A New Trial?
Part of attorney Chester Lane’s 1952 Motion for a New Trial in the Alger Hiss case challenged the notion that Whittaker Chambers had remained in the Communist Party until April 1938. Had he left in 1937, as he had previously maintained, he would have been in no position to receive State Department documents illegally from Alger Hiss, or anyone else, in April 1938. Yet the copied State Department documents he produced for the first time in November 1948 bore an April 1938 date. Here are excerpts from Chester Lane’s 1952 affidavit on subject, summarizing evidence that came to light only after Alger Hiss’s 1950 conviction.
Affidavit of Alger Hiss’s lawyer, Chester Lane, on Whittaker Chambers’ break with the Communist Party
Throughout the early versions of his story, Chambers consistently placed the time of his break with the Party as being at the end of 1937. He so advised [Assistant Secretary of State] Adolf A. Berle, Jr., according to Mr. Berle’s recollection, at their conference at the end of August 1939, when it might be supposed that his memory for dates would have been fresh. He repeated the statement to Raymond Murphy of the State Department at their meetings in 1945 and 1946, saying on the latter occasion that he “entered into the Washington picture in the summer of 1935, and left it and the Party at the end of December 1937.” Before the House Committee he swore repeatedly that the break occurred in 1937.
In one of his later appearances he amplified this. Appearing on August 30, 1948, he described under oath his acceptance of a position with the United States Government as a means of “establishing an identity.” He was not quite certain when this occurred, but thought it was “1937 or the beginning of 1938.” As to the date of leaving the Party, he testifed as follows:
Mr. Nixon: How long did you hold the job, Mr. Chambers?
Mr. Chambers: I don’t think more than 2 months, perhaps 3.
Mr. Nixon: After you left the job, what happened then? Did you leave the party immediately?
Mr. Chambers: I think there may have been 2 or 3 weeks in between. I have no longer a recollection, but I left very shortly thereafter.
Mr. Nixon: In other words, you severed your relationship with the party completely a few weeks afterward.
Mr. Chambers: I disappeared.
At the second trial, however, the story is changed. According to the new version, his break with the Party occurred approximately in the middle of April 1938: “I believe it was April 15.” Upon this break, he moved his family to a room on Old Court Road, near Baltimore, where he stayed for about a month, until he “had obtained a translation to do” from Paul Willert of the Oxford University Press – a translation of a book (by Martin Gumpert) entitled “Dunant – The Founder of The Red Cross.” As soon as he had the translation and an advance, he went to Daytona Beach, Florida, where he “finished the translation, and after a month returned to New York.”
Chambers himself was aware of – or could not escape from – the inconsistency. On cross-examination, he was asked: “Now, did you on a number of occasions say that you broke with the Party in 1937?” He replied:
“Yes, I did.” He was further asked: “Is that date correct?” and he replied: “It is not.”
It is obvious why Chambers had to change his story. He had first produced the Baltimore Documents at a pretrial deposition hearing in the Baltimore libel action on November 17, 1948 – when he needed some kind of evidence to protect himself against liability for his charges of Hiss’s communist affiliations. The documents he produced covered dates running from January 5 to April 1, 1938. Once he had produced them, his old story of having left the Party in 1937, or no later than the middle of February 1938, would no longer do. He had to provide a new date for his break; otherwise he could not sustain his new tale that he had been collecting State Department information from Alger Hiss for communist espionage purposes through January, February, and March 1938. So for the end of his Party activity, he came up with April 15, 1938 – a convenient date which would allow for the mechanics of abstracting and copying documents received in the Department as late as 7:45 on the evening of April 1st.
The suspicious characteristics of Chambers’s changed story were evident on the trial record, and are reiterated here because the defense has now come into possession of evidence showing that the second story, not the first, was the false one. This new evidence establishes that Chambers had left the Party, and secured his translation from the Oxford University Press, at least by early March 1938. Therefore his whole story of Hiss as the source of State Department documents running into April is shown up as a fabrication.
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Chambers had obviously gotten his translation sometime before April 12, 1938, since Willert’s letter of that date to him (Exhibit IV-B-11 (a)), which the Post Office was unable to deliver (Exhibit IV-B-11 (b)), asks how he is getting on with it, and implies that some results are already due. This is confirmed by the fact that a portion of the manuscript had been mailed to him at his Mt. Royal Terrace address in Baltimore on March 18, 1938 (See Exhibit IV-B-9). The delivery instructions were “RUSH – MUST REACH BALTIMORE SATURDAY EXPRESS”; i.e., the next day, since March 18, 1938, was a Friday. Taken alone, this could mean merely urgency on the part of the publisher, or it could more probably mean that Chambers had advised that, after March 19th, he would no longer be available to pick up the package. That Chambers went into hiding at or about that time is clear from his handwritten letter dated May 3rd to Willert (Exhibit IV-B-16) [presented here as “Chambers’ Letter”], in which he says: “I have not been at Mt. Royal Terrace for more than a month.” In any event, Chambers had clearly become a translator by March 18th, and therefore, by his own account, must have been out of the Party by that date.
In addition to “Chambers’ Letter,” this section of the website also provides access to “Willert’s Affidavit” and “Gumpert’s Affidavit,” both of which rebut the notion that Chambers was still a Party member in April 1938.