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The Hiss-Chambers Case
By Third Edition, Allen Weinstein
Hoover Institution Press Copyright © 2013 Allen Weinstein
All rights reserved.
HUAC: A MONTH OF HEADLINES
AUGUST 3, 1948: THE WITNESS
What was HUAC up to this time? A new "mystery witness," perhaps, or some other bald move timed to make the next day's front pages? Whatever the purpose, the House Un-American Activities Committee had reserved the Ways and Means Committee's more spacious hearing room only minutes earlier. A large contingent of Washington reporters, summoned on short notice to the unexpected public session, wondered what surprise the unloved and unpredictable committee had concocted for that hot summer morning.
Three Republican congressmen and three Democrats, all opponents of the Truman administration, attended the session. Representing the Republican majority were Karl E. Mundt of South Dakota, John McDowell of Pennsylvania, and a first-term Californian named Richard M. Nixon. The Democrats seated on the dais were John Rankin of Mississippi, J. Hardin Peterson of Florida, and F. Edward Hébert of Louisiana. Chairman J. Parnell Thomas, under suspicion of having received kickbacks from his employees (a crime for which he would be indicted that year and later convicted), did not appear on August 3.
Thomas's predicament was only the latest threat to the committee's standing. John Rankin, who spiked most hearings with Negrophobic, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic tirades, and the other members of HUAC had trouble distinguishing between alleged Communist activities and participation in the New Deal. HUAC, first charged in 1938 with probing all varieties of domestic political extremism, had zeroed in — whether under Democratic or Republican chairmen — on the Democratic Party's liberal left more than on avowed Communists or fascists.
Its well-publicized hearings seldom bore any apparent relationship to the drafting of legislation. The committee's 1947 hearings on "subversion" in the motion-picture industry, for example, although producing indictments of the Hollywood Ten, ended by generating considerable opposition to HUAC's ruthless headline-hunting style, persuading many liberals as well as those on the left that they had seen the authentic face of a modern political witchhunt. Even some conservatives in Congress and in the press corps began to attack the committee for exceeding its original mandate, and one reporter, Bert Andrews of the New York Herald Tribune, won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles critical of its Hollywood hearings. HUAC's tarnished reputation made it vulnerable by mid-1948, and Truman aides drafted a bill to abolish the committee if the November election restored Democratic control of Congress.
Lying low, the group planned no major new probes before the election. "As a committee, we are getting some 'panning' from our colleagues on the floor and others," Acting Chairman Mundt wrote Thomas in late July 1948. "This will require some careful handling and some thorough planning." Only at the last minute did the committee decide to hear a witness who had testified days earlier before a Senate investigating subcommittee.
Elizabeth Bentley — fortyish, plump, sharp-nosed, and a former courier for Communist agents — had first approached the FBI in 1945. Director J. Edgar Hoover had deluged Truman, Attorney General Tom Clark, and others in 1945 and 1946 with memos detailing Bentley's allegations of widespread Soviet espionage, but the administration had taken no action, perhaps because the informant offered no corroboration for her story.
At the outset of Truman's 1948 presidential campaign, however, Bentley's well-publicized appearances before congressional committees revived the "Communism-in-government" issue. Dubbed the "Red Spy Queen" by the press, Bentley told HUAC on July 31 that from 1938 to 1945 she had made contact with almost two dozen Washington officials, Communists, and left-sympathizers, who — according to the witness — had delivered secret documents to her for transmission to Russian agents.
Bentley named names — including some prominent government aides, first mentioned publicly at her HUAC appearance and not in earlier congressional testimony. Lauchlin Currie, who had served as a top assistant to President Franklin Roosevelt, was one; and Harry Dexter White, former assistant secretary of the Treasury, chief architect of the World Bank, and, after 1946, director of the International Monetary Fund, was another. Although Bentley ranged more widely in her charges before HUAC than during Senate testimony, she offered only her version — her word — and Truman dismissed the accusations as false and politically motivated. Still, public interest in Bentley's appearances persuaded Thomas, Mundt, and HUAC's chief investigator, Robert E. Stripling, a Democratic holdover from the chairmanships of Martin Dies and John Rankin, of her usefulness. Staff members searched for evidence to reinforce Bentley's tale of a Communist spy ring widespread in government and produced statements by a not-too-cooperative witness whom committee investigators had interviewed in March. That witness became the surprise of August 3.
Whittaker Chambers had led three lives since attending Columbia: as an "open Party" Communist journalist and a freelance translator during the late 1920s and early 1930s; as a Communist underground agent during the mid-thirties; and, since 1939, as a writer and editor for Time. During the March session Chambers had asked that he not be subpoenaed, and summoning him on August 2 to corroborate Bentley seems to have been Karl Mundt's idea. Mundt, in turn, acted on the suggestion of a New York World-Telegram reporter, Frederick Woltman, who had learned of Chambers's past from ex-radical friends and from the FBI.
The forty-seven-year-old Chambers made an unimpressive appearance in executive session on the morning of the 3rd. "He was short and pudgy," Richard Nixon later wrote. "His clothes were unpressed; his shirt collar was curled up over his jacket. He spoke in a rather bored monotone [and] seemed an indifferent if not a reluctant witness."
Chambers asked permission to read an opening statement, and after quickly skimming it, Robert Stripling agreed. The witness proceeded listlessly through the few pages of text until one committee member perked up at the names Chambers mentioned and interrupted: "Hell, why is this in executive session? This should be in the open!" Anticipating good publicity, HUAC adjourned to hold a public hearing in the Ways and Means Committee room.
In the witness chair Chambers, his voice continually trailing off, read once more the statement explaining his decision to leave the Communist Party:
Almost exactly nine years ago — that is, two days after Hitler and Stalin signed their pact [in August 1939] — I went to Washington and reported to the authorities what I knew about the infiltration of the United States Government by Communists.
After defecting in 1938, Chambers asserted, he had "lived in hiding, sleeping by day and watching through the night with gun and revolver within easy reach." He then described his reasons for thinking that the Communists might try to kill him:
For a number of years I had myself served in the underground, chiefly in Washington, D.C. The heart of my report to the United States Government [in 1939] consisted of a description of the apparatus to which I was attached. It was an underground organization of the United States Communist Party developed, to the best of my knowledge, by Harold Ware, one of the sons of the Communist leader known as "Mother Bloor." I knew it at its top level, a group of seven or so men, from among whom in later years certain members of Miss Bentley's organization were apparently recruited. The head of the underground group at the time I knew it was Nathan Witt, an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board. Later, John Abt became the leader. Lee Pressman was also a member of this group, as was Alger Hiss, who, as a member of the State Department, later organized the conference at Dumbarton Oaks, San Francisco, and the United States side of the Yalta Conference.
Reporters present realized that they had their "lead" for the next day's papers. Witt and Abt, also named by Bentley, were middle-rank bureaucrats and had long since left the government. So had Pressman, who was now general counsel of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). But Alger Hiss in such company was news. Since leaving the State Department, Hiss had become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The next day's papers used variants of the headline "TIME EDITOR CHARGES CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT HEAD WAS SOVIET AGENT," which did not reflect the qualifying sentences Chambers had used to describe the "ring":
The purpose of this group at that time was not primarily espionage. Its original purpose was the Communist infiltration of the American Government. But espionage was certainly one of its eventual objectives.
Eager for additional details — and names — Stripling and the committee members intensified their questioning. Had Chambers named all the members of this secret New Deal Communist cell? No, the witness responded; he had singled out only the most prominent ones — Witt, Abt, Pressman, and Alger Hiss. "Other members of the group were ... Donald Hiss [Alger's younger brother], Victor Perlo, [and] Charles Kramer (originally Charles Krivitsky)," all low-to-middle-rank functionaries at the time within the New Deal. The Ware Group, he explained, had met either at the apartment of Henry Collins, another member, or at the violin studio of Harold Ware's sister, Helen. Collins collected the dues. Ware's superior was a man named "J. Peters" ("to the best of my knowledge, the head of the whole underground United States Communist Party"), who visited the group "from time to time." Peters had been the object of a deportation hearing in 1947, but, according to Stripling, neither immigration authorities nor HUAC (which had become interested in Peters during the 1947 Hollywood Ten hearings) had been able to locate him.
After breaking, Chambers said, he had discussed his activities with Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle in September 1939 and later repeated his story several times to FBI and State Department agents who sought him out. Stripling wanted to know about encounters with Washington underground contacts after fleeing the party. Chambers told of one with Alger Hiss:
MR. CHAMBERS: ... I went to the Hiss home one evening at what I considered considerable risk to myself and found Mrs. Hiss at home. Mrs. Hiss is also a member of the Communist Party.
MR. MUNDT: Mrs. Alger Hiss?
MR. CHAMBERS: Mrs. Alger Hiss. Mrs. Donald Hiss, I believe, is not. ... Mr. Hiss came in shortly afterward, and we talked and I tried to break him away from the party. As a matter of fact, he cried when we separated, when I left him, but he absolutely refused to break. ... I was very fond of Mr. Hiss.
MR. MUNDT: He must have given you some reason why he did not want to sever the relationship.
MR. CHAMBERS: His reasons were simply the party line.
Chambers then said he had also visited Harry Dexter White to urge him to break with Communism. Again, as in the case of Hiss, Chambers reported failure. White and Hiss, he testified, had been separated — at the orders of J. Peters — from further direct contact with the Ware Group's operations in 1936 and placed in a parallel apparatus that reported through Chambers to Peters. The party had concluded that these two officials were "going places in the Government ... were an elite group ... and their position in the Government would be of very much more service to the Communist Party" than as members of a larger secret group. "I should make the point that these people were specifically not wanted to act as sources of information," the witness observed, thus denying that Hiss, White, or any of the others had ever committed espionage.
Most committee members did not anticipate the great press attention and public interest that would overwhelm HUAC in the next twenty-four hours. Only Nixon knew beforehand of Chambers's charges against Alger Hiss.
In mid-1948 the freshman congressman from Whittier, California, was little known outside his own district. Richard Nixon — lawyer, Navy veteran, congressional candidate by virtue of a newspaper ad — had replaced his Democratic predecessor, Jerry Voorhis, as a member of HUAC. He had absented himself from the committee's more controversial hearings, such as the Hollywood investigation in Los Angeles. His major public concern prior to Chambers's appearance involved joint sponsorship of the Mundt-Nixon Bill to outlaw the Communist Party, HUAC's pet measure earlier that year. Although Nixon recalled that the committee had not initially considered Chambers's testimony "especially important," HUAC rarely decided to move immediately from executive to public session without reasonable assurance of good press coverage. Nixon further insisted that he "considered for a moment the possibility of skipping the public hearing altogether, so that I could return to my office and get out some mail."
Nixon's recollection is not perfectly clear. He did attend the session, and although he claimed that his thoughts wandered to "other subjects," he participated actively in the questioning. "This was the first time I had ever heard of either Alger or Donald Hiss," Nixon incorrectly wrote in 1962. He had actually been briefed extensively on the allegations against the Hisses and other Ware Group members for the preceding year and a half.
Shortly after Nixon entered Congress, a Republican colleague, Charles Kersten of Wisconsin, took him to Baltimore for the first of several meetings with a Catholic priest named John Cronin, who specialized in collecting data on Communist infiltration. He had access to FBI files and, in 1945, produced a confidential report to the American Catholic bishops, "The Problem of American Communism," in which he listed the names of many actual and alleged Communists — including Alger Hiss. The priest's briefings of Nixon and Kersten included long discussions of Soviet espionage in America and mentioned the presence of "certain Communists ... in the State Department." Hiss figured prominently in Cronin's report to the bishops, a copy of which Nixon read. But during his interrogation of Chambers, and in subsequent HUAC hearings, Nixon never mentioned Cronin's assistance, or his own prior knowledge of the charges.
Alger Hiss learned about Chambers's HUAC accusations on the evening of August 2, when a reporter phoned him for comment on leaks from a committee source about the impending testimony. Afternoon papers and news broadcasts covered Chambers's appearance at length, and most stories emphasized the statements about Hiss, who immediately sent a telegram to J. Parnell Thomas:
MY ATTENTION HAS BEEN CALLED BY REPRESENTATIVES OF THE PRESS TO STATEMENTS MADE ABOUT ME BEFORE YOUR COMMITTEE THIS MORNNING BY ONE WHITTAKER CHAMBERS. I DO NOT KNOW MR. CHAMBERS AND, SO FAR AS I AM AWARE, I HAVE NEVER LAID EYES ON HIM. THERE IS NO BASIS FOR THE STATEMENTS ABOUT ME MADE TO YOUR COMMITTEE. I WOULD APPRECIATE IT IF YOU WOULD MAKE THIS TELEGRAM A PART OF YOUR COMMITTEE'S RECORDS AND I WOULD FURTHER APPRECIATE THE OPPORTUNITY OF APPEARING BEFORE YOUR COMMITTEE TO MAKE THESE STATEMENTS FORMALLY AND UNDER OATH. I SHALL BE IN WASHINGTON ON THURSDAY [AUGUST 5] AND HOPE THAT THAT WILL BE A CONVENIENT TIME FROM THE COMMITTEE'S POINT OF VIEW FOR ME TO APPEAR. ALGER HISS.
A copy of the wire went to the chairman of the Carnegie Endowment's Board of Trustees, John Foster Dulles, the man primarily responsible for having brought Alger Hiss to the organization.
The previous day Hiss had returned from a month's vacation in Peacham, Vermont, where his wife stayed with their seven-year-old son, Tony. Priscilla Hiss remained unaware of the uproar, Alger Hiss recalled in a 1975 interview with the author, until he phoned her late on the afternoon that Chambers testified. "I gave her the news as soon as I got through the newspaper calls, sometime around 5 PM. ... I told her just what I planned to do [to testify before HUAC]. I said, 'Don't worry, little one. This will all blow over. I will handle it.' ... I 'pooh-poohed' it." Hiss remembered the incident differently — and more casually — at the time. "As we have no telephone in Peacham and make use of the general store for long-distance calls," he wrote Dulles on August 5, "I have not had a chance to talk directly to Priscilla though I wrote her as soon as I learned of Chambers' testimony."
Excerpted from Perjury by Third Edition, Allen Weinstein. Copyright © 2013 Allen Weinstein. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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