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Was Alger Hiss Framed?

Alger Hiss: The True Story

by John Chabot Smith
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 485 pp., $15.00

Since Alger Hiss was convicted at his second trial for perjury in 1950, most of the books on the Hiss-Chambers case have been written by partisans of Hiss who believe he was framed; and most have largely rehashed the very evidence available at the trials, using it to attack Chambers’s defense of himself in his book Witness. Important new evidence on the case has now become available—not only from FBI and other government files that were previously classified but from the defense records that Hiss himself has opened to me and to other researchers, including John Chabot Smith, the author of Alger Hiss: The True Story.

Unfortunately, Smith’s book follows the familiar pattern. He uses little of the new material released by the government. What is worse, he fails even to mention many of the documents in Hiss’s own files that undermine Hiss’s claims to have told the truth. Smith tells us that he covered the two Hiss trials for the New York Herald Tribune and has believed ever since that Hiss was the innocent victim of McCarthyite witch-hunting. In this review I shall try to show why the new evidence in the case—as well as the old record Smith often ignores—demonstrates that this claim is false and that Hiss has been lying about his relations with Chambers for nearly thirty years.

Smith’s book may attract attention because he presents some new “revelations.” Hiss recently “confessed” to Smith that he had been inhibited in his defense because he had been concerned to protect two people from embarrassment: his wife Priscilla, who had had an illegal abortion before they were married, and his stepson Timothy Hobson, whose homosexuality might have been revealed if he had testified on Hiss’s behalf.

This confession, however, does not bear directly on Whittaker Chambers’s charges that Hiss was a Soviet agent. The abortion occurred years before the two men met, and Hobson’s homosexual episodes took place long after they stopped seeing each other in the 1930s. Smith nonetheless accepts Hiss’s view: “many things that happened at Hiss’s perjury trials were influenced by Hiss’s knowledge of this secret [Priscilla’s abortion] and the way he protected it.” Hobson might or might not have helped the defense by testifying that he never saw Chambers at Hiss’s house. But neither Smith nor Hiss provides convincing evidence to support this account of Hiss’s selflessness, although it may doubtless console a few wavering partisans.

The heart of Smith’s book is his analysis of Whittaker Chambers; Hiss’s credibility Smith wholly accepts. To summarize the case for readers unfamiliar with it: in 1948, Chambers, then a senior editor of Time, accused Hiss, who had resigned from the State Department in 1946 to become president of the Carnegie Endowment, of having been a fellow Soviet agent during the Thirties. Chambers first mentioned Hiss in 1939 in a long list of alleged communist agents and sympathizers within the government which he revealed in an interview with Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle, Roosevelt’s chief adviser on internal security matters. Chambers had defected from the communist underground in 1938, but the charges against Hiss did not become public until August 1948, when the two men confronted each other at a well-publicized series of HUAC hearings, which helped to launch Congressman Richard Nixon’s career. Hiss sued Chambers for libel the following month.

Chambers had several times denied that he or Hiss had actually committed espionage—but he responded to the suit by producing, in November 1948, a set of typed summaries of stolen State Department documents. He also turned over several memos of confidential State Department cables which were handwritten by Hiss himself. Chambers said Hiss had procured these papers and given them to him in 1937 and 1938. The following month, December 1948, Chambers, under subpoena, provided HUAC investigators with the famous “Pumpkin Papers” microfilm, two rolls of which were allegedly stolen by Hiss.

On December 15, Hiss was indicted for perjury by a New York federal grand jury. His first trial ended in a hung jury (8-4 for conviction), but after a second trial he was convicted, in January 1950, and sentenced to jail. After spending forty-four months in prison, Hiss emerged protesting his innocence. His campaign for vindication has continued to this day.

The books and articles written in Hiss’s defense have proposed various explanations for the incriminating evidence turned up by Chambers. Most claim that Hiss was framed by a well-planned combination of perjured testimony and faked documents. Hiss himself first suggested at his second trial that Chambers had carried on “forgery by typewriter.” According to this theory, the government’s crucial exhibits—the State Department documents which Chambers claimed Mrs. Hiss copied on the Hisses’ Woodstock typewriter—were somehow concocted by Chambers, perhaps aided by unspecified accomplices, to incriminate Hiss. These conspirators also, according to Hiss’s defenders, manufactured the two rolls of stolen and microfilmed State Department documents that were part of the “Pumpkin Papers.”

Who would have framed Alger Hiss and why? Smith indiscriminately adopts elements from at least six previous conspiracy theories. Conspiracy No. 1 is the view of a leading communist official who claims that Chambers was an imposter, a Stalinist Walter Mitty creating fantasies of underground Soviet espionage cells in Washington where none existed, or, if they existed, Chambers never participated in them. In Conspiracy No. 2, Smith appears to accept the “fantasy” as fact: he argues that Chambers was involved in such activities, but not with Hiss. Others within the State Department such as Julian Wadleigh (who confessed to being a member of Chambers’s espionage ring) actually stole the material, Smith suggests, by sneaking into Hiss’s office while he was away from his desk (pp. 347-354).

Meanwhile (Conspiracies Nos. 3, 4, and 5), Smith speculates that someone helped Chambers to construct a Woodstock typewriter similar to Hiss’s in order to type documents in Priscilla Hiss’s style and then to frame her husband a decade later (for in 1937-1938 Hiss was only a minor official at the State Department). For Smith, Chambers’s possible collaborators in building the fake Woodstock were, variously, the FBI, HUAC (led by Nixon), and the Communist Party (pp. 363-365 and 408-409, for example). He suspects many public figures of possibly being minor conspirators, ranging from former Secretary of State James Byrnes to financier Bernard Baruch. Each one, Smith argues, had his reasons to assist in the undoing of Alger Hiss. He does not mention that Byrnes did not fire Hiss, keeping him at State through 1946, in spite of an extensive FBI inquiry then in progress.

In addition, Smith puts together his own scenario (Conspiracy No. 6). He believes that Chambers stole the Hisses’ Woodstock typewriter some time during 1935 or 1936, when Hiss was working for the Nye Committee of the Senate and claimed to know Chambers only as a free-lance journalist who called himself “George Crosley.” Not only did “Crosley” steal the typewriter, but he also substituted in its place another Woodstock. Here Smith’s theory becomes breathtakingly elaborate. Chambers, he argues, bought the substitute machine from a typewriter company owned by Martin Tytell, the same man who later built a new Woodstock for Hiss’s appeal lawyers when they were testing their own conspiracy theory, since discarded, that Chambers and his accomplices had built a fake machine with the exact specifications of Hiss’s Woodstock. The Hisses, unaware of the exchange, gave the substituted Woodstock to their maid’s family in 1938. This, then, became the typewriter recovered by Hiss’s lawyers at the time of his first trial in 1949.

The plot gets thicker. Chambers, according to Smith, collected the documents in 1937 and 1938 both from confederates other than Hiss in the State Department and by going on periodic shopping trips himself to the Department’s division of communications and records. There (Smith tells us) he salvaged memos that were about to be burned. Needless to say, he preferred those with Alger Hiss’s initials on them. Smith would have us believe that Chambers was able to enter the Department, and to stroll unnoticed through its corridors, by using a government identification card he had acquired while working as a minor clerk on the National Research Project housed several blocks away. The fact that Chambers left this job several months before the dates on the final group of State Department documents in question does not trouble Smith.

Smith believes that Chambers, once he obtained the documents, either had them microfilmed by his underground associates (real spies this time and not those who, like Chambers, were living “fantasy” lives) or retyped them himself on the stolen Woodstock (presumably pausing to include notational corrections in handwriting later identified by Hiss’s own experts as Alger or Priscilla Hiss’s).

Once satisfied that Chambers had the “means” and “opportunity” to frame Hiss, Smith proceeds to the problem of “motive.” Why did Chambers construct such an elaborate frameup of Alger Hiss, then do nothing with it on the off-chance that he might one day have use for it? Smith’s answer depends upon a psychological interpretation of Chambers’s personality first argued at Hiss’s trials by defense psychiatrist Dr. Carl Binger and subsequently elaborated in Dr. Meyer A. Zeligs’s book Friendship and Fratricide. Chambers, in Smith’s words (quoting Binger), was a “psychopathic personality” prone to “extraordinary fantasies,” a “nobody from nowhere” who nursed “a sense of personal resentment and desire for revenge” against Hiss for having slighted his overtures toward friendship in 1935 and 1936. (Smith even includes among Chambers’s “fantasies” an apparent belief “at the time [i.e., the 1930s] that Hiss was a Communist, and he acted on this belief as though it were true.”)1

Because of his fascination with Chambers’s alleged fantasy life, Smith evades the central question of whether Chambers’s espionage ring actually existed. Smith admits that Julian Wadleigh conspired in Chambers’s “secret work,” yet he finds it hard to believe this work was really espionage. Rather, he suspects it was an elaborate hoax played by Chambers, perhaps even on Wadleigh. However, new evidence, unavailable to Smith, confirms Chambers’s story that he took part in a Soviet intelligence network during the 1930s. Wadleigh’s and his ex-wife’s statements to the FBI that he collaborated with Chambers to steal secrets have now been released; so have depositions given to the Bureau by two others who confessed to being members of the ring.2 A third member, Felix Inslerman, whom Chambers mentioned as the photographer of the “Pumpkin Papers” microfilm, admitted to the McCarthy Committee in 1954 that he had filmed State Department documents for Chambers.

Another man in the apparat, whom I have interviewed, knew Chambers well. He confirms Chambers’s account that J. Peters was the head of the American Communist secret network during the 1930s and even describes his own meetings with Colonel Bykov, the mysterious Russian spymaster to whom Chambers said he reported. Further corroboration comes from William Edward Crane, a newly discovered FBI informant who worked in the same network alongside Bykov for several years.3

  1. 1

    Zeligs’s analysis was refuted by several reviewers, notably by Professor Meyer Schapiro in these pages (New York Review, February 23, 1967). Both Zeligs and Binger drew sweeping conclusions about Chambers’s adult personality largely from a selective account of his childhood, which Smith argues produced “a mind deranged by tragic and destructive experiences throughout his early life.” Neither the two psychiatrists nor Smith consider Hiss’s own equally traumatic youth. His father slit his own throat when Hiss was three, his mother (Smith tells us) proved as devoted to club meetings as to her children, the brother he revered died as a young man, and his favorite sister killed herself with poison.

  2. 2

    Some of the FBI interviews in question took place as follows: the former Mrs. Wadleigh (Mrs. Carroll Daugherty) on January 28, 1949; Julian Wadleigh, December 6, 1948 and January 18, 1949; Franklin Victor Reno, December 12, 1948, January 10, 1949, February 7-8, 1949, and March 18, 1949; and William Edward Crane, February 7-11, 14, and 16, 1949. These and the other FBI interviews cited in this article were among the more than 15,000 pages of Hiss case files recently released to me, after I sued under the Freedom of Information Act, by the FBI (to which any requests for copies should be addressed).

  3. 3

    See the reference to the interviews with Crane in footnote 2.

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