Jeff Kisseloff (1978)

In 1978, Hiss-case researcher Jeff Kisseloff, who, like Allen Weinstein, had access both to released FBI documents about the Hiss case and the Hiss defense files, analyzed the documentary evidence presented by Weinstein in his book, Perjury. Kisseloff in this essay takes a point-by-point look at some of Weinstein’s arguments and uses Weinstein’s own source material to challenge them.

Allen Weinstein’s claim to have found documentary evidence of Hiss’s guilt in the files is erroneous. What he has plucked so efficiently from the files is a lot of hearsay, which by no means constitutes evidence, but rather is simply indicative of the investigative process. He also repeatedly lifts quotations out of context and sets them down in a manner which makes them appear more important than they really are.

One example is a letter from the Hiss defense files that Weinstein claims proves that Hiss knew where the Woodstock typewriter was in early December 1948, at the time when he was telling the grand jury and the FBI that he did not. This typewriter was, according to Whittaker Chambers, the one used by Hiss’s wife, Priscilla, when she typed copies of documents that Hiss had secretly removed from the State Department.

The evidence which Weinstein finds so persuasive, and has consistently cited in his public discussions of the case, is a letter dated December 28, 1948 from Hiss’s Washington attorney, John F. Davis, to Hiss’s attorney in New York, Edward McLean. Davis wrote, “Alger had called me on the first day public hearings were resumed before HUAC here [Dec. 7] and asked me to check on an old machine he gave to Pat, the son of Claudie Catlett [a former maid of the Hisses].”

On its face, the Davis letter is ambiguous, and does not, as Weinstein claims, demonstrate that Hiss knew on December 7th what had happened to the old Woodstock. The letter reports that Hiss remembered giving an old machine to the Catletts, not the Woodstock. The Hisses had at least three typewriters from 1933 to 1947.

Furthermore, a defense memorandum dated December 28, 1948, entitled “Outline of Investigation,” confirms that Hiss had no clear recollection of what happened to the old Woodstock, and that his suggestion to Davis, that it had been given to the Catletts, was only one among several possibilities that Hiss had suggested to his attorneys, and thus not indicative of a conclusive recollection.

The document lists under the caption, “What Happened to the Typewriter,” five investigative leads which the defense planned to pursue:

(i) Check all typewriter dealers and repairmen in Washington, Baltimore, Westminster, and Lynbrook

(ii) Check Hiss maids and their relatives…Catletts

(iii) Relatives and friends of the Hisses to whom it may have been given

(iv) Charities, such as the Salvation Army and self-help organizations

(v) Hiss remembers that he reported a theft to the Washington police in 1939 or 1940…. This should be checked.

Another defense document, one which Weinstein notes in his book but for different reasons, is dated January 21, 1949. It is entitled “Oral Report from Mr. Schmahl Today” and is an account of the activites of Hiss’s investigator, Horace Schmahl. This document notes that Schmahl (a mole who was illegally informing the FBI of his findings) “has checked all typewriter stores in Washington, Baltimore, Westminster, Lynbrook, and Rockville Center. No trace of the Woodstock.”

Both documents demonstrate that, contrary to Weinstein’s assertion, Hiss could not remember what had happened to the old Woodstock, and that when he told the grand jury that he had “no independant recollection” of the disposition of the typewriter, he was being truthful.

In a chapter entitled “The Evasions,” Weinstein attempts to prove that espionage charges were leveled against Hiss by Chambers as early as 1939. According to Weinstein, these charges were made during a meeting that Chambers had with then-Assistant Secretary of State, Adolf Berle. Weinstein also claims that when Berle told the House Committee in August of 1948 that espionage was not an issue, and that Chambers said only that the Communist Party was merely trying to develop a group of sympathizers in the government, he was deliberately misleading the committee in order to aid the reelection campaign of Harry Truman.

Weinstein suggests that if Berle’s testimony was true, it would have served to “dampen considerably the overheated climate of HUAC’s investigation.” He asserts that Berle’s memorandum of his conversation with Chambers (which was introduced into evidence at both trials by the government) contradicts his HUAC testimony. He writes, “Nor did Berle’s 1939 memorandum describe a collection of communist sympathizers casually collected in an innocuous study group. It proceded name by name, department by department, to show that Chambers had stressed actual espionage already committed rather than the mere possibility of future action or secret involvement with espionage.”

If Weinstein had been a little more careful in his perusal of the defense files, he might have seen a memorandum written by Hiss’s attorney, Chester Lane, on December 15, 1950, two years after the Truman campaign. The memorandum is of a conversation between Lane and Berle on that date. A portion of the conversation is excerpted below:

… As to the discrepancy between the notes and his House Committee testimony, he says that it was not as serious as it would appear on the surface. Chambers seemed to him a man who honestly believed what he was saying but was incapable of standing up under questioning on any matter, and generally gave the appearance of a crackpot. Thus, Chambers started by referring to various people including the Hiss brothers as communists (whence came Berle’s CP notations), but in the course of the conversation his definiteness faded out, and he admitted that he meant no more than that they were the kind of people whom the Communist Party had tried to interest generally in the communist point of view. Berle believes that his testimony before the House Committee accurately reflects the sum of his conversation as a whole, whereas his notes, made currently as the conversation went on, rather than as a careful resume prepared afterwards, merely reflect statements which Chambers made at one point or another but then failed to stand to.

One piece of triple hearsay cited by Weinstein has since Perjury came out been accorded much attention by the press. This involves Weinstein’s revelation that Czechoslovakian historian, Karel Kaplan, told him that he had read a record of the Hungarian police’s interrogation of Noel Field. Kaplan allegedly told Weinstein that Field named Hiss as an underground agent during the questioning. Field was a friend of Hiss’s and a former member of the State Department, who, after World War II, was arrested by the Hungarian Communist regime’s secret police. He spent the next five and a half years in prison. During that time he was tortured and held in solitary confinement, and there is evidence that anything he might have said about Hiss was simply an attempt by Field to appease his interrogators.

For a more accurate assessment of Field’s feelings, we can turn again to the Hiss defense files, which again provide a striking rebuttal to Weinstein’s revelation in the form of a letter written to Hiss by Field in the 1950s. Weinstein mentions this letter briefly, but chose not to include the following paragraph in his book:

Having just finished your absorbingly interesting book, In the Court of Public Opinion, I am taking the occasion to congratulate you on its amazingly dispassionate presentation and analysis of the “Hiss Case.” Your determination to let the facts speak for themselves, and the absence of all special pleading, are the more impressive when one bears in mind the ordeal in fighting false charges that has disrupted your life and brought pain to you and your family – to use your own refrained understatement. I hope and trust that your book will powerfully assist in at long last bringing to fruition your undaunted struggle for vindication.”

The letter (and this paragraph in particular) does not lend itself to the idea that Field believed Hiss was a Russian agent, and no doubt is the reason why Weinstein didn’t include it.

Weinstein notes that Elizabeth Bentley, another self-proclaimed former spy, told the FBI in 1945 about a Soviet agent who was an advisor to Dean Acheson. According to Bentley, another person had told her that this person’s name was Hiss. Weinstein claims that this statement offers independent corroboration of Chambers’ story. He neglects to point out that, in subsequent FBI interviews, Bentley admitted her information was very vague, so much so that she refused to make a statement on the matter. Moreover, she insisted that the first name of the person to whom she was referring was Eugene, not Alger. To the Bureau’s dismay, she refused to budge from this position. Bentley was not called to testify at either Hiss trial.

Weinstein claims that photographers William Edward Crane and Felix Inslerman corroborated important aspects of Chambers’ story about his underground activites. For both of these men, this is true only in the narrowest sense. Crane was at one time considered by the government to be one of the most important witnesses at the Hiss trial. His disagreements with Chambers, however, over important details of their stories, were so extensive that they could not afford to put him on the stand.

Inslerman refused to testify in 1949 about his alleged involvement with the case. However, after considerable pressure by the FBI, he consented to testify before a McCarthy sub-committee in 1954. He admitted doing photography work for Chambers, but he insisted that he did such work only on five occasions. Chambers had testified that Inslerman photographed the Hiss documents once a week or every ten days, for almost a year. Neither witness had anything substantial to offer regarding Chambers’ testimony concerning Hiss. If anything, their statements suggest that Chambers was lying.

Weinstein also wrongly asserts that Julian Wadleigh supported much of Chambers’ story. Wadleigh (who was known to the defense, unlike Crane) was a former employee of the State Department who admitted giving documents to Chambers “on one or more occasions.” As it was with Crane, in their pre-trial statements, he and Chambers disagreed on so many details that the prosecution was reluctant to put him on the stand. They only did so because they were afraid that the defense would have called him. Fortunately, for the government, the defense had no idea that Chambers and Wadleigh were in such conflict over their stories, so, for the most part, the government’s coverup was successful.

A noteworthy exception occurred when they both mentioned a meeting with Colonel Bykov, the shadowy figure who was allegedly Chambers’ superior in the underground, and the man to whom the secret documents were allegedly passed. After they both told the FBI that Wadleigh had never met Bykov, they both reversed their stories and insisted that he had. The only problem was that Wadleigh recalled that Bykov had only one arm, while Chambers insisted that he had two.

In a matter relating to this mysterious Colonel Bykov, Weinstein makes another error that indicates also how he prefers to overlook inconsistancies in Chambers’ statements to the FBI. Weinstein says that Chambers first mentioned Bykov in his testimony before the grand jury on October 15, 1948. Actually, Chambers first discussed Bykov by name in his May 13, 1942 interview with the FBI. It is important to note, however, that at this time, Chambers did not claim that Bykov was his boss, but rather merely someone to whom he was introduced. The following is an excerpt from the May 1942 report on Chambers’ interview:

He stated that Peter had connections with the OGPU because he [Chambers] had met members of the OGPU in Peter’s presence…. He stated that one of the individuals was Boris Bykov who was once Krivitsky’s assistant in Italy.

The next line of the May 1942 statement, while not related to the subject of Boris Bykov, provides another example of serious errors by Chambers which go unmentioned by Weinstein. It says: “He stated it is the principle of the underground that no one knows the other comrades’ real names.” Throughout both trials, Chambers insisted that while he was associated with the Hisses in the Communist underground, the Hisses were always known by their real names.

Since Chambers claimed that a close relationship existed between his family and the Hisses, it was the goal of the FBI and the prosecution to demonstrate that this was true. Chambers testified to knowing numerous details about the Hisses’ domestic life. He also told of various trips and other shared experiences. Both the FBI and defense files reveal many instances in which Chambers’ claims were proved groundless. Other times, his recollections underwent considerable revisions before they were finally corrected. It now appears that the source of much of Chambers’ information concerning the Hisses was the FBI.

Weinstein believes that the information made available by the files demonstrates that a close relationship really did exist, and he cites several incidents to support his thesis.

Chambers and his wife, Esther, claimed that while they stayed at the Hiss residence in 1935, Esther and Hiss’s wife Priscilla, together visited the office of the Hiss family pediatrician, Dr. Margaret Mary Nicholson. This was denied by the Hisses, and in 1949, Dr. Nicholson was asked by the defense to check and see if a record of any visit by Esther Chambers existed. After the request, she called Mrs. Chambers on the telephone to ask her permission to release her records to the defense. Weinstein contends that this phone call “confirmed a visit to her office by Mrs. Chambers in 1935.” This is untrue. An FBI report dated June 6, 1949 clearly demonstrates that the phone call to the Chambers’ farm was made before she made any attempt to locate a record of Mrs. Chambers’ visit. Mrs. Chambers did agree to the release, but no record of any visit was ever found.

At the trials, there was a great deal of testimony concerning a Bokhara rug that Hiss received from Chambers. Hiss was the first to mention the rug. He told the House Committee in August of 1948 that Chambers had given it to him as part payment for some loans and rent sometime before June 1936.

Chambers picked up on the story in his December 8, 1948 signed statement for the FBI. At that time, he claimed that, on the orders of Colonel Bykov, he purchased three rugs late in 1936 for a purchase price of around $600. He said each person who received a rug was informed that it was given as a token of gratitude for his work as an American Communist. These three persons were Alger Hiss, A.G. Silverman, and Harry Dexter White (the latter two were government employees who were alleged by Chambers to be Communists). The story’s significance lies in the difference between the claims of Chambers and Hiss regarding the date of delivery and also of the reason for the gift.

Weinstein claims that the defense and FBI files corroborate Chambers’ story, but again the opposite is true. For example, Chambers claimed that Hiss received his rug behind a restaurant on Baltimore Road in Maryland, and that A.G. Silverman made the delivery. According to a memorandum by Hiss attorney Harold Rosenwald, dated March 21, 1949, Silverman, while admitting that he had received a rug from Chambers, told his attorney, Bernard Jaffe, “Chambers’ story concerning delivery of one of the rugs by Silverman to Hiss at a restaurant on Baltimore Road is completely false. Nothing like it ever happened.”

This is another example of Weinstein’s selectivity. He does not mention that portion of the statement but he does note that Silverman claimed that the rug was given to him as part payment of some loans which he had made to Chambers, a claim that was similar to Hiss’s. Also unreported is Silverman’s statement that he decided to keep two of the rugs that were delivered to his home, and that it was his decision to give the other to Harry White. He did this because White was an old friend. Chambers took no part in the decision, he said.

Hiss testified that the rug was in use at his home since he had received it, but Weinstein claims “the FBI turned up proof in 1949 that the Hisses had paid a monthly fee to keep the Bokhara rug in storage during 1937 and 1938, not retrieving it for use in their Volta Place home until long after Chambers’ defection.”

This writer has not seen such proof from the FBI. In 1949, however, the defense turned up a receipt from a storage company regarding an item which was stored by the Hisses during those years mentioned by Weinstein. It appears that the item mentioned on the receipt is a rug, but the dimensions listed on the receipt were considerably smaller than the rug that Hiss received from Chambers.

Weinstein makes numerous errors of a smaller caliber throughout the book. For example, he claims that J. Edgar Hoover dismissed Chambers’ 1942 statement as “history, hypothesis and deduction.” It was P.E. Foxworth, the assistant director, who said that.

Chambers lunched with the noted literary figure, Malcolm Cowley, in 1940. Cowley’s notes of the conversation indicate that Chambers claimed to have left the party in 1937, and that he had also accused Francis Sayre, Hiss’s superior in the State Department, of being a CP member. Cowley testified at both trials for the defense, and his notes were introduced as evidence. Weinstein suggests, as did the FBI, that Cowley was making that claim because, when Chambers was the book review editor for Time magazine in 1942, he had panned some of Cowley’s poetry. Obviously, he is overlooking the fact that the notes of the conversation were written back in 1940, before the book was published.

There are many documents in the FBI files that do great damage to Chambers’ credibility. For example, an FBI report dated February 3, 1949 carries this statement by its writer: “It is not clear at this time if Chambers can testify that he received these particular 69 documents from Hiss.” Coming three months before the first trial, this is a damning revelation. Chambers’ claim that Hiss gave him the documents was the core of the case.