In November 1948, a judge in the libel suit filed by Alger Hiss ordered Whittaker Chambers to turn over any physical proof he had that Hiss had been a Communist. On November 17, Chambers gave Hiss’s lawyer an envelope containing copies of State Department documents he said were typed by Mrs. Hiss for transmission to the Soviet Union. He did not turn over several rolls of film that he said were also in the envelope. Instead, on December 2, he gave them to investigators of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Instead of turning the film over to the FBI, the Committee said that it had asked a technician from the Veterans Administration to develop the film, much to the consternation of the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York, whose Grand Jury was looking into espionage charges. According to Richard M. Nixon, a Congressman from California, portions of the film were exposed to light and their contents lost forever. Suspicions about the handling of the film by Nixon and his colleagues have persisted ever since. Brought before the committee, Nixon refused to turn the film over to the Grand Jury, prompting the discussion that follows.
These are annotated excerpts from Nixon’s Grand Jury testimony. Nixon’s dramatic appearance before the Grand Jury has been called by Bruce Craig, one of the first American historians to read through the released testimony, “probably his most important political speech before the Checkers speech” (the 1952 speech that led to Nixon’s being retained as the Republican nominee for vice president).
Conducting the examination of Nixon were Assistant U.S. Attorneys Raymond Whearty and Alexander Campbell.
December 13, 1948
RICHARD M. NIXON called as a witness, having first been duly sworn by the Asst. Foreman, testified as follows:
Q. You have the film? We see that you have them there. There is nothing there that means anything to us.
A. I will explain one other item which will explain the testimony which probably Mr. Chambers gave before the grand jury.
These two rolls of film had already been developed and they were not in paper of this sort, but they were wrapped in a – both were pushed together; both just wrapped around the other – and in one piece of paper. They were developed film and no harm can come to them. That’s why they were outside the containers. Off of these two rolls of film came the documents which were clear enough for you ladies and gentlemen to read.
So far as these two rolls, I have in my hand, which were not injured by reason of having been opened, due to the fact that they had not been developed for ten years had remained in there, the pictures which we were able to get out were extremely blurred. Those were the ones that were introduced, which Mr. Wheeler brought before you, which were not clear, having mainly, incidentally, the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics report which were worth nothing whatever. We found in our own investigation, the Bureau of Aeronautics, which the Navy by looking at them could tell what the pictures were. The Navy indicated that they were not – at least at that time – strictly confidential or even confidential under the Navy code, and they had wide distribution.
As far as these two rolls are concerned, on these rolls appear only to date that we have been able to find this Navy material. These were the two rolls that had the State Department material, the aide memoire, which some of you probably have seen, and the messages involving China, which Mr. Bullitt wrote in four series, which, incidentally, is one of the messages that Mr. Sumner Welles and Mr. Purifoy in testimony before the committee indicated could not be released even at this time, ten years after the message was written, due to possible injury to the National Security.
These documents were publicly introduced into evidence the following summer during the perjury trials.
Q. Have you established the age of those films?
Let me show you what we have done in that respect, and I will show you exactly how the age of the film – let me say on this point I would be most happy to have representatives of the Attorney General’s office, if they’re not satisfied with the experts we call, I might say that the best source that I think is available are the people who made the film, or anybody else to come down to the office and examine it and reach another conclusion. I want to say this in appearing before the Grand Jury, this will be difficult for you to understand, when you say a member of the Un-American Activities Committee, we realize that we are subject to a great deal of criticism. Some suggestion has been made in some quarter that the committee is trying to frame the individuals involved here and wouldn’t want the truth if we could find it. I have been very close to this Chambers case from the beginning, and my only interest in it has been in attempting to get to the truth of the matter. I do not intend, Mr. Campbell, to make a speech to the jury, but I want to say why I insisted myself, when I first returned, upon an examination of these films. I realized that you ladies and gentlemen are faced with probably the conundrum of the age for a Grand Jury, with conflicting testimony, with individuals who have concealed testimony and then have come forth with testimony later, and with the same conundrum with which our committee was faced, one individual saying that he knows a group of other individuals, and the other individuals not only denying the charges that individual made, but saying, “We have never seen that individual before.”
That was the problem, I might say, with which our committee was concerned, and faced with, immediately after the testimony of Whittaker Chambers on August 3rd. Mr. Hiss came down on August 5th and said, “I have never seen this man before in my life. I do not know why he would say I was a Communist if I have never been a Communist.”
I might say that it was at that time that every member of the Un-American Activities Committee who heard Mr. Hiss that day, with the exception of myself, felt that there was no question whatever but that what Mr. Hiss was telling the truth. But I felt it was essential to proceed and find out whether or not these two individuals knew each other, on the issue of whether one was a Communist or another was a Communist that couldn’t be determined, but whether one man knew another, that can be determined, because if one man knew another, that can be determined, and that’s the way we solved the problem because Mr. Hiss after a good deal of persuasion and faced with certain facts changed his story, and changed it considerably, as most of you are aware.
Every member of the Un-American Activities Committee who heard Mr. Hiss that day, with the exception of myself, felt that there was no question whatever that Mr. Hiss was telling the truth. But I felt it was essential to proceed…
Hiss was asked if he knew “Whittaker Chambers,” and even Chambers conceded Hiss did not know him by that name. At that time, Hiss had realized that Chambers was actually George Crosley, a man he had known 12 years before.
In bringing that out, I was interested only in getting at the truth. If I had found as a result of that Mr. Chambers had lied when he said he knew Mr. Hiss, I would not be here before this Grand Jury, I would have gone to the Department of Justice, and I would have insisted that Mr. Chambers be prosecuted for telling a lie, and I think he should pay for whatever he has done, which is wrong.
Here, Nixon explains why he took the film to the Veterans Administration instead of turning it over to the FBI.
A. Yes, I want to make that absolutely clear. I want to say that we didn’t develop these films in our office. I want to make it clear they were developed in the Veterans Administration. Another story that has been circulated, and it is a completely malicious slander, that we destroyed two rolls of the film, because we were trying to do it in apparently the laboratory which we have in our office, and this gentleman well knows we have no laboratory in the House Office Building for this kind of work. This was done by experts by the Veterans Administration. Incidentally, I might say, Mr. Donegan, for your information, it was a man who was formerly with the FBI, one of their best men, who went over to V A. And V.A. of course, has thousands – in fact, thousands of cases of identification. We felt that was a good place to get this information.
Q. It seems to me that there is some particular reason why you submitted it to the Veterans Bureau rather than the FBI. Now, what reason is that?
A. Well, the Committee, as I have indicated – strike that. And I will say this as briefly as I can. The Department of Justice is, of course, over the FBI; that is, the FBI is a part of the Department at Justice. And the Department of Justice, for reasons that may be very diligent, I might say, has not been particularly taken with the work of the Committee on Un-American Activities. Consequently, the Committee on Un-American Activities has not been able, frankly, to avail itself of FBI investigators and FBI laboratories to carry on our investigations, due apparently to the fact that the Department of Justice has so instructed the FBI. We took it, in other words, to the Veterans Administration because we had to have the work done and we knew that they would do it for us. We didn’t want to get into that argument with the Department of Justice again as to whether we had any jurisdiction to have this work done. As I say, I for one think it’s frankly a very unfortunate thing that the Department of Justice feels as it does concerning the Committee, and therefore has seen fit to inform the FBI that that should be its attitude toward the Committee. But I can assure you that if the Committee had felt that we could get this work done through the Department, we would certainly have done so.
BY MR. CAMPBELL: May I say this: that in all of my 13 years of experience as a United States Attorney, the investigative agencies of the United States Attorney and the FBI did not permit any person to keep evidence which is vital and essential to the case. We don’t permit the sheriffs to keep them, we don’t permit anybody to keep them, because it’s a highly important piece of evidence.
A. As an attorney – I think all three of you are attorneys – you will know that what I am discussing has been a matter which for 150 years has been the rule of the House and of the Congress. All that I can tell you is that this is the situation. I mean, of course, if I were a sheriff I would turn it over to you, certainly; a sheriff can’t keep it. But I mean there is a slight difference. I mean not much. I mean, I don’t mean to say anything derogatory about a sheriff or about a Congressman.
BY THE JURY: And in addition to Hiss, you have gone a step further to see anybody up the line?
A. Oh, yes. I might suggest these two lines of inquiry that Mr. Stripling may not have covered when he was before you. I don’t know what witnesses the Grand Jury has heard. But of course this is a process of deduction, to a certain extent. And as you will note, the documents which appeared on the microfilm, a great number of them came from the office of Mr. Sayre. You can tell that by the stamp that appears on the document. We have taken testimony from those who were familiar with the State Department procedures, which have indicated that where a confidential document – of course, and you obviously have taken testimony, I assume, in this regard too – a confidential document is distributed in the State Department, there is a distribution list which is relatively small. Where Mr. Sayre’s stamp appears on it, that means that document was delivered to the office of Mr. Sayre, was kept there in a locked compartment and was available only to the people that worked in that office. There were four people that worked in his office: Mr. Sayre; Anna Belle Newcomb, who is Mr. Hiss’s secretary; and Miss Lincoln, who was the administrative assistant to Mr. Sayre.
The problem of determining how the document which could definitely be traced from Mr. Sayre’s office, in that respect, of course will involve to a certain extent those four individuals. And I would think that the Grand Jury would want to hear all four of them on that point as to how those documents would have been removed from the office and not returned, because this is an important thing to note: The documents that appeared on the microfilms have Mr. Sayre’s stamp and do not have a stamp which indicates that they were filed in archives; in other words, that they had left Mr. Sayre’s office and had been filed finally in archives. For that reason the document therefore is traced that far. It is therefore – and beyond that point it means that it is pretty clear that the document had to come from that office.
Now, of course, there are other explanations that could be given, but probably – and I won’t go into that – but that is one line of inquiry which I think would interest you.
Here, Nixon concedes that HUAC had uncovered no hard evidence indicating Hiss was a Communist.
Another matter which I don’t think you have taken up, and you may of course, is this: Of course, involved in this matter of whether or not Mr. Hiss could have been the one who furnished the information that came from Mr. Sayre‘s office – and of course there was another information in addition to that – is of course the basic problem of whether or not Mr. Hiss was or was not a Communist. Now, that point, of course, is a most difficult one and one of the weakest points of the case, that is, from the standpoint – from the standpoint of pointing any finger of guilt, shall we say, at Mr. Hiss, is that there has been little evidence other than Mr. Chambers’ statement that Mr. Hiss was a Communist. I do not know whether or not the Committee has investigated Hiss’s association with Mr. Noel Field.
MR. WHEARTY: You mean the Grand Jury.
THE WITNESS: I meant to say the Grand Jury; I’m sorry.
If the Grand Jury has investigated his association with Mr. Noel Field. If not, I’m sure the Grand Jury would want to do that. I also think the Grand Jury would be interested in checking on Mr. Hiss’s associations with Mr. Zabodowsky [sic]. I assume all these cases, not knowing what the Grand Jury has considered, that there might be possibilities that you have. But our own investigations, I might say, prior to the time of the discovery of the documents, brought out some very interesting information in that field, which would be of help to you on that particular issue. And I would say, in that regard, that it particularly would be helpful to you in cross-examining Mr. Hiss. I might say that you are dealing here with two witnesses, speaking now of Mr. Hiss and Mr. Chambers and leaving out Mr. Wadleigh, Mr. Pigman and the others who have been named – you are dealing here with two witnesses who are most difficult to deal with. And I am sure that the representatives of the Department of Justice have been doing what they can to bring the facts out before the Grand Jury, and you also have done so in your questioning. But we found, ourselves, in dealing with Mr. Hiss particularly, that Mr. Hiss is a very persuasive witness. When he first came down before the Committee and made his now famous statement that he didn’t know Mr. Chambers, he convinced ninety percent of the press and virtually all of the members of the Committee. The only way that Mr. Hiss can be cross-examined is by obtaining basic information and then confronting him with that information and then cross-examining him relentlessly and I mean relentlessly, until the truth comes out.
Hiss made several inaccurate statements before HUAC. His memory of events of a dozen years before was faulty, and he could not get access to records to check details. To read about the accuracy of Chambers’ charges, read his August 7 testimony before HUAC.
BY THE JURY:
Q. Would you state again those four persons in Mr. Sayre’s office?
A. Miss Lincoln, Miss Anna Belle Newcomb, and Mr. Sayre
Q. And Miss Newcomb was Mr. Hiss’s secretary?
A. Yes. She is now in Europe with Mr. Sayre, or may have just returned.
Q. Well, that’s only three, Congressman.
A. Well, I meant including Mr. Hiss; Mr. Hiss, of course.
Q. Oh, I see; Mr. Hiss, Mr. Sayre and the two –
A. Yes, a total of four.
Q. Was one of them his personal secretary?
A. Well, Miss Newcomb did much of his secretarial work but also did work in the office for – I assume for Mr. Sayre as well.
Q. For the period of time –
A. During this period of time.
Q. And who was the other chap with the long name that you mentioned?
A. David Zabodowsky. I think the Bureau people are all familiar with his record and also of Mr. Hiss’s connection with him.
Q. Well, Congressman Nixon, you indicated that to determine whether or not Mr. Hiss was a Communist was an important factor. Have you developed anything along that line that would be helpful as far as we are concerned?
A. I would say in the way of evidence that could be presented before the Grand Jury, no, on the issue of whether or not he was a Communist.
Q. Well, any other evidence?
A. Nothing; except that if the jury has not heard it, I think they should take into consideration Mr. Hiss’s provable contacts with Mr. Field and Mr. Zabodowsky, both of whom have rather extensive records.
Q. Nothing beyond that that you can suggest?
A. I would say at the moment that’s all that I can think of.
Q. Have either one of these men that you mentioned stated that Hiss is a Communist?
A. Oh, no, we have heard neither one of the men ourselves.
A. They are not available. Mr. Field was out of the country when it came before our Committee.
Q. Did Mr. Hiss commit perjury before the Committee, when he said he didn’t know Mr. Chambers and then later on he admitted he did?
A. Technically, he may not have committed perjury. He did lie.
Mr. Nixon does not offer examples. Hiss said he did not lie, while Chambers admitted that he lied under oath on a number of occasions.
Q. How does Mrs. Hiss – did you have Mrs. Hiss before the Committee?
A. We had Mrs. Hiss before us under a very interesting circumstance which meant that we could not cross-examine her, as we should have. Arrangements were made for Mrs. Hiss’s appearance while Mr. Hiss was in the room before the Committee, and then the suggestion was made that she appear, Mrs. – Mr. Hiss asked the Committee chairman, Mr. Thomas, whether or not he could appear with her in executive session, and Mr. Thomas said yes. Well, as a result, when Mrs. Hiss came in with Mr. Hiss, all that we could do was have a perfunctory examination. Understand, I want to point out that our Committee always allowed counsel to come with a witness. But to allow Mr. Hiss to come with Mrs. Hiss of course made it impossible for us to get any information.
Q. Did her testimony sound convincing to you?
A. It didn’t.
Here, Nixon urges the Grand Jury to find a way around the statute of limitations on espionage charges to indict Hiss. Two days later it indicted Hiss on two counts of perjury for denying Chambers’ accusations.
Mr. NIXON: There is only one point that we have, of course, been concerned about, and I would be remiss unless I mentioned it, and I will finish with this, because this is extremely important: It is a point which I have made publicly, which I wish to make before the jury.
We have here a difficult problem of law, as well as a problem of who furnished the information, which is a problem of fact, and that is that there is a possibility that due to the expiration of the statute of limitations that the individuals who furnished this information to Chambers might go scot-free, and that the Grand Jury would have no power whatever to indict them, due to the fact that the statute of limitations would have run on the crime that they committed.
That is where the Committee on Un-American Activities have a responsibility that they must meet, because I think you ladies and gentlemen will agree with me that the important matter in this case, as of the present time – now that Chambers has confessed – of who turned the information over to him, and the fact that the Grand Jury is not able to indict because of the statute of limitations, does not mean that the investigation should stop, and the spotlight placed upon those who are responsible, and I want to point out that we feel a solemn responsibility on that point, that if because of legal technicalities some of those who were as guilty as Chambers, and in some cases more guilty, because they took an oath of allegiance – to the Government, that those individuals, because of technicalities, are able to go scot-free, and I want to assure you that if you feel you are unable to indict because of those technicalities, you will feel assured that we will go ahead with our investigation of the case.