Charles Alan Wright (1952)

In 1973, then-President Richard M. Nixon hired Charles Alan Wright, at that time a professor at the University of Texas Law School, to represent him in his battle to keep the Watergate tapes from the public. Twenty-two years before, Wright wrote an article in the University of Minnesota Law Review, in which he declared that the conviction of Alger Hiss was a miscarriage of justice. In 1952, he again took issue with the verdict, this time in a review of Witness that appeared in Saturday Review.

Witness: A Long Work Of Fiction”

By Charles Alan Wright

Saturday Review, 1952

In the minds of most people, all doubt as to the innocence or guilt of Alger Hiss came to an end when the jury in the second Hiss trial brought in a verdict of guilty. The public and much of the press, taking it as an article of faith that the jury verdict represents ultimate immutable truth, have combined to ridicule those in whose minds there still remains doubt, and to pillory those who refuse to turn their backs on Alger Hiss.

I do not share this blind faith in juries. I think Hiss is innocent. And I am sure that if the verdict was right and he is guilty, it is the purest chance that the jury guessed the correct answer. A good way to see how the jury could go astray is to compare the trial record with accounts written at the time by top newspaper reporters. Time and again such accounts show that these men failed to understand important testimony. If, with all their training, the reporters couldn’t grasp intricate evidence, how could the untrained jurors be expected to do better?

One of the most fundamental problems in a case of this sort is that, for all our fine legal doctrine to the contrary, in fact the burden of proof was on Hiss to prove his innocence, rather than on the Government to prove him guilty. Further, we seem deliberately to make it as difficult as possible for a jury to reach a rational verdict. We forbid taking notes by jurors, we deny them a copy of the trial record when they enter upon their deliberations. But perhaps these hobbles placed on the jury should come as no surprise in a society which takes pride in the image of Justice wearing a blindfold.

After reading this book, I am convinced that Mr. Chambers is the author of one of the longest works of fiction of the year. The tip-off about the book is that it is too persuasive – on close examination, it becomes obvious that the author is not a detached teller of truth but rather a pitchman seeking to put across a bill of goods.

It is a too-well-scrubbed Chambers who is depicted here. Many of the lies, eccentricities, and immoralities in his past are forgotten, which hardly fits in with the air of complete candor the book tries so hard to convey. At the same time his “enemies” – i.e., anyone who doesn’t believe his story – are pictured as either snobs or Communists. In this connection, he manages to damn such people as Justice Frankfurter and Dr. Carl Binger by an ingenious guilt-by-remote association technique which stops just short of the libel laws.

Another giveaway about this book is that Chambers, like the Queen in Hamlet’s play, protests his innocence too much. In doing so, he displays a remarkable attitude toward evidence. On the one hand, he is fond of referring to mysterious unnamed witnesses who have confirmed his story, although, regrettably, they have never given their testimony in public, On the other hand, real honest-to-goodness testimony, which the public can study, is treated in a peculiar manner. An example is Chambers’ account of a trip to Peterborough, N. H., which was thoroughly disproved at the trial. The author makes the astonishing statement that the proven discrepancies in his tale show he was telling the truth, since “obviously, if I had been lying, I would have taken care to contrive a better story.” This is not the only example of this wonderful heads-I-win, tails-you-lose approach.

The trouble with a book that tries to explain away unfavorable evidence is that it can’t explain evidence which comes to view after the book is written. Chambers’ claim that he hired his maid on the suggestion of his landlady looks ridiculous in the light of the recent affidavit by a relative of the landlady that Chambers had no maid when he was living in the apartment in question. And of course this book went to press too soon for him to explain away the scientific testimony which Hiss’s attorneys have recently gathered, demonstrating that the State Department documents were not typed on the old Hiss typewriter, and that they were not stored away for ten years in the manner Chambers claims.

Whittaker Chambers does give in this book a very moving and heartening account of his return to religion, and of the comfort he has found in his new faith. Perhaps, then, he will not take amiss the suggestion that he would do well to study the Ninth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness…”