ALGER HISS, WHITTAKER CHAMBERS AND THE CASE THAT IGNITED McCARTHYISM
By Lewis Hartshorn
McFarland & Company Inc., 218 pages. $38.95. ISBN 978-0-7864-7442-4
Reviewed by Jim Burns
I’m looking at a small pamphlet published in New York in 1932. It’s a short story called “Can You Hear Their Voices?” and was written by Whittaker Chambers who was then a member of the Communist Party. He had written four stories for New Masses, the Party’s literary and cultural magazine, in 1931, the best-known of which was the one reprinted as a pamphlet. It was based on an actual event when hundreds of angry farmers marched into a town in Arkansas and demanded food for their hungry children. The story was turned into a play and translated into various languages and, for a time, Chambers was looked on as a promising revolutionary writer. He also contributed poems to such publications as Poetry and The Nation, and he was commissioned to translate a number of books, including Felix Salten’s Bambi, which turned out to be a best-seller.
Chambers remained a member of the Communist Party for some years, though his literary career as a fiction writer and poet never prospered. He later claimed that he’d worked “underground” for the Party, though by the late-Thirties he had become disillusioned and decided to break with communism. He got a job with Time magazine, initially as a book reviewer, but soon expanded into other areas, and contacted the FBI in order to provide information about his activities and fellow-conspirators during his supposed “underground” years. According to Chambers his life was in danger and NKVD agents were anxious to eliminate him because of what he knew about spy networks in American government agencies. He changed addresses frequently, used different names, and tried to avoid being traced by anyone who may have known him when he was a communist. Was Chambers a fantasist, as some have suggested, or were his fears justified? It’s still an open debate.
In August, 1948, Chambers testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee(HUAC) as an “expert witness on Communist infiltration of government,” and named a number of people who, he claimed, had been members of an “underground” group in Washington. Among those he named was Alger Hiss who was what would now be called a “high-flyer.” A well-qualified lawyer, Hiss “had joined FDR’s New Deal in 1933, advised Roosevelt at the infamous Yalta Conference in February 1945, presided over the founding of the United Nations and personally delivered the UN Charter to President Truman.” In the 1930s he had worked for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) and the State Department, and Chambers insisted that he had personally handled documents passed to him by Hiss. There was little doubt that some sort of left-wing group had operated in the AAA under the leadership of Harold Ware, and when the Hiss/Chambers controversy erupted one of the people linked to it, the novelist John Herrmann, fled to Mexico in an attempt to avoid being questioned by the FBI.
It’s perhaps necessary to say a few words about the general atmosphere in the late-1940s as the Cold War got under way and purges of left-wingers in government, unions, Hollywood, and private industry became common. It could be said that there was a kind of hysteria at work, and right-wing politicians, who had been opposed to New Deal policies since Roosevelt’s days, saw an opportunity to roll back what they said was a too-powerful state which was influenced by socialist ideas. And rising politicians such as Richard Nixon, who would play an important role in the attack on Hiss, made a name for themselves as patriotic anti-communists. It would not be long before Senator Joseph McCarthy jumped on the bandwagon.
When Hiss was summoned to appear before HUAC to answer the charges of being a member of the Communist Party, and of participating in some sort of illegal activities, he indignantly denied that he had ever belonged to the Party, and he said that he had never known anyone by the name of Whittaker Chambers. Chambers had provided details of visits to Hiss’s home, some of which sounded convincing, and spoke of cash being loaned by Hiss, a car which was often used by him, and other matters which, to many people and especially those who disliked what Hiss stood for in terms of his background and social standing, had a ring of credibility about them. It has to be said that others were convinced that Chambers was lying, and even Nixon initially had some doubts about the reliability of the stories that Chambers told. Hiss did say that, although he had not known a Whittaker Chambers, he had encountered a journalist named George Crosley who had approached him for information for a series of articles he was writing. This would have been a perfectly open and legal exchange, the information concerned not being subject to any restrictions. However, Chambers denied ever using the name of George Crosley. Later, he could have been shown to have been lying because a publisher was willing to testify that he had been offered some poems by Chambers under the name of Crosley, but Hiss’s defence team decided not to call him. The person concerned, Samuel Roth, had convictions for publishing obscene material and it was thought that using him as a defence witness might create a wrong impression.
Hiss continued to deny knowing Chambers or a “Carl,” the name Chambers claimed to have used when working “underground” for the Party, and when shown a photograph he thought that it might be of the George Crosley he had met. He then insisted on a face-to-face encounter with Chambers and when it took place he thought the person facing him could be George Crosley, but that he had never known him as Whittaker Chambers. The latter, for his part, immediately knew Hiss, though that in itself meant nothing as Hiss’s high profile made him easily recognisable. When Chambers repeated his claims in public about knowing Hiss as a communist the latter decided to sue for defamation. In response, Chambers changed his story to admit that he had been engaged in espionage, something he had previously always denied because he was worried that he could be prosecuted. He said that he had been a courier for Soviet intelligence and he produced documents said to be in Hiss’s handwriting, and others which he claimed were typed on a machine owned by Hiss. As matters hotted up various associates of Hiss were alleged to have been involved in illegal activities. One of them said that Hiss was never a communist, but Nathaniel Weyl, who admitted to spying, said that Hiss had been a Party member.
There were claims and counter-claims, and Chambers repeatedly changed his stories, bringing up new “facts” whenever he was in a tight corner. For example, he stated that Hiss’s wife knew Maxim Lieber, a literary agent who acted for many left-wing writers, but Lieber said that he’d never met her, and wouldn’t know her if she walked into the room at that moment. Would Lieber have been a reliable witness had he been called (he never was)? His own involvements could well have worked against him. Lieber was quite open about his own membership of the Communist Party, but denied ever doing anything illegal and said his contacts with Chambers were totally innocuous. But some of Hiss’s stories were occasionally vague enough to have aroused suspicions in the minds of those who wanted to believe in his guilt. There was a car that Hiss insisted had been sold to George Crosley, though he later said that he had given it to him, but which was shown to have been passed to a dealer and later picked up by someone who gave a false address and was identified a communist. Hiss also created something of a bad impression by repeatedly using the phrase “to the best of my recollection” when asked certain questions.
Evidence of how Chambers was totally unreliable when it came to telling the truth is given in detail by Lewis Hartshorn. He claimed to have been fired from a job at the New York Public Library, but the records showed that he lost his job because he had been stealing books. When asked about the books he’d translated he only mentioned Bambi, but Hartshorn says that between 1928 and 1940 he actually translated seventeen, and that many of them were “widely reviewed.” As for his supposed activities as a communist, a fellow-communist, Sam Krieger, didn’t believe that Chambers could have done the things he claimed to have done, and described him as “a politically very unreliable individual and the last person in the world in the world to have been entrusted with any kind of official responsibility.” The noted art historian Meyer Schapiro, a friend of Chambers for many years, thought that he was acting out a “mystification” when he joined the Communist Party, and recalled that during their three month tour of a Europe beset with radical politics of one kind or another, Chambers had shown no interest at all in communism. Hartshorn lists so many lies and contradictions, such as Chambers’ statement that he was once the editor of New Masses, that it would be impossible to mention them all here. He also quotes various people, like Alexander Trachtenberg and Charles Dirba, both high up in the American Communist Party hierarchy, as refuting claims made by Chambers about meeting them. It could, of course, be argued that, as communists, they would not want to admit to knowing Chambers, but as so much else he stated has been shown to be untrue it’s perhaps best to believe them.
The libel case was delayed when the Justice Department intervened on the grounds that a trial for perjury was likely to take place, though there were at first some doubts about who would be the accused. Hartshorn quotes someone as saying that J. Edgar Hoover wanted to see both men charged with perjury. In the event it was Hiss who stood in the dock accused of lying about not knowing Chambers, and of denying that he had passed documents to him. It needs to be noted that HUAC hearings had continued, with supposed fresh evidence in the shape of some microfilms produced by Chambers, and with arguments about the validity of evidence relating to a typewriter supposedly used to copy documents that Hiss had taken from his office. With regard to how Chambers had obtained material if it had not been given to him by Hiss, there is evidence that indicates that some government employees did pass information to him. Julian Wadleigh admitted doing just that. And other people testified to the fact that security at the State Department was so lax that anyone could wander around the building and enter offices without being challenged in any way. Harrison Salisbury, a reporter for the New York Times, recalled that he saw “no guards at the doors, no plastic identification cards, nothing to prevent Chambers or anyone else from poking into just about any office he pleased…..Such a world seems impossible today and no doubt it was fearfully insecure.”
Alger Hiss was tried twice, the jury at his first trial being unable to agree. At the second trial he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. Was he guilty? Obviously, Hartshorn doesn’t think so and he works hard to show that Chambers was a liar and a fantasist, and that some evidence was certainly rigged so as to suggest that Hiss was not telling the truth. It’s interesting, too, that his brother and wife were never charged with anything, despite Chambers having named both of them as communists and conspirators in the plot to pass documents to the Russians. It’s hard not to think that the authorities had got what they wanted when they saw Hiss sent to prison. He had seemed to represent the kind of liberal establishment they distrusted, and in demonstrating that someone like him could lie and engage in treasonable actions they were making the point, important at a time when the nation was encouraged to condemn anyone who wasn’t obviously a right-wing patriot, that conformity was essential. Hartshorn quotes Charles Brennan as saying: “There was never any substantive understanding of what Communism meant. The word was just used as a general category for that which was foreign, unfamiliar, and undesirable.”
Some years ago when writing an article about John Herrmann I remarked that information that had come to light with the fall of communism made it almost certain that Alger Hiss had been involved in some form of illegal activity, if not actually that of spying. The late Gael Turnbull wrote to me to dispute what I’d said. He had been in the United States as a medical student in 1950 and had followed the Hiss/Chambers confrontations closely, and he was convinced that Hiss was innocent and that Chambers had really been the one who had committed perjury on a grand scale. We exchanged a few letters on the subject, but eventually agreed to hold to our own opinions. Not that mine was a fixed one and I had to admit that it was based on what I’d read. And I’ve now read Lewis Hartshorn’s book and it has convinced me that Whittaker Chambers was a liar and a fantasist. But I still can’t shake off the feeling, and that’s all it is, that Alger Hiss had something to hide. He may not have passed any documents to Chambers, and he may have known him only as George Crosley, but was there something he wouldn’t admit to? Did he know about other people who may well have been doing things they shouldn’t have done? I don’t think Lewis Hartshorn has said the last word on this subject, and I doubt that it will ever be settled satisfactorily unless someone manages to track down documentation that provides a definite solution. The question is, does such documentation exist?When writing this review I’ve had to select just a few examples of the kind of stories Whittaker Chambers came up with to justify his naming of Alger Hiss as a communist. And I’ve equally had to limit what I could quote from Hiss’s denials of any involvement with so-called “underground” activities. Hartshorn’s book is so packed with details from both sides of the argument that it’s easy to become confused at times. This isn’t because of his writing, which is clear enough, but simply a comment on a case that was bound to be complex and prone to confusion as memories of what had taken place ten and more years before consistently clashed.