By Joan Brady

Skyscraper Publications. 387 pages. £20. ISBN 978-0-993-1533-2-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

A couple of years ago I reviewed Lewis Hartshorn’s Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers and the Case that Ignited McCarthyism (see Northern Review of Books, February, 2014), and it seems relevant to quote a little of what I said. After mentioning it was unlikely Hartshorn had offered the last word on the subject, I added that I doubted it would ever be settled satisfactorily “unless someone manages to track down documentation that provides a definite solution. The question is, does such documentation exist?”

Joan Brady’s new book proves my point about Hartshorn’s volume not being the final one exploring what happened when Hiss and Chambers collided in court. And she certainly has some interesting things to say about the likelihood, or otherwise, of there being documents that might throw light on what Hiss was supposed to have been and done.

More of that later. It’s perhaps necessary to first of all say something about Joan Brady herself. Now well-known as a successful writer of thrillers, she met Alger Hiss when she was much younger and got to know him quite well. She is honest enough to say: “I knew Alger Hiss for more than thirty years, and I never liked him much.” It was I960 when they first met, and the encounter came about because Brady’s partner, Dexter Masters, was older than she was and had himself known Hiss many years before. By 1960, of course, Hiss had served his sentence and was working in a low-paid job as a stationery salesman. Returning to the kind of employment he’d had before prison was never going to be an option for him. He was also trying to persuade the courts and the public that he had been wrongly convicted in 1950. It was something that obsessed him for the rest of his life.

But let’s go back to the late-1940s and the roots of the case against Hiss. A Harvard-educated, highly-qualified, and successful lawyer, he had risen to prominence in government circles in the late-1930s and through the war years. He was at Yalta when Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill met to decide what would happen once Germany was defeated, and he was strongly involved with the United Nations. On the face of it, his career should have continued to develop postwar, especially when he became President of the prestigious Carnegie Foundation for International Peace. But in 1948 a man called Whittaker Chambers began to make claims that he had known Hiss in the 1930s, and that he was a member of the Communist Party and had secretly passed classified material to the Russians.

Hiss denied both charges and furthermore stated that he had never met anyone called Chambers. He asked for a meeting where he could face Chambers and decide whether or not he was someone he had met years before. When the meeting took place Hiss still insisted that he had never encountered a Whittaker Chambers, but he did add that he had known a George Crosley who Chambers somewhat resembled. Chambers stated that he had never used the name Crosley, though he admitted to a variety of other aliases. Sometime later, when a witness could have been produced to show that Chamber had used the name Crosley, Hiss’s defence team decided not to use the person concerned because he had a conviction for publishing pornography. A tainted witness like that would not create a good impression, they reasoned.

Whittaker Chambers was a curious character. He had been a member of the American Communist Party, though left it in 1937 or 1938. He gave both dates at different times. But he hadn’t been just a rank-and-file member, and claimed that he’d engaged in “underground” work and acted as a courier, transferring documents from people like Hiss to the Russians. When he became disillusioned with communism he went into hiding, or so he said, because he knew that he was likely to be a target for assassination by the Russians or their American communist allies. He knew too much to be allowed to live. This didn’t stop him getting a job with Time, one of the best-known magazines in America, becoming in due course a successful journalist and author, and leading a fairly publicly prominent life. This was particularly true as the Cold War got under way in the late-1940s. Chambers appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and named various people, including Hiss, who he said were or had been members of the American Communist Party.

Hiss was duly summoned to appear before HUAC and continued to insist that he had not known Chambers at any time. Friends had advised Hiss to take the Fifth Amendment when dealing with HUAC, but he ignored them. It’s easy to understand why. The Fifth Amendment gave immunity from answering questions on the grounds that to do so might lead to self-incrimination. But this was often taken to mean that the person involved did have something to hide. Hiss insisted that wasn’t the case.   He also said that if Chambers repeated his allegations outside the HUAC hearings he would sue him for libel. Chambers eventually went public and Hiss commenced libel proceedings. But before they could start the authorities intervened and decided to charge Hiss with perjury for denying he’d known Chambers or belonged to the Communist Party. There had been some doubt about whether or not Chambers might also be charged with perjury. His statements had been so full of contradictions that even many of his supporters had begun to think that he was simply lying, or just making up things as he went along and in response to questions he was asked.

So far, I’ve laid out the bare facts of what happened, and I admit to being concise in order to stay within the framework of a review. Joan Brady’s account of the various stages of the Hiss/Chambers battle has many more details than I have space for. She’s often devastating on the inconsistencies and outright lies in what Chambers said. She’s also balanced in her judgements and more than once points out that Hiss could be arrogant in his attitude towards both Chambers and the members of HUAC. This arrogance may well have worked against him by convincing people that he wasn’t treating either Chambers or HUAC with enough respect. Its members perhaps didn’t invite respect from someone like Hiss, but it was a mistake to make his feelings too obvious. Like it or not, HUAC was being listened to by a large number of people, and had the power to quickly tarnish someone’s reputation if they chose to do so.

It needs to be said that the general atmosphere in the United States at the time was not conducive to allegations of communist sympathies being brushed aside. There were very real fears of what Russia was getting up to as communists took over in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin Airlift got underway. Domestically, there were concerns that communists were controlling important unions, had too much influence in universities and in Hollywood, were active in government and schools, and were passing secrets to Moscow. It has to said that there were sometimes genuine examples of spies being unmasked. Right-wing politicians did play on the paranoia that began to develop, using it to roll back some of the social changes that Roosevelt’s New Deal had inaugurated. Big business colluded with them. Accusing unions, for example, of harbouring subversives was a good way to limit their militancy. A strike which involved matters relating to pay and conditions could be ascribed to communist agitation. What it all added up to, when it came to the background against which Hiss versus Chambers was played out, was that the odds were stacked against Hiss in the press and in the court of public opinion. He may have had supporters among liberals and intellectuals, but many ordinary Americans knew how they felt about like people like that. “Eggheads” was a term of abuse at the time. And Hiss was certainly an egghead.

One factor in Hiss’s downfall that Brady is especially astute about is the role that Richard Nixon played in building up the case against him. As a politician who had risen to political prominence in California by defeating the Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas with a programme of red smears, he quickly recognised the value of the Hiss/Chambers confrontation in terms of focusing attention on himself. We usually think of Joseph McCarthy whipping up the anti-communist storm that engulfed America for a time, and his name is used to identify the era, but Richard Nixon does hold an important claim to having been ahead of McCarthy in many ways. It may be, in fact, that McCarthy only jumped on a bandwagon that Nixon started rolling. Brady refers to Nixon waving pieces of paper which, he said, contained names of alleged communists, and making outrageous statements about piles of documents no-one ever got to examine closely. Both tricks were later exploited by McCarthy. But he turned out to be a drunken buffoon, albeit a dangerous one, whereas Nixon was more astute.

There were suggestions by certain people sympathetic to Chambers that he was not “a willing participant in Nixon’s crusade.” And certainly it was Nixon who made all the running once the perjury trials got under way. There were two trials, with the first one resulting in a hung jury. One of the shocking facts that Brady recounts is that the four jurors who dissented had their names and addresses released to the press and were consequently hounded by anti-communist activists. It was only one example of the press being given information that was supposedly privileged. Hiss often found that details of closed sessions of HUAC were leaked.

The second trial resulted in a conviction and Hiss was sentenced to five years in prison. One of the things that stands out is the way in which the prosecution, and Nixon in particular, used documents to prove that Hiss passed information to the Russians. Chambers claimed to have hidden some in a relative’s house, but they were innocuous and could have been obtained by anyone at the time they were in circulation. Later, he took FBI operatives to a pumpkin field where he had hidden some microfilm. Stories like this made the headlines and gave credibility to Chambers’ allegations about spies and Russian agents, at least in the eyes of the general public. But the jury never really got an opportunity to closely examine the microfilm to see if it did, in fact, have any secret information on it. There were documents that Nixon obtained elsewhere mixed in with perfectly innocent and often mundane material. But by making generalised claims he could convince jurors that it all related to Chambers’ accusations against Hiss. And he used the old trick of swamping the jury with documents so dull that they eventually lost the power to concentrate and decide which, if any, were of relevance.

Brady, looking back at the Hiss/Chambers case, tried to locate at least some of the documents involved, but ran up against resistance from the FBI and other sources. She was told that many had been destroyed, while others were not available for reasons of national security. Sometimes the documents did exist but were in transit to other storage facilities. And no indication could be given about when they would be available. Bureaucrats are skilled at finding ways around the Freedom of Information Act. And she quotes an investigative journalist who more than once came up against the destruction of documents as saying, “Erasing history…..so there can be a rewrite.”

I’ve moved quickly across Joan Brady’s story of what happened to Alger Hiss, and she gives a lot more information than I could possibly refer to. What is particularly interesting is the way in which she combines history with personal accounts of knowing Hiss. Despite not liking him she was convinced that he had been framed, much in the same way that Alfred Dreyfus was in France many years before. She also briefly sketches in what happened to Hiss when he was in prison, and it makes for intriguing reading. He was advised to get along with the Italian- Americans in Lewisburg Penitentiary, and did so, even to the extent of meeting Frank Costello, a leading light in the Mafia, and providing him with some legal advice. It helped Hiss that he was, in a sense, looked after by the Mafia inmates of the prison. They also respected him because, no matter what his alleged crime, he hadn’t named anyone else. Even Richard Nixon remarked on that fact.

One other factor that makes this book such a riveting read is that Joan Brady’s parents and her partner, Dexter Masters, were old liberals or left-wingers who also attracted attention from the FBI. And some of their files have been destroyed or are not available. Few, if any, explanations are given by the authorities for disposing of documents. And I’m always suspicious of authority and its reasons, if they do give them. Joan Brady is such a good writer that she makes the Hiss/Chambers controversy come alive. And even if I think that Hiss knew a bit more than he was willing to say (which is not to suggest that he did anything illegal, but did he know of someone who had?), I can sympathise with his predicament.