If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.
— Attributed to Cardinal Richelieu, Voltaire, Robespierre, and often used to explain the Hiss case
Why should anyone, in 2017, care about a federal case for perjury that was decided in 1950, with a victory for the prosecution, which sent New Dealer and former State Department official Alger Hiss to prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, for forty-four months?
For one thing, there is a political-genealogical link between the Hiss case (the first show trial of the McCarthy era) and the subsequent political careers of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, all of whom, I would argue, are spiritual heirs of Whittaker Chambers (Hiss’s accuser who later published Witness, his breathless confessional).
While the formal charges against Hiss were two counts of perjury, for having lied under oath while testifying to the House Un-American Activities Committees (HUAC), in reality Hiss was sent up the river for having been a member of the Communist Party and for having passed U.S. state papers, via Chambers, to Soviet Russia.
It was only after the Hiss trials (there were actually two; he was only convicted the second time around) that Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy stood up in Wheeling, West Virginia, and proclaimed that he had a list of “205” members of the State Department who, he said, were “card-carrying” (a big phrase in the 1950s) Communists and on-the-job to subvert truth, justice, and the American way.
The Hiss trials were sensational as they advanced the idea of an enemy within—an idea which remains dear to political hearts in the Department of Homeland Security.
Nor was Hiss the only defendant in the dock; also on trial with him—albeit as unindicted co-conspirators—were FDR’s New Deal, the Yalta Conference, Harry Truman’s re-election campaign, the United Nations, and what shock jock Alex Jones now calls globalism.
Like it or not, the lingering DNA from the Hiss case still divides the American political landscape between liberals and conservatives, progressives and reactionaries, and cold warriors and one-worlders—if not Whigs and Know-Nothings.
You might not remember the Hiss case, but it remembers you.
* * *
In his political career (from 1933 to 1947) Alger Hiss was the embodiment of the liberal Democratic establishment during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Born in 1904, Hiss graduated from Harvard Law School in 1929, clerked on the Supreme Court for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and in the 1930s and 40s worked for New Deal ministries and in the State Department.
At the time of Pearl Harbor, he was serving in State’s Far Eastern division, but didn’t see the Japanese coming, although that oversight never came up at his subsequent trials (1949-50). He was deemed pro-Russian, not a plant for the Japanese.
Hiss was a junior member of the delegation that accompanied President Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference, held in winter 1945.
When, later, Hiss’s picture was retrieved from newspaper files, it showed him standing solemnly in Crimea near Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, and it suggested that one reason the Russians had hoodwinked the West in Eastern Europe was that a top American official at the conference had been a traitor to our cause.
In his last position for the State Department, as Director of the Office of Political Affairs, Hiss had responsibility for the establishment and operation of the United Nations, and in 1945 his picture was front page news when he was shown carrying the original UN charter to Washington, D.C. for the president’s signature.
In 1948, Hiss was serving as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (a waiting room for higher political office) when HUAC—in particular a young member of Congress, Richard M. Nixon—applied to establishmentarian Hiss the tar and feathers of alleged Communist sympathies.
The charges against Hiss neatly coincided with the 1948 presidential election, during which it served the Republican side to make the claim that Communists were sleeping under (or in) many of Truman’s Democratic beds.
Why does it matter now? Without the Hiss case, Richard Nixon would not have been elected to the Senate (1950) or as Vice-President (1952), where he formed close ties to the McCarthyite, red scare monger, Roy Cohn, who later in his career served as the personal lawyer and spiritual adviser to one Donald J. Trump.
In many ways, the Republican Right, as we know it today, cut its teeth on the Hiss case.
* * *
I am among the last generation of Americans who will have had any first-hand connection to the celebrated case. Hiss died more than twenty years ago, in 1996. I first met him in 1979, when I was twenty-five and he was seventy-five.
Hiss was friends with a family friend, Bill Rodgers, who had been a newspaperman for the New York Herald Tribune. He met Hiss when the latter was released from prison in 1954 and needed help to polish his memoir, In the Court of Public Opinion. Bill thought the final manuscript too devoid of passion, but he and Alger remained friends for the rest of their lives (Bill died in 1997).
When I got to know Bill well in summer 1973 (an avid Nixon hater, he had written position papers for presidential candidate George McGovern), he spoke at length about the Hiss case and the injustice he believed had been done to his friend Alger. Several years later he introduced me to Hiss at a lunch that took place in New York City.
Hiss and I enjoyed each other’s company, and over the years I had lunch with him on occasion and met his son Tony, then a staff writer at the New Yorker.
In winter 1981, I invited Alger Hiss to speak to a group of my friends. He showed up in a tweed jacket and with a raincoat on his arm, and spoke for much of a rainy winter afternoon about Roosevelt, the New Deal, the Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and Yalta (where he saw a naked Churchill stride into the Black Sea, only to have a wave douse his cigar).
In person, Hiss had the air of a retired ambassador. He spoke clearly and precisely, with candor and humor, and with many allusions to books and statesmen (Gladstone and Disraeli, not Marx and Engels).
Politically, he was a disciple of Roosevelt and the New Deal, and from our conversations I sensed the pride he took in his work for the AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Administration), as a possible antidote to the Depression.
Did Hiss have the aura of a Communist sympathizer? Not at all. The only author I remember him quoting was Victor Hugo, and nothing about his dress, speech, allusions, or habits of mind suggested any interest in the Russian revolution or its tributaries.
When I met Hiss in the late 1970s, I had a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University, and in the course of my studies I had met many professors with posters of Mao and Che on their office walls.
That wasn’t Hiss, who was an Anglophile—someone easier to imagine on a law school faculty than in a fifth column. Think of Mr. Chips more than Le Carré’s Karla.
* * *
The reason now I am now thinking yet again about Alger and the Hiss case is because Joan Brady, an American writer who has lived much of her adult life in England, has just published Alger Hiss:Framed – A New Look at the Case That Made Nixon Famous. The book was first published in Britain as America’s Dreyfus: The Case Nixon Rigged.
Presumably, the title was changed for the U.S. edition out of fear that American readers might not readily identify Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer who was railroaded to Devil’s Island in 1894 for, allegedly, having passed French military secrets to the Austrians.
Twelve years after his conviction, in part because the French writer Émile Zola took up his cause (“J’accuse …!” was the title given to his thundering editorial), Dreyfus was exonerated, although his military career and much of his life was in ruins. Later he did, however, serve honorably at Verdun and at Chemin des Dames in World War I.
Dreyfus is remembered as a victim of abusive state power in France, not to mention anti-Semitism. Zola wrote: “We have before us the ignoble spectacle of men who are sunken in debts and crimes being hailed as innocent, whereas the honor of a man whose life is spotless is being vilely attacked: A society that sinks to that level has fallen into decay.”
Unlike Dreyfus, Hiss never got his conviction overturned. His appeals during the 1950s, such as his writ of coram nobis in the 1980s, were denied. The name Alger Hiss remains synonymous with treason.
To this day, most Americans—if they know anything about the Hiss case—will say: “Wasn’t he some sort of Russian spy?” Or they might confuse him with Julius Rosenberg, who passed atomic secrets to the Soviets, or recall “a book” (no one is sure of the title) that “proved” Hiss was guilty.
In most minds, he’s an unsinking witch.
* * *
An American and a novelist by trade, Brady got to know Hiss in the 1960s through her husband, Dexter Masters, who became acquainted with Alger when the latter was working as a stationery salesman in New York City; out of prison Hiss had taken whatever job was out there. Much of the book is a memoir of that friendship.
She writes: “I knew Alger for more than thirty years, and I never liked him much.” Nor does she have any time for his girlfriend (later second wife), Isabel Johnson. But much later, while involved in a legal dispute in England, Brady began reading and writing about the case, in much the way that William Jowitt, 1st Earl Jowitt, in the 1950s wrote an excellent appraisal, The Strange Case of Alger Hiss, by digging through the archive while living in England.
Much of Brady’s book is a retelling of the Hiss story, so that someone new to the case or wanting to know more about the show trials can come to Alger Hiss: Framed with fresh eyes and still understand the story, which, in summary, is this:
In 1948, while Hiss was serving as the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a man named Whittaker Chambers appeared before HUAC and denounced Hiss (among others) as a “fellow traveler” of Communism.
At the time HUAC and its stridently angry (Republican) membership were looking for headlines that might defeat the re-election of President Harry S. Truman.
When he denounced Hiss to the House committee, Chambers was a senior editor at Time magazine, the country’s most influential news weekly.
Chambers was an “inside” rewrite man, who took the dispatches from the field and spun them into anti-Communist parables to suit the conservative views of Henry R. Luce, Time’s founder, owner and publisher.
The reason that anyone was listening to Chambers give confession was because, by his own account, in the 1920s and 30s, he himself had been an editor and writer for New Masses, a member of the Communist underground, and a Russian agent.
It was the 1939 German–Soviet Non-aggression Pact that first scared Chambers into becoming a penitent. By the late 1940s, when he found God and man at HUAC, the Soviet Union was no longer a wartime ally but had become a dangerous rival in Europe and Asia
Fearing that his socialist past might catch up with him (and his well-paid position at Time), Chambers turned into a state’s witness and (over many years, in various forums) denounced dozens of Communist sympathizers—not just Hiss but others too, including Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law, Francis B. Sayre Sr.
Chambers perhaps thought that by naming names he could save his skin if the American inquisition ever decided to ask him about his Stalinist sympathies in the 1930s.
The timing of his redemption was perfect. He managed to come in from the cold just in time to embrace HUAC, Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, and William F. Buckley Jr., all of whom cleaned up his lifetime of deception and falsehood, and turned him into an American icon.
Reagan said Chambers taught him the “bitter truths” about Communism.
* * *
The Chambers confession tour was a gold strike for HUAC, as well as for on-the-make Congressman Richard Nixon. Chambers came to the microphones of HUAC as someone who had done time in Stalin’s brave new world. He could speak of courier drops in the night, revolutionary zeal among the masses, and fellow travelers in high places.
In the late 1940s, drumming up hysteria about Communist “infiltration” was a growth business. The so-called Hollywood Ten (producers and actors thought to have been “pink”) had just been frog marched in front of the committee. Then it came knocking on Hiss’s ornate doors.
In summer 1948, when Hiss learned that he had been slandered at a HUAC hearing, he asked to be heard in rebuttal, at which time he denied the charge of having been a Communist or that he had ever known anyone by the name of Whittaker Chambers (who was not present in the room).
Some on the HUAC committee were inclined to believe Hiss’s protestation of innocence. His record of public service spoke for itself. But neither Nixon nor HUAC Chief Counsel Robert Stripling were among the believers.
They had electoral campaigns to wage and resumés to buff up, and Hiss—with his Harvard-New Deal credentials and Yalta past—had the look of a custom-made scapegoat, especially when Chambers met subsequently with HUAC and could recall details about Hiss’s life from the 1930s.
Brady quotes Nixon telling his colleagues on HUAC: “We should be able to establish by corroborative testimony whether or not the two men knew each other. If Hiss were lying about not knowing Chambers, then he might also be lying about whether he was or was not a Communist.”
Hiss didn’t recognize the name Whittaker Chambers because the man he knew in Washington, D.C. during the 1930s was a freelance writer using the alias George Crosley.
At the beginning of their friendship, Hiss was counsel for the Nye committee, which was investigating the armament trade (war profiteering made good headlines too). Crosley had come around the Senate committee to pick up material for a magazine story.
Hiss became friendly with Crosley, allowing his family to sublet an apartment for several months and giving him an old car (worth about $25). But their acquaintance ended in 1936, when (according to Alger) he decided that Crosley was a deadbeat for not repaying some small loans.
Crosley vanished into the Depression, while Alger remained a poster boy of the New Deal.
* * *
When Chambers and Hiss were brought together before a subsequent HUAC hearing, Hiss was the loser. His creditability suffered when it became apparent that he had known Chambers (in some form) during the 1930s, when the latter said he was running Communists for Stalin’s underworld.
Again, the matter might have died for lack of evidence—even HUAC realized that Chambers was prone to histrionics—except that Hiss, still angry over the HUAC allegations, decided to sue Chambers for libel, first asking $50,000 (later $75K) in damages, which would have bankrupted the Time editor.
Nixon was among those who told Chambers than unless he could produce proof of Hiss’s fellow traveling, he was liable to lose the libel case and fifty grand.
As if reading a prompt card, some weeks later Chambers produced a raft of allegedly secret documents that he said had come from Hiss and his State Department files in the 1930s.
Chambers said that Hiss had secretly typed the documents on a typewriter in his Georgetown house and that Chambers had then given the papers to a drop in Baltimore, where they were photographed. (In the Hiss trade, these papers are called “the Baltimore documents.”)
When it turned out that Hiss could not type, Chambers changed his story and said Hiss’s wife, Priscilla, had typed the documents. (In the course of several trials, Chambers learned to gloss over many lies.)
For the first time, Chambers also testified that Hiss had been a member of a Soviet spy network. All he had said earlier to HUAC was that Hiss had organized a Communist cell.
Later, when it became clear that the Baltimore documents had little intelligence value (and had been circulated not just to Hiss in the State Department but to other offices at State), Chambers doubled down on his allegations against Hiss.
He produced secret microfilm that he said Hiss had given him, and that, for safekeeping, Chambers had kept hidden in a pumpkin at his Westminster, Maryland, farm.
According to Brady, Chambers got the idea from a Soviet-era spy movie, Transport of Fire, further evidence that the case was scripted as an American show trial.
These are the infamous Pumpkin Papers, which newsreels flashed across the nation—perhaps proof that Chambers might well be telling the truth about Alger’s work as a Russian spy.
* * *
Nixon was photographed staring at the microfilm through a magnifying glass, and in his hands, the Pumpkin Papers became the basis for a grand jury to indict Hiss for perjury. The statute of limitations of three years had expired for espionage, as Chambers said he got the Baltimore documents and the Pumpkin Papers from Hiss in 1938. (Under oath Hiss said he had not seen Crosley after 1937.)
According to Brady’s narrative, Nixon stage-managed the character assassination with judicious leaks to the press (notably to Bert Andrews of the New York Herald Tribune) and secured an indictment against Hiss without turning over the Pumpkin Papers to the Justice Department or the grand jury.
On face value—that of Nixon’s—they had to accept his word that the Pumpkin Papers were state secrets of the highest order, and that Hiss had committed treasonable offenses when he allegedly passed the microfilm to his underground accomplice, Chambers.
Only about thirty years later were the Pumpkin Papers released to the public, and they turned out to be meaningless documents from bureaucratic Washington, including a directive on how to paint fire extinguishers.
Meanwhile, Nixon got his man, Hiss, and rode the conviction to the White House—first as Vice-President under Dwight Eisenhower and later as President (from which position Nixon would resign in disgrace). In Six Crises, Nixon’s 1962 memoir, the Hiss case comes first.
Brady quotes Nixon’s frequent bragging. He would say: “We won the Hiss case in the papers”—meaning that Nixon’s leaks of the grand jury proceedings helped to create a climate of domestic hysteria, which brought about Hiss’s indictment and conviction.
Donald Trump ran for the presidency on the same principles.
* * *
Brady comes out unequivocally on the side of Hiss having been framed (in court and in the newspapers) and of him having being innocent of all allegations of Soviet espionage. It is the first book in years to take Alger’s side.
In my adult lifetime, many books about the case have argued that Hiss was guilty of spying for the Soviets and that he lied about this treason for the rest of his life. (In 2013, for example, Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason was published.)
These books describe a Hiss that no friend of Alger’s ever remotely saw. Chambers, for example, would have us believe he was capable of sneering at FDR’s disability.
In most of these he-was-guilty books, Hiss is lumped together with the Cambridge Five—the Soviet spy network in England that was together as undergraduates in the 1930s—or Klaus Fuchs, a stealer of atomic secrets.
In these tellings of the case, Chambers is the patron saint of all those who squandered their youth on Communist sympathy, only to find redemption by a full confession, if not with a lifetime subscription to National Review.
One particular book about the case that still gets much attention is Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Hiss–Chambers Case, which came out in 1978, in time for the professor to prove his bona fides with the incoming Reagan administration, for whom Chambers was one of the four horseman.
After 1981, Weinstein became a court historian and accepted, on bended knee, many patronage favors from Republican governments. In 2005 George W. Bush appointed him Archivist of the United States, an odd choice for someone who, in his books, refused to turn over his background materials. (Read Victor Navasky’s essay about Weinstein, if you have any doubts.)
The hype around the publication of Perjury was that Weinstein had begun his research believing Hiss to have been innocent, but came around to the conclusion that he was guilty after having sifted through recently released documents.
For all that Weinstein marketed his turgid prose as “the final word” on the Hiss case, he produced a book that is little more than a rewrite of the Chambers’s memoir, Witness—and Witness itself is a rewrite of the Nixon and FBI files, which, as Brady argues, were cooked to convict Hiss of perjury.
To me the only proof that Perjury furnishes is that academics can tailor their intellectual conclusions much the way marketing execs often plan their ad campaigns—to further their careers.
* * *
Although largely a memoir of her friendship with Hiss, Joan Brady’s book breaks new ground with her research and her extrapolation that the source of some Baltimore documents (which Chambers produced at the libel trial) was the extended family of Ambassador William Christian Bullitt, who in the 1920s and 30s was a man-about-Washington and later a U.S. ambassador to Russia.
Brady stumbled across the Bullitt connection to the Hiss case while she was doing research into the life of French mathematician Evarite Galois and ended up rummaging through the Bullitt family papers and archive at their home and offices in Louisville, Kentucky. (Confusingly, this part of the story has two men who were cousins, and both were named William Bullitt. One was the ambassador to Russia; the other was a prominent Louisville lawyer.)
In Louisville Brady came across an odd condolence letter, from Richard Nixon to the widow of William Marshall Bullitt (the lawyer), which reads: “I will always be very grateful to Mr. Bullitt for his invaluable help in the case of Alger Hiss.” (As well, Ambassador Bill Bullitt gets a shout out in Six Crises for helping Nixon on the Hiss case.)
Why Nixon would be grateful to a Louisville lawyer, even one with diplomatic connections, for his “help in the case of Alger Hiss” is a mystery to Brady until she deconstructs the Baltimore documents and concludes that: “My theory though is that Bill Bullitt [the ambassador] supplied the original material, and an FBI team—or an army team or an OSS team—did the typing.”
Her thesis, which I find credible, is that when Chambers and Nixon were floundering at the libel trial and searching for proof that Hiss had given Chambers valuable government papers, Ambassador Bill Bullitt (a man of endless jealousies who had wanted Hiss’s job at Carnegie) came forward with some government papers that, after being retyped, could be passed off as having passed across Hiss’s desk.
His Bullitt cousin—the lawyer who was also a board member of Hiss’s own Carnegie Endowment—was the go-between with Nixon. Both Bullitts harbored grudges against Hiss, who made them look weak when he, not Ambassador Bill, got the top job at Carnegie.
The Baltimore documents and later the Pumpkin Papers were agitation propaganda—of value so long as they were breathlessly described in newsreels as valuable state secrets (not instructions on how to paint fire extinguishers).
Brady writes that many of Chambers’s Baltimore documents were actually written by Ambassador Bill Bullitt or came from his office papers—“And Bill was probably the only person around who would have been interested enough in that long, dull economic report on Manchuria to keep a copy.”
Even the onion skin paper of the retyped Baltimore documents matches many documents that Brady came across in the Bullitt family library and archive.
She writes of one document in her possession: “It’s very tattered now, but it’s the same kind of paper that was used for Chambers’s documents; there were lots of spare sheets in the Bullitt files. The Bullitts were pack rats. They kept everything.”
* * *
Most people, if they know anything about the Hiss case, remember “something about a typewriter,” which became the smoking gun at the two trials that eventually convicted Hiss of perjury.
In his testimony Chambers claimed that Hiss would bring home State Department documents (including the report on Manchuria) and that Priscilla Hiss would retype them in the Hiss house in Georgetown.
Then Chambers would arrive in the late evening and hand-carry the stash overnight to Baltimore, where the papers would be photographed. (Even in the 1930s, Russian spies used Leica cameras to photograph documents. No one would have bothered to retype anything, just so that later they could be photographed.)
Before the criminal trial, according to Brady, Hiss hoped that if he could retrieve his wife’s long-lost Woodstock typewriter, he could help prove at his trial that he was innocent of espionage (technically, the charges were two counts of perjury).
Brady writes: “Alger was certain, absolutely certain, that finding Priscilla’s old machine would provide proof positive that Chambers’s accusations were nonsense.”
* * *
Priscilla Hiss’s father purchased a typewriter in the late 1920s, and it sat around the Hiss household until in the late 1930s when it was given away to the Catlett family (servants in the house). The Catletts let their children play on the machine but then, in all likelihood, consigned it to a junkyard, where it rotted in the rain.
Getting ready for the first perjury trial, which took place in 1949, Hiss and his defense team combed Washington looking for the machine. They had supplied to the government some typeface examples (referred to as the “Hiss standards”), so everyone knew from the FBI that the machine in question had been a Woodstock.
Miraculously, just before the trial began, a near pristine Woodstock typewriter, with the serial number 230,099, turned up at the house of a Hiss acquaintance—as if manna from heaven, or so believed the Hiss defense team. But it turned out to be a victory for the prosecution, probably found or planted by the FBI. (So Nixon says in the first edition of Six Crises; the reference was removed in later editions.)
The typewriter sat prominently in court during the two perjury trials. Some jurors even tried out the keys, and an FBI expert witness testified that the Hiss machine had, in fact, typed the documents Chambers claimed he had secreted in the dumbwaiter.
Even the Hiss defense thought the Baltimore documents had been typed on the machine in court. In effect, by finding the typewriter, Hiss convicted himself.
What was not known at the trial, however, was that Woodstock #230,099 could not have been the Hiss machine. Its serial number did not match the production run when Priscilla Hiss’s father bought his typewriter, a fact proven in John Lowenthal’s excellent documentary (1980), The Trials of Alger Hiss (an ideal introduction for someone new to the case).
In all likelihood, the typewriter at the trial, said to have typed the Baltimore documents, came from the FBI itself, as did the unimpeachable expert witness who told the jurors that Woodstock typeface was like handwriting, and that only the Baltimore documents could have been typed on this machine.
Nor in the late 1940s could anyone imagine that Nixon or Hoover were in the business of fabricating evidence at federal trials. But during the Watergate scandal Nixon said to his White House counsel John Dean: “The typewriters are always the key. We built one in the Hiss case.”
* * *
The sensational hearings in 1948 helped to re-elect Nixon to the House of Representatives. In the 1950 California Senate race, after Hiss’s conviction, he continued with the theme of anti-Communism, by suggesting that his opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, was “the pink lady.”
During the Hiss trials, however, Nixon could not leave it to chance that a grand jury would indict Alger or that a trial jury would convict him, so he worked tirelessly behind the scenes with Chambers and the FBI to tilt the wheels of justice. Brady quotes Father Cronin who said: “Nixon was playing with a stacked deck in the Hiss case.”
Although Brady does not mention it in her book, part of the motivation that the FBI had to “get Hiss” was Hoover’s recollection from the 1930s that Hiss had argued, within New Deal circles, that the FBI director was blocking FDR’s reforms and should be replaced. Of anyone in Washington, Hoover was excellent at nursing his grudges, and backing them up with agents in the field.
Throughout the 1940s the FBI routinely tapped Hiss’s phone, hoping to turn up evidence of Communist intrigue. But it found nothing, which should have been the basis of his exoneration at trial. Instead, that evidence from the wiretaps was withheld from the defense.
Instead, over months of meetings before the trials, the FBI fed many tidbits of Hiss’s daily life to Chambers, who could then—in his court testimony—pretend that he had been a close acquaintance of the Hiss family.
One reason congressional investigators and later jurors believed that Hiss lied about knowing Chambers was that the latter could speak so knowledgeably about where the Hisses had lived, and what their family life was like.
The allusion to small details (he remembered Alger’s pleasure while bird watching at spotting a prothonotary warbler) suggested to many that Chambers could well have been present when Alger was leading a cell in Stalinist study sessions.
Brady writes: “Since Chambers himself was the issue, his and his wife’s intimate knowledge of Alger and Priscilla as friends was critical. He was well prepared. He’d spent five months, five days a week, eight hours a day with FBI agents—something like a thousand hours in all—going over testimony.”
* * *
Who was Whittaker Chambers?
For all that Chambers has been transformed into a patron saint of the American rightwing—Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the administration of George W. Bush wept over his tomb on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Witness—his life was one based on deception, falsehood, fabrication, and exaggeration.
Embrace Whittaker Chambers, and in a few generations you will find yourself in the arms of Donald Trump, another hero of his own inflated romantic conceptions.
Chambers was a melodramatic witness. For example, he said: “We were close friends, but we are caught in a tragedy of history. Mr. Hiss represents the concealed enemy against which we are all fighting, and I am fighting. I have testified against him with remorse and pity, but in a moment of historic jeopardy in which this national now stands, so help me God, I could not do otherwise.”
His high school principal in Rockeville Centre on Long Island, however, told the historian William Reuben that Chambers was “some kind of a nut.”
After dropping out of college in the 1920s, Chambers worked at the New York Public Library, which he said fired him for his Communist views. Instead, they got rid of him for stealing books.
In Baltimore, in the 1930s, Chambers and his wife stole the identity of a neighbor with a similar name, and ran up debts that were never repaid. On another occasion Chambers used the birth certificate of a dead baby to apply for a false passport.
Chambers lived under assumed names (seventeen aliases have so far turned up), and routinely invented stories about his life that were at variance with the truth.
For much of the 1930s, as he would have the readers of Witness believe, he was an important Soviet courier—when in fact, he was earning his living translating books from German into English (including that stirring Bolshevik tale, Bambi).
* * *
Chambers loved nothing more than to boast to his friends, among them the writer Lionel Trilling, that he was “a secret Communist agent,” although no proof of Chambers’s work for Russian intelligence has ever emerged, except in his own fervid imagination.
Trilling, who knew Chambers at Columbia University, based a character in one of his novels on Chambers and his many deceptions.
The Russian journalist and researcher, Svetlana Chervonnaya, who helped Brady with her book, has concluded elsewhere:
For years, it has puzzled me that, despite the existence of this fascinating and slowly growing body of information, many Western historians continue to consider the English language account given by Whittaker Chambers more than 50 years ago the final word on the subject of the GRU activities in the United States in the 1930s. When crosschecked against available documentation, however, many of his stories, rather than serving as reliable insights into history, turn out to be odd mixes of fact and fiction rearranged to heighten drama or make Chambers himself the heroic center of the tale.
From this fabulist, however, Richard Nixon extracted the parts that would enhance his rising political career. The rest didn’t matter. (Stripling said: “[Nixon] was no more concerned about whether Hiss was [a Communist] than a billy goat.”)
Nor at the two trials did it matter that Chambers was a liar of epic proportions. He was there as a storyteller from the underground, a survivor from one of Dante’s circles of hell.
Nixon’s and Chambers’s strategy was simply to tell an enormous tale, built almost entirely on falsehoods and innuendos, and then to hope that some elements of the fiction would stick to Hiss. Brady writes:
Who wouldn’t be wafted away on tales like these? How could a jury not be entranced with “Carl” and “Lisa” and Bleak Houses and policemen carrying Easter lilies? It hardly mattered that Alger’s team disproved item after item, dates, places, plays, house colors, coats, out-of-season forsythias. By this time Nixon’s mass of “unimportant details” was deeply embedded in Chambers tale of spying, and Alger was running so hard to show what nonsense it was—to explain the real where-how-why of each item without any help from the FBI’s massive records—that he couldn’t see the trap he was caught in, much less battle it effectively.
* * *
Depending on the day, Chambers lied about his childhood, his parents, where he worked, where he had been, what he had written, and who he had known. He became a character in a fabulist novel of his own creation, which he called Witness.
Published in 1952, while Hiss was in jail but still a fixture in headlines, Witness is a red scare confessional, full of clandestine meetings in the back of movie theaters and document drops around the capital.
Chambers’s aspiration was to become the Tolstoy of Communist subversion, but instead he turned out the longest Reader’s Digest cover story, one along the lines of “The Red Menace Comes to Washington.”
As a work of non-fiction, Witness is absurd, no more credible than a drug-store thriller or the ravings of Senator McCarthy about subversives taking over the State Department. But it found its audience with professional cold warriors (Ronald Reagan among them) and others looking to justify defense appropriations with a convenient, red menace.
Much like the novel Ragtime, Witness is populated with characters named after people that Chambers encountered in his life. Otherwise they are fictional creations, as is the story he told at the trials.
In the 1940s, most of those who turned up in Chambers’s fantasies shrugged off the bizarre associations he conjured, but Hiss sued for libel. Chambers was lucky that he managed to recruit Hoover’s FBI into his army of fact-checkers, only in this case everyone started with the conclusion that Hiss was guilty and arranged the “facts” to bolster the assumption.
For example, Brady does an excellent job explaining how, at first, Chambers said repeatedly under oath that he had left the Communist Party and the Soviet underground in 1937.
Then he changed his quitting time to 1938, as that was the date on some of the Baltimore documents, dredged up later to incriminate Hiss. It was also under oath, in the libel case, that Chambers said: “Alger Hiss didn’t do anything of this character [giving materials to the Russians]. I never obtained documents from him.”
* * *
Spend any time with Hiss case insiders, and before too long the conversation will turn to the question of homosexuality, and how it influenced the outcome of the case.
Under the rules of evidence, the FBI had an obligation to supply the defense with the material it had accumulated about Chambers and the case, but Hoover and the prosecution made sure to suppress evidence about their star witness, notably that of his homosexuality and his Night-of-the-Living Dead childhood.
Chambers’s father, almost literally, was a closet homosexual who (when at the house) spent his time alone in his room, where he took his meals on a tray. Chambers’s mother slept with an axe under her bed (convinced that someone was out to get her), and his grandmother, suffering from some metal illness, roamed around the house as a madwomen during the night. Chambers’s older brother committed suicide in the family kitchen.
Is it any wonder, then, that Whittaker (born Jay Vivian Chambers, to the delight his schoolmates) preferred to inhabit a fictional world of make-believe?
But had it been known, in the late 1940s, that Chambers was homosexual, the case against Hiss would have collapsed instantly.
Nixon and Hoover saw to it that the secret remained with them, although it is possible, as Brady speculates, that they also used Chambers’s dissolute lifestyle against him as blackmail.
To wit: he had no choice but to go forward with his untruthful allegations against Alger. Otherwise, Nixon and Hoover would have outed him, costing him his $25,000 salary at Time, and earning him the opprobrium of his peers.
* * *
Not only did the prosecution hide from the defense that Chambers was homosexual, but it also may have influenced the defense against calling to the stand Hiss’s stepson, Timothy Hobson, who at the time of the trials had recently been discharged from the U.S. Navy for being gay.
Alger, in particular, hated the idea that the prosecution would play up his navy discharge and that this might negatively effect his son’s career. (Hobson became a doctor and is still living.) Alger said (honorably I think): “I would rather go to jail than have Timothy’s life ruined by this case.”
Although Hobson was only about nine years old when Chambers claimed his close association with the Hiss family, he would have made a superb witness at the trials. Around 1935-36, Hobson broke his leg while riding his bike in the neighborhood, and he was confined to a cast and rest on the living-room sofa.
Hobson is the only one (besides the African-American maid, Claudie Catlett) who would have witnessed the visits that Chambers claimed to have made to the Hiss house on 30th Street in Georgetown. But he never appeared as a witness.
Hobson said later in his life about the allegation against his stepfather: “It was fabricated without even a seed of truth.”
Perhaps the best description of what Hobson saw or didn’t see in the house comes in a memoir of his father by his stepbrother, Tony Hiss, called The View From Alger’s Window. In it he writes:
My brother, who is the final living eyewitness in the Hiss case (as well as the only one who didn’t testify at the trials), had been seven—my son’s age now—when, according to Chambers, he and Alger first met; and Tim had been twelve when, again according to Chambers, he had paid his last call on the Hisses. Tim… had been ten and eleven during the time when, according to Chambers again, Alger had brought home State Department papers; Prossy [his mother Priscilla] had stayed up late to retype them; Chambers had arrived to collect them.
Tim assured me that maybe about 1 percent of this was either real or based on something real… Nobody in the family knew them [the Chambers] well or had any other connection with them, and none of the Chamberses ever came back… any typing would have resounded through the small 30th Street house—it was flimsily built, with insubstantial walls. Prossy was a poor typist; typing was always a chore for her, not a pleasure.
Keep in mind she would have had to type at least sixty-five, single-spaced pages. And in 2001 a former Hiss next-door neighbor, Dr. Elizabeth May, told an interviewer that she never heard any typing through the “paper-thin” walls that connected the two row houses.
* * *
Brady takes the Hobson story one step further, suggesting that Chambers’s interest in the Hiss household, and his strange visits at unannounced times, could have related to his desire to abuse the young Hobson, who because of his accident was often home alone while his parents were working.
Do I believe Whittaker Chambers capable of such perversion? Personally, I do, especially as Brady quotes a passage from another book about the Hiss-Chambers case in which a friend of his describes a rape scene (with a man) in which Chambers is the rapist.
Brady is the first writer I have come across who has speculated that the creepy Chambers might have had an interest in abusing Alger’s son, but many other books about the case speculate that, in the 1930s, Chambers had developed an attraction to Alger, which the latter did not reciprocate.
Hiss probably wasn’t even aware of it, but the rebuff, however it came, could well explain why Chambers would remain obsessed with Hiss, over the years collecting papers about his career and later naming him as a Communist agent.
Brady writes that throughout his life Chambers collected what he called “life-preservers”—papers and artifacts that later might literally save his life in a conflict.
She writes about how Chambers liked to rummage through the trash of friends:
Guy Endore, who was at Columbia with him [Chambers], told the psychoanalyst Dr. Zeligs that it was a regular habit. Chambers liked searching people’s wastepaper baskets; he found “pieces of identity” there. Zelig diagnosed a “psychic scavenger.” Friends and colleagues said that Chambers targeted people who obsessed him. Waste was the least of it with the Hiss family. He collected bits of their furniture too: a love seat, a wing chair, a table, a child’s rocker, a child’s chest. He kept this booty in his basement storeroom along with a much more intimate prize: he’d removed a square of material from a chair that Alger had sat on, folded it neatly, and tucked it away for safe-keeping…
Sadly, the only person who took the correct measure of Chambers (in the Hiss household, if not in American history) was the Hiss maid Claudie Catlett, who said to filmmaker John Lowenthal of his skulking presence:
A guy named Crosby (sic) used to come up there all the time. I don’t know who he was, nothing like that, but he used to come there all the time. And I never cared much for him. I used to watch him, because I didn’t think much of him.
It sounds like she knew a perv when she saw one.
* * *
Following his conviction in 1950 and his imprisonment, Hiss filed numerous appeals in the courts, all of which were denied.
His best chance for redemption should have come in the early 1950s at the U.S. Supreme Court, but several judges were Hiss friends or had testified for his defense. They recused themselves from his case, and the balance of the court refused to hear it.
Another character witness at his trials was Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, who knew Hiss from the New Deal and his work with the United Nations.
Other Hiss defenders included Secretary of State Dean Acheson and President Harry Truman, who said HUAC was using “red herrings” to smear Hiss. And before he died, when someone mentioned to FDR that Hiss might be a Communist, the President only laughed.
After Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace from the presidency in 1974, Hiss’s public standing rose, as it became clear that Hiss was an early victim of Nixon’s career in dirty tricks.
Hiss began speaking about the case on college campuses, where he was well received, and he filed a petition for coram nobis (to correct an earlier injustice, basis upon newly discovered evidence—in the Hiss case, it was “prosecutorial misconduct” in withholding key evidence). That filing ran into a Nixon-appointed judge and was denied. Legally, the Hiss case had reached a dead end.
Nor did the Democratic presidencies of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama show any interest in righting the judicial wrong done to Hiss. Clinton felt the long reach of the case in 1996, when he nominated Anthony Lake to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
One reason given for Lake’s rejection in the Senate was his expression of doubt that Hiss had ever been a spy. (Lake said: “I don’t think it’s conclusive.”) To Republicans in Congress he might as well have challenged the existence of Santa Claus.
Obama never expressed interest in Hiss, perhaps because by the time he was studying history in high school, the case had faded from public awareness. Nor did Obama want to give his many critics more ammunition that he might have been a closet socialist or fellow traveler.
And for whatever reason, Obama had a Nixonian-HUAC mentality when he ruthlessly went after government whistle-blowers who wanted to tell the truth about war crimes in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Donald Trump and Alger Hiss? For sure, Trump would have heard about the Hiss case from his lawyer Roy Cohn, who in the U.S. attorney’s office in 1949 was already writing memos about Hiss’s guilt (before he was convicted)—and Cohn was by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s side during the darkest days of the witch hunts in the 1950s for Communists in the federal government.
During the election of 2016 Trump surrogates liked to bring up Hiss to make the case that any future Democratic administration would be rife with Comintern agents.
According to an article in the New Yorker, Newt Gingrich, while campaigning on Trump’s behalf, drew parallels between “the fight against Communism and [that] against radical Islam…”
When he was asked for specifics, Amy Davidson Sorkin writes:
He answered by invoking a name: Alger Hiss…. For Gingrich, this was what it was all about: enemy agents among us, coddled by liberal denialism. “There were a substantial number of spies in the United States” during the Cold War, Gingrich said.
As president, however, Trump might find sympathy for someone unjustly accused of collaborating with the Russians.
* * *
Contemporary investigations into the Hiss case have moved to the Russian archives in Moscow, where both sides have sought proof, either of Hiss’s innocence or his connections to Russian intelligence.
Those, including Brady, who believe Hiss was framed and is innocent, point to numerous searches through the Russian records, none of which have turned up a hint that he was a Soviet agent. Nor for that matter do they produce a shred of evidence indicating that Chambers was a Russian spy.
Many Russians familiar with Soviet spycraft make the additional point that the espionage methods that Chambers described to HUAC and at the trials would have been absurd, even in the 1930s. Spies didn’t retype documents. Nor did they turn over documents that had their handwriting on the copies (as Hiss allegedly did).
And no spy agency (Russia’s included) would have employed anyone as erratic as Whittaker Chambers, who sent postcards to his college friends while he was presumably training with intelligence operatives.
Of all the documents from the Russian archive, Hiss makes an appearance in only two of them. On one—intercepted as part of the VENONA program—he merits a mention when someone in the United States, next to the code name ALES, wrote on the side: “Probably Alger Hiss.”
Mind you, it wasn’t the Russians who wrote “probably Alger Hiss” in the margin of the decrypted memo, but a postwar American official, adding his own annotation and speculation to a translated Russian memo, no doubt because the Hiss case was raging in the press.
Was Hiss’s code name in Russian intelligence ALES?
* * *
Brady does an admirable job reducing the ALES excitement to its minimum, saying that marginalia on a translated, intercepted Russian cable ought not be the standard to prove treason in the United States.
Historians Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya wrote a serious deconstruction of ALES that was published in American Scholar. They rule out Hiss as the Soviet agent with the code name ALES, in part by quoting at length from Lt. Gen. Vitaly Pavlov, “a former KGB foreign intelligence officer who had supervised intelligence operations focused on the United States from late in 1938.”
Pavlov makes the point in an interview that because Hiss, by his actual name, is mentioned elsewhere in Russian diplomatic traffic, it rules out that he would ever have been a spy; otherwise, the system would have used his code name. This was true in all cases, not simply that of Hiss.
Bird and Chervonnaya write: “When interviewed in 2002, Pavlov firmly stated that no one openly named in the VENONA cables could have been an agent. Why was he so sure? ‘Had he ever been an agent, the service would never have used his code name in the system.’”
For those who believe Hiss to have been guilty, the ALES marginalia—just like the Weinstein book, Witness, or the stigmata of Whittaker Chambers—are variations on “the final word.”
That, otherwise, the Russian archives are devoid of Hiss files speaks more to the point, as do the denials from just about anyone who has ever looked through the Russian archive.
Most such searches end with a senior Russian scoffing at the claim that Hiss worked for them. One Russian added to his denial: “I am ready to eat my hat if someone proves the contrary.”
What about the public? Everyone loves spy stories. How does this hero fare in Russia? There are a lot on other famous turncoats. Klaus Fuchs: he’s well covered. The Cambridge Five are all over the place. A book came out not long on Anthony Blunt.
But the Hiss case? There are no popular books about him in Russian. Not one. Nobody’s heard of the man, not even the head of the foreign intelligence branch of the KGB and the Chairman of the KGB. This is yet another general, Army General Vladimir Alexandrovich Kryuchkov. In 1996, he granted an interview to Pulitzer prize-winning author David Remnick, who “asked about spies and suspected spies… and was rebuffed with dutiful answers” until he reached the name Alger Hiss; “Kryuchkov looked utterly bewildered.”
“Who is that?”
* * *
Brady has her own theories—as many writers do—about the Hiss case. I think she has performed a service to history by figuring out that a possible source of the Baltimore documents were the Louisville cousins, both with the name William Bullitt.
It’s neither far-fetched nor hard to believe that one of them gave to Nixon and the FBI some government documents that, once retyped, could be passed off in the libel trial as having come from Alger’s files in his State Department office.
The Bullitts had the motivation and resources, not to mention the association with Nixon, to have stacked the deck against Hiss. One Bullitt didn’t like him; the other wanted his job at the Carnegie Endowment. (Elsewhere, Brady has written about them: “Neither one had the least compunction in doing whatever it takes to get what they wanted: entitled rich guys like Trump, used to lying, plotting, getting their own way by whatever means.”)
Another possibility is that pack-rat Chambers simply picked up the Baltimore documents in the 1930s, when he was writing about Washington politics, and held on to them, much they way he collected so many other papers or “life-preservers” from the wastebaskets of those in power. In the 1930s, journalists had almost free passage through the State Department and its filing rooms.
I also think Brady is right to speculate that it was Chambers’s homosexuality that might have drawn him either to the father or to the son at the Hiss residence in Georgetown. Any man who would save the fabric (neatly folded and in a safe place) from a friend’s chair seat had to have had emotional main springs that were broken.
Nor would I be shocked to learn that Chambers was a child molester. Certainly the elements were present for Chambers to have led such a life of perversion, and the FBI might well have uncovered and withheld such damning evidence from the trials.
At the very least Chambers’s tortured background explains why he preferred to invent his lives, rather than live them.
* * *
My own theories about the case are these: I don’t think Hiss was either a member of the Communist Party or a Soviet agent. To me, his politics were those of the New Deal, not dialectical materialism. He took his opinions from a close reading of the New York Times, not Pravda.
I do believe that he had an acquaintance with George Crosley in the 1930s, and that, during the depths of the Depression, he extended him some favors. But in short order the two men fell out, and after that, until the HUAC hearings, Hiss never gave Crosley another thought. (But before waltzing into the HUAC hearing rooms, he should have figured out who Whittaker Chambers was.)
Meanwhile, especially after the Soviet-Nazi Pact, Chambers needed convincing reasons to explain his play-acting as a Russian spy during the 1930s. Somebody might get the wrong idea (all those postcards supposedly from Leningrad?), and actually believe he had been a Soviet agent.
So he decided to name names, citing many officials that he had come across while working in Washington as a freelance writer or for some government agency.
At some point in the early 1940s, J. Edgar Hoover got wind of Chambers’s charges against Hiss, and decided to tap his telephone and read his mail for four years. But nothing came of the intercepts.
Hoover’s motivation to get Hiss came from Alger’s lobbying, while in the New Deal, to have the FBI director removed from office, for blocking Roosevelt’s reforms.
The Hiss suspicions lay dormant until the HUAC confrontations in summer 1948, when Nixon and Hoover saw a way to compromise the Democratic administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, by going after one of their acolytes, Alger Hiss. Best of all, he had been at Yalta, the great sellout to Stalin’s imperial Russian empire.
When it appeared that in his libel case Hiss might humiliate not just Chambers but HUAC, Nixon, and a phalanx of other praetorians on the right, Hoover came forward to lend Nixon some of his Hiss files, just the way, perhaps, the Bullitts aided the cause by chipping in some of the Baltimore documents and the Pumpkin Papers.
Hiss, himself, made the perfect victim. He conducted the two criminal trials as if preparing for a mock debate at law school, and not a knife fight. He thought he was doing the right thing in standing up to HUAC; instead, he was playing into their coup de main.
* * *
Hiss had no idea that he was a marked man. He appeared before HUAC without a criminal defense lawyer (the committee ate him up), and the lawyer at his second trial (at which he was convicted) was a corporate lawyer who had never tried a criminal case.
Hiss thought that his credentials as a Washington insider and right-hand man to the great and the good were all he needed to beat the rap. Meanwhile, Nixon was orchestrating a Stalinist show trial with misleading microfilm, leaks to the press, and pressure on the grand jury. To pad the files, Nixon had Hoover’s FBI and his field offices to drag Hiss through the mud.
Nixon and Stripling, plus various prosecutors, probably wanted to “get Hiss” more than did Chambers, who was smart enough to figure out, after a while, that he was a lackey in a bigger game—that of promoting the careers of Nixon, Hoover, and the HUAC stalwarts.
Chambers went along with the ambush because he had no choice. Otherwise, the FBI would have run him in as a pederast who had betrayed his country to the Russians. (Nevertheless, during the case Chambers did attempt suicide—something else the government hid from the defense.)
It was Time rewrite man Chambers, also an aspiring novelist, who wrote Witness, both from the FBI files, with which he spent several years during the trials, and from his own imagination.
In it he created fictional characters but named them after people in his acquaintance, which was sufficient to impress the likes of William F. Buckley Jr., and Ronald Reagan that Chambers was the Dostoyevsky of the Communist underworld.
It was a bedtime story that had lulled them to sleep many times, and Chambers told it well, complete with dumbwaiters, drops, spy documents, and handlers by the name of Colonel Bykov and J. Peters.
Darkness at noon was one way for Chambers to explain his presence at the back of movie theaters, in the company of strange men. I also think, if you transpose the words Communism and homosexuality, you can read the book as an early work of gay literature.
Witness is an update on the last temptation of Christ, at least if you believe Chambers was Jesus. If, however, you think Chambers was a deceitful lowlife, capable of betraying his friends and his country, Witness is a literary fraud.
It did, however, create a fictional world in which, later on, the likes of Nixon, George W. Bush, Reagan and many others—I would throw Donald Trump into that mix—became knights errant in search of Communist dragons. In fact, they were simply perverting history for the cause of careerism and the politics of paranoia.
Hiss spent forty-four months in federal prison and during his lifetime found no way to overturn the conviction that was the result of agitation propaganda more than hard criminal evidence.
Then for the rest of his life, Hiss found himself pilloried in numerous books and articles as a Soviet spy, while con artist and sexual predator Whittaker Chambers was rewarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
At least Hiss went to the grave, if not with his conviction overturned as Dreyfus did, then at least knowing that he did what few Americans ever did, which was to challenge HUAC, Richard Nixon, and J. Edgar Hoover, among others.
It cost him his freedom, livelihood, and reputation, but Hiss is one of the few Americans who should be judged by the evil of his enemies and saluted for having challenged the abuses of many in power.