Jeff Kisseloff (2009) – I
Jeff Kisseloff points to a series of inaccuracies in a book written to put the Hiss case in its historical context, for Yale University Press’s “Icons of America” series.
“A Battle Lost”
by Jeff Kisseloff
Susan Jacoby, Alger Hiss and the Battle for History (Yale University Press, New Haven: 2009).
On November 17, 1948, Whittaker Chambers led congressional investigators to the “soon-to-be-famous pumpkin-encased microfilm, containing copies of classified State Department documents, on his Maryland farm.”
So writes Susan Jacoby – engagingly but erroneously – in her book, Alger Hiss and the Battle for History. The book is published by Yale University Press as part of its “Icons of America” series, whose purpose is perspective and distillation, by encouraging critics and writers (the Press’s website explains) to put together “short works” that “tell a new and innovative story” about American history “through the lens of a single iconic individual, event, object, or cultural phenomenon.” Some of the icons explored so far include “Gone With the Wind” and a history of the hamburger.
But in this case the lens is distorted, and, unfortunately, Susan Jacoby, a best-selling author of note who’s been a Pulitzer Prize nominee, winds up writing an old and imitative story, one that won’t satisfy even those who agree with Jacoby’s premise that Hiss was guilty as charged. She has an iconic story to tell: the Hiss case, often called “the trial of the century,” has had a lasting, and still hotly debated, impact on American life, igniting McCarthyism and since then repeatedly invoked in opposition to New Deal reforms (which are characterized as “20 years of treason”). But Jacoby, as in the passage cited above, repeatedly stumbles over crucial facts  of the case. Perhaps this was bound to happen, given that, early on, she states, not without some satisfaction, that she has little knowledge of what she calls the “minutiae” of the evidence, and considers this an advantage, even a virtue: “Poring over documents [is] so endless (and often so dull) that it would be impossible for anyone but a Cold War junkie to read them without going blind or mad.”
It’s a sprightly new variant on the-dog-ate-my-homework, and it shows Jacoby’s approach – the writing is reader-friendly, but the investigation has been short-circuited. She’s done both herself and her readers a disservice, since as this writer can attest, after many years of delving into the case (with sanity still intact), the Hiss-case FBI documents are actually a fascinating window into government operations during that period, while Hiss’s defense files provide an equally intriguing view of how Hiss and his lawyers, working against a tight deadline, monumentally struggled to construct a counterattack against Whittaker Chambers’ allegations. Work – yes, dull – no.
Not having to worry about the facts of the Hiss case conceivably might have freed Jacoby to concentrate on the wider implications of the case. But instead she trains her lens on a blind alley. Not having done any basic spadework herself, she is forced to rely from the beginning on the findings of others, and, without coming to any independent evaluation of her sources, she opts to accept as valid the questionable scholarship and polemics of Allen Weinstein, John Earl Haynes (whose name she misspells), Harvey Klehr, G. Edward White and Ann Coulter – all of whom proclaim Hiss guilty. By abdicating her primary task, any conclusions she reaches about the Battle for History are, in the absence of due diligence, unearned.
Echoing her mentors, Jacoby reports that the evidence against Hiss is “very persuasive,” if not “conclusive.” But she often goes them one better – or, more accurately, one worse, going out of her way to denigrate Hiss, describing him at different points in the manuscript as “a clever young man on the make,” a “people-pleaser,” a “charmer,” and a person who spent the 1920s “grooming himself and being groomed for success.” Jacoby even questions why his case continues to be worthy of attention, since he wasn’t executed like the Rosenbergs. All of Hiss’s defenders are on the receiving end of these missiles, even Hiss’s stepson, Timothy Hobson. In her introduction, she mentions being in the audience at the conference on the Hiss case held at New York University in April 2007. Speaking out in public for the first time, Hobson, a retired surgeon, gave an emotional speech. He said he knew his stepfather was innocent because he was living in the Hiss’s tiny 30th Street house in Georgetown during the very time when Chambers said he was coming by regularly. And this simply hadn’t happened.
Jacoby was not only unmoved, but also incredulous, calling Hobson’s speech “a pathetic spectacle of an old man trying to earn a stepfather’s love from beyond the grave.”
Since Jacoby hadn’t bothered to read through the defense files, she didn’t know that Hobson been telling this same story privately for years, first as a young man and later as a middle-aged one: it’s what he said to the defense and to the FBI in 1949, and repeated in the early 1960s, after volunteering to be taped after havine been administered a truth serum. As it happened, I had already myself asked Hobson about why anyone shouldn’t think he was merely trying to protect the reputation of his mother and stepfather by supporting their story. His prompt reply was that he loved them – but not enough to lie for them. 
Had Jacoby bothered to read the record, she might also have learned that there was more to Hobson’s story than a simple denial: During the time Chambers claimed to be visiting the Hisses and picking up and returning the copied government files Hiss had given him, Hobson was laid up in bed for months on end with a badly mangled leg as a result of a bicycle accident. It was a detail that anyone who knew the family well would have known, but Chambers never said a word about it when recounting the story of his supposed close friendship with the Hisses. More to the point, it was this experience of being confined to the house – a small Georgetown row house with paper-thin walls, where everyone knew what everyone else was doing – that allowed Hobson to categorically contradict Chambers’ charges.
Here is just a sampling of other factual mistakes in Alger Hiss, some admittedly merely slipshod, others more significant, that are the inevitable result of inadequate or abjured scholarship, and all of which diminish a reader’s confidence in her reliability as a reporter of events:
* Jacoby writes that Alger Hiss was the only one of the alleged former members of the underground cell described by Chambers to respond to his charges before HUAC. She is wrong, and in an important way. Donald Hiss, Alger Hiss’s brother, also testified, and even the FBI declared there was no basis for Chambers’ allegations against Donald Hiss. Decades later this proved to have implications for a proper evaluation of the 1995 Venona  releases of intercepted and decoded Soviet wartime telegrams, which Hiss’s detractors proclaimed the nail in the coffin for his claim of innocence. The key telex, dated March 30, 1945, said the unnamed Soviet spy codenamed “ALES,” who the Bureau, in a footnote, said was “probably” Alger Hiss , worked with “a small group for the most part consisting of his relations.” Eliminating Donald Hiss from the equation casts considerable doubt on the FBI’s already tenuous “ALES” identification. To her credit, Jacoby doesn’t totally buy into claims that this single Venona cable proves Hiss’s guilt, although she does accepts the arguments of its two most vocal proponents (John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr) that Hiss had been a Soviet agent.
*Jacoby writes that Chambers first appeared before HUAC on August 2, 1948. It was August 3. She then compounds her error by saying Hiss appeared before HUAC three days later. It was two days later, on August 5. Similarly, Jacoby writes that Hiss went to jail in 1950, rather than in March 1951.
* Jacoby writes that Hiss denied knowing Chambers in his first appearance before HUAC. This distortion is often repeated by Hiss’s detractors, but saying it again and again doesn’t make it any more true. It’s an assertion is rooted in then-Rep. Richard Nixon’s statement that the crux of the case consisted of whether Hiss knew Chambers. Nixon, when he said this, already knew that the two men had indeed known each other, but he used the false issue to manipulate public opinion against Hiss.
What Hiss denied from the start was knowing anyone “by the name” of Chambers. This in part stemmed from a question put to him by the FBI the year before, when he was asked for the first time whether he knew anyone named Whittaker Chambers. Hiss said no – and he didn’t. He had known a man named George Crosley, which, as it later turned out, was a name Chambers had used. Although Hiss’s detractors don’t usually care to mention it, even Chambers testified that Hiss never knew him by his real name. Still, when Hiss later testified that Crosley was Chambers, Nixon carefully orchestrated the response to make it seem as if Hiss were backtracking on his earlier testimony.
Jacoby contends that Hiss was being deliberately adroit in early testimony about Chambers. Of course, there were sound reasons for Hiss to choose his words with care. Hiss, for one thing, was unsure, at first, whether Chambers was the man he had known in the 1930s as George Crosley, and he didn’t want to misidentify someone under oath before HUAC. For another, while Jacoby criticizes Hiss’s use of qualifiers like “to be the best of my memory,” he had no choice but to protect himself before an already hostile committee that clearly had documentary information on matters that Hiss had to recall from the recesses of his memory. Hiss knew that any mistakes in his testimony could prompt a perjury charge from a Republican-dominated committee that was fully aware of the political implications of the Hiss-Chambers controversy, at a time when the GOP had its first real chance to reoccupy the White House in fifteen years.
Nor was there any indication that, as Jacoby says, Hiss had forgotten Crosley. He said he preferred not to identify Chambers from a photograph, and, this is the key: he testified in his first appearance that he was disappointed the committee hadn’t arranged have Chambers/Crosley in the room during Hiss’s testimony. That would have cleared up the issue on the spot, but it also would have left Richard Nixon and HUAC without an issue to exploit.
* Jacoby seems to be saying (though with some doubt in her mind) that, during Hiss’s trials, the defense maintained that “the FBI, or Chambers with FBI assistance, manufactured a copy of the Hisses’ Woodstock [typewriter], in an attempt to frame the defendant.” Actually, this issue was never raised at trial. It was the defense that offered the typewriter into evidence. While it was conceded at the time that this may have been the machine that typed the documents, the Hisses testified that they had gotten rid of it before the most recent date on the typed documents. The defense also showed that a number of the original documents, which appeared on the film Chambers produced (film that came to be known as the Pumpkin Papers), had never crossed Hiss’s desk, and he therefore could not have been their source. The charge of “forgery by typewriter” was not raised by Hiss until after the trial – he used the phrase for the first time at his sentencing – and was not explored in depth until Hiss’s motion for a new trial, filed in 1952. Jacoby doesn’t mention the motion, or the supporting affidavits from several technical experts. She simply chooses to denigrate the theory, even though it is now well known that the FBI had the capability of forging documents and had done so with some success.
* Jacoby writes, “The FBI and State Department files, which Hiss had always maintained would show that the government had suppressed exculpatory evidence, did no such thing.” This is incorrect. The FBI documents produced by Hiss, and incorporated into his coram nobis petition (1978), revealed that the prosecution had withheld considerable exculpatory evidence. That more information damaging to the government’s case wasn’t revealed was not because such evidence didn’t exist, but because the FBI continued to withhold it – and still does. This was demonstrated, in 2006, when the FBI released to this writer the file of Hede Massing, a key witness at the second Hiss trial who testified in support of Chambers’ contention that Hiss had been a member of the Communist underground. According to these then-released documents, however, Massing had been a longtime confidential informant of the FBI who hadn’t said a word about Hiss, until it was apparent that she could make some money selling a story about the case, and who was also testifying under the threat of deportation. Had this been known in the 1970s, Hiss’s coram nobis effort might have had a more successful conclusion.
Jacoby goes on to say about Weinstein’s research that “equally important were interviews” that Weinstein conducted “with old associates of Chambers (including [J.] Peters, who was unquestionably a Soviet agent).” Whether J. Peters was actually an agent is still under debate, but there’s no question that Peters said nothing to Weinstein that confirmed Chambers’ story about Hiss. In fact, the only time J. Peters went on record on the subject was in an autobiography he wrote in the 1990s. In it, contrary to Chambers’ allegations, Peters wrote that he had never met Alger Hiss.
* She writes that Chambers told Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle, in 1939, that Hiss was a member of the Communist Party. Berle stated on several occasions, including before HUAC and to the FBI, that Chambers told him no such thing. Berle said that Chambers told him some rather vague stories (a comment that would be echoed by the FBI about Chambers in 1942), to the effect that Alger Hiss and his brother, Donald, were targets for recruitment by the Party. In fact, no proof has ever surfaced that Hiss was a member of the Communist Party, or that he ever moved anywhere to the left of New Deal liberalism. Jacoby also repeats the canard spread by, of all people, Ann Coulter, that Berle (a vigilant anti-communist) never followed up on Chambers’ vague story, as if he was somehow being negligent. The fact is, though, that he did follow up, repeating what Chambers had told him, for what it was worth, to Marvin McIntyre, President Roosevelt’s Appointments Secretary for a number of years and one of his intimates.
Those are just a sampling of the facts Jacoby gets wrong. Then there’s the innuendo, the unnecessary roughness in her wording and characterization (in football unnecessary roughness is considered “a sign of lack of discipline”).  Echoing a technique employed by Weinstein in Perjury, she almost reflexively presents any allegation or comment about Alger Hiss or his defenders in a negative light. (The award-winning biographer Matthew Josephson spotted Weinstein’s use of description-by-denigration back in 1977, writing to this author, “If Chambers failed to remember something going back 13 years, it was an ‘inconvenience’ for the prosecution. If Hiss showed a memory lapse about minor matters 13 years back, then he had been ‘lying’ for thirty years! …Weinstein has no sense of values as a biographer or historian to lead him through all this chaotic mass of stuff, but adopts the standards of HUAC, the FBI, Nixon, even.”)
In Jacoby’s Alger Hiss, this thumb-on-the-scales-of-history can be seen even in her introduction, where she states matter-of-factly, but without citing any facts, that the aforementioned “Alger Hiss & History” conference at NYU was composed of “several hundred people who continue to believe that Hiss was framed by a right-wing conspiracy.” A check of the speakers indicates that they included, among others, Timothy Naftali, G. Edward White and David Oshinksy, all of whom are on record as saying Hiss was guilty. Let’s assume neither she nor anyone else in attendance actually polled the audience. This author, who as it happens also spoke at the conference, noticed plenty of warm applause for the speakers who defended the prosecution’s case.
She attributes an almost cult-like quality to those who believe in Hiss’s innocence. In her view, “Hiss’s defenders” or “Hiss’s supporters,” are a sorry and perhaps unhinged lot, invariably a knee-jerk, sentimental group, extremely small in number , who refuse to acknowledge the by-now-obvious truth. That there could still be widespread skepticism regarding a verdict based on questionable evidence is not a point of view to which she seems ever to have given consideration.
The Hiss champion who comes under the most severe criticism is the late John Lowenthal. In 1991, Richard Nixon, and in 1992 Lowenthal (acting on behalf of the 88-year-old Hiss), independently of each other asked General Dmitiri A. Volkogonov, who was then Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s military adviser and overseer of all the Soviet intelligence archives, for Soviet files on the Hiss case. After researching the files, Volkogonov responded with a brief letter, saying that the files contained no evidence that Hiss was a spy. Hiss, as was to be expected, was gratified by the response, while Hiss’s longtime detractors were outraged. The latter insisted that Volkogonov couldn’t have examined all the evidence, and they got some comfort when, a few days later, Volkgonov appeared to back off from his own letter by saying that he was pressured into making his comments by Lowenthal, and that, essentially, he was just trying to be kind to an old man nearing the end of his life.
Jacoby recounts this story, but parses Lowenthal’s original note to Volkogonov to find more evidence of Hiss’s wily and devious behavior. She says Lowenthal’s request, that Volkogonov search for evidence that Hiss was “never a paid, contracted agent for the Soviet Union,” was a “carefully constructed phrase,” because no one had ever alleged that Hiss had been paid; Hiss, his accusers asserted, had been an unpaid agent, acting strictly out of loyalty to the Soviet Union.
Actually, the original request, written in August 1992, and signed by Hiss, asks that Lowenthal be allowed to examine all the Soviet files “about me, Whittaker Chambers, and the Hiss case.” That covers pretty much everything. Volkogonov was unqualified in his response, writing on October 14, 1992, that on the basis of all the information available, “Alger Hiss was never an agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union.” The word “paid” does not appear once in either letter.
Volkgonov’s subsequent “retraction,” as Jacoby calls it, was published on December 17 in The New York Times. Here, he is quoted by Serge Schmemann as saying that, “I only looked through what the KGB had. All I said was that I saw no evidence.” Volkogonov appeared to blame Lowenthal for his findings, saying, “His attorney, Lowenthal, pushed me hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced.”
There is evidence that Volkgonov’s retraction was the result of considerable political pressure, but this is matter for another story. Of more direct concern are transcripts of two interviews Lowenthal himself had with Volkgonov. Neither reveals any effort by Lowenthal to put words in Volkogonov’s mouth. Moreover, the second interview, conducted in Washington, DC on November 11, directly contradicts Jacoby’s allegation. In that interview, Volkogonov begins by confirming the substance of his note, “that Alger Hiss has never been a paid agent for the Soviet Union.”
So, if he was falling into a trap set by the wily Hiss and Lowenthal, why was Lowenthal’s first question to Volkgonov, “And was he ever an unpaid agent?”
Volkogonov response was both unpushed and unequivocal: “According to the Soviet files, he was never a paid or unpaid agent.”
So much for Jacoby’s charge.
The Volkgonov affair made headlines across the country. This upsets Jacoby, who wonders why Hiss became such a cause célèbre, since, as previously mentioned, he wasn’t executed like the Rosenbergs, but instead lived the rest of his life in “relatively comfortable circumstances,” as if that renders him unworthy of sympathy or concern. (She does acknowledge the damage done when a person’s civil liberties are lost; she just doesn’t feel this was the case with Alger Hiss.) While it’s true that Hiss wasn’t sent to the electric chair, or even banished to Devil’s Island like Alfred Dreyfus, he was forced out of a promising career (he was often mentioned as a future Secretary of State), spent almost four years of his life in prison, and then had to scramble to make a living as a stationery salesman. Mostly, though, he became – and remains – a cause célèbre because he was – and continues to be – seen as a decent man, the victim of a gross miscarriage, as well as the central figure in what became the watershed case for discrediting liberalism over the next 60 years.
It also seems to trouble Jacoby that Hiss actually made a living during the early 1930s, writing that Hiss “is an iconic figure for another, frequently overlooked reason: he was one of a minority of Americans who prospered during the Depression.” Then, in a strange, contradictory aside, she says she doesn’t believe Hiss’s story about making small loans to Chambers in the mid-1930s, because why would someone make loans during such hard times? So Hiss first made too much money, and then didn’t hold onto it firmly enough. (Hiss, at least after he joined the New Deal, was in fact not particularly prosperous: he wasn’t able to purchase a home until 1943, and though his stepson, Timothy Hobson, attended a private school, those bills were paid by the boy’s father, Thayer Hobson, a New York publisher, who was continually prosperous.)  Something about Hiss seems to have gotten under Jacoby’s skin, since – uniquely – she condemns him for not having suffered enough either before or after Chambers’ charges.
It is disturbing to see a fine writer getting so much wrong, particularly when she makes mistakes that could have been avoided by picking up a phone. She retells, for example, Chambers’ story that Hiss had no use for Shakespeare, with Chambers supposedly quoting Hiss as saying, “I just don’t like Shakespeare – platitudes in blank verse.” To her credit, she follows this by saying, “It will be objected that it is unfair to Hiss to allow Chambers to define him.” But she could have settled the issue, rather than leaving it hanging, simply by asking someone who lived with the Hisses in the 1930s for clarifying information. Which I did: I wrote to Tim Hobson, who emailed me back:
Blatantly false! He and Prossy used to read Shakespeare aloud in the evenings! It shows again how much (little) Chambers knew about the Hiss family.
Her irritation with Hiss, which by now has been repeated frequently enough to have become established as a bias, again emerge clear when she suggests that, following his graduation from Harvard Law School, Hiss took the job as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s secretary simply because it was a good career move. Hiss had no idea he was even up for the post until he received a personal handwritten note from Holmes, informing him that he had been chosen. For years every third-year Harvard Law School student had known that this was the greatest honor that could be bestowed upon any graduate – to spend a year clerking for probably the greatest Supreme Court Justice since John Jay. There was no vying for this honor, it was simply bestowed, and of course Hiss accepted. No Harvard student of that generation had ever declined this offer.
While Jacoby repeatedly tries to portray Hiss as a kind of Washington-based Sammy Glick, there’s nothing in Hiss’s record (unlike Chambers’) showing that he ever misused anyone else to achieve his goals. Hiss’s being so straight-laced (as opposed to Chambers) also seems suspect to Jacoby, and she claims to find the clues to his guilt in his two books, In the Court of Public Opinion (1957), and Recollections of a Life (1988). Both book, she asserts, are too dispassionate, an indication that Hiss must be hiding something. She finds Chambers’ Witness more reliable, because in that book the man who saw himself as the reincarnation of Doestoyevski couldn’t help but turn the inner recesses of his soul inside out. But to trust Chambers it’s necessary to overlook the fact that many of his revelations have since been exposed as concoctions. Astonishingly, the falsehoods even begin on page one. The snowstorm that Chambers says blew through Philadelphia on the day he was born in 1901? It was, in fact, a spring-like day.
Jacoby writes that Hiss must be a deceiver because, when writing about an afternoon tea in law school at the home of Felix Frankfurter, he recounts how he failed to recognize a well-known quote by Lord Acton about the corrupting nature of power. According to Jacoby, anyone would have been familiar with Acton’s dictum, so this becomes “one of the many passages in Hiss’s emotionally cool memoirs that make [Jacoby] doubt the veracity of much of his story.” An alternate reading is that Hiss was telling a story on himself, acknowledging that he, too, understood that this was something he should have known.
All of this lands Jacoby in a conundrum: she disparages Hiss as someone who “avoided the consequences of his actions.” But if he didn’t commit any crime, why should there have been any consequences to suffer? She takes umbrage that, in a 1986 Washington Post Magazine interview with David Remnick (now the editor of The New Yorker), Hiss didn’t sufficiently condemn Stalin, calling him an “impressive” figure in the way he conducted himself during the Yalta Conference conversations (which Hiss found in stark contrast to “the extent of his crimes”). She also says the Remnick interview reveals Hiss’s manipulative side, because he insisted on buying his own lunch (Note to Self: from now on, always let the other person pick up the check, lest I be called a Communist).
Finally, there’s Hiss’s comment to Remnick about Irving Howe, which in her mind, is “the observation most indicative of a Communist background.” This becomes for Jacoby a central epiphany, an “Aha” moment demonstrating Hiss’s guilt. Remnick mentions that Irving Howe has called Hiss guilty, and Hiss responds angrily. In Jacoby’s view, a non-Communist would not have shown anger, but rather “a superior posture of tolerance.”
There you have it – not the Pumpkin Papers, the Baltimore Documents, the Venona releases or the testimony of Whittaker Chambers, but a moment of anger by an 82-year-old man toward a person who had called him a liar and a traitor.
And while we’re on the subject – why is the lack of emotion (in Hiss’s memoir) a sign of guilt, if a burst of emotion (in the Remnick interview) can also be held up as a sign of guilt?
1. In this case, she is confusing the “Baltimore Documents” and the “Pumpkin Papers.” On November 17, Chambers, in a court deposition, handed over copies of government documents he said had been given to him by Alger Hiss and allegedly typed on Hiss’s typewriter. On December 2, Chambers handed over, to HUAC investigators, reels of 35mm film that he said contained pictures of government documents given to him for transmission to the Soviet Union.
2. His response is part of a written collection of oral histories compiled after Alger Hiss’s death.
3. Beginning during World War II and then for many of the Cold War years, the National Security Agency decoded Soviet intelligence messages transmitted by telegraphic cable to and from Moscow during and after World War II. A single released cable, Venona No. 1822, discusses an unnamed Soviet agent with the codename “ALES”; this person’s true identity is still a subject of conjecture.
4. This was only a guess, fashioned shortly after Hiss’s 1950 conviction. In fact, FBI documents, released in the 1970s show, that in 1952 the FBI was still investigating “ALES”‘ identity, and despite an extensive search had been unable to confirm that Hiss was “ALES.”
6. Although if there is so little support for Hiss, why do books re-proclaiming his guilt (Jacoby’s is only one of a recent series) continue to be commissioned and published? And why would a small website supporting his innocence (such as this one) receive more than 170,000 hits in its first eight years online?
7. This points up one of Chambers’ many inventions about Hiss, untruths which seem to have had no impact on Jacoby’s thinking. Chambers said the Hisses placed Tim Hobson in a series of less expensive private schools and donated the difference to the Communist Party. Thayer Hobson, Tim’s father, is quoted as saying in Tony Hiss’s book, Laughing Last, “I knew the son-of-a-bitch was lying when I heard that one.”