Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (updated edition)
The Hiss-Chambers case was the cause célèbre a half century ago. Now two books have appeared that bring it once more to our attention. A young biographer has spent seven years on a 638-page book going over the ground of Whittaker Chambers’s own autobiography, Witness. A historian has put out a new edition, filling 622 pages, of his previous study of the case.
My impression is that today anyone under the age of fifty—and certainly forty—knows hardly anything about the case. Yet not so long ago the case stirred up the most agonizing conflict; it separated friends and divided families. The reason for the difference today is the change in the country and the world. The Hiss-Chambers case turned on the threat of communism and was exacerbated by the element of espionage. That threat has evaporated; the espionage is antiquated; and it is necessary to use some historical imagination to see into the innards of the case.
Historically, the case came at a major turning point in American life. It had its start in the New Deal of the 1930s and came to a climax during the cold war of the late 1940s. Anyone who seeks to understand the struggles over the New Deal, communism, and the cold war can hardly avoid it. It brought to national attention a future president, Richard Nixon, who was then an obscure first-term congressman from California. One of the early anti-Communist prosecutions that helped to define the 1940s and 1950s, it gave Senator Joseph McCarthy encouragement for his first attack on the State Department. In no other case in this century has the cry arisen—as from Hiss’s supporters—that a high official was an American Dreyfus and had been politically framed. An American Dostoevsky—he was one of Chambers’s favorite writers—is necessary to extract the full drama and pathos of this story.
Above all, the Hiss-Chambers case set off a social as well as a political schism in American life, one that may still be with us in various forms. Most of “the educated, progressive middle class, especially in its upper reaches, rallied to the cause and person of Alger Hiss, confident of his perfect innocence, deeply stirred by the pathos of what they never doubted was the injustice being visited upon him,” wrote Lionel Trilling. “By the same class Whittaker Chambers was regarded with loathing—the word is not too strong—as one who had resolved, for some perverse reason, to destroy a former friend.”1
Allen Weinstein notes that, during the Vietnam War, Hiss “found himself transformed from a symbol of deception into one of injured innocence,” and “in no segment of American society did Alger Hiss benefit personally more than among university audiences, faculty, and students.” Chambers himself scorned “most of the forces of enlightenment [which] were poohpoohing the Communist danger and calling every allusion to it a witch hunt.” Some members of the “educated, progressive middle class,” such as Richard Rovere and James Wechsler, changed their initial views and came to be persuaded of Hiss’s guilt and the authenticity of Chambers’s testimony. But others, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Walter Lippmann, remained in Hiss’s corner, even after his conviction. Weinstein himself tells us in Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case that he began by siding with Hiss and only after studying the record did he move over to agreeing with Chambers.
One reason for the social and political split was that Hiss gave himself protective coloration by making himself into nothing more than a representative of the New Deal. By the time Chambers’s Witness came out in 1952, it was clear that Chambers was not only a repentant anti-Communist; he was also a fierce antiliberal. The sides were thus confused. In fact, the case against Hiss was irrelevant to whether one was a conservative or a liberal, a Republican or a Democrat. He was found guilty of perjury—the proxy of espionage in the case—because, whatever Hiss’s political allegiances or Chambers’s new intellectual infatuations, he had passed documents and papers to Chambers for the benefit of the Soviet Union. But the political and social implications could not be easily set aside. Hiss’s guilt tarnished the memory of the New Deal and Roosevelt’s liberal administration. For some, to be with Hiss was to remain faithful to the New Deal or even the Communists’ Popular Front of the late 1930s, while to side with Chambers was to condone turning on a friend and to help usher in a period of reaction. Thus this case was about more than an ordinary—or even an extraordinary—crime; it was beset with political and social connotations and consequences that often overshadowed the legal issues on which Hiss was tried.
Sam Tanenhaus’s book goes over the ground of Chambers’s Witness but in a fully justified way. Chambers wrote from a purely personal point of view. He alluded to many other actors in the drama without being able to use their memoirs or other documentation. Tanenhaus had the ingenious idea of filling out what Chambers wrote by going to the memoirs, letters, papers, FBI interrogations, and testimony of all the others in the story. As a result, he rounds out Chambers’s account from different angles, drawing on the accounts of many people who knew Chambers.
Allen Weinstein’s new edition of Perjury, originally published in 1978, deals equally with Hiss and Chambers, and thus extends the scope of the treatment. It is almost obsessively concerned with every detail and nuance of the case, sometimes as if Weinstein were conducting another trial of Alger Hiss. Tanenhaus clearly sides with Chambers but mainly refrains from injecting himself into the story; Weinstein does not hesitate to refute pro-Hiss arguments and allegations in the midst of his narrative. Nevertheless, his book is based on such close examination of the almost inexhaustible sources that it is indispensable in any consideration of the subject. It is a fine historical reconstruction and it almost defies imagining how much work went into it.
Both Tanenhaus and Weinstein use documents and reports never exploited by previous works on the subject. Weinstein has the advantage of using new material from the NKVD files in Russia, which he and a Russian collaborator intend to bring out in a subsequent volume. He also has new material from Hungary and Russia to bolster some particulars and has brought his concluding section up to date about more recent events. For those who did not get the old edition, the new one is a bonanza.
Immediately after Chambers identified Hiss as a secret Communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee in August 1948, Hiss said the issue “is whether I am a member of the Communist Party or ever was.” But Hiss himself immediately moved away to a more factual issue: “If I could see the man [Chambers] face to face, I would perhaps have some inkling as to whether he ever had known me personally.”2
The point was not lost on Richard Nixon, then a first-term congressman and soon the most effective member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which launched the case in August 1948 by asking Chambers to testify. “In most cases we were in the almost impossible position of having to prove whether or not an individual had actually been a Communist,” he later wrote in his memoirs. “This time, however, because of Hiss’s categorical denials, we did not have to establish anything more complicated than whether the two men had known each other.” After Chambers was sued by Hiss for libel, at the end of September 1948, and before Chambers produced the hidden documents, films, and memos he had received from Hiss, Chambers said he had realized that “the issue had ceased almost completely to be whether Alger Hiss had been a Communist.” “The whole strategy of the Hiss defense,” he writes in Witness, “consisted in making Chambers a defendant in a trial of his past, real or imaginary, which was already being conducted as a public trial in the press and on the radio.”
As a result, the case turned on the exact relations between Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. The sessions of HUAC and the two trials of Alger Hiss largely concerned themselves with matters of fact rather than the politics of their engagement. The books by Tanenhaus and Weinstein inevitably follow this pattern.
Did Hiss know Chambers by the name of “George Crosley” or by that of “Carl”? Did Chambers and his family stay in a Hiss-leased apartment on P Street in Washington, D.C., without paying rent? Or did Chambers agree to pay rent for the apartment and never keep his part of the bargain? Did Hiss pay Communist Party dues to Chambers or did he make some small loans to Chambers? Did Hiss turn over an old Ford car to Chambers in connection with the apartment or did Hiss insist on giving it to “some poor organizer in the West or somewhere”? Did Chambers give Hiss a rug as a token of esteem by his Soviet superiors or was it a gift from Chambers in part payment for the apartment? Above all, were the copies of State Department memos taken out of the pumpkin by Chambers typed by Hiss’s wife, Priscilla, on an old Woodstock typewriter once owned by the Hisses, or was some form of “forgery by typewriter” committed by Chambers or a government agency to implicate Hiss and enable the prosecution to produce the critical evidence tying Hiss to espionage for the Soviet Union?
Such were some of the key questions that occupied the prosecution and defense from May 1949 to January 1950. The first trial resulted in a hung jury of eight to four against Hiss. The second trial convicted Hiss of perjury for two alleged lies—that he had never given any government documents to Chambers and that he had not seen Chambers after January 1, 1937. (The statute of limitations for prosecution for espionage had expired.) The date was important because Chambers had produced sixty-five typewritten documents from Hiss dating from the early part of 1938. Hiss received a five-year sentence and served forty-four months for perjury.
One reason Hiss’s supporters were not convinced by the trials was that Hiss afterward claimed to have found new evidence that impugned the government’s case against him. The new evidence mainly turned on the old Woodstock typewriter on which Priscilla Hiss had allegedly typed the memos; it was alleged by the defense that the prosecution had known that the typewriter was not Priscilla’s but had been manufactured or forged to take its place, a claim that Weinstein dismisses in long critical analyses. Hiss tried to get a new trial but was turned down by a three-member Court of Appeals in 1983 and again failed in the Supreme Court later that year.
By this time, little more can be said about the factual issues I have mentioned. The books by Tanenhaus and Weinstein have wrung the facts of the case dry for anyone who wishes to reexamine the specific issues which preoccupied the hearings and trials.
Lionel Trilling, "Whittaker Chambers and 'The Middle of the Journey,"' The New York Review, April 17, 1975, p. 23.↩
Alger Hiss, In the Court of Public Opinion (Knopf, 1957), p. 24.↩