Was Alger Hiss Guilty?
It is time to think again about Alger Hiss. The cold war is over, and its casualties petition for rehabilitation. While committees publish advertisements demanding posthumous justice for the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss acts for himself. He asks the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts to reinstate him to the Bar of the Commonwealth on the ground that he is presently of good moral character, and in New York he announces to the press that he will soon move to reopen his case and demonstrate his innocence. “In 1948,” he says, “a man named Whit-taker Chambers swore that he had been a Communist spy, and that I, a State Department official, had given him government papers in 1938 . I never gave him secret papers. But largely because a young Congressman named Nixon said he believed Chambers, I was convicted of perjury when I denied the charges and went to jail for 44 months.” Nixon ended his career in fraud, Hiss seems to suggest, and he began it with fraud. The prosecution was yet another Nixon connivance, a deception whose purpose was to destroy Hiss and convict an entire generation of American liberals.1
Before making up our minds, we had better find out what happened in the case. There are 3,307 printed pages of testimony, another thousand pages of exhibits, 595 pages of lawyers' briefs and affidavits, and three judicial opinions. Out of this welter of materials, let me try to winnow answers to the two questions which are the subject of this article. What was the evidence? Does the evidence justify the verdict of guilt?
I have relied almost entirely upon the transcripts, the exhibits, and the briefs, telling the story largely in the words of the witnesses and the lawyers. I have no new information to offer and hence no revelations to make. I am personally acquainted with none of the participants except the prosecutor, Thomas F. Murphy, who in 1951 became a federal judge and before whom I tried several criminal cases in the early 1960's, first as an Assistant United States Attorney and then as defense counsel. If I have any special claim to competence in the matter, it is this: I am a trial lawyer, and, so far as I know, no one with the skills and experience of a trial lawyer (apart from those who prosecuted and defended Alger Hiss) has ever publicly examined the evidence.2
On September 3, 1939, two days after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Whittaker Chambers went to see A. A. Berle, the Assistant Secretary of State. Berle made notes of the conversation, listing the names of various people in government who, according to Chambers, were Communists. Of Alger Hiss, the notes say:
Ass't. to Sayre—CP—1937
Member of the Underground Com—Active
Early days of New Deal.
Nothing happened until March 20, 1945, when Raymond Murphy, a security officer for the State Department, interviewed Chambers. Murphy's memorandum of the interview reads in part:
It seems that in 1934, with the establishment of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the introduction of much reform legislation in Washington, the Communist party decided its influence could be felt more strongly by enlisting the active support of underground workers not openly identified with the party and never previously affiliated with the party, but whose background and training would make them possible prospects as affiliates under the guise of advancing reform legislation. The Hungarian, party name J. Peters, was selected by the Central Committee to supervise the work from New York. His Washington representative and contact man was the informant [Chambers], and he personally met and discussed many times various problems with the persons listed below except those specifically named as coming under another person's jurisdiction. The persons listed below are said to have disclosed much confidential matter and to have arranged among themselves a program committing this government to a policy in keeping with the desires of the Communist party.
The opportunity presented itself for the formation of an underground group with the appointment to a leading position in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration in 1934 of one Harold Ware. Ware had worked for years in agricultural collectivization projects in Russia. He was a son of Ella Reeves Bloor, veteran American Communist, by one of her numerous marriages. On being assigned to this agency, Ware found a group of very promising, ambitious young men with advanced social and political ideas. Among them were Lee Pressman, Alger Hiss, Henry Collins, and Charles Kramer (Krivitzky). They all joined the Communist party and became leaders of cells. No cell had over ten members. This was the nucleus of the Communist underground organization in Washington. The purpose was for each member to advance as high as possible in the government to shape legislation favorable to the program of the Communist party. The top leaders of the underground were:
- Harold Ware
- Lee Pressman
- Alger Hiss
In the order of their importance.
Murphy spoke with Chambers again on August 28, 1946. His memorandum reads in its entirety as follows:
The Communist underground in Washington is believed to have been set up some time in 1933 after the inauguration of President Roosevelt. My informant [Chambers] does not know how or when it was set up, but he believes that Harold Ware had a prominent part in creating the underground and in enlisting key members. Ware, of course, would have acted pursuant to orders from the Central Committee of the Communist party of the United States.
My informant entered into the Washington picture in the summer of 1935 and left it and the party at the end of December 1937. The group was already in being and functioning actively. His superior was the Hungarian known as J. Peters, the national head of the Communist underground movement. My informant acted as a courier between Washington and New York. He participated in oral discussions in Washington with the group which Peters himself conducted. They met only the top layer—in other words, leaders of cells of the Communist underground in government circles.
My informant did not know the Coe who taught at McGill University, but he understood that he was a Communist. The other Coe he definitely knew to be a Communist. Harry White was reported to be a member of one of the cells, not a leader, and his brother-in-law, a dentist in New York, is said to be a fanatical Communist. Alger Hiss was never to make converts. His job was to mess up policy. The Post of the State Department was a cell member. He thought he was of Nat Perlow's group. Post was formerly on the WPA, where he measured skulls. He was definitely of minor importance in the movement compared with Hiss.
The heads of the various underground groups in Washington who met with Peters were the Hisses, Kramer (Krivitzky), Henry Collins, who was either secretary or treasurer of the group, John Abt, Lee Pressman, Nat Perlow, and Nat Witt. These men met regularly at special meetings. With the exception of Donald Hiss, who did not have an organization, they headed parallel organizations. But they did not know the personnel of the different organizations.
Hal Ware was the top man of these organizations. Upon his death in 1936 a fight broke out for leadership, but Nat Witt won out. Some time after 1937 Witt is said to have been succeeded by Abt.
(There were other underground Communist groups operating in Washington, but this was the elite policy-making, top-level group.) This group did not exchange secret documents from the government departments, but did give sealed reports on the membership of the groups and on policy. It was not a spy ring, but one far more important and cunning because its members helped to shape policy in their departments. Henry Collins, as secretary or treasurer, delivered most of the sealed reports to my informant. At that time Henry Collins was believed to be working in the Forestry Division of Agriculture.
Peters was in the agricultural department of Hungary under Bela Kun. He was in the Austrian army in World War I. He is a little dark fellow, small feet and wavy black hair.
At the meetings in Washington with this group Peters would give pep talks on Communist theory. He would then talk to each leader separately. Peters often discussed the morale with my informant. He praised the Hiss boys to my informant very highly, but was doubtful of Pressman. He had a high opinion of Witt, a slightly less high opinion of Abt, thought Kramer was a nice boy but shallow, and had very little use for Perlow. He liked Henry Collins.
My informant asked Alger Hiss personally to break with the party in early 1938, but Hiss refused with tears in his eyes and said he would remain loyal to the party.
After his break with the party, Grace Hutch-ins telephoned the mother of my informant on Long Island one night and said that if he did not return to the party by the following Thursday it was a question of his death.
Who was the man telling this lurid tale?3
Whittaker Chambers was born in 1901 in Philadelphia and spent his boyhood years on Long Island. He attended the Rockville Centre High School, where he wrote the class prophecy. The school authorities read it and told him not to deliver it. Chambers wrote a second prophecy, but, at the graduation ceremony, read the first. The consequence was that he did not receive his diploma with the rest of his class.
When he was eighteen, Chambers ran away from home. He did day labor on street railways in Washington and in New Orleans under a false name. He returned home and worked for about six months in an advertising agency under another false name. Then he enrolled at Williams College, leaving after two days. A few weeks later, he wrote his former roommate at Williams asking him to pick up a letter at the post office addressed to someone other than Chambers and forward it to Chambers. The roommate picked up the letter, opened it, and recognized it to have been written by Chambers.
In 1920, Chambers enrolled at Columbia College. He edited a student magazine called Morningside, which published a play by Chambers entitled, A Play for Puppets. The play represents Jesus dressed in a gray kimono with long red hair, obstinate and proud, distrustful of women. This caused trouble at Columbia, and Chambers withdrew from the college in January 1923. He reapplied for admission in September 1924. That month, Chambers wrote to Professor Mark Van Doren that he had “quite simply lied” at his read-mission interview by saying that he wanted to return to school in order to teach history, whereas the truth was that he had acquired an “unconventional partner” who wanted him to complete his education. He was readmitted, but left again after one semester.
On February 17, 1925, Chambers joined the Communist party. He was working at the time in the New York Public Library. In April 1927, his employers accused him of theft. They went to his locker and discovered eight library books and some Communist leaflets. Chambers took the officials to his home, where 56 books from the Columbia library were found. He was fired.
Chambers had a brother, Richard, born in 1904 (the year of Hiss's birth). In September 1926, Richard committed suicide by putting his head in an oven. Before this, Richard had asked Whit-taker to enter into a suicide pact with him. Richard's death had a paralyzing effect on Whittaker. He remained in bed immobile for two or three months.
Attributing the suicide to Richard's inability to cope with an irrational world, Chambers now became a fanatical Communist. In 1929, because of an intramural dispute, he left the party, but returned in 1932. His job was writing for the Daily Worker. Throughout these years, Chambers used false names and gave false information on applications for a passport, government positions, and the like. He broke with the Communist party in 1937 or 1938.
Having professed atheism until then, in 1940 Chambers was baptized an Episcopalian. About a year later, he and his wife and children became Quakers.
In April 1939, Chambers went to work for Time magazine as a book reviewer. He wrote foreign news, art, and cinema, finally becoming a senior editor. A physical breakdown required that he rest at home for some eight months, after which he returned to the magazine as a writer of cover stories on such people as Pope Pius XII, Arnold Toynbee, Marian Anderson, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Albert Einstein, earning $30,000 a year. He resigned on December 10, 1948.
And who was Alger Hiss, the man Chambers said was a member of the Communist underground?4
He was born in 1904. After graduation from Johns Hopkins (and election to Phi Beta Kappa), he went to the Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Law Review. His first job, in 1929, was that of law clerk to Justice Holmes. In October 1930, Hiss became associated with the firm of Choate, Hall, and Stewart in Boston, which he left to work for the firm of Cotton Franklin, Wright, and Gordon in New York. In 1933, he entered government service as assistant general counsel of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Two years later, he became legal assistant to the Special Committee of the United States Senate Investigating the Munitions Industry (the Nye Committee). After a year, he entered the Justice Department, where he served as a special attorney in the office of the Solicitor General. In 1936, he transferred to the State Department as assistant to Francis Sayre, the Assistant Secretary of State. When Sayre left to become High Commissioner to the Philippines, Hiss joined the staff of Stanley Hornbeck, Adviser on Political Affairs. From that position, he went to the newly created Office of Special Political Affairs. In 1944, he was secretary to the American delegation to the Dumbarton Oaks Conference. Early in 1945, he was appointed director of the Office of Special Political Affairs and accompanied President Roosevelt to Yalta. He was secretary-general of the San Francisco Conference where the Charter of the United Nations was signed, and it was he who carried the executed copy of the Charter to President Truman in Washington. At the end of 1945, with the title of principal adviser, he accompanied the United States delegation to the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in London. In February 1947, Hiss left government service to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of which John Foster Dulles was chairman of the board.
Given each man's record and asked to choose between the two, I think that any fair-minded person would have taken the word of Alger Hiss. Until August 3, 1948, however, no one needed to make the choice, for Chambers's allegations were unknown to Hiss.5 Things soon changed.
On August 3, 1948, J. Parnell Thomas6 of New Jersey was chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Richard M. Nixon of California was a member, and Robert E. Stripling was the Committee's chief investigator. In the spring of 1948, Stripling had sent two investigators to New York to speak with Chambers. Chambers said that he had been a Communist, that he had broken with the party, and that he did not want to appear before the Committee. Stripling paid no further attention to him until July (immediately after Elizabeth Bentley named several government employees for whom she had been a Communist courier). A subpoena was served on Chambers, and he appeared in executive session on the morning of August 3. At 11:00, the Committee heard him in public. Chambers testified that he had worked for the Communist underground in Washington, attached to a group which included Alger Hiss.
The next morning, the Committee announced that it had received a telegram from Hiss:
My attention has been called by representatives of the press to statements made about me before your Committee this morning by one Whittaker Chambers. I do not know Mr. Chambers and insofar as I am aware have never laid eyes on him. There is no basis for the statements made about me to your Committee. I would appreciate it if you would make this telegram a part of your Committee's record, and I would further appreciate the opportunity to appear before your committee to make these statements formally and under oath.
Hiss testified in public session the following day. This was his prepared statement:
I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 11, 1904. I am here at my own request to deny unqualifiedly various statements about me which were made before this Committee by one Whittaker Chambers the day before yesterday. I appreciate the Committee's having promptly granted my request. I welcome the opportunity to answer to the best of my ability any inquiries the members of this Committee may wish to ask me.
I am not and never have been a member of the Communist party. I do not and never have adhered to the tenets of the Communist party. I am not and never have been a member of any Communist-front organization. I have never followed the Communist party line, directly or indirectly. To the best of my knowledge, none of my friends is a Communist.
As a State Department official, I have had contacts with representatives of foreign governments, some of whom have undoubtedly been members of the Communist party, as, for example, representatives of the Soviet government. My contacts with any foreign representative who could possibly have been a Communist have been strictly official.
To the best of my knowledge, I never heard of Whittaker Chambers until 1947, when two representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation asked me if I knew him and various other people, some of whom I knew and some of whom I did not know. I said I did not know Chambers. So far as I know, I have never laid eyes on him, and I should like to have the opportunity to do so. [Here, Hiss says that Collins, Pressman, Witt, Abt, Kramer, and Perlow, all named by Chambers as members of the Communist group, were nothing more than professional acquaintances of Hiss.]
Except as I have indicated, the statements made about me by Mr. Chambers are complete fabrications. I think my record in the government service speaks for itself.
Stripling showed Hiss an Associated Press photograph of Chambers taken three days before. Hiss said that he could not swear he had “never seen that man. I would like to see him. Then I think I would be better able to tell whether I had ever seen him.” After some additional testimony, Hiss was excused with the Committee's thanks for his cooperation and candor.
On August 7, the Committee examined Chambers in executive session. He confirmed that the Alger Hiss shown in newspaper photographs was the Alger Hiss he had known as a Communist, and went on to describe various personal facts about Hiss and his family. Hiss was interested in ornithology, for example, and had once seen a prothonotary warbler.
On August 16, the Committee examined Hiss in executive session. Shown two different pictures of Chambers taken in the 1930's, Hiss said that he could not “recall any person with distinctness and definiteness whose picture this is, but it is not completely unfamiliar.” He wanted to see the man face to face. After being asked several questions about his children and his wife, Hiss complained “that details of my personal life, which I give honestly, can be used to my disadvantage by Chambers if he knows them.” After further discussion along these lines, the following occurred:
Mr. Hiss: May I say something for the record?
Mr. Nixon: Certainly.
Mr. Hiss: I have written a name on this pad in front of me of a person whom I knew in 1933 and 1934, who not only spent some time in my house but sublet my apartment. . . . If I had not seen the morning papers with an account of statements that he knew the inside of my house, I don't think I would even have thought of this name. I want to see Chambers face to face and see if he can be this individual.
I do not want and I don't think I ought to be asked to testify now that man's name. I have written that name on a piece of paper. I gave that name to two friends of mine before they came to this hearing. Perhaps I am being overanxious about the possibility of unauthorized disclosure of this testimony. But I don't think, in my present frame of mind, it is fair that I be asked to put on record personal facts which, if they came to the ears of someone who, for no reason I can understand, had a desire to injure me, would assist him in that endeavor.
Mr. Nixon: IS this man who spent the time with you in 1933 and 1934 a man with whom you are still acquainted?
Mr. Hiss: He is not. He was not named Carl and not Whittaker Chambers. . . . The name of the man I brought in—and he may have no relation to this whole nightmare—is a man named George Crosley. I met him when I was working for the Nye Committee. He was a writer. He hoped to sell articles to magazines about the munitions industry.
There was more testimony about Hiss's personal life, including ornithology and the prothonotary warbler, ending with arrangements for a confrontation between Hiss and Chambers.
The confrontation took place on the afternoon of August 17, in Suite 1400 of the Hotel Commodore in New York City. Chambers was in the bedroom when Hiss arrived. After Hiss read a statement complaining about news leaks of supposedly secret testimony, Chambers entered.
Mr. Nixon: Sit over here, Mr. Chambers. Mr. Chambers, will you please stand? And will you please stand, Mr. Hiss? Mr. Hiss, the man standing here is Mr. Whittaker Chambers. I ask you now if you have ever known that man before.
Mr. Hiss: May I ask him to speak? Will you ask him to say something?
Mr. Nixon: Yes. Mr. Chambers, will you tell us your name and your business?
Mr. Chambers: My name is Whittaker Chambers.
Mr. Hiss: Would you mind opening your mouth wider?
Mr. Chambers: My name is Whittaker Chambers.
Mr. Hiss: I said, would you open your mouth? You know what I am referring to, Mr. Nixon. Will you go on talking?
Mr. Chambers: I am senior editor of Time magazine.
Mr. Hiss: May I ask whether his voice, when he testified before, was comparable to this?
Mr. Nixon: His voice?
Mr. Hiss: Or did he talk a little more in a lower key?
Mr. McDowell: I would say it is about the same now as we have heard.
Mr. Hiss: Would you ask him to talk a little more?
Mr. Nixon: Read something, Mr. Chambers. I will let you read from—
Mr. Hiss: I think he is George Crosley, but I would like to hear him talk a little longer.
Mr. McDowell: Mr. Chambers, if you would be more comfortable, you may sit down.
Mr. Hiss: Are you George Crosley?
Mr. Chambers: Not to my knowledge. You are Alger Hiss, I believe.
Mr. Hiss: I certainly am.
Mr. Chambers: That was my recollection. (Reading): “Since June”—
Mr. Nixon (interposing): Just one moment. Since some repartee goes on between these two people, I think Mr. Chambers should be sworn.
Mr. Hiss: That is a good idea.
Mr. McDowell: YOU do solemnly swear, sir, that the testimony you shall give this Committee will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
Mr. Chambers: I do.
Mr. Nixon: Mr. Hiss, may I say something? I suggested that he be sworn, and when I say something like that I want no interruptions from you.
Mr. Hiss: Mr. Nixon, in view of what happened yesterday, I think there is no occasion for you to use that tone of voice in speaking to me, and I hope the record will show what I have just said.
Mr. Nixon: The record shows everything that is being said here today.
Mr. Stripling: You were going to read.
Mr. Chambers (reading from Newsweek magazine): “Tobin for Labor. Since June, Harry S. Truman had been peddling the labor secretaryship left vacant by Lewis B. Schwellenbach's death in hope of gaining the maximum political advantage from the appointment.”
Mr. Hiss: May I interrupt?
Mr. McDowell: Yes.
Mr. Hiss: The voice sounds a little less resonant than the voice that I recall of the man I knew as George Crosley. The teeth look to me as though either they have been improved upon or that there has been considerable dental work done since I knew George Crosley, which was some years ago. I believe I am not prepared without further checking to take an absolute oath that he must be George Crosley.
Mr. Nixon: May I ask a question of Mr. Chambers?
Mr. Hiss: I would like to ask Mr. Chambers, if I may.
Mr. Nixon: I will ask the questions at this time. Mr. Chambers, have you had any dental work since 1934 of a substantial nature? Mr. Chambers: Yes; I have.
Mr. Nixon: What type of dental work?
Mr. Chambers: I have had some extractions and a plate.
Mr. Nixon: Have you had any dental work in the front of your mouth?
Mr. Chambers: Yes.
Mr. Nixon: What is the nature of that work?
Mr. Chambers: That is a plate in place of some of the upper dentures.
Mr. Nixon: I see.
Mr. Hiss: Could you ask him the name of the dentist that performed these things? Is that appropriate?
Mr. Nixon: Yes. What is the name?
Mr. Chambers: Dr. Hitchcock, Westminster, Maryland.
Mr. Hiss: That testimony of Mr. Chambers, if it can be believed, would tend to substantiate my feeling that he represented himself to me in 1934 or 1935 or thereabout as George Crosley, a free-lance writer of articles for magazines. I would like to find out from Dr. Hitchcock if what he has just said is true, because I am relying partly, one of my main recollections of Crosley, was the poor condition of his teeth.
Mr. Nixon: Can you describe the condition of your teeth in 1934?
Mr. Chambers: Yes. They were in very bad shape.
Mr. Nixon: The front teeth were?
Mr. Chambers: Yes; I think so.
Mr. Hiss: Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Nixon: Excuse me. Before we leave the teeth. Mr. Hiss, do you feel that you would have to have the dentist tell you what he did to the teeth before you could tell anything about this man?
Mr. Hiss: I would like a few more questions asked. I didn't intend to say anything about this, because I feel very strongly that he is Crosley, but he looks very different in girth and in other appearances—hair, forehead, and so on, particularly the jowls.
* * *
Mr. Hiss: Did you ever go under the name of George Crosley?
Mr. Chambers: Not to my knowledge.
Mr. Hiss: Did you ever sublet an apartment on Twenty-ninth Street [he meant Twenty-eighth Street] from me?
Mr. Chambers: No; I did not.
Mr. Hiss: You did not?
Mr. Chambers: No.
Mr. Hiss: Did you ever spend any time with your wife and child in an apartment on Twenty-ninth Street in Washington when I was not there because I and my family were living on P Street?
Mr. Chambers: I most certainly did.
Mr. Hiss: You did or did not?
Mr. Chambers: I did.
Mr. Hiss: Would you tell me how you reconcile your negative answers with this affirmative answer?
Mr. Chambers: Very easily, Alger. I was a Communist and you were a Communist.
Mr. Hiss: Would you be responsive and continue with your answer?
Mr. Chambers: I do not think it is needed.
Mr. Hiss: That is the answer.
Mr. Nixon: I will help you with the answer, Mr. Hiss. The question, Mr. Chambers, is, as I understand it, that Mr. Hiss cannot understand how you would deny that you were George Crosley and yet admit that you spent time in his apartment. Now would you explain the circumstances? I don't want to put that until Mr. Hiss agrees that is one of his questions.
Mr. Hiss: You have the privilege of asking any questions you want. I think that is an accurate phrasing.
Mr. Nixon: Go ahead.
Mr. Chambers: As I have testified before, I came to Washington as a Communist functionary, a functionary of the American Communist party. I was connected with the underground group of which Mr. Hiss was a member. Mr. Hiss and I became friends. To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Hiss himself suggested that I go there, and I accepted gratefully.
Mr. Hiss: Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Nixon: Just a moment. How long did you stay there?
Mr. Chambers: My recollection was about 3 weeks. It may have been longer. I brought no furniture, I might add.
Mr. Hiss: Mr. Chairman, I don't need to ask Mr. Whittaker Chambers any more questions. I am now perfectly prepared to identify this man as George Crosley.
Mr. Nixon: Would you spell that name.
Mr. Hiss: C-r-o-s-l-e-y.
Mr. Nixon: You are sure of one “s”?
Mr. Hiss: That is my recollection. I have a rather good visual memory, and my recollection of his spelling of his name is C-r-o-s-l-e-y. I don't think that would change as much as his appearance.
Mr. Stripling: You will identify him positively now?
Mr. Hiss: I will on the basis of what he has just said positively identify him without further questioning as George Crosley.
On August 25, Hiss and Chambers testified in public. Hiss identified Chambers as George Crosley, the writer he had met in 1933 or 1934. Chambers identified Hiss as a member of the Communist underground in Washington. And that would have been that—one of the two obviously a liar, no corroboration of either, and thus no possible conviction for perjury7—when, on August 27, Chambers appeared on a radio program, Meet the Press. The first question was, “Are you willing to say now [when your statements are not privileged] that Alger Hiss is or ever was a Communist?” Chambers replied, “Alger Hiss was a Communist and may be now.” One month later. Hiss sued Chambers for libel.
As is customary in civil actions, Hiss's attorney in the libel suit took Chambers's deposition. He asked Chambers, at a session on November 5, 1948, whether Chambers had ever obtained documents from Hiss for transmittal to the Communist party.8 Chambers had not. The examination was then adjourned to November 16. On that day, Chambers's attorney told Hiss's attorney that Chambers was unavailable, and Mrs. Chambers was questioned in his place. On the afternoon of November 17, Chambers appeared. At the trial, Chambers described his activities over the preceding three days as follows:
I went to New York—or I went to Brooklyn to see Nathan Levine, my wife's nephew, to get an envelope in which, as I recalled it, were some handwritten specimens from Mr. Hiss. I remembered giving [Nathan Levine] the envelope; I remembered that there were some typewritten notes. I believe it was in May or June of 1938. I went first [on November 14, 1948] to Mr. Levine's apartment, which is on Sterling Place, and then walked over to his mother's house—no, I am mistaken about that—we drove over to his mother's house. That is the house at 260 Rochester Avenue. We went upstairs, and Mr. Levine stood on the bathtub and reached into an old dumbwaiter shaft, and brought out an envelope which was very dusty, and handed it to me. I took the envelope into the kitchen which was at the end of the little hall from which the bathroom was, and opened it. Mr. Levine came into the kitchen for a moment to get a broom and a dustpan, or something, to clean up the mess he had made in the bathroom. He came back into the kitchen . . . in five or more minutes, I am not quite sure. In the envelope I found . . . three or four handwritten notes, in Mr. Hiss's handwriting, and some 45 pages of typed documents which Mrs. Hiss typed . . . and three cans of film, I believe, and a small cylinder of strip, developed film, two short strips of developed film. I did not appear the following day to continue my deposition. I told Mr. Cleveland, my lawyer, that I would like a day to consider the question of introducing these documents into the pre-trial examination. Mr. Cleveland therefore arranged with Mr. Marbury [Hiss's lawyer] for my wife to depose on the day when I would otherwise have deposed. On November 17, I continued my deposition and gave my lawyer [the notes in Hiss's handwriting and the documents typed by Mrs. Hiss].
These papers were produced at the deposition on the 17th. They were copies or summaries of State Department documents dated in the early months of 1938. Chambers stated that he had received them from Hiss for transmittal to Colonel Bykov, a Soviet agent in the United States.
Chambers's testimony at the trial continued as follows:
The film [photographs of State Department documents] I kept in my house for a few days. I was called to Washington to testify before a Loyalty Board in the State Department, and that morning, as I was about to leave the house—I already had my overcoat on—the telephone rang, and Mr. Stripling of the House Un-American Activities Committee asked me to meet him in Washington that day. When I stepped into Mr. Stripling's office, about two o'clock in the afternoon, he served me with a subpoena duces tecum to bring with me or turn over to the Committee all materials in my possession relative to a list of people who were specified in the subpoena. When I finished in the State Department, I was accompanied home by Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Appell, two investigators of the Committee. At the farm [Chambers's home in Westminster, Maryland] I took them into the kitchen and went out into the yard to get the documents, and get the film. Before I went to Washington that day, I had put the film inside a pumpkin. The investigators for Mr. Hiss had been in and out of my farm and the neighborhood for some time . . . and so I put these documents in a hollow pumpkin. I took these men from the Committee out into the yard. I picked up the pumpkin and took out the documents and handed them over to them. This pumpkin which contained the documents grew naturally at the edge, the far edge of this little patch, and I was able to find it by its position on the edge but by no Euclidean direction. I handed the documents over to the investigators and they left directly thereafter.
When I handed the handwritten and typewritten documents to Mr. Marbury at the deposition, I told him that I had had a twofold purpose in testifying up until that time: one part of the purpose was to destroy or paralyze the Communist conspiracy within the country and the government; the other part of my purpose was to do as little injury as possible to the human beings involved in that conspiracy.
I pointed out that in my own case a kind of grace had been given me to find the strength to break and time had been given me in which to work out a new life.
I pointed out that in breaking with the Communist party that time is a most essential factor. Therefore I had wanted to give these people some of the same opportunity which had been given me. But I had now been forced into a position where I had no choice but to introduce those documents into evidence. I had previously testified both in the House Committee and the grand jury that I had no evidence of espionage, and what I have just said is the reason why I so testified. After the introduction of the documents [at Baltimore on November 17], I went before the grand jury and told about these espionage activities. I added in the grand jury that in disclosing the conspiracy, some damage was inevitably done to the people involved, people mentioned by me, but that there was a distinction, at least in my mind, between disclosing the ultimate perfidy, by which I mean espionage, and merely disclosing the fact that these people were Communists.
I further said to the grand jury that, I think in general, there are two kinds of men; the one kind that believes God is a God of justice and the other kind believes that God is a God of mercy, and I am so constituted that I will always range myself on the side of mercy.
Hiss's response to Chambers's assertions is contained in a statement he gave to the FBI on December 4, 1948. It reads in part as follows:
On the afternoon of November 17, 1948, in the course of the pre-trial examination, Mr. Chambers introduced 56 letter-sized pages of typewritten material and four small sheets of paper bearing handwritten material. For simplification, hereafter in this statement the 65 pages will be referred to as the large documents and the four smaller pages as the small documents.
* * *
With reference to the large documents, I would say from a cursory examination of them that they appear to be authentic copies of United States State Department documents or summaries of such documents. From the date standpoint, these documents appear to be restricted to a period extending from about January to March 1938. At that time I was assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State, the Honorable Francis B. Sayre. Documents similar to these normally passed over my desk for perusal prior to being referred to Mr. Sayre. I do not have any independent recollection of having seen any of these documents or the documents summarized while I was in the employ of the State Department. By and large, these do not appear to be documents of a very highly confidential nature, and would not have been treated in the State Department with any special precautions at that time, according to security regulations in effect then.
With reference to the smaller documents, three of the four pages appear to be in my handwriting. The fourth page, consisting of five handwritten lines, may or may not be in my handwriting, but it does not look to me as if it were.
I have learned from talking with Mr. Mar-bury and from reading the above-mentioned deposition that Mr. Chambers claimed these documents and others like them were obtained by me from the State Department, and that I took them to my home, where typewritten copies of the larger documents were made on a typewriter in my home by either my wife or me. Chambers claimed that I then returned the documents to the State Department files. The agents have told me that Mr. Chambers claims that on some occasions I turned over the actual State Department documents to him, upon which he would have photographic copies made in a manner unknown to me, and then would return the original documents to me for replacement in the files of the State Department.
I deny that any of the above claims of Mr. Chambers is true. I also deny that I ever gave the originals of the small documents to Mr. Chambers at any time for any purpose whatsoever.
From Mr. Marbury and the deposition, I have also learned that Chambers claims he introduced me to a Russian named Peter, whom he claims later to have discovered was Colonel Bykov. Chambers claims that this meeting took place on the mezzanine floor of a movie theater in Brooklyn, New York. Chambers claims that after the meeting, the three of us took a long walk and that during the conversation while walking, Colonel Bykov asked me if I could obtain documents for him from the files of the State Department. Chambers claims that I agreed to cooperate in this regard with this Colonel Bykov and that as a result of this oral agreement I later produced the documents mentioned above. I deny that any of these claims of Chambers is true. I have never met and had never heard of any Russian named Peter or Colonel Bykov until I was told of the testimony given by Mr. Chambers.
On December 15, 1948, Hiss was called before a grand jury sitting in the United States Court House, Foley Square, Manhattan. Asked whether he had ever given government documents to Chambers, he said no. Asked whether he had ever seen Chambers after the winter of 1936, he said no. That afternoon, the grand jury handed up an indictment charging Hiss with two counts of perjury.9 Each of his denials, the grand jury alleged, was false.
The case of Alger Hiss went to trial on May 31, 1949, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York before Judge Samuel H. Kaufman and a jury. Thomas F. Murphy represented the government, Lloyd Paul Stryker10 the defendant. The trial lasted until July 8, 1949, when the jury reported itself deadlocked and was discharged. The final vote had been eight to four in favor of conviction.
The retrial began on November 17, 1949, before Judge Henry W. Goddard and a jury. Murphy again represented the government; Claude Cross of Boston now represented Hiss. Because both sides wanted to appear to the jury to be holding nothing back, to present every person they could find whose life had touched Chambers's or Hiss's, no matter how tangentially, the witnesses numbered one hundred and twelve.
The case may well have been overtried. The story was essentially simple, be it the government's or the defendant's, and the verdict turned on only one thing—the jury's assessment of the credibility of the two protagonists, Chambers and Hiss. As we shall see, most of the “corroborating” witnesses on both sides in fact corroborated nothing. The documentation, however, was a different matter entirely.
This was the substance of Chambers's testimony:
In 1934, while in Washington as a member of the Communist underground, Chambers was introduced to Alger Hiss at a downtown restaurant by Harold Ware (organizer of a Communist apparatus in Washington) and J. Peters (“head of the whole underground of the American Communist party”). Peters stated that Hiss “was to be disconnected from [Ware's] apparatus” and “was to become a member of a parallel organization” under Chambers.
At the time, Hiss was counsel to the Nye Committee, and his first assignment in the new organization was to obtain official documents dealing with the munitions traffic. He did so.
In 1936, Hiss entered the State Department. In January 1937, Chambers arranged a clandestine meeting among himself, Hiss, and Colonel Bykov, Chambers's superior in the underground. At this meeting, Bykov stated that Russia was endangered by the Fascist powers and that Hiss “could greatly help if he would procure documents from the State Department.” Hiss said that he would. He began to bring documents home every week or ten days. Chambers would pick them up, take them to Baltimore for photographing, and return the originals the same night. This proved unsatisfactory, in that “just the documents of a single day” were obtained. In the middle of 1937, Chambers instructed Hiss to change the practice—“to have the papers brought out every night, or approximately every night and some of them typed as nearly verbatim as possible and some of them paraphrased.” This was done. The typist was Mrs. Hiss.
In addition to the typed copies, Hiss would turn over to Chambers the originals of those documents which came to hand on the day of a visit from Chambers, as well as handwritten notes “about documents which had passed under his eyes quickly and which, for some reason, he was unable to bring out.” Everything was photographed. Chambers then returned the original documents to Hiss, burned the typed copies and handwritten notes, and delivered the photographs to Bykov.
On April 15, 1938, Chambers broke with the Communist party and ceased his espionage activities. He retained some of the papers and exposed film which Hiss had given him earlier in the year. Sealed in an envelope, he delivered them to Nathan Levine for safekeeping.
Apart from the covert relationship between them, Chambers and Hiss and their families saw each other frequently and intimately. They stayed in each other's homes and took out-of-town trips together.
This was the substance of Hiss's testimony:
In December 1934, or January 1935, Hiss was counsel to the Nye Committee. Chambers came to see him, introducing himself as George Crosley, a free-lance writer of articles on the munitions investigation. At one of several subsequent luncheon meetings, Chambers (as Crosley) told Hiss that he was planning to come to Washington for a few months to complete his articles, and was looking for a place to live with his wife and child. The Hisses had recently moved from an apartment at 2831 28th Street, Washington, to a house at 2905 P Street, and Hiss had the balance of the apartment lease at his disposal. Accordingly, he sublet the apartment to Chambers.
When the time came for him to move in, Chambers said that the furniture van had been delayed. Hiss thereupon allowed the Chamberses to live for a few days with the Hisses in the P Street house. Chambers later moved into the apartment. He never paid the rent, however, and he and Hiss met only a few more times. The last meeting was in the spring of 1936, when Hiss refused Chambers's request for the latest in a series of small loans.
The Hisses never visited the Chamberses. The Chamberses never visited the Hisses except for the brief time the two families spent together in the P Street house. There were no trips together except for one occasion when Hiss gave Chambers a ride from Washington to New York City.
Hiss had never been a Communist. He had never given State Department documents to Chambers. His loyalty and devotion to the interests of the United States were known to a large number of persons of unquestionable integrity.
In studying the evidence at the second trial, it has struck me that a reasonable juror trying to determine where the truth lay would consider ten points.
First, Chambers's familiarity with Hiss's personal life. This has figured large in later writing about the case. How could Chambers know that Hiss once saw a prothonotary warbler, for instance, unless his story were true? The answer, I think, is that Chambers's knowledge of Hiss's personal life is irrelevant. Chambers's ability to recount the homely details of daily existence in the Hiss household does nothing to prove the grand jury's charge, which, one must keep in mind, was perjury: that Hiss had lied about delivering official documents to Chambers. Since by Hiss's own testimony he and Chambers had been acquainted, with the Chambers family once spending a few days as house guests of the Hisses, Chambers's knowledge of personal details was understandable and perfectly consistent with Hiss's innocence.
Second, the testimony of the “corroborating” witnesses. As stated earlier, both sides seem to have called every possible witness who might have buttressed or contradicted one story or the other. This evidence amounts to very little. Three examples:
Chambers said that, in 1934 or 1935, while lunching with Hiss at a Georgetown restaurant, Hiss had introduced him to a woman named Plum Fountain. Hiss said that it never happened. Mrs. Olivia Fountain Tesone testified that her nickname was “Plum” and that she knew Hiss but had no recollection of ever meeting or seeing Chambers. So what? If Chambers were telling the truth, it is hardly remarkable that Mrs. Tesone would fail to remember a passing introduction some fourteen years after it occurred. And if Chambers were lying, he might have heard Hiss once mention his friend, Plum Fountain, and simply retained the name for future use.
Chambers said that, on August 10, 1937, he and the Hisses took an automobile trip to Peterboro, New Hampshire, where they saw a production of She Stoops to Conquer and stayed overnight at an inn called Bleak House. The Hisses denied it all. The prosecution proved that She Stoops to Conquer was performed by a local company in Peterboro on August 10 and that Hiss's employment records showed him on annual leave from August 2 to August 14. The defense proved that the Bleak House guest book contained no registration for Chambers or the Hisses under their own or any other name. The evidence is equal, then. It corroborates each man in part and positively proves the truthfulness of neither.
Hiss said that the Hisses never visited the Chamberses. In 1936, the Chamberses were living in an apartment on Eutaw Place, Baltimore, under the name “Cantwell.” Mrs. Edith Murray was their maid. She was called as a government witness and testified on direct examination that Mrs. Hiss was a frequent visitor to the Cantwell home, on one occasion accompanied by Mr. Hiss. On another occasion, Mrs. Hiss stayed the night to care for the Chamberses child while Mrs. Chambers went to New York for a doctor's appointment. This seems powerful, especially since the Hisses denied any such events. But on cross-examination, Mrs. Murray testified that, before coming to the courthouse and identifying Mr. and Mrs. Hiss, she had been shown photographs of them by the FBI. To Mrs. Hiss's picture, her first response was, “It looked like—I thought maybe it was an actress or something . . . I said to myself maybe it was in the movies.” To Alger Hiss's picture, Mrs. Murray's first response was, “It looked like I had seen him, but I told [the FBI] I wasn't sure . . . I told [the FBI] I did not know.” Further, it developed that Mrs. Murray had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1942 and that, before testifying, the FBI had taken her to Chambers's farm for a three-hour conversation with him. I do not know whether Mrs. Murray's testimony was false11: I doubt that any juror would be persuaded by it.
Third, Chambers's testimony about other persons. Chambers named several persons other than Hiss as part of the Communist underground in Washington—Julian Wadleigh, Donald Hiss, Lee Pressman, Nathan Witt, John Abt, etc. One, Wadleigh, admitted it. He testified at the trial that he had given government documents to Chambers but knew nothing about Hiss's activities. Another, Donald Hiss, denied it. The others wouldn't say. They were called before HUAC in 1948 and declined to testify on the ground of self-incrimination. In 1950, after the trial, Pressman told a HUAC hearing that he had been a member of Harold Ware's Communist group in Washington and that Hiss was not a member. The jury at the second trial had only Wadleigh's admission and Donald Hiss's denial. They cancel each other, and since in any event neither of them was able to shed any light on the relations between Chambers and Alger Hiss, I think the entire matter of little relevance. The question, really, is not whether Chambers told the truth about Wadleigh, et al. It is whether he told the truth about Hiss.
Fourth, Hiss's character. Nineteen persons of great eminence testified to Hiss's reputation for loyalty, honesty, and veracity. In his summation, Cross urged:
Mr. Hiss has been in government service; he has been with the Carnegie Foundation; and everyone who has taken that stand as a character witness has told you of the high respect in which he is held. . . . Something may be said by Mr. Murphy about character witnesses, that anyone can get character witnesses. Maybe they could before the facts are out, but after all the newspaper publicity since August of 1948, since the first trial, you can rely upon the fact that every witness in that chair who testified to the character of Alger Hiss believed in his innocence or he would not have been in that chair.
Mr. Murphy in summation did say something about character witnesses:
What else is extraordinary? The defendant has called nineteen character witnesses, more than one-third the number of his total witnesses, and they have testified to his reputation for integrity, loyalty and honesty, veracity. They have told you what the gossip is that they have heard, the accumulation of gossip over the years that they have known him and what that is. Most of them said his reputation was good. . . .
I ask you ladies and gentlemen what kind of a reputation did a good spy have? Of course it must be good. The fox barks not when he goes to steal the lamb. It has to be good. But we are here on a search for truth. We are not concerned with reputations. Poppycock.
Just think how many people could call good reputation witnesses. Just think. Benedict Arnold, a major general in our army—a major general—and he sold out West Point to the enemy. Before they caught Major André right up here in Tarrytown don't you believe that Major General Benedict Arnold could call George Washington? Couldn't he call all of the members of the General Staff, one of their men?
And Brutus: before he stabbed Caesar don't you think he could have stood in front of the Roman Senate and called upon the great Augustus and said, “Tell him what a man I am.”
And Judge Manton, he had character witnesses. You might recall one of the character witnesses who testified in this trial was one of his.
And lastly the devil himself. You remember that story that Mr. Chambers wrote. The devil was a fallen angel and before he was thrown out of Heaven he was in the sight of God. He could have called upon the Almighty himself for his reputation.
Ladies and gentlemen, character witnesses belong to another era. This is the age of reason. This is the age of common people. And what we want are facts. We are here, you are here, Judge Goddard is here to ascertain the facts. We don't want gossip.
There is no answer to this. The evidence of Hiss's reputation comes to nothing one way or the other.12
Fifth, Chambers's mental state. The defense proposed to call a psychiatrist to give his professional opinion of Chambers's mental state. Murphy objected:
This is the first time in the history of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence that the testimony of a psychiatrist is being admitted to impeach the credibility of a mere witness, when there has not been one scintilla of proof indicating that the witness, Mr. Whittaker Chambers, has had any institutional confinement or treatment by a doctor other than for his teeth and heart. . . .
Cross argued that the outcome of the trial depended upon the jury's determination of Chambers's credibility and that the psychiatrist's opinion might well help the jury come to a conclusion on the matter. Judge Goddard agreed: he would allow the testimony.13
Dr. Carl Binger took the stand. An alumnus of Harvard College and of the Harvard Medical School, he had studied psychiatry at Heidelberg and Zurich and presently was associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the Cornell Medical School. He had never met Chambers, but he had observed his testimony, he had read many of his writings, and he had been told the facts of Chambers's life, upon the basis of all of which he had “an opinion within the bounds of reasonable certainty as to the mental condition of Whittaker Chambers.”
What was it? “I think Mr. Chambers is suffering from a condition known as psychopathic personality, which is a disorder of character, of which the outstanding features are behavior of what we call an amoral or an asocial and delinquent nature.” Among the symptoms of the condition are “chronic, persistent, and repetitive lying . . . and a tendency to make false accusations.”
Murphy's cross-examination of Dr. Binger is famous among trial lawyers. It runs some 190 pages, of which this is one:
Q. Doctor, when you testified the other day on direct examination you made these statements—I am reading from page 3686—the question was in relation to what you had observed at the last trial of Mr. Chambers as a witness when you were here those five or six days, and the question was:
Q. What did you observe bout Mr. Chambers when you saw him in court at the first trial and here?
A. May I say that I would not attempt to make a diagnosis of psychopathic personality purely on the observation of a person. . . . [But] there are certain confirmatory things that I did see. Q. Will you tell us what they were? A. Well, he sat in this chair or in a similar one, and he apparently had very little relationship with the inquirer. He frequently looked up at the ceiling as if trying to recall something that he had previously said.
Now, Doctor, we made a count this morning of the number of times that you looked at the ceiling, and during the first ten minutes you looked at the ceiling 19 times; the next 15 minutes 20 times; and the next 15 minutes 10 times; and the following 10 minutes 10 times, making a total in 50 minutes of 59 times, and I was wondering, Doctor, whether that had any symptoms of a psychopathic personality? A. Not alone.
A. Not alone.
Q. Not alone?
It was good sport, and when the jury retired to deliberate, I doubt that Dr. Binger's testimony played any part at all.
Sixth, the time of Chambers's break with the Communist party. In his conversation with Raymond Murphy of the State Department on August 28, 1946, and again in his testimony before HUAC, Chambers fixed the time of his break as the end of 1937. At the trial, he said it was April 15, 1938. The difference is crucial. Most of the government documents which Chambers produced at the Baltimore deposition or turned over to HUAC are dated in 1938 (none later than April 1). If Chambers had left the party in 1937, he could not have obtained the documents from Hiss in the manner he described. If he had left the party on April 15, 1938, he could have.
The only explanation offered by Chambers was that his earlier statements had been mistaken and that, when he came to testify at the trial, his memory was more accurate. Considering that his break with Communism was perhaps the most important event of his life, I find Chambers's fuzziness of recollection somewhat difficult to accept (and so, I think, might the jury). Were there nothing else to support his testimony, the verdict would have to be for Hiss. The government must prove the charge, remember, beyond a reasonable doubt. But there is a great deal else to support Chambers's testimony.
Seventh, the rug. Chambers testified that, a short time before the clandestine meeting among himself, Hiss, and Bykov, he had been given money by Bykov for the purchase of four Oriental rugs, one of which was to be presented to Hiss as “a gift from the Soviet people in recognition of the work of the American Communists.” Chambers sent the money to a friend from his days at Columbia, Professor Meyer Schapiro, asking Schapiro to buy the rugs and send them to a George Silverman in Washington. In January 1937, behind a restaurant on the Washington-Baltimore road, Chambers carried one of the rugs from Silverman's car to Hiss's, and Hiss drove away with it.
Hiss, on the other hand, testified that, in the winter or spring of 1936, Chambers came to Hiss with a rug which he said a wealthy patron had given him. Hiss took the rug as part-payment of Chambers's rent on the 28th Street apartment.
Professor Schapiro testified that, on December 23, 1936, with money given him by Chambers and at Chambers's request, he bought four Oriental rugs from the Massachusetts Importing Company for $876.71. The government put into evidence a Massachusetts Importing Company shipping order. It shows that the company delivered the rugs to Schapiro's home on December 29, 1936. A few days later, Schapiro testified, he sent the rugs to a man named Silverman in Washington. Cross had no cross-examination.
Chambers's account of how he acquired the rugs is patently true. Professor Schapiro's word was not questioned; and where would Chambers have obtained $876.71 in 1936 if not from Bykov? Equally clear is Hiss's receipt of a rug from Chambers. They disagree only on circumstances. I think it would take a very gullible jury to accept Hiss's version.
Eighth, Chambers's purchase of a car. On November 23, 1937, Chambers bought a Ford four-door sedan from the Schmidt Motor Company in Randallstown, Maryland, trading in his old car, a 1934 Ford sedan, and paying $486.75. How did Chambers get the cash? According to Chambers, he talked with the Hisses:
I said that I wished to buy a car; that Colonel Bykov was opposed to my using a car, but that a car was very necessary in the work I was doing; and either Mr. Hiss or Mrs. Hiss then offered me [$400].
If this is true, if Hiss did give Chambers $400 in November 1937, then Hiss's assertion that he last saw Chambers in the spring of 1936 is false, and a jury might rationally go on to conclude that the rest of Hiss's testimony is also false.
Mr. and Mrs. Hiss had a joint savings account at the Riggs National Bank in Washington. The bank's records show a withdrawal of $400 on November 19, 1937, four days before Chambers bought the car.
The Hisses shrugged it off as a coincidence. They had withdrawn the $400 to buy furniture for their new house. But the government proved that the lease on the new house was not signed until December 2 at the earliest and that the Hisses had charge accounts at various department stores as well as a checking account, thereby making cash purchases unnecessary.
If the $400 withdrawal was a coincidence, it goes beyond any I would ever expect a jury to believe.
Ninth, Hiss's transfer of a car. In 1935 and part of 1936, Hiss owned a 1929 Ford. According to Chambers, Hiss gave him the use of it. “I used it to drive around Washington and I once drove from Smithtown . . . to Washington in it.” Chambers knew what had happened to the car. Hiss “proposed to turn the car over to the open Communist party [as distinguished from the underground apparatus] for the use of some poor organizer.” Chambers talked with J. Peters about Hiss's plan, and told Hiss “that Peters had agreed, although reluctantly, to have it turned over to the open party.” Later, Chambers said, Hiss reported “that he had turned the car over according to an arrangement made between him and Peters.”
Before HUAC, Hiss testified that he “sold” the car to Chambers. At the trial, Hiss said that he threw it in with the 28th Street apartment he had sublet to Chambers. Sometime in the early spring of 1936, Chambers took the car “for good,” and Hiss never saw it again.
Here is what the documents show. The car's certificate of title bears an assignment of title filled out in Hiss's handwriting. The assignee is Cherner Motor Company (a large Ford agency in Washington), and Hiss's signature is verified by W. Marvin Smith, a notary public, on July 23, 1936. Smith was a lawyer in the Justice Department with Hiss.
The dealer's reassignment form on the certificate of title was executed on July 23, 1936, by Cherner Motor Company. William Rosen is the assignee. Rosen's signature appears on the purchaser's application for a new certificate of title.
Cherner's invoices for July 22, 23, and 24, 1936, run consecutively with none missing. There is no invoice for the Hiss-to-Cherner-to-Rosen transaction.
I don't see how a jury, presented with these documents, could disbelieve Chambers. As Chambers had said, Hiss arranged to give the car to a Communist party worker; and someone helpful to the Communists at the Cherner Motor Company handled the transfer without entering it on the company's books.
William Rosen was called as a government witness. Asked whether he had been a member of the Communist party in 1936 and whether he had any connection with Hiss's car, he declined to answer on the ground of self-incrimination.
Tenth, the papers—photographs Chambers had concealed in the pumpkin and pencil memoranda and typewritten copies disclosed at the Baltimore deposition.
The photographs were in two rolls of developed microfilm containing a total of 58 frames and constituting eight documents, five memoranda about negotiations for a trade agreement with Germany, and three incoming cables. Almost all show on their face that they were received in Sayre's office, and Hiss's initials appear on the cables. The latest is dated January 13, 1938. The government proved that the 58 frames had been exposed at the same time with a camera owned by Felix Inslerman, Chambers's chief photographer, on film manufactured by Kodak in 1937. Chambers said the source of the documents was Hiss; Hiss denied it; and no independent evidence pointed either way. But it was at least possible that Chambers had a source other than Hiss, for Wadleigh admitted turning over government papers to Chambers, and Chambers “without mentioning names . . . made it abundantly clear” to Wadleigh that Chambers “had other sources inside of the State Department,” and thus the jury might well have found itself unable to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Hiss rather than Wadleigh or someone else was the source of the microfilmed documents.
There were four pencil memoranda summarizing State Department cables, each in Hiss's hand-writing.14 The earliest is dated January 28, 1938, and the latest March 11, 1938. Two of them are on “Office of the Assistant Secretary of State” letterheads with the printed legend torn off. The other two are on common scratch paper. All are creased as if they had been folded in half. None is crumpled. Chambers testified that these memoranda were made by Hiss when he was unable to take documents out of the office. Hiss testified that they were made for his own use in briefing Sayre and then either thrown away or filed with the cables they summarized. Again, there is no independent evidence to show that Hiss gave the memoranda to Chambers. Perhaps Chambers found them in a wastepaper basket. Perhaps someone stole them and gave them to Chambers. Perhaps Hiss prepared them for use in briefing Sayre, as he said, but then passed them on to Chambers, as Chambers said; and one wonders why, if they were thrown away, they are neatly folded rather than crumpled. On balance, though, I think a jury would decide that Chambers's story had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
Finally, the 43 typewritten papers, each a copy or a summary of a State Department document dated between January 5, 1938, and April 1, 1938. Chambers testified that they had been typed by the Hisses and given to him for transmittal to Bykov. The Hisses denied it. And so we have the question at the heart of the case: were these papers typed on the Hiss typewriter?
The FBI interviewed Hiss on December 4, 1948, a few days after Chambers produced the papers in Baltimore. This was Hiss's statement about the typewriter:
During the period from about June 1, 1936, to about January 1938, I resided with my family at 1245 30th Street, N.W., and subsequent thereto, until sometime in 1943, at 3415 Volta Place, N.W., both Washington, D. C. During the period from 1936 to sometime after 1938, we had a typewriter in our home in Washington. This was an old-fashioned machine, possibly an Underwood, but I am not at all certain regarding the make. Mrs. Hiss, who is not a typist, used this machine somewhat as an amateur typist, but I never recall having used it. Possibly samples of Mrs. Hiss's typing on this machine are in existence, but I have not located any to date, but will endeavor to do so. Mrs. Hiss disposed of this typewriter to either a secondhand typewriter concern or a secondhand dealer in Washington, D. C, sometime subsequent to 1938, exact date or place unknown. The whereabouts of this typewriter is presently unknown to me. Prior to this typewriter coming into the possession of my immediate family, it was the property of Mr. Thomas Fansler, Mrs. Hiss's father, who was in the insurance business in Philadelphia. Mr. Fansler lived the later years of his life on Walnut Street in Philadelphia, but is now deceased, having died in the early 1940's.
Hiss was mistaken about the typewriter's make. It was a Woodstock, not an Underwood.
Mrs. Hiss testified before the grand jury that she had given the typewriter to a junkman. She had not. She had given it to her maid, Mrs. Catlett, for use by the Catlett sons. If the Hisses had kept it through 1938, as Hiss said at first, it was in their possession in the early months of 1938, when according to Chambers, the documents were typed. The Hisses later corrected their testimony and said they gave the typewriter to Mrs. Catlett in December 1937.
In any event, the FBI had not found the Wood-stock as of the time of the first trial. Even so, the government was able to prove that it was the machine on which the documents had been typed.
Every typewriter's type is, like a fingerprint, unique. Given a known sample and a questioned sample, an expert compares the two. If they are identical, the questioned sample was typed on the machine which typed the known sample. If they are different, the samples were typed on separate machines. The FBI found a 1937 report to the Bryn Mawr alumnae association concededly typed by Mrs. Hiss on the Woodstock. It was compared with the State Department documents, and they were identical. The FBI expert said so. Cross told the jury that the defense experts said so too.
Where was the Woodstock? It had passed from the Catletts to several other people. In early 1949, one of Hiss's lawyers, Edward C. McLean, tracked it down.15 He produced it at the first trial and offered it as a defense exhibit. It has become notorious, but we see that it played almost no part in the proof. Nothing would have changed had the Woodstock never been found. It was by comparison with Mrs. Hiss's concededly authentic alumnae report, not by comparison with the machine McLean brought to court, that the authenticity of the State Department documents was established.
Chambers said that the documents were typed by the Hisses, and the experts agreed that they were typed on the Hisses' Woodstock. Hiss had no reason other than espionage to prepare them. Chambers could have had them from no hand but Hiss's. Evidence doesn't come any clearer than that, and this, from Cross's summation, was the defense explanation:
I say, well, how did Chambers know about that? How did he get it? Anybody? He did not do it himself, you can bet your life on that. He gets through confederates, anybody who can get through confederates and steal top-secret documents from the State Department would not have much trouble locating a big office typewriter. Now I can suggest there might be several ways. I can suggest a way that he could have easily found out. Suppose someone had called up, or come over, when he knew the Hisses weren't there, and asked [the maid] saying that they were a typewriter repair man and had come to repair the Woodstock typewriter. What would she have said? “Why, they have given it to my boys.” He wouldn't have much difficulty locating [the maid's] place, and with that open house, with the cellar there, I mean the closet; with all the people coming and going, all the people living there, and their friends, and the dances and all. How easy. Am I talking through my hat?
Murphy answers in his summation as follows:
Now, let us get back to the theory No. 103 as to who did it. This is No. 103. And how was it proved? Well, you start off with the fact that the Catletts had the typewriter, and here is a picture of their hall. You see how these two things follow. The Catletts had it. Here is the hall where they used to keep it. Here is the picture of the back entrance. You see all that space back there, people come in and out there all the time. Then there is the den, then there are the dancers.
Now, what probably happened, Mr. Cross testified, is that somebody, not Chambers—he is too smart, but one of his conspirators, one of his confederates—those are good names, “conspirators,” “confederates”—he went up to the Volta Place house and asked innocent Clidi Catlett, “I am the repair man. Where is the machine?”
I can just see it now. It's terrific. You can have this guy coming with a Woodstock hat on, “Woodstock Repair,” with a jumper, “Woodstock,” ringing the bell—no, it isn't a bell, you have to pull that one, I think—and saying to Mrs. Catlett, “I am the repair man to fix the typewriter”
Then Clidi says, “Well, which one do you want? The Remington, the Royal, the L.C. Smith? Which one?”
No. We want the Woodstock.
Oh, that's over in my boy's house, over at P Street.
And then the next scene, it is the middle of one of these dances. And you see Chambers sneaking in at night, mingling with the dancers, and then typing, typing the stuff, holding the State Department document in one hand—
Oh, Mr. Cross, you've got to do better than that.
Before he was sentenced, Hiss said to Judge Goddard, “In the future, the full facts of how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter will be disclosed.” This disclosure was attempted in 1952. Hiss made a motion for a new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence. The main item of newly discovered evidence was “that the typewriter found and produced by the defense in the belief that it was the original Hiss machine was in fact a carefully constructed substitute, which could only have been fabricated for the deliberate purpose of falsely incriminating Alger Hiss [by forgery of the typewritten documents].”
It took a technician employed by the defense one year to build a duplicate Woodstock, and the result was imperfect at that. Obviously, Chambers could not have built one himself. Defense counsel's single thought as to who might have done it was that Chambers knew “people who were skilled in doing the kind of thing the Communist party does.” I don't think he meant that the Communists had framed Hiss, although Judge Goddard and Murphy took the remark to mean just that. I think he meant the federal government, and specifically the FBI, which surely is “skilled in doing the kind of thing the Communist party does.” If I am correct, Hiss was claiming that the FBI had framed him. Apart from the question of motive, there are two powerful reasons not to believe it.
First, assume that the FBI made a counterfeit Woodstock. Then it was the very machine discovered by McLean and produced by the defense at the trial; that is to say, the FBI planted it for Hiss to find after using it to forge the documents which prove Hiss's guilt. Why? Not to show that Chambers's papers were typed on it: that was done by comparison with Mrs. Hiss's alumnae report. To leave the counterfeit Woodstock lying about for the defense to pick up and examine would serve only to expose the whole scheme to the risk of discovery—and for no reason. An FBI bright enough to forge typewritten documents is bright enough to destroy the instrument of forgery as soon as it has done its work.
Second, no FBI agent would fabricate a typewriter and forge documents without the approval of some higher-up. In the 1940's and 1950's, the FBI had only one higher-up, J. Edgar Hoover. Assuming that Hoover was disposed to give his consent, he would not have shouldered the responsibility himself. Consummate bureaucrat that he was, Hoover needed someone still higher to whom to pass the buck should the imposture come to light. In view of Hoover's position and the enormity of the fraud, that could only be one person—President Truman. If Truman had authorized the forgery, his public position on the prosecution would have been either silence or approval. Yet from the beginning, Truman called the HUAC hearings “a red herring.” At his first press conference after the disclosure of Chambers's possession of State Department documents and the indictment of Hiss, Truman was asked whether he still thought the case a red herring. He did.
The conviction was returned on January 21, 1950. Judge Goddard sentenced Hiss to five years' imprisonment. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed, and the Supreme Court declined to review the case. In March 1951, Hiss went to jail. A year later, Judge Goddard denied Hiss's motion for a new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari.
This was no mere contest of oaths: Three things—the evidence of the rug, of Hiss's $400 loan to Chambers, and of the transfer of Hiss's car to William Rosen—prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Chambers's account of their relationship, not Hiss's, was true. One thing—the evidence of the typed State Department papers—proves beyond any reasonable doubt that, when Hiss denied to the grand jury that he had ever given official documents to Chambers, he was lying. Twenty out of twenty-four jurors have been sure of his guilt, and they were right.
1 I have adapted the phrase from Alistair Cooke's book about the case, A Generation on Trial.
2 do not except Earl Jowitt, a distinguished English lawyer, who says several times in his The Strange Case of Alger Hiss that much about the way the case was tried is foreign to him.
3 What follows is the recitation, moderately edited, of Chambers's life contained in a question asked by Hiss's lawyer of Dr. Binger, a witness at the second trial. For more nuanced pictures of Chambers, see Chambers's autobiography, Witness, and Lionel Trilling's recreation of Chambers as Gifford Maxim in The Middle of the Journey, written before Trilling had heard anything about the Hiss case.
4 This is Hiss's curriculum vitae as narrated by him from the witness stand.
5 Sometime in 1947, Hiss had been asked by the FBI whether he knew various people, Chambers among them. Hiss said that he did not know Chambers. Perhaps this explains the curious bit of testimony by Donald Hiss, Alger's brother, that in June of 1947, Alger had told him that he (Alger) might need a lawyer.
6 Later convicted and sent to jail for padding his Congressional payroll.
7 A perjury conviction may not be obtained in a case of one man's testimony against another's. Corroborating evidence is required.
8 One might speculate why Hiss had the temerity to sue and to allow his lawyer to ask this question, if he really had given papers to Chambers. As to the suit, Hiss's need to save his reputation, the likelihood that any judge or jury would prefer him to Chambers, and the failure of Chambers to produce any corroborating evidence at the HUAC hearings, would have led Hiss, I think, to risk everything on the outcome of a libel action. Oscar Wilde had done the same. As to the question, one of the purposes of a deposition is to “pin the witness down.” The lawyer asking the question already knows what the answer will be; he asks it to insure that the witness will not later testify to something else. Since HUAC had asked nothing about espionage, Hiss could be confident that Chambers had made no such accusation. That being so, it was good practice to pin Chambers down to a denial that Hiss had ever given him documents.
9 The statute of limitations had run out on espionage.
10 Stryker was one of the celebrated courtroom performers of his generation. It is rumored among lawyers that, before the trial began, Judge Jerome Frank of the Court of Appeals (who had been the general counsel of the AAA for which Hiss worked when he first went to Washington) urged Stryker to waive a jury and let Judge Kaufman decide the case. “I can't,” Stryker replied. “It would be like a ball player going to bat with one hand tied behind his back.”
11 In his 1952 motion for a new trial, Hiss presented the affidavit of a man who attested that the Cantwells (Chamberses) employed no maid at Eutaw Place.
12 In his charge, Judge Goddard told the jury that “evidence of good character may, in itself, create a reasonable doubt where, without such evidence, no reasonable doubt would exist.”
13 In the first trial, Judge Kaufman had excluded it.
14 The envelope Chambers retrieved from Nathan Le-vine also contained a memorandum in the handwriting of Harry Dexter White.
15 McLean, like Murphy, became a federal judge in the Southern District of New York. They completed their careers as colleagues.