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.


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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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.

Nov 09


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.

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