Wikipedia and History-Hiss
American delegation at the Yalta Conference, 4th-11th February 1945. Alger Hiss 2nd from left. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius at Hiss's right.
THE ALGER HISS CASE
I inherited an interest in the Alger Hiss Case from my father. He had come home from Hawaii at the end of World War II, married my mother, and started a family. He did well in business, and life was good. Then in 1948, a complete unknown named Whittaker Chambers came out of the woodwork to accuse a former State Department official, Alger Hiss, of secret Communist Party membership. The Communist Party was a legal political organization and fielded candidates for the presidency of the United States, but government officials could not belong to it.
Congressional investigations followed, with televised hearings that commanded media attention for years afterward. Finally, congressional investigators arranged to have the accuser Chambers, a Time magazine editor, meet Hiss in a face-to-face confrontation. The investigators included the freshman congressman and future U.S. President Richard Nixon. The meeting took place at the Commodore Hotel (now the Grand Hyatt Hotel) in New York City. Chambers persisted in his accusations, and it led to a defamation-of-character lawsuit filed by Hiss.
Everyone was struck by the contrast in the two men. The career diplomat Hiss had a stately bearing and dressed the part. The Time employee Chambers was short and stout, he wore rumpled suits, and spoke in an affectless monotone. The congressional hearings and the lawsuit, produced sensational headlines day after day. Supporters and detractors also made their opinions known.
As the congressional hearings wore on, Hiss's position became more tenuous. He filed his lawsuit, but his accuser produced documentary evidence that backed up his claim. The documents also showed that Hiss had engaged in espionage, which Chambers had concealed, even under oath, because his possession of the documents would bring heat on him, too. "How would like to face a fifteen-to-twenty year jail sentence in you were in my boots," he asked a friend, "with a wife and two children, and without any savings?"
The events scared Father. People in his generation considered Baltimore a Southern city. The idea that a boy from a good Baltimore family, who attended Johns Hopkins and also had a law degree from Harvard, could engage in Soviet espionage worried him. How could a nation that valued its freedoms produce such a person? So I became well-informed about the Alger Hiss Case. I read up assiduously on the people involved in the case and the consequences of it. For one thing, the Hiss Case helped aggravate Cold War paranoia. Not only did Americans fear the intentions of the Soviet Union, but they mistrusted anyone who supported the Soviets here at home.
Perjury, third edition, 2013
I took particular interest in a book published in 1978, Perjury: the Hiss-Chambers Case, written by Allen Weinstein. Perjury is definitive. The Hiss Case led to one of the most interesting courtrroom dramas in the history of American jurisprudence, and Perjury describes it more fully than any other book I have read.
Weinstein took two important steps to further the project. He secured permission to consult the files of Alger Hiss's defense attorneys. He also requested Hiss's personnel files at the State Department. When the State Department refused to release the files, Weinstein sued the State Department under the Freedom of Information Act, passed by the U. S. Congress in 1969. Weinstein also contacted every person connected to the case and interviewed them. The interviews took him to Hungary, Germany, and Israel.
Dr. Allen Weinstein, 2006
Weinstein read through FBI files, State Department files, Justice Department files, as well as coutrroom transcripts, and the transcripts of the House Sub-committee for Un-American Activities, which conducted the initial hearings on Alger Hiss. The thousands of pages of material made the project too big for one man. In the acknowledgments, Weinstein names seventeen researchers and assistants who helped him tie together all the loose ends of the case.
I can only describe Perjury: the Hiss-Chambers Case as revelatory, the single greatest contribution to transparency about the Alger Hiss Case. The most important revelation, for me, comes from the personnel files of the State Department, where Hiss had worked until 1946. In a sub-chapter titled "Easing Hiss Out," Weinstein writes the following:
Recently declassified State Department memos show that, by the spring of 1946, almost all of the Department's security staff thought Hiss had been involved in some form of undercover Communist work. Not only was his future at State placed in a departmental holding pattern—with consideration for promotion or for confidential assignments ruled out by orders from Secretary Byrnes' office—but Hiss's daily work and associates came under the closest scrutiny. By August, even his desk calendar was being monitored.
And all of this was done without anything being passed to the press, nothing released to the public. The State Department gave no reason for "easing Hiss out." They just said he simply resigned and took a position in the private sector. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover asked Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes why he did not fire Hiss outright? Byrnes replied that he could not fire Hiss without a civil-service hearing, which would create publicity the Truman administration wished to avoid.
And so, two years before the Hiss Case even broke into the public eye, the State Department had already relieved Hiss of his duties over concerns about his loyalty. One reason Weinstein gave for the concern of State-Department security-staffers came from the debriefing of a Russian defector named Igor Gouzenko. Gouzenko simply walked out of the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, Canada, in September, 1945, with a hundred pages of Soviet documents stuffed in his trousers. At that time, so soon after War's end, everyone considered the Soviet Union an ally of the United States. Weinstein writes:
Questioned in October by Canadian security officials and by a representative of the FBI, Gouzenko stated "that he had been informed by Lieutenant Kulakov in the office of the Soviet military attaché that the Soviets had an agent in the US in May 1945 who was an assistant to the then Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius." When this was linked by the FBI to Whittaker Chambers's earlier statements and to information from other recent informants, the Bureau decided Gouzenko's statement could only refer to Alger Hiss.
Weinstein's history also benefits from the transcripts of the hearings for the House Sub-committee for Un-American Activities, or HUAC. After HUAC's director J. Parnell Thomas pled guilty to a bribery-kickback scheme and went to prison, Congressman Richard Nixon became acting-director. Nixon learned everything he could about Alger Hiss, then questioned him like a prosecutor on every aspect of Chambers's allegations. Little by little, the HUAC staffers began to doubt Hiss's version of the facts.
Congressman Karl Mundt of North Dakota read into the record every fact Nixon had wrestled from his reluctant witness, and Weinstein quotes it in the first chapter of Perjury:
You knew this man [Chambers]; you knew him very well. You knew him so well that you even trusted him with your apartment; you let him use your furniture; you let him use or gave him your automobile. You think that you probably took him to New York. You bought him lunches in the Senate Restaurant. You had him staying in your home . . . and made him a series of small loans. There seems no question about that."
Thanks to information provided by Chambers, Nixon also questioned Hiss about his car, and that landed him in more trouble. HUAC investigators searched the records of the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles until they found out who received the car from Hiss. HUAC Chief Investigator Robert Stripling read the results into the record:
The point we are making is that Mr. Hiss, according to this document, delivered the Ford-auto to the Cherner Motor Company on July 23, 1936. On the same date, this car was sold or transferred to one William Rosen, but there is no evidence in the sales records of this particular transaction."
The irregularities in Cherner's records caused Hiss some problems. At any rate, Nixon's questions continued, and Hiss's replies became evasive:
Although Hiss could not recall having signed the certificate, nor writing in the name and address of the Cherner Motor Company, he conceded, "That looks not unlike my own handwriting." When Stripling and Nixon reminded the witness that W. Marvin Smith had testified he had notarized the signature, Hiss agreed "with the evidence that has been shown to me," the signature was indeed his.
Nixon continued to follow the paper-trail, subpoenaed more witnesses, and produced yet another surprise:
The Committee advised a subsequent witness, Henry Cherner, a former partner in Cherner Motors, that their handwriting experts were "pretty certain" he had written Rosen's name on the title transfer. Cherner denied this.
The biggest surprise of all came from the files of Alger Hiss's attorneys, Weinstein wrote:
In a memorandum filed that day, McLean wrote: "Emmanuel Bloch, attorney for William Rosen, told me the following [facts] today. Rosen does not know Hiss. Rosen did lend himself to a dummy transaction concerning the Ford car. Apparently Rosen did not sign the title certificate dated July 23, 1936. It is not clear whether Rosen knew at that time that his name would be used in this transaction. However, at some later date, a man came to see Rosen, told him that the title certificate to the Ford was in Rosen's name, and asked Rosen to sign an assignment of (the car) to some other person. Rosen did this. The man who came to see Rosen is a very high Communist. His name would be a sensation in this case. The man who ultimately got the car is also a Communist. Bloch intimated that Rosen is a Communist but did not say so expressly."
McLean's memo tends to verify Chambers's account of how the 1929 Ford . . . left Alger Hiss's ownership to be transferred by a "very high Communist" [J. Peters?] to another Party member.
In a book rife with revelations, the story of Alger Hiss's 1929 Ford Roadster takes the cake. Edward McLean had been Hiss's classmate at Harvard Law School, and his firm Debevoise, Plimpton, and McLean has taken Hiss's case with its evolving legal problems when Hiss contacted him. McLean died in 1972, and the personal tone of this memorandum tells the reader that he never expected it to see the light of day.
The other man, Emmanuel Bloch, attorney for William Rosen, later served as defense attorney for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg at their treason trial. Bloch confirms the Committee's suspicion that William Rosen did not sign the title certificate. And Rosen was most certainly a Communist Party member. Why else would an otherwise law-abiding citizen put his life on the line for a clumsy act of auto-fraud? Chambers's knowledge of the transaction unquestionably places him in Hiss's inner-circle.
Chambers also told Committee investigators he believed a man he knew only as "J. Peters" had handled the transfer. Peters, a Hungarian national, was facing deportation at that time for his activities in the Comunist Party. Assisted by legal counsel, he fought deportation until 1954, when the final deportation rulling came down. He left the US, never to return. Weinstein found an item concerning J. Peters in the files of the Hiss's attorneys. Harold Rosenwald attended Harvard Law School with Hiss and conducted many of the interviews with potential witnesses:
When (Rosenwald) approached J. Peters's lawyer, Carol Weiss King, seeking information from Peters, he was clearly taken aback by her response. The meeting with Mrs. King which took place in January 1949 was duly recorded in a memo: "She said that a liaison had been established . . . . I told her that I was unaware of any such liaison between Hiss's attorneys and the Communist Party. She smiled knowingly and mysteriously and refused to be more specific. . . . She said that Hiss had been very foolish (because he) vigorously denied that he knew Chambers."
The Hisses had told investigators that they had known Chambers as "George Crosley," a free-lance journalist of dubious character who borrowed their car, borrowed money from them, and never paid it back. Their portrayal of Chambers differed starkly from the other witnesses who knew Chambers to be a Soviet agent. It undermined not only Hiss's representation of Chambers but also his level of honesty in regard to the investigations.
The reader may wonder: if the Hiss defense team had a "liaison" within the Communist Party, who could it have been? The defense files answer that question, too, indirectly. Someone had informed the Hiss attorneys that Whittaker Chambers had traveled to Europe (Russia?) during the 1930s, and introduced into evidence the forged passport that Chambers had obtained from his superiors in the Soviet Secret Service.
Prosecutor Thomas Murphy questioned Hiss about it on the witness stand:
How, Murphy asked, had Hiss known that there existed a 1935 passport made out to one "David Breen"?
Hiss said only that one of his lawyers, Harold Rosenwald, "had received a tip during the summer" [of 1949] that Chambers had travelled abroad several times during the 1930s under the name of "David Breen."
"Who was the source of that tip?" the prosecutor continued.
"That I don't know. I wasn't told that." Nor, it turned out, had he inquired.
"It wasn't you, Mr. Hiss, was it?"
"It was not." [Hiss had been the recipient of a similar anonymous "tip" in 1948, according to his own defense memo, that first revealed Chambers' use of the name "David Breen."]
After a luncheon recess Murphy restated the question, but Hiss proved remarkably uncurious about the matter.
"Did Mr. Rosenwald tell you during lunch who the informer was?"
"Did you ask him?"
"No, I did not." Nor had he by the following day when Murphy renewed his question.
So the "liaison" between the Communist Party and the Hiss defense team must have have been Hiss himself. Hiss's attorneys only learned about the "Breen" passport from Hiss's tip, not Rosenwald's—but in 1948, not in 1949 as Hiss had testified.
The Hiss attorneys conducted numerous interviews of people who had known Hiss and Chambers in the 1930s. The numerous revelations must have surprised the attorneys, as they surprised Allen Weinstein's researchers years later.
1. Josephine Herbst: a prominent socialist and feminist during the 1920s and '30s who socialized with other writers like Ernest Hemingway and Katherine Ann Porter. Her husband John Herrmann worked for Whittaker Chambers's espionage cell and introduced Hiss to Chambers. About Herbst's relationship with Chambers, Weinstein relies again on the Hiss defense team files. Throughout the interviews with Hiss's attorneys, Herbst refers to Chambers by his cover-name, "Carl":
"Alger Hiss did meet 'Carl,'" Herbst told Rosenwald. "'Carl' told me of such a meeting and said Hiss was 'a very cagey individual' . . . but friendly . . . and very charming and that Mrs. Hiss whom 'Carl' also met was very charming." This meeting . . . took place in July or August 1934, Herbst noted, confirming Chambers' memory of the date. . . "(E)verything I know about them [Alger and Priscilla Hiss] was told to me by 'Carl,' Harold Ware, or someone else.". . . Herbst "had the impression" that Hiss had not yet become involved in CP activities. . . . Herbst met Chambers at John Herrmann's apartment when only Herrmann was present. Sometimes, when "Carl" came, "I was instructed to leave."
In her interview with McLean, Herbst gave a clear description of the "parallel apparatuses" that Peters had directed Chambers to organize in Washington.
Herbst's "impression" that Hiss "had not yet become involved with CP activities" must have stunned Rosenwald, since she presumes that Hiss did become involved later.
2. Noel Field: a State Department officer, Soviet agent, and friend of Alger Hiss's. As the Hiss case unfolded, Field and his wife Herta decided to relocate to Czechoslovakia. The reason, Herta told her attorney in Switzerland, was to avoid testifying in the Hiss Case and incriminating themselves; but as soon as they arrived Eastern Europe, they were taken into custody. The Cold War mentality had settled over relations between the Soviet Bloc and the West. Czech security officials suspected that the The Fields were actually working for the CIA and interogated them.
In a sense, the Czech and Hungarian interrogations saved American security officials the trouble of interrogating them. As secret communists, the Fields thought they were among friends anyway and spoke more honestly. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, American historians got their first look at the transcripts of the Fields' interrogations, which the Fields never expected. They tell historians a lot about the activities of Alger Hiss:
(C)onfirmation of Alger Hiss's relationship with Field in the Communist underground came recently from a unique source, Prof. Karel Kaplan, a Czech historian and member of the Dubcek government's 1968 commission which investigated the political purge trials (1948), in which Noel Field figured prominently.
Kaplan read through the interrogations of Field by both Czech and Hungarian security officials. In all of these interrogations, according to Kaplan, Field named Alger Hiss as a fellow Communist underground agent in the State Department. . . .
Additional confirmation and specific citation of these interrogations came from Hungarian historian Maria Schmidt, who examined these files in 1992.
Kaplan and Schmidt made the Field interrogation transcripts available to Weinstein, who selected excerpts of the interrogations to use in Perjury:
(from Field's statement) From 1927 gradually, I started to live an illegal life completely separate from my official life . . . espionage for the Soviet intelligence service. When I undertook this task, my wife was also present. . . .
In Fall 1935, Hiss . . . called me to undertake espionage for the Soviet Union. I informed him that I was already doing such work. . . . I immediately told Hedda Gumperz [Hede Massing] and received a stern rebuke from her.
Hede and Paul Massing were German nationals, Soviet agents, and the Fields' immediate superior. Hede Massing rebuked Field for revealing himself to Hiss. Hiss may have been his friend, but they worked in different agencies of the Soviet Secret Service and were expected to maintain a firewall of unconditional silence about their activities.
Weinstein's government contacts in post-Soviet Russia opened their files to him. Weinstein noticed a reference to Noel Field's indiscretion and subsequent rebuke from Hede Massing in the records of inter-departmental communications within the Soviet Secret Service.
Soviet supervisors strongly criticized her management of the situation: "We do not understand 'Ryzhaya's' (Hede Massing's cover-name) motives in meeting 'Lawyer' [Hiss]. As we understand, it happened after we gave our last directives about 'Lawyer'."
In a cable to Moscow on May 18, 1936, newly arrived NKVD "resident" Isaac Akhmerov added yet another dimension to the sensitivity shown toward "Lawyer" by his Soviet handlers: "'Ryzhaya' met 'Lawyer' only once during her stay in the country."
In conclusion, I can say with certainty that Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent. He was outed by the man who considered Hiss his best friend of the period, Whittaker Chambers. During the HUAC hearings and during the trials, Chambers proved again and again how well he knew Hiss. Chambers's friends and associates remembered him well from his period of service to the Soviet Union and and knew the name of Alger Hiss, too. Hiss's attorneys had to confront the fact that their client did not always tell them the truth, which hindered their ability to defend him.
Besides Weinstein, consider a look at the following books:
- Alastair Cooke: A Generation on Trial;
- Whittaker Chambers: Witness;
- Sam Tanenhaus: Whittaker Chambers;
- G. Edward White: Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars;
Alger Hiss: the Wikipedia Article
I have studied Wikipedia's articles concerning the Hiss Case and have to admit that they add more to obfuscation than to clarification, and that scares me. The articles rarely if ever mention aspects of the case that define Hiss' guilt. They discuss little about the evidence presented at trial, say nothing about Weinstein's research of Hiss's State Department career, nor the files of his attorneys.
The articles express reservations about Hiss's guilt and the accuracy of Perjury so often, they leave a false sense of inconclusiveness for readers. They say little about the chronology of the case, about Hiss's appearances before th HUAC, his court appearances, nor even provide a list of the witnesses and other participants. All a reader gets is assessments of Hiss's guilt or innocence by this historian or that pundit.
Other sections of the article-text trouble me even more. Wikipedia writes that, "On December 2, Chambers led HUAC investigators to a pumpkin patch on his Maryland farm; from a hollowed-out pumpkin in which he had hidden them the previous day, he producd five rolls of 35 mm film that he said came from Hiss in 1938. . . . some contained images of trival content such as publicly available Navy documents concerning the painting of fire extinguishers, there were also images of State Department documents that were classified at the time."
Wikipedia does not mention, however, that fifty-eight frames of the microfilm contained images of State Department original documents. Fourteen of the documents carried Alger Hiss's own initials, indicating that he had checked them into his office. Possession of these documents by the Soviets allowed their code-breakers to break the diplomatic code that the State Department used to encode its telegrams. The article also does not say that Chambers held back the microfilms as protection, in case the government suppressed the other evidence (which it did).
The only real intent of the Wikipedia articles seems to be—as Whittaker Chambers himself said—to "muddy the waters endlessly." George Will has written that the challenges to the Hiss verdict by the Left are "ever more rococco."
Paragraph three in the Hiss article, for example, raises questions about the "validity of the verdict," about the "dispute" over Hiss's guilt, and the "relevant" but "unavailable" files that might cast the case in a different light:
Since Hiss' conviction, statements by involved parties and newly exposed evidence have added to the dispute. Author Anthony Summers argued that since many relevant files continue to be unavailable, the Hiss controversy will continue to be debated. The 1995 Venona Papers . . . were not yet deemed conclusive by many sources. In the 1990s, two former senior Soviet military officers . . . stated . . . that the "Russian Intelligence Service has no documents proving that Alger Hiss cooperated with our service."
Conspiracy-theorist Anthony Summers has written about the assassination of President Kennedy, the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, and has taxed Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover with negative portrayals of men in power; but as a child in Ireland at the time the Hiss case broke, he has no direct connection to it. He may be correct that files here and there have not come to light, but the salient details of the case have settled the issue of Hiss's guilt, thanks to Weinstein and others. The Venona Papers may not be complete, but again the salient details of relevant persons and activities make his guilt apparent. "The myth of Hiss's innocence," writes George Will in Newsweek, "suffers the death of a thousand cuts . . . delicate destruction by a scholar's scalpel."
The "senior Soviet military officers" refer mainly to General Dmitri Volkongonov, who "swallowed dust for two days" going through the files of the KGB. He found no indication that Hiss had served the KGB. Weinstein treated Volkongonov's assertion as something academic, then asked if Russia's intelligence chief Yevgeny Primakov "endorses this statement." Primakov had not.
After some back-peddling, General Volkongonov retracted his statement. He defended himself by saying that Hiss's representative John Lowenthal "pushed me hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced." Volkongonov said he wanted Alger Hiss, 88 years old at that time, to die in peace. His motives for saying what he did were "primarily humanitarian."
Wikipedia goes into greath length about the "Fake typerwriter hypothesis," which Hiss never even mentioned during the trials, not in his testimony and not in communications with his attorneys. He only brought up the "forgery by typewriter" hypothesis after his conviction had already come down.
Weinstein describes the moment:
The judge (Robert Goddard) instructed Hiss to rise, but before Goddard imposed sentence, Cross (Claude Cross, Hiss's defense attorney) asked if the defendant could make "a very brief statement." Goddard consented, and Alger Hiss approached the bench: "I would like to thank your Honor for this opportunity again to deny the charges that have been made against me. I want only to add that I am confident that in the future the full facts of how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter will be disclosed."
Subsequently, lead-attorney Edward McLean withdrew his firm from the case and took no part in Hiss's appeal. McLean's letter to Hiss explains in blunt terms his reasons for doing so—mainly that Hiss did not follow his advice at critical junctures. "The firm's name was being used," McLean's law-partner Robert von Mehren told Weinstein, "but it wasn't in a position to have its advice fully effective. . . . (A) number of the emphases were wrong," especially the forgery by typewriter which "we never felt was more than a theory."
So why did Wikipedia go to such lengths to justify the "forgery by typewriter" theory—almost four pages? This is ridiculous, irresponsible muddying the waters. Weinstein explains Hiss's rationale with a quote from British writer Rebecca West.
In England . . . persons detected in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union are instructed . . . to plead guilty and to admit to the police their participation. . . . In the United States such persons are instructed to proceed in precisely the opposite way and deny everything. This is a compliment to England. . . . In the United States, where legal proceedings are likely to be porlonged and confused . . . it is worth while putting up a plea of not guilty, no matter how absurd this may be in view of the real facts.
According to her own Wikipedia article, Wadewitz started work at Wikipedia in 2004 and became its "single biggest contributor on female authors [and] women's history." She not only contributed 50,000 edits to the list of Wikipedia English-language articles, she eagerly sought other women like herself—empowered and feminist—to give Wikipedia's viewpoint more of a woman's perspective on history, literature, culture, and current events.
Wadewitz studied the use of language in children's books by writers like Mary Wollstonecraft and others. In such books, "the child was supported in the construction of a "sympathetic self." She also wanted to end the "Lockean model" in children's literature by "drawing upon 'Rouseau's theory of education and . . . to construct a 'sympathetic self'." But Wadewitz had no children of her own and died unmarried in a rock-climbing accident at age 37.
Wikipedia writes that Wadewitz said, "We need more female editors, more feminists." She said she wanted more women to end Wikipedia's "systematic bias" against women. This kind of accusation typifies the modus operandi of feminsts: let the males create the organizations, then crticize them if they do not actively recruit feminists to steer it.
Having a bias does not bother me. Everyone has a bias. In less partisan times, we called it a "point of view." In the context of a free society, we used to think that a person's point of view had a kind of sacrosanct validity. On the other hand, inaccuracies, either by misstatement or through omission or exaggeration suggests intentional deception and disingenuousness. In the case of Alger Hiss, denial of Hiss's guilt represents a kind of left-wing, seven-day-creation article of faith.
Wikipedia needs to drop Wadewitz's enthusiasm for "diversity" and "gender issues" as legitimate criteria for reporting historical events and adopt a factual basis. In her Editing Wikipedia photograph, she looks like an over-controlled neatnik, someone with neat, clearly-defined thoughts and opinions, who does not often trouble herself with doubts, second-guessing, and messy, contrary opinions. Wikipedia really needs something more, a person with almost prosecutorial curiosity. Sacrifice everything, but get to the truth of the mystery!
In each of its articles, it needs to represent historical events with an attention to factual detail. If it does not, other information-sources will. They will offer factual reporting and supersede Wikipedia. That will hurt those of us who value Wikipedia's international on-line presence.