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2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the Hiss-Chambers espionage case, which gripped America 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. Comments and politely phrased corrections or criticism are welcome by the writer and narrator, at john_berresford@comcast.net.

Mar 10, 2022

Whittaker Chambers

This Podcast, the second to last, is the longest one.  The Hiss-Chambers Case did not die.  Many new facts were discovered, the majority of them harmful to Hiss, starting in the 1970s.  The Freedom of Information Act led the US government (after a lawsuit) to produce about 40,000 pages of paper, mostly from the FBI.  Hiss made the files of his defense counsel available to researchers.  One wonders if he knew what was in there, some of it was so damaging to him.  Most damaging in these and other files is powerful evidence that Hiss and his wife knew that the office typewriter they had had in the late 1930s was a Woodstock and that they had given it to The Catlett Kids, but they both denied such knowledge to the FBI, the Grand Jury (under oath), and even to their own ‘A List’ attorneys, William Marbury and Edward McLean.  Other sources of information that opened late were the papers of Alger Hiss’s brother Donald; a recollection of a fellow convict who spoke with Hiss in prison; the observations of a psychologist who testified for Hiss at the second trial (not Dr. Binger); the memoir of a document expert whom Chester Lane hired to help Hiss’s Forgery by Typewriter argument; and even the memories of a female Bucks County, Pennsylvania, novelist who bumped into Chambers and The Ware Group during a brief residence in Washington in 1934.  Finally, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, several security agencies of former Communist dictatorships have briefly opened their files, all of them damaging to Hiss.  No wonder this second to last Podcast is the longest one.
 
FURTHER RESEARCH 
 
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 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?