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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