The Hiss-Chambers case was the cause célèbre a half century ago. Now two books have appeared that bring it once more to our attention. A young biographer has spent seven years on a 638-page book going over the ground of Whittaker Chambers’s own autobiography, Witness. A historian has put out a new edition, filling 622 pages, of his previous study of the case.
My impression is that today anyone under the age of fifty—and certainly forty—knows hardly anything about the case. Yet not so long ago the case stirred up the most agonizing conflict; it separated friends and divided families. The reason for the difference today is the change in the country and the world. The Hiss-Chambers case turned on the threat of communism and was exacerbated by the element of espionage. That threat has evaporated; the espionage is antiquated; and it is necessary to use some historical imagination to see into the innards of the case.
Historically, the case came at a major turning point in American life. It had its start in the New Deal of the 1930s and came to a climax during the cold war of the late 1940s. Anyone who seeks to understand the struggles over the New Deal, communism, and the cold war can hardly avoid it. It brought to national attention a future president, Richard Nixon, who was then an obscure first-term congressman from California. One of the early anti-Communist prosecutions that helped to define the 1940s and 1950s, it gave Senator Joseph McCarthy encouragement for his first attack on the State Department. In no other case in this century has the cry arisen—as from Hiss’s supporters—that a high official was an American Dreyfus and had been politically framed. An American Dostoevsky—he was one of Chambers’s favorite writers—is necessary to extract the full drama and pathos of this story.
Above all, the Hiss-Chambers case set off a social as well as a political schism in American life, one that may still be with us in various forms. Most of “the educated, progressive middle class, especially in its upper reaches, rallied to the cause and person of Alger Hiss, confident of his perfect innocence, deeply stirred by the pathos of what they never doubted was the injustice being visited upon him,” wrote Lionel Trilling. “By the same class Whittaker Chambers was regarded with loathing—the word is not too strong—as one who had resolved, for some perverse reason, to destroy a former friend.”1
Allen Weinstein notes that, during the Vietnam War, Hiss “found himself transformed from a symbol of deception into one of injured innocence,” and “in no segment of American society did Alger Hiss benefit personally more than among university audiences, faculty, and students.” Chambers himself scorned “most of the forces of enlightenment [which] were poohpoohing the Communist danger and calling every allusion to it a witch hunt.” Some members of the “educated, progressive middle class,” such as Richard Rovere and James Wechsler, changed their initial views and came to be persuaded of Hiss’s guilt and the authenticity of Chambers’s testimony. But others, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Walter Lippmann, remained in Hiss’s corner, even after his conviction. Weinstein himself tells us in Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case that he began by siding with Hiss and only after studying the record did he move over to agreeing with Chambers.
One reason for the social and political split was that Hiss gave himself protective coloration by making himself into nothing more than a representative of the New Deal. By the time Chambers’s Witness came out in 1952, it was clear that Chambers was not only a repentant anti-Communist; he was also a fierce antiliberal. The sides were thus confused. In fact, the case against Hiss was irrelevant to whether one was a conservative or a liberal, a Republican or a Democrat. He was found guilty of perjury—the proxy of espionage in the case—because, whatever Hiss’s political allegiances or Chambers’s new intellectual infatuations, he had passed documents and papers to Chambers for the benefit of the Soviet Union. But the political and social implications could not be easily set aside. Hiss’s guilt tarnished the memory of the New Deal and Roosevelt’s liberal administration. For some, to be with Hiss was to remain faithful to the New Deal or even the Communists’ Popular Front of the late 1930s, while to side with Chambers was to condone turning on a friend and to help usher in a period of reaction. Thus this case was about more than an ordinary—or even an extraordinary—crime; it was beset with political and social connotations and consequences that often overshadowed the legal issues on which Hiss was tried.
Sam Tanenhaus’s book goes over the ground of Chambers’s Witness but in a fully justified way. Chambers wrote from a purely personal point of view. He alluded to many other actors in the drama without being able to use their memoirs or other documentation. Tanenhaus had the ingenious idea of filling out what Chambers wrote by going to the memoirs, letters, papers, FBI interrogations, and testimony of all the others in the story. As a result, he rounds out Chambers’s account from different angles, drawing on the accounts of many people who knew Chambers.
Allen Weinstein’s new edition of Perjury, originally published in 1978, deals equally with Hiss and Chambers, and thus extends the scope of the treatment. It is almost obsessively concerned with every detail and nuance of the case, sometimes as if Weinstein were conducting another trial of Alger Hiss. Tanenhaus clearly sides with Chambers but mainly refrains from injecting himself into the story; Weinstein does not hesitate to refute pro-Hiss arguments and allegations in the midst of his narrative. Nevertheless, his book is based on such close examination of the almost inexhaustible sources that it is indispensable in any consideration of the subject. It is a fine historical reconstruction and it almost defies imagining how much work went into it.
Both Tanenhaus and Weinstein use documents and reports never exploited by previous works on the subject. Weinstein has the advantage of using new material from the NKVD files in Russia, which he and a Russian collaborator intend to bring out in a subsequent volume. He also has new material from Hungary and Russia to bolster some particulars and has brought his concluding section up to date about more recent events. For those who did not get the old edition, the new one is a bonanza.
Immediately after Chambers identified Hiss as a secret Communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee in August 1948, Hiss said the issue “is whether I am a member of the Communist Party or ever was.” But Hiss himself immediately moved away to a more factual issue: “If I could see the man [Chambers] face to face, I would perhaps have some inkling as to whether he ever had known me personally.”2
The point was not lost on Richard Nixon, then a first-term congressman and soon the most effective member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which launched the case in August 1948 by asking Chambers to testify. “In most cases we were in the almost impossible position of having to prove whether or not an individual had actually been a Communist,” he later wrote in his memoirs. “This time, however, because of Hiss’s categorical denials, we did not have to establish anything more complicated than whether the two men had known each other.” After Chambers was sued by Hiss for libel, at the end of September 1948, and before Chambers produced the hidden documents, films, and memos he had received from Hiss, Chambers said he had realized that “the issue had ceased almost completely to be whether Alger Hiss had been a Communist.” “The whole strategy of the Hiss defense,” he writes in Witness, “consisted in making Chambers a defendant in a trial of his past, real or imaginary, which was already being conducted as a public trial in the press and on the radio.”
As a result, the case turned on the exact relations between Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. The sessions of HUAC and the two trials of Alger Hiss largely concerned themselves with matters of fact rather than the politics of their engagement. The books by Tanenhaus and Weinstein inevitably follow this pattern.
Did Hiss know Chambers by the name of “George Crosley” or by that of “Carl”? Did Chambers and his family stay in a Hiss-leased apartment on P Street in Washington, D.C., without paying rent? Or did Chambers agree to pay rent for the apartment and never keep his part of the bargain? Did Hiss pay Communist Party dues to Chambers or did he make some small loans to Chambers? Did Hiss turn over an old Ford car to Chambers in connection with the apartment or did Hiss insist on giving it to “some poor organizer in the West or somewhere”? Did Chambers give Hiss a rug as a token of esteem by his Soviet superiors or was it a gift from Chambers in part payment for the apartment? Above all, were the copies of State Department memos taken out of the pumpkin by Chambers typed by Hiss’s wife, Priscilla, on an old Woodstock typewriter once owned by the Hisses, or was some form of “forgery by typewriter” committed by Chambers or a government agency to implicate Hiss and enable the prosecution to produce the critical evidence tying Hiss to espionage for the Soviet Union?
Such were some of the key questions that occupied the prosecution and defense from May 1949 to January 1950. The first trial resulted in a hung jury of eight to four against Hiss. The second trial convicted Hiss of perjury for two alleged lies—that he had never given any government documents to Chambers and that he had not seen Chambers after January 1, 1937. (The statute of limitations for prosecution for espionage had expired.) The date was important because Chambers had produced sixty-five typewritten documents from Hiss dating from the early part of 1938. Hiss received a five-year sentence and served forty-four months for perjury.
One reason Hiss’s supporters were not convinced by the trials was that Hiss afterward claimed to have found new evidence that impugned the government’s case against him. The new evidence mainly turned on the old Woodstock typewriter on which Priscilla Hiss had allegedly typed the memos; it was alleged by the defense that the prosecution had known that the typewriter was not Priscilla’s but had been manufactured or forged to take its place, a claim that Weinstein dismisses in long critical analyses. Hiss tried to get a new trial but was turned down by a three-member Court of Appeals in 1983 and again failed in the Supreme Court later that year.
By this time, little more can be said about the factual issues I have mentioned. The books by Tanenhaus and Weinstein have wrung the facts of the case dry for anyone who wishes to reexamine the specific issues which preoccupied the hearings and trials.
But I found myself wondering about the political aspects of the case. Couldn’t more be done to look into Hiss’s original complaint that the only issue was whether he was or had been a Communist? I was also struck by the need to restudy Chambers’s political development, especially the last phase, after his breakaway. For these purposes, it was necessary to go back to some of the old materials which contain bits and pieces of the political puzzles presented by Hiss.
Until after the Yalta Conference, Hiss’s career had been one of steady advance. Born in Baltimore into a middle-class family which had seen better days, Hiss went to Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School; served as clerk for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; and came to New York in 1932 at the bottom of the Depression. His credentials were ideal. The following year, Hiss went to Washington to serve on the legal staff of the newly formed Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), where he met friends from Harvard who were also starting out on their Washington careers and were soon recruited into a secret group of professionally ambitious Communists. From the AAA, Hiss went to the Nye Committee investigating the munitions industry, to the Solicitor General’s office, and in 1936, to the State Department. He did not achieve real bureaucratic eminence until 1945, when he attended the Yalta Conference, and served as secretary general of the San Francisco Conference, where the United Nations was founded. In 1946, however, he was eased out of the State Department and accepted the presidency of the Carnegie Endowment; by that time he was being shadowed by accusations that he had been—or was—a Communist. In effect, he was struck down at the very climax of his bureaucratic career.
The political sides which Hiss and Chambers now came to represent were paradoxical. Hiss, the model of a career bureaucrat, was cast as a secret revolutionary; Chambers, whose past life was much more checkered, appeared as the defender of the existing order.
The incongruity of the two may have contributed to an inability to accept them for what they were. In ordinary life, Hiss was open, friendly, and courteous; Chambers was brooding, furtive, and suspicious. For much of their lives, they seemed to belong in different social worlds. When Chambers confessed, he let everything out; Hiss never confessed anything. Some who knew Hiss could not believe in his guilt. “I know Alger Hiss,” Walter Lippmann confidently asserted. “He couldn’t be guilty of treason.”
Hiss’s strategy throughout the case was both his strength and his weakness. He not only denied that he had committed any espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union but maintained that he had had no sympathy whatsoever with communism. His strategy of absolutely denying all the charges against him made it necessary for his opponents to break through a blank wall of negation. If the wall could be breached at any point, his entire defense collapsed.
Hiss wrote two books about the case, but they tell little about his political development. In the second book, Recollections of a Life, he merely mentioned that he had begun his political life in the spring of 1933 and was “a stalwart New Dealer.” He says that he was never a Communist and, as far as one can tell from his pages, he did not even know Communists. Little more can be learned from him.
Chambers’s story is just the opposite of Hiss’s. Chambers says that he met Hiss in Washington in 1934, had later received Communist Party dues from him and, still later, State Department documents and memos for transmission to Soviet Russia. He had stayed at Hiss’s home for days at a time, had lunch with him, and had known intimate details of his private life.
To go back to Hiss’s original question—Was he or had he been a Communist?—I have brought together seven sources of information that bear on the subject. Some of them are old and some new, some directly and some indirectly pertinent.
- John Chabot Smith’s book on Hiss of 1976 is the closest to an authorized biography.3 Smith was the New York Herald-Tribune reporter who covered the two Hiss trials. They made him an advocate of Hiss’s innocence, and he wrote his book with the assistance of Hiss.
Smith contributed a number of clues to Hiss’s political development. Before coming to Washington, Hiss had been a member in New York of the International Juridical Association (IJA), for which he had written reports and analyses. The IJA was a small organization mainly made up of Communists and fellow travelers, and later put on the Justice Department’s subversive list; but to Smith they were just “young liberals.” Smith called Hiss not merely a stalwart but a “radical New Dealer.” Before coming to Washington, both Alger and his wife, Priscilla Hiss, had been interested in Socialism (according to Socialist Party records of the time, she had been a member). During the Spanish civil war, Hiss was tempted to join the International Brigade but had never taken the temptation very seriously. Hiss wanted to tell HUAC “what a fine man he thought Lee Pressman was, but Marbury advised him against it.” Pressman, later the chief counsel of the CIO, had known Hiss at Harvard and was admittedly a Communist4 ; William L. Marbury was one of Hiss’s lawyers. In fact, Smith says, Marbury was later persuaded of Hiss’s guilt.
All this casts doubt on Hiss’s insistence that he had merely been a New Dealer and knew nothing of radical activities.
- Alger’s son, Tony, a writer for The New Yorker, wrote a book about his father, whom he called, more familiarly, Al. My eye suddenly fell on one passage, in which Tony quotes Al:
Al was, in fact, “intrigued” by Chambers, as he recalls. Why? Well, I hate to have to tell you this, because I personally find it a bit creepy, but the real reason, as Al admitted to me the other day, over and above Chambers’ laying on the flattery about Al’s job and his well-liked Renaissance Man conception, was that Al felt sympathy for Chambers. “I like people when they’re in trouble,” Al said. “Because they have to like you, and you can feel powerful by helping them. I love to visit people in the hospital.” And there you have it.5
“Intrigued” by Chambers? It seems as if there was more to their relationship than merely the generosity of a more prosperous bureaucrat to an impecunious journalist. Alger Hiss had earlier claimed that he had known Chambers—as “George Crosley”—as a casual acquaintance who had come to him in 1934 for information to write an article, when Hiss had been working at the so-called Nye Committee investigating the munitions industry. Hiss said that he had taken pity on Chambers’s poverty and neediness and had lent him some money and the use of an apartment and a car. Hiss had rid himself of “Crosley” when he decided that he was never going to pay him back.
If Hiss felt so much “sympathy for Chambers,” why did he make such a fuss about not being paid back a few dollars? Clearly he had known Chambers with some intimacy, had talked with him seriously, and enjoyed being with him. This was not the Chambers that Hiss presented in the hearings and trials.
- Of the members of the small Communist group assembled in Washington by Harold Ware, John Abt was the only one to write an autobiography. Ware, a Communist specializing in farm problems, came to Washington in 1933 to build up Communist membership among government workers. Abt went to Washington in October 1933 to serve as chief of the litigation section of the AAA. In June 1934, he was brought into the Communist Party by Ware. Abt later became the chief counsel of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union, headed by Sidney Hillman, who was President Roosevelt’s favorite union leader, and still later the general counsel of the Communist Party. In his autobiography, Abt gave this account of what his group in Washington did:
We mainly talked about our work in the various agencies where we were employed, what this indicated about the drift and policies of the Roosevelt administration. If there were developments we thought were particularly interesting or important, someone would be asked to draft a report to be given to Hal [Ware], who presumably passed it on to the national leadership in New York for its consideration in estimating the direction of the New Deal and what might be done to influence it.
Then Abt somewhat coyly admitted that these reports might have gone on to the Soviet Union:
On reflection, I would say it is conceivable that the commentary and analyses we provided to the national Party leadership may have reached the Soviets—there were regular exchanges of information with all the fraternal parties through the Communist International—but I can’t imagine they would have been interested in what we had to say; nor, had they been interested, that it could have been any use.
When Ware died in an auto accident in August 1935, his place was taken by a Hungarian Communist who used the name of J. Peters. Abt confirmed one of Chambers’s points—that Peters had replaced Ware in charge of the group and had come to Washington from New York to meet with them about once a month.
Abt’s sister, Marion Bachrach, also joined the party in 1934, and she worked for it for the rest of her life. Abt notes that she was friendly with Hiss during their Washington days. Abt also met Chambers in Washington “and found him somewhat odd.” Abt imagined him to be German, “perhaps a representative of the Communist International.” 6
In effect, Abt’s book confirms some of Chambers’s statements, and Abt’s one specific reference to Hiss—his friendship with Marion Bachrach—suggests, at a minimum, that he would have known the group that she belonged to in Washington.
- Another member of this Communist group was Nathaniel Weyl, then a young economist in the AAA, fresh from the London School of Economics. He was a Communist before he went to Washington and was taken into Ware’s group. He later said that Hiss was a member of the group and that Hiss, like the others, paid Party dues. “He impressed me with his great firmness of conviction,” Weyl recalled. “Hiss had a good mind. But I didn’t think a very original one. Also an attractive personality. He was somewhat older than most of the rest…. Pleasant but also aloof and withdrawn.”7
It is difficult to believe that Weyl would have invented the presence of Hiss in the group originally organized by Ware.
- An observer of these events in Washington during the 1930s was Josephine Herbst, the novelist, and at that time the wife of John Herrmann, a struggling writer. Herrmann was a member of the Communist Party; Herbst was not but was close to it. Early in 1934, Ware asked Herrmann to work with him in Washington, and Herbst came along.
Herbst frequently met with Chambers—whom she knew as “Karl”; he sought her out, she said, mainly for literary conversations. She also knew that “Hiss had been considered a prospective [Communist] contact during the period she was in Washington,” and Ware had talked to her about Hiss. Herbst was “critical of Hiss for his excessive denials of commitments which she believed ought to have been affirmed.” She wrote to a friend:
He should have boldly admitted to certain ideas now termed subversive but which were only honestly enlightened and leftish in the ’30s. Instead he took too pure a stand, denied too much, admitted nothing…. You suspect a man who denies everything and is a pinnacle of proper conduct…. Admitting smaller things would have validated major denials. Any novelist could have told them that.8
Herbst put her finger on the difficulty with Hiss’s strategy of absolute denial. He denied so much that he prevented himself from appearing to be candid or even believable. Yet Herbst herself had not been entirely forthright in her statements. According to Weinstein, she told FBI agents that she knew nothing of espionage activities but had given a full account earlier of those activities to Hiss’s lawyers. In any case, Herbst knew enough to doubt Hiss’s denials and to know that he had attracted Ware’s attention as a prospective member of his group.
- Hede Massing (originally Gumperz) was the former wife of Gerhard Eisler, who had served the Communist International in the United States in the 1930s. She had worked as a courier for a Soviet spy ring run out of Paris. She came to the United States in 1934 and met Alger Hiss at a small dinner party in the late summer or early fall of 1935 at the home of Noel Field, then also in the State Department. She wrote in her book, published in 1951, that she had engaged in the following conversation with Hiss:
Massing: I understand that you are trying to get Noel Field away from my organization into yours.
Hiss: So you are this famous girl who is trying to get Noel Field away from me. What is your apparatus, anyhow?
Massing: Now, Alger, you should know better than that. I would never ask you that kind of question.
Hiss: Well, we will see who is going to win.
Massing: You realize that you are competing with a woman, and women generally win in such a situation.
Hiss or Massing: Well, whoever is going to win, we are working for the same boss.9
When I first read Massing’s testimony, I wondered about her exact memory of a conversation with Hiss in 1935 which she first related to the FBI in 1948. Hiss and Massing later confronted each other, and Hiss denied ever having met her.
But now Weinstein has presented critical new information. In 1948, Noel Field was interrogated in Prague, when he applied for an extension of his Czech visa. According to Professor Karel Kaplan, a Czech historian and member of the Dubcek government’s 1968 commission, which investigated the purge trials of the late Stalin period, Field named Alger Hiss as a fellow Communist agent in the State Department. Kaplan was also able to read the interrogations of Field by Hungarian security officials, during which Field said the same thing.
In 1992, a Hungarian historian, Maria Schmidt, examined the interrogations of Noel Field in Hungary after he was caught up in the East European purge trials of Communist leaders in the 1950s and landed in a Hungarian prison.10 Schmidt, who wrote an article for The New Republic of November 8, 1993, about her findings but has not yet published her book on the post-World War II Eastern European purge trials, prepared a longer, unpublished paper on the subject, which was available to Weinstein. She found similar statements by Field, such as: “In Fall 1935 Hiss at one point called me to undertake espionage for the Soviet Union…. I informed him I was already doing such work.” Nevertheless, these statements of Field about Hiss were made to Czech and Hungarian officials under some duress, and in 1958 Field sent Hiss a letter in which he denied that Hiss had met Massing in his apartment in 1935.
But Weinstein and his Russian colleague then found in the NKVD archives a message by Massing of April 1936. It also concerned Noel Field, who told about his recent conversation with Alger Hiss. “Alger told him that he was a Communist and that he was connected with an organization working for the Soviet Union” and that he knew Field also “had certain connections.” Hiss wanted Field to talk to Laurence and Helen Duggan—he was a specialist in Latin American affairs at the State Department—to “give him [Alger] access to them.” But Duggan “became upset and frightened” and said that he needed time to make “that final step.”
In 1938, according to documents in the Soviet archives quoted by Weinstein, the Soviet controller in New York, Isaac Akhmerov, sent two messages to the NKVD in Moscow about incidents in which Hiss was involved. In one, Michael Straight—who has written a book about his role in a Soviet network—worried Akhmerov by offering to recruit Hiss, whom Akhmerov wanted left alone. In another, Akhmerov discussed Hiss’s status and wondered whether Hiss was still connected with Soviet Military Intelligence. Curiously, Akhmerov’s messages to Moscow use the actual name of Hiss, although everyone else is given a code name.
Weinstein also cites a previous dispatch from another Soviet agent, Bazarov, which mentions a meeting between Massing and Hiss. Weinstein writes that Bazarov
complained about this unseemly socializing among active agents in an April 26, 1936, communication to his superiors in Moscow. Bazarov expressed special concern that, a few months earlier, Hedda Gumperz and Alger Hiss had apparently introduced themselves to one another in their capacity as Soviet operatives, as Hedda Gumperz Massing would testify a decade later. “I think, after this story,” Bazarov wrote, “we should not speed up the recruitment of ’19’ [Laurence Duggan’s code name] and his wife. Evidently, [a] persistent Hiss will continue carrying on his initiative.”
These sources—Kaplan, Schmidt, the NKVD file—seriously implicate Hiss, although much remains unclear about them. I would be happier if the new NKVD materials were not the monopoly of one author, enterprising though he was to get them, and if other American historians could evaluate them independently. Meanwhile, we must await the opening of the files of Soviet Military Intelligence, with which Chambers and apparently Hiss were connected, for a fuller insight into their operations.
- The so-called VENONA documents were released by the US government in 1995 and 1996. These documents were intercepted transmissions to Moscow from Soviet agents in the United States. One document, dated March 30, 1945, from the Soviet station chief in Washington, dealt with a “chat” with one “ALES.” He was said to have worked with Soviet Military Intelligence “continuously since 1935” and to work “on obtaining military information only.” He was also said to have been “the leader of a small group…for the most part consisting of his relations.” In the last few years, the message explained, Ales did not produce State Department materials regularly, because they interested Soviet Military Intelligence “very little.” Ales and his entire group had recently been awarded Soviet decorations. After the Yalta Conference, Ales had gone to Moscow, where Ales “gave to understand” that Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Vyshinsky had expressed the Soviets’ gratitude “at the behest” of Soviet Military Intelligence.11
The editors of the VENONA documents added a footnote after the first appearance of ALES: “Probably Alger Hiss.” This is what made the telegram of March 30, 1945, so significant. Another VENONA document of September 28, 1943, from the Soviet vice-consul in New York, mentioned the name of Hiss (spelled out in the Latin alphabet): “The NEIGHBOR [Soviet Military Intelligence] has reported that [one group of words unrecovered] from the State Department by the name of HISS….” But with nothing more to go on, it is impossible to say in what connection his name was used.12 Nevertheless, it is again significant that a Soviet cable should have used the name Hiss in its Latin spelling.
Weinstein considers that the VENONA documents and the KGB archives, together with other indications, “are compelling in pointing toward Alger Hiss,” while Tanenhaus writes that Hiss was “implicated” in the March 30, 1945, cable.
This cable is both important and frustrating. Only one thing is verifiable—Hiss had gone to Moscow after the Yalta Conference with Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius and two lesser US officials. We have no other information about Hiss’s leadership of a small group made up for the most part of his relatives. We do not know whether Hiss and his group received Soviet decorations in Moscow or whether Vyshinski expressed Soviet gratitude to him. We do not know enough about the documents handed over by Hiss to say that he had at one point worked on obtaining “military information only” or that, for some years before 1945, he did not produce State Department documents regularly, because Soviet Military Intelligence was not highly interested in them.
In effect, we do not know enough to interpret some of the new Soviet material confidently. The March 30, 1945, cable is an example of allusions for which we had little preparation. It is only one of several sources of information, and it is best to wait for more information in order to decipher it fully.
Beginning in 1934, Hiss admittedly knew Abt, Pressman, and the others in the group brought together by Ware. Pressman and Abt were known to be Communists, and Abt even believes that Sidney Hillman and Philip Murray chose them as their lawyers precisely because they knew that they were Communists; after all, eleven of the thirty-two national CIO unions were led by Communists. It is inconceivable that they should not have talked to Hiss about communism; they were fast-talking, hard-driving types who were confident of the rightness of their cause. Yet Hiss told Weinstein that he had talked about communism only once in his years in the government—with Abe Fortas, then in the AAA, later a Supreme Court justice.
Hiss’s behavior after his trials was not what one would expect from a man who said that he had been framed, and that he had been the victim of “forgery by typewriter.” Hiss claimed that “Chambers was a pawn in the hands of others,” by which he meant Nixon and the FBI, who were “manipulating” Chambers. Hiss even accused half a dozen judges of deciding against him prejudicially. In effect, the political and judicial system had conspired against him. One would imagine that someone who had been politically and judicially framed would have cried to high heaven that he had been the victim of an insidious plot. Yet Hiss wrote two books which are so well-mannered that they disappointed his own supporters.
Why, of all the Communists in Washington, would Chambers have chosen to make Hiss his victim? “Years later,” Hiss wrote in his Recollections of a Life, “I learned that in the mid-1930s, when I knew him as Crosley, Chambers was a closet homosexual. I now believe my rebuff to him wounded him in a way I did not realize at the time. I think that the rebuff, coupled with his political paranoia, inspired his later machinations against me.” Chambers was also a “possessed man and a psychopath,” a character of “flimsy and inconsistent fantasies.”
But Hiss at the time did not have these thoughts. He apologized for having been taken in by Chambers: “My gullibility was large indeed, and my willingness to believe astonishes me now.” It is hard to believe that Hiss would have been awakened to Chambers’s homosexuality only by his subsequent discovery of it and not by any suggestions of it at the time, or that Hiss could have found “good company” in a psychopath and a fantasist.
In any case, one thing is clear about Hiss’s political position: it could not have been what he said it was—just that of a “stalwart New Dealer.” Enough evidence exists, apart from Chambers’s own testimony, that he was a Communist and behaved like one, even to the extent of giving se-cret aid and comfort to the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, when Hiss made his choice, such allegiance to the Soviet Union was not at all strange. He differed from the other Washington Communists of his time chiefly in his loftier bureaucratic success and his determination to admit nothing and reveal nothing.
If the Military Intelligence files of the Soviet Union are ever opened, we may get to the absolute bottom of the Hiss case. As it is, some questions still persist about some of our information on Hiss’s activities, but they are questions which should lead us to get more information, not to reject what we have.
This is the first part of a two-part article. The second part, on Whittaker Chambers, will appear in the next issue.
November 20, 1997
Lionel Trilling, “Whittaker Chambers and ‘The Middle of the Journey,’” The New York Review, April 17, 1975, p. 23. ↩
Alger Hiss, In the Court of Public Opinion (Knopf, 1957), p. 24. ↩
Alger Hiss: The True Story (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976). ↩
Murray Kempton wrote something about Pressman that probably applies to Alger Hiss. Pressman’s “inclination to the Communist line,” Kempton thought, “ cannot be explained so much by loyalty to the American Communists as by devotion to the Soviet Union as a repository of the gospel in its highest form.” (Part of Our Time, Simon and Schuster, 1955, p. 67). ↩
Tony Hiss, Laughing Last: Alger Hiss (Houghton Mifflin, 1977). Alger Hiss later suggested something of the sort but had not gone so far: “Crosley [Chambers] was good company for a while. He was well read and stereotypically the proletarian writer so much celebrated in those days” (Recollections of a Life, Henry Holt, 1988, p. 207). ↩
John J. Abt, with Michael Myerson, Advocate and Activist (University of Illinois Press, 1993), pp. 41-42, 150, 178. ↩
Interview with Nathaniel Weyl in the U.S. News & World Report, January 9, 1953, pp. 22-40. Weyl also testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security but after the Hiss trials. ↩
Elinor Langer, Josephine Herbst (Little, Brown, 1983; paperback, Northeastern University Press, 1994), pp. 270, 275, 276. ↩
Hede Massing, This Deception (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1951), pp. 174-175. There is a slightly different version in the second Hiss trial, Vol. 2, pp. 1299-1300, 1262-1266, cited by Tanenhaus, p. 420. ↩
This story has been told by Flora Lewis, Red Pawn (Doubleday, 1965). ↩
This telegram is reproduced in Weinstein, Perjury, p. 509. A selection of the VENONA documents has been published in VENONA, edited by Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner (National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 1996), where the telegram of March 30, 1945, appears on p. 423. ↩
See Weinstein, Perjury, p. 510, for a reproduction. The book VENONA does not contain this telegram. ↩