Coram Nobis

Alger Hiss’s 1978 coram nobis petition to the federal courts, to overturn his conviction on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct, revisited the issue of when Whittaker Chambers had left the Communist Party: Was it in 1937 or 1938? This was a crucial distinction in light of evidence dating to 1938 that Chambers produced in late 1948, and then said was proof of espionage committed by Alger Hiss. The coram nobis petition excerpted here, in addition to again citing evidence submitted with Alger Hiss’s 1952 Motion for a New Trial, for the first time made reference to FBI files released in 1970s under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which until then had been withheld from the Hiss defense, showing that Chambers in 1952 had once again changed his story about the dates in question.

Whittaker Chambers’ break with the Communist Party was one of the critical issues at the trial. Chambers testified that he first told his story about his involvement with the Communist Party to Adolf Berle in September 1939. In that conversation (which, under any version of the facts, was only a short time after Chambers left the Party), he said that he left the Party in 1937. In May 1942 Chambers was interviewed by two FBI agents to whom he said that he was a member of the Communist Party from 1924 until the spring of 1937. On March 20, 1945, Chambers told Raymond Murphy, Chief Security Officer of the State Department, that he broke with the party at the end of 1937; he repeated this on August 28, 1946. He gave the same date in an interview with agent Spencer [of the FBI] on March 26, 1946, one of the FOIA documents recently released. In that statement, Chambers says not once but six times that he left the Party in 1937. Unlike earlier statements, the 1946 statement was devoted in major part to his alleged relationship to Hiss. After repeating several times that he broke with the Party in 1937, Spencer further summarized his interview with Chambers:

He volunteered that he of course had made a mistake in his youth in embracing Communism and that ever since 1937 when he broke away from this type of activity, he felt that he owed a serious debt to this country and that the only way that he could pay it off was to do everything in his power to expose Communism in this country. He stated that he has since 1937 denounced Communism to the point that whenever his name is mentioned in certain circles, he is referred to as a “red baiter.” He volunteered that in his own organization, there are some people who have a liberal attitude towards Russia and that his name is poison.

In testimony before the House Committee on Un–American Activities in August 1948, he again said that he broke with the Party in 1937. A few days later he testified that he broke with the Party “two or three” weeks after he terminated his employment with the WPA on February 1, 1938.

Up to this point Chambers had accused Hiss of having been a member of the Communist Party underground, but had never accused him of espionage. That accusation was first made on November 17, 1948, in the course of the depositions taken in connection with the Baltimore libel suit. The typewritten Baltimore Documents were dated between January 6, 1938 and early April 1938. It therefore became necessary for Chambers to change the date of the termination of his membership in the Party – and he did so, offering a date of early April in his December 3rd statement. In his libel deposition of February 17th, he set April 15th as a definite date.

At the trial, Chambers testified that he visited New York to see Bykov once or twice between April 1st and April 15th – “almost certainly once.” He described his break with the Party as follows:

Q. Now, did you on a number of occasions say that you broke with the Party in 1937?

A. Yes, I did.

Q. Is that date correct?

A. No, it is not.

Q. You say now the approximate date was what?

A. The approximate date was the middle of April 1938.

Q. You can’t be more specific than that, can you?

A. I believe it was April 15.

Q. Now, after you broke – what do you do when you break? Just tell me what you did or did not do when you broke in April 1938.

A. To break with the Communist Party, I simply moved my family, bag and baggage, out of the Mount Royal Terrace house into the Old Court Road room, and broke off all contact with the Party. In fact, I did not appear at my next appointment with Colonel Bykov.

Q. How long did you stay at this house at the Old Court Road?

A. I stayed at the Old Court Road for about a month, I believe, until I had obtained a translation to do.

Q. How did you obtain a translation to do?

A. Professor Schapiro introduced me to Paul Willert, who was then either treasurer, I believe, or vice–president of the Oxford University Press. Paul Willert gave me a translation and an advance.

Q. Did you do that by coming to New York?

A. I saw Paul Willert in New York.

Q. And then what did you do after that?

A. As soon as I had the translation and the advance, I went to Florida to Daytona Beach, where I believe I finished the translation, and after a month returned to New York.

On cross-examination he testified that his stay in Florida was in “May or June of 1938.” To summarize Chambers’ testimony:

About April 15 – broke with Party and moved from Mount Royal Terrace to Old Court Road.

About May 15 – obtained translation from Willert and left for Florida by automobile.

About June 15 – returned from Florida.

One of the grounds urged for a new trial in 1952 was the discovery of new evidence that Chambers’ story, as to the date of his break with the Communist Party, was untrue. This evidence showed that Chambers had received his translation from Willert prior to March 1938, and that negotiations for the job had been going on for a few months prior to that.

In fact, Willert affirmed that when he met Chambers “at the end of 1937 or at the very beginning of 1938,” Chambers was strongly anti–Communist and a victim of Communist persecution, an unlikely state of mind for a man who was transferring secret documents from Hiss to Bykov. Since Chambers had tied the date of his break with the Communist Party to a date before he secured a translation from Willert, this new evidence would put Chambers’ break with the Party well before April 15th and probably well before March 15th. Willert’s affidavit established that a portion of the manuscript was given to Chambers in Willert’s office and that a second portion was mailed to Chambers in Baltimore on March 18, 1938. This was two full months before Chambers had testified that he received the assignment for the translation.

Indeed, on April 12th, Willert sent a check to Chambers for $250 and apologized that the check had been sent “rather belatedly.” And, on May 3rd, Chambers wrote to Willert, from Florida, saying that he had not been at his Mount Royal Terrace address “for more than a month.” Furthermore, an affidavit from Dr. Gumpert, the author of the book Chambers was translating, states that Chambers “was hiding from the Russian Secret Service” as soon as he was engaged as translator, which he estimated would have been shortly after the first of the year, 1938.

The motion for a new trial called for a new examination of the facts by the FBI. The FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] documents include a 31-page memorandum from [J. Edgar] Hoover to Assistant Attorney General McInerny, dated February 5, 1952, analyzing the motion. The part of the memorandum relating to this branch of the motion summarizes the defense exhibits and then says:

Our Baltimore office has been instructed to interview Chambers as to this discrepancy and the points raised by the defense as to the date of Chambers’ break with the Party as reflected in the affidavit and exhibits accompanying the motion for a new trial.

The FBI report on the ensuing interview with Chambers on February 6, 1952 reads, in part, as follows:

CHAMBERS previously testified and was of the opinion that he first contacted Mr. PAUL WILLERT of the Oxford University Press in New York City, through CHAMBERS’ old friend, Professor SCHAPIRO of Columbia University, to obtain a book translation job after his break with the Communist Party. From documentary evidence presented by the defense in connection with its motion for a new trial, CHAMBERS now believes he must have been mistaken in this regard. CHAMBERS now believes that he must have contacted WILLERT through SCHAPIRO prior to his break with the Communist Party and in preparation for such break. Although CHAMBERS does not have any clear recollection in this regard, he believes that he contacted WILLERT regarding the translation job at least once and possibly twice before the trip to Florida. Again, although CHAMBERS cannot recall it clearly, he believes that he must have gone to New York and contacted WILLERT while the CHAMBERS family was still residing at 2124 Mount Royal Terrace, Baltimore, and possibly a second time while the CHAMBERS family was living at the Old Court Road address. (Emphasis added)

Neither the defense nor the court was ever advised, in the course of the new trial proceedings, that Chambers had changed his testimony. Neither was the defense advised of an interview between the FBI and Prof. Schapiro at the time of the new trial motion. Schapiro was uncertain as to the date on which Chambers came to him to ask for aid in getting a translation, but he was clear enough as to the sequence of events. He told the FBI that, late in 1936, he sought to convince Chambers to leave the Communist Party. Chambers refused, and Schapiro did not “see Chambers again until the spring of 1938, the exact time of which he could not recall, when Chambers came to his home in New York City and told him he had broken with the Party and requested some assistance in securing a translating job. At this time Shapiro [sic] consulted Willert of Oxford University Press and secured a translating job for Chambers.” The FBI decided at this point that “an affidavit from Schapiro would be of no consequence.”

[Assistant U.S. Attorney] Myles Lane took the position, in arguing the motion for a new trial, that Chambers’ statement of the sequence between his breach with the Party and his obtaining of a translation was “offhand,” and the court accepted this argument. The new FOIA documents, however, make it abundantly clear that this was far from true. In the preparation of Chambers [by the FBI as a witness against Hiss], preparing his testimony with great care and over a period of many days, [Chambers] said in language which was quite clear:

After my break, I moved with my family from 2116 Mt. Royal Terrace to a house on Old Court Rd. on the outskirts of Baltimore, where we lived in one room for about one month.

Dr. Meyer Schapiro, whom I have previously mentioned in this statement, recommended me to one Paul Willert, an Englishman who was an officer in the Oxford University Press. Willert was described by Schapiro as an absolutely reliable non–communist. Willert got me a translation job through the firm of Longmans Green, which was an affiliate company of the Oxford Press. Willert also gave me an advance for this translation.

And Murphy, writing in his personal notebook, summarized the testimony he expected to adduce from Chambers on this subject, as follows:

Immediately after his defection in April of 1938, he went to New York and saw Dr. Meyer Shapiro [sic], informed him that he had broken away from the Party and was desirous of obtaining some translation work.

In the same notebook is the intended testimony of Schapiro which says that he broke off his association with Chambers “until 1938 or 1939, when he learned that Chambers had broken with the Party.”

Two other documents have been supplied to Hiss by the FBI, both of which repeat the sequence of events that Chambers had recited so often since producing the Baltimore Documents – namely, that after breaking with the Party in April 1938, he went to see Dr. Schapiro, who in turn recommended him to Willert.

With the FOIA disclosures, we now have statements of Chambers and Schapiro corroborating Willert and Gumpert, which fix clearly a sequence of events altogether consistent with Chambers’ trial testimony on a crucial point in the case. The recantation by Chambers of his testimony was concealed from the defense and the court, although it was clearly relevant and should have been spread upon the record for whatever consideration the court might choose to give to it. The fact is that Chambers’ conflicting statements surrounding his break with the Party, over a period of many years, were so extensive and varied that full presentation to the jury might well have made a decisive difference in its verdict.

This section of the website makes available four statements by Whittaker Chambers, from 1942 to 1946, in which he consistently maintains that he left the Communist Party in 1937. More evidence supporting this date was made public with the release of the Hiss case grand jury minutes in October 1999. Grand jury testimony by Meyer Schapiro reaffirms the sequence of events established in Hiss’s 1952 Motion for a New Trial – that Chambers had obtained his translation work from the Oxford University Press only after his break with the Party.