Jeff Kisseloff (2004)
Jeff Kisseloff responds to a biography of Alger Hiss which purports to explain Hiss’s alleged lifelong patterns of denial and duplicity.
“Distorted Reflections: A Response”
by Jeff Kisseloff
G. Edward White, Alger Hiss’s Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy (Oxford University Press, New York: 2004).
If A, then B.
In a classic example of logic, you can say, “If it’s raining, I will bring my umbrella.” But you can’t say, “If I bring my umbrella, it will rain.”
This ancient rule of logic underlies the flaws in Alger Hiss’s Looking-Glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy, a hostile new biography by G. Edward White, a law professor at the University of Virginia. He states his A in the book’s introduction: “One of my goals,” he says, “is … to put the ambiguity about Hiss’s innocence or guilt to rest by marshalling the evidence for his guilt and demonstrating the weakness of arguments for his innocence.”
Then come the Bs: “Another of my goals,” he continues, “is to better understand why Hiss became a spy, why he chose to continue spying after [Whittaker] Chambers defected … and why, after being exposed, he proceeded to deny, for nearly 50 years, that he had any connections with the Communists or the Soviets.”
Almost four-fifths of White’s book deals with the Bs. But there’s no point in asking “why Hiss became a spy” – and even less point in assuring your readers that you have discovered “a consistent psychological pattern in Hiss’s behavior” – unless you have first incontrovertibly demonstrated that he was in fact guilty of espionage.
The hidden weakness of Looking-Glass Wars is at the heart of the book: White asserts Hiss’s guilt – ringingly and repeatedly. But White, as he acknowledges, has assumed for the past quarter century that Hiss was guilty. As a result, he never bothers to re-investigate the case, and substitutes a re-indictment for a re-trial. Indeed, his legal model is a grand jury proceeding rather than a trial-by-jury. He presents only the evidence for the prosecution, omits the defense, and then asks for a vote.
White has looked nowhere for new facts, and has instead been content to reassemble and rearrange from secondary sources all the accusations previously leveled at Hiss. The world of the book is the closeted world of the guilt-assumers, and White, in his “Afterword,” even thanks two of the most vocal anti-Hiss writers of recent years, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, for “having read the entire manuscript in various drafts” before publication.
Writing from within this world, White also tries to finesse the controversy that has raged over the Hiss case for the past 55 years, attributing it entirely to Hiss’s malign and manipulative machinations: “Over time,” White writes, Hiss “with almost no new helpful information [again the defense is dismissed without examination] … managed to transform the attitudes … of a group of educated, cultured, ‘liberal’ professionals” who, by the time of Hiss’s death in 1996, “were inclined to think that he was innocent of perjury and espionage, a victim of the rabid anti-Communism of the Cold War.”
Hiss’s lifelong quest for vindication, in this reading, somehow becomes further evidence of his guilt. The only logic here is circular, where an unproved consequence (Hiss’s pretense of innocence) of an unproved point (Hiss’s guilt) is presented as confirmation of his dastardliness (“Alger Hiss fooled a large number of people for many years,” White writes, because he “was one of those rare individuals” who “appears to have taken pleasure in the pursuit of covert goals and in the creation of devices to shield that pursuit from others. And Hiss was remarkably skillful and effective in those tasks.”)
By implication, of course, anyone who raises points on Hiss’s behalf – including this writer – must somehow still be acting under the lingering influence of a spell cast by Hiss, rather than someone capable of following evidence wherever it may lead.
Near the end of Looking-Glass Wars, White, acting now as the judge evaluating the evidence he has earlier presented as prosecutor, tells his readers that he, for one, is completely satisfied that he has met his own goal: “Alger Hiss,” he declares, “can no longer be seen as a figure of ambiguity.”
Interestingly, he displays far less confidence about whether he has proved the “why” questions that take up most of his book. White acknowledges (in a discussion of why Hiss became “an active Soviet agent”) that he had to turn to speculation for guidance: “Here,” White says, “as with most speculation about the inner basis for Hiss’s motivation, corroborating evidence is thin…. So there is no smoking-gun revealing Alger Hiss’s motivation for choosing to spy for the Soviets in the 1930s.”
This essay will examine White’s “why” questions, even though they are questions that he has not earned the right to ask. White’s psychological profile of Hiss is that of a man who spied for 13 years, who lied about it for “over 60 years,” and who found “inner peace” “through spying and lying.” Does this profile ring true as the portrait of a real human being, or does it look and feel more like a caricature and a contrivance? Incidentally, is White qualified to create such a profile and declare it authentic?
White claims to have demonstrated the absolute certainty of Alger Hiss’s guilt. Several curious points emerge immediately. Although White (falsely) criticizes Hiss for not “producing any new evidence supporting his innocence” in the years after his conviction, White himself is completely content to rely uncritically on earlier anti-Hiss writers, such as Allen Weinstein. But White is willing to be far more definitive than Weinstein has ever been.
“The cumulative evidence on Alger Hiss,” White asserts (meaning, the “evidence assembled by Weinstein and other scholars,” along with documents from Soviet and United States archives), “has removed any ambiguity about Hiss’s guilt or innocence, and, consequently, any ambiguity about Hiss’s protestations of innocence and lifelong campaign for vindication.”
White needs to make such a claim in order to have more than just the stump of a book. But contrast his words with Weinstein’s more careful statements about the same evidence in the revised 1997 edition of Perjury: Alger Hiss, Weinstein asserted, was “guilty as charged,” but he recognized that “the case will not close.” “For any historian,” Weinstein wrote, “to assume that his research has conclusively resolved the case in all its varied dimensions would constitute self-deception at a level even higher than that achieved by the two protagonists.”
Weinstein methodically brought up all the pro-Hiss arguments he was aware of – in order of course to rebut them. G. Edward White has found a simpler way to be definitive. His retelling of the case against Alger Hiss is a stripped-down model, so thoroughly cleansed of complexity, so dismissive of any materials that might exonerate Alger Hiss, that it reads like the CliffsNotes to Perjury.
Like a street scene on a Hollywood back lot, White’s presentation of the case against Hiss looks picture perfect at first glance. But instead of being airtight, it is just a facade. In marshalling Whitaker Chambers’ allegations against Hiss, White generally omits any evidence that indicates that Chambers was lying. He also consistently restates even the most unsupported charges as fact. To his credit, he employs this highly selective, one-sided technique effectively, and might indeed leave a reader, with little knowledge of the case, wondering how anyone could support the notion of Hiss’s innocence. But had White applied scholarly analysis to the full range of the evidence actually available to him, readers might instead begin asking the opposite question: How was Hiss convicted?
In 1939, Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle was the first government official to hear Chambers’ story of his life in the communist underground. Two years later, Chambers was interviewed by the FBI for the first time. Over the next few years, he was re-interviewed by the Bureau and by representatives of other government agencies. Because his allegations were generally vague and unsupported by any hard evidence, no legal action was ever taken.
Then, in November 1948, in the midst of a libel action filed against him by Hiss, Chambers dramatically changed his story. For the first time, he claimed he and Hiss had participated in an espionage scheme on behalf of the Soviet Union. Within a month, Hiss was indicted for perjury for denying before a grand jury any role in Chambers’ alleged operation.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, government documents summarizing the substance of many of Chambers’ interviews have been released. They contain numerous contradictions and demonstrably false allegations, so many in fact that even the FBI questioned Chambers’ credibility. Hardly any of these issues, however, are examined by White. For example, the most glaring contradiction in Chambers’ story involves his break with the Communist Party. In every interview with government officials and in all his sworn testimony up through the summer of 1948, Chambers said he left the Party in 1937. Only after handing over copies of government documents dated as late as April 1938 – documents which he said Hiss had given him – did Chambers say he had been mistaken, and broke with the party in April 1938.
This is not a trivial “correction,” because if Chambers’ original testimony was accurate, no spying occurred, in 1938 or any other year, and because, according to Alger Hiss’s testimony, he no longer even knew Whittaker Chambers in 1938. How could Chambers have forgotten the date of what was admittedly one of the most crucial and frightening decisions of his life? In his revised testimony, Chambers said he only began to have doubts about his underground work in 1937.
White accepts this without addressing Chambers’ previous statements or any of the corroborative evidence produced by the Hiss defense indicating that the earlier date was indeed the correct one. Specifically, Chambers and his friend, the art historian Meyer Schapiro, had both testified that after Chambers’ break with the Party, Schapiro obtained translation work for him. The defense then produced letters from Oxford University Press that showed that in March 1938 Chambers was already working on a translation for the publisher.
Another example: In a 1948 deposition, Chambers said his break with the Party coincided with his decision to begin reusing the name Chambers, instead of the pseudonyms he had adopted. Defense investigators then found that Chambers used his own real name when he got a government job in 1937.
White’s easy acceptance of Chambers’ date switching also places him in the awkward position of having to deny the accuracy of FBI and State Department documents that say Chambers left the Party in 1937, while also defending the accuracy of their charges against Hiss.
Chambers and Hiss disagreed on nearly every crucial detail of their acquaintance, beginning with their very first encounter. At Hiss’s two perjury trials, and in his book, Witness, Chambers said he used the name “Carl” when he met Hiss, and that the two men had first met in a cafeteria in the spring of 1934, in order to begin moving Hiss from one underground Communist Party group to another.
According to Hiss, the two first met in his office, either in late 1934 or early 1935, while Hiss was serving as special counsel to the Senate’s Nye Committee, which was investigating wartime profiteering by the munitions industry. Chambers presented himself, Hiss said, as a freelance writer named George Crosley, who was researching a possible magazine article on the Committee’s hearings.
In his account of the first Hiss-Chambers meeting, White not only omits Hiss’s side of the story, but also fails to inform his readers that Chambers himself gave several different dates for his introduction to Hiss. For example, in 1945, he told the FBI that he went to Washington in 1935. A year later, in 1946, he told the State Department’s Security Officer Raymond E. Murphy that he had met Hiss in Washington in the summer of 1935. At the first trial, he testified that the first meeting with Hiss took place in 1934.
To support the 1934 version, Chambers claimed that the meeting took place at a time when he and his family moved to 903 St. Paul St. in Baltimore. The building was owned by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. But the Hiss defense interviewed the group’s leader, Bertha Tyson. She gave them a signed affidavit, saying the building didn’t take in outside tenants in 1934, and that when it did, at a later date, she knew every one of the families who rented apartments. She was positive the Chamberses weren’t among them. That affidavit is available in the Hiss defense files at Harvard University Law School, which White, according to his chapter notes, examined while writing Looking-Glass Wars. He does not, however, cite it in his book.
The date wasn’t the only contradiction in Chambers’ story about his introduction to Hiss. Chambers testified at both trials that he was introduced to Hiss by two Communists, Harold Ware and J. Peters. This is what Chambers said about Ware in his August 3, 1948 testimony before HUAC, however: “I never knew him.”
White repeats Chambers’ claim that Hiss had been a member of an underground organization called the Ware Group. But while White points out that Hiss’s former colleague, Lee Pressman, was an admitted member of the group, he omits Pressman’s testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities that Hiss was never a member. Two other admitted Ware group members, John Abt and Nathan Witt, said that Chambers both exaggerated the scope of the Ware group and also his own relationship with it. Although neither man would either affirm or deny Hiss’s membership, both men maintained, throughout their lives, that Chambers’ testimony about Hiss was a lie. Nowhere in the book does White give their views any consideration.
Let’s look at several other representative examples of White’s avoidance of pro-Hiss information, even if it comes from the FBI:
• Boris Bykov. White writes that Hiss’s espionage role increased with the arrival, from Russia, of Boris Bykov. What White doesn’t write is that no one has yet been able to confirm that there was such a man. One other person besides Chambers claimed to have met Bykov – Julian Wadleigh, from the State Department. But according to Wadleigh, Bykov had only one arm. Chambers insisted that Bykov had two. White states definitively that Bykov arrived in the United States in 1936, ignoring the fact that Chambers offered several different dates for Bykov’s arrival. When Chambers eventually settled on the fall of 1936, and added that Bykov had sailed from Europe on an ocean liner, the FBI examined the manifest of every ship arriving in New York during that period and found no trace of anyone resembling Chambers’ description of Bykov.
• Photographing Documents – 1. White writes that, in 1936, Chambers set up a photographic workshop in Baltimore. He says sources would bring out documents from their government jobs and give them to Chambers, who would take the documents to Baltimore to be photographed and then return them before sunrise. Once a week, he would go to NYC to bring the film of the documents to Bykov. But White gets Chambers’ story wrong. According to Chambers, only one of his sources, Hiss, was a regular participant in this process, and Chambers said that Hiss didn’t meet Bykov and begin producing documents until 1937.
Chambers also insisted that he did the photographing work himself, at first in a Baltimore apartment belonging to a married couple who were Party sympathizers. But since 1999 – when the Hiss case grand jury records were unsealed – it has been known that the couple in question told the grand jury 1) that they weren’t even living in the apartment when Chambers said he used it; 2) that after they had moved in, Chambers had only once been inside their apartment, on a brief visit with a friend; and 3) that the apartment was so small it was incapable of being used as a darkroom, and that in any event no one had ever brought any photographic equipment into the apartment. White seems unaware of this grand jury testimony.
• Photographing Documents – 2. Two Party members, Felix Inslerman and William Edward Crane, both told the government that they had done photographic work for Chambers. But Inslerman insisted that he worked for Chambers on only a handful of occasions, not on a weekly basis for a year, as Chambers claimed. Here again grand jury testimony, as is now known, undercuts Chambers’ account: Before the grand jury, Chambers was shown a man named Sam Pelovitz, and identified him as Inslerman. Pelovitz looked nothing like Inslerman. Chambers changed his testimony only after being told he was wrong.
And here again White seems unaware of this grand jury testimony. Curiously, while White ridicules Hiss for supposedly not recognizing Chambers – whose personal appearance had changed dramatically since the 1930s, he gives Chambers a free pass for not being able to recognize Inslerman, whose personal appearance, by all accounts, had not changed much at all over the previous 10 years. FBI documents reveal that before the Hiss trials, Crane was viewed as a potentially important witness who could support Chambers’ espionage story, but Chambers and Crane disagreed on so many important details (despite the fact that the FBI actually sat the two of them down together to iron out their story) that Crane, who said he had never known Hiss, was never put on the witness stand.
• Other Witnesses. White says Chambers wasn’t the only person to identify Hiss as an agent. He cites two other “independent” sources – the American ex-agent Elizabeth Bentley and the Russian defector Igor Gouzenko. About Gouzenko, who had been a Russian code clerk in Canada, White writes, “a Soviet military intelligence officer told him that ‘the Soviets had an agent in the United States in May 1945 who was an assistant to the then-Secretary of State, Edward R. Stettinius.'” “Hiss,” White adds dramatically, “was Stettinius’s assistant at the time.” Actually, while he worked with Stettinius, Hiss was never his assistant.
Bentley’s story, no less vague than Gouzenko’s, was also secondhand. In 1945, she was grilled intensely by the FBI over the course of several weeks. Only after prompting from the FBI’s Washington field office did she agree that the Soviets had a spy in the State Department, an advisor to Dean Acheson. Someone else, she said, had told her the spy’s name was Hiss. In subsequent interviews, she admitted her information was very sketchy, and she refused to make a statement about it. She later told the FBI that the first name of the spy was “Eugene,” not Alger, and afterwards never budged from that position. In both her HUAC and her grand jury testimony, she never mentioned Hiss as a spy.
Neither Bentley nor Gouzenko was called to testify at either of the Hiss trials. White never evaluates the credibility of either of these “independent” witnesses. (Bentley, by the way, also claimed to have known in advance the date of the D-Day invasion, information that even General Eisenhower, who ordered the assault, didn’t have.)
Perhaps the best way to show both the cumulative inadequacy and the many small carelessnesses that unfortunately characterize White’s research and reporting, is to walk step by step through his telling of a single, five-month-long episode in the Hiss case, the search for the still-famous, old Woodstock typewriter, perhaps the best-remembered piece of evidence in the entire case. White manages to get both the overall picture of the typewriter hunt and many of the small details of the narrative wrong.
By December 3, 1948, the FBI had determined that the copied State Department documents Chambers had produced – the so-called Baltimore Documents – had been typed on a Woodstock typewriter. The Hisses had owned a Woodstock in the 1930s. White says defense files show that Hiss was not being truthful when he told the FBI he didn’t know what happened to the old family typewriter (White calls it a Woodstock although the Hisses at that point weren’t sure what make of typewriter they had once owned). Hiss said they had given the machine to a secondhand dealer or typewriter repair shop. Priscilla Hiss told the defense attorneys she had no real memories of disposing of it, but also suggested it had probably gone to a secondhand shop.
“In fact,” White says, “Alger and Priscilla knew exactly what they had done with the typewriter.” They knew, White adds, that they had given it to Pat and Mike Catlett, the sons of the Hiss family maid, Cleide Catlett, but deliberately concealed this information after their own document experts said that letters typed by Priscilla Hiss in the 1930s (the so-called Hiss Standards) and the Baltimore Documents had been typed on the same machine. White further claims that the defense made little effort to find the typewriter because it didn’t want it to be found.
Instead of damaging Hiss’s credibility, however, defense files actually support his story – consistently. For example, defense file documents indicate that the Hisses recalled having several typewriters in their home, and suggested investigators check on a number of places where they might be found. On December 7, 1948, Hiss called John F. Davis, one of his lawyers (who never lost faith in Alger Hiss, although, ironically, he later became G. Edward White’s father-in-law), to “check on an old machine” that he thought he had given to Pat Catlett.
The defense actively continued its search after Hiss’s perjury indictment on December 15, 1948, as indicated by a December 28, 1948 memorandum entitled “Outline of Investigation.” Under the heading, “What Happened to the Typewriter,” five investigative leads were listed, including one that suggested, “Check Hiss maids and their relatives … Catletts.” Other documents show the defense actively searching for the typewriter. On January 21, 1949, investigator Horace Schmahl reported that he had been looking all over for it. The report stated, “[Schmahl] has checked all typewriter stores in Washington, Baltimore, Westminster, Lynbrook, and Rockville Center. No trace of the Woodstock.”
White makes a number of mistakes in tracing the defense’s efforts to find the Woodstock typewriter, which culminated in attorney Edward McLean purchasing Woodstock #230,099 from a Washington, D.C. mover in April 1949, in the belief that it was the machine the Hiss family had once owned.
White writes that, in late January 1949, Mike Catlett called Donald Hiss, Alger Hiss’s brother, to say that the typewriter had indeed been given to him, and that although he didn’t have it, he could find it. Soon afterward, Hiss’s attorney, Edward McLean, went to Washington to see the Catletts. According to White, McLean was told the Hisses gave the typewriter to the Catletts “probably in 1938.” It then went to Pat and Mike’s sister, Burnetta, who lived with a “Dr. Easton.” When he died, a man named Vernon Marlow took the typewriter. He in turn said he had given it to a mover named Ira Lockey. Mike Catlett went to see Lockey but was told he was unavailable. Then he was told the typewriter had been junked.
Mike Catlett didn’t do anything for two months, White says, and Donald Hiss never mentioned the Lockey connection to the Hiss defense team. As a result of these delays and foot-dragging, the search ground to a halt – until McLean returned to Washington in April and re-ignited it. McLean and Mike Catlett then went back to Marlow, who refused to cooperate, but found out from his wife that Lockey had indeed been given the typewriter. That’s when Mike Catlett and McLean went back to Lockey. This time Lockey produced Woodstock #230,099 and sold it to them for $15.
That’s White story, but in fact the search was constant and a matter of urgency to the defense. The Hiss team considered recovery of the typewriter critical, because they were convinced it would exonerate Hiss. Not until later did they begin to have suspicions that the typewriter they found and brought into court was a doctored machine that had been deliberately altered to make its typing resemble family letters actually produced on the old family typewriter.
According to Donald Hiss, Mike Catlett called him in February (not January), and, contrary to White’s account, Donald and Pat Catlett had already learned – before McLean arrived on the scene – that Vernon Marlowe (not Marlow) might know the typewriter’s whereabouts. Marlowe told them that a man named “Bill” had actually moved the typewriter out of Dr. Easter’s (not Easton’s) house. It was thought he had the typewriter. “Bill,” not mentioned in White’s account, was the one who told them that Lockey had it.
According to Fred J. Cook’s detailed account of the search, published in The Nation in 1962, Lockey told Mike he had junked the machine. (White chooses to ignore Cook’s treatment of the search – although Cook’s meticulous essay is perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of the whole episode ever undertaken.) Contrary to White’s version, Mike Catlett did not abandon the search, and instead followed up by searching various junkyards around Washington. He also returned to Lockey’s house for more information. On one notable visit, he spotted a car out front with two FBI agents sitting inside. Clearly, the Bureau was closely following the defense’s continuing efforts to locate the typewriter.
As for Donald Hiss not keeping the Hiss lawyers informed, a letter in the defense files from Edward McLean to Donald Hiss, dated February 5, 1949, begins:
Alger, of course, was delighted to hear about our discovery on the subject of typewriters.
There was still further action on the typewriter before McLean’s return. Another Hiss attorney, Harold Rosenwald, also became involved in the search, traveling to Detroit to see Burnetta Catlett. It was Rosenwald who telephoned Donald Hiss and suggested they look around Marlowe’s shack across the street from Dr. Easter. They couldn’t find the typewriter, but a neighbor recalled seeing it sitting out in the grass. Before the Easter holiday, McLean and Rosenwald, along with Mike Catlett, returned to the Lockey household. It was then that Lockey produced #230,099.
Although White spends considerable time discussing the typewriter search, he concludes this section of his book by stating that, in comparison to the documents, the typewriter wasn’t especially important to the case. This is true only in the narrowest sense: In his closing argument at the second trial, prosecutor Thomas Murphy effectively turned the typewriter into the smoking gun in the case, calling it the “immutable witness” and dramatically declaring (without any proof) that the Baltimore Documents “were typed on that machine.”
White’s Pass-Through Charges from Weinstein
Both White’s mischaracterization of the search for the typewriter as a delaying tactic, and his inaccurate rendering of the details of the story, have been adapted directly from Allen Weinstein’s Perjury. White makes no attempt to re-assess or verify Weinstein’s claims, and instead devotes himself to attacking the scholarship of authors who investigated the case and concluded that Hiss was innocent.
White, for example, summarily dismisses Fred Cook’s seminal research into the verdict without weighing its merits simply because it originally appeared in the “politically progressive” Nation magazine. This preemptive approach allows him to avoid looking at Cook’s background and approach to the case. A balanced assessment of Cook’s contribution to the case would report that Cook, far from being “politically progressive,” was a conservative crime reporter who initially refused The Nation’s request that he re-examine the case because he was thoroughly convinced of Hiss’s guilt. He took the assignment only after being assured that the magazine would print his conclusions, whatever they turned out to be.
The article Cook eventually wrote for The Nation took up an entire issue of the magazine. What he found during his research completely changed Cook’s perspective, not only about Hiss but also about American government and politics. From his work on the Hiss case, he went on to become one of the country’s preeminent investigative reporters.
Dr. Meyer Zeligs, whose book Friendship and Fratricide White calls “an almost comical failure” of scholarship, contributed an unsurpassed amount of new research to the Hiss case. For example, although Chambers testified at trial that he had lied in the past but was now telling the truth, Zeligs founds numerous never-abandoned falsehoods that Chambers included in his autobiography Witness, published in 1952, two years after Hiss’s conviction.
Zeligs, a practicing psychiatrist, broke new ground by discovering hidden, lifelong patterns in Chambers’ behavior. He located and interviewed several people who had been victimized by Chambers in a manner strikingly similar to his approach to Hiss (befriending and idolizing a man, and then turning on him and trying to ruin him). There are several ironies in White’s approach to Zeligs: White makes frequent – if only grudgingly acknowledged – use of the fruits of Zeligs’ research, but at the same time takes him to task for attempting to psychoanalyze Chambers without ever having interviewed him.
Yet White (without the benefit of a certificate in psychoanalysis) devotes the bulk of his book to constructing a psychological profile of Hiss – and from an even greater distance. Zeligs interviewed every close Chambers friend who would talk to him, but White, who never met or spoke to Hiss, made no attempt to get in touch with anyone who knew Hiss well, such as his son or stepson.
Marching side by side with Allen Weinstein, White sometimes seems to be more interested in shoring up Weinstein’s credibility than in vouching for Chambers’ truthfulness. In 1978, for instance, following the release of the FBI’s documents on the Hiss case, Alger Hiss filed a coram nobis petition in federal court seeking to overturn his conviction; Hiss argued that the released documents revealed previously concealed evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. White denounces the petition, as Weinstein before him did, asserting that it contained no new exculpatory evidence. Echoing Weinstein again, he writes that the petition failed to show malevolence on the FBI’s part, only occasional ineptness or incompetence.
This puts White in the odd position of suppressing his own training. Weinstein wrote as a historian, not a lawyer, but White is both lawyer and historian. And yet, like Weinstein, he misconstrues the purpose of Hiss’s coram nobis petition, a seldom-used legal remedy for reopening a case after the appeals process has been exhausted; under federal rules, a coram nobis petition must only address issues of misconduct, and cannot raise again the question of guilt or innocence.
Despite these legal restrictions, the petition did introduce evidence that, while addressing itself to instances of misconduct, necessarily raised new doubts about Hiss’s guilt. The released FBI documents, for instance, demonstrated that at the time of the trials, the FBI had obtained (and concealed from the defense) evidence showing that Chambers had left the Communist Party earlier than he claimed; evidence that established a possible motive for Chambers’ attacks on Hiss (Chambers had confessed to the FBI that in the 1930s he had had a series of homosexual affairs); evidence that the prosecution had made use of a spy in the Hiss camp, a man who gave the prosecution evidence discovered by the defense; evidence that Woodstock #230,099 could not have been the old Hiss typewriter; evidence that prosecution witnesses were being coached to provide inaccurate testimony. This pattern of prosecutorial behavior clearly transcended mere incompetence or ineptness.
White, in some instances, clings to Weinsteinian assertions that have long since been refuted. He repeats, for example, the now-discredited claim, from Perjury, that Donald Hiss lied about his connection to the 1930s deportation case of radical longshoreman Harry Bridges.
Whittaker Chambers told the FBI that the Communist Party wanted Donald Hiss to act as an examiner in the Bridges case. Donald Hiss told the Hiss-case grand jury that, when he worked in the Labor Department, he had been asked by the Department to participate in hearings about Bridges in April 1938, but that this participation had never happened, and he thereafter had nothing to do with the case. The defense files, which Weinstein consulted repeatedly, contain a long memorandum from Donald Hiss’s boss, backing him up.
White never mentions this; Weinstein didn’t, either. Weinstein actually interviewed Donald Hiss for Perjury, but never asked him about Chambers’ charge – even though he repeated it in his book. In addition, Chambers’ entire story, about Donald Hiss also being a CP member, was never substantiated. Donald Hiss testified before the grand jury and at Hiss’s second perjury trial, where he was barely challenged by prosecutor Thomas Murphy. Even Chambers later seemed to back off his charges against Donald Hiss, declaring in Witness that Donald Hiss had been truthful in his denials.
White’s over-reliance on Weinstein often lands him in trouble – as seen, for instance, in White’s bold if misleading claim that “the defense’s own experts had concluded that Priscilla Hiss had probably typed the copies of documents Chambers produced, and that interlinear corrections on some of those documents were in the handwriting of Priscilla and Alger Hiss.”
This charge is like a newspaper article that copies words from a press release, rather than investigating the subject firsthand. Looking through the defense files, Weinstein did indeed find some reports casting doubt on Priscilla Hiss. He also found reports which supported her – the examiners hired by the defense didn’t always agree with each other. Weinstein simply selected the most damning anti-Hiss conclusions and presented them as the only conclusions drawn. One of the documents he chose to ignore, for instance, a report about the corrections by Edwin Fearon, dated May 17, 1949, states: “It is my opinion that neither Mrs. Hiss nor the one who made corrections on the Chambers papers made these corrections. A comparison of the corrections of the sample sheets that Mr. Hiss made in my presence would not justify an opinion that he made them.”
Another document examiner, J. Howard Haring, reported on April 6, 1949 that “He could not say definitely who made the handwritten interlineations on the Baltimore typed documents…. He cannot say definitely who the typist was.” And while we’re on the subject, White also fails to note that, in Hiss’s motion for a new trial, document expert Elizabeth McCarthy said her examination of the papers produced by Chambers revealed that more than one typist was responsible for the Baltimore Documents. Additionally, an FBI document released in the 1970s and included in Hiss’s coram nobis petition showed that the Bureau’s own laboratory couldn’t determine who had made the corrections.
Many of White’s Weinsteinian overstatements are a scholarly embarrassment. It’s perhaps worth looking at one in some detail. Relying, as so often, solely on Weinstein, White writes that Hiss’s defense files show that the Hiss lawyers found “Chambers’ account was more credible” than Hiss’s. This is a serious charge.
According to White/Weinstein, one witness told Hiss’s lawyers that four separate people, Chambers and three others, had told her that Chambers had first met Hiss in Washington in 1934 at the “Ware Group” of communists in the federal government. This, she said, according to White/Weinstein, contradicted Hiss’s claim to have met Chambers in 1935 (more accurately, Hiss had said it was either December 1934 or early 1935). White/Weinstein further claim that the witness, Josephine Herbst, at the time a well-known novelist, lied about this information when interviewed by the FBI.
These allegations – potentially explosive, since they seem to corroborate Chambers – are essentially a distortion of a distortion. In the first place, no defense memo exists that says that it finds Herbst’s version of the truth more credible than Hiss’s. Second, a lot of the information she offered was contradictory, and much of it second- or even third-hand. The defense conducted three interviews with Herbst, who clearly didn’t want to testify at the trial, even though she told the defense (White doesn’t mention this) that she felt Hiss was innocent.
Here is what Herbst told the defense: Her husband, John Herrmann, was a member of a group headed by Harold Ware, which was organized to collect information for the Communist Party in New York City (not Washington, as Chambers had said). She said there were around 15 people in the group, including two women (Chambers had said the group had seven members, all of them male). They had contacts in the War Department, but not in the State or Navy Departments (she said nothing about the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, where Hiss was working).
On one occasion, she said, she saw, in her apartment, certain government documents which she considered thoroughly innocent and innocuous “and in many instances covered what seemed to me to be common knowledge” (this last quote is missing from Weinstein’s account of her testimony).
Herbst said she met Chambers as “Carl” in the summer of 1934. He told her he was living in New Jersey. Although Weinstein again doesn’t mention it, this doesn’t agree with the known historical record of Chambers’ residences: that summer he was in Lynbrook, Long Island and in Baltimore.
“The meeting between Chambers and Hiss,” Weinstein wrote, “took place in either July or August 1934, Herbst noted, confirming Chambers’ own memory of the date.” The actual text of the defense memo relied on, to make this assertion, shows that Herbst’s memory of events was far less certain: “It is my recollection that” Hiss met “Carl,” she said (Weinstein omits the quoted phrase). The memo continues: “This meeting was, I believe, in July or August of 1934,” and later says, “My impression is that Mr. Hiss knew Chambers as ‘Carl.’ and I believe this impression was gained by information from Harold Ware and one other person.”
Herbst also told Hiss’s attorney that “Chambers and John Herman [sic] discussed Hiss and that they regarded Hiss as an important prospect to solicit for the purpose of getting papers. This was a task that was to be handled by Chambers because its function was to make contacts with more important people in the Government service…. Herman would not have been allowed to approach anyone as important as Alger Hiss.”
The substance of Herbst’s story is this: Chambers told her he met Hiss as “Carl.” (This, in essence, is Chambers confirming Chambers.) Harold Ware might have said something to the same effect. A never-named second person might also have said something similar. And her husband said Chambers had talked to him about the possibility of trying, in the future, to recruit Hiss as a source for government papers.
How strong is this corroborative testimony? Harold Ware had died in 1935, and could not confirm or deny Herbst’s hazy recollections. John Hermann had moved to Mexico, and was never tracked down or asked for his story. The third man remained nameless and therefore untraceable.
Herbst, who, by the way, never met either Alger or Priscilla Hiss, did directly refute other aspects of Chambers’ story (another fact omitted by White). For example, Chambers testified that he and Alger Hiss once drove to Erwinna, Pennsylvania, where Herrmann and Herbst had a home. Herbst said that the story was false.
She also cast serious doubt on another Chambers assertion – that the Herrmann/Herbst apartment had been used for photographing documents obtained from the Nye Committee. Weinstein said Herbst couldn’t confirm this because she hadn’t been living there at the time that Chambers was talking about. But Weinstein left out that Herbst also told Harold Rosenwald, one of Hiss’s lawyers, that she never saw any photographic equipment in the apartment, and that regardless of who was living there, it was a one-room apartment with no closet and with a window in the bathroom. There was no possibility for a dark-room in that apartment.
The explosive charges, on close examination, had no detonator. Herbst had given Hiss’s lawyers no reason not to believe Hiss. By repeating distortions without examining their merits, White displays marked skills as a publicist, but has allowed his scholarly abilities as a historian and a legal analyst to fall into the deepest slumber.
Post-Chambers Developments: The Volkogonov Controversy
In 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov issued a public statement saying that, acting on a request from Alger Hiss, he had examined government archives in Moscow and determined that Alger Hiss had never been a paid agent of the Soviet Union. This statement caused an uproar among conservatives in the United States.
Echoing comments by Allen Weinstein (in his 1997 revised edition of Perjury), White erroneously claims that Volkogonov later “retracted” his statement, acknowledging that he had spent only two days looking in the KGB archive. White writes that since Hiss hadn’t been a KGB agent (Chambers had alleged that Hiss worked for Soviet military intelligence), their files wouldn’t reveal anything about Hiss, anyway. White also says that Hiss had craftily asked Volkogonov to see if the files indicated he had been employed as an agent – since Hiss knew he had volunteered his services.
White is misrepresenting both Volkogonov’s research and his subsequent clarification for the press. In a follow-up interview in the United States with Hiss’s friend, John Lowenthal, who had conducted the original interview in Moscow, Volkogonov was specifically asked whether he had looked through military intelligence files. Volkogonov responded, “Yes, we also asked to examine the military intelligence files and there, too, no traces of Alger Hiss have been found.”
Volkogonov did acknowledge, as newspapers had previously reported, that he hadn’t examined every archival file, but, as he emphatically told Lowenthal, he had seen more than enough for his purposes: “The intelligence documents pertaining to agents, personnel matters I did see. And it is also possible that he had some regular working information, in the course of normal contacts he might have said something, but it was not intelligence information. It’s like simply when two representatives of different states meet and conduct normal business.”
Volkogonov said he also checked other important repositories of documents, including the then top-secret Presidential Archive. None contained any indication that Hiss had been an agent. Lowenthal also brought up the question of whether Hiss was a paid or unpaid agent. Volkogonov replied, “In the Soviet sources, the Soviet files in the Soviet hierarchy, he wasn’t listed as an agent, either paid agent or an agent out of convictions.”
Having looked through the files of many men who were agents, General Volkogonov said, you always found traces of them if you knew where to look. The absence of these tell-tale traces, he said, allowed him to be definitive in the matter of Alger Hiss. “Positively,” the general told Lowenthal in summation, “if he was a spy, I believe positively I would have found a reflection in various files.”
While trumpeting and misstating Volkogonov’s “retraction,” White ignores this publicly available interview, which clarifies and puts into context both of Volkogonov’s earlier assertions.
Some months before the publication of Looking-Glass Wars – in time for White to include the information in his book, had he chosen to do so – General Julius Kobyakov, a retired Russian intelligence official, posted several detailed notes to a scholarly website devoted to American diplomatic history. General Kobyakov revealed that he had been the person who actually searched the files for General Volkogonov.
Kobyakov, in his postings, said that he prepared his 1992 report, that there was no indication that Alger Hiss had been either a paid or unpaid agent of the Soviet Union, only “after careful study” of KGB archives and “after querying sister services” (military intelligence). Kobyakov also stated that he still considered his original conclusions definitive: “I am ready to eat my hat,” he asserted, “if someone proves the contrary.”
Post-Chambers Developments: Venona and the Soviet Files
White’s discussion of the Venona transcripts (Russian cables intercepted and decoded by American intelligence during World War II) is little more than a restatement of the assertions by two anti-Hiss researchers, thanked in his acknowledgments, who claim that one telegram released in the mid-1990s by the National Security Agency about a spy codenamed “ALES” constitutes the ultimate proof of Hiss’s guilt. (The English language text of the released ALES cable had an American footnote, asserting that ALES was “probably Alger Hiss” – but offering no proof of this claim.) Since “The Russian Connection,” White’s chapter on this so-called “new evidence,” brings nothing new to the subject, readers may wish to consider John Lowenthal’s meticulously detailed evaluation of Venona and Alger Hiss, first published in 2000, an analysis substantively ignored by White.
White, by the way, treats Lowenthal’s essay very gingerly. He fails to mention it in his text, but he quietly acknowledges its existence in an endnote appended to a paragraph that (a) has nothing to do with Lowenthal; and (b) is not referenced under Lowenthal in the book’s index. Only an assiduous reader of endnotes is likely to stumble across White’s one comment on Lowenthal’s Venona scholarship, perhaps designedly so, since White is surprisingly generous in the small-print words he uses: “Lowenthal’s essay was a remarkable summary of the case for Hiss’s innocence.”
White commits a number of other errors in his “new evidence” chapter as well, inaccuracies brought on by a reversion to his previous practice of out-Weinsteining Weinstein. For example, White attempts to offer definitive proof that Hiss was ALES by writing, “Oleg Gordievsky stated that Hiss’s codename was ALES in a history of the KGB he published after defecting to Great Britain in 1985.” This statement seems significant at first glance, because Gordievsky was writing approximately a decade before the NSA made the Venona cables public.
What White doesn’t say is that Gordievsky got his information not from Soviet files or from former Soviet colleagues, but from American journalist Thomas Powers, who had seen National Security Agency documents on Venona years before their release. White is thus using the NSA’s interpretation of Venona to confirm the NSA’s interpretation of Venona. Like White, Allen Weinstein also cited the Gordievsky claim, calling it “collateral evidence” in his 1997 revised edition of Perjury. But later that same year, Allen Weinstein conceded, in a letter to The New York Review of Books, that the Gordievsky claim had been an error. Seven years later, however, Weinstein’s retraction has yet to reach White’s attention.
White also repeats another previously discredited Weinstein charge that appeared originally in Perjury. According to Weinstein, in 1938, Michael Straight, then a junior State Department officer, had tried to recruit Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent; the co-authors offered as proof a cable sent to Moscow by a U.S.-based Soviet agent. Straight denied the allegation in a 1997 letter to The New York Review of Books:
In his review of Allen Weinstein’s Perjury [NYR, November 20], Theodore Draper notes that I worried a Soviet intelligence agent, Isaac Akhmerov, “by offering to recruit Hiss, whom Akhmerov wanted left alone.”
No. In the June 1938 dispatch published by Weinstein, Akhmerov notes simply that I “mentioned” Hiss as “a very progressive man.” It is Weinstein, not Akhmerov, who then asserts that I “tried to recruit” Hiss. This is a grave and a damaging distortion. It is, at the same time, laughable. Hiss was an important official in the State Department in June 1938. I was an unpaid volunteer aged twenty-one.
Weinstein responded by saying he regretted his claim that Straight tried to recruit Hiss. This Weinstein retraction is only five years old, but it, too, has not yet made its way to White’s notice.
The B Material
White’s summation of the Hiss case – his recapitulation of What Hiss Did – is only the prologue to the subject that interests him most: Why Did He Do It? Having failed to demonstrate that Hiss betrayed his country, it seems an odd undertaking, since it can at best only hope to suggest theoretical arguments to support Why Might He Have Done It, If It Ever Turned Out That That’s What Actually Happened. To construct his portrait, White subjects events in Hiss’s life that have never been associated with Chambers’ charges – his early family life; his year as a law clerk for Oliver Wendell Holmes; his time in a federal penitentiary – to a searching reexamination.
There is a certain logic to this quest: Both Hiss’s supporters and his detractors have always seen a profound disconnect between his exemplary private life and admittedly distinguished public service, on the one hand, and, on the other, the malign portrait presented by Chambers of Hiss’s treachery and smoldering anger. For Chambers to have been correct, there must have been hidden patterns in the rest of Hiss’s life.
White looks hard for such patterns, and squeezes numerous suppositions together. But readers are left with various questions: Is White, in the first place, drawing fair inferences from the facts he brings forward? And does his emerging overall picture of Hiss ring true as a possible description of a real, flesh-and-blood human being, or does it present a figure so misshapen and unreal that it actually undercuts Chambers’ charges?
Life with Justice Holmes
It makes sense to look with particular care at White’s portrayal of Alger Hiss’s year with Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, because White has previously written two books about Holmes, one a full-length scholarly biography. Hiss was Holmes’s secretary from October 1929 to October 1930; Holmes was then 88, still mentally vigorous, and still a sitting Supreme Court Justice. During his term, Hiss convinced the reluctant and recently widowed Holmes to permit Hiss to read aloud to him on a daily basis. Hiss also married during the year, which was contrary to the Justice’s wishes that his secretaries remain unmarried so as not to be diverted from their duties. In both of these actions, White finds the seeds of Hiss’s later treachery as a communist spy.
Six months before Hiss took up his post as Holmes’s secretary, Fanny Holmes, the Justice’s wife of 57 years, died. Mrs. Holmes had regularly read aloud to her husband, to give him a break from the heavy reading load imposed on him by his court work. The Justice enjoyed it, and Hiss, who as a boy had been read to by his Aunt Lila, thought the still-grieving Justice might benefit if he resumed the activity. When he first broached the idea, however, Holmes dismissed it out of hand.
In his memoirs, Hiss writes that he learned that a close friend of the Justice’s, the British ambassador, Sir Esme Howard, enjoyed having his son, who was also his secretary, read aloud to him. Hiss relayed this information to Holmes, although he didn’t mention that Howard’s reader was his son. Hiss then enlisted the ambassador himself, asking Sir Esme to endorse the activity to his friend. The plan worked. Not long afterward, Holmes asked Hiss if he was still interested in reading to him. The daily sessions became part of Holmes’s life, and with subsequent secretaries until the Justice’s death in 1935.
In his 1990s Holmes biography, White found all this reading aloud unexceptionable. In Looking-Glass Wars, however, this same activity – at least when practiced by Hiss – has become malign. White calls Hiss’s methods “conniving” and a “deception,” and show him to have been a risk-taker, since “the strategy could well have backfired,” angering Holmes. White also writes that when one reads aloud to another it “can subtly change the relationship of the two people … from one of relative equals …. to one more resembling that of a caretaker and a patient.” He goes on to suggest that Hiss benefited more from the process than Holmes did, adding that “the process was sufficiently important to Hiss that he was prepared to enlist the British ambassador to the United States in a deception …”
According to White, Hiss’s deception was not mentioning to Holmes that it was Howard’s son who read to him, but in fact deception played no part in Holmes’s decision. If Hiss initially omitted mention of Howard’s son, Howard himself subsequently rectified the error. In Hiss’s 1981 Columbia University oral history, a rich source of information about Hiss’s life neglected by White, Hiss relates how Holmes came to change his mind on the matter:
… he said to me, “You still willing to read aloud to me?” I said that of course I was. “Well, Esme tells me that his son reads to him, he doesn’t mind it.”
As for any subtle changing of the relationship between the reader and the read-to, Hiss makes it clear in his memoir, Recollections of a Life, that in Holmes’s household, the Justice was clearly the boss, a fact which Hiss plainly welcomed. “No young lawyer,” Hiss wrote, “who spent a year with this model of the upright man could fail to wish to emulate him in conduct and character. Certainly Holmes was the most profound influence in my life.” At the same time, the Justice came to relish the daily reading aloud: “A measure of his astonishing vigor in his late eighties … [was] his avidity for the written word. When he was in his usual high spirits a regular greeting on coming back from the Court was, ‘Shall we have some culture?’ or, perhaps, ‘Will it be murder [a mystery story], or shall we improve our minds?'”
After Holmes’s retirement from the Supreme Court in 1932, larger portions of his day were allotted to reading. When several of his former secretaries (including Hiss who had left Washington after his term) returned to D.C. with the advent of the New Deal, they all took turns reading to the Justice. Nearly every study on reading aloud, by the way, shows that it benefits both parties. There’s nothing to indicate that reading aloud to Holmes by Alger Hiss or any other secretary or ex-secretary was any different from the norm.
White also sees brazen behavior and deception in Hiss’s December 11, 1929 marriage to Priscilla Hobson. To White, the wedding was especially troubling because, he argues, Hiss was aware of the ban beforehand but went ahead, anyway, figuring that once Holmes learned of the wedding, he would have no choice but to accept it. Hiss’s actions, writes White, demonstrated Hiss’s “strong belief in his ability to manipulate others,” the suggestion being this mirrored Hiss’s behavior later in life, when he falsely convinced many people he was innocent of the charges against him.
White begins building his case by quoting Hiss’s friend and attorney William Marbury. He says Marbury “later wrote” that Alger and Priscilla considered getting married before a justice of the peace since Alger “knew that he had to go back to work for Justice Holmes immediately, since in getting married during his [secretary]ship he was violating one of the conditions of his employment.”
To White, Marbury’s comment shows that Hiss was aware of the rule “when he began the secretaryship, or he had learned it by the time Priscilla and he decided to marry in December.” To support this view, White also cites a December 13, 1929 letter from Hiss to Felix Frankfurter (the bracketed comments in the letter are White’s) in which Hiss explains to his Harvard Law School mentor that:
I learned some 10 hours before my marriage [from a comment of Holmes’s] that the justice had definitely stipulated that his secretaries be unmarried. Of course, I had appreciated what must be [at] the bottom of this rule – the secretary’s personal affairs must never impinge upon a ‘scintilla’ of the justice’s time or energy, and I – rather we – laid meticulous plans until the last moment. As part of these plans the justice was not informed until the last moment (the evening before the wedding)…. It never occurred to me that he had a definite “rule of law” on the point…. I in nowise sensed any fiat negative to marriage qua marriage – of inconsiderateness, which might reasonably grow out of a secretary’s marrying, he did gently complain, I suppose.
White finds Hiss’s account internally inconsistent. Why, he asks, did Hiss lay “meticulous plans” if he had not known about the rule? He calls Hiss’s explanations “false and self-serving,” adding that the point of the meticulous plans was to keep “Holmes in the dark about their wedding,” because Alger and Priscilla Hiss knew it violated the Justice’s rule. White acknowledges that Hiss “may well not have known” about the rule when he took the job, but says “it seems clear” that he learned about it prior to his marriage, and that the “meticulous plans” were designed to put Holmes in a position where he in essence had to approve the union.
But as Hiss’s Columbia University oral history makes clear, White is again faulting Hiss when he might instead be lauding his integrity:
I got married on a weekend…. I’d never intended to take any time off, such was the sense of dedication we all had. I told the judge I had not told him before because I was afraid that he would ask me to take time off. I told him that I was afraid I had violated a condition under which I served him but of which I had no knowledge…. I said it [the wedding] would have to be performed in Washington because I couldn’t take time off from my job. He said, “All right, all right, take some time off.” And I said, “No, that’s why I didn’t tell you earlier. I will be back Monday.”
As for Marbury’s comment about Hiss being aware of the rule, Marbury, in the first place, “later wrote” nothing of the sort. In his memoir, In the Catbird Seat, Marbury simply provides a brief description of the marriage, saying he was surprised that Priscilla Hiss, who professed to be a Quaker, agreed to be married by a Presbyterian minister. He says nothing about the judge’s rule prior to his marriage to Priscilla. The source cited for Marbury’s comment is Allen Weinstein. In Perjury, Weinstein claims Marbury made the comment during an interview, but since Weinstein has refused to make his notes or tapes available to researchers, his accuracy can’t be checked.
As it stands, though, Marbury’s secondhand recollection was off target. Hiss didn’t tell Holmes of his impending wedding, not because he knew he was violating the judge’s edict, but because he was so dedicated to the job, he was afraid Holmes would ask him to take time off following the wedding.
White also writes that, although the Justice acquiesced to the wedding, it still rankled years later – but he offers only a single citation, a story told by Donald Hiss, that the subject of Hiss’s wedding was taboo with the Justice. White ignores other evidence that indicates that. once Holmes had found out about the wedding, far from feeling cornered, Holmes had no problem with it. For example, in quoting Hiss’s letter to Frankfurter, White chose not to include this line:
He has not shown any annoyance or foreboding. He both gave me his blessing the evening of the ceremony and his “welcome into the brotherhood” the following morning. Today he had us both to luncheon. (Of course, these are consonant, I well realize, with disapproval hidden behind the Justice’s charm.)
But if there was real disapproval, Holmes never revealed it. Hiss wrote in his autobiography that upon hearing of the wedding, Holmes asked for his checkbook, in order to give the two a proper present (Hiss wouldn’t accept it, asking instead for an inscribed copy of Holmes’s speeches). Priscilla Hiss was subsequently a welcomed luncheon visitor. After his term, Alger Hiss returned regularly to visit with and read to the Justice. In his will, the Justice bequeathed to Hiss a prized Queen Anne mirror that had been in his family for generations.
Other letters and accounts written by Hiss, and others, refer humorously to the incident, again indicating that the Justice was not as displeased as White makes him out to have been. For example, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who was informed about the marriage on the day of the event, wrote in a December 17, 1929 note to Frankfurter, “O.W.H. talked to me about Hiss’s marriage the other day. I think you had better exact from his next secretary a vow of one year’s celibacy.”
Perhaps the most direct proof that Holmes was not furious with Hiss, and felt neither deceived nor coerced by him, comes in another letter Brandeis sent to Frankfurter, this one written on the very day of Hiss’s evening wedding, December 11, 1929. (Both these letters appear in “Half Brother, Half Son,” a 1991 collection of the full Brandeis-to-Frankfurter correspondence.) The “Half Brother, Half Son” editors’ notes for this December 11th letter explain that “Justice Holmes had an informal rule that his clerks should not marry. Hiss did not know about that custom and had become engaged to Priscilla Hobson. When informed of the rule, he rushed over to Holmes to confess and ask for mercy. FF, in a panic, asked LDB to go over and help in the negotiations.”
The first paragraph of the December 11th letter records Brandeis’s same-day account of his visit to Holmes:
Obedient to your telegram I called on O.W.H. Hiss was still there. The Justice was in the best of form, rollicking, playful in spirit & entirely without worry of any kind. I concluded he needed no assurance about Hiss.
The book of Brandeis’s letters to Frankfurter is listed in the bibliography of White’s 1993 biography of Holmes, and White also quotes from it in Looking-Glass Wars – citing an April 21, 1929 Brandeis-to-Frankfurter note about Hiss’s predecessor with Holmes. But the two letters quoted here – both of which offer firsthand testimony about Holmes’s reaction to Hiss’s marriage from a Holmes intimate known worldwide for his acuteness of mind and integrity – are strangely absent from Looking-Glass Wars.
Alger Hiss: Radical?
The art of psychological profiling has advanced considerably in recent years – the CIA uses it to help understand the mental processes of adversaries, and the FBI uses it to help find serial killers such as the Unibomber. The basic idea is to start by being as sure as possible of the facts of someone’s life – “triangulate the data, and then cross-check it,” as one practitioner, a New York City psychoanalyst, has recently stated. After that, “you have to consider alternate explanations.” This, the profiler said, “is how you construct an analytic work that stands up,” warning that you “generally don’t base conclusions on one strand of evidence – that makes for a thin read.”
White, on the other hand, begins by failing to assemble all the facts, even those already familiar to him. He then speculatively seeks a single explanation that he can fit to these unestablished assertions. The book is pieced together out of might-have-beens, could-well-haves, and may-have-felts. But what happens to “could haves” when on close examination they turn into “didn’ts”?
Let’s look, for example, in some detail at another aspect of White’s psychological profile – the evolution of Hiss’s political thinking that led him to become a New Dealer and, according to Weinstein and White, a communist and a spy, as well. White’s account of these pre-beginnings of the Hiss case is the one section of the book that blends A and B material. Alger Hiss, in his own writings, was proud of the fact that the Great Depression had opened his eyes to suffering in the United States, and had motivated him to join the Roosevelt administration to work for political reform and national recovery.
On the other hand, according to Whittaker Chambers, Hiss was only pretending to be a New Dealer, since he had become a fanatical Marxist bent on betraying and overthrowing the government he worked for. In his unquestioning presentation of Chambers’ charges as facts, rather than first trying to establish whether the available evidence supports such an accusation, White is – once again – an overeager investigator, someone who wants to start running a race on the second lap. The fundamental What question – “What changes actually occurred in Hiss’s politics?” – never comes up, because White is too busy chasing a Why question – “Why did Hiss become a communist?” – that, until we know with some certainty what did happen, is as meaningless as asking, “Why did Hiss become a Republican?”
White’s presentation: White writes that Hiss first came across radical groups while he was working as an attorney in New York City in the early 1930s, but that it was Priscilla Hiss who was perhaps most responsible for his entry into that milieu. According to White, Priscilla was behind most of Alger’s major decisions in the first years of their marriage. She persuaded him to give up the idea of practicing law in Baltimore and instead move to Boston, and it was she who later wanted him to move to New York. White adds, “She may have first called Alger’s attention to the growing breadlines and soup kitchens, the shanty towns in parks and vacant lots, the beggars [that] gave sharp reality to accounts of similar and even worse conditions throughout the country.”
Once Hiss’s social conscience was pricked, White says, Hiss joined the International Juridical Association, which published a journal that aided lawyers working on behalf of labor and hard-pressed farmers. White refers to the IJA as a “popular-front” group of “liberals and collectivists,” whose work was “part of a transformation in his [Hiss’s] political perspective.”
The next step in Hiss’s radicalization process was his decision to join the New Deal in 1933, as a lawyer with the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. There, Hiss became one of a group of Young Turks, lawyers who sought to take on powerful Southern farming interests by standing up for poor sharecroppers and tenant farmers living under conditions not much better than slavery.
White doesn’t specify exactly when, but he writes, “At the same time, he [Hiss], Lee Pressman, and some other former members of the IJA, who had also relocated to Washington, joined a ‘discussion group,’ organized by Harold Ware, a member of the Communist Party …. The Ware Group was to form the base for Hiss’s entry into secret intelligence work for the Soviet Union.” Hiss joined the group, White writes, in 1934, out of frustration with the slow pace of reform within the AAA. White’s source for this is Nathaniel Weyl, a writer who testified before HUAC in 1952 that he had also been a member of the Ware Group.
White buttresses his portrait of Hiss as a radical by noting that even before moving to New York, Priscilla Hiss had “exhibited an attraction to collectivist politics.” He also writes that what he calls “popular-front collectivism” “seemed an attractive alternative” to Alger Hiss once he had concluded that the Depression “was a result of moral and political failure on the part of ‘decrepit social structures.'”
White describes Hiss at this time as a “fanatical” and “dedicated” communist, and writes that once Hiss joined the Ware Group, he began paying regular dues to the Communist Party. Even more damning, according to White, is that in 1934 Hiss began intelligence work for the Soviet Union, passing State Department documents that he had received while working for the Nye Committee, to Whittaker Chambers. This, White writes, was the culmination not only of a political progression but also a psychological one: a growing need to rebel against expectations that he always be good and responsible, a burden placed on him as a little boy by a demanding mother in the wake of his father’s suicide.
What the evidence shows: Hiss was exposed to radical politics long before he and Priscilla Hiss moved to New York in 1932. While still an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, his economics professor was a well-known socialist named Broadus Mitchell. Mitchell had little impact on Hiss’s essentially conservative outlook. “We were so thoroughly inoculated by prevailing social and economic views against his mildly Socialistic opinions, that they made no impression on us,” Hiss wrote years later in a long essay about the evolution of his political philosophy. “His examples of the shortcomings of business practices and philosophy did tend to fortify the moral and esthetic distaste for business as a career some of us had developed, but none of us was led to consider the possibility of structural defects in our industrial society.”
At Harvard Law School, Hiss came under the influence of Felix Frankfurter. Hiss enjoyed a close relationship with the future Supreme Court Justice, who was then championing the cause of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian anarchists whose 1927 execution in nearby Charleston was a devastating and embittering event for many students on the Harvard campus. With this exposure to Frankfurter and other professors, Hiss’s interest in politics increased, but as a fan of his fellow Baltimorean H. L. Mencken, and the other iconoclastic writers of the 1920s, Hiss saw himself more as a cultural bohemian rather than as a political radical. Opposing Herbert Hoover in 1928, he sided with the social reformer Al Smith over the socialist Norman Thomas.
In his chapter on Hiss’s year-long term as Oliver Wendell Holmes’s secretary, White never addresses the influence that Holmes had on Hiss’s political outlook, even though Hiss frequently said that that the liberal Justice’s impact on him was enormous. Holmes was the “embodiment of the American tradition at its finest,” said Hiss, adding that, from him, he had learned to appreciate and to be rooted within the “Great Span” of American history, a partnership of patriots and freedom-lovers across the generations.
Hiss still had no real interest in public service, however. When his term with Holmes was over, he was offered a job in the antitrust division of the Department of Justice, but turned it down. Instead, he went to work for Choate, Hall and Stewart, a major corporate law firm in Boston. When Priscilla Hiss took on a book project about fine arts that required her to be in New York, Alger joined her there, after securing work with another large corporate firm, Cotton, Franklin, Wright & Gordon.
It was life in Depression-era New York, Hiss later wrote, that sparked his decision to offer his services on behalf of the poor. In what was probably the worst year of the Depression, Hiss began to take note of the apple sellers and the shantytowns he saw daily on his way to work. His empathy for their plight led him to look for ways to help. The International Juridical Association, as White notes, was Hiss’s first foray into political action – but, as White also notes, the IJA brought together both liberal and more radical attorneys, and membership by itself gives no indications of anyone’s political leanings.
White writes that Priscilla Hiss became attracted to “collectivist” politics around this period, but he never defines this catch-all term, nor does he offer a source for his assertion. She did help out in a soup kitchen run by the Norman Thomas branch of the Socialist Party, and did register as a member of the Socialist Party in 1932. She later said she didn’t vote for Thomas (an extreme anti-communist) in the 1932 presidential campaign. Alger Hiss, who White claims had become a radical by 1932, voted for Franklin Roosevelt that year as a registered Democrat.
To help out the IJA, Hiss spent many evenings sifting through court cases to find precedents for attorneys representing poor farmers. For the rest of his life, he was proud of his work with the group, although he did think the word “International” in its title was a little presumptuous for such a small band of lawyers. By March 1933, when Jerome Frank, on the recommendation of Felix Frankfurter, called Hiss and asked him to become an attorney with the New Deal’s newly formed Agricultural Adjustment Administration, Hiss was still sufficiently “un-radicalized” to say no. He did become a New Dealer three weeks later – but only after Frankfurter sent him a telegram saying the country had entered a “national emergency” that required his services.
According to White, Hiss joined the so-called Ware Group in 1934 out of frustration with the slow pace of reform in the AAA. But Hiss, as he later wrote, in fact considered his own work there – raising prices by lowering production, and paying subsidies directly to tenant farmers and sharecroppers rather than to plantation owners – ground-breaking and generally successful.
Other evidence – overlooked by White – indicates that stories placing Hiss in the so-called Ware Group were false. Nathaniel Weyl, at one point, told the FBI that he and Hiss had both been members of the group, but this seemingly straightforward testimony, on closer look, takes on a more ambiguous cast. None of Whittaker Chambers’ statements to government officials, from 1939 to 1949, about his time as the Ware Group’s courier, mention Weyl’s name even once. Weyl himself said nothing about Hiss in testimony he gave before HUAC in 1943 or on numerous other occasions, mentioning Hiss for the first time only in 1950, after Hiss’s conviction.
White cites Lee Pressman’s 1950 HUAC testimony about his own membership in the group, but as was previously pointed out, he omits the fact that Pressman, at the same time, swore that Hiss was not a member. Pressman testified that he joined the Communist Party in 1934, after meeting Harold Ware. He said he was then assigned to a small group in Washington (which he said had no name); it had three other members, he said, none of whom were either Weyl or Hiss. Pressman also said that the group met once a month (Weyl said they met weekly).
And the contradictions get only more complex: Weyl, for example, said that when he joined the group in the summer of 1933, Hiss was already a member (this contradicts even White, who says that Hiss joined in 1934). Weyl also said that Chambers was the group’s courier in 1933, contradicting Chambers’ testimony that he wasn’t put in contact with the group until 1934. And since White says that Hiss joined the group out of frustration with the AAA, which he joined in April 1933, then Hiss, if Weyl was correct, would have had to have lost patience with the New Deal almost immediately after depositing his first paychecks.
While White (through Weinstein) relies on Weyl’s questionable statements, he ignores a more reliable and more recently available source for information, about whether Hiss was a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America – the Party’s files themselves, which, among other places, are now available on microfilm at New York University. The files contain numerous references to the work of several Party members working in the Roosevelt Administration, including Pressman, John Abt and Nathan Witt, all three of whom were members of the Ware Group; Hiss’s name, on the other hand, never appears once.
There is, however, an indirect reference to him in the CPUSA files, in a memorandum discussing proteges of Felix Frankfurter who had joined the New Deal. Hiss, though unnamed, was certainly a member of this group, since he had joined the AAA at Frankfurter’s behest, and maintained a close relationship with the future Supreme Court justice throughout this period. The memo’s description of the group’s non-communist political outlook is a remarkably accurate – if totally unexpected – description both of the work Hiss actually produced during his time at the AAA, and of later recollections of his contributions by AAA colleagues:
Brandeis-Frankfurter group, the most powerful unified group within the government, works toward strict government policing of bad economic and social practices, but insists on capitalism, profit incentive, individualism, decentralization, local responsibility, and small business vs. big business.
A Brief Sampling of Additional Factual Errors in the Book
White’s book, which aspires to be a definitive contribution to Hiss-case scholarship, is in the end only a curiosity, a demonstration that even trained minds can lose the scent of truth when in the grip of alluring and misleading assumptions. Factual errors, errors of omission, and errors of interpretation abound in the book. Some are minor; many could have been cleared up with minimal fact-checking. Cumulatively, they diminish a reader’s respect for White’s command of his subject. A few are noted here:
• White says that Abel Gross was one of Chambers’ sources. There was no such person. According to Witness, Abel Gross was one of Chambers’ own pseudonyms, a name he used when applying for one of his government contacts. White says that after Chambers’ break with the Party, he took a job with the Bureau of Standards. Not so – he got a job with the National Research Project.
• White writes that Chambers briefly traveled to Russia after leaving Columbia University. Chambers never traveled to Russia. A letter he claimed to have sent to his friend Meyer Schapiro from the Soviet Union was shown to be fraudulent. Elsewhere in the book, White mistakenly describes the film that Chambers withdrew from the pumpkin as “microfilm.” It was standard 35mm film.
• White, who believes so strongly in Chambers’ charges, nevertheless frequently garbles them. He suggests, for instance, that Hiss moved to the State Department in September 1936 because of the opportunity this presented to steal government papers, but, according to Chambers, the man who planted the notion of pilfering in Hiss’s head hadn’t yet even arrived in the country at the point when Hiss was offered – and accepted – the job. Similarly, when White retells Chambers’ dramatic account of his last meeting with the Hisses, he says that Alger Hiss called his comments about the Soviet Union “mental masturbation,” and that Priscilla Hiss gave him a small wooden rolling pin as a Christmas present for his daughter. This reverses Chambers’ story that Hiss gave him the rolling pin, while Priscilla Hiss bitterly denounced him for abandoning communism.
• White is inaccurate even about his own father-in-law’s involvement with the Hiss case. He says that Davis’s work for the defense largely ended in 1948, even though the defense files clearly show that Davis continued tracking down many investigative leads for the defense, right up until Hiss’s 1950 conviction. (He correctly acknowledges that Davis continued to believe in Hiss’s innocence throughout his life. Davis died in 2000, at the age of 93.)
• According to White, two other Hiss attorneys, William Marbury and Edward McLean, eventually decided that Hiss was lying about his relationship with Chambers. This is untrue. While Marbury and McLean both later expressed a feeling that Priscilla Hiss had been hiding something, neither man ever wavered in a belief in Hiss’s innocence.
• White writes that Hiss’s boss in the State Department, Francis B. Sayre, declined to testify in his behalf. Sayre did testify for Hiss at his second trial, and believed in Hiss’s innocence until his death.
• White writes that Hiss “duped” his son, Tony Hiss, into writing a pro-Hiss book in the 1970s as part of a false campaign for vindication. Tony Hiss replied to that charge in a letter published by The New York Times Book Review on March 21, 2004.
• White writes that during his false campaign for vindication, Hiss made money off the Hiss case by “prospering on the lecture circuit” in the 1970s. On the contrary, Hiss insisted on donating his lecture fees to the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, to help defray the costs of the Freedom of Information Act and coram nobis law suits he filed in that decade, to reopen the case and set the record straight.
Jeff Kisseloff is managing editor of this website.