The Prothonotary Warbler

One of the many fascinating sidelights of the Hiss case was how this rare bird became one of the more enduring symbols of Cold War treachery.

It happened before HUAC in August 1948, when Hiss’s answer to a question about whether he had ever seen a prothonotary warbler convinced many people that Hiss was lying about his relationship with Whittaker Chambers.

Chambers had testified publicly on August 3 that he and Hiss had been close friends while both were members of the Communist Party in the 1930s. On August 5, Hiss testified that although Chambers had a certain familiarity, he didn’t know anyone by that name. He also denied being a Communist and asked that the committee arrange a face-to-face meeting with Chambers as soon as possible.

prothonotary warbler (photo by Dominic Sherony)

Prothonotary Warbler (Photo by Dominic Sherony, Flickr via Wikipedia)

Instead, the Committee met with Chambers alone, in executive session, on August 7. To bolster his claim that he knew Hiss, Chambers offered a number of details about Hiss’s life (many of them wrong). One of the things he said was that Hiss was an amateur ornithologist and had once mentioned seeing a prothonotary warbler, a prized sighting for a bird watcher.

According to a story told to Hiss biographer Meyer Zeligs by former HUAC investigator Donald Wheeler, the Committee was convinced that Chambers, not Hiss, was telling the truth and became fearful that Hiss might remember his mentioning the bird to Chambers but would deny it if he were asked directly. Wheeler said a plan was constructed, whereby the next time Hiss testified before HUAC (which turned out to be the 16th), McDowell, a bird watcher himself, would casually ask Hiss about his hobby during a break in testimony. That way they could “trap” Hiss into confirming Chambers’ testimony.

McDowell did so, and when Hiss’s response, that he had seen the bird, was subsequently leaked to the press (his testimony was also taken in secret), it appeared to many people that HUAC had caught him lying when he denied knowing Chambers.

Lost amidst the leaks was a different story, in which Chambers later indirectly confirmed that it was Hiss who had been telling the truth. Chambers had told the committee for the first time on August 7 that Hiss did not know him by the name of Chambers, but rather as “Carl.” A few days later, Hiss realized he had known Chambers, but not as Chambers or “Carl,” but rather as a freelance writer he had befriended for a while named “George Crosley.” Later, however, Chambers conceded he might have used the name George Crosley.

How well had the two men known each other? Hiss, in his book, In the Court of Public Opinion, maintained that as an avid bird watcher he would have told even casual acquaintances about his rare sighting of a prothonotary warbler.

McDowell underscored Hiss’s contention during the televised confrontation between Hiss and Chambers on August 25, when he said, “I would like to point out Mr. Chairman….that….to discover a rare bird or an unusual bird or identify a bird that many other people have seen is a great discovery in the life of an amateur ornithologist. You can usually recall almost everything around it. It is like winning the ball game or the yacht regatta. You can recall the time of day, how high the sun was, and all the other things.”