In July 2007, Sam Tanenhaus (the author of “Whittaker Chambers: A Biography”) wrote a cover story for The New Republic, arguing that Chambers was a kind of new-age conservative who (like Tanenhaus) would have taken issue with some of the more extreme positions of the Bush administration.
I didn’t happen to agree with that, but what concerned me more was Tanenhaus’s misuse of two alleged quotes by Alger Hiss that made Hiss seem like he was the Communist Chambers claimed he was. What Tanenhaus didn’t say was that the source of both quotes was Whittaker Chambers! Had a New York Times reporter done something similar and had been found out, I daresay it would have been grounds for a severe reprimand, if not a suspension.
It turns out, though, that this wasn’t the first time that Tanenhaus made questionable use of his source material. What’s more, when a journalist asked him about his sources two years ago, Tanenhaus angrily demanded that the interview, which was nearly over anyway, be off the record.
In October 1992, General Dmitri A. Volkogonov issued a statement after searching the Russian files that he found no evidence that Alger Hiss had ever been a member of the Communist Party USA; and, similarly, that researchers had found no evidence that he had ever been an agent for the KGB, for the GRU (Soviet military intelligence), or for any other intelligence agency of the Soviet Union.
Challenged by Richard Nixon and other American conservatives, Volkogonov modified his remarks two months later, telling a New York Times reporter “I was not properly understood. The Ministry of Defense also has an intelligence service, which is totally different, and many documents have been destroyed. I only looked through what the K.G.B. had. All I said was that I saw no evidence.”
In his Chambers biography, Tanenhaus alludes to this second Volkogonov statement and then uses it as a launching pad for a unique theory of his own: “… Volkogonov sheepishly admitted his search had been cursory and many relevant files had been destroyed. He did not offer to check again. Other Russian researchers, diligently combing intelligence files, privately reported that after Volkogonov’s blunder officials had scoured the archives and removed all files pertaining to Chambers and Hiss….”
What were Tanenhaus’s sources for this extraordinary assertion? According to a footnote: “researchers: Sergei Zhuravlev letter to Alan Cullison, n.d., c. January 1993 (in author’s possession).” And what exactly did this letter – from a single Russian researcher – say? After he completed his book, Tanenhaus donated his papers to the Hoover Institution in California, so they are now publicly available. But while there is a Cullison folder in the papers, it contains no such letter.
Was it even written at all? The Soviet historian Svetlana Chervonnaya decided to find out. In 2007, she spoke to both Zhuravlev, now a historian at the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Cullison, now the Moscow correspondent of the Wall Street Journal. It turns out that in the early 1990s, Cullison was in Moscow, in part to do research for Tanenhaus, and Zhuravlev, who was himself researching KGB files from the late 1930s on behalf of the MEMORIAL Society, a Russian group working on behalf of the victims of Stalinist terror, agreed to tell Cullison if he happened across any references to either Hiss or Chambers. But he never saw any, not surprisingly, since, as he told Chervonnaya, he had no access to KGB foreign intelligence files or GRU files.
Nor did he know anything about the destruction of records: “You may quote me,” he told Chervonnaya, “as saying I did not have any information on any destruction of records, and I did not write anything like that to Alan Cullison.”
Cullison, when approached by Chervonnaya, confirmed Zhuravlev’s memory: he dimly remembered that Zhuravlev had written him a letter, but, as to its contents, he maintained that its only reference to the Hiss case was a remark that “I am getting close to Chambers and Hiss records,” and that there was nothing written about the removal of any files.
Journalist Leon Wynter asked Tanenhaus about the whereabouts of the letter in 2007. First Tannenhaus suggested that it was simply inexplicably missing from the files and then said:
I’m gonna tell you something right now, which is that you do not quote a single word I’ve told you in this conversation. Right now all this is off the record, because it is so clear to me where all of this is going. And I really insist that I’m not to be quoted: not in any background, off the record – anything. Don’t mention me in this article. It’s so clear to me what’s going on. O.K.?
Why is this important now? For one thing, Tanenhaus’s statement stands unchallenged in a book that was nominated for the National Book Award, but for another, as I write my own book on the case and continue to look into the Hiss literature of the past thirty years, I am fed up with the misuse of source material that is the hallmark of the books that claim Hiss lied. Victor Navasky caught Allen Weinstein at it back in 1978 when he found that Weinstein misquoted a number of his key sources in “Perjury.” More recently John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr made some highly questionable editorial choices in the chapter on Alger Hiss in their book “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America” (for details see my 2009 review of their book on the Hiss Web site).
Tanenhaus’s convenient explanation about unseen Soviet evidence (that files that might incriminate Hiss can’t be found only because they have been removed from the shelves) is another tried-and-true technique of the kind regularly employed against Hiss, and yet seldom noticed.
Here’s an earlier example: In 2007, some 29 years after Weinstein promised to open his files to researchers, the Hoover Institution finally made them available. I went out there to go through them and see if they supported some of Weinstein’s more sensational claims about Chambers’ story being essentially true.
What I found led me to believe that perhaps there was a reason why the files stayed under wraps for such a long time. In “Perjury,” Weinstein claimed that the so-called head of the Communist underground, J. Peters, offered corroboration of Chambers’ story not in his words, but in the way he smiled mysteriously.
Weinstein had traveled all the way to Hungary to see Peters (Peters left the US in 1949 but was not deported, as Weinstein erroneously reports). But while apparently a genial host, Peters failed to give Weinstein what he had come all that way for, and in fact refuted Chambers’ story. Like Tanenhaus, Weinstein found a way of turning the absence of evidence to his advantage. Here’s how he puts it in the notes that I found at Hoover: “I think it was assumed throughout our conversation that he wasn’t telling me the real story, and that I knew this, and that it didn’t matter.”
It does matter, though. A lot.
There’s also this statement in his notes of the interview: “I also pointed out that ‘I couldn’t give a shit about Hiss’s guilt or innocence’ in terms of my own book. I would simply follow the evidence where it led me.’ ”
The fact that I have to spend so much of my time tracking down the errors and distortions in his book — all designed to build an argument against Hiss — that one made me laugh out loud.