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
Chambers claimed that the stolen documents he produced in the Hiss case were among those he intentionally withheld from Bykov before he defected in 1938. He feared he would need these “life preservers” to protect him from retaliation by Soviet intelligence later on. Smith ridicules this claim. He calls it “a weird idea, which could only have worked if the Russians or their Communist agents in America had known about the papers, though Chambers never gave any indication that they had.” But several previously unavailable letters written by Chambers in 1938 bear out Chambers’s claim.4 In one of them Chambers writes that he sent his former colleagues in Soviet intelligence “photographic copies of handwritten matters the appearance of which would seriously embarrass them.”
That Chambers actually wrote such warning letters to Soviet agents—and collected a pile of documents in order to protect himself—is confirmed by two other knowledgeable sources: a member of the ring who received such a letter and copied portions of it before passing it along,5 and a German ex-communist newspaperman and friend of Chambers named Ludwig Lore, who told the FBI in 1940 that Chambers had asked him to hold on to a packet of “life preserver” material for several months after Chambers defected in 1938. Chambers eventually removed the cache from Lore’s care and transferred the materials to his nephew, Nathan I. Levine, from whom he collected them in November 1948. Several interviews with Lore’s widow, which corroborate this account, were conducted by Hiss’s defense lawyers and were available to Smith.
Smith quotes one of Hiss’s lawyers, who claimed that all of the evidence Chambers produced in 1948—the sixty-five pages of documents typed on extremely thin paper, the handwritten notes, and the five rolls of microfilm, some in metal containers—could not have fit into the large brown manila envelope in which Chambers stored them at Levine’s flat. Having seen and measured the envelope in question—and having had access to the micro-film—I was able to test that assertion. The material fits tightly but comfortably.
So Smith’s doubts that Chambers was a serious communist agent collapse. But was Hiss one as well? From Smith’s book, one might think that the only person to accuse Hiss was Chambers. But in 1945 a Soviet code clerk named Igor Gouzenko defected in Ottawa and talked to Canadian intelligence. According to Gouzenko, the FBI was told, the Russians in May 1945 had an agent who was “assistant” to Secretary of State Stettinius—a description that fit Hiss.6 Later in 1945, the ex-communist agent Elizabeth Bentley told the FBI that one of her government contacts had named Hiss as a member of the underground. Neither Gouzenko nor Bentley claimed to have met Hiss or Chambers or each other. Only in November 1945 when J. Edgar Hoover had received these two reports—neither of them mentioned by Smith—did he order a full investigation of Hiss.
But it is the defense files, which Alger Hiss generously allowed me to see, that have produced (as have my interviews with Hiss himself) some of the most damaging evidence against him. None of this material appears in Smith’s “true story,” despite the fact that he could freely use the same sources. He disposes quickly of Hiss’s documented communist connections during the early New Deal, barely touching, for example, on Hiss’s relations with Lee Pressman, a secret but active member of the Party. (Pressman, moreover, was one of those who recommended Hiss for his first New Deal job, which Smith denies but which the papers of Hiss’s superior, Jerome Frank, confirm.) Smith accurately observes that the Party steered clear of public involvement in the case. But Hiss’s files show that Pressman had an important part in defense efforts to discredit Chambers. So did Henry Collins, another long-time friend of Hiss’s, who was identified as a Soviet underground agent in a recently released FBI interview.7
Smith even fails to discuss Harold (“Hal”) Ware, the Communist Party’s Washington, DC, leader during the mid-Thirties, whose wife Jessica Smith had been an acquaintance of Hiss’s since the 1920s. According to Chambers, Hiss had been recruited into the Communist Party by Hal Ware, Lee Pressman, and others in their underground cell by mid-1934, at which time he first met Chambers. Hiss, of course, has always insisted that he never was a communist and first met Chambers in 1935. The Hiss defense files contain significant evidence bearing on this conflict in testimony between Hiss and Chambers, but Smith never mentions it.
Hiss’s lawyers had several interviews with the novelist Josephine Herbst, whose husband, the writer John Herrmann, was an active communist and full-time assistant to Hal Ware’s secret group during the 1933-1935 period. Miss Herbst, who left Herrmann in late 1934, told Hiss’s lawyers that she knew Chambers as an underground communist named “Karl” who, although responsible to a separate and more important apparat, also spent much time with the “Ware group” in 1934. According to the memos in Hiss’s defense files, Miss Herbst, who left Washington in the fall of 1934, was told before then that Hiss and Chambers had already met:
It is my recollection that Alger Hiss did meet “Karl.” “Karl” told me of such a meeting and said Alger Hiss was “a very cagey individual” and quite uncommunicative but friendly, polite and very charming. This meeting was, I believe, in July or August of 1934. My impression is that Mr. Hiss knew Chambers as “Karl” and I believe this impression was gained by information from Harold Ware and one other person…. Everything I know about [the Hisses] was told to me by “Karl,” Harold Ware or someone else.
During another interview with Hiss’s lawyers Miss Herbst said that the “other person” was her husband John Herrmann. She said that Chambers and Herrmann “discussed Hiss and that they regarded Hiss as an important prospect to solicit for the purpose of getting papers.” Thus three members of the communist underground in Washington—Chambers, Herrmann, and Ware—told Miss Herbst in mid-1934 that they were in touch with Alger Hiss, trying to recruit him for espionage. Clearly she wanted to help Hiss but her recollections would have been ruinous for him if made public at the trial.
Smith fails to mention this evidence, like so much else in the defense files that undermines his argument. For example, Hiss claimed that when he had sublet his flat to Chambers in 1935 he had also given or sold Chambers his Ford roadster. Chambers denied this, claiming that in 1936 Hiss had turned over the car to the Communist Party, and that the title to the car had been surreptitiously transferred to a party organizer with the help of another communist named William Rosen. Hiss’s notarized signature on the certificate of title proves that he signed away the car in 1936. A defense memo shows that Rosen’s lawyer, Emmanuel Bloch, who later defended the Rosenbergs, met with Hiss’s lawyers and confirmed the rest of Chambers’s account: Bloch said the transfer had been arranged by a high-ranking communist.
Smith also has great difficulty, as did Hiss at the trials, in explaining away the four handwritten notes by Hiss that Chambers turned over in 1948. None of these had to do with international economic questions with which Hiss was concerned. Smith calls them “four scraps of paper.” He believes that Chambers fished them out of Hiss’s wastebasket, but he neglects to point out three additional facts brought out in Hiss’s own files and during the trials: (1) none of the memos shows evidence of having been crumpled up and tossed away; (2) all of them outline confidential Departmental cables (one is an exact transcription); and (3) Hiss’s superior at State, Assistant Secretary Francis B. Sayre, could not recall Hiss’s ever preparing such written summaries of Departmental cables for use in briefing him, which was Hiss’s explanation for the memos in his handwriting.
One of the four handwritten documents is particularly revealing: it is an exact copy by Hiss of a confidential cable sent in January 1938 from the American chargé in Moscow, Loy Henderson, to Secretary of State Hull. It deals with the case of an American woman who was arrested there after having complained to foreign newsmen that her husband was being held by the Russians. Smith describes the episode as “a cryptic affair which, after some research, was found to have to do with a traveler using a false passport, but had no relation to international affairs of any consequence.”
But there was nothing “cryptic” or minor about the “Robinson-Rubens” case at the time Hiss copied that memo. What happened was that a Soviet agent whom Chambers knew as “Ewald” was ordered back to Moscow in late 1937 at the height of the purge and brought his American-born wife along as a “life preserver.” The couple used two sets of false American passports made out to people named “Robinson” and “Rubens.” After they both were arrested, The New York Times took up their case and ran a series of front-page stories that led to a State Department inquiry. The case was widely reported in the American press, and Loy Henderson interviewed “Mrs. Rubens” in prison, cabling several reports to Washington. Soon afterward, the couple was tried in Moscow, convicted, and presumably executed.
Since Hiss’s work at the State Department had no conceivable relation to the “Robinson-Rubens” case, he could have had no legitimate reason for transcribing the cable in question or even concerning himself with it. The communist underground, on the other hand, would have been intensely interested. The following year, in September 1939, we find in Adolf Berle’s notes of his interview with Chambers about his espionage activities a statement just below an entry on Alger Hiss:
When Loy Henderson interviewed Mrs. Rubens his report immediately went back to Moscow. Who sent it?—Such came from Washington.
An unpublished article by Chambers on Soviet espionage in the United States, written in 1938 after his defection and located by the reviewer (along with a second such article), also mentions the transmission of Henderson’s dispatches “to the Soviet Military Intelligence,” which was Chambers’s apparatus.8 Who procured them? We have only the exact copy of Loy Henderson’s 1938 memo in Alger Hiss’s handwriting to suggest an answer.
Smith has even greater difficulty explaining the typed documents turned over by Chambers. For almost every expert hired by Hiss’s defense—before and during the trials—confirmed the judgment of the FBI’s own experts. They agreed that the typing was identical to specimens of Priscilla Hiss’s typing and came from the same Woodstock machine. Smith acknowledges this embarrassing situation but brushes it off quickly by arguing that the defense experts in question were frightened of the FBI, especially in the anticommunist climate of the day. To this he adds the unsupported assertion that: “After all, the government was their best client.”
Smith therefore hardly mentions the analysis of such defense experts as Harry Cassady who showed in detail that Mrs. Hiss typed the documents. Another expert, Edwin Fearing, declined to testify when his analysis corroborated the fact that the documents had indeed been typed on the Hisses’ machine, Number N230099. Furthermore, several of Hiss’s own experts, after extensive tests with samples of Chambers’s typing, agreed that Chambers could not have typed the stolen documents. That Chambers did so, of course, is the thesis now propounded by Smith. (All of the letters and articles written by Chambers from 1937-1939 which I have found, and copies of which are in my possession, were typed on the same machine, which was not a Woodstock.) Even more troubling to the defense, several of their experts also decided that either Alger or Priscilla Hiss had written the interlinear corrections on the various typed documents, thus linking the couple even more closely to the material in question.9
With the defense experts as friends, the Hiss camp hardly needed enemies. The defense’s basic problem was in keeping the government and the public from learning about the conclusions of its own experts, which it successfully managed to do at the trial.
Smith’s analysis of the microfilmed documents, the “Pumpkin Papers,” is easily the most original and ingenious aspect of his entire argument. He contends that some of these documents probably never reached Hiss as they moved through the Department. He also speculates that Julian Wadleigh (who left Washington for Turkey in March 1938 and hence could not have stolen the later material in any case) or some other confederate of Chambers’s might have stolen at least some of the documents. But Smith finally settles on the theory that Whittaker Chambers, using his expired National Research Project identity card, procured the “Pumpkin Papers” himself. According to Smith, Chambers (again presumably unhindered) rummaged among the extra copies of documents awaiting destruction in the division of communications and records, plucking out those documents which bore Alger Hiss’s initials.
“It wouldn’t matter if Chambers got more documents than he needed each Monday,” Smith argues. “They were piled by the hundreds in those wire baskets, and a handful or so wouldn’t be missed.” That Alger Hiss would have enjoyed much easier access than Chambers to these Departmental burn-baskets Smith never considers. There is no question that State Department security procedures during the 1930s were extremely lax. Hiss’s own ability to transcribe documents such as the Robinson-Rubens cable shows that. But is it reasonable to assume, as Smith does, that Chambers was able to wander through the State Department at will, more freely than one of its own trusted employees?
Speculation aside, we can now examine the factual credibility of one crucial statement by Hiss which Smith and his other defenders have always accepted. After Chambers produced the typed documents in November 1948, both Alger and Priscilla Hiss insisted that they had completely forgotten the make of their old upright typewriter (Woodstock N230099) and that they could not recall how they had disposed of it.
That machine was the crucial piece of missing evidence in the case. By mid-December 1948, FBI experts had already identified Chambers’s documents as having been typed on the same Woodstock that Mrs. Hiss used during the 1930s to type some personal correspondence which the Bureau had turned up. If the typewriter itself could be located, the FBI experts might show conclusively that it had produced Chambers’s documents. The FBI made an intense but unsuccessful hunt for the typewriter, but it was Hiss’s lawyers who eventually found it and produced it at the first trial. FBI experts later used typing samples from Woodstock N230099 to confirm their earlier conclusion: the machine was identical to the one used to type the stolen material. That Hiss found and voluntarily turned over the Woodstock has always been seen by his supporters as a powerful argument for his innocence. A closer look at the circumstances that led the defense to take this step, however, not only contradicts this argument but calls into question Hiss’s own veracity.
From the beginning, the Hisses claimed that they could recall the old typewriter only vaguely, although Hiss informed the Bureau that they had parted with the typewriter “sometime after 1938.” During the trials, he changed that date to late 1937 (which would have precluded Priscilla’s having typed the stolen documents on it, since they are dated up to April 1, 1938). Hiss also told the FBI in December 1948 that Priscilla had probably disposed of the machine “to either a second-hand typewriter concern or a second-hand dealer in Washington.” The Bureau then began a systematic but fruitless search of such shops, collecting hundreds of typewriters for testing against the typed documents, but to no avail.
According to Alger Hiss, whose account Smith accepts, the defense first learned the whereabouts of the typewriter in late January 1949, when Hiss’s brother Donald was first visited by Raymond (Mike) Catlett, whose mother Claudia had been one of the Hiss maids during the Thirties. Earlier in January, Mike said, the FBI had several times asked him about the typewriter and he had loyally denied knowing anything about it. Now he told Donald that his family had in fact been given the machine and he offered to help find it. In April 1949, the Hiss lawyers finally turned it up, with Mike’s help, and they triumphantly produced it in court. At both trials, and subsequently, the Hisses said that until Raymond Catlett visited Donald Hiss, they could not remember what happened to it. “I say I know [about the machine],” Hiss testified at the second trial, “from what the Catletts have told us.”10
Here Hiss’s own records undermine his story. To understand why, we must pay careful attention to the sequence of events in December 1948. Hiss told the FBI about his old typewriter on December 4, albeit in a cautious manner: “possibly an Underwood, but I am not at all certain regarding the make.” Two days later, on December 6, his chief attorney, Edward McLean, remembered a batch of old family letters which Hiss had turned over to him in early September, two months before Chambers produced the typed documents. McLean immediately showed one of these typewritten letters, signed by Hiss and dated 1933 (Hiss later identified the typist as Priscilla), to a defense typewriting expert named J. Howard Haring. Haring knew at once that the letter had been typed on a Woodstock and, after further analysis, he reported to McLean that afternoon that the 1933 letter “was typed on the same machine as the Chambers Documents.” McLean reported Haring’s identification of their old machine as a Woodstock to Alger and Priscilla Hiss on the same afternoon.
Later that day (according to McLean’s memo at the time), while accompanying Mrs. Hiss during her interview with the FBI agents, McLean informed one of the agents that the old typewriter had been identified as a Woodstock. But—according to McLean’s memo—“I did not tell him the expert’s opinion as to whether it was the identical Woodstock upon which the Chambers documents were typed.” Fair enough. Yet Mrs. Hiss, at that same interview and in a statement she signed for the Bureau the following day, continued to insist that she remembered neither the make of her old machine nor what she had done with it. Probably, she said, she had disposed of it (as Hiss had said earlier) to a second-hand typewriter dealer in Washington or to the Salvation Army.
Mrs. Hiss also denied to the FBI that she had any samples of her typing at home, but McLean quickly corrected her on this point. When testifying before the Grand Jury on December 10, she continued to deny she knew the typewriter’s make or how she got rid of it, despite having learned of Haring’s identification four days earlier. More important, Hiss also repeatedly denied to the Grand Jury, in at least three separate appearances between December 10 and December 15, any knowledge of how the Woodstock had been disposed of or of its present whereabouts. (For example, when asked on December 10 if the machine had been sold or thrown away, Hiss replied: “I have not any recollection of its disposition at all.”)
Hiss was also asked by the Grand Jury that week if he had ever made gifts to people other than his family. Hiss’s own memo of his December 15 appearance, written that same day, describes his response: “I said that I had not been able to recall anyone but after talking to Timmy and my wife, I remembered that we had given an old upright piano to Timmy’s music teachers and a used radio to the son of our maid, Claudia Catlett”—but he mentioned nothing else. (All but the last of these statements were read into the first trial record by Prosecutor Thomas Murphy.)
Hiss lied repeatedly on this crucial question, according to evidence in the defense files. A letter dated December 28, 1948, was sent to Edward McLean by John F. Davis, a lawyer who was directing Hiss’s pretrial investigation in the Baltimore-Washington area. This letter, revealed here for the first time, includes the following information as part of its general progress report:
I spoke to you [Davis wrote McLean] about the disposition of the typewriter on the telephone the other day. Alger had called me on the first day public hearings were resumed before the Committee here and asked [me to] check on an old machine which he remembers he gave to Pat, the son of Claudia Catlett who used to do washing for both his family and Don’s [Donald Hiss; reviewer’s italics]. Don tells me that Mrs. Catlett’s last known address, which is quite old, was 2728 P. Street, n.w., and within the past year Pat was working in the Oak Hill Market which is located on 30th Street above Que in this city. Don’s wife has seen him driving a delivery truck for another store more recently. Moreover she received a Christmas card, without any return address, from him this winter. I anticipate that he can be located without too much difficulty. However, I understood you to say over the telephone that you were checking on the whereabouts of the machine in some other way. If you wish me to do anything about it, let me know; otherwise I shall keep my hands off.
HUAC had resumed its public hearings on the Hiss case on December 7. So if Davis was accurate, Hiss told him over the telephone that he had given the typewriter to Perry M. (“Pat”) Catlett on the same day that Mrs. Hiss informed the FBI she had probably disposed of the machine to a Washington second-hand dealer and days before Hiss himself had begun insisting to the Grand Jury that he had no “independent recollection” of the Woodstock. (Donald Hiss’s own later memos in the defense files stick to this same assertion, namely that he had heard nothing about the whereabouts of the typewriter or about the Catlett family’s connection to it until Raymond Catlett came to see him in late January 1949.)
McLean replied to Davis’s letter of December 28 three days later: “I have passed on your helpful information about Pat Catlett to our investigator [a private detective named Horace Schmahl] who will follow up this lead.” None of McLean’s subsequent memos for the December 1948-January 1949 period—nor any other defense records—mentions any contact in those months between Schmahl and the Catletts. Pat Catlett’s name appears on several lists of matters to be checked out; but that is all. (Schmahl was more active elsewhere, though, in searching for a Woodstock typewriter. He managed to enter the Lynbrook, Long Island, house of Whittaker Chambers’s mother where, on an earlier visit, he had seen a typewriter. It proved to be of another make.)
McLean is now dead. John F. Davis says he cannot recall the letter I have quoted. But his letter itself is clear: Alger Hiss remembered early in December 1948 that his old Woodstock typewriter had been given to the Catletts and not to some Washington second-hand dealer. Not only did he keep this important information from both the FBI and the Grand Jury, but Alger and Priscilla Hiss persistently denied such knowledge in their Grand Jury testimony and throughout the two trials that followed.
Why? Here one can only speculate, but again Edward McLean’s defense files prove more helpful to the historian than to his client. McLean left a memo of a conversation he had in January 1949 with a lawyer who represented Felix Inslerman, Chambers’s photographer in the underground network. The lawyer in question, a former assistant US attorney named Louis Bender, pointed out to McLean while discussing the missing Woodstock that “the government’s case would not be too strong if they do not have the typewriter and have to rely only on samples.”
Once it became clear in late January that the FBI had been interviewing Mrs. Catlett and her sons, there may have seemed little further point to Hiss in allowing the Bureau to locate the typewriter. There was always the chance that an inadvertent admission by one of the Catletts would reveal that Hiss had lied earlier about the machine. Whatever his motives, Hiss and his defenders will have to explain why he did not testify about this vital piece of evidence.
Earlier this year, in another journal,11 I argued that it was doubtful that some single document would be discovered which “explained” the Hiss case. Careful attention must be given to the entire corpus of new evidence. But the Davis letter shows that Hiss deliberately misled the FBI, the Grand Jury, and two trial juries about his knowledge of the Woodstock typewriter’s whereabouts. Far from having heard from Donald Hiss in January 1949 that the Catletts had been given the machine, Hiss told this to John F. Davis in December. In talking to many of Hiss’s friends who generously staked their own funds and reputations on his innocence, I have found none who seemed aware of this crucial evidence.
I first wrote about this case six years ago, arguing that both men had probably lied on significant details, Hiss in denying he had close relations with Chambers and Chambers in accusing Hiss of espionage. During the past three years, however, after interviewing more than fifty people on both sides of the case (including long talks with several men involved in Chambers’s underground work), I have had to admit that my earlier assumptions were wrong. Long before the FBI files on the case had been opened to me, new evidence had already accumulated to bear out Chambers’s story of his secret activities and his relationship to Hiss. (I have touched on only a small part of this evidence here.) Chambers sometimes lied about his past. Until he was sued by Hiss he frequently denied committing espionage, and some of his memories about knowing the Hisses were faulty. But whatever one’s opinion of the man’s messianic anticommunist beliefs, his essential testimony has held up remarkably well under the most skeptical scrutiny of all the new evidence. The same cannot be said, as we have seen, for Hiss’s testimony.
Nothing written about the case now can relieve the suffering it has caused or the damage it has done to American political life. Hiss’s conviction was again and again used to justify the anticommunist witch-hunt of the 1950s. The Hiss case made Richard Nixon into a national figure and it was crucial to the smear campaigns of Joseph McCarthy. Many liberals who believed in Hiss, and some who still do, found themselves on the defensive as he was viciously and falsely made into a symbol of the treachery said to be concealed behind the policies of the New Deal, particularly in the State Department. Had Hiss told the truth from the start, we cannot know what the consequences would have been, both for him and for national politics; but they could hardly have been worse.
Hiss spent forty-four months in jail and his career was ruined, as was that of Chambers, who died in 1961. Not only was Laurence Duggan’s suicide probably caused by the case, but other lives were broken by it. One reluctant witness in the case, Maxim Lieber, a well-known literary agent and communist who had once helped Chambers in an underground assignment, lost many of his clients and eventually exiled himself and his family, first to Mexico and later to Poland, before returning finally to this country several years ago. Lieber told me that he has been subjected since his return to continuing and unnecessary harassment by the FBI.
Priscilla Hiss and Esther Chambers have remained quietly loyal to their husbands’ versions of what happened, although Priscilla and Alger Hiss separated in 1959. The new revelations by Smith and Hiss of the brief homosexual experiences of her son Timothy Hobson must be unpleasant for her and for Hobson (now a distinguished surgeon, married and with a family). Mrs. Chambers must have found similarly painful the recent release of Chambers’s 1949 statement—given voluntarily to the FBI—that he had had some homosexual affairs during the 1930s. He said he feared that the Hiss defense planned to mention them at the trials, although he claimed they had nothing to do with his work as a Soviet agent or with Hiss. We may never know what part they had in his life or in the case. In Hiss’s own memo to McLean in September 1948, he wrote of Chambers: “I have a vague impression of boastful kinds of sexual exploits but no hint of any unnatural sex interests.” Recently, however, Hiss has claimed that Chambers “was a spurned homosexual who testified…out of jealousy and resentment.” This claim is wholly unsubstantiated by any new evidence.
We may, however, expect that newer and perhaps more ingenious defenses of Hiss will soon follow the one by Smith, who offers readers this advice: “It’s a sound rule of real life as well as detective fiction that the simplest explanation is most likely the right one.” Unfortunately, Smith’s loyalties preclude his heeding that advice. But others who once believed in Alger Hiss may now be persuaded that he stole the documents in question and that Whittaker Chambers told the truth.
April 1, 1976
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. ↩
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). ↩
See the reference to the interviews with Crane in footnote 2. ↩
These letters were written by Chambers to his close friends Herbert Solow and Meyer Schapiro in mid-November 1938 and were given to me by Professor Schapiro and Solow’s widow. Chambers’s efforts to warn the Soviet underground at this time are also documented in a notarized memo by Solow, dated November 28, 1938; and also in Felix Inslerman’s testimony to the Senate Committee on Government Operations on February 20, 1954. ↩
See Inslerman’s testimony mentioned in footnote 4. ↩
See FBI “Summary Memorandum” to Frederick W. Lyon of the State Department, September 24, 1945. This memorandum was quoted in speeches by Nixon and in news reports during the 1950s. ↩
The FBI interview, on December 10, 1948, was with Laurence Duggan, a State Department colleague of Hiss’s who was accused of being a communist sympathizer. He committed suicide in 1948 after being subpoenaed as a HUAC witness just after the Hiss-Chambers inquiry. ↩
These typewritten articles were given by Chambers to Herbert Solow in 1938 and are now in my possession. ↩
Another discrepancy is the contrast between Mrs. Hiss’s description of herself as an indifferent typist (whose best speed was only 12.7 words per minute in a test run for a defense expert) and the fact (which Smith neglects to mention) that she had passed a typing proficiency test years earlier while applying to the Columbia Journalism School and had once typed the greater part of a lengthy manuscript. ↩
The Catletts were never clear on when they received the Woodstock. Most often, in spite of their sympathy for the Hisses, they remembered getting it after April 1938, the date of the last document typed on it. After the second trial the defense claimed it had been led to the machine and that the Woodstock was probably a fake, constructed and planted to frame Hiss. Smith abandons this theory in favor of his notion that Chambers stole the Hiss Woodstock in order to type the documents, while planting another Woodstock at Hiss’s house. Since he believes that the machine the Hisses gave to the Catletts in 1938, and recovered in 1949, was not used to type the documents, he must also assume that the detailed findings of both the defense and FBI experts were wrong. Perhaps this is why he hardly mentions them. ↩
New Republic, February 14, 1976. ↩