Victor S. Navasky (1978)
The 1978 publication of Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case was seen by many members of the press and other reviewers as the final word on the case, a scholarly demonstration that Alger Hiss was guilty as charged. However, when Victor Navasky of The Nation checked Weinstein’s sources, he found inconsistencies, historical inaccuracies, and quotes from sources who said that Weinstein had misquoted them.
“Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Case Not Proved Against Alger Hiss”
by Victor S. Navasky
The Nation, April 8, 1978
“The Hiss case,” Whittaker Chambers wrote William F. Buckley, Jr. in 1954, “is a permanent war … I am not really a free agent and scarcely even an individual man. I am the witness on whom, to a great degree it still swings…. My reactions are a kind of public trust. They call for the most vigilant intelligence and careful judgment.”
With the publication of Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, Chambers has been joined by a new “witness,” one Allen Weinstein, who wishes to act as opinion trustee for a new generation, unfamiliar with the facts of the case. Chambers, Weinstein believes, told the truth about Alger Hiss at his two trials, and thereafter “weighed his political activities against a single yardstick of how they might affect public response to his earlier role in helping to convict Alger Hiss.” Weinstein’s scholarship will not, if our sample of those who claim to have been misquoted and misrepresented is accurate and representative, stand the test of time. And yet false history is a disservice to the present as well as to the future.
When H.R. Haldeman’s book, The Ends of Power, reported that the Soviets had asked the United States in 1969 to join in an attack on China, Kissinger and Rogers immediately denied the account, prompting a round of debate on just what a publisher’s obligations were to check out an author’s assertions. Mr. Haldeman’s publisher, Thomas Lipscomb of Times Books, said at the time, “A book publisher’s function is different from a newspaper publisher’s. We are not under obligation to check on the accuracy of every claim or opinion by an author. Our job is to provide a forum. We do not choose liars, but then everyone from Talleyrand to Kissinger has been accused of telling less than the truth.”
Other publishers said they follow the practice of sending specialized manuscripts to outside experts for an independent reading. Ashbel Green, the Knopf editor who worked on Allen Weinstein’s book, tells us they didn’t subject it to an outside reading, because “Allen showed portions of the manuscript to his own group of experts, some of whom know the Hiss case inside out and others of whom were experts on the period.”
Our own view, after witnessing the eager acceptance Perjury has achieved among the generalists, is that all of us – the public, the publisher, the critics, the author and history itself – would have been better served if the early reviews had been exposed to the vetting of a Fred Cook or a John Lowenthal, whose arguments in The Nation on the case have never been adequately answered (Cook’s book on the case, incidentally, ought to be updated and reissued). Or, more interestingly, if they had been shown to William Reuben, co-plaintiff in the suit to liberate the Hiss papers from the FBI, who has spent fifteen years researching the life of Whittaker Chambers, is preparing a book called Richard Nixon and the Frameup of Alger Hiss, and probably knows more about the facts and figures of the case (either because or in spite of his intense belief in Hiss’s innocence) than anyone not directly involved.
The many questions raised as a result of our own mini-investigation into Weinstein’s Perjury suggest how important it is, in the absence of other procedures to guarantee the integrity of advocacy scholarship, that the future publishers of books on a case which is far from over provide their authors with the resources and informed vetting required to protect them from the pitfalls of partisanship. For the ultimate test of Weinstein’s scholarship has less to do with daily or weekly reviewers’ reactions to his intimidating pose of fairness and thoroughness than with how it will survive the independent studies of men like Cook, Reuben, Peter Irons and others, and Alger Hiss’s own impending coram nobis petition to set aside the verdict in his case.
Pitfalls of Partisanship
In interviews, advance publicity and his publisher’s advertising and jacket copy for Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, Allen Weinstein, the Smith College historian temporarily at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif., has presented himself to the world as a young man who “set out to write the definitive, objective work in the belief that Hiss was innocent” and that Whittaker Chambers had “falsely accused him of Communist ties and espionage,” but who concluded after five years of intensive research that Hiss had indeed been guilty.
As Time, to which an advance copy of the book “was made ‘available'” two months before publication, put it in a three-page feature, “Weinstein turned up previously undisclosed evidence that inexorably led him to his unqualified verdict: ‘The jurors made no mistake in finding Alger Hiss guilty as charged.'” It is, at first, difficult not to be swept along by the avalanche of people and documents which, according to the author, “confirm” or “corroborate” one or another aspect of Chambers’ story.
The image Weinstein projects is of the truth-seeking scholar who traveled 125,000 miles, interviewed “over eighty people who had special knowledge of the case or its protagonists,” carefully studied the transcripts of a score of Congressional hearings, two trials and various appeals, analyzed 80,000 documents made available under the Freedom of Information Act, and diligently plowed through archive after archive in this country and abroad, files at departments throughout the federal government, and the voluminous Hiss defense files, before painfully deciding that Alger Hiss indeed passed stolen State Department papers to Chambers as part of an underground Soviet espionage apparatus in the late 1930s.
No wonder the first round of reviewers are stampeding to honor this historian who ostensibly altered his beliefs to fit the facts as he found them, and to proclaim that this unfinished Cold-War business is at last resolved. George Will writes in Newsweek that Weinstein’s book is a “historic event…. It is stunningly meticulous and a monument to the intellectual ideal of truth stalked to its hiding place. It is also a substantial public service…. The myth of Hiss’s innocence suffers the death of a thousand cuts, delicate destruction by a scholar’s scalpel.” Alfred Kazin in Esquire calls Perjury “an impressively unemotional blockbuster of fact.” He writes: “After this book, it is impossible to imagine anything new in this case except an admission by Alger Hiss that he has been lying for thirty years.”
The book is important because the case is important. Not merely Hiss, wrote Alistair Cooke in 1950, but a generation was on trial. Chambers himself called the case an epitomizing one. “It epitomized a basic conflict. And Alger Hiss and I were archetypes. That is of course what gave the peculiar intensity to the struggle.” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (who believes Hiss guilty) complained of Chambers’ writings – after Hiss was convicted of perjury at a second trial (the first ended in a hung jury) that they divided the world into “messianic Christian anti-Communists” and “atheistic Communists”; but for many others, if Hiss was guilty, then the New Deal was corrupt, the State Department had been subverted, Yalta was a sellout, the U.N. was a Communist plot, the possibilities of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union were shattered, incipient Cold War repression became defensible. While Weinstein gives the Hiss case too much credit for inciting the Cold-War hysteria (the Un-American Activities Committee hearings on Hollywood, preparation for the trial of Communist Party leaders under the Smith Act, the Truman Executive Order on loyalty, the Mundt-Nixon bill all predated Hiss), it undoubtedly facilitated and accelerated the meteoric rise of McCarthy and McCarthyism.
John Strachey, writing in 1962, put the case in its most cosmic context when he identified Chambers as part of the literature of reaction, “not only against Communism but against five hundred years of rationalism and empiricism; against, in short, the enlightenment.”
Weinstein takes it upon himself to update what he calls the “iconography” of the Cold War with the iconography of Watergate. He quotes philosopher Richard Popkin, who argued that “Unravelling the Ellsberg burglary will unravel what was involved in Richard M. Nixon’s whole career: fraud, fakery, framing of innocent victims…. When we know more about how the Ellsberg case was plotted, we will know how the Hiss case itself was constructed … the Hiss case may turn out to be the American Dreyfus case.”
Weinstein seems put out that many liberals and moderates began to view Hiss as a spiritual ancestor of the Ellsbergs, Berrigans, Spocks and Coffins – conspicuous for having fought government injustice and illegality during politically motivated trials. “As anti-war sentiment converged with popular outrage over Watergate,” he writes, “Hiss found himself transformed from a symbol of deception into one of injured innocence. Watergate and more responsive media brought Hiss, in short, a renewed measure of public acceptance…. Watergate helped create a new generation of believers in Hiss’s innocence. The cultural verdict of the previous quarter century – indeed, the jury’s verdict itself – was abruptly brought into question by Americans unfamiliar with the complex facts and history of the case.”
Weinstein has aligned himself with those Cold War intellectuals who presumably sleep better at night secure in the knowledge that there was an internal Communist espionage menace (Hiss, the Rosenbergs, Remington, Sobell, Coplon, et al.) which might have justified the Cold War repression with which they collaborated and/or helped rationalize.
Here it should be noted that Weinstein himself seems not above enjoying a little iconographic con, so to speak, of his own. A review of his previous writings reveals no commitment to the innocence of Alger Hiss. If he did believe Hiss to be innocent, he never said so in print – certainly not in his major writings on the case in The American Scholar (1971), Esquire (1975), The New York Times (1976) and The New York Review of Books (1976). And even though he recently told the editor of The Daily Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, Mass.) in a front-page interview that in 1974 he wrote, with R. Jackson Wilson, a high school textbook, Freedom and Crisis: An American History, “which concluded that Hiss was innocent,” a close reading of the chapter on the case fails to reveal any such conclusion (although in fairness it should be pointed out that, as in his American Scholar article, he raises real questions about Chambers’ reliability).
My own suspicion that Weinstein was not quite as scholarly as he appears to be commenced, I should confess, a few years ago when I was shown a copy of his letter to the Justice Department requesting access to materials on the Rosenberg case. He assured the U.S. Attorney General that, unlike some other writers whom he proceeded to name with quite reckless abandon, he believed the Rosenbergs guilty. I say “reckless,” because I was one of the writers he named (although his reference to me was syntactically ambiguous) despite the fact that at the time I had written nothing about my views on the Rosenbergs’ innocence or guilt. Anyway, my suspicion was sufficient to cause me, after rereading Weinstein’s earlier articles on the Hiss case, to conduct an elementary source check with some of the people he interviewed for Perjury (to see if they were accurately quoted), and to examine some of the documents he cites (to see if they are cited in context). The preliminary results suggest that the hurry to any sort of judgment on the case based on Perjury alone may be somewhat premature.
In his American Scholar article (“The Hiss Case Revisited”), Weinstein concluded a rigorous, tough-minded and generally fair discussion of the pros and cons of the case, by restating the uncertainties which he seemed to feel made contemporary assessments of innocence or guilt incautious. He wrote: “Perhaps only a master novelist can bridge our present impasse, but the historian still must attempt to establish the facts where possible and where not, to expose the inconsistencies of partisan accounts.” The time has come for a thoroughly researched reassessment of the Hiss case, but without the release of the grand jury records, the executive files of HUAC and the relevant records, the “complete” story of that controversial affair may never be known. Granting the episode’s pivotal importance in the political life of recent America, however, historians must begin to confront the case itself to prevent either of its partisan versions from hardening into myth.
After reading and rereading Perjury, I couldn’t agree more. Whatever his original motives and aspirations, Professor Weinstein is now an embattled partisan, hopelessly mired in the perspective of one side, his narrative obfuscatory, his interpretations improbable, his omissions strategic, his vocabulary manipulative, his standards double, his “corroborations” circular and suspect, his reporting astonishingly erratic (brilliantly enterprising where it serves, nonexistent where it complicates, and frequently unreliable). His conversion from scholar to partisan, along with a rhetoric and methodology that confuse his beliefs with his data, make it impossible for the nonspecialist to render an honest verdict on the case. This condition, however, should not inhibit us from rendering a necessarily negative verdict on the scholarship itself.
Followers of the Hiss case have heard much about the Woodstock typewriter (Was it a forgery? Did Chambers have secret access to it? Was the machine at the trial the one which really typed the letters introduced in evidence?, etc.), the Bokhara rugs (What sort of secret agent would give four identical rugs as presents to his four most secret operatives?), the dispute over how well and for how long and under what names (“Carl,” “George Crosley” or “Karl”) the Hisses knew Chambers, under what circumstances they met and when and where, and did Hiss give Chambers an apartment, a car, a loan, etc.? All of these matters came up at the two perjury trials and have been fought and refought in court appeals and in the magazine articles and books which have been coming out regularly since the last court appeal in 1952.
But until Weinstein came along we have heard nothing outside of Chambers’ own memoir, Witness, to corroborate Chambers’ version of what he claimed were his six years in the Communist underground. Since Weinstein found no new witnesses who could directly implicate Hiss, he places great stress on the many people he talked with and the many documents he consulted which appear to corroborate Chambers’ statements on matters other than Hiss. His reasoning is clearly that if Chambers was telling the truth about such matters as J. Peters and Colonel Bykov’s being the head of the Communist underground, and telling the truth about how he was recruited into the party by “Charles” (Sam) Krieger, and telling the truth about Felix Inslerman, the microfilm photographer with whom he said he worked in the C.P. underground, and telling the truth about setting up with literary agent Max Lieber an espionage front called the American Feature Writers Syndicate, then it might be reasonable to assume that Chambers was a credible witness.
What Weinstein does not tell us, however, is that he has transposed Witness from the first to the third person, and that much more of Perjury than one might deduce from the footnotes draws on material in the earlier book. Such a narrative strategy gives us Chambers’ version of events sometimes in his own voice, sometimes in Weinstein’s voice, and sometimes imputed to other characters in the drama, without our ever being quite sure which is which, but all of it adding up to a psychological structure that lends Chambers a perhaps undeserved credibility, and in which any inconsistencies in Chambers’ story are concealed or glossed over. The problem is compounded by Weinstein’s failure to flag contested claims as they arise.
For example, the extremely important matter of the date on which Chambers quit the party. That date is critical because the papers Chambers produced, allegedly from Hiss, were all dated between January and April 1938. If Chambers quit the party in 1937, as he stated under oath on at least sixteen separate occasions, then his story is seriously compromised. It was only after he produced the seemingly incriminating papers in November 1948 that he “remembered” leaving the party in April 1938 and mentioned espionage for the first time. How does Weinstein handle this matter?
As early as the introduction, we are told that Paul Willert, an Oxford University Press editor, “gave Chambers translating work prior to the latter’s break with the CP in April 1938 and later that year warned Chambers that a Comintern agent had arrived from Europe looking for him.” The story is purportedly Willert’s (I say purportedly because Willert told me he never knew Chambers was a Communist or warned him about a Comintern agent), but the 1938 date given for Chambers’ break is Weinstein’s. Again, on page 5, Weinstein describes Chambers in the HUAC witness chair. “After defecting in 1938, Chambers asserted he had lived in hiding, sleeping by day and watching through the night with gun and revolver….” But if he had not intruded as narrator, Weinstein would have had to cite Chambers as saying he left the party in 1937, which was Chambers’ story at the time, and which he repeated on six subsequent appearances that same month. Moreover, in April 1949, Chambers told the FBI that he left the party one month before he had received the manuscript from Oxford. Throughout the book we encounter entries like: “When Chambers defected in April 1938, he took with him as evidence….”
The one time Weinstein mentions the discrepancy in dates, he says, “More than a decade had passed since his described friendship with the Hisses and Chambers later admitted inaccuracies in his original August 3 testimony and in some cases at the August 7 hearing. Thus he met Hiss in 1934, not 1935, and his defection from Communism came in 1938 rather than in 1937.”
But these were not “admissions.” They were adjustments, essential to the credibility of Chambers’ tale, and Weinstein never lets the reader in on the grand dimensions of Chambers’ conflicting court and committee testimony and FBI statements.
The Scholar as Reporter?
Arguably, Weinstein’s deceptive narration could be cured by proper footnoting, but the confusion it creates, in terms of who is corroborating what, is compounded by what turn out to be the author’s considerable limitations as a reporter.
As historian-detective, Weinstein deserves the highest compliments for tracking down and sitting down with such people as J. Peters (a major character in Chambers’ memoir, who accepted voluntary deportation to Hungary in February 1949); Ella Winter, whom Chambers allegedly tried to recruit; Karel Kaplan, a Czech historian privy to accused spy Noel Field’s interrogation about Hiss; and Maxim Lieber, Chambers’ literary agent, and alleged co-conspirator, who was forced to live outside the country for eighteen years. And on principle Weinstein should be credited with unearthing long-forgotten conflicting memorandums in the Hiss legal files. But one should closely examine the way he uses what he was told by these historically important characters (some of whom I reached in an attempt to check out Weinstein’s “corroborations”), and carefully scrutinize the interpretation he puts on the Hiss legal documents.
J. Peters (Joszef Peter)
Consider Weinstein’s much-trumpeted interview with this man, whom he confidently describes, despite Peters’ “pro forma denials,” as “the head of the Communist underground in this country,” a “professional Soviet agent.” To help document his description of Peters, he cites David Dallin’s account of Soviet espionage, which characterizes Peters as: “Indefatigable … an outstanding leader, man of many aliases and a multitude of clandestine assignments, who remained at his American post from 1933 to 1941. His era was marked by great exploits [and] … [he was] the most active, energetic, and resourceful man in those obscure depths of the underground where Soviet espionage borders on American communism.”
What Weinstein neglects to mention is that the passage in question was unfootnoted, that Dallin’s papers, which were promised to Yale by 1970, have never arrived, and that Dallin’s chief source is none other than Whittaker Chambers (so he is corroborating Chambers with Chambers). Credentials aside, however, what is the new, albeit inadvertent, evidence Peters has provided? Here, believe it or not, is the totality of what Weinstein refers to when he says that he heard Peters “confirm details of Chambers’ underground work.” It occurs in footnote 95, Chapter 1: “My long talk with Peter in Budapest was his first with a non-Communist Western scholar since his 1949 deportation and included his first public comments on the Hiss-Chambers case. Peter smiled once during our talk when I suggested that his frequent use of the terms ‘open’ and ‘secret’ Communist parties when describing the division in American CP ranks indicated an awareness of that second realm which most Party ‘functionaries’ would deny having possessed.”
If anything more than Peter’s smile was involved in his confirmation of Chambers’ activities, we are given no evidence of it.
He tracks down Lincoln Steffens’s widow, Ella Winter, in London, and reports her recollection:
“While walking along a Manhattan street with a friend during the mid-thirties, Chambers, who had previously tried – and failed – to recruit her for the underground using the name ‘Harold Phillips’ suddenly came into view. ‘Don’t take any notice of that man,’ her friend, a leading film distributor, quickly cautioned her. ‘That was Whittaker Chambers, who is doing secret work for the Party.'”
But when I wrote Ella Winter to ask whether that was indeed her recollection she replied: “My film friend did not say ‘who is doing secret work for the party.’ On the contrary, we had just passed Sidney Howard on Fifth Avenue and the bogus Chambers, who knew my film friend, asked me if I knew Sidney Howard and would I introduce him.’ I did not introduce him to Sidney Howard.
“Chambers never ‘tried to recruit me for underground work’ or even for the CP,” Miss Winter adds.
With an introduction from Alden Whitman of The New York Times, Weinstein travels to Rhonert Park, Calif., where he interviews Sam Krieger, the man who recruited Chambers into the Communist Party and, according to Weinstein, “an important Communist organizer during the Gastonia textile strike of 1929,” who “fled to the Soviet Union” during the 1930s before he returned to California where he now lives in retirement. He also reports that Krieger took Chambers to his first C.P. meeting, whereupon he was immediately signed up, and shortly thereafter joined the IWW [International Workers of the World] too.
But when I sent Mr. Krieger photostats of the pages in Weinstein’s book concerning him, he replied, “No, Weinstein’s account does not correspond with what I told him, nor did I tell Weinstein, in our interview, that I was the Clarence Miller of the Gastonia, N.C. textile strike, who subsequently fled to the Soviet Union.
“Also, Chambers was not admitted to the party at his first meeting nor did he bring two Columbia University friends, whom he was trying to recruit, to a branch meeting. Likewise, I never told Weinstein that Whittaker Chambers became a member of the IWW after joining the Communist Party.” (The sources Weinstein cites for these latter “facts” are an FBI summary report on Krieger.)
One of Weinstein’s more spectacular finds was Prof. Karel Kaplan, who left Czechoslovakia in 1976 with a significant archive collected during his eight years as archivist for the Czech Communist Party’s Central Committee. According to Weinstein, Kaplan, a member of the Dubcek 1968 commission which investigated the political purge trials of the late Stalin era in which Noel Field figured prominently, had read the long interrogations of both Noel and Herta Field by Czech and Hungarian security officials (after they went to live in Czechoslovakia), and he shared his findings with Weinstein in Munich, where “he described to me the material in those files that dealt with Alger Hiss.”
Kaplan, according to Weinstein, confirmed Hiss’s relationship with Field “in the Communist underground.”
“According to Kaplan, Field named Alger Hiss as a fellow Communist underground agent in the State Department during the mid-thirties,” writes Weinstein, quoting Kaplan: “Field said that he had been involved [while at the State Department] and that Hiss was the other one involved after he joined the Department. One major reason Field gave to his interrogators for not having returned to the United States in 1948 was to avoid testifying in the Hiss-Chambers case.”
Weinstein cites but does not quote extensively a two-page letter Field wrote Hiss after he got out of prison and read Hiss’s book, In the Court of Public Opinion. Field offers to provide an affidavit attesting to the falseness of the evidence implicating Hiss (as it related to Field) and expresses his belief in Hiss’s innocence. Weinstein cites but does not quote from Flora Lewis’s account, in her biography of Noel Field, of the torture he endured in prison – torture, one assumes, which has a bearing on the reliability of anything he may have said.
I wrote to Kaplan, now employed with Radio Free Europe in Munich, and he wrote back, among other things: “N. Field testimony, as far as I can remember, did not contain any facts or explicit statements which would indicate that A. Hiss was delivering U.S. documents to the Soviet Union.”
Weinstein states in his introduction that “the revelations of five participants in Soviet intelligence work in the United States and Europe during the 1930s – Joszef Peters, Nadya Ulanovskaya, Maxim Lieber, Paul Willert and Hede Massing – proved particularly instructive.”
Peters was a well-known Communist Party official in the 1930s who wrote pamphlets and ran for public office but who, as we have already seen, denied participation in any “Communist underground” operation in the United States. Massing’s story about having met Hiss in Field’s apartment was (a) given under threat of deportation (not mentioned by Weinstein) and (b) denied by Field. Willert tells me he never “participated in Soviet intelligence work in the U.S.,” never told Weinstein he did, and never knew Otto Katz to be a “high ranking Comintern representative,” as Weinstein suggests he did. Ulanovskaya is a peripheral figure (with at best secondhand information garnered from her late husband), who left the United States in 1934 without ever having met Hiss. But the man Weinstein cites sixteen times as “confirming” or “corroborating” or “participating” in secret work with Chambers, is Chambers’ one-time friend, business associate and literary agent, Maxim Lieber, now living in Connecticut after spending the years 1950-68 first in Mexico and then in Poland, a refugee from the domestic Cold War.
Weinstein calls Lieber a “sometime associate [of Chambers] in the underground,” and says Lieber identified Peters as “the head of the whole Communist espionage apparatus in this country,” and “worked with [Chambers] for a time on an underground project.” Weinstein writes that “convincing corroboration of Peters’ work as an agent during the 1930s came from … my interviews with Maxim Lieber, whom Peters assigned to occasional underground jobs.”
He describes Lieber’s role in the American Feature Writers Syndicate as that of an “agent” engaged in “espionage abroad,” “a front for Soviet espionage.” Weinstein says Lieber gave Col. Boris Bykov (“the chief agent for Russia in the United States during the thirties”) “low marks” as a spymaster. Weinstein credits Lieber with warning Chambers, who believed the KGB was after him, about Otto Katz (another client). He quotes Lieber as saying, “Some things are romanticized in Witness, but most of it – as I know of the incidents – is true.”
But when I talked with Lieber, who freely admits to having been in the party and who represented party authors, among others, he told me (a) “I never read Witness – Weinstein is quoting me out of context.” (He asked if he could borrow the office copy.) (b) “I was never a member of any underground and I never worked with Chambers on any underground project.” (c) “The account of the American Feature Writers Syndicate (which was designed to sell the works of my clients, such as Erskine Caldwell and Josephine Herbst overseas, and was not an underground project at all), is an amalgam of a little truth and a lot of fiction – I don’t know where Weinstein got that stuff unless it is in Witness – but it did not come from me, which is what he makes it sound like.” (d) “I could not have identified Peters as the head of the underground because I knew nothing of the underground. I only met him once at the very end – and I do not remember meeting anyone named Bykov. I have no idea who was the head of the Communist underground in America. And I could not have warned Chambers about Katz, since I had no idea who Katz was supposed to be. To me, he was a client. I never met or saw Priscilla or Alger Hiss or even knew about them until the trial. Weinstein’s story is sheer poppycock. My son says I should consult a lawyer.”
Donald Hiss and “the Woodstock Cover-up”
Asked by a sympathetic interviewer, “Would you say you made any discovery that clinches the case against Hiss?,” Weinstein told Politicks, “The strongest incriminating evidence I found in the defense files concerns what I call the real ‘Woodstock cover-up.'” Weinstein goes on to zero in on the role of Alger’s brother Donald, whom he accuses of having traced the whereabouts of the typewriter to a Washington trucker and junk dealer named Lockey in February, but keeping the FBI and the Hiss lawyer who ultimately found the typewriter (McLean) in the dark about it until April. Gary Wills, writing in The New York Review of Books, found this discovery “the most damaging of all. It knocks into a cocked hat all the theories of a planted, altered, or forged typewriter.”
But Weinstein never discusses in detail a February 26, 1951 memo in the defense files, which gives Donald Hiss’s version of the episode, and when I wrote Donald Hiss to ask if Weinstein had accurately included his own explanation for “the mysterious pause” of two months, he replied, “Mr. Weinstein had exactly one interview with me…. Weinstein raised three subjects and only three during the interview…. He made no mention whatsoever of the typewriter or my search with Mike Catlett for it. [He] asked if I would be available to answer any further questions should they occur to him. To this I answered that I would be available at any time. He has never contacted me by mail or telephone since then. The interview was extremely brief and lasted no more than 10 to 15 minutes.”
Weinstein is not, of course, required to believe Alger Hiss’s brother, but the canons of scholarship would seem to insist that he hear Donald’s version before dismissing it. Had he interviewed Donald Hiss, he would have been told that on his February trip to Lockey, Donald discovered not the Woodstock but a different old typewriter, the Royal, and “The above trip to Lockey was reported by me to McLean.” He would have been told a lot more, but my point is not to argue the merits of the case, merely to note the inadequacy of Weinstein’s much-ballyhooed research.
Weinstein’s other piece of significant incriminatory information – the one which stimulated his headline-making 1976 charge in The New York Review of Books – is that memorandums in the Hiss defense files proved that “Alger Hiss lied.” According to Weinstein, “A defense lawyer, John F. Davis, on December 28, 1948, wrote the chief counsel that Alger Hiss asked him earlier that month to check on an old typewriter ‘which he remembers he gave to the son of Claudia Catlett [a housekeeper] who used to do the washing.’
“Hiss shortly thereafter denied to the FBI and the Grand Jury specific knowledge of the missing typewriter…. This means,” Mr. Weinstein asserts, that “Hiss deliberately misled the FBI, the Grand Jury and two trial juries about his knowledge of the Woodstock typewriter’s whereabouts.” He adds that “Mr. Hiss three times between December 10 and 15 told the Grand Jury that he had no knowledge of how the typewriter had been disposed of.”
But a reading of the Davis memo, a search through the Hiss files, and a reading of the correspondence which followed the Weinstein article in The New York Review, reveals that Weinstein has reached a shaky conclusion and not shared with the reader the available contrary evidence on which to make an independent judgment. First, the Davis document is, on its face, ambiguous. It refers to “an” old typewriter, not “the” old typewriter. Second, Weinstein doesn’t mention other evidence which suggests that it was not Hiss who recalled the machine at all, it was his stepson, Timmy Hobson; that Hiss merely relayed the message to counsel. In that context, asking counsel to “check on” something seems as much evidence of uncertainty as of certainty. Finally, Weinstein never explains the Hiss legal memorandums, which document four simultaneous typewriter searches for three typewriters. If Hiss really knew where the typewriter was all along, and if he knew which of his old typewriters was sought by the FBI, why would he waste his lawyers’ and everybody else’s time carrying on these simultaneous searches?
Selectivity is a “historian’s prerogative,” but some conspicuous omissions of key documents or accounts which complicate Weinstein’s thesis (accompanied by a seemingly bold confrontation of less problematic materials) further undermine one’s confidence in the enterprise. A typical example is his handling of the important evidence bearing on Chambers’ claim, first made in November 1948, to have stored the stolen papers and microfilms in an envelope in a dumbwaiter at his nephew’s house in Brooklyn in 1938. Weinstein dramatically deals with the contention that the materials could not have fit in the envelope, by describing a simulated experiment of his own where everything fitted. But he omits any mention of the defense’s ultimate claim in an affidavit filed to support Hiss’s 1952 motion for a new trial, by a chemist, Daniel P. Norman, president of New England’s largest and oldest firm in the business of testing chemicals and papers, who tested the papers and the envelope and asserted that they lacked the markings and chemical stains which would inevitably accompany ten-year storage. Weinstein doesn’t have to agree with Norman to acknowledge his findings.
In some cases, a strategic omission is accompanied by what we might call a false inclusion, which occurs as a result of Weinstein’s never-defined and interchangeable use of such terms as “Communist underground” and “secret work.” Thus a “Marxist study group” becomes a “Communist cell” becomes a “secret apparatus” becomes “underground work” becomes “espionage.” In the case of New Deal economist Victor Perlo, accused by the notoriously unreliable Elizabeth Bentley of heading a spy ring, Weinstein writes in a footnote that, “… the witness’s former wife, Katherine Perlo, had corroborated Bentley’s charges against her ex-husband in an anonymous letter – later acknowledged by Mrs. Perlo – sent to the FBI several years earlier. Mrs. Perlo accused her husband of engaging in espionage and named others in the group, her list of names being comparable to Bentley’s later one.”
In fact, Mr. Weinstein neglects to mention that Mrs. Perlo was under a psychiatrist’s care suffering from a “mental disorder” when she wrote the anonymous letter, and that she sent it to the President (not the FBI), charged membership in the Communist Party but said nothing about espionage, and, in addition to naming her ex-husband as a member of the group, also included her psychiatrist.
A more blatant omission-distortion, because he uses her to “confirm” and “recall” the Ware group (another so-called spy ring identified by Elizabeth Bentley), concerns Weinstein’s handling of the depositions, interviews and papers of the novelist Josephine Herbst. He says she confirmed that “the Ware group sometimes filched documents,” and that they photographed the “stolen” government documents in the apartment she shared with John Herrmann. But I requested copies of Miss Herbst’s affidavits (on file with the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee), and a close reading reveals that she never used the word “stolen” or “filched,” that whatever documents the Ware group had were trivial and intended not for Moscow but the Daily Worker, and that “She was absolutely certain that her apartment in Washington had never been used for developing pictures while she was there. It was a small apartment, she said, and the developing equipment would have taken a noticeable amount of space and [she] was sure she would have remembered.” Weinstein uses Herbst to “corroborate” that Chambers met Hiss in 1934, but neglects to quote the FBI document which says she never met the Hisses or any member of the Ware group except Pressman, whom she met in the CIO “and stated she knew nothing of the connection between her husband [Herrmann], Chambers and Ware.”
It should by now not be necessary to list all of Weinstein’s simple errors of fact. He says the HUAC hearings of August 3, 1948, marking Chambers’ first appearance in public, were “unexpected” and that what Chambers would testify to was not known in advance, when in fact a press conference was held by the committee on August 2, in which (as The New York Times reported) Chambers was referred to as the next day’s witness on the subject of Soviet espionage. He has Chambers working at the Daily Worker in New York two years before the paper was published there. He has Chambers telling the committee on the occasion of his first appearance that he defected “in 1938” when on eight different times that day he gave the date as 1937. He has Chambers rejoining the Communist Party in 1931 – a year before even Chambers alleged that he rejoined the party. He states that Gardner (Pat) Jackson was Jerome Frank’s assistant, when Jackson never worked in the same office as Frank. He claims that Stryker was attractive to Hiss’s advisers because of his books which included The Art of Advocacy. But The Art of Advocacy wasn’t published until 1954, etc., etc., etc.
He makes the mistake of assuming that FBI memorandums provide answers rather than clues. Taking such documents at face value may be a sign of naiveté rather than malevolence. He complains of Hiss pressure on the Catlett family to “remember” the date on which they received the family Woodstock in a way which would help Alger, but neglects to consider or mention the impact of wholesale FBI harassment of potential witnesses, including threats of perjury suits, social disgrace, deportation, inspecting bank records and income tax returns, and arranging for hostile witnesses to lose their jobs. And when he does examine the possibility of FBI skullduggery, his imagination runs short. Thus, when he considers the charge that Chambers’ memory of a $400 loan from Hiss was influenced by FBI agents who, one week earlier, had gained access to records of Hiss’s savings and checking accounts, he dismisses the possibility because the FOIA files show: “The records were not sent to New York, where Chambers was then being interrogated by agents of the FBI field office, but remained in the Washington field office.” One is tempted to remind Weinstein that the Bureau was not unaware of the telephone.
It is symptomatic of the sloppiness of the work that, without explaining the discrepancy, he says in the introduction that he has interviewed more than 80 people with special knowledge of the case but lists in the Appendix only 56 interviewees who gave important information. He includes some secondhand gossip about what Priscilla Hiss is supposed to have said at a Chicago dinner party in 1968, and when challenged on his sources, invoked the name of Alden Whitman, formerly of The New York Times, as one who checked out the story. Whitman told me, “I have no recollection of my checking out any Chicago dinner party.” It never occurred to Weinstein to ask Mrs. Hiss.
Interviewees can always be found to claim they were misquoted, but the responses of Winter, Krieger, Willert, Kaplan and Lieber suggest that the distortions are too central to Weinstein’s general mode of argument to be ignored, especially in the context of his selective use and misuse of documents not generally available for inspection. Can it be, one finally asks, that so many distinguished social commentators have been taken in by such a vulnerable enterprise? Without pretending to pass on whether it is the illiberal climate, the compelling iconography of Allen Weinstein, or simply the mesmerizing message of the thousands of “facts” he has assembled, which has caused the unfortunate celebration of his dubious achievement, this much can be said:
Perjury settles nothing about the Hiss case. It sets forth some new riddles, fails to solve them and ignores some old ones. Oddly, it doesn’t really seem to take full advantage of the new Freedom of Information Act materials, thousands of which were still coming in as Perjury was coming out. It doesn’t provide a serious motive or theory to account for Hiss’s behavior since he was released from prison. Whatever new data Weinstein may have gathered are fatally tainted by his unprofessionalism, and his apparent intolerance for ambiguity, especially when it gets in the way of his thesis. It would be a tragedy if the immediate impact of this unfair book were to deprive Alger Hiss, now 73, of a fair hearing on his upcoming coram nobis petition, to set aside the verdict of the trial (his first court challenge to his perjury conviction since 1952). One suspects, though, that the only permanent damage Weinstein has wrought may be to the reputations of himself and those who too eagerly endorse his findings. The target of Perjury is Alger Hiss and his claim of innocence, but its temporary victim is historical truth.
Letters to the Editor
The Nation, June 17, 1978
The letters which follow, selected from among the mass of mail we received regarding Weinstein-on-Hiss, constitute something of an informal interim report on the case, the book and the lawsuit against Weinstein, his publisher and possibly The New Republic.
Sam Krieger, a Communist Party organizer for three decades, lives today in a quiet house on a quiet street in Rohnert Park, Calif., where Allen Weinstein came to visit him in 1974. Five weeks later, Krieger received a strange letter that, as he now looks back on it, began the noise in his life.
The letter was from Isaac Don Levine, the lay pope of American professional anti-communism, and its message was bewildering. Levine wrote that Krieger’s adopted little daughter, Natasha, had arrived in America from the Soviet Union and was anxious to be reunited with him. It was obvious that Levine thought Sam Krieger was Clarence Miller, a leader of the 1929 Gastonia textile strike who, with six comrades, fled to Russia (against the wishes of the American party leadership) to avoid serving a seventeen-to-twenty-year term for a second-degree murder conviction arising out of strike violence in Gastonia. The red-haired Miller was installed in a comfortable Moscow apartment and taught political classes. He became known as the Red Professor. He also came to know the mother of a little girl named Natasha.
Sam Krieger wrote Isaac Don Levine that he was barking up the wrong Clarence Miller. That was in 1974. He never heard another word.
In Perjury, Krieger, who back in the 1920s recruited Chambers into the party, is identified as the fiery textile strike leader who fled to the Soviet Union under the name Clarence Miller. This serves Weinstein’s melodrama by making Chambers’ recruiter a more sinister and important figure in the party than the lowly Sam Krieger, who was at that time the circulation manager of the Yonkers (N.Y.) Statesman.
Who, then, were Weinstein’s sources on Krieger/Miller? When I called him, he said one was a woman who heads a refugee program in New York. Weinstein did not give me her name. She had given Krieger’s address to a mysterious Russian woman: She told me the young woman found him and they had a sad reunion, Weinstein said. He sounded genuinely moved. I told him that Krieger said there had been no such visit. He shrugged over the phone.
The other source, he said, was an anti-Communist journalist. Was he Isaac Don Levine, I asked. Why yes, it was, he said. I told the professor that I had talked to his source just that morning and that Levine had said it was Weinstein who had told him Krieger was Miller, not vice versa.
There was a silence on the phone. That’s weird, Weinstein said. Well I have what he said in my notes. It’s all here. You’re welcome to come look at them.
I wrote an article in the San Francisco Chronicle reporting Isaac Don Levine’s recantation and the statements of two men, Alden Whitman and Sender Garlin, who had known both Krieger and Clarence Miller back then, and said that there wasn’t a ghost of a chance that the two were the same. Bridgeport police records supported Krieger’s assertion that he was arrested for party work in Bridgeport in 1934 when Clarence Miller was in Russia.
If Weinstein is right in his repeated identification of Krieger as Miller, then Sam Krieger is a fugitive from justice and a murderer.
On May 24, Sam Krieger filed suit against Allen Weinstein in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, seeking general, punitive and special damages. In addition to demanding $1 million from Alfred A. Knopf, Weinstein’s publisher, the suit asked the court to enjoin Knopf from identifying Krieger as Miller in any future printing of Perjury, and demands that errata slips be sent by the publisher to bookstores throughout the country to be inserted in copies already bound.
Krieger asks damages of $2 million for Weinstein’s statements in The New Republic that he has Krieger, on tape, not denying that he was Clarence Miller. Krieger said he told Weinstein exactly the opposite, on tape. In addition, Krieger says that Weinstein gratuitously misquoted his opinions about Hiss and Chambers in The New Republic.
Krieger’s lawyers are Doris Walker of Oakland and John Clancy of San Francisco, who has represented the Esalen Foundation and Hunter S. Thompson. Clancy said that The New Republic had been given 60 days to retract Weinstein’s statements about Krieger. If they refuse, the magazine will be named as a defendant, Clancy said.
These false statements, says the suit, are libelous on their face and clearly expose the plaintiff to hatred, contempt, ridicule, shame, fear and loathing, in that a convicted murderer who has fled to avoid serving his sentence is not viewed as your ordinary good neighbor.
In one of his defenses of Perjury, Allen Weinstein rounded on me as a recanter on the apparent ground that I had told Victor Navasky I could not remember talking with Priscilla Hiss’s former sister-in-law in 1974 about whether Mrs. Hiss had denounced her husband at a 1968 dinner party. Weinstein thereupon quoted in part from a letter he says I sent him in late 1974.
When I retired from The New York Times two years ago and moved out of New York, my files on the Chambers/Hiss case were irretrievably dispersed. Noting this fact, I wrote Weinstein on May 12 asking for Xerox copies of all my private letters and memorandums in his possession. I offered to pay the costs of copying. In view of Weinstein’s repeated professions of scholarly openness, such a request should have been honored. I was not totally astonished, however, that he did not respond to my letter, inasmuch as he had quoted from my private letters and memorandums as a source for a number of allegations in Perjury without my permission, consent or knowledge.
In footnotes in the book, he says the quotations and citations he used are by courtesy of Alden Whitman. Nothing could be further from the truth. The implication that I cooperated or collaborated with Weinstein in the research or preparation of Perjury is false. I did not see the book in any form until I received a bound copy shortly before its official publication date.
I leave it to your readers to characterize Weinstein’s behavior and to judge to what degree it accords with standards of scholarship that prevail generally in the history profession.
Because Weinstein has used my private letters and memorandums without permission and has thus miscast me as a willing participant in his book, I have taken advice and put Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., the publishers of Perjury, on notice. I have asked Knopf to give me an undertaking to excise from future printings or editions of the book, including any paperback editions, all citations bearing my name. I naturally pointed out to Knopf its failure to exercise prudence in finding out whether Weinstein had the permission of the owner of the contents of private letters and memorandums to make use of them. Under common law copyright, as your readers may know, the contents of the correspondence belong to the writer.
I would not burden your readers with this recital of my dealings with Weinstein save for the fact that he has made a public issue of his scholarship and his veracity. It occurred to me that your readers should not believe that everyone shares Weinstein’s astigmatic self-view.
The Nation, as Allen Weinstein points out in Perjury, has been foremost in keeping alive the hope that Alger Hiss could be proved innocent. This political investment, however, does not justify Victor Navasky’s misrepresentation of the historian’s case. A crucial example is the editor’s account of Josephine Herbst’s testimony about the Ware group. He charges Weinstein with omission-distortion because (1) she never used the word stolen; (2) she believed the documents possessed by the Ware group were trivial and intended for the Daily Worker, not Moscow; (3) she knew John Herrmann’s apartment was not used for developing photographs while she was there.
But Herbst did say, as Weinstein quotes her testimony, that she had seen, in the apartment, certain documents that had been taken from government offices by members of the cell and brought to the apartment for transmission to New York. (p. 138.) She was not claiming that the group was authorized to transmit these documents; the absence of the word stolen, therefore, is a mere quibble by the editor. Weinstein’s fairness is revealed by his noting that Chambers recalled no such espionage work being done in 1934 by members of the Ware group, whose major functions, he believed, were to recruit more Communists within the government and to influence government policies. (p. 140.)
Weinstein himself, moreover, makes the editor’s points that she thought the material was “innocuous” and believed that “‘no direct contact existed between our group and Soviet authorities.'” (p. 138.) As Weinstein points out, however, she did not know of Chambers’ work for the Red Army’s Fourth Branch. The historian also notes that, while no pictures may have been developed while she was in Herrmann’s apartment, she lived there only for three months in 1934 and hence could not speak about Chambers’ possible use of the quarters for espionage work – his and not the Ware group’s – at other times. (p. 140.)
The editor’s distortion by omission is capped, by his ignoring the critical fact: Herbst told Hiss’s lawyers that Chambers and John Herrmann regarded Hiss as an important prospect to solicit for the purpose of getting papers. (p. 141.)
The evidence is clear that Chambers, Herrmann and Ware, as Weinstein concludes, all told Josephine Herbst in mid-1934 that they were already in touch with Alger Hiss, trying to recruit him for espionage more than six months before Hiss claimed to have met Chambers under more innocuous circumstances. (p. 141.) If the editor can challenge this crucial conclusion, let him do so, rather than throw dust in the reader’s eyes by misrepresenting Weinstein’s account and slandering his character as a historian.
Note from Victor Navasky:
In his zeal to defend Allen Weinstein’s brief, Professor Strout seems to be guilty of the sort of carelessness which has made Perjury such a dubious guide to the complications of the Hiss case. First, he refers to Josephine Herbst’s testimony about the Ware group, even as Weinstein referred to her depositions. In fact, all of the evidence from Miss Herbst is in the form of FBI interviews, interviews with Hiss’s lawyers, or private correspondence.
In fact Herbst said several times that she didn’t believe pictures could have been developed in the tiny Ware apartment because it lacked a closet and the bathroom was totally impractical for developing purposes.
Finally, Professor Strout seems oblivious to the bottom fact about Weinstein’s treatment of Herbst: that by citing her statements out of historical context, he tries to use her second- and third-hand impressions (it is difficult to say which, given Weinstein’s inadequate footnoting system) of the so-called Ware group in 1934 as evidence of espionage in 1937 or 1938. Especially since Herbst had no direct knowledge of Hiss one way or the other, this seems a clear abuse of the record.
WILLIAM A. REUBEN
In newspaper, magazine, radio and television interviews over the past several months, Allen Weinstein has repeatedly said that what clinches his case against Alger Hiss (the strongest incriminating evidence) are memos he found in Hiss’s own lawyers’ files. According to Weinstein, this evidence establishes that early in December 1948 Hiss knew of the whereabouts of the Woodstock typewriter he had owned in the 1930s, that he lied about this knowledge to the FBI, the grand jury and even to his own lawyers, and that thereafter, for five months, with his brother Donald and Mike Catlett, the son of a former maid, he engaged in a conspiracy to prevent anyone – government investigators and even his own lawyers – from finding the Woodstock typewriter.
Having spent a quarter of a century studying the Hiss case, and in particular having interviewed all the available witnesses with knowledge of the typewriter, something that Professor Weinstein, for all his vaunted research and scholarship, neglected to do, I can confidently declare these allegations by Weinstein to be patent nonsense, complete distortions of the record. For the purpose of economy, let me restrict myself to Weinstein’s ludicrous charge that Donald Hiss and Mike Catlett attempted to suppress knowledge about the whereabouts of the typewriter (a typewriter which in any case the government later claimed was useless for its prosecution of Alger Hiss).
My research establishes that from the time the Hiss Woodstock was brought to the Catlett house, sometime between December 1937 and April 1938, until it or what is claimed to be the same machine was recovered at the home of Ira Lockey, Sr. in April 1949, the typewriter was used or possessed by 24 persons, none of whom, except for Pat and Mike Catlett, was known to Alger Hiss or to any member of his family. In that 11-year period, the machine was kept in no less than 12, and possibly as many as 18, different locations.
The reader of Perjury is told little about these complications and therefore is unable to appreciate the overwhelming difficulties facing Donald Hiss and Mike Catlett as they tried to follow this trail after 11 years. Contrary to Weinstein’s assertion, Donald Hiss never knew that Ira Lockey possessed the typewriter in 1949. Rather than covering up such knowledge, Donald Hiss persistently returned to Lockey’s house, no less than six times, in his quest for the typewriter, and each time Lockey denied possession. Donald Hiss finally and justifiably wrote this lead off as a dead end when, directed by Lockey, a hunt through a junkyard produced only an old Royal typewriter. Contrary to what Weinstein says, Donald Hiss kept Alger Hiss’s lawyer, Edward McLean, fully informed about all these searches.
Fred J. Cook (The Nation, May 12, 1962) makes the intriguing point that the sudden and mysterious appearance of the typewriter in April 1949 may have been connected with an FBI visit to Ira Lockey, Sr. in February 1949, after Donald Hiss’s continuously frustrated efforts. In any case, there is no conceivable basis for Weinstein’s charge that Donald Hiss and Mike Catlett withheld knowledge from Alger’s lawyers that the typewriter had been traced to Ira Lockey.
Allen Weinstein’s account, which ignores almost all of this history, is indeed the strongest incriminating evidence, but it is further evidence against the credibility.
I am employed as a researcher by the National Emergency Civil Liberties Foundation. I have been spending considerable time on Alger Hiss’s pending petition for coram nobis, so I am obviously not a disinterested bystander in the dispute over Allen Weinstein’s Perjury. Since the NECLF office houses the complete Hiss defense files as well as thousands of pages of FBI documents on the Hiss case, I have been able to compare these records with Allen Weinstein’s alleged documentation for his charges against Alger Hiss. I have discovered, literally, more than 100 serious errors of fact in Perjury, some of which were discussed in Victor Navasky’s review. But Navasky’s demonstrations of Weinstein’s unfounded allegations and sweeping distortions could be multiplied manifold from the available evidence.
Take, as an example, the question of whether Alger Hiss knew about the location of the Woodstock typewriter in December 1948 and lied about this knowledge to the grand jury and to his lawyers. Weinstein’s sole evidence for this charge is an ambiguous letter written December 28, 1948, by John Davis to Edward McLean. Navasky has demonstrated that on its face the letter does not support Weinstein’s charges against Hiss, and that, far from being certain about the whereabouts of the typewriter, the Hiss investigators were searching in many different locations.
But Navasky doesn’t cite the strongest evidence in this regard, a defense memorandum dated the same day as the Davis letter, December 28, 1948, which clearly demonstrates that Hiss had no clear recollection of what happened to the old Woodstock, and that his suggestion to Davis (that it may have been given to the Catletts) was only one of several possibilities that had occurred to him. Under the caption, “What Happened to the Typewriter,” five investigative leads which the defense intended to pursue are listed:
(i) Check all typewriter dealers and repairmen in Washington, Baltimore, Westminster and Lynbrook.
(ii) Check Hiss maids and their relatives … Catletts.
(iii) Relatives and friends of the Hisses to whom it may have been given.
(iv) Charities, such as the Salvation Army and self-help organizations.
(v) Hiss remembers that he reported a theft to the Washington police in 1939 or 1940…. This should be checked.
And, as Navasky pointed out, the January 21, 1949 memo, entitled “Oral Report from Mr. Schmahl Today,” demonstrated that the defense had indeed spent the previous month checking out all these possible locations. But of course Weinstein did not attempt to present all the evidence fairly in order to give the reader a chance to reach an honest judgment. Rather, as the late Matthew Josephson, winner of the Parkman Prize for history, wrote about Perjury: “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…. He must destroy the myth of Alger Hiss as America’s Dreyfus case and save the myth of Chambers as the suffering hero who rescued America’s intellectuals from Soviet communism.”
Allen Weinstein introduces me several times in Perjury, almost always in a manner which seriously distorts the truth. It would take too much space to provide you with even a reasonably complete list of his mistakes, but let me offer the following as representative of Weinstein’s erroneous assertions about me or events of which I had first-hand knowledge:
On p. 91, Weinstein writes: In Meyer Schapiro’s room at Columbia Chambers met a young man named Sender Garlin, who was then working for Russian-American relief.
Fact: I was at no time associated with this relief organization.
On p. 103, Weinstein writes that after the death of Chambers’ brother, Chambers resumed contact with Communist friends late in 1926. He adds that Chambers also remembered that “friends in the C.P., like Harry Freeman and Sender Garlin, who were then working on the Daily Worker, to get me out of my mood … urged me to go with them on that paper.”
Fact: Freeman and I (who lived in New York) could not have been working for the Daily Worker in 1926 because the paper did not move to New York from Chicago until the spring of 1927. I joined the staff several months later.
In his effort to create a conspiratorial atmosphere in which Chambers and Hiss were allegedly operating, Weinstein cites a defense memorandum by a Hiss lawyer. Here (p. 382) I am quoted as saying that Chambers had disappeared in 1933 and had gone underground. Victor Navasky, in his rebuttal to Weinstein (The Nation, May 6), quoted me accurately: Maybe the lawyer used these words, but I did not. Words like “underground” are not part of my vocabulary.
Weinstein claims that among those recognizing Chambers immediately, after a decade, were Sender Garlin, Josephine Herbst, Julian Wadleigh, William Edward Crane and Maxim Lieber. His footnote, No. 59, p. 596, cites HUAC 1, pp. 1,004-1,005 (1948). This citation is a phony, for I am nowhere listed in these pages of HUAC, nor are any of the other five persons mentioned, except for Nelson Frank. Questioned by Rep. Richard M. Nixon, Frank, a Red expert on the New York World-Telegram, said he recognized Chambers after a lapse of 12 years. Frank testified that he had been a part-time reporter on the Daily Worker in 1928, when he allegedly first met Chambers. Since I was city editor of the Daily Worker at the time, I can state categorically that he testified falsely on this point.
My name appears seven times in Weinstein’s index and four times in his reference notes. However, at no time did he make any attempt to communicate with me to check any assertions involving me.
A. B. MAGIL
Belatedly I have borrowed Allen Weinstein’s Perjury and find myself included in it as a witness. I’m not certain whether for the prosecution or defense in the case of Weinstein vs. Hiss. The consistent misspelling of my name and the description of me as former editor of the Daily Worker are inconsequential errors, whatever they may imply about the author’s scholarship. There are, however, distortions about statements I made and about my past activity that require correction.
The book (pp. 381-2): “Schmahl [an investigator for Hiss’s legal defense] informed McLean [Hiss’s lawyer] in late January that ‘through a very confidential contact’ he had learned that A. B. Magill, former editor of the Daily Worker, ‘knew the identity of a man with whom Chambers is said to have had an extensive affair in his younger days.’ Schmahl interviewed Magill, who described Chambers’ affair with Ida Dales, and strongly implied that she and other women had been lesbians when Chambers took up with them. Magill also said ‘that Chambers had an affair with a good-looking young boy, nicknamed “Bub” … when Chambers was employed on the staff of the Daily Worker.’ Magill reiterated a theme that characterized the C.P. line on Chambers by this time, and the unofficial comments of those Communists who volunteered information: ‘Chambers was in the habit of showing Magill his manuscripts for perusal before publication.’ According to Mr. Magill, ‘some of those manuscripts would turn your stomach.’ They were, said Mr. Magill, ‘dripping with perversities, violence and weird plots.'”
The facts: I did not describe Chambers’s “affair” with Ida Dales, nor did I imply that she was a lesbian. I referred to Ida Dales as Chambers’ first wife. I did not say that Chambers had an affair with Bub. I told the person who interviewed me that Chambers was suspected of homosexuality, and it was in that context that I mentioned “Bub.” I never said that Chambers was in the habit of showing me his manuscripts before publication. He was not. I told the interviewer that, on one occasion in the summer or early fall of 1931, while I was a house guest of Chambers at his home on Long Island, he showed me two or three short stories and a poem. I was impressed with the quality of the stories, but even more impressed with their obsession with violence. I said nothing about “perversities,” or about “turning your stomach,” or about “weird plots.”
The book: “Lieber said recently that A. B. Magill, who had provided information on Chambers to the Hiss defense, was the representative of the American Communist Party, who helped him make contacts in Mexico with Eastern European embassies (Lieber and his family, after several years in Mexico, settled in Poland).”
The facts: I was not the representative of the American Communist Party in Mexico. From 1950 to 1952, I was a correspondent there, first of the Daily Worker and later of Telepress, a left-wing international news agency that folded in the latter year. During two and a half years in Mexico, I was occasionally invited, as were Mexican newsmen and women, to social functions at the Czech and Polish Embassies. Maxim Lieber sought repatriation to the country of his birth, Poland, and I may have introduced him to a Polish Embassy official, though I have no specific recollection of doing so. Lieber departed for Poland more than two years after I left Mexico.
HOPE HALE DAVIS
As one who was a member of the Communist underground in Washington from mid-1934 to early 1937, I find some of Victor Navasky’s quoted contradictions of statements from interviews by Allen Weinstein in Perjury rather perplexing.
I have known personally a number of the people whose denials Navasky quotes. I would not expect one of them, if confronted with a statement published in a context unfavorable to them, to give an honest, unprevaricating response. But the case of Katherine Perlo’s letter to President Roosevelt was even more puzzling.
Navasky derides Weinstein as follows: “The Washington ‘underground Communist group,’ headed by Victor Perlo, was ‘confirmed’ when ‘Katherine Wills Perlo wrote an anonymous letter to the White House in 1944.'”
Here Navasky seems to be doing something strange – suggesting that Weinstein needed Mrs. Perlo’s letter to prove the existence of the underground, and that anything shaky about the letter should shake any right-thinking reader’s belief that there ever had been a Washington Communist underground.
He proceeds then to find the letter shaky because Mrs. Perlo was under the care of a psychiatrist, and because she added the psychiatrist’s name to those of her husband and others she accused of a Communist conspiracy.
I have no information about Mrs. Perlo’s psychiatrist. For all I know, he could have been a Communist. Such a choice, if made by a comrade, would have been natural. But about Victor Perlo himself and his underground activities, there can be no doubt. I attended a unit meeting (we did not use the term cell) once a week for more than two years, and Vic was present surely at more than seventy of them. He was my first unit leader; how well I remember his kneeling one night, drawing a map of China with different colors of chalk on a child’s blackboard, while giving us a progress report on the territory gained by Chu Teh, Chou En-lai, and Mao Tse-tung.
I am not sure whether Katherine Wills Perlo is the wife I knew. If she is, the marriage has an interesting history. Vic was only 22 when I first met him in 1934. He had been a mathematical prodigy, and was brilliant at his job in the New Deal. But his development had been one-sided. The more sophisticated comrades called him socially immature, and a campaign was launched to help him try, as the rest of us were doing, according to party directives, to play the role of a proper bourgeois adult. Always an earnest and literal-minded adherent to party decisions, Vic appeared, within weeks, proudly leading a blonde bride. He established her in a little country house and even produced a baby. Vic’s wife never seemed a natural as a Communist, and I am not surprised, if this Mrs. Perlo is the same woman, that she became fed up with the party and its demands.
But whoever she was, whatever her mental condition in 1944, however she phrased her accusation, the Washington underground not only existed but was used, to my knowledge, for stealing documents from government agencies. I myself carried out such an assignment, admittedly a harmless one, for I had no access to secret information, but performed by means of stealthy, illicit entry and the rifling of an official’s files, for practice. But my husband, whose breakdown and death may have been due to the conflicts caused by his conspiratorial activities, was leader of one of the most productive of the five-member units that made up our part of Hal Ware’s group. He himself regularly went to the New York waterfront to give a party contact confidential information from his job in the shipping division of the labor board of NRA, later of the National Labor Relations Board. Everyone in Hal Ware’s group had accepted the directive to get whatever we could for the party to use in any way it saw fit.
Note from Victor Navasky:
What appears above is a second draft. When Hope Hale Davis called to ask whether we were printing her letter, I assured her we were, but observed that she had misconstrued my point, which had to do only with Weinstein’s deficiencies as a scholar. In a footnote on p. 22 of Perjury, he refers to an anonymous letter sent by Mrs. Perlo “to the FBI” which accused her husband of “espionage.” In fact the letter was sent to the President and said nothing about espionage. On hearing this, Hope Hale Davis said, “Oh, I forgot to put in the espionage part,” and a few days later her addendum arrived with the final paragraph amended to include the espionage part.
If Davis is accurate in her memory, however, she has provided further evidence of Perjury‘s carelessness, for Weinstein neglected to include her name along with others he listed as members of the Perlo and Ware groups.
HELEN L. BUTTENWIESER
I have read with interest the account of your efforts to verify, at Mr. Weinstein’s invitation, his quotes or summaries of certain taped interviews.
Your experience comes as no surprise to me, as my reading of the book (I have only been able to struggle through half if it so far) indicated clearly that, while posing as a scholar whose search has revealed hitherto unknown facts, Mr. Weinstein has merely taken existing material, and by clever use of the English language, makes every correction of prior testimony by Alger Hiss sound as if he had been forced to retract a lie, while at the same time misquoting Whittaker Chambers so that subsequent changes would not appear to be changes at all.
I refer you, for instance, to page 47 where Weinstein says that “… Hiss adjusted his testimony …” whereas, in his portrayal of Whittaker Chambers, he not only plays down changes (see page 19) but in one striking instance actually misquotes Chambers on a vital point, so that no later correction will be necessary. I refer, in this instance, to Chambers’ testimony before HUAC, commencing with a prepared statement on August 3, 1948 and repeated frequently until he found it necessary to change his story toward the end of August 1948. (See page 5 where Mr. Weinstein writes that Chambers said he left the party in 1938 whereas, in fact, Mr. Chambers said he left the party late in 1937.) This, of course, is a crucial “correction” of the facts by the author, since assuming Mr. Chambers was correct when he said that he left the party in late 1937, the documents he produced dated February and March 1938 could not have come from Alger Hiss.
However, annoying as I find Mr. Weinstein’s deliberate manipulation of the reader’s impression of the respective truthfulness of Mr. Hiss and Mr. Chambers, I am even more put out by his unscholarly habit of appearing to append verification of an otherwise unsupported statement, referring the reader to a footnote at the back of the book which, when consulted, fails to confirm the statement footnoted: page 186, footnote 63; page 194, footnote 81; page 196, footnote 1; page 197, footnote 3; page 215, footnote 41; page 319, footnote 27.
These are but some of the defects I picked up, having neither the time nor the patience to check each footnote, but even these discrepancies are sufficient to give “the lie” to the current propaganda that Mr. Weinstein, through his outstanding scholarly efforts, has finally “proven” that Alger Hiss is guilty.
I felt an eerie sense of deja vu when I read in The Nation that Allen Weinstein reneged on his promise, even dare, to have Victor Navasky inspect his Perjury archives. Apparently, Weinstein didn’t have the nerve to turn away Navasky himself and had his wife perform this graceless task at the door of their Washington home. I consider this breach of a promise, made with great bravado on television, a mark of dishonor. It raises the question whether such a man can write honest history. For I don’t think an historian’s character is unrelated to his product. For example, Weinstein despises personal contretemps. He is extremely uncomfortable in situations, private or public, where he is strongly challenged. In other words, he has a difficult time coping with unpleasantness. This personality trait would be of no matter in a medieval historian, but it hurt Weinstein’s research immensely. His fear of confrontation prevented him from presenting evidence to principals in the Hiss case. I was with him when he told Alger Hiss, in his last interview, that he thought Hiss was guilty. Although extremely nervous, Weinstein went on to say that he possessed documentary evidence proving Hiss had lied when he said that he had no independent recollection of the whereabouts of the Woodstock typewriter. But did Weinstein show the accused his documentary evidence as any cub reporter would have done? No. Nor did he have the courage to face Mrs. Hiss with an allegedly incriminating letter. Nor did he allow Donald Hiss to comment on his alleged role in hiding the Woodstock typewriter from the FBI. Weinstein constantly wraps himself in the nonpartisan mantle of an objective historian. Yet he failed at crucial times to let the witnesses to history speak in his book. Why? I repeat, it’s a matter of character. How can I make these statements? I was once Weinstein’s friend. My feeling of deja vu relates to another betrayal of promise that likewise bears on the question of whether Weinstein can write honest history.
My story is a footnote to Perjury. My dispute with Weinstein has nothing to do with Hiss’s guilt or innocence. It is irrelevant to history, but I judge not to the current imbroglio regarding Weinstein’s methods – that is, his reliability as an historian. As I wrote Weinstein recently, I happen to believe in the book if not in you. I would not write those words today, even though I think Hiss is guilty.
It would take more space than it is worth to give the full story of the dealings between Weinstein and myself on the news rights to Perjury, which persuade me that his character must be an element in anyone’s judgment of his work on the Hiss case. Weinstein had given me exclusive news rights to the discoveries he claims to have made in the course of his research for his book. I was to make them public in a long pre-publication interview.
Weinstein reneged on this verbal contract. I had, with Weinstein’s approval, arranged for the exclusive interview to appear in Politicks six weeks before the book’s publication date. After I made this deal known to Weinstein, he allowed his agent to sell the news rights to Time without so much as telling me or Tom Morgan, editor of Politicks. The handling of this matter is now before the Ethics Committee of the Society of Authors’ Representatives at my instigation.
When I faced Weinstein with this betrayal, he offered to send me a check from his Time fee to compensate for my small Politicks payment, and said he would make amends to Politicks. Knopf is going to hate me for this, by calling a press conference in its offices, to answer any and all questions regarding Perjury. I declined the former and Morgan the latter. Weinstein thought he could cover his dishonor with a check and some publicity. He concluded by saying that he hoped he could salvage our friendship and would come up for dinner the following night. As with Navasky, he never showed.
And so I come back to my original question. Can such a man write honest history? I’m not sure. Navasky demonstrated that Weinstein has fiddled with evidence, overstated facts, and covered up ambiguities in order to fit his view of the case. I see certain parallels in Weinstein’s personal behavior. And so I would not be surprised if the character that broke promises both to Navasky and me, when it suited his purposes, also betrayed history in Perjury, where it suited his purposes.