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On Alger Hiss

In response to:

The Hiss Case: Another Exchange! from the September 16, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

So far I have not intervened in the lengthy debate between Allen Weinstein and his critics in your pages because it stemmed from his attacks on my book, Alger Hiss: The True Story, and it seemed wiser to let the views expressed in that book be defended by others instead of elaborating on them myself. However, the debate has become rather personal with Mr. Weinstein’s allegations [NYR, September 16] that Mr. Hiss named me “as his representative” for the meeting of the American Organization of Historians in St. Louis on April 8, that I designated Peter Irons as my “representative,” and that Mr. Irons could be more accurately described as “the surrogate for Mr. Smith” than the representative of Mr. Hiss.

Mr. Hiss has never asked me to “represent” him, and I have never attempted to do so. I have tried to find out the truth about the Hiss case, because it has interested me ever since I covered the trials in 1949-1950, and found myself unconvinced by the evidence the jury relied on. I have not yet learned the whole truth, as some reviewers have pointed out, and as I pointed out in my final chapters; nor has any one else, including Mr. Weinstein. But I have learned enough to resolve my doubts on the main issue. I am convinced that my book lives up to its subtitle; the story I have told is true as it stands, even if incomplete, and contains enough of the facts for the reader to form his own judgment, agree or disagree as he chooses.

Mr. Hiss’s purpose is rather different; he seeks vindication, both in the courts and in public opinion. He hopes my book will influence public opinion, and so do I, though for a different reason. He speaks for himself, not through me; his only representatives are the lawyers who speak for him before the courts.

When Mr. Weinstein invited me to the AOH meeting in St. Louis, he told me I would have to come at my own expense without fee, and suggested asking my publishers to pay my expenses to help promote my book. I was to be given only a few minutes to comment on a very lengthy paper by Mr. Weinstein, and whether he intended it or not, this looked to me rather like a way of using my publisher’s promotion budget to help promote the book Mr. Weinstein was writing for another publisher, without doing me or mine much good. Nevertheless, I passed the suggestion on, and in the end the “conflicting publisher’s commitments” Mr. Weinstein refers to were expressed in a conflict of dates—I had a heavy schedule of radio and television interviews in Boston on April 7 and could not easily be in St. Louis on April 8.

It happened that I was in Ireland, researching my next book, while these arrangements were being made, and I knew nothing of Mr. Irons’s decision to go to St. Louis. If Mr. Weinstein chooses to regard him as my “surrogate” at the AOH meeting, that is Mr. Weinstein’s view of the matter; it was not Mr. Irons’s intention, nor mine. I did not “designate” Mr. Irons as my “representative,” and as far as I know he acted on his own initiative and spoke for himself.

Mr. Weinstein notes parenthetically that as part of the promotion of my first book in the first few weeks after publication, I “appeared with Mr. Hiss in a variety of news conferences, interviews and television shows.” Actually, we appeared together in one news conference, sponsored by the Overseas Press Club to announce publication of my book; one radio show (Barry Gray, WMCA) and two television shows (“Today” and “Mike Douglas”). On twenty-five other occasions in that promotion tour I appeared alone, without Mr. Hiss. He gave his time and energy to help promote the book because he thought it might help him; for the same reason he had allowed me to interview him, to quote him freely in my own way, and to use his name as the title.

Mr. Hiss did not, however, exercise any control over the book. He did not review the final draft before publication, though he saw some earlier drafts and made comments that I used in my own discretion. He was not allowed to veto anything in the book. It contains many expressions of his viewpoint, along with the viewpoints of others involved in the story; more of his than of any other single individual, because he is the center of interest. As a whole, however, and particularly in the conclusions reached in the final chapters, the book is an expression of the author’s viewpoint, namely mine. It in no sense makes me Mr. Hiss’s representative, as Mr. Weinstein likes to call me.

Mr. Weinstein has also appeared on television with Mr. Hiss, and used the occasion to promote his own views, as he was entitled to do. The show was on PBS in early October, 1974, when Mr. Weinstein had seen virtually nothing of the defense files and FBI papers from which he now quotes to justify his views. Yet I was struck at the time by the revelation of how strongly Mr. Weinstein was already committed to the view that Mr. Hiss was a liar and Whittaker Chambers, for all his perjuries, had told the truth about the “Pumpkin Papers.” Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that Mr. Hiss declined subsequent invitations to appear in public with Mr. Weinstein.

Mr. Weinstein on one occasion declined to appear with me on a television program promoting my book (Washington’s “Panorama” show, with John Henry Faulk co-hosting with Maury Povich), but I had the pleasure of meeting him in public debate at Princeton University last April 13. The proceedings were taped by NPR, and the tapes have been broadcast by a number of radio stations. I was disappointed that the debate received so little attention in the press; and as Mr. Weinstein offers to send readers copies of his unpublished letter to The New York Times, I would be glad to send a summary of my statements in the Princeton debate to anyone who asks for it. My address is Castle Meadow Road, Newtown, Conn. 06470.

For readers who may have found it difficult to follow the arguments over selected details in the exchanges between Mr. Weinstein and his critics, I would like to make an immodest and self-serving suggestion—get a copy of my book, Alger Hiss: The True Story, and read it. The material will be found there in coherent order and full context, and none of the facts in the book has yet been disputed by anything in Mr. Weinstein’s letters and articles.

John Chabot Smith

Newtown, Connecticut

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