of five participants
in Soviet intelligence work in the United States and Europe
during the 1930s - Joszef Peters, Nadya Ulanovskaya, Maxim
Lieber, Paul Willert and Hede Massing - proved particularly
Peters was a well-known Communist Party official in the 1930s
who wrote pamphlets and ran for public office but who, as
we have already seen, denied participation in any "Communist
underground" operation in the United States. Massing's story
about having met Hiss in Field's apartment was (a) given under
threat of deportation (not mentioned by Weinstein) and (b)
denied by Field. Willert tells me he never "participated in
Soviet intelligence work in the U.S.," never told Weinstein
he did, and never knew Otto Katz to be a "high ranking Comintern
representative," as Weinstein suggests he did. Ulanovskaya
is a peripheral figure (with at best secondhand information
garnered from her late husband), who left the United States
in 1934 without ever having met Hiss. But the man Weinstein
cites sixteen times as "confirming" or "corroborating" or
"participating" in secret work with Chambers, is Chambers's
one-time friend, business associate and literary agent, Maxim
Lieber, now living in Connecticut after spending the years
1950-68 first in Mexico and then in Poland, a refugee from
the domestic Cold War.
calls Lieber a "sometime associate [of Chambers] in the underground,"
and says Lieber identified Peters as "the head of the whole
Communist espionage apparatus in this country," and "worked
with [Chambers] for a time on an underground project." Weinstein
writes that "convincing corroboration of Peters's work as
an agent during the 1930s came from . . . my interviews with
Maxim Lieber, whom Peters assigned to occasional underground
He describes Lieber's role in the American Feature Writers
Syndicate as that of an "agent" engaged in "espionage abroad,"
"a front for Soviet espionage." Weinstein says Lieber gave
Col. Boris Bykov ("the chief agent for Russia in the United
States during the thirties") "low marks" as a spymaster. Weinstein
credits Lieber with warning Chambers, who believed the KGB
was after him, about Otto Katz (another client). He quotes
Lieber as saying, "Some things are romanticized in "Witness,"
but most of it - as I know of the incidents - is true."
when I talked with Lieber, who freely admits to having been
in the party and who represented party authors, among others,
he told me (a) "I never read "Witness" - Weinstein
is quoting me out of context." (He asked if he could borrow
the office copy.) (b) "I was never a member of any underground
and I never worked with Chambers on any underground project."
(c) "The 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 is in "Witness" - but it
did not come from me, which is what he makes it sound like."
(d) "I could not have identified Peters as the head of the
underground because I knew nothing of the underground. I only
met him once at the very end - and I do not remember meeting
anyone named Bykov. I have no idea who was the head of the
Communist underground in America. And I could not have warned
Chambers about Katz, since I had no idea who Katz was supposed
to be. To me, he was a client. I never met or saw Priscilla
or Alger Hiss or even knew about them until the trial. Weinstein's
story is sheer poppycock. My son says I should consult a lawyer."
Hiss and "the Woodstock Cover-up"
Asked by a sympathetic interviewer, "Would you say you made
any discovery that clinches the case against Hiss?," Weinstein
told Politicks, "The strongest incriminating evidence
I found in the defense files concerns what I call the real
'Woodstock cover-up.'" Weinstein goes on to zero in on the
role of Alger's brother Donald, whom he accuses of having
traced the whereabouts of the typewriter to a Washington trucker
and junk dealer named Lockey in February, but keeping the
FBI and the Hiss lawyer who ultimately found the typewriter
(McLean) in the dark about it until April. Gary Wills, writing
in The New York Review of Books, found this discovery
"the most damaging of all. It knocks into a cocked hat all
the theories of a planted, altered, or forged typewriter."
But Weinstein never discusses in detail a February 26, 1951
memo in the defense files which gives Donald Hiss's version
of the episode, and when I wrote Donald Hiss to ask if Weinstein
had accurately included his own explanation for "the mysterious
pause" of two months, he replied, "Mr. Weinstein had exactly
one interview with me. . . . Weinstein raised three subjects
and only three during the interview. . . . He made no mention
whatsoever of the typewriter or my search with Mike Catlett
for it. [He] asked if I would be available to answer any further
questions should they occur to him. To this I answered that
I would be available at any time. He has never contacted me
by mail or telephone since then. The interview was extremely
brief and lasted no more than 10 to 15 minutes."
is not, of course, required to believe Alger Hiss's brother,
but the canons of scholarship would seem to insist that he
hear Donald's version before dismissing it. Had he interviewed
Donald Hiss he would have been told that on his February trip
to Lockey, Donald discovered not the Woodstock but a different
old typewriter, the Royal, and "The above trip to Lockey was
reported by me to McLean." He would have been told a lot more,
but my point is not to argue the merits of the case, merely
to note the inadequacy of Weinstein's much-ballyhooed research.
Weinstein's other piece of significant incriminatory information
- the one which stimulated his headline-making 1976 charge
in The New York Review of Books - is that memorandums in the
Hiss defense files proved that "Alger Hiss lied." According
to Weinstein, "A defense lawyer, John F. Davis, on December
28, 1948, wrote the chief counsel that Alger Hiss asked him
earlier that month to check on an old typewriter 'which he
remembers he gave to the son of Claudia Catlett [a housekeeper]
who used to do the washing.'
shortly thereafter denied to the FBI and the Grand Jury specific
knowledge of the missing typewriter. . . . This means," Mr.
Weinstein asserts, that "Hiss deliberately misled the FBI,
the Grand Jury and two trial juries about his knowledge of
the Woodstock typewriter's whereabouts." He adds that "Mr.
Hiss three times between December 10 and 15 told the Grand
Jury that he had no knowledge of how the typewriter had been
But a reading of the Davis memo, a search through the Hiss
files and a reading of the correspondence which followed the
Weinstein article in The New York Review reveals that
Weinstein has reached a shaky conclusion and not shared with
the reader the available contrary evidence on which to make
an independent judgment. First, the Davis document is, on
its face, ambiguous. It refers to "an" old typewriter, not
"the" old typewriter. Second, Weinstein doesn't mention other
evidence which suggests that it was not Hiss who recalled
the machine at all, it was his stepson, Timmy Hobson; that
Hiss merely relayed the message to counsel. In that context,
asking counsel to "check on" something seems as much evidence
of uncertainty as of certainty. Finally, Weinstein never explains
the Hiss legal memorandums which document four simultaneous
typewriter searches for three typewriters. If Hiss really
knew where the typewriter was all along and if he knew which
of his old typewriters was sought by the FBI, why would he
waste his lawyers' and everybody else's time carrying on these
is a "historian's prerogative," but some conspicuous
omissions of key documents or accounts which complicate Weinstein's
thesis (accompanied by a seemingly bold confrontation of less
problematic materials) further undermine one's confidence
in the enterprise. A typical example is his handling of the
important evidence bearing on Chambers's claim, first made
in November 1948, to have stored the stolen papers and microfilms
in an envelope in a dumbwaiter at his nephew's house in Brooklyn
in 1938. Weinstein dramatically deals with the contention
that the materials could not have fit in the envelope, by
describing a simulated experiment of his own where everything
fitted. But he omits any mention of the defense's ultimate
claim in an affidavit filed to support Hiss's 1952 motion
for a new trial, by a chemist, Daniel P. Norman, president
of New England's largest and oldest firm in the business of
testing chemicals and papers, who tested the papers and the
envelope and asserted that they lacked the markings and chemical
stains which would inevitably accompany ten-year storage.
Weinstein doesn't have to agree with Norman to acknowledge
some cases a strategic omission is accompanied by what we
might call a false inclusion, which occurs as a result of
Weinstein's never-defined and interchangeable use of such
terms as "Communist underground" and "secret work." Thus
a "Marxist study group" becomes a "Communist cell" becomes
a "secret apparatus" becomes "underground work" becomes "espionage."
In the case of New Deal economist Victor Perlo, accused by
the notoriously unreliable Elizabeth Bentley of heading a
spy ring, Weinstein writes in a footnote that, ". . . the
witness's former wife, Katherine Perlo, had corroborated Bentley's
charges against her ex-husband in an anonymous letter - later
acknowledged by Mrs. Perlo - sent to the FBI several years
earlier. Mrs. Perlo accused her husband of engaging in espionage
and named others in the group, her list of names being comparable
to Bentley's later one."
fact, Mr. Weinstein neglects to mention that Mrs. Perlo was
under a psychiatrist's care suffering from "mental disorder"
when she wrote the anonymous letter and that she sent it to
the President (not the FBI), charged membership in the Communist
Party but said nothing about espionage, and in addition to
naming her ex-husband as a member of the group, also included
more blatant omission-distortion, because he uses her to "confirm"
and "recall" the Ware group (another so-called spy ring identified
by Elizabeth Bentley) concerns Weinstein's handling of the
depositions, interviews and papers of the novelist Josephine
Herbst. He says she confirmed that "the Ware group sometimes
filched documents," and that they photographed the "stolen"
government documents in the apartment she shared with John
Herrmann. But I requested copies of Miss Herbst's affidavits
(on file with the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee) and
a close reading reveals that she never used the word "stolen"
or "filched," that whatever documents the Ware group had were
trivial and intended not for Moscow but The Daily Worker
and that "She was absolutely certain that her apartment in
Washington had never been used for developing pictures while
she was there. It was a small apartment, she said, and the
developing equipment would have taken a noticeable amount
of space and [she] was sure she would have remembered." Weinstein
uses Herbst to "corroborate" that Chambers met Hiss in 1934,
but neglects to quote the FBI document which says she never
met the Hisses or any member of the Ware group except Pressman
whom she met in the CIO "and stated she knew nothing of the
connection between her husband [Herrmann], Chambers and Ware."
should by now not be necessary to list all of Weinstein's
simple errors of fact. He says the HUAC hearings of August
3, 1948, marking Chambers's first appearance in public, were
"unexpected" and that what Chambers would testify to
was not known in advance, when in fact a press conference
was held by the committee on August 2 in which (as The
New York Times reported) Chambers was referred to as the
next day's witness on the subject of Soviet espionage. He
has Chambers working at The Daily Worker in New York
two years before the paper was published there. He has Chambers
telling the committee on the occasion of his first appearance
that he defected "in 1938" when on eight different times that
day he gave the date as 1937. He has Chambers rejoining the
Communist Party in 1931 - a year before even Chambers alleged
that he rejoined the party. He states that Gardner (Pat) Jackson
was Jerome Frank's assistant when Jackson never worked in
the same office as Frank. He claims that Stryker was attractive
to Hiss's advisers because of his books which included "The
Art of Advocacy." But "The Art of Advocacy"
wasn't published until 1954, etc., etc., etc.
makes the mistake of assuming that FBI memorandums provide
answers rather than clues. Taking such documents at face value
may be a sign of naiveté rather than malevolence. He
complains of Hiss pressure on the Catlett family to "remember"
the date on which they received the family Woodstock in a
way which would help Alger, but neglects to consider or mention
the impact of wholesale FBI harassment of potential witnesses,
including threats of perjury suits, social disgrace, deportation,
inspecting bank records and income tax returns, and arranging
for hostile witnesses to lose their jobs. And when he does
examine the possibility of FBI skullduggery, his imagination
runs short. Thus, when he considers the charge that Chambers's
memory of a $400 loan from Hiss was influenced by FBI agents
who one week earlier had gained access to records of Hiss's
savings and checking accounts, he dismisses the possibility
because the FOIA files show: "The records were not sent to
New York, where Chambers was then being interrogated by agents
of the FBI field office, but remained in the Washington field
office." One is tempted to remind Weinstein that the Bureau
was not unaware of the telephone.
is symptomatic of the sloppiness of the work that, without
explaining the discrepancy, he says in the introduction that
he has interviewed more than eighty people with special knowledge
of the case but lists in the Appendix only fifty-six interviewees
who gave important information. He includes some secondhand
gossip about what Priscilla Hiss is supposed to have said
at a Chicago dinner party in 1968, and when challenged on
his sources, invoked the name of Alden Whitman, formerly of
The New York Times, as one who checked out the story.
Whitman told me, "I have no recollection of my checking out
any Chicago dinner party." It never occurred to Weinstein
to ask Mrs. Hiss.
Interviewees can always be found to claim they were misquoted,
but the responses of Winter, Krieger, Willert, Kaplan and
Lieber suggest that the distortions are too central to Weinstein's
general mode of argument to be ignored, especially in the
context of his selective use and misuse of documents not generally
available for inspection. Can it be, one finally asks, that
so many distinguished social commentators have been taken
in by such a vulnerable enterprise? Without pretending to
pass on whether it is the illiberal climate, the compelling
iconography of Allen Weinstein, or simply the mesmerizing
message of the thousands of "facts" he has assembled, which
has caused the unfortunate celebration of his dubious achievement,
this much can be said:
settles nothing about the Hiss case. It sets forth some new
riddles, fails to solve them and ignores some old ones. Oddly,
it doesn't really seem to take full advantage of the new Freedom
of Information Act materials, thousands of which were still
coming in as "Perjury" was coming out. It doesn't
provide a serious motive or theory to account for Hiss's behavior
since he was released from prison. Whatever new data Weinstein
may have gathered are fatally tainted by his unprofessionalism,
his apparent intolerance for ambiguity, especially when it
gets in the way of his thesis. It would be a tragedy if the
immediate impact of this unfair book were to deprive Alger
Hiss, now 73, of a fair hearing on his upcoming coram nobis
petition to set aside the verdict of the trial (his first
court challenge to his perjury conviction since 1952). One
suspects, though, that the only permanent damage Weinstein
has wrought may be to the reputations of himself and those
who too eagerly endorse his findings. The target of "Perjury"
is Alger Hiss and his claim of innocence, but its temporary
victim is historical truth.