In response to:
Was Alger Hiss Framed? from the April 1, 1976 issue
To the Editors:
In his review essay, “Was Alger Hiss Framed?” [NYR, April 1], Professor Allen Weinstein offers the following contentions: “In this review I shall try to show why the new evidence in this case—as well as the old evidence Smith often ignores—demonstrates that the claim [that Hiss was framed] is false and that Hiss has been lying about his relation with Chambers for nearly thirty years.” “But others who once believed in Alger Hiss may now be persuaded [by the new evidence] that he stole the documents in question and that Whittaker Chambers told the truth.” “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.”
In his thoughtful review of John Smith’s book, Professor Weinstein faults the former New York Herald Tribune reporter for failing to consult and consider the available evidence. That same charge applies equally as well to Professor Weinstein’s conclusions in this review essay: not only does the evidence he cites not bear the weight of his conclusions but he has failed to address important questions surrounding this case and to await the complete FBI files bearing on this case. In responding to Weinstein’s review, let me emphasize that my purpose is not simply to take issue with his conclusions. Historians generally tend to disagree when evaluating particular evidence or when posing what they believe to be the most important and relevant questions. Rather, my response has been precipitated by the reaction of the media to the Weinstein review—a front page New York Times story, and Time and Newsweek stories on this review—and their acceptance of his claim to objectivity and that his findings conclusively establish Hiss’s guilt.
It is a rare occasion when historians do not claim objectivity; yet the media’s willingness to accept this claim by Weinstein has been based (1) on his contention that he approached the case objectively, even sympathetically toward Hiss, and reached his conclusions because of the evidence and (2) on the fact that Weinstein’s suit to obtain the Hiss files from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act has further established his authority and expertise. In this response, let me begin by examining the evidence which Weinstein cites in his review and then note the series of questions which Weinstein neglects to consider and as well his almost total failure to exploit the potentially rich collection of the FBI files.
First, Weinstein refers to Chambers’s November 1938 letters to Solow and to Schapiro in which he (Chambers) admits having warned the Soviet underground (in the words of one of these letters) that he had in his possession “photographic copies of handwritten matters the appearance of which would seriously embarrass them.” Since I have not seen these letters, I shall have to rely on Weinstein’s account as accurately relaying the thrust of Chambers’s position. What does this quote imply? It does not imply that Chambers was threatening to blow an espionage operation, and the reference to copies of “handwritten matters” release of which would “seriously embarrass” Soviet intelligence does not have any direct bearing on the Hiss case. At best, we can conclude that Chambers had preserved a life preserver or wanted his former Communist associates to think that he had.
Second, Weinstein refers to the four Hiss handwritten notes, and particularly the one note wherein Hiss copied exactly a confidential cable sent from Henderson to Hull in January 1938. Weinstein notes that Adolph Berle’s notes of his 1939 meeting with Chambers record that Moscow immediately received a copy of this Henderson report and that an unpublished article which Chambers had written in 1938 records that the Henderson cable was transmitted to Soviet Military Intelligence. What makes this troubling is the fact that Chambers (according to his account) had saved the Hiss notes (and the sixty-five typed pages and the microfilm) as a “life preserver.” Did, then, Chambers transcribe Hiss’s notes and relay his own transcription on to Moscow, keeping Hiss’s note as part of his “life preserver”? One could reach that conclusion; one could also conclude that he did not since (again accepting Chambers’s “life preserver” thesis) he did not forward the State Department microfilm which was stamped received January 14, 1938.
Third, Weinstein too easily dismisses the possibility that Chambers might have received the microfilm from Julian Wadleigh (though surely not the handwritten notes of the typed pages) by emphasizing that Wadleigh had left for Turkey in March 1938. That some of the microfilm documents were of carbons and not the originals (to which Hiss would have had direct access) and as well that these documents were received in January makes this contention less than convincing.
Fourth, Weinstein refers in passing to the FBI interview with Lore, wherein the ex-Communist informed FBI agents that Chambers had asked him to hold on to a packet of “life preserver” material for several months after his (Chambers’s) defection and which Chambers eventually removed from Lore’s care and deposited with his nephew. Weinstein fails to pursue this matter. We know that FBI agents interviewed Chambers in 1941 on the basis of this Lore interview although Chambers originally thought that the interview had been precipitated by his 1939 Berle interview. What is contained in the report of the FBI interview with Chambers? Did FBI agents query Chambers about this Lore admission? And did FBI agents at subsequent interviews (but prior to November 1948) ask Chambers about this life preserver?
Fifth, Weinstein emphasizes particularly the defense report of Hiss’s early December 1948 recollection that he had given a “machine” to Pat Catlett at a time when the Hisses were “feigning” ignorance or giving “misleading” testimony to the grand jury and to the FBI. From this, Weinstein concludes that Hiss “deliberately misled” the FBI, the grand jury, and two trial juries about his knowledge of the Woodstock’s whereabouts. On the one hand, the document which Weinstein cites does not establish that sweeping a conclusion. It reports only Hiss’s request that Davis “check on” an old machine which Hiss had remembered giving Pat Catlett. One can conclude from this that Hiss was not definite in his recollection or that Hiss while willing to assist his defense effort was not willing to assist the case of the prosecution.
Hiss’s faulty memory or uncooperativeness, however, is not the central issue to the case. It could explain why the defense would produce the Woodstock at the first trial despite the considerable effort and resources applied by the FBI in the effort to uncover it. Yet, by focusing exclusively on this issue, Weinstein neglects to consider one of the most troubling aspects of the Hiss case: the question of who first found the typewriter. We need to explain the frequency of the claim that the FBI or HUAC first found the typewriter. For, if in fact the FBI first found the typewriter, and then lost it to be refound by the Hiss defense, then Hiss’s claim of “forgery by typewriter” cannot be lightly dismissed. Elsewhere, Weinstein has cited FBI documents detailing FBI Director Hoover’s ire over the failure of FBI agents to uncover the Woodstock. These documents do not settle the matter conclusively; to the skeptic they merely confirm Hoover’s consistent practice of papering the record. In another publication, Professor Peter Irons has related an interview with an unnamed FBI agent who alleges that the Bureau had first found the typewriter. We need to learn the name of this agent as well as learning what evidence he can provide to substantiate this contention.
Sixth, Weinstein reports the fact that Wadleigh, Reno, and Crane had during the 1930s provided secret documents to Chambers and further that Inslerman admitted that he had filmed State Department documents for Chambers. This evidence established that Chambers was acting as a courier in an espionage operation during the 1930s. What Weinstein fails to consider is the nature of this operation and the troubling question it poses concerning Chambers’s 1948 stance. As Inslerman recounts, this was a microfilming operation. Wadleigh has testified as to the nature of his activities; namely, that he provided Chambers only with actual documents to be microfilmed, which were delivered through pre-arranged signal and clandestinely.
This contrasts strikingly with the Hiss material—for Chambers received (allegedly) handwritten notes and typed pages, and these (as the documents which were microfilmed) were delivered weekly to Chambers during his visits to the Hiss residences. Two troubling questions immediately are posed. Why would Chambers receive handwritten notes and typed documents, and receive them through regular weekly meetings at the Hiss residence? Such practices were harmful to an ongoing espionage operation. And, when compiling his safety valve, why did Chambers retain only materials he alleges to have received from Hiss and not as well documents from Wadleigh, Reno, Crane?
These last questions, I think constitute the heart of the case. Was it merely fortuitous that of the twenty individuals who Chambers named to the FBI in 1941 the one who boldly challenged his credibility and further brought a libel suit should be the only one who could prove to be vulnerable to the Chambers “life preserver” in 1948? Is it merely fortuitous that Chambers could produce three different types of documents in 1948, which if raising questions about an espionage operation could serve to secure a conviction in a trial? Had Chambers possessed microfilm alone that could not have established Hiss’s guilt; the handwritten notes combined with the typed documents did establish a Hiss-Chambers connection.
Let me now address Weinstein’s research deficiencies, and particularly why I find it amazing that Weinstein could have concluded “long before the FBI files were open to me” that Hiss was guilty. The FBI files are a potentially rich collection, which need to be used intelligently and carefully. There are necessarily many questions about these files, and the considerable delay Professor Weinstein encountered in obtaining the files and the restrictions imposed on the released material have only heightened these concerns. Thus, whereas the Bureau had gratuitously observed that its files on Hiss totaled 53,000 pages, the number of pages it finally released on January 31, 1976, totaled only over 15,000 pages with the Bureau claiming FOIA exceptions for another 1,500 pages plus. We need a convincing explanation for this rather large margin of error (35,000 pages) and as well to learn what is contained in the excepted pages.
Elsewhere in this letter I have commented on the need to discuss the FBI interview of 1941 with Chambers and to explore whether the FBI followed up on Lore’s assertion that Chambers had kept a “life preserver” packet. We also need to know what Chambers had told the FBI over the years. At issue, here, is not only Chambers’s veracity (centering on his abrupt reversal of the charges he leveled against Hiss) but on the FBI/Chambers relationship. Did the FBI provide Chambers with information about Hiss and what kinds of questions did it ask of Chambers?
For the FBI was not a disinterested agency. From other sources, we know that Father John Cronin was given privileged access to FBI files in 1945 to assist him in writing a report for the American Catholic Bishops on the subversive threat of domestic communism and that Cronin relied on this same access when writing a similar report for the Chamber of Commerce in 1946 (which report the FBI tried to palm off on the President’s Temporary Commission on Employee Loyalty in 1947 as evidence of the existence of a serious subversive problem in the government). Further, Cronin acted as an intermediary between the FBI and Congressman Nixon in 1948, providing the latter with the results of the FBI’s investigations into the Hiss case. What do FBI files detail about these matters (the 1945 and 1946 reports contained information about Hiss)? What file did the Bureau have on Hiss in 1945 and 1946, and what was the basis for and results of the FBI investigation of Hiss in August 1948?
The last matter pertains to the August/September 1936 oral directive of President Roosevelt to FBI Director Hoover which provided the authority for the initiation of a far-reaching FBI investigation into “subversive activities” and domestic “radicalism.” Perhaps Professor Weinstein was unaware of this program; I do not know how much he knows about the FBI. In any event, when setting this program in motion by letters to Special Agents in Charge dated September 5, 1936, FBI Director Hoover directed a far-reaching investigation into domestic radicalism and requested that all information received from any sources be forwarded to Washington. We need to know what FBI files contain about the Washington phase of this investigation. Did the Bureau compile a special file on Alger Hiss under this program? If so, what was contained in this file? Does it record anything about Hiss’s alleged weekly meetings with Chambers? In an indirect way, this FBI program can provide evidence bearing on important aspects of this case. Should there not have been a specific Hiss file, the serious historian should review generally the files produced under this program for any evidence bearing on the questions surrounding this case. The sweeping nature of this FBI program (one which civil libertarians might find abhorrent) provides a rich collection about 1930s Washington and particularly about the relatively open activities of Alger Hiss (one would not be surprised if there was nothing on Wadleigh; by Chambers’s testimony the absence of any record on Hiss’s allegedly open activities tends to raise important questions about the Chambers’s account).
The questions surrounding the Hiss case remain unanswered; and historians should not rush to judgment until the evidence is available and the major issues effectively resolved. Professor Weinstein’s account is not definitive; and he does his case a disservice by suggesting that only those are truly open-minded and nonpartisan who concur in his judgment that Hiss is guilty.
Department of History
Allen Weinstein replies:
Professor Theoharis’s letter is the most thoughtful criticism I have received in response to my review of John Chabot Smith’s book, Alger Hiss: The True Story. I will try to answer the questions he raises point by point. But before I do so, perhaps I should make some general comment on the three long critical letters that I will discuss (by Mr. Theoharis, and Mr. Salant and Mr. Levin also) as well as others, critical of my review, that I have received. None of the letters, it should be noted, defends the book I was reviewing (a book that Alger Hiss described as the “best” ever written on his case). Instead, Hiss’s defenders have attempted to undermine directly the evidence and conclusions I presented in reviewing Smith’s book. From the letters, it is difficult to determine whether or not some writers had even read the book at the time they responded so critically to my review.
Nor do the letters challenge directly my discussion of the various conspiracy theories in the case. Although Mr. Levin mentioned some possible conspiracies in his recent article in Virginia Quarterly Review and Mr. Theoharis also wrote a piece in Intellect last year suggesting that Hiss was framed, neither scholar seems to dispute my assessment of the major conspiracy arguments on which Hiss has based his claim of innocence. Instead, the writers accuse me of (among other things) presenting “premature” conclusions (Theoharis), “publicity seeking” (Levin), and misrepresenting evidence (Salant). I cannot help wondering, had my review concluded after evaluating the evidence that Alger Hiss was innocent, whether such letters would have been written. The writers appear more offended by the timing and tone of my review than by its evidence and findings.
They also seem concerned that I have changed my mind on the basis of fresh evidence. Most of the new evidence was not available to me when I began studying the Hiss case three years ago. I presented a small part of this new material in my review, drawn mainly from the defense files that Smith used and not from the FBI files unavailable to him at the time he wrote.
1) To turn to Professor Theoharis’s specific criticisms: he begins by arguing that Chambers’s warning to his former Soviet underground associates that he possessed “photographic copies of handwritten matters the appearance of which would seriously embarrass them” did not necessarily imply (in Theoharis’s words) “that Chambers was threatening to blow an espionage operation.” Furthermore, Theoharis questions whether the reference to “handwritten matters” has “any direct bearing on the Hiss case.” It is worth recalling, however, that the only “handwritten matters” turned over by Chambers in 1948 were the four confidential memos copied by Alger Hiss and one four-page memo in Harry Dexter White’s handwriting.
The evidence that Chambers felt himself in danger and threatened to expose the Communist underground’s activities if its members continued pursuing him is extremely convincing. It includes Chambers’s own letters from the period, his articles on Soviet espionage in the United States, the notarized memo by his friend Herbert Solow concerning their 1938 conversations, and my interviews with several of those intimately involved who corroborated Chambers’s assertion that Communist underground leaders—including Colonel Bykov and J. Peters—personally ordered a search for the defector.
In the same letter in which Chambers refers to “handwritten” matters, he states that, if the Party continued its search for him, he intended to seek protection from American government intelligence officials. In Herbert Solow’s notarized statement about Chambers, we find not only the names of some of those Chambers implicated in underground work but also this summary:
Chambers has broken but fears he may be shot. He would like to deal the Comintern a body-blow…[and] make his knowledge public…. He wants to make a deal with the police. If he can’t get a promise of executive clemency in advance, he will take his chances with the GPU, figuring that he can keep moving and escape them. If he gets a promise, he will tell all he knows and let the chips fall where they may.
In my book I will describe at length Chambers’s unsuccessful efforts in 1938 and 1939 to secure from the government a promise of immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying against his former comrades in espionage. Through Solow, he approached not the FBI but the US Attorney in New York City—who was then prosecuting a group of Nazi underground agents—seeking assurances that he would be protected if he talked. None was forthcoming, and Chambers (after describing the ring to Adolph Berle in September 1939) withdrew into his new work as a journalist for Time.
2) Theoharis’s second point is somewhat confusing. Although Berle’s notes refer to a “report” from henderson, Chambers’s unpublished article stated not that this particular handwritten note of Hiss’s was forwarded to Moscow but that all of Henderson’s cables on the Robinson-Rubens affair reached Soviet military intelligence (Chambers’s organization). Chambers could easily have transcribed this short cable and kept Hiss’s copy. (I will return to this matter in my reply to Stephen Salant.) As for the microfilm, it seems most unlikely that Chambers would give a duplicate copy to his superiors of the rolls he withheld as “life preservers.”
Theoharis might recall that Felix Inslerman, who confessed to being Chambers’s photographer in the ring, testified that he had photographed State Department documents for Chambers on a number of occasions. Another confessed member of the ring, the photographer William Edward Crane, told the FBI (according to the recently released files) that he often copied government materials for Chambers and that “on one occasion in Baltimore…he photographed Treasury Department and State Department documents every night for a week straight.” As for the rolls of confidential State Department microfilm turned over by Chambers, FBI laboratory experts tested a number of cameras before concluding that the rolls had been exposed with a Leica camera that belonged to Felix Inslerman.
3) The charge that Julian Wadleigh—and not Hiss—gave Chambers the microfilmed material remains one of the unresolved complexities of the case. Theoharis places this problem in perspective by pointing out that it does not absolve Hiss’s defenders from explaining the far more incriminating documents in Hiss’s handwriting or typed on Hiss’s Woodstock. Wadleigh—supported by his wife—confessed to turning over hundreds of pages of State Department material. But he also testified that he had dealt only with another photographer in the ring, David Zimmerman (alias “David Carpenter”), and not with Felix Inslerman, whom he had never met.
Since the microfilmed documents in question were photographed by Inslerman, we must ask whether Chambers would have changed the usual arrangements for photographing Wadleigh’s stolen material during the very period he was preparing to defect. Perhaps he would have. But as Theoharis acknowledges, only “some of the microfilmed documents were of carbons and not originals.” Some of those originals were initialed by Hiss and came from his office. Wadleigh, in any event, could not have passed on the last batch of typed documents, some of which were dated after he left the US.
John Chabot Smith believes that Chambers probably stole all of the documents himself before they were burned at the Department. Theoharis sticks to the earlier Hiss defense theory that Wadleigh accounted for a portion of the incriminating material. Neither argument deals with those documents directly linked to Hiss. Although it is conceivable that Wadleigh stole at least some of the microfilmed documents, this fact still would not alter the essential evidence against Hiss, including the remaining microfilmed material.
4) Theoharis asks for additional information about Chambers’s 1942 (not 1941) and 1945 interviews with the FBI, neither of which took place at his initiative (this presents difficulties for those who like Smith argue that Chambers “pathologically” pursued his “revenge” against Alger Hiss throughout this period). In both interviews, Chambers described the Washington Communist underground during the 1930s, mentioned Hiss as a member (but without singling him out), and acknowledged that he (Chambers) had been a “courier” but denied having committed espionage. Chambers lied on this essential point, I believe, because of the same fear of prosecution for his past activities he had expressed to Solow. (His wartime letters to friends verify his continuing anxiety over serving a jail sentence for espionage.) There is no suggestion in the records of these interviews that the FBI agents who talked to him even hinted at immunity from prosecution; and Chambers’s letters reveal his intense suspiciousness of government intelligence services during that era of Soviet-American wartime alliance.
“There was a time when I was interested in cooperating with the Civil Service and the FBI in keeping CPs out of the gov’t,” Chambers wrote to Solow in 1943. “Then I began to suspect, from the type of Civil Service & FBI agent sent around, that those agencies were incapable of doing anything to keep CPs out. The CPs under investigation regularly turned up in strategic agencies. Later still, I began to suspect that the New Deal was storing up data for a great Moscow Trial in which…the sufferers in this purge would be people like you and me.” Several instances of the FBI’s incompetence in investigating the matter, which I have already mentioned in print, appear during its agents’ questioning of Chambers.1
Although in 1942 Chambers mentioned to the agents his earlier interview with Berle, where he did describe espionage activities within the government, the FBI did not call upon Berle and only received his extensive notes of the interview (titled “Underground Espionage Agent”) the following year.2 Moreover, the FBI did not mention its previous interview with Ludwig Lore to Chambers. Lore’s comments to the Bureau about Chambers contain several inaccuracies including a slightly garbled account of Chambers’s actual role in the underground (he had Chambers defecting in April 1939, for example, and not in April 1938).
Since Theoharis has asked about the Lore interview, however, I might add that Lore did point out that the person in question (whom he only reluctantly identified as Chambers) was still concerned about possible prosecution and “if he could get a promise of immunity he would reveal the whole GPU set-up in this country.” Lore told the FBI on May 9, 1941:
as to this man’s significance in the GPU picture here, this man had contacts with two girls who were private secretaries to Assistant Secretaries of State…[and from them] this man obtained copies of letters and confidential correspondence.
Chambers always claimed to have had only two contacts within the State Department who passed secret materials to him, neither of whom was a woman or a private secretary. One, Julian Wadleigh, later confessed his role.Chambers also mentioned Hiss, of course, who was an assistant, though not a “private secretary,” to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre. According to the Bureau’s own internal memos at the time of the case, Chambers’s claim to Lore that sources within State had stolen classified documents was never pursued by the FBI agents who interviewed Chambers in 1942 and 1945.
5) Theoharis’s attempt to explain Hiss’s statements to the FBI, the Grand Jury, and two trial juries concerning his knowledge of the Woodstock typewriter’s whereabouts deserves closer scrutiny. Hiss himself continues to insist that he “never withheld information about the Woodstock typewriter from the authorities.” His somewhat more skeptical supporters—such as Robert Sherrill in the April 25 New York Times Book Review, dismiss the question: “except as it may reflect on Hiss’s candor, it wasn’t a crucial question at all.” But Hiss’s truthfulness or lack of it is surely central to the case: the charge against him, after all, was perjury.
If Hiss did remember giving his Woodstock to his former maid, Claudia Catlett, but repeatedly denied it—as both Theoharis and Sherrill seem willing to accept—we must ask why he did so. (Mrs. Hiss told the Grand Jury that same month, December 1948, that Claudia Catlett was dead, citing as her source one of the Catlett sons, James. But the young man denied to the FBI that he had ever given Mrs. Hiss such information.) Let us review the sequence of events under discussion:
November 17, 1948. Chambers turns over to Hiss’s libel suit attorneys in Baltimore sixty-five pages of typewritten confidential 1937-1938 State Department documents and four handwritten memos by Hiss from that same period. Hiss, when contacted by his attorneys, acknowledges that the handwritten materials seem to be his but denies ever having given any of the material to Chambers.
December 4, 1948. Hiss signs an affidavit for the FBI that the old upright typewriter he owned during the 1930s was “possibly an Underwood, but I am not at all certain regarding the make.” He states that Mrs. Hiss “disposed of this typewriter to either a second-hand typewriter concern or a second-hand dealer in Washington, DC, sometime subsequent to 1938, exact date or place unknown. The whereabouts of this typewriter is presently unknown to me.”
December 6, 1948. Hiss’s New York attorney, Edward McLean, finds a batch of old family letters that Hiss had given him in September 1948, two months before Chambers handed over the typed documents. McLean shows the letters to one of the defense documents examiners, J. Howard Haring, who immediately identifies the typing as having come from a Woodstock. Haring reports to McLean that same day that one of Mrs. Hiss’s 1933 letters “was typed on the same machine as the Chambers documents.” McLean (as his memo shows) reports this to Alger and Priscilla Hiss that same day. Yet, later that afternoon, Mrs. Hiss continues to insist during an interview with the FBI that she remembered neither the make of her old machine nor how she disposed of it. Nor does Hiss correct his December 4 statement to the FBI with the new information.
December 7, 1948. Despite McLean’s having informed her of Haring’s identification the previous day, Mrs. Hiss signs a statement for the FBI in which she says of the old Woodstock: “I do not recall the make of this typewriter. I do not recall now, how I disposed of it.”
December 7, 1948. Alger Hiss telephones one of his lawyers, John F. Davis, then directing Hiss’s pretrial investigation in the Washington area, to discuss the typewriter (which McLean had informed Hiss the previous day was a Woodstock). Davis described the phone call in a December 28, 1948 letter to Edward McLean: “Alger had called me on the first day public hearings were resumed before the Committee here [December 7] 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.” Davis’s letter then describes in detail the lawyer’s discussion with Donald Hiss about how best to locate Pat Catlett, whom Donald and his wife had seen in recent years around Washington. Davis concludes by reminding McLean that the latter had told him he was “checking on the whereabouts of the machine in some other way” so that Davis would “keep [his] hands off” unless he heard otherwise.
December 10, 1948. Mrs. Hiss testifies before the federal Grand Jury in New York then investigating the Hiss-Chambers conflict. When asked about the typewriter’s make, she states: “I don’t recall it.” When asked how she disposed of it, she states: “I don’t know whether we junked it, or what we did with it…. I think we may have given it to a junkman or may have given it to the Salvation Army, or something.”
December 10, 1948. Alger Hiss testifies before the Grand Jury. When asked if his old typewriter had been sold or thrown away, Hiss replies: “I have not any recollection of its disposition at all.”
December 14, 1948. Alger Hiss testifies again before the Grand Jury. Responding to a question about how he got rid of his old typewriter, he insists: “I frankly have no idea.”
December 15, 1948. On the day of his indictment for perjury, the Grand Jury again asks Hiss what happened to the Woodstock, and he responds: “I do not recall the disposition of it.” Hiss is also asked, again not for the first time that week, if he had ever made gifts to people other than his family. (The Grand Jury was apparently seeking information about the typewriter’s disposal.) According to Hiss’s own memo of this December 15 appearance, “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 teacher and a used radio to the son of our maid, Claudia Catlett”—but nothing else.
Throughout both perjury trials, Hiss insisted on this version of events. During the first trial, when asked when he recalled disposing of the machine, he stated: “I did not say of my own direct independent recollection. I say I know from what the Catletts have told us” (p. 2064). Did he have this information when he testified before the Grand Jury? “No, I did not” (p. 2065). The record of such testimony could be lengthened considerably, but Hiss’s basic assertion remained unchanged: that he learned about the whereabouts of the Woodstock typewriter only after the Catletts came to see his brother, Donald, in late-January 1949.
At one point during the first trial, moreover, Hiss asserted that he had “no knowledge as to whether the experts said specifically that the standard or the questioned documents were typed on a particular machine. I do know that I was told that they said they were typed on a Woodstock. I was not told more” (p. 2058). According to McLean’s December 6, 1948 memo, however, Hiss was told in detail about Haring’s finding that the “Hiss standards” and the “Baltimore documents” were typed on the identical Woodstock.
Stephen Salant attempts to account for the contradiction between Hiss and John Davis’s letter. I shall respond to his letter separately. Hiss himself recently issued a statement acknowledging the discrepancy but not explaining it:
On December 4, 1948, the time I was interviewed by the FBI, I could not recall the disposition of my wife’s old typewriter. I did give them all the information I could recall at that time. There is a letter in my defense files from my Washington counsel to my New York counsel stating that three days later, December 7, 1948, I remembered that the typewriter was given to the Catlett family. I do not recall making this statement but I know that during that period I suggested to my attorneys many possible leads—the Salvation Army, household employees, a second-hand dealer.
Aside from this, the only other explanation from someone associated with Hiss has come from John Chabot Smith, in a statement at Princeton. I will quote it at length, leaving it to the reader to decide if it is convincing in the light of the sequence of documents and testimony I have just summarized.
Mr. Weinstein says, in brief, that Mr. Hiss must be a liar because he couldn’t remember what he had done with his wife’s old typewriter, nor what he had said to one of his lawyers about maybe having given it to the Catlett family.
I must say I’m surprised that a college professor would take that view of a man’s faulty memory. Day after day Mr. Weinstein must be saying to students in his classes, “You remembered this yesterday, why can’t you remember it today?”
…College may be different today, but I’m sure that everyone here knows what it is like to go into an exam and suddenly discover that you can’t remember what you knew so well the night before—maybe you’re all right on some of it, but there’s always some fact or detail that you need, and you know it’s there in your mind somewhere, but under pressure of the exam you can’t find it when you need it. So it’s worth pointing out that when Mr. Hiss was being quizzed over and over again by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the FBI, the grand jury, his own attorneys, and the prosecutor at the two trials—on every one of those occasions he was taking an oral exam, and it was an exam…[on which his] whole career and his whole reputation as an honest man were at stake, not to mention a five-year prison sentence if he flunked. Sometimes, when he was taking these oral exams he forgot something or got it wrong, and these mistakes were remembered against him later, and used to make him sound like a liar when he corrected them.
The issue of Hiss’s candor aside, Theoharis argues that “one of the most troubling aspects of the Hiss case” is “the question of who first found the typewriter.” If the FBI actually found the machine, as Theoharis argues, then I agree with him: “Hiss’s claim of ‘forgery by typewriter’ cannot be lightly dismissed.” I discussed this question at length both in the February 1, 1976 issue of The New York Times Week in Review and, five years earlier, in my American Scholar article, where my rejection of the “forgery by typewriter” argument in the absence of more convincing evidence drew upon the extended criticism of this theory in the late Professor Herbert Packer’s fine study, Ex-Communist Witnesses. Theoharis believes that Hoover’s anger over the FBI’s ineptness and failure to locate the machine could be merely another instance of the Director’s “consistent practice of papering the record.”
But after examining all of the 15,000 pages of FBI files released thus far I find no evidence or hint that Hoover was covering up a forgery. The bureau’s files show that he mobilized the agency’s full resources into a frantic search for the Woodstock on which both the Baltimore documents and the samples of the Hisses’ correspondence were typed. Bureau agents across the country collected hundreds of old Woodstocks from pawnshops, typewriter dealers, and many other sources. Typing samples from all of the machines were tested by FBI specialists (as hundreds of pages of laboratory reports indicate) without success. The FBI files show that when the defense introduced its prize exhibit at the first trial, Hoover hit the roof and ordered an extensive post-mortem. Agents filed long reports attempting to justify their failure to find the Woodstock. One of the FBI’s major problems in finding the machine, I pointed out in an earlier article, was that the Hisses had directed agents toward Washington-area pawnshops and junk stores, in which the bureau conducted a systematic but fruitless search, but had not once mentioned the Catletts, to whom the machine had been given.
I agree with Mr. Theoharis that it is worth examining “the frequency of the claim that the FBI or HUAC first found the typewriter.” But I wonder if he is aware of the hostility between HUAC and the FBI over the case, as is shown by the FBI files. More important, I wonder if he realizes how empty are the claims that the FBI or HUAC found the typewriter. The most frequently cited statement that the FBI (and not the Hiss defense) first located the Woodstock typewriter was made by Richard Nixon in the earliest printing of his 1962 memoir, Six Crises. It was then removed on grounds that it had been a “researcher’s error.” There the matter rested until little more than a decade later, during Watergate, when in the White House version of Nixon’s conversations with his aides the following passage about HUAC and the Hiss case appeared:
We then got the evidence, we got the typewriter, we got the Pumpkin Papers. We got all of that ourselves. The FBI did not cooperate. The Justice Department did not cooperate….
But in the later transcripts of this same conversation prepared by the House Judiciary Committee’s staff (using superior equipment and generally acknowledged to be more accurate than Nixon’s own), Nixon’s remarks are quite different:
But we broke that thing…without any help. The FBI then got the evidence which eventually—See, we got Piper who—We got the, the, the, oh, the Pumpkin Papers, for instance. We, we got all of that ourselves…. The FBI did not cooperate.
There is no mention of HUAC finding the Woodstock typewriter in the more accurate House transcript. As for the mysterious “Piper,” Hiss’s libel suit attorney at the time Chambers turned over the typed documents and the Pumpkin Papers was William Marbury of the Baltimore law firm of Piper and Marbury.
In this connection, Theoharis also accepts as accurate, as Robert Sherrill did recently, another “researcher’s error” from that same passage from Six Crises in which Nixon claimed the FBI (not HUAC) found the typewriter. In the book’s original edition, Nixon said an FBI agent typed exact copies of the stolen documents on the Woodstock and flew them up to New York to show to the grand jury on December 15, “the last day of its term…. In the nick of time [Nixon or his researcher wrote], Hiss was thus indicted.”
The facts were less spectacular, and they are available both in the trial records and in the FBI files. The bureau located specimens of Priscilla Hiss’s typing from the 1930s on December 13, tested them immediately, and decided (as a defense expert did that same month when confronted with other specimens of Mrs. Hiss’s typing) that the same machine had typed the “Hiss standards” as well as the stolen documents turned over by Chambers. This, not the Woodstock, was the evidence shown to the grand jury, and Hiss’s indictment followed on December 15. Since the release of the FBI files, both of Nixon’s statements have been shown to be false.
Mr. Theoharis cites an article by Peter Irons which appeared in the Boston underground weekly The Real Paper and which “related an interview with an unnamed FBI agent who alleges that the Bureau had first found the typewriter.” Both Irons and Hiss have told me on several occasions that the retired FBI official in question was Hoover’s former top aide William C. Sullivan. In a subsequent conversation with Hiss, Sullivan became so vague about what he had told Irons (who is closely associated with the Hiss defense) as practically to deny the quotation. A comparison here is instructive:
Irons in the March 12, 1975 Real Paper: “To the best of my knowledge,’ the former official told me, ‘the FBI did have the typewriter’ before it was found by the Hiss defense, although he was not sure whether it had been located by the FBI or brought to the Bureau labs by Nixon.”
Hiss in a June 21, 1975 interview with me: “He [Sullivan] immediately tried to back away from it. He must have known why I was calling—he said, ‘It’s possible that what I remember as the FBI finding the typewriter is the announcement that we had identified it.’ ”
Sullivan, like Nixon or his researcher, seems to have confused the FBI’s identification of Mrs. Hiss’s typing with the finding of the typewriter.
6) Mr. Theoharis’s sixth point contains several serious errors of fact. He asks me to explain why “when compiling his safety valve…did Chambers retain only material he alleges to have received from Hiss and not as well documents from Wadleigh, Reno, Crane?” Crane,3 however, was not one of Chambers’s government sources but a photographer who (like Inslerman and Chambers) was an acknowledged member of the underground Soviet espionage network. Secondly, Chambers did save materials from sources within the government other than Hiss. Included in the material he turned over in 1948 was a long handwritten memo by Harry Dexter White sketching out a number of Treasury Department actions both in Europe and Asia in January and February, 1938 (some of which related to the same policy matters dealt with by the material contained in the Hiss documents). The accuracy of White’s handwriting was attested to by FBI and other government experts in 1949, and White’s biographer, David Rees (Harry Dexter White: A Study in Paradox), ends by accepting both the document’s genuineness and the likelihood of White’s involvement in Chambers’s underground network.
The Pumpkin Papers also contained two rolls of microfilm provided by Chambers’s contact at the Bureau of Standards and which come from the same period, early in 1938, as the Hiss material. There remained a fifth roll of exposed film that had become blank by 1948. Whether this roll contained material given to him by Wadleigh, Reno, or other government sources remains impossible to determine. But Mr. Theoharis’s charge that Chambers conveniently saved only material by Alger Hiss (presumably for later use in framing him) is wrong.
Mr. Theoharis also asks why Chambers secured typewritten and handwritten materials from Hiss as well as actual documents for microfilming. Chambers’s explanation was that such methods would allow for the collection of a far greater number of documents than would be possible by microfilming alone. White’s handwritten memo, which Mr. Theoharis does not mention, is evidence that Chambers secured such information from government contacts other than Hiss. My book will contain a systematic analysis of the typed documents—and of the evidence that Chambers and Hiss saw each other during the 1937-1938 period when the documents were being stolen. Many of the confidential State Department cables summarized and retyped on the Hiss Woodstock could not easily have been kept for days while awaiting Chambers’s irregular (not “regular”) visits to the Hisses to collect material for microfilming.
Mr. Theoharis’s errors undermine his assertion that Chambers’s documentary evidence against Hiss in 1948 was something other than “merely fortuitous.” Chambers turned over material given to him during the 1930s by at least three people—Hiss, White, and the Bureau of Standards contact. If Mr. Theoharis’s earlier point is correct, part of the microfilm may have come from Wadleigh (yet another source could have given him the exposed roll of microfilm). Did Chambers scheme revenge against all of these men? In his final paragraphs Theoharis argues boldly (but without evidence) that Chambers participated in some conspiracy to frame Hiss, and only Hiss. Here he not only ignores the material Chambers produced from other government sources, but neglects to mention all the other evidence in my New York Review piece connecting Hiss, Chambers, and the Communist underground.
As for my alleged “research deficiencies,” Mr. Theoharis finds it “amazing that Weinstein could have concluded ‘long before the FBI files were open to me’ that Hiss was guilty.” This amazement is warranted, since I made no such statement. What I did say was the following: “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.)”
When the FBI released only a 15,000-page Hiss file (claiming exemptions for another 1,000 pages), I asked my lawyer, John Shattuck of the ACLU, to demand immediately a prompt accounting of what the bureau now claims to have been a major miscalculation (of more than 30,000 pages) in estimating the Hiss file. Its original estimate, the FBI has now stated in court depositions, included files of related investigations of espionage such as the one involving Nathan Gregory Silvermaster and others. Chief Judge Walter B. Jones of the United States District Court in Washington has ordered the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act Unit to provide a detailed inventory of the withheld documents; and written interrogatories filed by my lawyers will elicit a precise accounting of each and every page of the Hiss file. That the FBI deliberately exaggerated its original estimate of the Hiss file does not surprise me, since its major aim at the time was to keep the material from researchers. Three years of diligent courtroom efforts by the ACLU have now led to release of most of the files.
As Mr. Theoharis may know, I am seeking the release of every withheld document that bears on the case; but there is already much evidence on the questions he asks. Father Cronin’s access to FBI files is duly noted in my court affidavits and in my published research on the case. No records or other evidence have emerged thus far to suggest that the FBI either was in touch with Chambers during the 1930s (i.e., the old “double agent” theory implied by Theoharis) or that the bureau had any files on Hiss in 1936, or indeed prior to its first talk with him in 1942.
The FBI under Hoover often circulated false information, used agents provocateurs, engaged in burglary and other serious crimes. I have, from the first, assumed that it might also have rigged the Hiss case in some way and have scrutinized its records and conducted interviews with this in mind. Some of its actions in the case were despicable. For example, it secretly investigated the tax returns of a Hiss defense expert, and this alone might have resulted in having the government’s case thrown out of court were the trial held today. But I have found no evidence suggesting a plot to frame Hiss.4 The records show that the FBI was often confused, incompetent, and irresponsible; but the cumulative effect of reading through the documents—and of tracing the FBI’s activities in dozens of interviews—is to make the carefully coordinated conspiracy that would have been required seem all the more unlikely.
If Mr. Theoharis can find persuasive evidence bearing out any of the FBI conspiracies he implies may have existed, I will welcome it. But meanwhile he does me a disservice by suggesting that I have claimed my book—much less the book review in question—is “definitive,” as if any book on this myth-ridden case could acquire that status for a long time to come, if ever.5
To the Editors:
Professor Weinstein has finally provided the general public with the long-awaited “evidence” which persuaded him of Mr. Hiss’s guilt. Readers familiar enough with the case to penetrate Professor Weinstein’s rhetoric can now judge for themselves, and assist others in judging, whether the evidence he cites is persuasive or whether, on the contrary, he has misread and misrepresented it. Permit me briefly, in the limited space of a letters column, to review some of the evidence he finds so damning.
The Handwritten Note
Consider a document which Professor Weinstein finds “particularly revealing.” It is described as an exact transcription in Mr. Hiss’s handwriting of a 1938 telegram to the secretary of state from the American representative in Moscow, Loy Henderson. Mr. Henderson interviewed the then celebrated Mrs. Rubens in a Moscow prison. Claiming that Mr. Henderson’s cables got back to Soviet Military Intelligence, Professor Weinstein asks rhetorically “Who procured them?” and then replies “We have only the exact copy of Loy Henderson’s 1938 memo in Alger Hiss’s handwriting to suggest an answer.”
Without certain additional information, which Professor Weinstein curiously omits, this suggestion does not seem altogether unreasonable. However, Professor Weinstein apparently has confused two different cables. The one copied by Mr. Hiss did not report on Mr. Henderson’s interview with Mrs. Rubens at all, as Professor Weinstein seems to suggest; it merely relayed information which a private citizen, one Mary Martin, had sent by commercial cable to Mr. Henderson in Moscow. Mr. Henderson’s much publicized interview with Mrs. Rubens occurred later and was the subject of a subsequent Henderson telegram. With these additional facts in mind, the insignificance of what Professor Weinstein finds “revealing” becomes apparent.
If Soviet Intelligence did actually obtain the information contained in that earlier Henderson telegram relaying Mary Martin’s cable, it could more easily have acquired the message by intercepting Ms. Martin’s commercial telegram when it reached Moscow than by relying on a penciled note scrawled illegibly by Mr. Hiss in Washington, DC. But, to my knowledge, Chambers never even claimed this information got back to Moscow. As for the subsequent Henderson cable, which followed his much publicized interview with Mrs. Rubens, we have no evidence whatsoever beyond Chambers’s unsupported assertion—which Professor Weinstein appears to accept without question—that Soviet Intelligence actually learned of its contents. But, if it did, one thing is absolutely certain: its source could not have been Mr. Hiss’s handwritten note—which concerned a cable sent before the Rubens interview even took place.
But why, the inquisitive reader in any event might ask, did Mr. Hiss copy in his own handwriting any incoming State Department cable? Is that not in itself evidence of espionage activities? According to the testimony of Mr. Hiss, he routinely scrawled such notes for his own use in briefing his superior, Mr. Sayre, at their office sessions or working lunches. Not so, scoffs Professor Weinstein: “[Mr. Hiss] had no legitimate reason for transcribing the cable in question or even concerning himself with it.” In Professor Weinstein’s judgment, “Hiss’s own ability to transcribe documents such as the Robinson-Rubens cable” indicates beyond question the inadequacy of security procecures at the State Department during the 1930s. Since, however, the cable actually transcribed by Mr. Hiss was in fact officially routed to Mr. Sayre’s office, it was evidently at least Mr. Sayre’s responsibility to know about it. Professor Weinstein should, therefore, clarify the basis for his confidence that briefing Mr. Sayre about the cable fell outside the purview of Mr. Hiss’s work assignment. Mr. Sayre himself did not take this position in his sworn testimony during the trials, and it is not obvious why Professor Weinstein should, three decades later, have greater insight into Mr. Hiss’s responsibility to Mr. Sayre than did Mr. Sayre himself.
Interlinear Corrections of Typed Documents
Professor Weinstein states that the Defense was troubled by the conclusion of several of its own experts (whom he fails to name) 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.” I have so far been unable to locate the reports of any of the several experts alluded to by Professor Weinstein. What I have discovered while searching, however, is the final report of Mr. Haring (4/6/49). I have also located the subsequent report (5/17/49) by a second expert, Edwin Fearon (presumably Weinstein’s “Fearing”). The former “could not say definitely who made the handwritten interlineations” on the documents in question. The latter, as I read him, concluded that Mrs. Hiss did not make the corrections and that comparisons with specimens made by Hiss in Fearon’s presence “would not justify the opinion that he [Hiss] made them.” I find Professor Weinstein’s failure to mention the conclusions of either of these two key experts, in a discussion of the interlinear corrections, quite perplexing.
Attempts to Locate Typewriters
It is, however, in a letter from John Davis to Edward McLean, both attorneys working for Mr. Hiss, that Professor Weinstein finds the most definitive “proof” of Mr. Hiss’s guilt. I have not yet examined the entire files of the Hiss Defense. Accordingly, my views are subject to revision. At this point, however, Professor Weinstein’s conclusions about the Davis letter, which appear to be based on even less familiarity with these files, seem to me questionable.
Mr. Hiss has steadfastly maintained that he had no “independent recollection” of the brand name of the typewriter or of its method of disposition, but searched diligently for the machine and turned it in as evidence when he located it.
Professor Weinstein maintains otherwise. He regards the one-page “Davis letter” as proof that Mr. Hiss has always “lied about his knowledge of the Woodstock typewriter” (my emphasis). According to Weinstein, “the 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….” Professor Weinstein muses that Mr. Hiss turned in the typewriter only when it became obvious to him that the FBI was about to find it through the Catletts, but admits himself that this is mere speculation.
Professor Weinstein has misread the Davis letter, failed to place it in historical context and overlooked what Mr. Hiss himself has acknowledged. This emerges clearly from other documents in the Hiss Defense files. Those documents disclose that by early December 1948, Mr. McLean had initiated, and on December 2 had written to Hiss concerning, an attempt to track down “the various typewriters” owned by the Hiss family during the 1930s. There were several. Among these was a machine formerly owned by Mrs. Hiss’s family, the Fanslers, that had at one time been given to the Hisses but had thereafter been disposed of. A memo written by Mr. McLean on December 7, 1948, summarizing an interview on December 4 with Mrs. Hiss and her son, Timothy Hobson, indicates both that Mrs. Hiss did “not know the make of the typewriter” given to the Hisses by the Fanslers and that “Mrs. Hiss did not know where she disposed of the Fansler typewriter.” It goes on to indicate that:
She thought she might have sold it for a few dollars to some dealers in second-hand typewriters in Washington. She thought she might have given it to the Salvation Army because she frequently gave things to it….
[Timothy] also suggested that perhaps the Hisses had given away the Fansler’s typewriter to a writer friend. The only writer that he could think of was Don Tilman….
Thus, there were at this time several possible locations for the Fansler machine. It appears that during this same period, Mr. McLean had also spoken with Mr. Davis about the typewriters. The Davis letter of December 28, 1948 passed on to Mr. McLean a request, communicated from Mr. Hiss to Mr. Davis three weeks earlier on December 7, that someone should also check on “an old machine” which “Mr. Hiss remembers that he gave to Pat Catlett….”
It is difficult to interpret Mr. Hiss’s apparent mention of “an old machine” as unquestionably referring to the Fansler typewriter. It is even more difficult to read Mr. Davis’s three-week-old recollection of Mr. Hiss’s request as reflecting a clear recollection by Hiss that the Fansler (or any other) typewriter had in fact been given to the Catletts. Finally, it is impossible to read the Davis letter as establishing that Hiss knew the Fansler machine had not been given to a second-hand dealer. To the contrary, the letter itself simply reflects Mr. Hiss’s own request that one further possibility be added to those that the Defense attorneys were already exploring. That some then unspecified one of these possibilities later turned out to be correct is, in light of the laws of probability, in no way surprising.
Professor Weinstein appears inordinately troubled by the precision of Mr. Hiss’s repeated statement that he has no “independent recollection” of where the Fansler typewriter was located. A passage from Mr. Hiss’s own book, written after his trials, may perhaps explain his meaning:
By 1948 my wife and I had completely forgotten how we had disposed of the old Woodstock and didn’t even recall its make. Timothy was the only one of us who thought it might have gone to the Catlett boys, his own contemporaries…. [In the Court of Public Opinion, p. 271]
Apparently, stepson Timothy had had another thought on who might have received the Fansler typewriter from his parents a decade before, when he was twelve years old. Although Hiss still maintains that he himself had no such recollection, he long ago acknowledged that his stepson did.
Rather than repeat this recollection to the Grand Jury, when it was only one of the many unverified possibilities, Mr. Hiss first requested his attorneys to investigate. This hardly seems to me an improper course of action. But, through Professor Weinstein’s logic, this very request has been twisted into proof of calculated deception and this, in turn, into an indication of Mr. Hiss’s ultimate guilt. Evidently, Professor Weinstein feels that Mr. Hiss’s failure to chat under oath with the Grand Jury and the FBI about the Catletts, Don Tilman and the names of every other person crossing his mind and the minds of each member of his family before verifying these vague recollections through his attorney, constitutes “proof” that Mr. Hiss has always lied and therefore must have been a spy. In my view, these inferences could not be more unwarranted.
But just because Professor Weinstein’s conclusions are unwarranted does not necessarily mean they will be dismissed and forgotten. Indeed, coming from a professional historian—who styles himself a former sympathizer but who has now “reluctantly” concluded that Mr. Hiss is guilty—these conclusions have appeared all the more dramatic. Ideally, the task of the professional scholar is to appraise the historical evidence. The rest of us tend to receive his or her findings without returning to the raw materials. It is thus especially unfortunate that Professor Weinstein’s conclusions, which have had so dramatic an impact, bear such tenuous relation to the evidence.
Stephen W. Salant
(The writer is an independent researcher on the Hiss case who located the misplaced rolls of pumpkin microfilm last year and, among others, sued for access to them under the Freedom of Information Act.)
Allen Weinstein replies:
Mr. Stephen Salant states he is “an independent researcher on the Hiss case.” Perhaps he should have added that he was associated with Mr. Hiss in suits to obtain the Pumpkin Papers microfilm, among other FBI files. Mr. Salant makes several charges that I “misread and misrepresented” the evidence for Hiss’s guilt in my review of Smith’s book:
First, the handwritten note on the so-called “Robinson-Rubens affair,” which Salant seems to think I have confused with another memo. The cable from Loy Henderson, the American ambassador to Moscow, to Secretary of State Hull which was copied verbatim in Hiss’s handwriting dealt with the Robinson-Rubens case. As material in the Hiss defense files indicates, the “Mary Martin” to whom Henderson referred was hardly a mere “private citizen.” Here is the text of that cable as Hiss transcribed it:
M 28. Tel. from Mary Martin widow/Hugh Martin formerly employed for special work by Legation at Riga. Remember well Rubens while working for Hugh, be strict if needed, write Lib. Cong., Card Div.
What the telegram meant was that Henderson had received a telegram from Mary Martin, the widow of a former leading American intelligence agent (i.e., “special work”) in Riga, Latvia (our main Soviet listening post during the 1920s when the two countries did not have diplomatic relations). Mrs. Martin apparently confirmed for Henderson that “Rubens” was a Soviet agent she had known in Riga, and her warning—“be strict”—apparently cautioned Henderson against becoming involved on the arrested agent’s behalf, in spite of Rubens’s wife being American.
Salant argues erroneously that this cable was not one of Henderson’s dispatches to Washington concerning the Robinson-Rubens case. Clearly it was, although it obviously was not the one that dealt with his interview with Mrs. Rubens in prison. More interestingly, Salant poses this question: “If Soviet Intelligence did actually obtain the information contained in that earlier Henderson telegram relaying Mary Martin’s cable, it could more easily have acquired the message by intercepting Ms. Martin’s commercial telegram when it reached Moscow rather than by relying on a penciled note scrawled illegibly by Mr. Hiss in Washington. But, to my knowledge, Chambers never even claimed this information got back to Moscow. As for the subsequent Henderson cable…we have no evidence beyond Chambers’s unsupported assertion…that Soviet intelligence actually learned of its contents.”
But there is convincing evidence that the contents of Alger Hiss’s note reached Moscow at the time and that Soviet Intelligence learned of its contents. In one of two articles Chambers wrote on Russian espionage in this country shortly after his defection in 1938 (a copy of which I secured from the papers of Herbert Solow, to whom Chambers gave the article), there occurs a passage with direct bearing on the Robinson-Rubens case. Not only does Chambers, in November 1938, describe in detail the specific “Mary Martin” cable transcribed by Alger Hiss—only months after Hiss copied the document—but he explains the reasons for Soviet interest in the document.
Chambers’s article, at that point, had been describing the public uproar in the United States over the imprisonment of Mrs. Rubens and the reluctance of Soviet officials to allow Henderson to interview her:
“I cannot understand why those fools don’t let the Americans talk to her,” the Chief of the GPU in New York [presumably Colonel Bykov] remarked in conversation at this time, “she will not dare to tell them anything.”
The interview took place in the Buturki Prison in the presence of a Red Army Intelligence officer. By then Mrs. Rubens’ will had been destroyed: during the interview she seldom took her eyes from the Red Army man.
The Americans were especially interested in positively identifying Mrs. Rubens as an American citizen, but had had difficulty in finding any of her former friends or connections. A woman employee of the American legation at Riga, Latvia, however, had identified Rubens in a code telegram from the Riga Legation to the American Embassy in Moscow. This woman was the widow of a former American official in eastern Europe. But when the American asked Mrs. Rubens if she remembered her, the Intelligence officer instantly forbad [sic] her to answer their question. He had been waiting for this question since he had read the telegram on which it was based, and which said (this is a literal quotation): “Remember well Rubens from my work with Hugh (her late husband). Be strict if necessary.” There followed a reference to something in the Library of Congress which the Soviet Intelligence never understood. [my italics]
In the end, Mrs. Rubens requested the American Government to leave her to her fate.
After this second visit, Mr. Loy Henderson wrote a detailed confidential report of the interview to the State Department in which he gave it as his opinion that Mrs. Rubens and her husband were agents of the Communist International caught in the Purge. This was not strictly accurate, but close enough to satisfy the Soviet Government that there would be passivity in Mr. Rubens’ case at Washington. For like the rest of Mr. Henderson’s official correspondence, this report also found its way to the Soviet Military Intelligence.
In my review of Smith’s book I said, “Who procured them? We have only the exact copy of Loy Henderson’s 1938 memo in Alger Hiss’s handwriting to suggest an answer.” Chambers’s nearly exact quotation of that cable in November 1938 helps to confirm that among the “handwritten matters” he possessed when he wrote to his former comrades in Soviet espionage later that year was the “Mary Martin” cable he said had been given him by Alger Hiss.
Mr. Salant states that Hiss secured the “Mary Martin” cable legitimately, since “it was in fact officially routed to Mr. Sayre’s office, [and it] was evidently at least Mr. Sayre’s responsibility to know about it.” But Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre, Hiss’s superior at the time, did not think so when questioned by the FBI in December 1949 or in his pretrial conversations with Hiss’s attorneys. According to the FBI’s transcript of its interview with Sayre, there occurred the following exchange:
Agent again returned to the handwritten notes and asked SAYRE for his reaction to them. He again reiterated that he did not remember them specifically, but that he was always disturbed by the ROBINSON cable as the handwritten note on this cable seemed to be of a personal nature and he could not understand why he was on the distribution list for this cable or why the note would be made on it and especially why an exact copy should have been made. [emphasis added]
Mr. Salant cites Hiss’s testimony that “he routinely scrawled such notes for his own use in briefing his superior, Mr. Sayre, at their office sessions or working lunches.” Sayre’s own recollections on this point underwent an interesting transformation as Hiss’s perjury trial approached. Although Sayre wished to help his former aide, one of Hiss’s lawyers who spoke to Sayre on December 19, 1948, informed Edward McLean “that Sayre seemed very much agitated and more concerned about his own possible involvement than about helping Hiss. Sayre would not admit that he recalled having seen written memoranda prepared by Hiss like the samples produced by Chambers. He did not deny that such memoranda were written” (my italics). When Sayre spoke to McLean on January 18, 1949, Hiss’s attorney quotes the diplomat’s reactions to the handwritten cables:
Does not recall that it was Alger’s duty to “sift” cables and digest them and make oral report on contents to Sayre [as Hiss claimed]. Will not say definitely that Alger did not do this on occasion but does not remember it. Does not think that he would have asked Alger to have digested cables on military information. [My italics. The three remaining notes in Hiss’s handwriting that Chambers turned over along with the “Mary Martin” cable concerned such military information.]
Sayre did not have enough interest in the subject matter of such cables to have asked Alger to report to him thereon.
Under close questioning by McLean, Sayre began to shift his recollection slightly but still unhelpfully:
Alger did make handwritten memos on documents which Sayre asked him to read. These would be brief opinions, recommendations for action, etc. They would not be summaries of the contents. [As the four memos in Hiss’s handwriting were. My italics.]
Recalls that Alger did discuss documents with Sayre orally on occasion; might have had handwritten notes to refresh his recollection but Sayre does not remember it. Sayre does not think he discussed military information with Alger…. Three things have disturbed him most in the Hiss case. They are: 1. The handwritten memos, the typed summaries and the documents with Sayre’s stamp….
In still unpublished December 1948 HUAC executive session testimony, leaked to a reporter friendly to the committee, Sayre is quoted even more bluntly in disavowing Hiss’s assertions:
Nixon. Did Mr. Hiss, at his home, have as one of his duties the paraphrasing of these documents and bringing them back to you in this way? [as handwritten memos]
Sayre. The answer is “No.”
Mr. Salant charges me with “failure,” in my review, to deal thoroughly with the opinions of Hiss’s experts on the interlinear corrections made on the typed material turned over by Chambers. I mentioned these opinions briefly as among the expert reports Smith ignored; perhaps I should have cited them more precisely, and I will do so here. As I said in the review, “several of these experts [not all of them] also decided that either Alger or Priscilla Hiss had written the interlinear corrections….” On November 21, 1949, Harry E. Cassady reported:
I have carefully examined, compared, and studied the handprintings and handwritings on Baltimore Exhibits 5 to 47 inclusive [the typed stolen documents] with the hand-printing and handwriting of Mrs. Priscilla Hiss, as a result of which, I have been obliged to conclude that she printed or wrote all of them. To decide otherwise, would in my opinion, be against the preponderance of evidence and entirely illogical.
There followed a detailed explanation for Cassady’s opinion.
Mr. Salant quotes from the final report of another defense examiner, J. Howard Haring, to the effect that Haring could not definitely identify “who made the handwritten interlineations.” Salant does not mention Haring’s report of January 26, 1949, on the specific question raised to him by Hiss’s lawyers—Was it more likely that Hiss or Chambers made the interlinear corrections? Haring responded: “I have made an examination of the handwritten corrections…[on] Exhs. 5 to 47 inclusive…. I have made a careful comparison of the handwriting characteristics present in the QUESTIONED writings [i.e., the interlinear notes] with those found in the two classes of STANDARD writings [i.e., Hiss’s and Chambers’s samples]. I am inclined to the opinion that the A.H. corrections more closely resemble the QUESTIONED writing, than do the writings of W.C.”
Mr. Salant is correct, however, in asserting that a third defense expert, Edwin H. Fearon (whose name I misspelled), concluded that neither of the Hisses had made the interlinear corrections. But Salant does not mention Fearon’s identification of the typed documents themselves as having been done on the Hiss Woodstock (N230099). Furthermore, all of the Hiss documents examiners identified Hiss as the person who wrote the four handwritten memos (after comparing them to samples of Hiss’s writing), although Hiss, for a time, questioned whether he had written the most incriminating one, Henderson’s “Mary Martin” telegram.
Most of Mr. Salant’s letter is devoted to disputing the evidence from the defense files concerning Hiss’s claim that he did not know the whereabouts of his old Woodstock typewriter. I refer readers to my response to Mr. Theoharis’s similar complaint where I review the sequence of events. Several of Salant’s specific points of fact here are mistaken, however, and should be corrected. The December 7, 1948, memo by Edward McLean, which Salant quotes to “prove” that Mrs. Hiss did “not know the make of the typewriter,” was written a day after McLean himself told Mrs. Hiss that documents expert J. Howard Haring had identified that specific machine as a Woodstock and the machine on which the stolen documents were typed. Mrs. Hiss did not share this information with the FBI on either December 6 or 7. McLean, bound to an attorney’s oath of confidentiality, also maintained silence on the matter but noted the problem in his memo on the interview. Mr. Salant neglects to remind readers, who can follow the precise sequence of events in my reply to Professor Theoharis, that when Hiss told John F. Davis on December 7, 1948, that he had given “an old machine” to Pat Catlett, Hiss had also been informed by McLean the previous day that the machine had been identified by experts as the Woodstock on which the incriminating documents had been typed.
Salant’s argument to the contrary, I found not the slightest evidence in defense files that Hiss’s attorneys were looking in December 1948 for several “old” machines. Numerous defense memos for the period establish definitely that it was the Fansler machine—and that machine alone—that the defense sought to recover, and that the Hisses owned only one typewriter during the period covered by their association with Chambers in the 1930s. In another December 7, 1948, defense memo, for example, McLean describes the Fansler typewriter specifically—“the Hisses remember having it at least as early as 1933″—and McLean’s search focused exclusively (despite Salant’s erroneous assertions) on trying to locate “the Fansler typewriter.” Both Hiss’s December 4, 1948, deposition to the FBI and Mrs. Hiss’s December 7, 1948, statement to the bureau also mention only one typewriter in their possession during this period, the Fansler machine.
During that same December 4 conversation between the Hiss attorneys and Mrs. Hiss (and Timothy Hobson), we find this notation in McLean’s memo: “Mrs. Hiss’s recollection is that she acquired an old office typewriter from her father…about 1933…. She does not know how long she had the typewriter and is not clear whether she had any other typewriter until she received her present Royal [in 1942].” Since Salant dwells on the point, it is important to stress that there is no evidence in the defense files to support his assertion that Hiss owned “several” typewriters during the 1930s or that Hiss’s attorneys were seeking any other machine but “the Fansler typewriter.”
Another damaging piece of evidence Mr. Salant tries to explain away is Alger Hiss’s insistence that he had no “independent recollection” of the Woodstock’s disposal. Salant quotes a single passage from Hiss’s memoir to support his argument but omits the last sentence in that passage: “In the end it was Mike [Catlett] who, in the spring of 1949, came to my brother in Washington to solve the mystery with the information that we had given it to him and his brother years before.” Rather than rehearse here the evidence on this matter already mentioned in response to Mr. Theoharis’s letter I will cite only one of many instances during the two trials when Hiss testified about it. At the first trial, Prosecutor Thomas F. Murphy was questioning Hiss:
Q. In any event you say now, as a matter of your own knowledge, that that typewriter was given by your wife [to the Catletts] prior to moving to Volta Place?
A. I did not say of my own direct independent recollection. I say I know from what the Catletts have told us….
Q. And you had that knowledge for some period of time, had you?…
A. I had it sometime this winter  when Mr. McLean talked to the Catletts.
Q. But you did not have it at the time you testified in the grand jury?
A. No, I did not.
Q. There was a time during December of 1948 when you did not have it, any knowledge as to how it was disposed of, is that correct?
A. That is correct.
Q. So it was the result of talking to Mr. McLean or the Catletts that this recollection was refreshed?
A. I had not talked to the Catletts.
Q. All right. Mr. McLean?
A. Talking to Mr. McLean, that is correct…. I did not have any independent recollection of the disposal of the typewriter, quite frankly. I have never had any independent personal recollection. [pp. 2064-2068]
In none of the statements made by Alger Hiss during the period of his trials was there ever the slightest acknowledgment that he had told John F. Davis to check with the Catletts about the whereabouts of the Woodstock in December 1948. Readers must again judge for themselves whether, on the basis of evidence presented in responding to critics such as Professor Theoharis and Mr. Salant, my “inferences” have been as unwarranted as Hiss’s defenders claim to believe.
To the Editors:
Allen Weinstein’s article on John Chabot Smith’s new book about the Hiss case troubles me for two reasons. A serious scholar, whose change of opinion cannot be casually dismissed, has apparently decided that Hiss was guilty. Since I have changed my mind in the opposite direction, I shall want to read very carefully, when it is laid out in one place, in documented form and (one hopes) in a full, fair context, Weinstein’s entire argument about the case. He is a historian whose intelligence and care I had come to respect when I read his excellent 1970 article about the case.
In the last few months, however, Weinstein has been proceeding in a way that I find even more disappointing than his apparent change of mind. In a short article here and another there, and in interviews with the press and on the Today show, he has been laying down parts of his argument for his new conclusions, so that it is difficult to keep up with him or to measure the pieces of evidence against a large context. Now he declares in The New York Review of Books that he has “touched on only a small part of the evidence” that supports Chambers’s story. This way of proceeding may be effective advocacy, effective publicity for the book of his own that now seems to have been put off for nearly another year, and effective anticipatory defense against competitors, those whose “newer and perhaps more ingenious defenses of Hiss” Weinstein says “will soon follow” the one under review. But it does shake my confidence in his fairness as a historian. Internal evidence in the review itself will show why one ought to read these new revelations cautiously.
Weinstein summarizes the facts in a way that is sometimes prejudicial to Hiss and extraordinarily generous to Chambers. In summarizing the evidence concerning Hiss’s Ford, he misrepresents what both Hiss and Chambers said. He gives, Hiss’s initial testimony about the car as if it had been Hiss’s considered and final testimony on the subject. Actually Hiss volunteered his story from memory when asked whether George Crosley had owned a car. Then, as Weinstein surely knows, the House Committee on Un-American Activities made it impossible for Hiss to check the twelve- to thirteen-year-old records concerning the car, for they removed the records from the Department of Motor Vehicles, concealed them for the eight days before the first televised hearing, and used them throughout that hearing to try to lure him into further inaccuracies and to impugn his credibility. When Hiss saw the records, or photostats of them, long before the trials, he conceded that he must have been mistaken about the relationship between the loan or gift of his car and the sublease of his apartment to Chambers. Whether truthfully or deceitfully, he did revise his testimony.
Weinstein now declares that Chambers’s story about the car was supported by the documents and by later correspondence from a lawyer representing a Communist. To support that astonishing judgment Weinstein gives us not Chambers’s initial version but his final revision! At first Chambers swore that Hiss had given the car to a Communist organizer and that Hiss, Chambers, and their Communist superior had laundered the transaction by finding a small service station or used car lot owned by a Communist. When the documents revealed that Hiss had apparently transferred ownership of the car to the largest Ford agency in Washington, Chambers and the Committee focused on the agency’s immediate sale of the car to a former Communist named William Rosen.
Here the evidence becomes extremely complex, with notaries denying any recollection or records of the transactions, with the notary for Hiss’s signature refusing against insistent Nixonian pressure to testify that he would not have notarized Hiss’s signature unless Hiss had been present, and with further interrogation eventually proving that William Rosen’s signature on his part of the document (notarized by a second forgetful notary) had been written by an official of the Ford agency whom not even Chambers dared accuse of complicity in the design. A historian who has decided that Hiss was guilty ought at least to concede that Chambers’s original testimony about the car was as inaccurate as Hiss’s and that the entire transaction could easily have been accomplished without Hiss’s knowledge.
Anther egregious example of favoritism in Weinstein’s article tends to prejudice his account from the beginning. In the introduction he charges Hiss with a false claim to “selflessness” in recent explanations of the defense’s refusal to call Timothy Hobson, Hiss’s stepson, to testify at the trials. (Hobson, eleven years old in 1936 and twenty-three at the time of the first trial, had apparently been involved in a homosexual episode while in the Navy and had been discharged under ambiguous terms.)
Readers who remember the skill of the successful prosecutor at the Hiss trial will see no necessary claim to selflessness in Hiss’s explanation. Prudence alone would have led the defense to anticipate a cross-examination aimed at discrediting the witness before the jury by inquiring into his medical history and his military record. Nor is the explanation quite so new as Weinstein says that it is. Meyer Zeligs, without referring specifically to homosexuality, pointed out in 1967 that Hobson had “failed to complete Naval Officer’s training because of an acute emotional upset” (Friendship and Fratricide, p. 406). Zeligs, too, emphasizes Hiss’s desire to spare his stepson the ordeal of testifying, but since the defense was attacking Chambers’s credibility through expert psychiatric testimony about his emotional stability it seems unlikely that the same lawyers would have offered the prosecutor a witness with Hobson’s medical history, or that the prosecutor would have failed to discredit him.
Weinstein’s prejudicial treatment of this subject is not perfectly clear until he arrives, near the end of his article, at Chambers’s own homosexuality. For nearly thirty years the imputation of homosexuality has served Hiss’s detractors as the most extreme of the “smears” that his defenders had supposedly invented in their ruthless campaign to discredit Chambers. Now, when the FBI records reveal that Chambers told the FBI before the first trial about his many overt homosexual acts, the very historian who rejects Hiss’s claims to selflessness emphasizes the voluntary nature of Chambers’s confession, presumably as an argument that if Chambers could volunteer so embarrassing a fact about himself his veracity on other matters might be assumed.
But of course Chambers’s own explanation of his confession suggests that it was hardly more selfless than Hiss’s refusal to allow Timothy Hobson to testify. Chambers “feared that the Hiss defense planned to mention” the homosexual acts at the trials. (Weinstein calls them “homosexual affairs,” but the Washington Post news article on the FBI disclosure quotes Chambers as having confessed to single encounters in which he picked up companions at notorious places when his compulsion became irresistible.) In the very paragraph that mentions this extraordinary development, Weinstein refuses to consider the significance of homosexuality to Chambers’s motivation in the Hiss case. Instead he turns against Hiss the defense’s failure to make the charge that Chambers had anticipated and that Weinstein himself had dismissed in 1970 as “tawdry rumors.” Weinstein quotes Hiss in 1948 as remembering “no hint of any unnatural sex interests” in Chambers, but then he rejects as “unsubstantiated by any new evidence” Hiss’s recent description of Chambers as “a spurned homosexual who testified…out of jealousy and resentment.”
But the new evidence is Chambers’s confession itself, and it forces us to reconsider some of the old evidence—not only Chambers’s translation of the novel of betrayal in which he used a phrase that he later applied inaccurately to Hiss (he walks with a slight mince “if you watch him from behind”), but the much more important though perhaps indecipherable meaning of Chambers’s gratuitous errors in his claims to intimacy with the Hisses, and the meaning of his allegedly vehement efforts first to rescue Hiss, then to expose him as a Communist while “protecting” him from charges of espionage, and at last to repel Hiss’s efforts to “destroy” Chambers in the libel suit. In his 1970 article Weinstein insisted that “The question of motivation remains basic to a full understanding of the case,” and he even quoted the prosecutor’s challenge to the jury to consider what possible motive, besides truthfulness, might have led Chambers to accuse Hiss of espionage. Now that the tawdry rumors have turned out to be true, it is of course possible that Chambers had such irrational motives and that Hiss was nevertheless guilty of the charges. But the question of Chambers’s motivation cannot be easily dismissed.
Nor can Chambers’s false testimony about some of the central issues. In the six years since his first article Weinstein has apparently forgotten the depth of his evidence against Chambers’s veracity. He did not then accuse Chambers of “lies” but showed a considerable variety of contradictory and false statements on essential questions, several of them at least as grave as the contradiction that he now reveals in Hiss’s reported statements about the recipient of the used Woodstock typewriter. Now, however, Weinstein uses the word “lie” much more freely and with marked selectivity. Hiss, he says, has been lying for thirty years. Chambers, too, “sometimes lied,” but only “about his past” and for a time about having committed espionage. On the explicit question of Hiss’s conduct and the Hiss-Chambers relationship, however, Weinstein now makes no more severe criticism of Chambers’s testimony than that “some of his memories about knowing the Hisses were faulty.”
Even if we accept Weinstein’s interpretation of Hiss’s testimony about the typewriter, those of us who have read the evidence and Weinstein’s own earlier account cannot forget (until shown why we should forget) Chambers’s repeated self-contradiction concerning a much more important set of dates—the dates on the classified documents and the date on which Chambers renounced the Communist Party and went into hiding. Neither Weinstein’s article in The New York Review of Books nor the front-page articles that it provoked in the national press give any indication that such a discrepancy ever existed or that Weinstein has found evidence to resolve it.
Even if Weinstein should succeed in proving that Hiss was guilty, I cannot see how he will ever be justified in saying, as he does in conclusion, that “Whittaker Chambers told the truth.” The great virtue of Weinstein’s first article was that it recognized the extreme complexity of the case. An argument for Hiss’s guilt will not replace that complexity with the simplicity that Weinstein now seems to favor. I have never accepted the argument that in order to exonerate Hiss the defense needs to explain Chamber’s motivation and the details of a plot to forge the typewriter. But surely the historian who chides Hiss’s defenders for their inability to explain the forgery by typewriter ought to accept the responsibility to explain the corresponding anomalies in any theory of Hiss’s guilt.
It is as easy to ridicule hypotheses about Hiss’s guilt as to laugh off the six conspiracy theories that Weinstein dismisses. After charging that Hiss lied about the disposal of the typewriter, Weinstein still fails to give any plausible reason for Hiss’s decision thereafter to give that incriminating machine to the court. To argue that a guilty man would have volunteered the typewriter because he knew that the FBI would learn of its existence and its where-abouts is to invite the query, Why didn’t the same reasoning apply to the disputed rug? The prosecution knew that Hiss had a rug that Chambers claimed had been a gift from the Soviet government. Why didn’t the guilty Hiss produce that rug on the same daring (if self-destructive) reasoning now offered to explain his surrender of the typewriter? Why did Hiss microfilm unclassified documents that were already available to Soviet spies in the library at the Bureau of Standards? Why, if Hiss’s lawyers didn’t voluntarily introduce the rug during the trials, didn’t the prosecution ask the defense to produce it?
I don’t claim that these questions are unanswerable, but that Weinstein’s recent writings, and especially his article in The New York Review of Books, ignore them and others that are equally difficult. I also believe that he errs both in judgment and in fact when he discusses Meyer Zeligs’s Friendship and Fratricide in a footnote. Meyer Schapiro did write a strong critique of Zeligs’s book, pointing out some serious errors and a strong bias in favor of Hiss. But I do not accept Weinstein’s claim that Schapiro “refuted” Zeligs’s book. I was astonished to read Weinstein’s declaration that Zeligs did not even “consider Hiss’s own equally traumatic youth,” for the summary of Hiss’s traumata with which Weinstein immediately follows that charge is drawn almost entirely from Zeligs’s book. Right or wrong, Zeligs’s interpretation of Hiss depends heavily on the self-destructive behavior of Hiss’s father and brother. In 1976 any believer in Hiss’s guilt may need help from some theory of the psyche that can explain why a guilty man would go through the self-destructive experience all over again more than twenty-five years after his disgrace.
I love and admire Meyer Schapiro, but if we were to apply to Weinstein’s New York Review article the standards that Schapiro used in deciding Zeligs is a disingenuous scholar we would have to draw the same conclusion about Weinstein. I believe that both Weinstein and Zeligs are honest but fallible men who deserve to be read carefully as expositors of conflicting judgments about a baffling case. Hoping that Weinstein’s book will respect the complexities of the evidence, I intend to read it as fairly as I can. Meanwhile, despite the tremendous publicity given his recent charges, I shall continue to believe that Weinstein (along with Hiss and others) exposed too many discrepancies in Chambers’s credibility to justify a belief in Hiss’s guilt. Even now, I insist, the defendant in such a case deserves the benefit of our doubt, and the false testimony of the accuser ought to be given more weight than discrepancies in the defense. Until I see better evidence than Weinstein has revealed, I shall believe that Alger Hiss was not a member of the Communist Party, nor a spy, nor (outside the limits that he defined) an intimate friend of Whittaker Chambers.
Commonwealth Professor of English
University of Virginia
Allen Weinstein replies:
David Levin’s recent article arguing Alger Hiss’s innocence largely by analyzing Hiss’s memoir is a far better defense than Hiss received at the hands of John Chabot Smith.6 But Mr. Levin’s letter contains many errors of fact and much unwarranted innuendo. His nominal complaint about my recent articles is that they lack the “complexity” of my earlier work. Yet his basic objection to my findings seems, in fact, that I now believe the weight of evidence shows that Alger Hiss lied far more often than Whittaker Chambers did about the issues under dispute.
Nowhere in his letter does Levin take up any of the new research on the case that I have already described in articles on Richard Nixon’s role (Esquire, November 1975), on the contents of the newly released FBI files (The New York Times Week In Review, February 1, 1976), or the conspiracy theories of the case and the damaging evidence in Alger Hiss’s defense files I discussed in this journal. He seems to suggest that scholars should restrict their research findings to eventual books, but Levin’s own article on the case also would be premature by this harsh standard.
Mr. Levin’s “analysis” of the Ford car suggests erroneously that Chambers (like Hiss) significantly changed his story concerning the transaction at some point. Levin has misread the testimony involved in the transaction. Chambers asserted that Hiss had transferred his Ford car through a used car lot “owned by a Communist.” As it turned out, the business (which was not the “largest Ford agency in Washington” at the time of the 1936 transaction) was owned by a family, some of whose members were friendly with a leading Baltimore Communist who was involved in the transaction.
Let me quote the August 24, 1948, testimony of W. Marvin Smith, the State Department notary, who (Mr. Levin tells us) refused “against insistent Nixonian pressure to testify that he would not have notarized Hiss’s signature unless Hiss had been present.” Actually, Nixon was a minor figure in the questioning of Smith (he posed only eight of the forty-one questions asked the witness), and it was Karl Mundt who drew from Smith this critical admission, one that contradicts Levin’s assertion.
Mr. Mundt. It was never your custom, I presume, to simply attach your signature to blank documents.
Mr. Smith. …No; he [Hiss] either appeared before me or I recognized his signature. I assume he appeared before me. That is what everybody does. [p. 1074]
Levin is incorrect in assuming that “Chambers’s original testimony about the car was as inaccurate as Hiss’s.” In fact, Chambers (not Hiss) was correct about the date of transfer (1936 and not 1935); about the means of transfer (not a simple gift directly to Chambers, as Hiss originally claimed, but a third-party “dummy” transaction through a Washington used car company); and about the motive for transferring the car, as a March 1949 memorandum by Hiss’s attorney, Edward McLean, demonstrates. Since Levin has dwelt on the evidence of the Ford car as an “egregious example of favoritism in Weinstein’s article,” McLean’s memo deserves fuller citation:
Emmanuel Bloch, attorney for William Rosen [whose name was signed to the car transfer papers], told me the following today:
Rosen does not know Hiss. Rosen did lend himself to a dummy transaction concerning the Ford car. Apparently Rosen did not sign the title certificate dated July 23, 1936. It is not clear whether Rosen knew at that time that his name would be used in this transaction. However, at some later date, a man came to see Rosen and told him that the title certificate to the Ford was in Rosen’s name and asked Rosen to sign an assignment of it to some other person. Rosen did this. The man who came to see Rosen was a very high Communist. His name would be a sensation in this case. The man who ultimately got the car is also a Communist [my italics]. Bloch implied that Rosen was a Communist too but did not say so expressly.
Turning now to Levin’s next example of my “egregious…favoritism” and “prejudicial treatment,” several points about his own treatment of the homosexual theme in the case deserve closer scrutiny. I do not question Hiss’s selflessness in wishing to spare his stepson from testifying in 1948. But even if Hobson had testified, I doubt his recollections would have lent much more credibility to Hiss’s version of events than did the testimony of Mrs. Hiss (or, for that matter, than did Mrs. Chambers’s testimony for Chambers’s version of events). I was referring to Smith’s own claim that Hiss’s “revelations” to him about Hobson’s homosexuality and Mrs. Hiss’s abortion explain gaps in Hiss’s defense. I don’t see what these revelations explain; nor does Levin tell us why they were so important.
If Mr. Levin intends to suggest how the new evidence of Chambers’s homosexuality revised our earlier understanding about motives he should at least have presented some argument and not simply presented a series of innuendoes. Is he suggesting that Hiss and Chambers had a homosexual affair? Both men have denied that allegation. Does he accept Hiss’s argument that Chambers was a “spurned homosexual who testified…out of jealousy and resentment?” If so, on what evidence? Is he aware of the other “tawdry rumors” that the Hiss defense tried to prove, involving not only the charge that Chambers was an alcoholic (untrue) but that he had been committed several times to mental institutions (also untrue)? It is hard to know how to respond to Levin’s unfocused speculations on the relationship between Chambers’s homosexuality and the issues of evidence in the Hiss case. A more nearly complete response must await Levin’s own clarification of his argument, if in fact he intends to present one.
Mr. Levin’s comments about my earlier American Scholar article puzzle me. He does not mention the fact that, even in the American Scholar, I argued that Hiss apparently lied on the question of his personal ties with Chambers and, although at the time I felt there was “reasonable doubt” whether he had actually been involved in espionage or been a Communist, I was strongly critical of the “forgery by typewriter” theory. Three years of research have uncovered new evidence bearing on the question of Hiss’s veracity, and the FBI and the defense files, here as elsewhere, undermine a great deal of Hiss’s testimony, much of which I believed in 1970. I have described the evidence on the Ford. Here are a few of the other points in my American Scholar article on which new evidence has appeared:
1) Both the FBI files and Hiss’s own defense records discredit his contentions that he received a Bokhara rug from Chambers in 1935 or 1936 rather than in 1937. Hiss’s denial that he had ever met with Chambers by the latter date led to one of the two perjury counts against him. Mr. Levin may not be aware of various memos by defense lawyers of interviews with George Silverman, another alleged member of Chambers’s espionage ring. Silverman corroborated the fact (as did his maid in the newly released FBI files) that Chambers gave him a Bokhara rug in early 1937, although Silverman denied that this gift had any connection with espionage work.
Hiss, by his own admission, received a similar rug but insisted that he got the rug (according to Smith’s book) in “late 1935,” not as a present from the Russian spymaster Boris Bykov (as Chambers testified) but rather as partial payment for Chambers’s earlier rental of his apartment. Silverman’s statement to Hiss’s lawyers is supported by FBI memos which show that the three recipients of similar Bokhara rugs (all of whom Chambers testified were members of the underground)—Silverman, Julian Wadleigh, and Harry Dexter White—acquired them around January 1937. Four rugs had been purchased in December 1936 by Chambers’s friend Meyer Schapiro. Hiss was the only recipient who claimed in the late 1940s to have received the rug much earlier. Precise dating is critical in understanding this case: the gift of a Bokhara rug helps to confirm at least one meeting between Hiss and Chambers in early 1937, despite Hiss’s denial that he had ever seen Chambers after mid-1936.
2) The FBI records also corroborate the story told by Edith Murray, a former maid of the Chamberses who identified Alger and Priscilla Hiss as the couple she saw visiting the Chambers Baltimore household. She also said she saw Mrs. Hiss there alone on several occasions. The Hisses denied having made such visits. My earlier conclusion, based on defense arguments, that the FBI pointed out Mrs. Hiss to Mrs. Murray for identification purposes does not stand up.
3) The bureau’s files also undermine Hiss’s claim that the FBI had obtained the relevant bank records before Chambers told the FBI that the Hisses had loaned him $400 to purchase a car in November 1937. The Hisses withdrew $400 four days before Chambers bought the car, supposedly to use in buying furniture for a new house they were renting. But the house in question—the Hisses moved in in January 1938—was not even advertised for rent until December 1937, after the $400 withdrawal.
4) Let us turn to Mr. Levin’s most pointed complaint about my review of Smith’s book: that I did not deal in the review with what (in American Scholar) I called the case’s crucial unanswered question. The evidence available in 1971 seemed to show that Chambers had broken with the Communist Party sometime before mid-March 1938, which would not have allowed him to collect State Department documents allegedly stolen by Hiss that dated through April 1, 1938. “The discrepancy between these two facts,” I wrote at the time, “until satisfactorily resolved, remains the episode’s central mystery.” I did not discuss this question in my review of Smith (although I commented on it in a recent paper I read to the Organization of American Historians) mainly because Smith’s “substituted typewriter” theory did not require Chambers to have left the underground earlier than April.
In the interests both of “complexity” and of precisely dating Chambers’s break from the underground, I should note the appearance of a new and intriguing document. The FBI files included a letter to Chambers dated March 4, 1938, from an underground associate, a letter which Chambers handed over along with the microfilm to HUAC investigators in December 1948. The letter was signed only “H” and, if not in code, concerned a heterosexual love affair. Chambers told the FBI that it probably did not come from Hiss, but it corroborated Chambers’s presence in the spy network as of that date. Material I have acquired during the past three years, including letters written by Chambers to his close friends Professor Meyer Schapiro and journalist Herbert Solow, as well as Solow’s notarized memo dated November 28, 1938, confirm this sequence of events.
For a complex set of reasons, of which self-preservation was perhaps the most important, Chambers made his final decision to break with the Party in December 1937. Entire Soviet intelligence units abroad were then being decimated during the Great Purge at Stalin’s direct orders, and Chambers (who told his friends in 1938 that he had been recently ordered to Moscow) thought he knew what to expect. He began preparing for the break and, as part of his preparations, secured through Professor Schapiro, in February 1938, a translating job that would provide him with some income once he left the Party (Chambers was a skilled translator, among whose works was the first American translation of Bambi).
He continued collecting documents from his sources within the government throughout the early months of 1938, as is confirmed in depositions to the FBI by several of his underground contacts including Julian Wadleigh and Victor Franklin Reno.
In mid-April, he finally defected, as his letters to Schapiro and Solow, as well as other material, demonstrate. These letters, Solow’s memorandum, and two interviews with people involved in Chambers’s post-defection efforts to hide from his former colleagues in espionage indicate that the Communist underground leadership tried unsuccessfully to locate Chambers in the months that followed his break. Whether or not they intended to kill him, as Chambers believed, remains questionable. But that Chambers had some real grounds for fear at the time of the Purge seems beyond doubt.
One final point in Mr. Levin’s letter deserves comment. Although he himself seems unconvinced by the “forgery by typewriter” theory, I question the accuracy of Levin’s assertion that my review merely “ridiculed” or “laughed off” the various conspiracy theories of the case. I treated them seriously, both in this journal and in a previous article.7 Arguing such conspiracy theories without adequate proof does a disservice to historical analysis. I suspect that Levin, when not aroused over the Hiss case, would share this concern.
Mr. Levin’s questions about Hiss’s defense strategy deserve attention. Why did Hiss produce the Woodstock typewriter in court? And if Hiss turned the machine over because the FBI might have learned of its whereabouts, “Why didn’t the same reasoning apply to the disputed rug?” If the defense had introduced the rug, it would have done so knowing about George Silverman’s highly damaging statement that he received his Bokhara in 1937, a fact that Silverman might (for all the defense knew) have also told the FBI. If only for that reason alone, Hiss’s overburdened lawyers chose not to open the issue of the rug.
As for the typewriter, again one can only speculate. But Hiss, after all, was dealing with well-known lawyers to whom he was accountable. The FBI was hunting furiously for the machine and (as I said in my review) there may have seemed little point in allowing the bureau to locate it, especially since there existed a chance that a later admission by one of the Catletts, or an inadvertent one, would lead the FBI to the typewriter. The defense lawyers certainly would not have stood for suborning or destroying vital evidence in the case, as McLean’s willingness to keep the most damaging defense files indicates. Nor, on the other hand, could Alger Hiss have reasonably suggested to his attorneys, without destroying his credibility, that he did not want the typewriter found. He insisted, after all, that he had absolutely nothing to hide.
Mr. Levin concludes his letter with a serious error when he asks: “Why did Hiss [sic] microfilm unclassified documents that were already available to Soviet spies in the library at the Bureau of Standards.” Here Levin repeats an incorrect story that has recently gained currency, namely, that Chambers had charged Hiss with stealing, in addition to the two State Department rolls, the two rolls of microfilm that he turned over in 1948 and that had come from the Bureau of Standards. Chambers, in fact, testified at the time (and this was featured prominently in the press) that these two rolls of Pumpkin Papers came not from Hiss but from another contact in the Bureau of Standards. Hiss seemed to give the impression at a press conference last year—when the Justice Department released copies of this material—that he had been charged by the government with stealing the Bureau of Standards documents also; he never was.
I disagree with Mr. Levin’s comments on the evidence but agree with him when he suggests that writers on the case, whatever their conclusions, must try to portray “the complexities of the evidence”—and the protagonists—with scrupulous fairness. My critics have done me a great service in this regard. Their specific complaints, although often unsupported by the facts, remind me of the strict standard of accountability to which all historians should hold and which I am trying to apply in my book.
May 27, 1976
The New York Times Week in Review, February 1, 1976. ↩
Chambers’s interview with Berle is described not only in his notes introduced at the trial but in Berle’s published diary, Navigating the Rapids. ↩
Hiss’s supporters have sought to counteract the newly released information about Crane, a previously unknown FBI informant in the case. Thus Peter Irons, who has been associated with Hiss’s recent legal efforts to secure FBI files, asked in a recent letter to The New Republic: ↩
In The New York Times Book Review, Robert Sherrill charges that “the FBI was aware that Hiss had found the wrong machine” when his lawyers turned up Woodstock N230099. According to Sherrill, “there is evidence that Government officials found ‘the’ Woodstock before the Hiss hunters found ‘a’ Woodstock.” Sherrill argues that the FBI thus planted a phony machine on Hiss in order to frame him. Although I will deal with Sherrill’s arguments in a reply to the Times Book Review, this particular point bears directly on Theoharis’s belief in an FBI conspiracy and deserves brief comment. ↩
Notwithstanding our disagreements on the Hiss case, Professor Theoharis and I are collaborating on a project designed to release and publish a multivolume edited series of documents drawn from FBI files on politically sensitive cases over the past half-century. We will announce details of this project within the next month, and will ask fellow historians, archivists, foundations, and interested members of the public to lend support. Those interested in further information on this project can write either to Professor Theoharis at Marquette University or to me at Smith College. ↩
“In the Court of Historical Criticism: Alger Hiss’s Narrative,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1976. ↩
“On the Search for Smoking Guns,” The New Republic, February 14, 1976. ↩