Jul 19

Stephen Salant, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan with a longtime interest in the Hiss case (in the mid-1970s, he was the one who located the infamous “Pumpkin Papers” films and helped get them released to the public), has posted a fascinating and important investigation, demonstrating that  Horace Schmahl, an investigator hired by the defense, was in fact an undercover Army spy-catcher—a Special Agent in the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). What Schmahl was up to while working for the defense is the question. Was he involved in the framing of Hiss as has been suspected since his role as a mole for the FBI was first hinted at in 1950 and demonstrated to have been a fact with the release of the FBI’s files on the case in the 1970s? If so, how and why was CIC involved?

Salant’s discovery  makes Hiss’s contention that he was the victim of “forgery by typewriter” more plausible. Military Intellgence had vast experience during World War II forging documents to protect agents behind enemy lines, and Schmahl had a cover story that would have permitted him to position forged evidence without arousing suspicion. Schmahl was hired by Hiss’s legal team while Whittaker Chambers was continuing to insist, as he had for a decade, that Hiss was a communist but never a spy. A month later, Chambers reversed his position and turned over the typed spy documents. “How,” asks Salant, “did Military Intelligence anticipate that Hiss’s libel action would suddenly be transformed into a spy case?”

That, as they used to say, is the $64,000 question.
Salant’s scholarly essay doesn’t answer all of these questions, but it is in effect a plea for more information. In the meantime, it makes for great reading. Click here for the site. Click here to read an interview with Salant.
Apr 19

A few days ago, I posted that I had written an article for the  Web site on Donald Hiss, reporting that the FBI had essentially exonerated him. Here’s the thing about researching this case (and probably about historical research in general). You always find something new to add to the picture. Donald Hiss’s story is a perfect example. Tonight, I was doing some research on my own book when I found two bits of information from Donald that help exonerate  his brother. A few weeks ago, I found a third. I suppose I should add them to the original story, and I will, but I thought I’d share them here first.

Two of them come via John Lowenthal, who interviewed Donald and his wife for his 1980 documentary, “The Trials of Alger Hiss.” If I recall correctly, that interview ended up on the cutting room floor, but the transcript is sitting here in my office, and I opened it tonight to check something. That’s when I came across these two fascinating comments by  Donald that I hadn’t seen reported before. (Of course, it’s very possible that they had been, but that I’ve simply forgotten.)

In 1948, Whittaker Chambers also claimed that Donald Hiss had been a friend of his. To support that allegation (Donald Hiss said he had never met Chambers), he offered a few nuggets of information about Donald – the kinds of insidey tidbits that only friends would know. Chambers had a habit of doing this, and usually this was when he would put his foot in his mouth. For example, he claimed to have visited the home of his alleged first underground contact, Max Bedacht, and nearly got run over by his eight kids. It turned out Bedacht only had two kids, and they were grown. The story that he had eight originated with a piece of doggeral that a fellow party member had jokingly written about Bedacht – a fact that Chambers would have been aware of had he actually known Bedacht.

Anyway, Chambers made similar errors about Donald Hiss. One, which has been reported before, concerned his statement that Donald was married to the daughter of a  State Department official named  Cotton. This was completely false. Hiss’s wife Catherine was friendly with Cotton’s family. Her last name was Jones. That Chambers also referred to Cotton as  ”a Mr. Cotton in the State Department,” also revealed his lack of  real knowledge, as Cotton was one of the best known members of the Hoover administration.

But there was another indication that Chambers was lying about his relationship with Donald Hiss (and thus, by extension, Alger). Alger Hiss had sued Chambers for libel in 1948. Later that fall, depositions were taken in the suit, and in those depositions Chambers voluntarily served up another detail about Donald Hiss’s wife, describing in detail her “lovely, long, golden hair” in the 1930s. The problem was that her hair was jet black at the time.

Here’s the second. After Chambers’ first appearance before HUAC in which he claimed that Alger and Donald had been secret members of the Communist Party, Hiss responded by telling the committee that he had no idea who Chambers was (It turned out that Chambers was using a pseudonym at the time, and he acknowledged that Hiss never knew him under his real name). The conservative members of the committee said Hiss was lying when he said he didn’t recognize Chambers from recent photographs of him. Years later, historian Allen Weinstein in his book “Perjury,” also said Hiss was lying. But Donald Hiss told Lowenthal a revealing story. After that first public appearance by Chambers on August 3, 1948, Alger Hiss drove down to Washington from Vermont to testify in response. The night before his appearance he stayed with Donald. Here’s what Donald told Lowenthal:

“He was to see his lawyer from Baltimore, Mr. [William] Marbury, the next morning, before he was to testify. And he had brought with him some photographs. He was going over them with me, saying, ‘Look at this photograph. Have you ever seen that face?’”

“And I said, ‘No.’

“And we went through all of them, and he mentioned one, that there was something vaguely familiar about that one. I said, ‘Well, tell Bill. But I don’t see anything that I can recognize.’”

Why would they have had such a conversation if Hiss had recognized Chambers? And if you don’t believe that they did have that conversation or that Alger was lying while saying he didn’t recognize Chambers from the photographs, then here’s the third item, the one I turned up a few weeks ago. It’s a letter to Alger from Donald written in 1963, a private note between brothers in which Donald mentions a new book by H. Montgomery Hyde (”The Quiet Canadian”) that discusses the possibility of forgery by typewriter.

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So the question is, why would Donald have sent that note if he knew that Chambers’ allegations regarding the both of them were accurate?

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Apr 08

Files released under the Freedom of Information Act (and now available for downloading on the Bureau’s FOIA page) show that an investigation into Chambers’ charges that Alger Hiss’s younger brother had also been a member of Communist underground proved that Chambers’ charges were false. Of course, the FBI kept it a secret for a few decades. You can find our report here.

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Mar 11

Because she was the only person to support Whittaker Chambers’ story that Alger Hiss had been a member of the Communist underground, Hede Massing was one of the most important prosecution witnesses against Alger Hiss. I’ve been researching her story on and off for a few years. Back in 2003, the FBI released to me Hede Massing’s file in almost completely unredacted form. As a result, those documents are among the most revelatory off all the FBI files that we’ve managed to get hold of since the 1970s. What they basically show is that while the defense didn’t have all the information it needed to impeach her testimony (although its rebuttal witness Henrikas Rabinivicius was pretty convincing), the prosecution did. With the help of the FBI it managed to keep it hidden — that is until a few years ago.

There are a lot of lessons in the Massing story. One of them is the importance that the FBI files play in our understanding of history. It is crucial that we see complete files. More than 60 years after Hiss’s conviction, there is no good reason to keep any information on the case under wraps. I’m pretty certain as a result of my story the security of the United States will not be endangered nor anyone’s privacy ruined, since all the principals are now dead.

Another important lesson is about the way we look at the new information that is emerging not only from the FBI files but also from the files of the former Soviet Union. Two recent books, “The Haunted Wood” and “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America,” purport to contain revelations about the Hiss-Massing relationship from the files of the KGB, but while for all I know that information may have been quoted accurately (no one knows for sure, partly because the person who saw them, Alexander Vassiliev, was in actuality only allowed to take notes from documents that had been carefully selected from the files by Russian intelligence officials), that doesn’t mean what was said in those documents was true. In Hede Massing’s case, while she may have told her handlers in the KGB that Hiss was in the underground, that doesn’t make her 1936 claim to them any more true than the similar story she told the FBI in 1948. She had her owns reasons for telling the first story to the Soviets in the 1930s and different reasons for cooperating with the FBI in 1948. I have investigated all of these reasons, and not one of them enhanced her credibility any.

Many of the newly released FBI files have been incorporated into my story only after getting the thorough analysis that they warrant. I’ve also (with the help of the Soviet historian Svetlana Chervonnaya) given the more recent claims based on the Soviet files a careful look. The results of my findings were posted today on the Alger Hiss Web site. You can find the story here. It’s long. Find yourself a nice comfy chair before you start in on it, but if you do stick with it, I think you’ll find it rewarding. Take away Massing’s credibility and whole chunks of the case against Hiss fall apart, not to mention the light it sheds on the FBI’s investigative techniques.

Jan 11

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.

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Nov 16

The United Nations has posted this comprehensive interview with Alger Hiss from 1990 on the founding of the UN. It’s a fascinating chat, touching on a variety of topics and events that Hiss had firsthand knowledge of, including Dumbarton Oaks, Yalta, the San Francisco Conference, and such important figures as FDR, Churchill, Stalin, Gromyko, Truman and more. The interview was conducted by James S. Sutterlin and is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in the development of the UN. Here’s the link.

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Life magazine covers Hiss’s several arrival back on the East Coast with the United Nations Charter. Years later he noticed with a sardonic laugh that while the charter was given its own parachute, he wasn’t.

Nov 09

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A search on YouTube just happened to turn up this two-part film from 1973 when Watergate was making national headlines. The source is unknown, but the interviews with investigative reporter Fred J. Cook (The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss) and reporter James G. Crowley of the Boston Globe are well done. Here’s the link.

Nov 02

For years, Alger Hisss detractors have cited the testimony of Nathaniel Weyl as proof of his guilt. For those who arent familiar with Weyl, he worked in Department of Agriculture while Hiss was there, and he claimed in 1952 to have been the so-called Ware Group of secret communists and that Hiss had also been a member.
But there were lots of problems with Weyls testimony. For example, although he had many opportunities to do so, he never said anything about Hisss involvement until long after Hiss was convicted. Also, no one else, even those who had admitted being part of the group, remembered Weyls association with it. In fact, even Whittaker Chambers never mentioned him. There are other problems with his testimony, but still, historians such as Allen Weinstein, G. Edward White and John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, lean on his tenuous story.
The other day, I was sorting through some files when I came across this fascinating document. Its a two page memo by Elinor Ferry, a journalist and investigator who helped piece together Hisss motion for a new trial in the 1950s and then began  but never finished  a book on the case. In the course of her research, Ferry spoke to a Washington D.C.-based psychiatrist named Benjamin Weininger. Weininger, it seemed, had half the members of the Washington area Communist Party as patients, and one of them was Nathaniel Weyl. If these notes are correct, Weyls testimony was the result of a phony recovered memory ploy.
The notes also mentioned the story of Katherine Wills Perlo, another account cited by  Weinstein as proof of Chambers story. Perlo, who had once been married to Victor Perlo, wrote a letter to president in 1944, claiming that her husband was part of an underground group. Weinstein also relies on her letter to support Chambers, but Weininger also saw her and his own thoughts on her credibility.
I should mention that when I first saw this interview, I mentioned it to Bill Reuben, who didnt believe it for a second, saying that the Party forbade its members from undergoing psychotherapy, Maybe, but this account seems credible.
Here is the document, in Ferrys handwriting. The source is Harvard Law School Library.

For years, Alger Hiss’s detractors have cited the testimony of Nathaniel Weyl as proof of his guilt. For those who aren’t familiar with Weyl, he worked in Department of Agriculture while Hiss was there, and he claimed in 1952 to have been a member of the so-called Ware Group of secret communists and that Hiss had been as well.

But there were lots of problems with Weyl’s testimony. For example, although he had many opportunities to do so, he never said anything about Hiss’s alleged involvement until long after Hiss was convicted. Also, no one else, even those who had admitted being part of the group, remembered Weyl’s association with it. Even Whittaker Chambers, who claimed to be the group’s courier, never mentioned him. There are other problems with his testimony, but nonetheless, historians such as Allen Weinstein, G. Edward White and John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, continue to lean on his tenuous story.

The other day, I was sorting through some files when I came across this fascinating document. It’s a two-page memo by George Eddy (1907-1998), a former New Deal economist, who researched but never published a book on the Hiss case. In the course of his research, Eddy spoke to a Washington D.C.-based psychiatrist named Benjamin Weininger. At times it seemed that Weininger had half the members of the Washington area Communist Party as clients, and one of them was Nathaniel Weyl. If these notes are correct, there are even more reasons to suspect Weyl’s testimony.

The notes also mentioned the story of Katherine Wills Perlo, another account cited by  Weinstein as proof of Chambers story. Perlo, who had once been married to Victor Perlo, wrote a letter to FDR in 1944, claiming that her husband was part of an underground group. As it turns out, Weininger also saw her and also offered his insights into her credibility.

I should mention that when I first saw this interview, I mentioned it to Bill Reuben, who didn’t believe it for a second, saying that the Party forbade its members from undergoing psychotherapy, Maybe, but this account seems credible.

Here is the document, in Eddy’s handwriting. The source is Harvard Law School Library.

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Oct 29

We just posted a terrific interview with Alger done by Tom Snyder on the “Tomorrow Show” in 1980. You can find it here.

Sep 25

A bombshell went off last night during a meeting of a small group of historians at NYU. Because the bomb was of the metaphorical kind, no one was hurt, with the possible exception of the reputation of the person who dropped it, Dr. John Earl Haynes.

The occasion was a short symposium sponsored by the Center for the Cold War and the United States, and besides Dr. Haynes (the author of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America), the featured speakers were  Drs. Allen Hornblum, Amy Knight and Ellen Schrecker, all of whom have written extensively about issues related to the Cold War. There were about sixty people in the audience. Quite a few seemed to be historians, while others with a special interest in the period were also in attendance.

My notes on this aren’t the best, but I believe the remark in question followed a statement by Ellen Schrecker who was commenting on a list of names Dr. Haynes had offered of people he claimed had cooperated secretly with the Soviet Union and were traitors for doing so. Schrecker responded by saying that the issue was much more complex than that. For example, she suggested, many of the people who joined the Communist Party did so out of the feeling that it was the best way to fight the economic forces that led to such widespread suffering during the Depression. Many were also motivated to fight fascism, which was fast becoming the biggest threat to the civilized world at the time — a threat that the United States was very slow to recognize. She added that those who cooperated with the Soviet Union in transmitting information did so on behalf of humanity and out of the need to help an ally. Their actions, she said, needed to be placed in this context in order to understand them.

That’s when the you know what hit the fan. Dr. Haynes, an historian with the Library of Congress, stated in response that his sole interest was in finding out who did what and outing them. Understanding their actions or placing them in context was not on his list of priorities. His job, as he saw it, was to name names. A collective gasp seemed to suck the air out of the room. People, even those who appeared to be sympathetic to Haynes, were clearly appalled. One history professor stood up and said would his students would receive an “F” on any papers that didn’t try to take into account the motives of people they were writing about.  Others voiced similar opinions. Sensing the shock, Haynes backtracked a bit, explaining that he did think the actions of those he named, needed to be understood, but that it was his feeling that process of examing their actions should only follow when the names of alleged spies were uncovered and published.

That seemed to me a weak response. Dr. Haynes and Harvey Klehr have collaborated on six books, many of which have used the files of the former Soviet Union to name those they say are traitors. They have had plenty of time to add context to their lists and plenty of space in their books to do so. But they haven’t. And the guess here is that they won’t.

After hearing his comments, it was no wonder why “Spies” is characterized by what appears to be not only a casual interest in fact checking and contextual analysis but, more important, a lack of any real humanity.

And now, as of last night, their own secret is out. I hope other historians will take notice.

Oh: During the meeting, Dr. Haynes posted a screenshot of the so-called Gorsky List, a list taken from the Soviet files of those who secretly cooperated with the Soviet Union. Alger Hiss is on the list, although he appears as “Leonard.” Questions have been raised about the list’s provenance and accuracy, and during the session a date on the list jumped out at me from the screen. I realized that Dr. Haynes was undermining his own argument and offering  proof that the critics of the list were right. I will incorporate my observations in my review of “Spies.” Look for it in the next few days.

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