David Levin (1994)
David Levin, celebrated for his studies of American historians and of the Salem witch trials, here looks at some of the documents that Allen Weinstein claimed show Alger Hiss to be guilty, finding that they instead point to the opposite conclusion, resulting in a book characterized by “grave malfeasances.” (This is the second of Levin’s three close readings and textual analyses of Hiss-case books on this site.)
“Gaps in the Narrative of the Hiss Case”
by David Levin
From Prospects, An Annual of American Cultural Studies, Vol. 20, 1994
A 1993 article in The Washington Post about responses to David Brock’s The Real Anita Hill argues persuasively that neither the authors nor reviewers of such books are likely to be disinterested. Yet Howard Kurtz oversimplifies when he asks, “Can reviewers fairly evaluate an investigative work that builds its case upon a mountain of disputed facts and assertions? Or must the debate be relegated to a tiny circle of experts, endlessly hashing over arcane details” as in “some modern-day Hiss case?”
The choice need not be so stark. Reviewers cannot evaluate fairly unless they consider details. If they don’t read debates of the experts, they may choose to avoid the tedium of complex cases by relying on the reputation of a single expert. That seems to be what two of the best national newspapers have done in recent years about the Alger Hiss case – even while striving to report fairly.
Suppose, however, that one can prove grave malfeasances in the work of that single expert. What if he has distorted, even reversed, the meaning of clear documents that show Hiss and his attorneys trying to cooperate with the FBI while preparing for trial? What if he has neglected other documents that challenge his accusation of a conspiracy to conceal evidence, not only by Hiss but by Hiss’s chief attorney?
Let us begin with the startling announcement by a Russian general in October 1992. When General Dmitri Volkogonov, a biographer of Josef Stalin, declared in 1992 that he had been unable to find any evidence implicating Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent between the mid-1930s and 1948, both The New York Times and The Washington Post followed what seems to have become conventional practice since 1976. They seek and report, along with any new development concerning the Hiss case, an immediate response by Allen Weinstein, the author of Perjury (1978). They don’t consult John Chabot Smith, the reporter who covered the Hiss trials for the New York Herald Tribune in 1949-50, and whose 1976 book, Alger Hiss, the True Story, elicited the famous review in which Weinstein declared that Hiss had been guilty of espionage and perjury, whereas Whittaker Chambers, Hiss’s accuser, had “told the truth.” When Peter Irons’ pursuit of information under the Freedom of Information Act forced the FBI to reveal in 1976 that Chambers had secretly acknowledged a long series of compulsive homosexual liaisons with anonymous partners, Allen Weinstein was thus enabled to get his interpretation of the news into the very stories that first reported the facts.
Although neither Weinstein nor other doubters had privileged access in 1992 to the files of Soviet intelligence, they all promptly agreed that General Volkogonov and his staff could not have made a reliable search of the vast record in the two or three months since John Lowenthal had asked the general to investigate. One could argue that General Volkogonov has at least as good a sense of where to look as any of these Americans; since Weinstein (in Perjury) contends that the USSR hoped to gain an advantage in 1945 by nominating Alger Hiss to be the first Secretary General of the United Nations, one might also assume that seeking evidence about Hiss in the Soviet records should be less difficult than looking up an obscure apparatchik. Yet the outcry of Hiss’s detractors, in October 1992, apparently persuaded General Volkogonov to narrow the range of his statement, and even Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation, conceded what Hiss’s defenders have argued from the beginning: Nobody can prove the negative.
My favorite illustration of that truth is Huckleberry Finn’s immortally fallible logic: “Jim says that bees don’t sting idiots, but I know that isn’t true, because I’ve tried it lots of times and they don’t sting me.” The absence of a document does not prove that none exists. Just as I found in the prosecution’s files, 16 years ago, a memorandum that detoxifies one of the most damaging documents quoted against Hiss by Allen Weinstein in The New York Review of Books and again two years later in Perjury, so an incriminating paper could possibly exist somewhere. Incriminating papers could also have been destroyed. But the very impossibility of proving that a document does not exist gives our legal system one of its strongest reasons for presuming that a defendant is not guilty.
Why review details of the Hiss case nearly half a century after the verdict? As Alger Hiss, at age ninety, insists that he was neither a spy nor a perjurer, the collapse of the Soviet Union has led some scholars to hope that relevant papers in Soviet files might be released, as FBI files were made available in the 1970s. Richard Nixon, who had first won national attention by pursuing Hiss for the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), resigned the Presidency to avoid impeachment in 1974, and a year later the Supreme Court of Massachusetts readmitted Hiss to the bar. The release of FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act, the books by John Chabot Smith and Allen Weinstein in 1976 and 1978, John Lowenthal’s documentary film about the case in 1980, and Hiss’s petition for a writ of error, filed in 1978 – all these elicited long discussions of the issues three decades after Whittaker Chambers had first publicized his accusations in sworn testimony before HUAC. Twenty-six years after Hiss’s conviction, Allen Weinstein’s endorsement of the verdict was reported on the front page of The New York Times. The federal courts did not finally reject Hiss’s petition until 1983, and then Hiss published his Recollections of a Life in 1988. Reports and reviews of these events and books kept the old case alive through the 1980s, and the dissolution of the USSR led John Lowenthal to ask General Volkogonov to help settle the central question in 1992.
The sustained intensity of the old controversy burns visibly on the cover of the National Review for January 18, 1993. Clad in a black cape, with a red lining that matches the blood-dripping letters in which his name is written, a caricature of Alger Hiss, with fangs protruding down across both sides of his lower lip, dominates the cover, which spells out the allusion to Dracula in the sardonic title: “Bram Stoker’s Alger Hiss: Lies Never Die.” Inside, the vampire reappears at the opening of the first paragraph, as a black-and-white drawing of Hiss in a satin-lined coffin, and a subheading complains, “Western press reports of General Volkogonov’s revelations and retractions are like the old shell game: Keep your eye on the Kremlin files (which may have been destroyed), and ignore the massive evidence we have.” To refute General Volkogonov, then, Jacob Cohen’s article “The Hiss File: Innocent After All?” relies chiefly on Allen Weinstein’s “mighty account of the Hiss Case, [which] remains unshaken 15 years after its publication.” Cohen declares that Chambers’s testimony “has found triumphant vindication” on “every salient point” that Hiss “chose to challenge.”
Three of the main sources of such intensity seem to me to be the bitter disagreements among leftists and liberals about Stalin in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s; the shifting, complex alignments of liberals and conservatives regarding Richard Nixon, the Cold War, and the exposure or recantation of former Communists in the national government and the universities; and neoconservative attitudes toward the Cold War and Soviet aid to leftist revolutions during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Reviews of the evidence in recent years often include attacks on an antagonist’s allegiance: in the National Review’s caricature, John Lowenthal thus becomes “a longstanding Hiss groupie described in the press as a historian and filmmaker”; General Volkogonov, a “propagandist and apologist.”
For aging civil libertarians, even a few who believe that Hiss had been involved in Chambers’ schemes in the 1930s, one source of continuing interest in the case is the nature of Hiss’s indictment. Everyone on both aides of the controversy agrees that prosecution for espionage had become impossible by the time Chambers confessed to that offense and accused Hiss of it. Too much time had passed; a statute of limitations prohibited the charge of espionage after three years. In a transparent effort to evade the purpose of that statute, U.S. attorneys therefore induced Hiss to commit what they regarded as a new crime, when they elicited his sworn denials of Chambers’ accusations.
A jury at his second trial in federal court convicted Hiss on two counts of perjury in January 1950, after the jury in his first trial had failed to agree on a verdict. The convicting jury decided that Hiss had perjured himself before a grand Jury in 1948, when he had denied two accusations sworn to by Whittaker Chambers: Hiss swore he had never given any classified federal documents to Chambers, who described himself as having been an underground agent of the Soviet Union in the 1930s; and Hiss swore that, until the accusations were made public in 1948, he had not met Chambers at all after January 1, 1937.
At first Chambers had sworn that Hiss’s participation in the underground had not included espionage, but in defending against a libel suit that Hiss had brought in the autumn of 1948 (and in further support of HUAC), Chambers had produced some film, several handwritten notes bearing Hiss’s initials, and 65 pages of classified documents (referred to as the Baltimore Documents, because the libel suit had been filed in Baltimore), all but one of which Chambers said had been typed by Hiss’s wife, at Hiss’s request, on the Hiss family’s typewriter in 1938. Some of the most persuasive evidence against Hiss was testimony that the Baltimore Documents and some private letters by members of the Hiss family had been typed on the same machine. The validity of that testimony, though accepted by both sides during the trials, has been challenged in recent years, but also vigorously defended.
One interesting question about the continuing debate over Hiss’s guilt asks about errors, distortions, or omissions that color any debater’s version of the evidence and the events. As I remarked long ago, the advantage in any disagreement about this case belongs to the questioner who appeals to our sense of what constitutes plausible behavior. Why would a guilty man seek out and give the court an incriminating typewriter? Why and how, on the other hand, would his accuser fabricate the documents that were apparently typed on that machine? My professional interest in historical and biographical narration obliges me also to notice that both those who believe Hiss, and those who believe Chambers, challenge the authority of their antagonists’ narratives. Just as I have questioned the convention of putting Allen Weinstein’s interpretation into the first reports of new information, so the National Review has protested that the same news accounts gave General Volkogonov’s first “exoneration” of Hiss much more credence and prominent space than it deserved, and that the press was very slow to report Volkogonov’s clarification (which the National Review called a retraction).
When this kind of wary disagreement leads a partisan or an expert to shine intense light on arcane details, the questioner’s partisanship may illuminate concealed assumptions or logical gaps in the antagonist’s narrative. Hashing over those details may thus serve historical understanding. Arguments ad hominem, as in calling John Lowenthal a Hiss groupie, are a relatively small price to pay for the vigilant skepticism of observers who study their antagonists’ treatment of the evidence.
General Volkogonov’s recent statements about Alger Hiss move me to propose a new look at some of the gaps and questionable procedures in narratives and analyses by those who believe (as I do not) that Alger Hiss was guilty. When I first wrote about the case in the 1970s, I tried to illuminate it by comparing the rhetoric and some of the narrative strategies of Hiss, Chambers, and Richard Nixon in their respective memoirs. In reviews of Allen Weinstein’s Perjury and In Re Alger Hiss, Hiss’s brief supporting his petition for a writ of error, I posed some questions about some of Weinstein’s historiographical procedures. Now I follow up those questions with further study of the narrative in Perjury, doubting, if not shaking, its mighty standing as, in the words of Eric Sundquist, “the definitive account” of the case, the “conclusive portrait of Hiss’s guilt [that] has never been dislodged.” Toward the end of this essay, I consider several misstatements of fact in Eric Sundquist’s “Witness Recalled” [a 1988 essay in Commentary magazine], errors which tend to inflate the value of Chambers’ book. My examination of arcane details of evidence and narrative composition may also show that, although posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan, Chambers has not yet won triumphant vindication on every salient point that Hiss elected to challenge.
The Alleged Defense Effort to Hide the Typewriter
In August 1991, I sought some of Weinstein’s documents in the Harry S Truman Library. I was looking especially for a letter that Weinstein had cited in Perjury, and for a memorandum that he had not cited; because of some controversy in the press in 1978 and 1979, I was also curious about several tapes of disputed interviews. More than one person whom Weinstein had interviewed for Perjury had disclaimed some statements attributed to them by Weinstein in the book, and Weinstein had insisted that tapes in his possession would support his version of the interviews. An effort by Victor Navasky to examine some of Weinstein’s evidence in Weinstein’s home had collapsed amid mutual recriminations in 1979, but Weinstein had promised to deposit the tapes and other documents in the Truman Library.
My own exchanges with Allen Weinstein had given me additional reason to look closely at his evidence. I protested in a letter to The New York Review of Books  that Weinstein’s review of Alger Hiss, the True Story, by setting Chambers’s revised account of a major episode against Hiss’s first version, had made Chambers seem more accurate than he actually was – and had done so without telling readers of any inaccuracies in Chambers’ first account, or even that Chambers had changed any of the details. Especially in a case of disputed credibility about events 12 years in the past, a fair summary ought neither to set one witness’s original recollection against the other’s revised version, nor to withhold from readers the very existence of revision.
The typewriter that Chambers said had been used to copy the Baltimore Documents had been given to Mrs. Hiss by her father, Thomas Fansler, when he had ended his partnership in an insurance agency. The Hisses said they had given away the typewriter in 1937, but Weinstein says they changed the date after they learned that all of the papers Chambers produced had been typed in 1938 – just as the Hiss defense pointed out that Chambers had revised the date of his defection from the Communist underground, changing 1937 to 1938 for the same reason. The defense says it sought to find the machine in hopes of proving that the Baltimore Documents had been typed on a different machine. FBI documents show that agents sought the Fansler machine in hopes of proving Chambers’ veracity and Hiss’s guilt.
The letter I wanted to see in the Truman Library in 1991 was one that I had questioned in my review of Perjury 12 years earlier. I had a special interest in that letter because Weinstein, without commenting on it, cites it in his book as the culminating authority for an abrupt and unexplained reversal in his argument about one of the most perplexing questions in the Hiss case: Why would a guilty defendant voluntarily give the court an incriminating typewriter? When I had raised that question in The New York Review, Weinstein had replied that Alger Hiss, having unsuccessfully tried to frustrate his own attorneys’ search for the typewriter, must have felt obliged to submit the machine in evidence after it had been found – chiefly because Hiss knew his attorneys to be respectable men. This reasoning did not seem to me persuasive when it was printed in the summer of 1976. Yet I was astonished to read in Weinstein’s massive book, less than two years later, not only that Weinstein had silently abandoned the argument, but that he had now made Hiss’s chief attorney himself, the late Edward McLean, part of the effort to slow the search for the typewriter – until the FBI, closing in on the missing machine, “forced [McLean’s] hand”!
So much for respectability. In Weinstein’s narrative, McLean continues to oppose sharing the typewriter with the court; he does not tell the court or the prosecution that he has found it. He hires an expert named Edwin Fearon, in hopes of proving that Whittaker Chambers’ documents could not have been typed on the Hiss machine. Not until Fearon’s report disappoints those hopes does Weinstein’s narrative portray the defense attorneys as willing to submit the typewriter to the court. And now, in a bizarre invocation of the same undocumented logic that he had once used to explain why Hiss had been forced to reveal the typewriter to his own attorneys, Weinstein declares that the attorneys themselves were forced to fork over the incriminating machine. In Weinstein’s 1976 reasoning, Hiss must surrender the typewriter because he knows his attorneys are honorable. In the reasoning of 1978, Hiss’s devious or scheming attorneys have “lost the option of declining to introduce the machine into evidence at the trial.” Why? Because they have shown the typewriter to Edwin Fearon!
Weinstein’s narrative says that Lloyd Paul Stryker, the independent trial lawyer who actually conducts Hiss’s defense in court, plans “a strategy of candor … as if the defense, having produced the machine, had nothing to hide in connection with it.” In the reasoning of 1976, Hiss was pretending to his own attorneys that “he had nothing to hide”; by 1978, after he has failed to conceal the typewriter’s location from them, it is they who manufacture the pretense – in identical words, none of which come from the documents.
Nowhere does Weinstein explain why the consultation of an independent expert in Pittsburgh would cancel the option of defense attorneys (whether conscientious and honorable or canny and devious) to refrain from introducing the typewriter – or any other evidence that was not subpoenaed – to the court in New York. The only document cited to support this accusation against the late Edward McLean or Lloyd Paul Stryker – the deceptive “strategy of candor” and the even more damaging “as if” – was not a letter either attorney had written but a letter Stryker had received from an unlikely source. That was the document I sought in the Truman library, Edwin Fearon’s report on Woodstock #N230099. I wanted to see Weinstein’s copy rather than the original in the files of Hiss’s defense, because some notes on Weinstein’s copy might help to explain his reasoning.
At the Truman Library, I soon learned that nothing I sought was there. Dennis E. Bilger, curator of manuscripts, gave me a list he had prepared, “Papers of Allen Weinstein,” but he assured me that Weinstein had submitted virtually nothing but two folders of general correspondence, his letters to the FBI and the American Civil Liberties Union (which had helped him get access to FBI documents under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA); an ACLU file for that FOIA case; and photocopies of FBI documents concerning Hiss and Chambers between 1940 and 1979. Nor had Weinstein, in response to several requests, executed a deed of gift, even for these papers and copies. Within the next year, I learned that Jon Wiener had independently discovered the same discrepancy between Weinstein’s actual behavior and his repeated promises.
The letters of Edwin Fearon to Stryker (there were two on April 23, 1949, though Weinstein’s note cites only one) are accessible in the Alger Hiss papers at the Harvard Law School library. Fearon regrets that his examination of #N230099 seems to yield no evidence helpful to Hiss’s defense, and he reports in some detail on his comparisons of the disputed documents and the so-called Hiss Standards. He says nothing about submitting the typewriter to the court and nothing about the defense attorneys’ strategy. Nor do Fearon’s letters bear any annotations by Hiss’s attorneys. Those letters cannot support Weinstein’s declaration that the defense had lost its options, or that the attorneys had made any decisions about what they had to hide or pretend. It might be more reasonable, indeed, for a historian to infer from Fearon’s disappointing report that the defense now had a stronger reason than ever to refrain from introducing the typewriter. Without labeling his opinion here, Weinstein has left the misleading impression that the document he has cited will support his inference. It does not.
The memorandum that I sought in the Truman Library is Edward McLean’s call for a wide-ranging search for the typewriter. In both The New York Review and Perjury, Weinstein quotes a letter dated December 28, 1948, from John F. Davis, one of the investigators for Hiss’s libel suit against Chambers, which seems to contradict Hiss’s statements to the grand jury and to McLean about the missing typewriter. Hiss had asked Davis earlier in the month, Davis reported to McLean on the 28th, to check “an old machine which he remembers he gave to Pat, the son of Claudia Catlett,” a former servant in the Hiss household. In his 1976 review, Weinstein used this quotation to argue that Hiss was deceiving his own attorneys, as well as the grand jury, about the location of the typewriter, by feigning ignorance of what he and his wife had done with the machine in 1938, and by reporting falsely that Claudia Catlett was dead. In 1978, having brought Edward McLean into the effort to obfuscate or at least slow down the search for the typewriter, Weinstein portrays McLean as dragging his feet (though here the mixing of metaphors is mine) until the FBI “forced [his] hand.” Until that happened near the end of January 1949, Weinstein writes, “the Catletts were mentioned in extant defense files only in a brief notation by McLean at the bottom of a list of things for (a private investigator named Horace] Schmahl to do.”
Two of the most highly respected reviewers of Perjury considered these charges so important that they cited John F. Davis’s report to McLean of his telephone conversation with Hiss. Not until I prepared to review Alger Hiss’s brief for a writ of error (In Re Alger Hiss), in 1979, did I learn that on the very day of Davis’s supposedly damaging report, McLean had dictated an “Outline of Investigation.” In this six-page memorandum, the second item on page 1 is “The Typewriter,” and the second subheading, still on page 1, not only tells investigators to “Check Hiss maids and their relatives,” but names “‘Clytie’ Claudia Catlett.” It is true that her sons, one of whom had actually received the typewriter, are not mentioned until the top of the next page, but they turn up far nearer to the top of McLean’s list than to the bottom. McLean was looking for the typewriter a month before the FBI supposedly forced his hand, and it seems evident that he got the names of Claudia Catlett and her sons, either directly or indirectly, from the Hisses at a time when Weinstein claims that Hiss was trying to mislead McLean as well as the grand jury and the FBI. Although McLean does report falsely that Claudia Catlett is dead, his identification of her sons by name, and his suggestion of where they might be sought out, refute Weinstein’s sinister interpretation of the false report that their mother had died.
In their brief for the writ of error in 1979, Hiss’s attorneys cite this document as part of the strong evidence that the prosecution, through Horace Schmahl’s secret reports on his work for McLean, was spying on the defense. Schmahl, it seems, had provoked the FBI’s suspicion by posing as an FBI agent during some investigations unrelated to the Hiss case, and for that reason or (Weinstein says) because he suspected Hiss was guilty, had offered to share with the Bureau information discovered while he worked for McLean. Weinstein cites an FBI agent’s report of having rejected Schmahl’s offer. Yet McLean’s memorandum turned up not “in the extant files of the defense” but in the files of the prosecution. Weinstein does not cite the memorandum here, and he declares in a footnote that the FBI’s way of locating the Catletts “remains difficult to determine from the files.” It seems almost certain that the FBI was led to seek out the Catletts, and had a lead to their whereabouts, through the memorandum of December 28th that Horace Schmahl or someone else had delivered (along with other documents) and that turned up a quarter of a century later in the files of the prosecution.
In “A Note on Documentation,” and in questioning General Volkogonov’s 1992 investigation, Weinstein says he himself and his research assistants had spent years looking through 40- to 60-thousand documents. Perhaps he overlooked McLean’s memorandum of December 28th, because nobody would have expected to find it in the prosecution’s files rather than those of the defense. Weinstein’s heavy emphasis on Davis’s report of the same date, and his shifting and weakly documented charges against both Hiss and McLean on this issue, remind us that the number of documents one examines can be less important than the care with which one reads them.
In discussing the disputed typewriter, Weinstein’s narrative rhetoric not only neglects or suppresses countervailing evidence, but prejudices the account in these pages with slanted, undocumented language. Sometimes his language may be merely slipshod rather than deliberately prejudicial, as when he reports (in a section called “The Woodstock Cover-up”) that “Hiss told McLean to inform the FBI about” a letter typed in 1933 on the missing machine, “but he did not instruct his counsel to say anything” about a defense expert’s “‘tentative conclusion'” that the letter had been typed “‘on the same machine as the Chambers documents.'” Notice that Hiss’s positive action to share the document with the FBI is thus coupled with the statement of what Hiss did not do. Perhaps that coupling prevents an unwary reader from asking why a guilty man would offer even so much as the one incriminating letter to the FBI, which (Hiss surely knew) had its own experts on typewritten documents. Then, with a single adverb (which I have italicized) in his next paragraph, Weinstein carelessly or subtly transforms his accurate report that Hiss “did not instruct” McLean to reveal the expert’s opinion; now it becomes an instruction positively not to report the opinion: “McLean followed his client’s instructions precisely. He told an FBI agent later that day about the 1933 letter and that the Fansler typewriter had been identified as a Woodstock, but ‘I did not tell him the expert’s opinion as to whether it was the identical Woodstock upon which the Chambers documents were typed.'”
Suspicious of this sleight of hand, I retrieved from the Harvard Law School Library a copy of McLean’s memorandum about this old letter and Hiss’s instructions. Not a single word indicates that Hiss gave McLean any other instruction but to show the letter “at once” to the FBI. McLean says nothing about having been told by his client to withhold or supply any information. Nor does the memorandum indicate that McLean even told Hiss about the expert’s “tentative conclusion.” Weinstein not only foists the word “precisely” onto his narrative; he also fails to report precisely the words that McLean attributes to Hiss. Since those words become important in the culmination of this little fiasco, I repeat them here:
Mr. Hiss told me at once [when I told him on the afternoon of December 6th about having found the letter] that he wanted me to bring this letter to the attention of the FBI.
I talked to Mr. Hiss about 9 A.M. on December 7 about this again. He again insisted that I show the letter to the FBI at once.
At this point in the narrative, Weinstein has not yet told the reader about Hiss’s promise to the FBI that he would “make every effort to locate … specimens known to have been typed on the Hiss typewriter” between 1933 and 1939. When he does quote that statement, three pages later, from an FBI record of the interview, Weinstein is summing up his version of Hiss’s alleged prevarication about the typewriter. He does not explain why a guilty man would make such a promise, but by stressing the presence of William Marbury (Hiss’s Baltimore attorney) at the interview, Weinstein implies that Hiss had no choice, for Marbury had recently advised Hiss to find and share such letters. Now, at last, then, Hiss’s volunteering of the 1933 letter is explained as if it had been involuntary:
Hiss’s attorneys could not withhold the newly found 1933 letter from the FBI in the light of Marbury’s advice, Hiss’s own promise, and simple common sense. But it is worth recalling that Hiss insisted to McLean that only the letter be shown to the FBI.
I am puzzled by that allusion to common sense. Simple common sense, in my version, would move a guilty man to tell defense attorneys to let the FBI, or the eventual prosecution, find the incriminating documents for themselves. Nor can I see why such a man as Weinstein describes, one who “spent that entire period pointedly” deceiving the FBI and the grand jury, and “leading the Bureau in an extensive wild-goose chase” for the typewriter, would have felt bound by a promise to share so much as one incriminating letter with the FBI. As Weinstein and many others have argued in the last 20 years, the matching of Hiss to Baltimore letters was much more costly than the typewriter to Hiss’s case.
Weinstein’s misrepresentation of McLean’s memorandum goes beyond the false report of Hiss’s verb “insisted.” McLean says that Hiss told him “at once” to show the FBI the letter on December 6th, and that Hiss insisted that he do so when they spoke again on the 7th. What Weinstein says “it is worth recalling” in his summation of the alleged cover-up is that “Hiss insisted to McLean that only the letter be shown to the FBI.” As my quotations have shown, that insistence and the italicized “only” are sheer invention, and they reverse McLean’s actual report of what Hiss had insisted upon.
The narrative of this part of the cover-up has escalated, then, from a weakened report of Hiss’s immediate instruction to show the FBI the letter – not show them the letter, as McLean did; just “inform” them about it – with emphasis on what Hiss did not tell McLean to say; next, on to what McLean, supposedly obeying Hiss “precisely,” withheld from the FBI; and finally, up to “recalling” what Hiss (we learn for the first time, as Weinstein seems to have persuaded himself) had “insisted” on keeping from the FBI.
When we read a little further into McLean’s straightforward memorandum, we see that Weinstein has cut off McLean’s account of what he did not tell the FBI – cut it off just at the point most supportive of a conspiracy to conceal. Consider now what McLean wrote just after reporting he had not told the FBI agent about the expert’s tentative conclusion, that the old letter and Chambers’ documents had probably been typed on the same Woodstock:
I did tell him, however, that I would not be unduly surprised if it turned out that that was the case. I said that if it did so develop, it was apparent to me that Chambers must have obtained Hiss’s typewriter in some fashion and that the most important thing was to prove what had happened to the typewriter. He agreed with me that that should be done and that that was a possible solution.
Weinstein does not report these lines, and he does not mention McLean’s offer, in the same paragraph, to share with the FBI in the search for the missing typewriter and for other documents. (The agent politely declined.)
Now consider, with my italics pointing to the undocumented judgments, several statements that slant the narrative to convict McLean of what has since become known as stonewalling: “McLean and other defense lawyers did almost nothing” about finding the Catletts; “Not until late January did defense attorneys begin searching intensely for the Woodstock. As late as January 21, McLean compiled still another list … which showed that the defense had at least learned Catlett’s approximate address.”
Thus McLean’s acquisition of the approximate address becomes, with the historian’s gratuitous “at least,” evidence not of successful searching but of foot-dragging. And in light of the evidence which I accidentally discovered, Weinstein’s grudging detail about an item “near the bottom of a list of things for Schmahl to do,” looks either gratuitously misleading or careless. Claudia Catlett’s name does appear at the bottom of McLean’s first page. Whether Weinstein skipped the other five pages or referred to another document, I could not learn in the Truman Library, for his copies of these documents were not there. So far as I know, he has never acknowledged the existence of McLean’s order dated December 28, 1948, or of the questions raised by McLean’s explicit order that Pat and Mike Catlett be interviewed about how to find the typewriter. On this point at least, his narrative needs to be revised, and McLean’s respectability ought to be posthumously restored.
Secret Statements By Whittaker Chambers
Throughout Perjury, the main burden of concealment falls on Hiss and the defense. Yet Hiss’s brief for his petition for a writ of error proved, with documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, that Chambers, the FBI, and the prosecution concealed from both the defense and the judge the very existence of several statements Chambers had given to the FBI. The longest of these runs to 184 pages. The defense had asked to see all such statements before the first trial, and the judge had examined the few that were actually delivered to him. Hiss’s brief protested that the deliberate concealment of others had violated a specific order of the court and had deprived Hiss of access to important discrepancies among Chambers’ various statements.
Hiss’s brief concentrates on some of the most telling discrepancies – the revelation, for example, that Priscilla Hiss had withdrawn $400 from a savings account near the very time at which, Chambers swore, he had borrowed $400 from Hiss to buy another car. At Hiss’s trial, this coincidence of numbers and dates went to argue that Hiss was still in close touch with Chambers, and still under orders from a Russian superior named Colonel Bykov, as late as November 1937. In court the prosecution and its star witness made much of the precise numbers:
Q: Not $401, or $399, but $400?
In 1979, however, one of Chambers’ secret statements of 1949, released under the FOIA, proved to have specified $500 as the sum borrowed from Priscilla Hiss. At first, moreover, Chambers had said that Colonel Bykov had offered to put up the money.
In narrating the story of the alleged loan of $400, Weinstein says nothing at all about the question of secrecy, about whether the defense was denied access to the longest narrative Chambers had given to the FBI. Nor does he mention here that the prosecuting attorney had strongly advised the FBI not to have Chambers sign the statement. Instead, Weinstein concentrates on answering Hiss’s charge that Chambers did not claim to remember the alleged loan, or the amount supposedly borrowed, until early in 1949, after the FBI (on February 7) had discovered a withdrawal of $400 from Priscilla Hiss’s savings account, dated November 19, 1937. Weinstein says that Chambers remembered the loan “without apparent prompting” on February 14, 1949, and that no evidence in FBI files reveals any communication between the New York and Washington offices on this subject during the intervening week in February 1949.
In what strikes me as an ingenious diversion, Weinstein uses Chambers’ original error – volunteering $500 as the amount he had first tried to borrow from his Soviet contact, only to be ordered to borrow the $500 from Hiss and to promise that the Soviets would repay Hiss – Weinstein uses Chambers’ very error to refute Hiss’s claim that Chambers must have first learned about Priscilla Hiss’s withdrawal of $400. In Weinstein’s narrative, nothing seems odd about Chambers’ $100 error itself, or about Chambers’s wife’s independent recollection that the money for this car had come from Chambers’ mother. These appear in Perjury as minor errors of memory.
Nor does Weinstein express the slightest skepticism about the timing of Chambers’ apparently unprompted memory. Everybody who has studied the case, even those of us who doubt his veracity or his reliability, has noticed Chambers’ extraordinarily powerful memory. That memory had recalled the transfer in 1936 of a 1929 Ford to a used-car lot and thence to a Communist. But not even under the pressure of a ruinous libel suit in the last few months of 1948, nor in the first month of 1949, had this superb faculty recalled a loan, amounting to a gift, of $500 for a 1937 Ford. Nor had this memory, challenged and threatened for several months to recover evidence of intimate friendship with the Hiss family, recalled Alger and Priscilla Hiss’s extraordinary ride from Georgetown to pick up Chambers in Northeast Washington and then take him all the way to Baltimore (in a time long before freeways) so that Priscilla could close out her entire account for him. Far from questioning Chambers’ failure to remember that ride until mid-February 1949, Weinstein does not even mention the trip. I learned about it only in 1979, when I read Chambers’ secret testimony in Hiss’s brief for the writ of error.
Weinstein’s skepticism remains dormant in the face of other anomalies in Chambers’s story about this alleged loan. To believe Chambers’ original story about this money, one must accept his statement (as Weinstein does) that Chambers considered a late-model car “essential” to his plan to defect from the Communist underground, and that as early as November 1937 (though he eventually said he had not actually defected until April 1938), he duped his Communist associates into giving him the money. Because Colonel Bykov did not have $500 with him at the time, Chambers said in his original version of this transaction, Bykov ordered him to ask Hiss for the money, and Chambers persuaded the Hisses to drive him to Baltimore so that Priscilla Hiss could close out her savings account for him. Although Chambers said Bykov gave Chambers about $2,000 two days later, Chambers testified that he had never repaid the Hisses, and that, more than a year later, in December 1938, when Chambers says he went to plead with the Hisses to leave the Communist Party, Mrs. Hiss expressed anger only about his derogatory language concerning the Soviet Union.
Not only did these supposedly close friends and unrepentant Communists – whom Chambers had duped along with their co-conspirators when he induced them to drive him to Baltimore, empty a savings account, and lend him the money for his car – fail to protest his deceit thirteen months earlier, or his failure to repay them; they fed him dinner and argued with him all night about the movement and the Moscow trials, and Alger Hiss even wept (not about the deceit or the money, but) in defense of his own “loyalty to his friends and principles”! According to Chambers, moreover, his deceit had gone far beyond the fraudulent loan. Five months after conning Priscilla Hiss out of the money, he had kept her at work, night after night, typing the documents for his “life preserver,” the last of them dated in April 1938. Yet during the farewell meeting in the following December, the Hisses had not reproached him for having used them in this way, after his own decision to defect. Nor had they expressed any anxiety or suspicion about the use he had made of those documents, typed though they were in the weeks immediately before Chambers’ sudden disappearance, which he now explained as his defection. Indeed his story requires one to believe that he, too, had forgotten those documents until he went to retrieve his life preserver in the autumn of 1948.
My double-barreled, contentious account of these anomalies aims at Weinstein’s narrative as well as at Chambers’. Perjury never connects the story of this loan with the story of that tearful farewell visit. Nor does the narrative of Chambers’ testimony indicate that Chambers connected or failed to connect them. Instead, Weinstein concentrates on elaborate refutation of Hiss’s claim that Chambers invented the loan only after the FBI had discovered the withdrawal of money from Priscilla Hiss’s account. Even here, in order to dismiss the importance of Chambers’ original error about the size of the loan, Weinstein infers that it must have been the FBI’s research into the bank accounts that persuaded Chambers to revise the amount: “Further investigation by the FBI turned up these details, and corrected Chambers’ earlier inaccuracies.” But this seeming refutation actually concedes the central point made by Hiss’s defense at the time. Even if the New York and Washington offices of the FBI had not been in touch about Priscilla Hiss’s bank account, the FBI did coach Chambers about the details before he testified in court. And since neither the defense nor the jury learned of “these earlier inaccuracies” until decades after Hiss’s conviction, the prosecution’s heavy emphasis on the exact figure of $400 did rely on the FBI’s alleged coaching of the star witness.
In Weinstein’s narrative, the burden of proof in this matter, as in many others, falls on Hiss. Several pages explore every discrepancy in Hiss’s explanation in 1949 of why and how the $400 had been withdrawn and spent in 1937. Emphasis on these discrepancies, though admittedly inconclusive, virtually begs the question by assuming that, if the money was not spent on furniture for the new house into which the Hisses were about to move, it must have been lent to Chambers. Every belated inaccuracy of Hiss is presented as another sign of his alleged deviousness; Chambers’ inaccuracies and supposed exaggerations (such as his false report that Priscilla Hiss had to close her account in order to fulfill his request) are all subsumed under the question of timing. Thus Weinstein says “there was no particular reason for Chambers,” if he already had access to the FBI report on Priscilla Hiss’s withdrawal and other records, “to have made such obvious errors about the purchase.” Here the narrative, then, virtually begs the question of whether Chambers could have invented the entire story about the Hisses’ participation in the loan for his car. Here, too, the coincidence of dates in February 1949, when Priscilla Hiss’s transactions with her savings bank became available to the FBI, receives much less attention than the coincidental dates of November 1937.
We should remember that much of the secret testimony was not released until after Weinstein’s review had already declared his belief that Hiss was guilty and Chambers had told the truth. Peter Irons, a historian doubtful of Hiss’s guilt, persuaded the FBI in 1976 to stop blocking out the words “homosexuality” and “homosexual” in an eight-page holograph statement that Chambers had secretly given the FBI on February 15, 1949, shortly before Hiss’s first trial for perjury began. (Chambers said he was sure that the defense intended to accuse him of homosexual affairs.) So far as I know, Weinstein learned of this startling development when a reporter asked him for his reaction to the news. Since he was already on record, on both network television and the front pages of national newspapers as well as in The New York Review of Books, Weinstein had every reason to try to fit the new information into the judgment he had publicized. His chief strategy in Perjury is to avoid speculation, or what he calls “innuendo,” that might weaken the value of Chambers’ testimony against Hiss.
Weinstein treats the homosexuality straightforwardly in his summary of Chambers’ early life and character, and he quotes in full Chambers’s narrative of the allegedly first liaison with another man, an indigent stranger, identified only as “a miner’s son,” who had accosted Chambers on the street in New York and had asked him for a night’s lodging. “Footloose” at the time, Chambers wrote, he had taken the young man to a hotel and had there been introduced to a sexual experience of whose very existence he had been unaware. That first experience, Chambers wrote, had opened the way for passions long repressed and now often – between 1933 and 1938, five of the early years of his marriage and four of the years of his alleged friendship with Hiss – “impossible to control.” Weinstein and Chambers even report the names of two hotels, among many anonymous meeting places, which Chambers said he had frequented in New York and Washington to meet anonymous partners. Weinstein also reports Chambers’ declaration that although the attraction to other men had persisted long after 1938, he had learned, with the discipline of newfound religious faith, to resist it.
In ascending order of importance, the deficiencies of Weinstein’s treatment of this revelation begin with an understandable reluctance to speculate. Perjury was in press before two jurors who had voted to convict Hiss declared in John Lowenthal’s film about the case that they would have voted to acquit if they had known about information concealed by the prosecution concerning the Woodstock typewriter and Chambers’ homosexuality. But other opportunity for conjecture goes unacknowledged. Perjury does not report that Chambers first described Hiss to the Un-American Activities committee as a man who “walks with a slight mince, if you watch him from behind.”
That memorable description resounds with new force when one listens to Chambers’ secret confession. In Class Reunion, the novel of Franz Werfel’s that Chambers translated in 1929, Sebastian, the Austrian narrator, tells us in his mid-forties the story of his love-hate relationship with Adler, a classmate whose evident superiority provoked young Sebastian, soon after they met, to begin what he now calls “a work of annihilation.” That work, Sebastian writes, “was to end 25 years later in the detention cell of a prison. Truly, a slow, a mysterious process of annihilation, which I myself scarcely suspected, and which I surely could not control.” Young Sebastian ridicules Adler’s ineptitude on the parallel bars and secretly, from behind, mimics “that unmistakable walk of his,” in an unsuccessful effort to impress a young woman they both admire. Sebastian believes that he is at once Adler’s close friend and secret destroyer. As he tells the story, he confesses that “I am much the same today as I was then – resentful without being aware of it.” When he sees young Adler’s naked body (he recalls after 25 years), he is awed by its “beauty.” But his destructive efforts are unambiguous. The word “annihilate” appears several times. Sebastian not only finds “this boy without guile or malice, so easy to crush, to annihilate,” but presents himself as the “arch-enemy” who plagiarizes to compete with Adler’s genuine literary talent, involves him in a suicide plot which nearly kills him, and incriminates him falsely in theft and forgery that force him to flee the city, and thus to bear the shame for Sebastian’s own crimes.
Now, of course, none of this exonerates Alger Hiss. Nor should we forget that Franz Werfel, rather than Whittaker Chambers, wrote the novel. If we underline the word “confirms,” we may even agree with Allen Weinstein that “Class Reunion confirms nothing” about Chambers’ treatment of Hiss in 1948. But surely the coincidence is extraordinary. Instead of addressing the parallels I have noted, or quoting any of the language that I have reproduced from Chambers’ translation, and without noting the heavy emphasis on fated motivation in both the novel and Chambers’ version of the actual Hiss case, Weinstein trivializes the question in two ways. He concentrates on defense attorney Harold Rosenwald’s silence about the final twist in the novel’s plot, and he argues that since Chambers did not choose the novels he translated, the plot of Class Reunion has no more significance in the Hiss case “than comparison of scenes from Bambi, which Chambers translated the year before Class Reunion, would demonstrate that the translator was a gun-shy deer.”
This reduction to absurdity neglects the obvious fact that the translator of Bambi did not become the sole witness accusing another deer of revealing hiding places to human hunters. The translator of a psychological novel told largely in the first person must enter imaginatively into the character and language of the fictitious narrator. If his own behavior and some of his language, years later, echo that narrator’s relationship to another character in the fiction, then the analogy, though it “confirms” and “demonstrates” nothing, suggests to me that the translator’s testimony ought to be regarded with an extraordinary care for corroboration. If both the fictitious narrator and the translator profess a combination of love and hate for the antagonist, even if their descriptions of that emotion do not verge on the erotic, the translator’s accusations require still closer testing.
Perjury does not acknowledge the possibility of links among Chambers’ strong attraction to other men, his description of Hiss as a man of extraordinary sweetness, his protestations of continuing affection for Hiss even while denouncing him to the FBI and HUAC, his evident dislike for Priscilla Hiss, and his description of Alger Hiss (in the alleged final interview of 1938) as a weeping defender of principle and of Priscilla as a woman who shocked Chambers not only by declaring that Stalin’s victims in the Moscow trials had been guilty, but by scorning as “mental masturbation” Chambers’s criticisms of the USSR. Weinstein quotes this language, but apparently sees no significance in Chambers’ profession of disgust for a woman who had used such imagery, at a time when Chambers’ homosexual desire, often “impossible to control” during the preceding five years, was now (Chambers said 10 years later) under his control. Perjury does not relate that profession of disgust to Chambers’ subsequent denunciation of both Alger and Priscilla Hiss, or to the vehemence of Chambers’ paradoxical claim that Alger Hiss was both tearfully loyal to Communist principles and decent enough to renounce the evil movement, if he had not been swayed by his wife’s “fanatical loyalty to the Communist Party.”
Weinstein’s treatment of the homosexual question in Perjury runs into more serious difficulty when he tries to forestall or refute interpretations that do venture to portray the consequences of Chambers’ homosexual feelings as a major source for the accusations against Hiss. In a brief section of the Appendix devoted to such interpretations, Weinstein presents a gross oversimplification of the psychoanalyst Meyer Zeligs’ Friendship and Fratricide (1967). He reports falsely that Zeligs did not give the horrors of Hiss’s childhood and youth – the father’s suicide and an older brother’s virtual self-destruction – a central role in forming Alger’s character. Then Weinstein relies chiefly on pointing out that Zeligs obviously admired Hiss and believed Hiss was not guilty of perjury or espionage, and he cites Meyer Schapiro’s unfavorable review of Friendship and Fratricide as a sufficient refutation, for Schapiro, though Chambers’ friend, is “also one of the world’s leading scholars on the subject of psychoanalysis and artistic personality.”
In the narrative itself, Weinstein accepts without question Chambers’ declaration (in the secret statement to the FBI) that he had never allowed his clandestine sexual life to complicate his life in the Communist movement. Weinstein even quotes without correction Chambers’ insistence that he had never even “thought of such relations with Hiss or with anybody else in the Communist Party or connected with Communist work of any kind,” and that no homosexual partner had ever known Chambers’ name. Weinstein gently corrects Chambers’ recollection that, “with God’s help” upon finding religion and breaking with the Communist movement, he gained control over his sexual life. By pointing out that here “Chambers’ memory may have tricked him,” for his letters of 1937-39 show no interest in religion, Weinstein not only endorses truth-telling as Chambers’ goal, but seems to express a critical alertness that prepares the reader for the narrative’s most categorical rejection of a link between homosexuality and issues in the Hiss case:
No evidence has emerged to contradict Chambers’ assertion that he never mixed the Communist Party’s secret work with his private homosexual encounters.
Some evidence of that kind had emerged nine years before anybody outside the FBI and the prosecution knew of Chambers’ secret confession. One of the excesses in Friendship and Fratricide, for which Meyer Schapiro’s review had chided Meyer Zeligs, was an anonymous affidavit (Zeligs said he knew the man’s name, had interviewed him twice, and had “extensive correspondence” with him) by a former Communist about an encounter with Chambers at a national meeting of John Reed clubs in Chicago in the early 1930s. The man said he knew Chambers’ name and had worked with him in New York. When I first read the affidavit in Zeligs’ book, and on reading it again in Schapiro’s review, I thought it hurt Zeligs’ argument more than it helped, and I still believe that anonymous testimony should not be trusted. Yet this testimony was not anonymous. The original affidavit, dated February 7, 1963, and other letters from Leon S. Herald, are in the Meyer A. Zeligs papers in the Harvard Law School Library. Although Zeligs, in deference to the revulsion that Herald said he still felt thirty years after the alleged encounter, withheld Herald’s name from his book, Herald’s identity was known to Mrs. Chambers and to a reporter for United Press International at the time Zeligs’ book was published. Herald wrote to an official at the Viking Press in 1967 to report that Mrs. Chambers had “threatened to sue me as a perjurer,” that UPI “were going to feature the news,” and that Mrs. Chambers insisted “her husband had never been in Chicago.”
Contrary to Weinstein’s declaration, this evidence had emerged before the FBI was forced to release Chambers’ own description of his casual meeting in New York with the miner’s son. The resemblance between the two narratives is striking. In Chambers’ story, the indigent young man accosts Chambers on the street in New York, and asks for a night’s lodging. In the Chicagoan’s tale, the situation is similar. The narrator says he was obliged, as a delegate from the home city, to help find a room for a visiting delegate. He observes Chambers, his former fellow worker, known to him by name, in a condition so desperately poor and in clothes so “filthy” that he pities Chambers. He rents Chambers a room in the house where he himself lives. Awakened “in the middle of the night” by the sensation of an orgasm, he finds Chambers “laboring at my penis still in his mouth.” The narrator pushes Chambers away, but is unable to speak until Chambers asks him to return the favor: “This was too much. The only words I could manage to speak were: You get out of here…. He left immediately.”
In Perjury, nonetheless, and in Chambers’ Witness, and other narratives which portray Hiss as guilty, the defense is rebuked for trying to “smear” Chambers with rumors of a lurid homosexual past. When those rumors turn out to be confirmed by Chambers’ own secret testimony, Hiss’s defense, which has repeatedly been criticized for having failed to find a plausible motive that might have impelled Chambers to accuse Hiss falsely, is asked to prove that Chambers lied again when he denied the relevance of his sexual behavior. Then the defense is asked to prove the relevance of Chambers’s revulsion against both the anonymous liaisons (which Weinstein calls “affairs”) and his former radicalism. In making that demand of Hiss’s “sympathizers,” after having dismissed Zeligs’s book, Weinstein does not even mention Zeligs’ affidavit about the encounter in Chicago. Though less sensational, the logic of this response resembles Richard Nixon’s demand for evidence when Alger Hiss, at the first televised hearing at which both antagonists appeared before HUAC, asked that Chambers’ medical history be examined for signs of mental illness. Weinstein goes so far as to quote, more than once, Hiss’s statement in 1948 to McLean that he remembered “no hint of any unnatural sex interests” – as if the smearer’s own ignorance in 1936 or 1948 contradicted or proved irrelevant what became known only in 1976. And Weinstein’s last word on the subject taunts Hiss’s presumably liberal “sympathizers” with the general improvement, since 1949, in attitudes toward homosexuals: “But attempting to ‘smear’ Chambers as a homosexual in 1977, [attorney Harold] Rosenwald’s strategy of 1949, may prove less persuasive to Hiss’s sympathizers today than it did 30 years ago.”
By thus concentrating on the threat of a smear and the lack of proof, Weinstein avoids considering the consequences of secrecy in the trial itself. Whether or not it could have been proved relevant to Chambers’ accusations, what would the release of Chambers’ secret statements have done to the jury’s evaluation of his testimony in open court, or of the defense’s expert psychiatric testimony, which Weinstein (following Thomas Murphy, the prosecutor) ridicules? Perjury was published before the two jurors were known to have declared in John Lowenthal’s film that they would not have voted to convict, but neglect of the importance of secrecy makes it much easier for Weinstein’s argument to be considered “conclusive” evidence of Hiss’s guilt. How would Chambers’ claims about the new car have held up in court, if the defense had known about the “inaccuracies” in his original story about the alleged loan? Weinstein does try to answer similar questions about the prosecution’s concealment of evidence concerning the date on which the typewriter, found by the defense, had been manufactured. But here again the selective rebuttals, in both the narrative and the 20 Appendix, give the misleading impression of completeness.
The worst consequence of neglecting the concealment of Chambers’ secret testimony is a failure to reassess his value as a witness, both in court and in Witness, the long book whose resonant title evokes admiration for the moral witness of friends, and Chambers’ own chosen role as tragic witness to critical issues in 20th-century history. Weinstein, Eric Sundquist, and many others exaggerate the moral and “spiritual courage” exemplified by Chambers’ secret confession to the FBI and by his other testimony. Perhaps they are misled by Chambers’ literary skill into accepting, at face value, the rhetoric of his self-dramatization as he presents his secret confession to the FBI. Weinstein quotes the resonant lines:
… in this case I stand for truth. Having testified mercilessly against others, it has become my function to testify mercilessly against myself.
We now know, however, that in court and in writing Witness, Chambers did not portray himself mercilessly. He withheld the secret information from both the jury and the readers of his book. In his secret statement to the FBI, moreover, he says he has come forward out of fear – virtual certainty, he declares – that the defense intends to expose his secret sexual life in open court. Here, as in his sudden decision to retrieve the documents that he called his “life preserver,” when both law firms involved in the libel suit were pressing him for more persuasive evidence, he tells the FBI that his motive is self-defense. That description of his own motives underlines a tactical statement Chambers made at least twice, but which Weinstein’s narrative understates. In 1938, Chambers told Herbert Solow that he intended to use, against the Communist movement, the very tactics it had taught him to use as a member of the underground. Perjury reports Solow’s account of that conversation and Solow’s testimony that Chambers soon apologized for having avowed such devious plans. But Weinstein deletes from Malcolm Cowley’s sworn testimony the sentence that reports an almost identical declaration Chambers made to Cowley in 1940.
Understandably, then, but surely without earning new credit for moral and spiritual courage, Chambers kept silent throughout Witness about his homosexual activity, including its relevance (as he had indelibly described it to the FBI) to tactics he expected the Hiss defense to use. Less understandable in Witness, and even less deserving of praise for moral courage, is Chambers’ repeated condemnation of Hiss’s defenders for enveloping public opinion “in a smog of smearing whispers” – some of the most lurid of which Chambers knew to be true. Similarly, the silence in Witness concerning the prosecution’s explicit request that he not sign his long summary, and concerning the kinds of discrepancy I have reviewed between his testimony in court and his original account of the alleged loan from the Hisses in 1937 – that silence cries out for extended discussion by those who praise “the example of Chambers’ spiritual courage” and his “stand for truth.”
Witness had drawn me back into the Hiss case in 1970 because of my literary interest in historical and autobiographical narrative. Chambers’ narrative made a central issue of the author’s veracity. What happens to the value of Witness if one cannot accept Allen Weinstein’s narrative as “a conclusive portrait of Hiss’s guilt”? Eric Sundquist’s essay on Witness accepts Chambers’ statement, in a letter written eight years after the book, that Witness is “chiefly a poem.” Yet Sundquist treats the book as a fundamentally truthful spiritual confession, and the force of his interpretation dissipates not only as one doubts how much spiritual courage Witness expresses, but also as one notices errors of fact.
Sundquist concedes, as Weinstein did not, that the omission of Chambers’ homosexual life “does bear on the story told in Witness,” but chiefly “by reminding us of the limits of his ‘confession,’ marking off a portion of his soul – and what he came to depict as his descent into hell – that could not be revealed.” Yet Sundquist’s evaluation requires one to believe that in the book, at least, the portion can be marked off without spiritual cost, and that several questionable or erroneous statements stand as facts. Over and over again, Sundquist says that Hiss committed treason, and at least once he declares that Chambers had committed the same crime. Apparently having forgotten that treason is one of the few crimes defined by the Constitution, and that both the definition and the evidence required for conviction are remarkably strict, Sundquist thus allows Chambers’s rhetoric to inflate the real conflict as well as the poetic version thereof.
Just as espionage and perjury would have been serious enough without being magnified into treason, so the real drama of Hiss’s ordeal was sufficiently intense in 1948, when Hiss was President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, rather than (as Sundquist says), “serving as a high official in the State Department.” Nor was President Truman, in 1948, “working behind the scenes to squelch Hiss’s power.” By that time Hiss had no power. These errors serve to validate the grandeur of Chambers’ moral crisis in 1948 and 1949, and perhaps they help uninformed readers to believe (as Sundquist apparently believes) Chambers’ claim that in 1948 he wanted “to show mercy to Hiss as an individual,” and that Chambers still regarded Hiss as a friend. Sundquist even overlooks the accusations Chambers volunteered between 1939 and 1946, to warn federal officials against some of his former associates, so that the subpoena from HUAC in the summer of 1948 (in Sundquist’s account) forced Chambers to come forth for the first time, “so deeply troubled [was he] by his own treason and then by his escape from its demands.”
Whereas Chambers himself says that his bungled attempt at suicide in 1948 (foiled, he says, only by his misreading of the instructions on a packet of agricultural cyanide) followed Richard Nixon’s rebuke concerning the authenticity of some evidence Chambers had produced, Sundquist reports that Chambers tried to kill himself “rather than carry out his destruction of Hiss.” At this point in Witness, Chambers has already turned over the deadly documents, handwritten notes, and films. Thus the alleged suicide attempt acquires a motive in Sundquist’s version that makes the bond of Chambers’ friendship with Hiss even stronger than Chambers says it was. And Sundquist does not report Chambers’s subsequent declaration that Hiss behaved in 1948 “like a complete swine. Not a very bright swine, either.”
In questioning the reliability of Chambers’ testimony in the official proceedings and in his book, I don’t claim to know what was in his mind or to deny the intensity of the grand drama as he experienced it. I do insist that the value of Chambers’s 700-page poem cannot be completely separated from the question of the author’s candor and veracity. In concluding my essay on Hiss’s narrative, I said that if Hiss remained, in 1976, a septuagenarian confidence man after all, he had at least written a strong fiction about how, in 1948, a good reputation and record could be destroyed. But Hiss’s book is not a poem or a confessional memoir. If Hiss really had committed espionage in the 1930s and perjury in the 1940s, then the basis for his narrative turns to sand.
Postscripts: Jacob Cohen, Eric Breindel, and Alger Hiss
Neither in Perjury nor in the recent brief essays by Jacob Cohen and Eric M. Breindel can one find minimal summary of Chambers’ false statements about Alger and Priscilla Hiss. The mass of incriminating evidence that Cohen summarizes in National Review includes, for example, the alleged $400 loan for Chambers’ car in 1937 – without any mention of Chambers’ first version but with heavy emphasis on Hiss’s failure to prove that the money Priscilla Hiss withdrew had been spent on furniture. Besides summarizing the argument for Hiss’s guilt in “Weinstein’s mighty account,” Cohen cites many witnesses to refute General Volkogonov’s declaration that he had not found evidence in Soviet records to identify Whittaker Chambers as a Soviet agent. I still do not find in Cohen’s mass of evidence, or in Perjury, any witness besides Whittaker Chambers who claims firsthand knowledge of Alger Hiss’s espionage.
Although I cannot explain the apparent matching of documents typed on the Hisses’ Woodstock and in Chambers’ “life preserver,” I persist in requiring positive evidence that Alger Hiss procured them for Chambers and that Priscilla Hiss typed them. My dogged skepticism in this matter proceeds from large anomalies in Chambers’ testimony, from the strength of Hiss’s record of service, and from my readings in the documents of the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. I don’t regard Chambers as diabolical, but I cannot forget the Reverend Increase Mather’s belated declaration: “The Father of Lies … mixeth Truth with Lies, that so those truths giving credit unto lies, Men may believe both, and so be deceived.” Too late, moreover, Mather added a ringing line which I endorse today: “I had rather judge a witch to be an honest woman, than judge an honest woman as a witch.”
Eric Breindel’s review of Hiss’s last book, Recollections of a Life, raises the interesting question of Hiss’s behavior in the decades since his release from prison. Convinced of Hiss’s guilt, Breindel carries down to 1988 the supposition that Garry Wills had expressed in the 1970s: that Hiss, while protesting his innocence, has remained an unrepentant Communist all along. Breindel concentrates not only on evidence of Hiss’s guilt in the 1930s, but also on what he considers Hiss’s failure to clear up several mysteries concerning the mid-1930s and the charges of perjury and espionage. Breindel does not take seriously the substance of Hiss’s life and beliefs in the 14 chapters that, for many readers, will seem at least as informative as the three brief chapters on Hiss’s “trial by ordeal” and his subsequent appeals. In Hiss’s text, Breindel finds only two glimpses of the Communist’s real beliefs: Hiss, he reports, says that the New Deal’s failure to cure the national economy was hidden by the stimulus of World War II; and in a brief chapter called “Stalin, the Enigmatic Host at Yalta,” Hiss portrays Stalin as conciliatory during the conference. Breindel does not mention Hiss’s emphasis on what made the accommodating host seem enigmatic: “a vicious dictator,” Hiss calls Stalin, “a man whose paranoid nature had led him to order the imprisonment, torture, and execution of untold numbers of his fellow citizens, a rule of terror that sought to eliminate even the hint of dissent.”
Breindel ignores the abundant evidence in Hiss’s book of hearty approval for the New Deal, and he overlooks Hiss’s rueful awareness that Hiss and other “Young Turks” both underestimated and rejoiced in the complexity of the political system they were trying to reinvigorate. Most regrettably absent from Breindel’s account of this memoir are the portraits of Alger Hiss’s heroes. To deceive the gullible, would an 85-year-old Communist spend so much of his memoir on his admiration for Felix Frankfurter, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, and Arthur Vandenberg? Would he write so sympathetically, and with no allusions to ideology, about the authority of individual prisoners, their underground system of communication, and the unofficial market in the federal prison at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he spent nearly four years? Neither the qualities praised in these exemplary figures, nor the books Hiss chose to read aloud when he served as private secretary to Justice Holmes, would mark the young man or the aging narrator as standing further to the Left than the New Dealer he claims to have been. But in the world of masks and conspiracies, of course, exculpatory evidence may be dismissed as part of the illusion.
Breindel also chides Hiss for failing once again to express a “sense of outrage, even while claiming that a miscarriage of justice destroyed his life.” Thus the reviewer, preoccupied with Hiss’s mask, misses the chief point of Hiss’s book: The career was ruined; the life was not.
1. Howard Kurtz, “A Revisionist’s Nightmare,” The Washington Post, June 10, 1993, sec. D, pp. 1, 10. The book in question is David Brock’s The Real Anita Hill, The Untold Story (New York: Free Press, 1993).
2. Allen Weinstein, Perjury, the Hiss-Chambers Case (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1978).
3. Allen Weinstein, “Was Alger Hiss Framed?” The New York Review of Books 23 (April 1, 1976): 19; The New York Times, February 1, 1976; and John Chabot Smith, Alger Hiss, the True Story (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1976).
4. Irons invoked the Freedom of Information Act. Interview with Peter Irons, Cambridge, Mass., 1976.
5. William Buckley and Richard Pipes expressed their doubts in response to reporters’ questions in the original news articles, and Weinstein added an op-ed article for the The Washington Post a few days later (October 31, 1992, sec. A, p.3; and November 4, 1992, sec. A, p. 19). John Lowenthal, a former law professor at Rutgers University, has published several articles on the case and has created a film, The Trials of Alger Hiss (1980).
6. See David Levin, “Coram Nobis,” The Nation 229 (November 17, 1979): 507; Weinstein, “Was Hiss Framed?” 18; Weinstein, Perjury, 289; and “The Hiss Case, an Exchange,” The New York Review of Books 13 (May 27, 1976): 36. [For the detoxification, see my argument on pp. 264-68.]
7. Amos Perlmutter, in an untitled box below Jacob Cohen’s “The Hiss File: Innocent After All?” National Review 45 (January 18,1993): 30-31.
8. David Levin, “Perjury, History, and Unreliable Witnesses,” Virginia Quarterly Review 54 (Autumn 1978): 726.
9. Alger Hiss, In the Court of Public Opinion (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1957); Whittaker Chambers, Witness (New York: Random House, 1952); Richard Nixon, Six Crises (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1962); and David Levin, “In the Court of Historical Criticism,” Virginia Quarterly Review 52 (Winter 1976): 41-78.
10. Levin, “Unreliable Witnesses,” 726-30; and Levin, “Coram Nobis,” 507.
11. Eric Sundquist, “Witness Recalled,” Commentary 88 (December 1988).
12. In “A Note on Documentation” (Perjury, 691), Weinstein says that “the entire archive used in preparing the book,” approximately “50,000 to 60,000 pages of material,” will be available for inspection “at the Library of Congress and the Harry S Truman Library.” Navasky and some colleagues, having flown from New York City to Washington, D.C., actually presented themselves at Weinstein’s door at the appointed time, a Sunday morning, but were turned away. Weinstein said that he had telegraphed a cancellation to Navasky’s office and home in New York on Saturday night, in protest against both what he considered unfair criticisms in The Nation and unreasonable demands concerning the meeting (see Weinstein’s explanation of the incident in “Allen Weinstein Clarifies,” Encounter 62 [March 1979]: 83-85).
13. See David Levin, “Hiss Case,” The New York Review of Books, 44-46.
14. See Levin, “Unreliable Witnesses,” 731-32.
15. Levin, “Hiss Case,” 48: Hiss, after all, was dealing with well-known lawyers to whom he was accountable…. The defense lawyers certainly would not have stood for suborning or destroying vital evidence in the case, as McLean’s willingness to keep the most damaging defense files indicates. Nor, on the other hand, could Alger Hiss have reasonably suggested to his attorneys, without destroying his credibility, that he did not want the typewriter found. He insisted, after all, that he had nothing to hide.
17. Indeed, a Bokhara rug, which Chambers had sworn he had given to Hiss as an expression of gratitude from the USSR, was not subpoenaed by the prosecution, and the defense did not volunteer a similar rug from Hiss’s household, although the defense claimed that Chambers had sent Hiss the rug as partial payment in kind for the use of Hiss’s apartment.
18. See Jon Wiener, “The Alger Hiss Case, the Archives, and Allen Weinstein,” Perspectives: American Historical Association Newsletter 30 (February 1992), 10-12; and Wiener, “Compromised Positions,” Lingua Franca 3 (January-February 1993): 41-48.
19. See MS Box 38, folder 5, in Alger Hiss Papers, Harvard Law School Library. I am grateful for the assistance of Ms. Judith W. Mellins, Manuscripts Associate, and Ms. Judy Chernoff.
20. Weinstein, Perjury, 289, 886, 387.
21. Garry Wills, “The Honor of Alger Hiss,” The New York Review of Books, April 20, 1978, p. 29; and Irving Howe, The New York Times Book Review, April 9, 1978, p. 24. Wills calls Weinstein’s procedures “impeccably fair…. He is tentative about any charges other than those brought and proved in court.” Surely Weinstein’s narratives of the alleged “Woodstock Coverup,” and the alleged loan for Chambers’ second car (to be discussed below) cannot meet this standard.
22. In an Appendix, “The Double Agent: Horace Schmahl, Mystery Man” (pp. 584-88), Weinstein denies that the FBI accepted Schmahl’s offer to work for both sides, but here again Weinstein mentions neither McLean’s memorandum of December 28th nor the prosecution’s possession of it.
23. Edward C. McLean, Letter of January 30, 1933, December 8, 1948, in Alger Hiss Papers, Harvard Law School Library.
24. See In Re Alger Hiss: Petition for a Writ of Error Coram Nobis, ed. Edith Tiger (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979), 45-48.
25. John Lowenthal, The Trials of Alger Hiss (1980).
26. This unusual phrase has reminded several commentators of Franz Werfel’s novel Class Reunion, translated by Chambers (New York: Simon and Schuster), 1929.
27. At the beginning and end of the novel, a broken man named Adler is brought before Sebastian, an administrative judge, as defendant in the murder of a prostitute. At the end, Sebastian learns that this defendant is not the classmate about whom the entire story has led him to agonize. Weinstein, too, reports the conclusion inaccurately, but he is right about the mistaken identity. By concentrating on the silences of “lawyers and psychiatrists” about such facts, he avoids treating the striking similarities in language and psychology.
28. “The rank obscenity of cultured women!” Chambers wrote in a letter some weeks after the alleged meeting. “I was more shocked to hear her use such an expression than at the charge” (quoted by Weinstein on page 264, from an undated letter to Meyer Schapiro). Another undated letter to Schapiro describes the final meeting, but neither letter names the recalcitrant couple. Chambers first described the scene to the FBI, and (so far as I know) first named Alger and Priscilla Hiss in 1945. The dating of the first letter has been the subject of some interest in the 1970s and 1980s, when some investigators sympathetic to Hiss hoped to be able to prove that Chambers had broken from the movement in 1937 (as he had repeatedly said, until he produced the packet of documents and film), before the date of the first “Baltimore Document.” Of course, Alger Hiss denies that the meeting ever occurred, and he denies that he was ever one to weep. Weinstein reports those denials in a note, but accepts Chambers’ story, as most of the jurors apparently did. The two jurors who appear in John Lowenthal’s film expressly rejected Chambers’ claim that Hiss was a Communist.
29. Leon Srabian Herald to Marshall A. Best, April 3, 1967, quoted with permission from the Harvard Law School Library. from the Papers of Meyer A. Zeligs.
30. Meyer A. Zeligs, Friendship and Fratricide: An Analysis of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss (New York: Viking, 1967), 216. The ellipsis here is in Zeligs’ text.
31. Harold Rosenwald was one of Hiss’s attorneys and advisers.
32. Sundquist, “Witness Recalled,” 58; compare William Buckley, George Will, and Jacob Cohen.
33. Article III, Section 3: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.” Neither Chambers nor Hiss levied war against the United States, and the USSR was not an enemy of the United States in the years between 1933 and 1945.
34. Chambers, letter to William Buckley, quoted in Weinstein, Perjury, 39.
35. Eric M. Breindel, “Alger Hiss: A Glimpse Behind the Mask,” Commentary 86 (November 1988): 55-58.
36. Wills, “Honor of Alger Hiss,” 30.
37. Alger Hiss, Recollections of a Life (New York: Henry Holt, 1988), 96, 125.