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Dangerous Acquaintances

Friendship and Fratricide, an Analysis of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss

by Meyer A. Zeligs M.D.
Viking, 476 pp., $8.95

In answer to the appeal of the English judge, Earl Jowitt, that American psychiatrists look into the “baffling” case of Chambers and Hiss, a psychoanalyst has spent six years investigating the two men. There was the difficulty that Chambers would not let himself be interviewed and died in the course of the investigation. However, he had left enough evidence in the court records and a published autobiography, as well as in the memories of friends and acquaintances, to enable Dr. Zeligs to piece together a psychoanalytic portrait. There was the further difficulty for an “analytic biography,” as he calls his book, that while Hiss gave Dr. Zeligs many hours and a full volume of letters, he was not submitted in any sense to psychoanalysis by the author. One will object that a true relation of analyst and analysand would have made it impossible for the analyst to write this book. But does not the whole enterprise of an “analytic biography” of a living person risk indelicacy and violation of a doctor’s code? And if the man has been convicted of a crime that he continues to deny, is there not a contradiction or at least a paradox in anyone’s undertaking to make a portrait of him “in depth” while pretending, as Dr. Zeligs does pretend, that his standpoint is one of “careful analytic neutrality”? He tells us that his study was made “in the spirit of pure inquiry,” that he has maintained “a proper equidistance” from his two subjects and has “no political ax to grind.” “It was not my intent,” he writes, “to confirm the guilt or establish the innocence of Hiss”—as if our understanding of a man’s life and character can be independent of the judgment of guilt or innocence in such a case. Obviously, the story would be different for an investigator who accepts the verdict of the court than for one who doesn’t.

Here are the pictures of the two men that result from Dr. Zeligs’s study:

Chambers was a pathological liar, an impostor, a psychopath, a paranoiac, an overt homosexual, a fratricide, a forger guilty of framing his friend Alger Hiss, and in the end a suicide.

The neutral “portrait in depth” of his victim shows him to be a kind cultured gentleman, loyal to friends and family, warm but reserved, scrupulously logical and accurate, strict in the performance of duties, and so impersonal and disinterested in pursuing truth as to weaken his effectiveness in self-defense and to make his book strangely unemotional though it concerns a frame-up.

Dr. Zeligs’s characterization of Chambers, I must say at once, is largely conjectural, and the account of Hiss lacks altogether the depth analysis applied so freely to Chambers. As a school-mate and old friend of Chambers, I find the picture drawn by Dr. Zeligs insensitive and crude. It is clear throughout the book that Dr. Zeligs takes Hiss’s innocence for granted and regards Chambers as guilty of having framed his former friend. He accepts Hiss’s testimony without question, while rejecting as false whatever Chambers has said that contradicts it and utilizing as true those statements of Chambers that lend themselves to psychoanalytic speculations concerning his guilt. He hopes to confirm Chamber’s crime by his unconscious and Hiss’s innocence by his outward behavior. But Dr. Zeligs is unable to prove this new verdict; on the contrary, he must assume it in his “analysis” in order to justify his characterization of the two men. This is the central weakness of the book, the source of many errors, wild guesses, confusions, and bad faith. I would respect Dr. Zeligs more had he stated on the first page that he believed in the innocence of Hiss. But not much more—the book would still be shoddy, a misuse of psychoanalysis.

THAT THE AUTHOR puts “fratricide” into the title of his book is a measure of his irresponsibility and bias. From the mixed feelings of Chambers as a child towards his younger brother, Richard, Dr. Zeligs conjectures fratricidal fantasies; and from Chambers’s deep depression and despair at his brother’s suicide, he infers not just feelings of guilt, but the moral onus for the brother’s death in an imagined suicide pact, to which Dr. Zeligs often alludes as a fact but for which he offers no evidence. Yet he is able to write:

What actually happened is of great interest but not of great importance; the fact is that in subsequent events Whittaker behaved as if he had helped Richard toward his death [p. 90]…Richard’s suicide was, in point of fact, a solitary self-executed act, an event anticipated and consummated by his own mind and hand. Nevertheless, it must also be regarded as representing one half of a double suicide pact in which the inducements and seductions of Whittaker’s motives and magical fantasies played their role [p. 97]…Following Richard’s death, he had to seek out another brother figure as an object of his love/hate [p. 98].

He found him nine years later in the person of Alger Hiss. Dr. Zeligs would like to believe that Chambers “first discovered Hiss from reading about him in the American Magazine and the Baltimore Sun and was drawn to him before he actually met him…He had already developed an unconscious affinity for Hiss on the basis of that publicity.” (This conjecture eliminates once and for all Chambers’s testimony that he met Hiss in the underground Communist group in Washington.) The fact that Hiss had had a brother, Bosley, who like Richard Chambers had died in 1926, made the identification with Hiss even stronger. Dr. Zeligs also finds significant the resemblance to “Crosley,” the name under which Chambers introduced himself to Hiss.

Chambers “insinuated himself into Hiss’s life.” Their “relationship rekindled Chambers’ fratricidal fantasies. The gentle personality and attractive physique of Alger Hiss were reminiscent of his brother Richard. Thus the psychological mold was cast. And Hiss’s typewriter caught Chambers’ fancy as an object he could put to use…” (Perhaps it resembled the typewriter of his brother Richard.) “As a potential piece of Hiss’s identity, it was something Chambers could secretly use in the service of both his erotic fantasies and his destructive schemes. Armed with either typing samples or a duplicated machine, Chambers had in his possession the makings of a ‘lifesaver,’ a magical (yet real) weapon which he could use at some future time against a friend who, like most of the friends in Chambers’ paranoid system, was destined to be transformed into a concealed enemy” (p. 374).

To this unconscious preparation Dr. Zeligs adds a conscious motive supplied by Hiss’s testimony.

It was sometime during the year 1936, according to Hiss, that he had his last contact with Crosley. Chambers had phoned and asked for a loan and Hiss told him that he did not want to see him any more because he had shown himself to be a sponger. Cast out by someone he had earlier admired and envied, Hiss was thereafter tagged as his “secret enemy.” Thus, I submit, the first seeds of revenge were implanted in Chambers’ mind, and it happened at a time when the Hiss typewriter could already have been appropriated by Chambers (either switched with a duplicate or typing samples taken [p. 376].

Without sensing the limits of the reader’s credulity, Dr. Zeligs has Chambers prepare his means of revenge in 1935 before the motive existed; his unconscious was already pushing him to the predetermined fratricide. That Chambers waited until 1948 to carry out his revenge does not disturb the argument. There is an answer: Chambers “stored a revengeful plot in his memory just as he forged a card of identity or hid a document or a roll of microfilm; both the idea and its material implementation were buried for future use.”

DR. ZELIGS FORGETS that it was Hiss’s action for libel that brought out the hidden documents. Without that unfortunate law suit the charge of espionage and the ensuing indictment for perjury would not have been made.

In tracing back to the years 1935-36 a plot to frame Hiss, he forgets, too, certain obvious facts of the record. Chambers had named six government employees besides Hiss as members of an underground Communist group. It was Hiss who singled himself out in 1948 by denying the charge; his brother Donald also denied it, but the others refused to speak. In the House hearings before the trials, espionage was not charged and the matter might have ended there for Alger Hiss as for his brother Donald who brought no suit for libel. Hiss’s past would have been suspect in some quarters, but he would have retained the confidence of the eminent friends who disbelieved the charges. Hiss, however, brought a lawsuit against Chambers (for damages of $75,000) and it was then that Chambers as the defendant introduced the documents of espionage as evidence. Before that he had avoided the imputation of espionage to the underground group; it would have incriminated him no less than the others.

In spite of his disclaimer, Dr. Zeligs re-opens the case which has been closed by the court. His aim is to break down the evidence on which Hiss was convicted. He presents again the arguments of Hiss’s lawyers that the incriminating documents were typed by Chambers on a machine he had forged as a replica of the Hiss’s Woodstock typewriter. But he gives up the defense’s unplausible idea that this forgery was carried out by Chambers in the short time between the libel suit (September 27, 1948) and mid-November when the papers were disclosed, and also the idea that the forged machine was then planted, with the help of the FBI, where the Hiss defense would trace it—from the maid who received the original typewriter from the Hisses in 1938 to its eventual owner. Besides being improbable, this story implies that Chambers knew the Hisses in January, 1938 when—according to Hiss’s testimony—they gave the typewriter to their maid. Hiss had sworn that he had had no contact with Chambers after 1936.

Instead of this self-defeating story, Dr. Zeligs presents a new series of conjectures taken entirely from the book by Professor Herbert Packer (Ex-Communist Witnesses, Stanford 1962, pp. 40, 41). He quotes him as follows:

It is likely that if forgery was committed, it was done when Chambers still had at his beck and call all the services of the underground Communist operatives, skilled in all the black arts…. If the typewriter was forged at some time during Chambers’ days in the Communist movement, it could have been planted before the Hisses disposed of it, and the original Hiss machine could have been taken away and used to type the Baltimore documents. There would then be no problem of two typewriters turning up, for one would be in the hands of the conspirators (i.e. of Chambers). However, that one would not be 230099, as has been generally assumed, but would be the Hiss machine. It would presumably be destroyed after it had served its purpose. And the forged typewriter, 230099, would be left to go through the vicissitudes that were described at the trial [p. 373].

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