White, G. Edward, "Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars:
The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy;" Oxford University
Press, New York: 2004.
response by Jeff Kisseloff
A, then B.
In a classic example of logic, you can say, "If
it's raining, I will bring my umbrella." But you
can't say, "If I bring my umbrella, it will rain."
This ancient rule of logic underlies the flaws in "Alger
Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet
Spy," a hostile new biography by G. Edward White,
a law professor at the University of Virginia. He states
his A in the book's introduction: "One of my goals,"
he says, "is
to put the ambiguity about
Hiss's innocence or guilt to rest by marshalling the
evidence for his guilt and demonstrating the weakness
of arguments for his innocence."
come the Bs: "Another of my goals," he continues,
"is to better understand why Hiss became a spy,
why he chose to continue spying after [Whittaker] Chambers
and why, after being exposed, he proceeded
to deny, for nearly 50 years, that he had any connections
with the Communists or the Soviets."
four-fifths of White's book deals with the Bs. But there's
no point in asking "why Hiss became a spy"
- and even less point in assuring your readers that
you have discovered "a consistent psychological
pattern in Hiss's behavior" - unless you have first
incontrovertibly demonstrated that he was in fact guilty
The hidden weakness of "Looking-Glass Wars"
is at the heart of the book: White asserts Hiss's guilt
- ringingly and repeatedly. But White, as he acknowledges,
has assumed for the past quarter century that Hiss was
guilty. As a result, he never bothers to re-investigate
the case, and substitutes a re-indictment for a re-trial.
Indeed, his legal model is a grand jury proceeding rather
than a trial-by-jury. He presents only the evidence
for the prosecution, omits the defense, and then asks
for a vote.
White has looked nowhere for new facts, and has instead
been content to reassemble and rearrange from secondary
sources all the accusations previously leveled at Hiss.
The world of the book is the closeted world of the guilt-assumers,
and White, in his "Afterword," even thanks
two of the most vocal anti-Hiss writers of recent years,
Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, for "having
read the entire manuscript in various drafts" before
Writing from within this world, White also tries to
finesse the controversy that has raged over the Hiss
case for the past 55 years, attributing it entirely
to Hiss's malign and manipulative machinations: "Over
time," White writes, Hiss "with almost no
new helpful information [again the defense is dismissed
managed to transform the
attitudes ... of a group of educated, cultured, liberal'
professionals" who by the time of Hiss's death
in 1996 "were inclined to think that he was innocent
of perjury and espionage, a victim of the rabid anti-Communism
of the Cold War."
Hiss's lifelong quest for vindication, in this reading,
somehow becomes further evidence of his guilt. The only
logic here is circular, where an unproved consequence
(Hiss's pretense of innocence) of an unproved point
(Hiss's guilt) is presented as confirmation of his dastardliness
("Alger Hiss fooled a large number of people for
many years," White writes, because he "was
one of those rare individuals" who "appears
to have taken pleasure in the pursuit of covert goals
and in the creation of devices to shield that pursuit
from others. And Hiss was remarkably skillful and effective
in those tasks.")
By implication, of course, anyone who raises points
on Hiss's behalf - including this writer - must somehow
still be acting under the lingering influence of a spell
cast by Hiss, rather than someone capable of following
evidence wherever it may lead.
Near the end of "Looking-Glass Wars," White,
acting now as the judge evaluating the evidence he has
earlier presented as prosecutor, tells his readers that
he, for one, is completely satisfied that he has met
his own goal: "Alger Hiss," he declares, "can
no longer be seen as a figure of ambiguity."
Interestingly, he displays far less confidence about
whether he has proved the "why" questions
that take up most of his book. White acknowledges (in
a discussion of why Hiss became "an active Soviet
agent") that he had to turn to speculation for
guidance: "Here," White says, "as with
most speculation about the inner basis for Hiss's motivation,
corroborating evidence is thin.... So there is no smoking-gun
revealing Alger Hiss's motivation for choosing to spy
for the Soviets in the 1930s."
This essay will examine White's "why" questions,
even though they are questions that he has not earned
the right to ask. White's psychological profile of Hiss
is that of a man who spied for 13 years, who lied about
it for "over 60 years," and who found "inner
peace" "through spying and lying." Does
this profile ring true as the portrait of a real human
being, or does it look and feel more like a caricature
and a contrivance? Incidentally, is White qualified
to create such a profile and declare it authentic?
White claims to have demonstrated the absolute certainty
of Alger Hiss's guilt. Several curious points emerge
immediately. Although White (falsely) criticizes Hiss
for not "producing any new evidence supporting
his innocence" in the years after his conviction,
White himself is completely content to rely uncritically
on earlier anti-Hiss writers, such as Allen Weinstein.
But White is willing to be far more definitive than
Weinstein has ever been.
"The cumulative evidence on Alger Hiss," White
asserts (meaning, the "evidence assembled by Weinstein
and other scholars," along with documents from
Soviet and United States archives), "has removed
any ambiguity about Hiss's guilt or innocence, and,
consequently, any ambiguity about Hiss's protestations
of innocence and lifelong campaign for vindication."
White needs to make such a claim in order to have more
than just the stump of a book. But contrast his words
with Weinstein's more careful statements about the same
evidence in the revised 1997 edition of "Perjury":
Alger Hiss, Weinstein asserted, was "guilty as
charged," but he recognized that "the case
will not close." "For any historian,"
Weinstein wrote, "to assume that his research has
conclusively resolved the case in all its varied dimensions
would constitute self-deception at a level even higher
than that achieved by the two protagonists."
methodically brought up all the pro-Hiss arguments he
was aware of - in order of course to rebut them. G.
Edward White has found a simpler way to be definitive.
His retelling of the case against Alger Hiss is a stripped-down
model, so thoroughly cleansed of complexity, so dismissive
of any materials that might exonerate Alger Hiss, that
it reads like the Cliffs Notes to "Perjury."
Like a street scene on a Hollywood back lot, White's
presentation of the case against Hiss looks picture
perfect at first glance. But instead of being airtight,
it is just a facade. In marshalling Whitaker Chambers'
allegations against Hiss, White generally omits any
evidence which indicates that Chambers was lying. He
also consistently restates even the most unsupported
charges as fact. To his credit, he employs this highly
selective, one-sided technique effectively, and might
indeed leave a reader with little knowledge of the case
wondering how anyone could support the notion of Hiss's
innocence. But had White applied scholarly analysis
to the full range of the evidence actually available
to him, readers might instead begin asking the opposite
question: How was Hiss convicted?
In 1939, Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle
was the first government official to hear Chambers'
story of his life in the communist underground. Two
years later, Chambers was interviewed by the FBI for
the first time. Over the next few years, he was re-interviewed
by the Bureau and by representatives of other government
agencies. Because his allegations were generally vague
and unsupported by any hard evidence, no legal action
was ever taken.
Then, in November 1948, in the midst of a libel action
filed against him by Hiss, Chambers dramatically changed
his story. For the first time, he claimed he and Hiss
had participated in an espionage scheme on behalf of
the Soviet Union. Within a month, Hiss was indicted
for perjury for denying before a grand jury any role
in Chambers' alleged operation.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, government documents
summarizing the substance of many of Chambers' interviews
have been released. They contain numerous contradictions
and demonstrably false allegations, so many in fact
that even the FBI questioned Chambers' credibility.
Hardly any of these issues, however, are examined by
White. For example, the most glaring contradiction in
Chambers' story involves his break with the Communist
Party. In every interview with government officials
and in all his sworn testimony up through the summer
of 1948, Chambers said he left the Party in 1937. Only
after handing over copies of government documents dated
as late as April 1938 - documents which he said Hiss
had given him - did Chambers say he had been mistaken,
and broke with the party in April 1938.
This is not a trivial "correction," because
if Chambers' original testimony was accurate, no spying
occurred, in 1938 or any other year, and because, according
to Alger Hiss's testimony, he no longer even knew Whittaker
Chambers in 1938. How could Chambers have forgotten
the date of what was admittedly one of the most crucial
and frightening decisions of his life? In his revised
testimony, Chambers said he only began to have doubts
about his underground work in 1937.
White accepts this without addressing Chambers' previous
statements or any of the corroborative evidence produced
by the Hiss defense indicating that the earlier date
was indeed the correct one. Specifically, Chambers and
his friend, the art historian Meyer Schapiro, had both
testified that after Chambers' break with the Party,
Schapiro obtained translation work for him. The defense
then produced letters from Oxford University Press which
showed that in March 1938 Chambers was already working
on a translation for the publisher.
Another example: In a 1948 deposition, Chambers said
his break with the Party coincided with his decision
to begin reusing the name Chambers instead of the pseudonyms
he had adopted. Defense investigators then found that
Chambers used his own real name when he got a government
job in 1937.
White's easy acceptance of Chambers' date switching
also places him in the awkward position of having to
deny the accuracy of FBI and State Department documents
that say Chambers left the Party in 1937, while also
defending the accuracy of their charges against Hiss.
Chambers and Hiss disagreed on nearly every crucial
detail of their acquaintance, beginning with their
first encounter. At Hiss's two perjury trials, and
in his book, "Witness," Chambers said
he used the name "Carl" when he met
Hiss, and that the two men had first met in a
cafeteria in the spring
of 1934 in order to begin moving Hiss from one underground
Communist Party group to another.
According to Hiss, the two first met in his office,
either in late 1934 or early 1935, while Hiss was serving
as special counsel to the Senate's Nye Committee, which
was investigating wartime profiteering by the munitions
industry. Chambers presented himself, Hiss said, as
a freelance writer named George Crosley who was researching
a possible magazine article on the Committee's hearings.
In his account of the first Hiss-Chambers meeting, White
not only omits Hiss's side of the story, but also fails
to inform his readers that Chambers himself gave several
different dates for his introduction to Hiss. For example,
in 1945, he told the FBI that he went to Washington
in 1935. A year later, in 1946, he told the State Department's
Security Officer Raymond E. Murphy that he had met Hiss
in Washington in the summer of 1935. At the first trial,
he testified that the first meeting with Hiss took place
To support the 1934 version, Chambers claimed that the
meeting took place at a time when he and his family
moved to 903 St. Paul St. in Baltimore. The building
was owned by the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
But the Hiss defense interviewed the group's leader,
Bertha Tyson. She gave them a signed affidavit saying
the building didn't take in outside tenants in 1934,
and that when it did, at a later date, she knew every
one of the families who rented apartments. She was positive
the Chamberses weren't among them. That affidavit is
available in the Hiss defense files at Harvard University
Law School, which White, according to his chapter notes,
examined while writing "Looking-Glass Wars."
He does not, however, cite it in his book.
The date wasn't the only contradiction in Chambers'
story about his introduction to Hiss. Chambers testified
at both trials that he was introduced to Hiss by two
Communists, Harold Ware and J. Peters. This is what
Chambers said about Ware in his August 3, 1948 testiimony
before HUAC, however: "I never knew him."
repeats Chambers' claim that Hiss had been a member
of an underground organization called the Ware Group.
But while White points out that Hiss's former colleague,
Lee Pressman, was an admitted member of the group, he
omits Pressman's testimony before the House Committee
on Un-American Activities that Hiss was never a member.
Two other admitted Ware group members, John Abt and
Nathan Witt, said that Chambers both exaggerated the
scope of the Ware group and also his own relationship
with it. Although neither man would either affirm or
deny Hiss's membership, both men maintained throughout
their lives that Chambers' testimony about Hiss was
a lie. Nowhere in the book does White give their views
Let's look at several other representative examples
of White's avoidance of pro-Hiss information, even if
it comes from the FBI:
Boris Bykov. White writes that Hiss's
espionage role increased with the arrival from Russia
of Boris Bykov. What White doesn't write is that no
one has yet been able to confirm that there was such
a man. One other person besides Chambers claimed to
have met Bykov - Julian Wadleigh, from the State Department.
But according to Wadleigh, Bykov had only one arm.
Chambers insisted that Bykov had two. White states
definitively that Bykov arrived in the United States
in 1936, ignoring the fact that Chambers offered several
different dates for Bykov's arrival. When Chambers
eventually settled on the fall of 1936, and added
that Bykov had sailed from Europe on an ocean liner,
the FBI examined the manifest of every ship arriving
in New York during that period and found no trace
of anyone resembling Chambers' description of Bykov.
Photographing Documents - 1. White writes
that, in 1936, Chambers set up a photographic workshop
in Baltimore. He says sources would bring out documents
from their government jobs and give them to Chambers
who would take the documents to Baltimore to be photographed
and then return them before sunrise. Once a week,
he would go to NYC to bring the film of the documents
to Bykov. But White gets Chambers' story wrong. According
to Chambers, only one of his sources, Hiss, was a
regular participant in this process, and Chambers
said that Hiss didn't meet Bykov and begin producing
documents until 1937.
also insisted that he did the photographing work himself,
at first in a Baltimore apartment belonging to a married
couple who were Party sympathizers. But since 1999
- when the Hiss case grand jury records were unsealed
- it has been known that the couple in question told
the grand jury 1) that they weren't even living in
the apartment when Chambers said he used it; 2) that
after they had moved in, Chambers had only once been
inside their apartment, on a brief visit with a friend;
and 3) that the apartment was so small it was incapable
of being used as a darkroom, and that in any event
no one had ever brought any photographic equipment
into the apartment. White seems unaware of this grand
Photographing Documents - 2. Two Party
members, Felix Inslerman and William Edward Crane,
both told the government that they had done photographic
work for Chambers. But Inslerman insisted that he
worked for Chambers on only a handful of occasions,
not on a weekly basis for a year as Chambers claimed.
Here again grand jury testimony, as is now known,
undercuts Chambers' account: Before the grand jury,
Chambers was shown a man named Sam Pelovitz, and identified
him as Inslerman. Pelovitz looked nothing like Inslerman.
Chambers changed his testimony only after being told
he was wrong.
here again White seems unaware of this grand jury
testimony. Curiously, while White ridicules Hiss for
supposedly not recognizing Chambers - whose personal
appearance had changed dramatically since the 1930s,
he gives Chambers a free pass for not being able to
recognize Inslerman, whose personal appearance by
all accounts had not changed much at all over the
the previous 10 years. FBI documents reveal that before
the Hiss trials, Crane was viewed as a potentially
important witness who could support Chambers' espionage
story, but Chambers and Crane disagreed on so many
important details (despite the fact that the FBI actually
sat the two of them down together to iron out their
story) that Crane, who said he had never known Hiss,
was never put on the witness stand.
Other Witnesses. White says Chambers
wasn't the only person to identify Hiss as an agent.
He cites two other "independent" sources
- the American ex-agent Elizabeth Bentley and the
Russian defector Igor Gouzenko. About Gouzenko, who
had been a Russian code clerk in Canada, White writes,
"a Soviet military intelligence officer told
him that the Soviets had an agent in the United
States in May 1945 who was an assistant to the then
secretary of state, Edward R. Stettinius.'" "Hiss,"
White adds dramatically, "was Stettinius's assistant
at the time." Actually, while he worked with
Stettinius, Hiss was never his assistant.
story, no less vague than Gouzenko's, was also secondhand.
In 1945, she was grilled intensely by the FBI over
the course of several weeks. Only after prompting
from the FBI's Washington field office did she agree
that the Soviets had a spy in the State Department,
an advisor to Dean Acheson. Someone else, she said,
had told her the spy's name was Hiss. In subsequent
interviews, she admitted her information was very
sketchy, and she refused to make a statement about
it. She later told the FBI that the first name of
the spy was "Eugene," not Alger, and afterwards
never budged from that position. In both her HUAC
and her grand jury testimony she never mentioned Hiss
as a spy.
Bentley nor Gouzenko was called to testify at either
of the Hiss trials. White never evaluates the credibility
of either of these "independent" witnesses.
(Bentley, by the way, also claimed to have known in
advance the date of the D-Day invasion, information
that even General Eisenhower, who ordered the assault,
Perhaps the best way to show both the cumulative inadequacy
and the many small carelessnesses that unfortunately
characterize White's research and reporting is to walk
step by step through his telling of a single, five-month-long
episode in the Hiss case, the search for the still-famous,
old Woodstock typewriter, perhaps the best-remembered
piece of evidence in the entire case. White manages
to get both the overall picture of the typewriter hunt
and many of the small details of the narrative wrong.
By December 3, 1948 the FBI had determined that the
copied State Department documents Chambers had produced
- the so-called Baltimore documents - had been typed
on a Woodstock typewriter. The Hisses had owned a Woodstock
in the 1930s. White says defense files show that Hiss
was not being truthful when he told the FBI he didn't
know what happened to the old family typewriter (White
calls it a Woodstock although the Hisses at that point
weren't sure what make of typewriter they had once owned).
Hiss said they had given the machine to a secondhand
dealer or typewriter repair shop. Priscilla Hiss told
the defense attorneys she had no real memories of disposing
of it, but also suggested it had probably gone to a
"In fact," White says, "Alger and Priscilla
knew exactly what they had done with the typewriter."
They knew, White adds, that they had given it to Pat
and Mike Catlett, the sons of the Hiss family maid,
Cleide Catlett, but deliberately concealed this information
after their own document experts said that letters typed
by Priscilla Hiss in the 1930s (the so-called Hiss standards)
and the Baltimore documents had been typed on the same
machine. White further claims that the defense made
little effort to find the typewriter because it didn't
want it to be found.
Instead of damaging Hiss's credibility, however, defense
files actually support his story - consistently. For
example, defense file documents indicate that the Hisses
recalled having several typewriters in their home, and
suggested investigators check on a number of places
where they might be found. On December 7, 1948, Hiss
called John F. Davis, one of his lawyers (who never
lost faith in Alger Hiss, although, ironically, he later
became G. Edward White's father-in-law), to "check
on an old machine" that he thought he had given
to Pat Catlett.
The defense actively continued its search after Hiss's
perjury indictment on December 15, 1948, as indicated
by a December 28, 1948 memorandum entitled "Outline
of Investigation." Under the heading, "What
Happened to the Typewriter," five investigative
leads were listed, including one which suggested, "Check
Hiss maids and their relatives ... Catletts." Other
documents show the defense actively searching for the
typewriter. On January 21, 1949, investigator Horace
Schmahl reported that he had been looking all over for
it. The report stated, "[Schmahl] has checked all
typewriter stores in Washington, Baltimore, Westminster,
Lynbrook, and Rockville Center. No trace of the Woodstock."
White makes a number of mistakes in tracing the defense's
efforts to find the Woodstock typewriter, which culminated
in attorney Edward McLean purchasing Woodstock #230,099
from a Washington, D.C. mover in April 1949, in the
belief that it was the machine the Hiss family had once
White writes that in late January 1949 Mike Catlett
called Donald Hiss, Alger Hiss's brother, to say that
the typewriter had indeed been given to him, and that
although he didn't have it, he could find it. Soon afterward,
Hiss's attorney, Edward McLean, went to Washington to
see the Catletts. According to White, McLean was told
the Hisses gave the typewriter to the Catletts "probably
in 1938." It then went to Pat and Mike's sister,
Burnetta, who lived with a "Dr. Easton." When
he died, a man named Vernon Marlow took the typewriter.
He in turn said he had given it to a mover named Ira
Lockey. Mike Catlett went to see Lockey but was told
he was unavailable. Then he was told the typewriter
had been junked.
Mike Catlett didn't do anything for two months, White
says, and Donald Hiss never mentioned the Lockey connection
to the Hiss defense team. As a result of these delays
and foot-dragging, the search ground to a halt - until
McLean returned to Washington in April and re-ignited
it. McLean and Mike Catlett then went back to Marlow,
who refused to cooperate, but found out from his wife
that Lockey had indeed been given the typewriter. That's
when Mike Catlett and McLean went back to Lockey. This
time Lockey produced Woodstock #230,099 and sold it
to them for $15.
That's White story, but in fact the search was constant
and a matter of urgency to the defense. The Hiss team
considered recovery of the typewriter critical, because
they were convinced it would exonerate Hiss. Not until
later did they begin to have suspicions that the typewriter
they found and brought into court was a doctored machine
that had been deliberately altered to make its typing
resemble family letters actually produced on the old
According to Donald Hiss, Mike Catlett called him in
February (not January), and, contrary to White's account,
Donald and Pat Catlett had already learned - before
McLean arrived on the scene - that Vernon Marlowe (not
Marlow) might know the typewriter's whereabouts. Marlowe
told them that a man named "Bill" had actually
moved the typewriter out of Dr. Easter's (not Easton's)
house. It was thought he had the typewriter. "Bill,"
not mentioned in White's account, was the one who told
them that Lockey had it.
According to Fred J. Cook's detailed account of the
search, published in The Nation in 1962, Lockey
told Mike he had junked the machine. (White chooses
to ignore Cook's treatment of the search - although
Cook's meticulous essay is perhaps the most comprehensive
analysis of the whole episode ever undertaken.) Contrary
to White's version, Mike Catlett did not abandon the
search, and instead followed up by searching various
junkyards around Washington. He also returned to Lockey's
house for more information. On one notable visit he
spotted a car out front with two FBI agents sitting
inside. Clearly, the Bureau was closely following the
defense's continuing efforts to locate the typewriter.
As for Donald Hiss not keeping the Hiss lawyers informed,
a letter in the defense files from Edward McLean to
Donald Hiss, dated February 5, 1949, begins:
Alger, of course, was delighted to hear about our
discovery on the subject of typewriters.
There was still further action on the typewriter before
McLean's return. Another Hiss attorney, Harold Rosenwald,
also became involved in the search, traveling to Detroit
to see Burnetta Catlett. It was Rosenwald who telephoned
Donald Hiss and suggested they look around Marlowe's
shack across the street from Dr. Easter. They couldn't
find the typewriter, but a neighbor recalled seeing
it sitting out in the grass. Before the Easter holiday,
McLean and Rosenwald, along with Mike Catlett, returned
to the Lockey household. It was then that Lockey produced
Although White spends considerable time discussing the
typewriter search, he concludes this section of his
book by stating that, in comparison to the documents,
the typewriter wasn't especially important to the case.
This is true only in the narrowest sense: In his closing
argument at the second trial, prosecutor Thomas Murphy
effectively turned the typewriter into the smoking gun
in the case, calling it the "immutable witness"
and dramatically declaring (without any proof) that
the Baltimore documents "were typed on that machine."
White's Pass-Through Charges from Weinstein
White's mischaracterization of the search for the typewriter
as a delaying tactic and his inaccurate rendering of
the details of the story have been adapted directly
from Allen Weinstein's "Perjury." White makes
no attempt to re-assess or verify Weinstein's claims,
and instead devotes himself to attacking the scholarship
of authors who investigated the case and concluded that
Hiss was innocent.
White, for example, summarily dismisses Fred Cook's
seminal research into the verdict without weighing its
merits simply because it originally appeared in the
"politically progressive" Nation magazine.
This preemptive approach allows him to avoid looking
at Cook's background and approach to the case. A balanced
assessment of Cook's contribution to the case would
report that Cook, far from being "politically progressive,"
was a conservative crime reporter who initially refused
The Nation's request that he re-examine the case
because he was thoroughly convinced of Hiss's guilt.
He took the assignment only after being assured that
the magazine would print his conclusions, whatever they
turned out to be.
The article Cook eventually wrote for The Nation
took up an entire issue of the magazine. What he found
during his research completely changed Cook's perspective,
not only about Hiss but also about American government
and politics. From his work on the Hiss case, he went
on to become one of the country's preeminent investigative
Dr. Meyer Zeligs, whose book "Friendship and Fratricide"
White calls "an almost comical failure" of
scholarship, contributed an unsurpassed amount of new
research to the Hiss case. For example, although Chambers
testified at trial that he had lied in the past but
was now telling the truth, Zeligs founds numerous never-abandoned
falsehoods that Chambers included in his autobiography
"Witness," published in 1952, two years after
Zeligs, a practicing psychiatrist, broke new ground
by discovering hidden, lifelong patterns in Chambers'
behavior. He located and interviewed several people
who had been victimized by Chambers in a manner strikingly
similar to his approach to Hiss (befriending and idolizing
a man, and then turning on him and trying to ruin him).
There are several ironies in White's approach to Zeligs:
White makes frequent - if only grudgingly acknowledged
- use of the fruits of Zeligs' research, but at the
same time takes him to task for attempting to psychoanalyze
Chambers without ever having interviewed him.
Yet White (without the benefit of a certificate in psychoanalysis)
devotes the bulk of his book to constructing a psychological
profile of Hiss - and from an even greater distance.
Zeligs interviewed every close Chambers friend who would
talk to him, but White, who never met or spoke to Hiss,
made no attempt to get in touch with anyone who knew
Hiss well, such as his son or stepson.
Marching side by side with Allen Weinstein, White sometimes
seems to be more interested in shoring up Weinstein's
credibility than in vouching for Chambers' truthfulness.
In 1978, for instance, following the release of the
FBI's documents on the Hiss case, Alger Hiss filed a
coram nobis petition in federal court seeking to overturn
his conviction; Hiss argued that the released documents
revealed previously concealed evidence of prosecutorial
misconduct. White denounces the petition, as Weinstein
before him did, asserting that it contained no new exculpatory
evidence. Echoing Weinstein again, he writes that the
petition failed to show malevolence on the FBI's part,
only occasional ineptness or incompetence.
This puts White in the odd position of suppressing his
own training. Weinstein wrote as a historian, not a
lawyer, but White is both lawyer and historian. And
yet, like Weinstein, he misconstrues the purpose of
Hiss's coram nobis petition, a seldom-used legal remedy
for reopening a case after the appeals process has been
exhausted; under federal rules, a coram nobis petition
must only address issues of misconduct, and cannot raise
again the question of guilt or innocence.
Despite these legal restrictions, the petition did introduce
evidence that while addressing itself to instances of
misconduct necessarily raised new doubts about Hiss's
guilt. The released FBI documents, for instance, demonstrated
that at the time of the trials, the FBI had obtained
(and concealed from the defense) evidence showing that
Chambers had left the Communist Party earlier than he
claimed; evidence that established a possible motive
for Chambers' attacks on Hiss (Chambers had confessed
to the FBI that in the 1930s he had had a series of
homosexual affairs); evidence that the prosecution had
made use of a spy in the Hiss camp, a man who gave the
prosecution evidence discovered by the defense; evidence
that Woodstock #230,099 could not have been the old
Hiss typewriter; evidence that prosecution witnesses
were being coached to provide inaccurate testimony.
This pattern of prosecutorial behavior clearly transcended
mere incompetence or ineptness.
White in some instances clings to Weinsteinian assertions
that have long since been refuted. He repeats, for example,
the now discredited claim from "Perjury" that
Donald Hiss lied about his connection to the 1930s deportation
case of radical longshoreman Harry Bridges.
Whittaker Chambers told the FBI that the Communist Party
wanted Donald Hiss to act as an examiner in the Bridges
case. Donald Hiss told the Hiss case grand jury that
when he worked in the Labor Department he had been asked
by the Department to participate in hearings about Bridges
in April 1938, but that this had never happened, and
he thereafter had nothing to do with the case. The defense
files, which Weinstein consulted repeatedly, contain
a long memorandum from Donald Hiss's boss, backing him
White never mentions this; Weinstein didn't, either.
Weinstein actually interviewed Donald Hiss for "Perjury,"
but never asked him about Chambers' charge - even though
he repeated it in his book. In addition, Chambers' entire
story about Donald Hiss also being a CP member was never
substantiated. Donald Hiss testified before the grand
jury and at Hiss's second perjury trial, where he was
barely challenged by prosecutor Thomas Murphy. Even
Chambers later seemed to back off his charges against
Donald Hiss, declaring in "Witness" that Donald
Hiss had been truthful in his denials.
White's over-reliance on Weinstein often lands him in
trouble - as seen, for instance, in White's bold if
misleading claim that "the defense's own experts
had concluded that Priscilla Hiss had probably typed
the copies of documents Chambers produced, and that
interlinear corrections on some of those documents were
in the handwriting of Priscilla and Alger Hiss."
This charge is like a newspaper article that copies
words from a press release rather than investigating
the subject firsthand. Looking through the defense files,
Weinstein did indeed find some reports casting doubt
on Priscilla Hiss. He also found reports which supported
her - the examiners hired by the defense didn't always
agree with each other. Weinstein simply selected the
most damning anti-Hiss conclusions and presented them
as the only conclusions drawn. One of the documents
he chose to ignore, for instance, a report about the
corrections by Edwin Fearon, dated May 17, 1949, states:
"It is my opinion that neither Mrs. Hiss nor the
one who made corrections on the Chambers papers made
these corrections. A comparison of the corrections of
the sample sheets that Mr. Hiss made in my presence
would not justify an opinion that he made them."
Another document examiner, J. Howard Haring, reported
on April 6, 1949 that "He could not say definitely
who made the handwritten interlineations on the Baltimore
typed documents.... He cannot say definitely who the
typist was." And while we're on the subject, White
also fails to note that in Hiss's motion for a new trial,
document expert Elizabeth McCarthy said her examination
of the papers produced by Chambers revealed that more
than one typist was responsible for the Baltimore documents.
Additionally, an FBI document released in the 1970s
and included in Hiss's coram nobis petition showed that
the Bureau's own laboratory couldn't determine who had
made the corrections.
Many of White's Weinsteinian overstatements are a scholarly
embarrassment. It's perhaps worth looking at one in
some detail. Relying, as so often, solely on Weinstein,
White writes that Hiss's defense files show that the
Hiss lawyers found "Chambers's account was more
credible" than Hiss's. This is a serious charge.
According to White/Weinstein, one witness told Hiss's
lawyers that four separate people, Chambers and three
others, had told her that Chambers had first met Hiss
in Washington in 1934 at the "Ware Group"
of communists in the federal government. This, she said,
according to White/Weinstein, contradicted Hiss's claim
to have met Chambers in 1935 (more accurately, Hiss
had said it was either December 1934 or early 1935).
White/Weinstein further claim that the witness, Josephine
Herbst, at the time a well-known novelist, lied about
this information when interviewed by the FBI.
These allegations - potentially explosive, since they
seem to corroborate Chambers - are essentially a distortion
of a distortion. In the first place, no defense memo
exists which says that it finds Herbst's version of
the truth more credible than Hiss's. Second, a lot of
the information she offered was contradictory, and much
of it second- or even third-hand. The defense conducted
three interviews with Herbst, who clearly didn't want
to testify at the trial, even though she told the defense
(White doesn't mention this) that she felt Hiss was
Here is what Herbst told the defense: Her husband, John
Herrmann, was a member of a group headed by Harold Ware,
which was organized to collect information for the Communist
Party in New York City (not Washington, as Chambers
had said). She said there were around 15 people in the
group, including two women (Chambers had said the group
had seven members, all of them male). They had contacts
in the War Department, but not in the State or Navy
Departments (she said nothing about the Agricultural
Adjustment Administration, where Hiss was working).
On one occasion, she said, she saw in her apartment
certain government documents which she considered thoroughly
innocent and innocuous "and in many instances covered
what seemed to me to be common knowledge" (this
last quote is missing from Weinstein's account of her
Herbst said she met Chambers as "Carl" in
the summer of 1934. He told her he was living in New
Jersey. Although Weinstein again doesn't mention it,
this doesn't agree with the known historical record
of Chambers' residences: that summer he was in Lynbrook,
Long Island and in Baltimore.
"The meeting between Chambers and Hiss," Weinstein
wrote, "took place in either July or August 1934,
Herbst noted, confirming Chambers' own memory of the
date." The actual text of the defense memo relied
on to make this assertion shows that Herbst's memory
of events was far less certain: "It is my recollection
that" Hiss met "Carl," she said (Weinstein
omits the quoted phrase). The memo continues: "This
meeting was, I believe, in July or August of 1934,"
and later says, "My impression is that Mr. Hiss
knew Chambers as 'Carl' and I believe this impression
was gained by information from Harold Ware and one other
Herbst also told Hiss's attorney that "Chambers
and John Herman [sic] discussed Hiss and that they regarded
Hiss as an important prospect to solicit for the purpose
of getting papers. This was a task that was to be handled
by Chambers because its function was to make contacts
with more important people in the Government service....
Herman would not have been allowed to approach anyone
as important as Alger Hiss."
The substance of Herbst's story is this: Chambers told
her he met Hiss as "Carl." (This, in essence,
is Chambers confirming Chambers.) Harold Ware might
have said something similar to her. A never-named second
person might also have said something along the same
lines. And her husband said Chambers had talked to
him about the possibility of trying in the future
Hiss as a source for government papers.
How strong is this corroborative testimony? Harold Ware
had died in 1935, and could not confirm or deny Herbst's
hazy recollections. John Hermann had moved to Mexico,
and was never tracked down or asked for his story. The
third man remained nameless and therefore untraceable.
Herbst, who, by the way, never met either Alger or Priscilla
Hiss, did directly refute other aspects of Chambers'
story (another fact omitted by White). For example,
Chambers testified that he and Alger Hiss once drove
to Erwinna, Pennsylvania, where Herrmann and Herbst
had a home. Herbst said that the story was false.
She also cast serious doubt on another Chambers assertion
- that the Herrmann/Herbst apartment had been used for
photographing documents obtained from the Nye Committee.
Weinstein said Herbst couldn't confirm this because
she hadn't been living there at the time that Chambers
was talking about. But Weinstein left out that Herbst
also told Harold Rosenwald, one of Hiss's lawyers, that
she never saw any photographic equipment in the apartment,
and that regardless of who was living there, it was
a one-room apartment with no closet and with a window
in the bathroom. There was no possibility for a dark-room
in that apartment.
The explosive charges, on close examination, had no
detonator. Herbst had given Hiss's lawyers no reason
not to believe him. By repeating distortions without
examining their merits, White displays marked skills
as a publicist, but has allowed his scholarly abilities
as a historian and a legal analyst to fall into the
The Volkogonov Controversy
In 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian
historian Dmitri Volkogonov issued a public statement
saying that acting on a request from Alger Hiss he had
examined government archives in Moscow and determined
that Alger Hiss had never been a paid agent of the Soviet
Union. This statement caused an uproar among conservatives
in the United States.
Echoing comments by Allen Weinstein (in his 1997 revised
edition of "Perjury"), White erroneously claims
that Volkogonov later "retracted" his statement,
acknowledging that he had spent only two days looking
in the KGB archive. White writes that since Hiss hadn't
been a KGB agent (Chambers had alleged that Hiss worked
for Soviet military intelligence), their files wouldn't
reveal anything about Hiss, anyway. White also says
that Hiss had craftily asked Volkogonov to see if the
files indicated he had been employed as an agent - since
Hiss knew he had volunteered his services.
White is misrepresenting both Volkogonov's research
and his subsequent clarification for the press. In a
follow-up interview in the United States with Hiss's
friend, John Lowenthal, who had conducted the original
interview in Moscow, Volkogonov was specifically asked
whether he had looked through military intelligence
files. Volkogonov responded, "Yes, we also asked
to examine the military intelligence files and there,
too, no traces of Alger Hiss have been found."
Volkogonov did acknowledge, as newspapers had previously
reported, that he hadn't examined every archival file,
but, as he emphatically told Lowenthal, he had seen
more than enough for his purposes: "The intelligence
documents pertaining to agents, personnel matters I
did see. And it is also possible that he had some regular
working information in the course of normal contacts
he might have said something, but it was not intelligence
information. It's like simply when two representatives
of different states meet and conduct normal business."
Volkogonov said he also checked other important repositories
of documents, including the then top-secret Presidential
Archive. None contained any indication that Hiss had
been an agent. Lowenthal also brought up the question
of whether Hiss was a paid or unpaid agent. Volkogonov
replied, "In the Soviet sources, the Soviet files
in the Soviet hierarchy, he wasn't listed as an agent,
either paid agent or an agent out of convictions."
Having looked through the files of many men who were
agents, General Volkogonov said, you always found traces
of them if you knew where to look. The absence of these
tell-tale traces, he said, allowed him to be definitive
in the matter of Alger Hiss. "Positively,"
the general told Lowenthal in summation, "if he
was a spy, I believe positively I would have found a
reflection in various files."
While trumpeting and misstating Volkogonov's "retraction,"
White ignores this publicly available interview which
clarifies and puts into context both of Volkogonov's
Some months before the publication of "Looking-Glass
Wars" - in time for White to include the information
in his book, had he chosen to do so - General Julius
Kobyakov, a retired Russian intelligence official, posted
several detailed notes to a scholarly Web site devoted
to American diplomatic history. General Kobyakov revealed
that he had been the person who actually searched the
files for General Volkogonov.
Kobyakov in his postings said that he prepared his 1992
report that there was no indication that Alger Hiss
had been either a paid or unpaid agent of the Soviet
Union only "after careful study" of KGB archives
and "after querying sister services" (military
intelligence). Kobyakov also stated that he still considered
his original conclusions definitive: "I am ready
to eat my hat," he asserted, "if someone proves
Venona and the Soviet Files
White's discussion of the Venona transcripts (Russian
cables intercepted and decoded by American intelligence
during World War II) is little more than a restatement
of the assertions by two anti-Hiss researchers thanked
in his acknowledgments who claim that one telegram released
in the mid-1990s by the National Security Agency about
a spy codenamed "ALES" constitutes the ultimate
proof of Hiss's guilt. (The English language text of
the released ALES cable had an American footnote asserting
that ALES was "probably Alger Hiss" - but
offering no proof of this claim.) Since "The Russian
Connection," White's chapter on this so-called
"new evidence," brings nothing new to the
subject, readers can click
here to see John Lowenthal's meticulously detailed
evaluation of Venona and Alger Hiss, first published
in 2000, an analysis substantively ignored by White.
White, by the way, treats Lowenthal's essay very gingerly.
He fails to mention it in his text, but he quietly acknowledges
its existence in an endnote appended to a paragraph
that (a) has nothing to do with Lowenthal; and (b) is
not referenced under Lowenthal in the book's index.
Only an assiduous reader of endnotes is likely to stumble
across White's one comment on Lowenthal's Venona scholarship,
perhaps designedly so, since White is surprisingly generous
in the small-print words he uses: "Lowenthal's
essay was a remarkable summary of the case for Hiss's
White commits a number of other errors in his "new
evidence" chapter as well, inaccuracies brought
on by a reversion to his previous practice of out-Weinsteining
Weinstein. For example, White attempts to offer definitive
proof that Hiss was ALES by writing, "Oleg Gordievsky
stated that Hiss's codename was ALES in a history of
the KGB he published after defecting to Great Britain
in 1985." This statement seems significant at first
glance, because Gordievsky was writing approximately
a decade before the NSA made the Venona cables public.
What White doesn't say is that Gordievsky got his information
not from Soviet files or from former Soviet colleagues
but from American journalist Thomas Powers, who had
seen National Security Agency documents on Venona years
before their release. White is thus using the NSA's
interpretation of Venona to confirm the NSA's interpretation
of Venona. Like White, Allen Weinstein also cited the
Gordievsky claim, calling it "collateral evidence"
in his 1997 revised edition of "Perjury."
But later that same year, Allen Weinstein conceded,
in a letter to the New York Review of Books, that the
Gordievsky claim had been an error. Seven years later,
however, Weinstein's retraction has yet to reach White's
White also repeats another previously discredited Weinstein
charge that appeared originally in "Perjury."
According to Weinstein, in 1938, Michael Straight, then
a junior State Department officer, had tried to recruit
Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent; the co-authors offered
as proof a cable sent to Moscow by a U.S.-based Soviet
agent. Straight denied the allegation in a 1997 letter
to the New York Review of Books:
In his review of Allen Weinstein's Perjury [NYR, November
20], Theodore Draper notes that I worried a Soviet
intelligence agent, Isaac Akhmerov, "by offering
to recruit Hiss, whom Akhmerov wanted left alone."
No. In the June 1938 dispatch published by Weinstein,
Akhmerov notes simply that I "mentioned"
Hiss as "a very progressive man." It is
Weinstein, not Akhmerov, who then asserts that I "tried
to recruit" Hiss. This is a grave and a damaging
distortion. It is, at the same time, laughable. Hiss
was an important official in the State Department
in June 1938. I was an unpaid volunteer aged twenty-one.
Weinstein responded by saying he regretted his claim
that Straight tried to recruit Hiss. This Weinstein
retraction is only five years old, but it, too, has
not yet made its way to White's notice.
The B Material
White's summation of the Hiss case - his recapitulation
of What Hiss Did - is only the prologue to the subject
that interests him most: Why Did He Do It? Having
failed to demonstrate that Hiss betrayed his country,
it seems an odd undertaking, since it can at best only
hope to suggest theoretical arguments to support Why
Might He Have Done It, If It Ever Turned Out That That's
What Actually Happened. To construct his portrait,
White subjects events in Hiss's life that have never
been associated with Chambers' charges - his early family
life; his year as a law clerk for Oliver Wendell Holmes;
his time in a federal penitentiary - to a searching
There is a certain logic to this quest: Both Hiss's
supporters and his detractors have always seen a profound
disconnect between his exemplary private life and admittedly
distinguished public service, on the one hand, and,
on the other, the malign portrait presented by Chambers
of Hiss's treachery and smoldering anger. For Chambers
to have been correct, there must have been hidden patterns
in the rest of Hiss's life.
White looks hard for such patterns, and squeezes numerous
suppositions together. But readers are left with various
questions: Is White, in the first place, drawing fair
inferences from the facts he brings forward? And does
his emerging overall picture of Hiss ring true as a
possible description of a real, flesh-and-blood human
being, or does it present a figure so misshapen and
unreal that it actually undercuts Chambers' charges?
Life with Justice Holmes
It makes sense to look with particular care at White's
portrayal of Alger Hiss's year with Supreme Court Justice
Oliver Wendell Holmes, because White has previously
written two books about Holmes, one a full-length scholarly
biography. Hiss was Holmes's secretary from October
1929 to October 1930; Holmes was then 88, still mentally
vigorous, and still a sitting Supreme Court Justice.
During his term, Hiss convinced the reluctant and recently
widowed Holmes to permit Hiss to read aloud to him on
a daily basis. Hiss also married during the year, which
was contrary to the Justice's wishes that his secretaries
remain unmarried so as not to be diverted from their
duties. In both of these actions, White finds the seeds
of Hiss's later treachery as a communist spy.
Six months before Hiss took up his post as Holmes's
secretary, Fanny Holmes, the Justice's wife of 57 years,
died. Mrs. Holmes had regularly read aloud to her husband
to give him a break from the heavy reading load imposed
on him by his court work. The Justice enjoyed it, and
Hiss, who as a boy had been read to by his Aunt Lila,
thought the still-grieving Justice might benefit if
he resumed the activity. When he first broached the
idea, however, Holmes dismissed it out of hand.
In his memoirs, Hiss writes that he learned that a close
friend of the Justice's, the British ambassador, Sir
Esme Howard, enjoyed having his son, who was also his
secretary, read aloud to him. Hiss relayed this information
to Holmes, although he didn't mention that Howard's
reader was his son. Hiss then enlisted the ambassador
himself, asking Sir Esme to endorse the activity to
his friend. The plan worked. Not long afterward, Holmes
asked Hiss if he was still interested in reading to
him. The daily sessions became part of Holmes's life,
and with subsequent secretaries until the Justice's
death in 1935.
In his 1990s Holmes biography, White found all this
reading aloud unexceptionable. In "Looking-Glass
Wars," however, this same activity - at least when
practiced by Hiss - has become malign. White calls Hiss's
methods "conniving" and a "deception"
and show him to have been a risk-taker, since "the
strategy could well have backfired," angering Holmes.
White also writes that when one reads aloud to another
it "can subtly change the relationship of the two
people ... from one of relative equals .... to one more
resembling that of a caretaker and a patient."
He goes on to suggest that Hiss benefited more from
the process than Holmes did, adding that "the process
was sufficiently important to Hiss that he was prepared
to enlist the British ambassador to the United States
in a deception ..."
According to White, Hiss's deception was not mentioning
to Holmes that it was Howard's son who read to him,
but in fact deception played no part in Holmes's decision.
If Hiss initially omitted mention of Howard's son, Howard
himself subsequently rectified the error. In Hiss's
1981 Columbia University oral history, a rich source
of information about Hiss's life neglected by White,
Hiss relates how Holmes came to change his mind on the
"... he said to me, You still willing to
read aloud to me?'" I said that of course I was.
Well, Esme tells me that his son reads to him,
he doesn't mind it.'"
As for any subtle changing of the relationship between
the reader and the read-to, Hiss makes it clear in his
memoir, "Recollections of a Life," that in
Holmes's household, the Justice was clearly the boss,
a fact which Hiss plainly welcomed. "No young lawyer,"
Hiss wrote, "who spent a year with this model of
the upright man could fail to wish to emulate him in
conduct and character. Certainly Holmes was the most
profound influence in my life." At the same time,
the Justice came to relish the daily reading aloud:
"A measure of his astonishing vigor in his late
[was] his avidity for the written word.
When he was in his usual high spirits a regular greeting
on coming back from the Court was, Shall we have
some culture?' or, perhaps, Will it be murder
[a mystery story], or shall we improve our minds?'"
After Holmes's retirement from the Supreme Court in
1932, larger portions of his day were allotted to reading.
When several of his former secretaries (including Hiss
who had left Washington after his term) returned to
D.C. with the advent of the New Deal, they all took
turns reading to the Justice. Nearly every study on
reading aloud, by the way, shows that it benefits both
parties. There's nothing to indicate that reading aloud
to Holmes by Alger Hiss or any other secretary or ex-secretary
was any different from the norm.
White also sees brazen behavior and deception in Hiss's
December 11, 1929 marriage to Priscilla Hobson. To White,
the wedding was especially troubling because, he argues,
Hiss was aware of the ban beforehand but went ahead,
anyway, figuring that once Holmes learned of the wedding,
he would have no choice but to accept it. Hiss's actions,
writes White, demonstrated Hiss's "strong belief
in his ability to manipulate others," the suggestion
being this mirrored Hiss's behavior later in life when
he falsely convinced many people he was innocent of
the charges against him.
White begins building his case by quoting Hiss's friend
and attorney William Marbury. He says Marbury "later
wrote" that Alger and Priscilla considered getting
married before a justice of the peace since Alger "knew
that he had to go back to work for Justice Holmes immediately,
since in getting married during his [secretary]ship
he was violating one of the conditions of his employment."
To White, Marbury's comment shows that Hiss was aware
of the rule "when he began the secretaryship, or
he had learned it by the time Priscilla and he decided
to marry in December." To support this view, White
also cites a December 13, 1929 letter from Hiss to Felix
Frankfurter (the bracketed comments in the letter are
White's) in which Hiss explains to his Harvard Law School
I learned some ten hours before my marriage [from
a comment of Holmes's] that the justice had definitely
stipulated that his secretaries be unmarried. Of course,
I had appreciated what must be [at] the bottom of
this rule - the secretary's personal affairs must
never impinge upon a 'scintilla' of the justice's
time or energy, and I - rather we - laid meticulous
plans until the last moment. As part of these plans
the justice was not informed until the last moment
(the evening before the wedding).... It never occurred
to me that he had a definite "rule of law"
on the point.... I in no wise sensed any fiat negative
to marriage qua marriage - of inconsiderateness which
might reasonably grow out of a secretary's marrying
he did gently complain, I suppose.
White finds Hiss's account internally inconsistent.
Why, he asks, did Hiss lay "meticulous plans"
if he had not known about the rule? He calls Hiss's
explanations "false and self-serving," adding
that the point of the meticulous plans was to keep "Holmes
in the dark about their wedding," because Alger
and Priscilla Hiss knew it violated the Justice's rule.
White acknowledges that Hiss "may well not have
known" about the rule when he took the job but
says "it seems clear" that he learned about
it prior to his marriage and that the "meticulous
plans" were designed to put Holmes in a position
where he in essence had to approve the union.
But as Hiss's Columbia University oral history makes
clear, White is again faulting Hiss when he might instead
be lauding his integrity:
I got married on a weekend.... I'd never intended
to take any time off, such was the sense of dedication
we all had. I told the judge I had not told him before
because I was afraid that he would ask me to take
time off. I told him that I was afraid I had violated
a condition under which I served him but of which
I had no knowledge.... I said it [the wedding] would
have to be performed in Washington because I couldn't
take time off from my job. He said, "All right,
all right, take some time off." And I said, "No,
that's why I didn't tell you earlier. I will be back
As for Marbury's comment about Hiss being aware of the
rule, Marbury in the first place "later wrote"
nothing of the sort. In his memoir, "In the Catbird
Seat," Marbury simply provides a brief description
of the marriage, saying he was surprised that Priscilla
Hiss, who professed to be a Quaker, agreed to be married
by a Presbyterian minister. He says nothing about the
judge's rule prior to his marriage to Priscilla. The
source cited for Marbury's comment is Allen Weinstein.
In "Perjury," Weinstein claims Marbury made
the comment during an interview, but since Weinstein
has refused to make his notes or tapes available to
researchers, his accuracy can't be checked.
As it stands, though, Marbury's secondhand recollection
was off target. Hiss didn't tell Holmes of his impending
wedding, not because he knew he was violating the judge's
edict, but because he was so dedicated to the job he
was afraid Holmes would ask him to take time off following
White also writes that although the Justice acquiesced
to the wedding, it still rankled years later - but he
offers only a single citation, a story told by Donald
Hiss, that the subject of Hiss's wedding was taboo with
the Justice. White ignores other evidence which indicates
that once Holmes had found out about the wedding, far
from feeling cornered, Holmes had no problem with it.
For example, in quoting Hiss's letter to Frankfurter,
White chose not to include this line:
He has not shown any annoyance or foreboding. He both
gave me his blessing the evening of the ceremony and
his "welcome into the brotherhood" the following
morning. Today he had us both to luncheon. (Of course,
these are consonant, I well realize, with disapproval
hidden behind the Justice's charm.)
But if there was real disapproval, Holmes never revealed
it. Hiss wrote in his autobiography that upon hearing
of the wedding, Holmes asked for his checkbook in order
to give the two a proper present (Hiss wouldn't accept
it, asking instead for an inscribed copy of Holmes's
speeches). Priscilla Hiss was subsequently a welcomed
luncheon visitor. After his term, Alger Hiss returned
regularly to visit with and read to the Justice. In
his will, the Justice bequeathed to Hiss a prized Queen
Anne mirror that had been in his family for generations.
letters and accounts written by Hiss and others refer
humorously to the incident, again indicating that the
Justice was not as displeased as White makes him out
to have been. For example, Justice Louis D. Brandeis,
who was informed about the marriage on the day of the
event, wrote in a December 17, 1929 note to Frankfurter,
"O.W.H. talked to me about Hiss' marriage the other
day. I think you had better exact from his next secretary
a vow of one year's celibacy."
Perhaps the most direct proof that Holmes was not furious
with Hiss and felt neither deceived nor coerced by him
comes in another letter Brandeis sent to Frankfurter,
this one written on the very day of Hiss's evening wedding,
December 11, 1929. (Both these letters appear in "'Half
Brother, Half Son,'" a 1991 collection of the full
Brandeis-to-Frankfurter correspondence.) The "'Half
Brother, Half Son'" editors' notes for this December
11th letter explain that "Justice Holmes had an
informal rule that his clerks should not marry. Hiss
did not know about that custom and had become engaged
to Priscilla Hobson. When informed of the rule, he rushed
over to Holmes to confess and ask for mercy. FF, in
a panic, asked LDB to go over and help in the negotiations."
The first paragraph of the December 11th letter records
Brandeis's same-day account of his visit to Holmes:
Obedient to your telegram I called on O.W.H. Hiss
was still there. The Justice was in the best of form,
rollicking, playful in spirit & entirely without
worry of any kind. I concluded he needed no assurance
The book of Brandeis's letters to Frankfurter is listed
in the bibliography of White's 1993 biography of Holmes,
and White also quotes from it in "Looking-Glass
Wars" - citing an April 21, 1929 Brandeis-to-Frankfurter
note about Hiss's predecessor with Holmes. But the two
letters quoted here - both of which offer firsthand
testimony about Holmes's reaction to Hiss's marriage
from a Holmes intimate known worldwide for his acuteness
of mind and integrity - are strangely absent from "Looking-Glass
art of psychological profiling has advanced considerably
in recent years - the CIA uses it to help understand
the mental processes of adversaries, and the FBI uses
it to help find serial killers like the Unibomber. The
basic idea is to start by being as sure as possible
of the facts of someone's life - "triangulate the
data, and then cross-check it," as one practitioner,
a New York City psychoanalyst, has recently stated.
After that, "you have to consider alternate explanations."
This, the profiler said, "is how you construct
an analytic work that stands up," warning that
you "generally don't base conclusions on one strand
of evidence - that makes for a thin read."
White, on the other hand, begins by failing to assemble
all the facts, even those already familiar to him. He
then speculatively seeks a single explanation that he
can fit to these unestablished assertions. The book
is pieced together out of might have beens, could well
haves, and may have felts. But what happens to "could
haves" when on close examination they turn into
Let's look, for example, in some detail at another aspect
of White's psychological profile - the evolution of
Hiss's political thinking that led him to become a New
Dealer and, according to Weinstein and White, a communist
and a spy, as well. White's account of these pre-beginnings
of the Hiss case is the one section of the book that
blends A and B material. Alger Hiss in his own writings
was proud of the fact that the Great Depression had
opened his eyes to suffering in the United States, and
had motivated him to join the Roosevelt administration
to work for political reform and national recovery.
On the other hand, according to Whittaker Chambers,
Hiss was only pretending to be a New Dealer, since he
had become a fanatical Marxist bent on betraying and
overthrowing the government he worked for. In his unquestioning
presentation of Chambers' charges as facts, rather than
first trying to establish whether the available evidence
supports such an accusation, White is - once again -
an overeager investigator, someone who wants to start
running a race on the second lap. The fundamental What
question - "What changes actually occurred in Hiss's
politics?" - never comes up, because White is too
busy chasing a Why question - "Why did Hiss
become a communist?" - that, until we know with
some certainty what did happen, is as meaningless as
asking, "Why did Hiss become a Republican?"
White's presentation: White writes that Hiss
first came across radical groups while he was working
as an attorney in New York City in the early 1930s,
but that it was Priscilla Hiss who was perhaps most
responsible for his entry into that milieu. According
to White, Priscilla was behind most of Alger's major
decisions in the first years of their marriage. She
persuaded him to give up the idea of practicing law
in Baltimore and instead move to Boston, and it was
she who later wanted him to move to New York. White
adds, "She may have first called Alger's attention
to the growing breadlines and soup kitchens, the shanty
towns in parks and vacant lots, the beggars [that] gave
sharp reality to accounts of similar and even worse
conditions throughout the country."
Once Hiss's social conscience was pricked, White says,
Hiss joined the International Juridical Association,
which published a journal that aided lawyers working
on behalf of labor and hard-pressed farmers. White refers
to the IJA as a "popular-front" group of "liberals
and collectivists," whose work was "part of
a transformation in his [Hiss's] political perspective."
The next step in Hiss's radicalization process was his
decision to join the New Deal in 1933 as a lawyer with
the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. There, Hiss
became one of a group of Young Turks, lawyers who sought
to take on powerful Southern farming interests by standing
up for poor sharecroppers and tenant farmers living
under conditions not much better than slavery.
White doesn't specify exactly when, but he writes, "At
the same time, he [Hiss], Lee Pressman, and some other
former members of the IJA, who had also relocated to
Washington, joined a discussion group,' organized
by Harold Ware, a member of the Communist Party ....
The Ware Group was to form the base for Hiss's entry
into secret intelligence work for the Soviet Union."
Hiss joined the group, White writes, in 1934, out of
frustration with the slow pace of reform within the
AAA. White's source for this is Nathaniel Weyl, a writer
who testified before HUAC in 1952 that he had also been
a member of the Ware Group.
White buttresses his portrait of Hiss as a radical by
noting that even before moving to New York, Priscilla
Hiss had "exhibited an attraction to collectivist
politics." He also writes that what he calls "popular-front
collectivism" "seemed an attractive alternative"
to Alger Hiss once he had concluded that the Depression
"was a result of moral and political failure on
the part of decrepit social structures.'"
White describes Hiss at this time as a "fanatical"
and "dedicated" communist and writes that
once Hiss joined the Ware Group, he began paying regular
dues to the Communist Party. Even more damning, according
to White, is that in 1934 Hiss began intelligence work
for the Soviet Union, passing State Department documents
that he had received while working for the Nye Committee
to Whittaker Chambers. This, White writes, was the culmination
not only of a political progression but also a psychological
one: a growing need to rebel against expectations that
he always be good and responsible, a burden placed on
him as a little boy by a demanding mother in the wake
of his father's suicide.
What the evidence shows: Hiss was exposed to
radical politics long before he and Priscilla Hiss moved
to New York in 1932. While still an undergraduate at
Johns Hopkins University, his economics professor was
a well-known socialist named Broadus Mitchell. Mitchell
had little impact on Hiss's essentially conservative
outlook. "We were so thoroughly inoculated by prevailing
social and economic views against his mildly Socialistic
opinions that they made no impression on us," Hiss
wrote years later in a long essay about the evolution
of his political philosophy. "His examples of the
shortcomings of business practices and philosophy did
tend to fortify the moral and esthetic distaste for
business as a career some of us had developed, but none
of us was led to consider the possibility of structural
defects in our industrial society."
At Harvard Law School, Hiss came under the influence
of Felix Frankfurter. Hiss enjoyed a close relationship
with the future Supreme Court Justice, who was then
championing the cause of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian
anarchists whose 1927 execution in nearby Charleston
was a devastating and embittering event for many students
on the Harvard campus. With this exposure to Frankfurter
and other professors, Hiss's interest in politics increased,
but as a fan of his fellow Baltimorean H. L. Mencken
and the other iconoclastic writers of the 1920s, Hiss
saw himself more as a cultural bohemian rather than
as a political radical. Opposing Herbert Hoover in 1928,
he sided with the social reformer Al Smith over the
socialist Norman Thomas.
In his chapter on Hiss's year-long term as Oliver Wendell
Holmes's secretary, White never addresses the influence
that Holmes had on Hiss's political outlook, even though
Hiss frequently said that that the liberal Justice's
impact on him was enormous. Holmes was the "embodiment
of the American tradition at its finest," said
Hiss, adding that from him he had learned to appreciate
and to be rooted within the "Great Span" of
American history, a partnership of patriots and freedom-lovers
across the generations.
Hiss still had no real interest in public service, however.
When his term with Holmes was over, he was offered a
job in the antitrust division of the Department of Justice
but turned it down. Instead, he went to work for Choate,
Hall and Stewart, a major corporate law firm in Boston.
When Priscilla Hiss took on a book project about fine
arts that required her to be in New York, Alger joined
her there after securing work with another large corporate
firm, Cotton, Franklin, Wright & Gordon.
It was life in Depression-era New York, Hiss later wrote,
that sparked his decision to offer his services on behalf
of the poor. In what was probably the worst year of
the Depression, Hiss began to take note of the apple
sellers and the shantytowns he saw daily on his way
to work. His empathy for their plight led him to look
for ways to help. The International Juridical Association,
as White notes, was Hiss's first foray into political
action - but, as White also notes, the IJA brought together
both liberal and more radical attorneys, and membership
by itself gives no indications of anyone's political
White writes that Priscilla Hiss became attracted to
"collectivist" politics around this period,
but he never defines this catch-all term nor does he
offer a source for his assertion. She did help out in
a soup kitchen run by the Norman Thomas branch of the
Socialist Party and did register as a member of the
Socialist Party in 1932. She later said she didn't vote
for Thomas (an extreme anti-communist) in the 1932 presidential
campaign. Alger Hiss, who White claims had become a
radical by 1932, voted for Franklin Roosevelt that year
as a registered Democrat.
To help out the IJA, Hiss spent many evenings sifting
through court cases to find precedents for attorneys
representing poor farmers. For the rest of his life,
he was proud of his work with the group, although he
did think the word "International" in its
title was a little presumptuous for such a small band
of lawyers. By March 1933, when Jerome Frank, on the
recommendation of Felix Frankfurter, called Hiss and
asked him to become an attorney with the New Deal's
newly formed Agricultural Adjustment Administration,
Hiss was still sufficiently "un-radicalized"
to say no. He did become a New Dealer three weeks later
- but only after Frankfurter sent him a telegram saying
the country had entered a "national emergency"
that required his services.
According to White, Hiss joined the so-called Ware Group
in 1934 out of frustration with the slow pace of reform
in the AAA. But Hiss, as he later wrote, in fact considered
his own work there - raising prices by lowering production,
and paying subsidies directly to tenant farmers and
sharecroppers rather than to plantation owners - ground-breaking
and generally successful.
Other evidence - overlooked by White - indicates that
stories placing Hiss in the so-called Ware Group were
false. Nathaniel Weyl at one point told the FBI that
he and Hiss had both been members of the group, but
this seemingly straightforward testimony on closer look
takes on a more ambiguous cast. None of Whittaker Chambers'
statements to government officials from 1939 to 1949
about his time as the Ware Group's courier mention Weyl's
name even once. Weyl himself said nothing about Hiss
in testimony he gave before HUAC in 1943 or on numerous
other occasions, mentioning Hiss for the first time
only in 1950, after Hiss's conviction.
White cites Lee Pressman's 1950 HUAC testimony about
his own membership in the group, but as was previously
pointed out, he omits the fact that Pressman at the
same time swore that Hiss was not a member. Pressman
testified that he joined the Communist Party in 1934
after meeting Harold Ware. He said he was then assigned
to a small group in Washington (which he said had no
name); it had three other members, he said, none of
whom were either Weyl or Hiss. Pressman also said that
the group met once a month (Weyl said they met weekly).
And the contradictions get only more complex: Weyl,
for example, said that when he joined the group in the
summer of 1933, Hiss was already a member (this contradicts
even White, who says that Hiss joined in 1934). Weyl
also said that Chambers was the group's courier in 1933,
contradicting Chambers' testimony that he wasn't put
in contact with the group until 1934. And since White
says that Hiss joined the group out of frustration with
the AAA, which he joined in April 1933, then Hiss, if
Weyl was correct, would have had to have lost patience
with the New Deal almost immediately after depositing
his first paychecks.
While White (through Weinstein) relies on Weyl's questionable
statements, he ignores a more reliable and more recently
available source for information about whether Hiss
was a member of the Communist Party of the United States
of America - the Party's files themselves which, among
other places, are now available on microfilm at New
York University. The files contain numerous references
to the work of several Party members working in the
Roosevelt Administration, including Pressman, John Abt
and Nathan Witt, all three of whom were members of the
Ware Group; Hiss's name, on the other hand, never appears
There is, however, an indirect reference to him in the
CPUSA files, in a memorandum discussing proteges of
Felix Frankfurter who had joined the New Deal. Hiss,
though unnamed, was certainly a member of this group,
since he had joined the AAA at Frankfurter's behest
and maintained a close relationship with the future
Supreme Court justice throughout this period. The memo's
description of the group's non-communist political outlook
is a remarkably accurate - if totally unexpected - description
both of the work Hiss actually produced during his time
at the AAA and of later recollections of his contributions
by AAA colleagues:
Brandeis-Frankfurter group, the most powerful unified
group within the government, works toward strict government
policing of bad economic and social practices, but
insists on capitalism, profit incentive, individualism,
decentralization, local responsibility, and small
business vs. big business.
Brief Sampling of Additional Factual Errors in the Book
White's book, which aspires to be a definitive contribution
to Hiss case scholarship, is in the end only a curiosity,
a demonstration that even trained minds can lose the
scent of truth when in the grip of alluring and misleading
assumptions. Factual errors, errors of omission, and
errors of interpretation abound in the book. Some are
minor; many could have been cleared up with minimal
fact-checking. Cumulatively, they diminish a reader's
respect for White's command of his subject. A few are
White says that Abel Gross was one of Chambers'
sources. There was no such person. According to "Witness,"
Abel Gross was one of Chambers' own pseudonyms, a
name he used when applying for one of his government
contacts. White says that after Chambers' break with
the Party, he took a job with the Bureau of Standards.
Not so - he got a job with the National Research Project.
White writes that Chambers briefly traveled
to Russia after leaving Columbia University. Chambers
never traveled to Russia. A letter he claimed to have
sent to his friend Meyer Schapiro from the Soviet
Union was shown to be fraudulent. Elsewhere in the
book, White mistakenly describes the film that Chambers
withdrew from the pumpkin as "microfilm."
It was standard 35mm film.
White, who believes so strongly in Chambers'
charges, nevertheless frequently garbles them. He
suggests, for instance, that Hiss moved to the State
Department in September 1936 because of the opportunity
this presented to steal government papers, but according
to Chambers the man who planted the notion of pilfering
in Hiss's head hadn't yet even arrived in the country
at the point when Hiss was offered - and accepted
- the job. Similarly, when White retells Chambers'
dramatic account of his last meeting with the Hisses,
he says that Alger Hiss called his comments about
the Soviet Union "mental masturbation" and
that Priscilla Hiss gave him a small wooden rolling
pin as a Christmas present for his daughter. This
reverses Chambers' story that Hiss gave him the rolling
pin, while Priscilla Hiss bitterly denounced him for
White is inaccurate even about his own father-in-law's
involvement with the Hiss case. He says that Davis's
work for the defense largely ended in 1948, even though
the defense files clearly show that Davis continued
tracking down many investigative leads for the defense
right up until Hiss's 1950 conviction. (He correctly
acknowledges that Davis continued to believe in Hiss's
innocence throughout his life. Davis died in 2000,
at the age of 93.)
According to White, two other Hiss attorneys,
William Marbury and Edward McLean, eventually decided
that Hiss was lying about his relationship with Chambers.
This is untrue. While Marbury and McLean both later
expressed a feeling that Priscilla Hiss had been hiding
something, neither man ever wavered in a belief in
White writes that Hiss's boss in the State Department,
Francis B. Sayre, declined to testify in his behalf.
Sayre did testify for Hiss at his second trial and
believed in Hiss's innocence until his death.
White writes that Hiss "duped" his
son, Tony Hiss, into writing a pro-Hiss book in the
1970s as part of a false campaign for vindication.
Tony Hiss replied to that charge in a letter published
by The New York Times Book Review on March
21, 2004. To read that letter click
White writes that during his false campaign
for vindication Hiss made money off the Hiss case
by "prospering on the lecture circuit" in
the 1970s. On the contrary, Hiss insisted on donating
his lecture fees to the National Emergency Civil Liberties
Committee to help defray the costs of the Freedom
of Information Act and coram nobis law suits he filed
in that decade to reopen the case and set the record
Kisseloff is managing editor of this Web site.
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