Stone on the Pumpkin Papers
From The New York Times, April 1, 1976
- I have a new scrap of evidence to contribute to the
renewed controversy over the Hiss case. But first I would
like to explain how I came across it.
On March 28, The Washington Star reprinted Prof. Allen
Weinstein's attack on Alger Hiss in The New York Review
of Books, in which Weinstein accused Hiss of lying about
his relations with Whittaker Chambers. But The Star
did what few if any other papers have done. Alongside the
Weinstein article, it printed the text of Hiss's reply, and
a photostat of a document to which Hiss tried to call public
attention. That document has been overlooked, though it represents
a tantalizing loose thread. Firmly pulled, it might unravel
the melodramatic web woven a quarter century ago around the
notorious Pumpkin Papers.
Pumpkin Papers, as everyone knows, were the centerpiece and
symbol of the postwar witch hunt. They turned up in a masterly
bit of choreography one dark December night in 1948. Chambers,
an ex-Communist, led House Un-American Activities Committee
investigators across his Maryland farm to a hollow pumpkin.
From it he extracted five rolls of microfilm. These were said
to contain copies of secret State War and Navy Department
documents. Chambers claimed he had obtained them as a Soviet
was the bombshell of the famous Hiss case. Chambers had accused
Hiss, a State Department official, before the committee of
having been a member of the Communist "apparatus" in Washington.
Hiss denied it and filed a $75,000 slander suit against Chambers.
Chambers produced documents he claimed had been turned over
to him by Hiss. He did so first at a pre-trial deposition
hearing in Baltimore and then, more dramatically, two weeks
later from the pumpkin.
M. Nixon, then a leading member of the committee, hailed the
microfilms, with a hyperbole to which the whole country was
to grow familiar, as "conclusive" proof of the greatest treason
conspiracy in this nation's history. It now appears that there
were surprises of quite another sort to be found on two of
those five rolls of microfilm had they been made available
at the time.
live in Washington and was not at Alger Hiss's news conference
of March 18 in New York. Hiss held it to answer Professor
Weinstein's article, an attack on Hiss that made page 1 headlines.
Hiss told the press that no one had ever had a chance to examine
three of the five microfilms until "the Government turned
them over to me last summer under the Freedom of Information
roll was blank and the other two were almost illegible. But
Hiss asserted, "I've now obtained copies of the original documents
photographed on the two rolls on which some markings were
visible." According to a Hiss lawyer, he went back to
the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the F.B.I. was able
from these markings to identify the original documents. Copies
were then obtained from the Navy under the Freedom of Information
only newspaper I saw that referred at all to Hiss's revelations
about these two microfilms was The New York Times but
its reference was so condensed and murky that I missed their
significance until I was able to read for myself the text
of Hiss's material at his news conference and examine the
photostat reproduced in The Washington Star. If what
Hiss said is true - and I have in part verified it - then
the Pumpkin-Papers affair had distinct elements of stage-managed
fraud. Hiss said that three of the five microfilms were never
produced at his trial for perjury. He said that it now turns
out that one of these was blank, and that all of the documents
on the other two were technical memos of little consequence.
All were written in December 1937 and January 1938 by Rear
Adm. A. B. Cook, then head of the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics.
document reproduced by The Star says only that while
carbon dioxide fire extinguishers had uniformly been painted
aluminum color, in the future portable fire extinguishers
were to be painted red.
said that one of the newly released 15,376 pages of FBI files
on his case that he has received from the Justice Department
throws new light on these supposedly sensitive Navy Department
documents. Hiss said it "shows the FBI knew before I went
on trial" that these documents were available at the time
on the open shelves at the Bureau of Standards library to
any member of the public.
think these new revelations are too important to be lost sight
of, and deserve full investigation. I took the first and obvious
steps the day after I saw the photostat in The Star.
I phoned the press office of the Bureau of Standards.
read to William E. Small, the information chief, the text
of the memo by Admiral Cook and gave him the number on that
memorandum and the number of an earlier order it was amending.
I asked him if, with those numbers, he could find out for
me whether these memos were then available to the public on
the open shelves of the Bureau of Standards library.
Small returned my call within a few hours. He said that the
records showed both documents had been catalogued into the
library at the time they were first issued by Admiral Cook
and that access to them was unrestricted. As to whether they
were available on open shelves, he would say only that "nobody
remembers just how they were displayed."
The Bureau of Standards information chief explained that copies
of such technical memorandums were and are commonly sent to
the Bureau's library from military and civilian departments
alike for the guidance of technicians and contractors.
I then phoned the Navy and later the Justice Department. The
Navy confirmed that it had supplied the documents to Hiss's
lawyers and that all were unclassified memos by Admiral Cook.
But I was not able to get the Justice Department to confirm
or deny Hiss's assertion that a newly disclosed FBI document
shows the FBI knew even before Hiss went to trial what was
on those two microfilms. The claim that secret Navy Department
documents were on them now turns out a quarter-century later
to be false. Why, then, were the Pumpkin Papers padded out
with such flimflam? Had the contents been made public then,
it would have put the laugh on Nixon and the Un-American Activities
the Justice Department is investigating the past misdeeds
of the FBI to prevent their recurrence, surely this is worth
a full-scale inquiry. It is instructive in the light of the
Cook documents to look back at the record. I quote here from
the contemporary week-to-week accounts in "Facts on File,"
a news archive for libraries.
House committee dramatized its findings for the news photographers
by piling up a three-foot-high stack of letter-sized reproductions
from the microfilm the first day after the papers came out
of the pumpkin. But "Facts on File" noted that "few
details about their actual contents were released." A week
later when the committee did release 12 documents, they turned
out to be rather unexciting and anticlimactic. "Obviously,
those documents not published for security reasons," "Facts
on File" speculated, "were more interesting."
the Navy documents, had they been released at the time, would
have been "more interesting," though in the other direction.
When Harry S Truman, a week after the midnight scene at the
pumpkin yard, dared to call the committee's inquiry "a red
herring," its chairman, Karl Mundt, challenged the President
"to authorize publication of all the documentary evidence
the committee had." It is a pity now that Truman did not accept
to the Pumpkin