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Written and Narrated by John W. Berresford

The Hiss-Chambers case gripped the nation in 1948 and still provokes controversy. Take a deep factual dive into the story of two brilliant, fascinating men, sensational Congressional hearings, spy documents hidden in a dumbwaiter shaft and a pumpkin, the trial of the century, and the launch of Richard Nixon’s career.

Is Hiss guilty, or innocent? Email John with your comments at John_Berresford@comcast.net . We'll announce the vote progress here as the series develops.  Meantime, follow along with the chapter notes under the "about" tab.  

About

 
John W. Berresford is a retired attorney and law professor living in Arlington, Virginia.  Born in New York City, he began studying Russian in high school, spent a month in the USSR in 1967, and majored in Russian at Washington University in St. Louis.  One subject that came to interest him was the appeal that communism had to supposedly intelligent and discerning minds in the West, both in the 1930s and in the 1960s.  While studying in his senior year at the University of East Anglia in England, he stumbled onto a book about the Hiss-Chambers Case by Alistair Cooke; a subscription to The National Review yielded him a book of Chambers’ letters; several relatives turned out to have attended the trials and known some people involved on Hiss’s side; and his law school years (also at Washington U) immersed him in the rough and tumble of litigation.  Although Berresford’s law and teaching career concerned competition in the communications industry (he worked on the Bell System Break-Up and was present at the creation of the wireless phone business), the Hiss-Chambers Case continued to fascinate him. He read everything he could get his hands on about it (at considerable expense); bored some of his friends to death; published several scholarly articles about the Case (the most recent of which are available at SSRN); gave two day-long presentations on the Case for The Smithsonian Associates; and posted 38 YouTube videos about it.  
 
These podcasts are Berresford’s latest contribution to scholarship on the Case.He hopes to interest younger generations who knew neither the Case nor the Cold War. Berresford tries to combine legal (especially litigation) expertise, a mastery of the details of the Case (as opposed to the mood music that makes up most presentations about it), first-hand recollections of the trials and their aftermath from people who were there, fascination with the personal ‘duel in the sun’ of the two unforgettable combatants; and a profound sadness for the destruction that befell Americans who chose to engage in the folly of treason for the USSR.
 
Mr. Berresford says: my written articles about this Case are
  • an analysis of the published judicial decisions about it, Whittaker Chambers & Alger Hiss: The Courts Decide, Federal Bar Journal, vol. 40, No. 2 at 96 (Feb. 1993) and International Society of Barristers Quarterly, vol. 27, No. 3 at 355 (July 1992) 
  • answers to questions I received in letters in response to my first article, Questions & Answers About the Case of Whittaker Chambers & Alger Hiss, International Society of Barristers Quarterly, vol. 28, No. 3 at 363 (July 1993) 
  • the most detailed examination of the grand jury that indicted Hiss, The Grand Jury in the Hiss-Chambers Case, American Communist History, vol. 7, Issue 1 at 1 (June 2008), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14743890802121878
  • my response to the most recent conspiracy theory of how Hiss may have been framed, How Alger Hiss Was Framed:  The Latest Theory, available at SSRN (Social Science Research Network), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3868165; and
  • my response to an attack on Hiss’s critics by a psychiatrist who befriended Hiss, An Analysis of Dr. James W. Hamilton’s Book “The Hiss Case Reconsidered,” available at SSRN https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3871807 (presently to be updated)

If you have trouble finding any of these, send me an e-mail at john_berreresford@comcast.net.

 

Further Observations and Research Opportunities:

Episode 33:  Alistair Cooke (at 335) described Mrs. Hiss after the guilty verdict was uttered as “a flushed and now ageless little gnome.”  Hiss wrote that the jury’s verdict stunned him.  (“Recollections of a Life” at 157.)  I read elsewhere that he and his defense team were so confident that they had planned a victory press conference to be followed by a victory lunch.  I have read in an unpublished biography of Hiss that, as he and his wife walked and then drove away from the courthouse, a few people yelled “Traitor!” but no one blocked his path or attempted physical harm.

At sentencing several days later, Claud Cross was the only speaker who showed emotion.  The verdict must have been crushing for him.  He must have known that, despite his excellent reputation as a trier of complex corporate cases in the Boston area, fifty and a hundred years hence the only thing anyone would remember about Claud Cross was that he lost the Hiss Case.  Stryker got a hung jury, but Cross lost.  It must have added to his gloom that he went to his grave (in 1974) believing Hiss innocent.

Alistair Cooke (at 339-40) had strong feelings at the sentencing: 

“It is a moment when all the great swirling moral abstractions are blacked out in a crisis of the flesh.  The principles we try to live by . . . . dissolve into a formal ceremony . . .  The defendant stands alone, the lawyers look through a glaze at their papers, the judge says:  ‘to run concurrently.’  . . . .  People who had craved the confirmation of Hiss’ guilt sighed and looked palely miserable.  Mr. Murphy . . . had been suddenly overcome with a rheumy blur of speech that could have come from the onset of a cold but most likely did not.”

Cooke recalled being at the sentencing in 1939 of Jimmy Hines, a monumentally corrupt and gangster-affiliated Democratic politician in New York City who had been unsuccessfully defended by Lloyd Paul Stryker.  “[I]n that moment neither the crime nor the personality condemned is clear.  You do not respond as you might expect to the case resolved or the victim labeled, or the fox run to ground.  The defendant becomes a symbol of the alternative fates possible to all our characters.  . . . .  The man about to be sentenced is suddenly at the center of the human situation; and because he is totally disarmed he takes on the helpless dignity of the lowest common denominator.”

Cooke, sad to say, never expressed the slightest sympathy for Chambers.  (Nor did he express hostility.)   As I wrote earlier, maybe Chambers was too much the ‘Red Hot American,’ unlike anything the very British Cooke had ever experienced. 

Questions:  Do you agree with the second jury’s verdict?  If you had been the judge, would you have sentenced Hiss to more or less time in prison?  If you were Hiss speaking to the judge just before sentencing, would you have been tempted to confess, said that you had been a naive and ignorant intellectual in the depths of The Great Depression, and hoped for a lighter sentence?

Episode 34:  The McCarthy Era, although sparked by this Case, is an oceanic subject beyond the scope of these Podcasts.  If you want to read about it, among the best conservative books are George H. Nash’s “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945” (Basic Books 1976), esp. 84-130; and Richard Gid Powers’ “Not Without Honor:  The History of American Anticommunism” (Free Press 1995), esp. 191-272.  See also Professor Harvey Klehr’s essay “Setting the Record Straight on Joe McCarthy,” https://archives.frontpagemag.com/fpm/setting-record-joe-mccarthy-straight-harvey-klehr/.

Among the far more numerous, totally anti-McCarthy books are David Caute’s “The Great Fear:  The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower” (Touchstone 1979), esp. 56-62; Fred J. Cook’s “The Nightmare Decade:  The Life and Times of Senator Joe McCarthy” (Random House 1971); Victor Navasky’s “Naming Names” (Viking 1980) (especially the early pages); I.F. Stone’s “The Truman Era: 1945-52” (Little Brown 1953) (Stone was himself a secret agent of the Soviet Union); and James A Weschler’s “The Age of Suspicion” (Random House 1953).  I must note that it was a stroke of genius for the minimizers of Communist treason to name the era after McCarthy, anti-Communism’s most irresponsible big name.  This is as if racists had succeeded in labeling the civil rights movement The Al Sharpton Movement.  

Concerning the impact of the Hiss verdict in particular, Dean Acheson, in his autobiography “Present at the Creation:  My Years at the State Department” (Norton 1987), titles his pertinent chapter (at 354) “The Attack of the Primitives Begins.”  Alistair Cooke (at 340) also saw nothing good coming from Hiss’s conviction.  A more mature view, at page 267 of Walter Goodman’s “The Committee:  The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1968), is that the Hiss-Chambers Case “whip[ped] up a storm which did not last long but left ruins in its wake.”  Other more realistic analyses of the Case’s impact on America are in Weinstein at 529-47 (chapter titled “Cold War Iconography I:  Alger Hiss as Myth and Symbol”); Leslie Fiedler’s “Hiss, Chambers, and the Age of Innocence” at 3-24 of his “An End to Innocence:  Essays on Culture and Politics” (Beacon Press 1955) (this is the best single essay on the Case in my opinion); and Diana Trilling’s essay “A Memorandum on the Hiss Case,” first published in The Partisan Review of May-June 1950 and re-published at 27-48 of Patrick J. Swan’s anthology of essays on this Case, “Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul” (ISI Books 2003).  The latter two essays I highly recommend.

Questions:  If you had been adult when Hiss was convicted, what would have been your reaction to his conviction?  ‘Justice at long last,’ ‘a miscarriage of justice,’ ‘guilty but a fair trial was impossible,’ ‘technically guilty but with an excuse,’ or something else?  Would your reaction have been purely emotional/political/tribal, or would you have cited one or more facts to support your reaction?  Would you have been totally certain that your reaction was the right one, or would you have harbored some doubts?

Episode 35:  The best dissection of The Forgery by Typewriter Theory is Chapter  2 (titled “Chambers”) in “Ex-Communist Witnesses:  Four Studies in Fact Finding” by Professor Herbert L. Packer of Stanford University Law School (Stanford University Press 1962) at 21-51.  A copy is available on Amazon.  Others are Cornell/Georgetown/Minnesota Law School Professor Irving Younger’s article “Was Alger Hiss Guilty?” in Commentary Magazine’s August 1975 issue, available at https://www.commentary.org/articles/irving-younger/was-alger-hiss-guilty-2/; and the Appendix to professor Weinstein’s book, titled “‘Forgery by Typewriter’:  The Pursuit of Conspiracy, 1948-97,” at pages 624-30, 632-34, 645-47. 

The version of Alistair Cooke’s book (“A Generation on Trial:  U.S.A. v. Alger Hiss”) that was published in 1952 has a few new pages at the end, 347-54, describing Hiss’s Motion for a New Trial and the Court hearing about it.  Judge Goddard presided, and Cooke notes (at 348) that the audience included “leisured and unidentified old ladies who appeared at all Hiss hearings with the ritual fatalism of the annual pilgrims to Valentino’s grave.”  Cooke writes (at 348) that “several excellent lawyers were dumbfounded by the claims that the defense now put forward.”  After describing Judge Goddard’s dismissal of those claims, Cooke ends his book with the following words:  

“Four years had passed since the names of Hiss and Chambers shook the nation.  Now there was another Presidential campaign, and the Democrats were in full fling at their convention in Chicago.  Judge Goddard’s word, perhaps the last, about Hiss was lucky to earn a few lines at the bottom of the inside pages of newspapers.  In most it earned none.  Hiss had passed into shame and into history.”

Here is my list of the people who, Hiss defenders have speculated over the decades, masterminded or participated in the framing of Hiss (in most cases involving forgery by typewriter): Whittaker and Esther Chambers, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, Ambassador William C. Bullitt, Jr., Richard and Pat Nixon, the Democratic financier and Presidential advisor Bernard Baruch, President Truman’s Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, the Dulles Brothers, supporters of the Chinese anti-communist dictator Chaing Kai-Shek, a Nazi sympathizer who owned a typewriter store in New York City, the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, and a private detective named Horace Schmahl.

If you are interested in the broader question of why people believe highly implausible theories, I recommend Michael Shermer’s book “Why People Believe Weird Things:  Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time” (St. Martin’s Griffin 2002); and a delightful article by the Brandeis University Professor Jacob Cohen, “Will We Never Be Free of the Kennedy Assassination?,” published in the December 2013 issue of Commentary Magazine and available at https://www.commentary.org/articles/jacob-cohen/will-we-never-be-free-of-the-kennedy-assassination/.

 Questions:  Here are two questions I have asked myself for years but never answered satisfactorily.  Can you help me?

(1) In his Motion for a New Trial, Hiss claimed that Chambers did the forgery all by himself, or with the help of Communist friends.  This seems plainly ridiculous.  Chambers had neither the time, the tools, nor the talents to forge a typewriter and, by 1948, no Communist friends to help him.  My question:  why was it only years later that Hiss claimed that Hoover’s FBI had committed the forgery?  The FBI was obviously the only organization in the US that even arguably had the necessary time, tools, and talents.  What prevented Hiss from aiming, from the start, at such an obvious target?

(2)  Hiss publicized his Forgery by Typewriter theories for decades, and his supporters have carried on the torch in the decades after his death.  They are articulate people, they have occasionally had generous funding, and they know lots people in the nation’s media who would love another story of an innocent gentleman framed as a Commie the early Cold War years.  But if you Google “Famous Conspiracy Theories” or “Top 25 Conspiracy Theories of All Time,” you will not find Hiss’s Forgery by Typewriter Theory.  Why?  Why has Hiss’s conspiracy theory not achieved the popularity of the theories about the assassinations of JFK and RFK, or of the alleged landings at Roswell and the alleged non-landings on the Moon?  Is his theory too implausible or too complicated for a large audience, and/or is Hiss too cold a fish to be sympathetic?

Episode 36:  Chambers’ autobiography is “Witness,” most recently published by Regnery Gateway in 2014.  He was working on a huge, never finished book (working title “The Third Rome”) when he died.  Associated essays of his were published by Random House in 1964 under the title “Cold Friday” — the name of a field on his farm.  His articles for The National Review (amounting to less than 85 pages) were published by that magazine in “The Whittaker Chambers Reader:  His Complete National Review Writings 1957-59” in 2014; these and his earlier short pieces appear in “Ghosts on the Roof:  Selected Essays,” edited by Terry Teachout and published by Transaction in 1996.  Two books of Chambers’  correspondence have been printed:  “Odyssey of a Friend:  Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961” (Regnery Gateway 1987); and “Notes from the Underground:  The Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Letters 1949-60,” published in 1997 by Regnery Gateway.  Mr. de Toledano covered the trials for Newsweek Magazine and became a prominent conservative writer.  If you’re interested in what Chambers did and thought in his last years, the best of the foregoing works is (in my opinion) the Chambers-Buckley correspondence.

Hiss’s memoir, “In the Court of Public Opinion” (Knopf 1957), draws heavily on his Petition for a New Trial on Grounds of Newly Discovered Evidence.  His late-in-life autobiography, “Recollections of a Life,” was published by Seaver in 1988.  It is as dry as his first book.  Hiss’s son, Anthony, maybe best known as The New Yorker’s railroad correspondent under the pseudonym E.M. Frimbo, wrote about himself and his father in “Laughing Last” (Houghton Mifflin 1977) when things were looking up for his dad.  After the verdict of history had turned the other way, the young Hiss produced “The View from Alger’s Window:  A Son’s Memoir” (Houghton Mifflin 1999).  It concentrates on the correspondence he shared with his imprisoned father.  The New York Times reviewer described the latter book as “deeply troubling,” “a painful story of the family as a factory of denial.”  “Family Ties,” by Ann Douglas, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/99/06/27/reviews/990627.27dougl.html.  That The Times would publish such a review indicates how much, even among northeastern liberals, the verdict had solidified against Hiss and for Chambers by the late 90s.

More about the two protagonists’ post-trial lives can be found in Professor Weinstein’s book “Perjury” at pages 550-72 (chapter titled “Alger and Whittaker:  The Vigil and the Death Watch”); and at pages 444-514 of the Sam Tanenhaus biography “Whittaker Chambers.”

Questions:  Which protagonist suffered more after the trials — the imprisoned Hiss or the ostracized Chambers?  Did either of them deserve it?  Do you have a hunch that one or both of them overcame gloom and died with a somewhat satisfied, “something ventured, something gained” feeling?  Of the wives and children, only one (Hiss’s son) capitalized on The Case.  If you had been one of the others, would you have been tempted to follow Tony’s path?

If Hiss was guilty, why didn’t he avoid the limelight like Chambers did?  And, when his son got interested in The Case, why didn’t Hiss say to him “Son, this has taken over my life, but it doesn’t have to mess up yours.  I’ve got some years to live and powerful friends on my side; you just get on with your own existence and leave this to us.”  Why would he let his son take up a cause that Hiss knew was a lie and would likely someday be exposed as such, making his son look pitiful?

Episode 37:  The FOIA Documents are best summarized in Weinstein at 300-14 (“The Woodstock Cover-Up” — a coverup by the Hisses, not the FBI), 399-435 (“Rumors and Whispers:  The Pursuit of Evidence”), 625-30 (“The Motion for a New Trial”), 632-34 (“The ‘Faked’ or ‘Substituted’ Woodstock: Hover and the FBI”), and 641-45 (“The Double Agent:  Horace Schmahl, Mystery Man”).   Other post-trials evidence is recounted in Gary Wills’ “Lead Time: A Journalist’s Education” at 61-62 (Doubleday 1983); Elinor Langer, “Josephine Herbst” at 151-58, 268-76 (Northeastern Univ. Press 1984); and Donald B. Doud,” Witness to Forgery:  Memoir of a Forensic Document Examiner” at 34-66 (Orchard Knoll Publishers 2009).  The best summaries of the documents from ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ are the chapter titled “Alger Hiss:  Case Closed” in John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, & Alexander Vassiliev, “Spies:  The Rise & Fall of the KGB in America” at 1-31 (Yale University Press 2009); and Eduard Mark, “In Re Alger Hiss:  A Final Verdict from the Archives of the KGB,” 1 Journal of Cold War Studies at 26 (2009).

Hiss’s briefs and some supporting documents in his last run at the courts (in the 1970s, claiming prosecutorial misconduct) are reproduced in Edith Tiger (Ed.), “In Re Alger Hiss” (two volumes) (Farrar Straus Giroux 1979) (Chambers’ handwritten account of his homosexual activities, which he gave to the FBI, is in Volume I at 258-66.)  For my skeptical reaction to some of Hiss’s claims, see pages 221-28 of my paper “How Alger Hiss Was Framed:  The Latest Theory,” available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3868165.

Questions:  Is there now, with all this new evidence, a reasonable doubt that Hiss was guilty of the offenses charged, and of a good deal more?  Or am I missing something?  Certainly, if Hiss is in fact innocent, he is one of the most wronged persons in our history!  

If The Prosecution in Hiss trials did not play fair, should any tears be shed for Hiss if he was still up to his neck in spying for the Soviet Union and setting the stage for Joe McCarthy?  What motive would a female Bucks County novelist have to lie and place Chambers and Hiss together in The Ware Group in Washington in the mid-30s?  Isn’t she as unlikely to be taking orders from J. Edgar Hoover as Chambers’ best friend Professor Meyer Schapiro, a Jewish socialist art history professor at Columbia?  In light of the fact that all the typewriter experts Hiss’s counsel hired reached the same conclusion as the FBI expert Feehan, is it likely that Hiss knew he was lying all the years he was claiming Forgery by Typewriter?  Or might he have forgotten and convinced himself that he was actually innocent?  Have you never known anyone who had such favorable delusions about his or her bad conduct long ago?

Consider all the people who have to be lying, all the experts who have to be wrong,  and all the documents that have to be forged and planted in dozens of different places in different continents over several decades if Hiss is innocent.  How likely is that?

Episode 38:  This is my final Podcast, and the shortest one — just my last thoughts after decades of study.  The Hiss-Chambers Case will live on because it is important post-WWII American history, and also a great yarn, a feast for trial lawyers, and an example of the endless fight between totalitarianism and freedom, between shiny lies and messy reality.  I hope it fascinated and educated you as much as it has me.  Thank you for your interest in my words.

Further reading on this Case?  The best single book remains Allen Weinstein’s “Perjury:  The Hiss-Chambers Case.”  Chambers’ autobiography “Witness” is still in print.  The best summaries of the documents from ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ are the chapter titled “Alger Hiss:  Case Closed” in John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, & Alexander Vassiliev, “Spies:  The Rise & Fall of the KGB in America” at 1-31 (Yale University Press 2009); and Eduard Mark, “In Re Alger Hiss:  A Final Verdict from the Archives of the KGB,” 1 Journal of Cold War Studies at 26 (2009).  

Finally, casting modesty aside, I refer you to my own writings, which are available on SSRN’s web page by searching https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=618842. 

Farewell and thank you again!