Sep 14

This is a summary of our recently posted review of “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.”  You can find the unabridged version here.

“Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America” marks the sixth collaboration between John Earl Haynes, a historian in the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division, and Harvey Klehr, a professor of politics and history at Emory University. Like several previous Haynes and Klehr books, “Spies” is published by the Yale University Press. It lists Alexander Vassiliev as its third co-author, and is based on the notes that Vassiliev, a former KGB agent, took on KGB files that were shown to him in the 1990s. This is the second go-round for these notes, which were also used a decade ago as the source material for “The Haunted Wood” (Random House, 1999), a book co-authored by Vassiliev and Allen Weinstein, who recently retired as Archivist of the United States. “Spies” purports to confirm the earlier book’s conclusion that Alger Hiss and others accused of espionage during the McCarthy period were in fact guilty. Haynes and Klehr also claim that Vassiliev’s notebooks contain a great deal of information that didn’t appear in “The Haunted Wood” – information which confirms that Hiss was guilty as charged, and shows that the KGB net also ensnared such surprising figures as Ernest Hemingway and the journalist I. F. Stone.

The book has attracted a number of positive reviews from both conservatives and liberals. Writing in The New Republic, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum says that Haynes and Klehr “have usually stuck to the documents, the evidence, the facts” in their historical works and do not write polemically. She adds that “Haynes, Klehr and Vassiliev are well within their rights in titling their chapter ‘Alger Hiss: Case Closed.'”

On the other hand, critics of the authors’ work have found their approach more ideological than historical and their tone polemical, vindictive, and prosecutorial. Historian Amy Knight, for example, debunked many of the authors’ arguments in a review she wrote for the Times Literary Supplement in June 2009. “The main purpose of ‘Spies,’ it seems, is not to enlighten readers,” she writes, “but to silence those who still voice doubts about the guilt of people like Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, I.F. Stone and others.”

In fact, the documents shown to Vassiliev are in no way definitive in their assertions about Alger Hiss, and the arguments based on them by Haynes and Klehr, when held up to the light of day, are no more convincing or compelling or final or airtight or unassailable than the anti-Hiss arguments previously advanced by Weinstein. Much of the evidence cited by Haynes and Klehr can actually be viewed from a totally different perspective, as exculpatory. Unfortunately, this fact will escape reviewers who aren’t familiar with the details of the tangled arguments used against Hiss.

“Spies” has already provoked controversy of a different sort, relating to the diverging stories Vassiliev has told about his note-taking process and to the book’s provenance. The issue is not so much the authenticity of the documents shown to Vassiliev, but rather whether he was deliberately shown only certain files of a relatively routine, trivial and often gossipy nature. This is a separate issue, however, that will be dealt with elsewhere;  our primary concern is the accuracy of the conclusions that Haynes and Klehr draw.

Despite these objections, “Spies” does have one great virtue: it carefully reassembles in a single chapter most, if not all, of the charges raised against Alger Hiss over the better part of the last quarter century (the so-called “new evidence”). It therefore provides a rare chance to see how comprehensively unconvincing the full case against Hiss actually is – both the original allegations and the second-generation accusations – and to show the flimsiness and illogicality of each individual piece of “evidence.”

Our review focuses on the first chapter of “Spies,” in which the authors lay out their arguments for declaring the Hiss Case “closed.”

The major arguments made by the authors are:

1) Vassiliev’s notes prove that Hiss talked to self-confessed former spy Hede Massing about recruiting their mutual friend, Noel Field, into the Communist underground. (Massing made this claim at Hiss’s second perjury trial; Hiss denied it.)

2) The notes connect Hiss with another alleged Soviet agent, former Treasury Department official Harold Glasser. This link adds further weight to the accusation that Hiss was “Ales,” a Soviet agent whose code-name first became public when Soviet wartime intelligence cables decrypted under the US government’s top-secret Venona operation were released by the National Security Agency in 1995.

3) Hiss’s name appears in Soviet files and in correspondence between Moscow and its agents in New York in a way that indicates that Hiss was an agent of Soviet military intelligence (the GRU).

At first glance, a number of the documents referenced in Vassiliev’s notebooks and quoted by Haynes and Klehr would appear – if examined in isolation – to implicate Hiss. None of these allegations can be substantiated, however, once they are analyzed within a more comprehensive context that takes into account other already known and available sources of information. As our review sets forth:

1) Hiss could not have recruited Noel Field for the Communist underground when the documents said he did because Field wasn’t even in the country at the time. This information, first gleaned from State Department files, has long been available to researchers – but is not even mentioned in “Spies.” This is just one of many contradictions between what the Soviet files allege and the statements on record made by Hede Massing, Field himself and Field’s wife. Since none of these discrepancies are explored or even acknowledged by the authors, most readers wouldn’t know that they conflict with the public record. But, in fact, the conflicts are so numerous and so serious that, instead of confirming Massing’s story, a more even-handed treatment would actually raise serious doubts about the account she gave to the FBI, her sworn testimony before the grand jury, at the Hiss trial, and before Congressional committees, and the narrative she put together for her autobiography, “This Deception.” Yet Haynes and Klehr accept this narrative as an authoritative source, without so much as a second glance.

2) In strikingly similar fashion, Haynes and Klehr’s allegations about Harold Glasser also ignore published information that contradicts the documents shown to Vassiliev. The authors’ claim, for instance, that Glasser was a member of Whittaker Chambers’ Communist underground group was disputed both by Soviet intelligence agent Elizabeth Bentley and by Chambers himself. While both Glasser and Hiss told authorities that they knew each other, Haynes and Klehr exaggerate the extent of this relationship to prove that Hiss was “Ales” – an identification that the FBI itself ultimately doubted. This information comes from the FBI files and points up one of the basic flaws (and ironies) in the premise of “Spies”: that anything the authors happen upon in Vassiliev’s notes is somehow treated as more reliable than information coming from other sources – including the FBI. Because they are building a case rather than digging for the truth, Haynes and Klehr give more weight to the documents referenced in the notes solely because, on the surface, they seem damaging to Hiss. (This is made clear when they express doubts about the only KGB document mentioned in the book that suggests that Hiss was not a spy.)

Furthermore, by accepting at face value whatever was stated in some particular Soviet document, they presume that the writer of that document was simply a diligent Russian uniformed officer or civil servant with no ulterior motive – no axe to grind, no self-interest to promote. Moreover, they assume without even seeming to notice it that the writer of any chosen document invariably had firsthand knowledge of the person or subject he or she was writing about. These assumptions repeatedly fall apart when the content of the relevant documents is subjected to the kind of careful scrutiny it merits – instead of being given a free ride simply because, taken at face value, it might implicate Hiss. Again and again, more careful examination reveals deep discrepancies between these Soviet files and key American trial and Congressional testimony, or FBI interviews, or commonly accepted and undisputed facts in the Hiss Case. (The great irony here – it has to be repeated – is that by omitting what the FBI turned up, Haynes and Klehr seem to be implying that the FBI’s findings can’t be trusted. This point of view is uncommon, if not unheard-of, in conservative books.)

Herein lies the true danger of “Spies”: Because the issues detailed here are never considered by the authors, readers unfamiliar with the minutiae of the Hiss Case (a large majority of readers) will have no idea from reading “Spies” that there are such numerous, frequently occurring and troublesome problems with the source material being relied on, as well as with the interpretations to which it is subjected.

3) Alger Hiss’s name does appear in several Soviet intelligence documents referenced by Vassiliev, but so do the names of many people who were not Soviet agents. Most of the references to Hiss in the documents shown to Vassiliev relate to the allegations Hede Massing reported to her Soviet handler. And while the authors claim that a list of agents supplied to the Soviets by Victor Perlo, a government economist, implicates Hiss, that document actually supports the case for Hiss. It’s particularly interesting to note that although Allen Weinstein, Vassiliev’s collaborator on “The Haunted Wood” and a firm believer in Hiss’s guilt, was given access to “the Perlo list” more than 10 years ago, he chose not to discuss it in his book.

Weinstein also abstained from citing another KGB document that Haynes and Klehr claim proves Hiss’s guilt — a list of alleged American sources compiled by a KGB officer named Anatoly Gorsky. An analysis of “the Gorsky list” shows that, contrary to what is said in “Spies,” the most compelling conclusion that can be drawn about Gorsky’s inclusion of Alger Hiss in his hastily drawn-up, 1949 list of “failed” Soviet agents in the United States is this: that internal evidence shows the section of the list in which Hiss’s name appears was largely culled not from firsthand KGB reports but from publicly available material – including 1948 and 1949 American newspaper accounts of the charges against Hiss. Haynes and Klehr’s accounts of this information also ignore more recently disclosed and contradictory evidence from GRU files, information that was already in the public domain when they were writing their book.

Specifically, the newly disclosed GRU information undercuts much of Chambers’s many stories about himself and about Hiss. Although Haynes and Klehr fail to incorporate what the GRU records say into “Spies,” it’s clear that this information too has come to their attention, because they used it – but got it wrong – at a 2007 Washington, D.C. Symposium on Cryptological History. At that forum, the authors stated that, based on GRU files, Hiss not only was “Ales” but was also a spy code-named “Doctor.” (The same allegation was repeated this year by the late Eduard Mark at the Woodrow Wilson Center conference. For more on the conference, see the June 2, 2009 entry in this blog’s archives.) This is demonstrably false, and while not repeated in “Spies,” it illustrates how eager and even reckless Haynes and Klehr can be whenever anything comes their way that either might make Hiss look bad or might add another name to the long list of people they accuse of having cooperated with Soviet intelligence. This hasty and irresponsible approach to scholarship is made abundantly clear by an allegation “Spies” both includes and trumpets: that career State Department official David Salmon was a paid Soviet agent. As with Hiss, the authors again choose to ignore directly contradictory, exculpatory evidence.

The authors also downplay the importance of the vast amount of Soviet intelligence information that Vassiliev didn’t get to see: the KGB personal files of key officials and agents mentioned in “Spies,” for example, as well as any files at all from military intelligence. Yet despite the many discrepancies in the information put forward, and the mountains of information still missing from the picture, they blithely pronounce that Vassiliev’s notes “unequivocally identify Hiss as a long-term espionage source” – and, with appalling overconfidence, declare the Hiss Case “closed.”

Our full review explains why on both of these counts the authors are wrong.

Sep 10

The Alger Hiss Web site has finally posted its review of the Hiss chapter in “Spies,” the book by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr with Alexander Vassiliev. Here’s the link.

Aug 10

Until now, Adolf A. Berle’s original notes from his historic September 2, 1939 meeting with Whittaker Chambers and Isaac Don Levine have never been seen by scholars or historians, but thanks to Lewis Hartshorn, who is completing a book on the case, and Bob Clark of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, they are now being posted online after Harshorn and Clark turned them up at the library.

A typewritten transcript of the notes — but not Berle’s original handwritten pages — was introduced at Hiss’s trials. With it came some controversy, mostly surrounding the question of  whether Chambers (who in the meeting was talking about his alleged underground life for the first time to a public official) and Levine told Berle, who was then the Assistant Secretary of State, that the people they alleged were associated with the Communist underground, were also engaged in espionage. In 1948, Levine told HUAC that Chambers did say they were spies, and the heading on the typewritten notes, “Underground Espionage Agent,” has led many people to believe him. Indeed, the notes with the heading “Underground Espionage Agent,” have been reprinted widely. The Web site of John Earl Haynes (the co-author with Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev of the recent book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America which  says that Hiss was in fact guilty of espionage) offers a version of the typescript with the heading set off , the implication being that he agrees with those who say that Chambers was labeling Hiss and the others as Soviet spies. Even Ann Coulter has weighed in, writing in her book Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism that Chambers did inform Berle about espionage rings in Washington, but that when Berle tried to speak with President Roosevelt about it, he was told to go “f…. himself.” Chambers said Berle was told to go jump in a lake, but, according to  Berle, neither was true.

Chambers also contradicted Levine’s claim about espionage, writing in Witness, “At no time in our conversation can I remember anyone’s mentioning the ugly word espionage.” He went on to say, however, that the implication was there, and he fanned the controversy when he wrote,  “For when four years after that memorable conversation, his notes were finally taken out of a secret file and turned over to the F.B.I., it was found that Adolf Berle himself had headed them: Underground Espionage Agent.”

In his own interviews with the FBI and the defense, in his HUAC testimony and his private comments recorded in his diary, Berle insisted that Chambers never charged the people he named with espionage. This is borne out by an entry in Berle’s diary from 1952, after the Saturday Evening Post began serializing Witness: “At no time does he record what he said to me, and thus gives the impression that he told me everything he told many years later in the Hiss case. The fact, of course, was that he did not state anything he told me as personal knowledge — but as something he had heard about while in the Communist Party in New York. He did not even remotely indicate that he personally had been engaged in the operation. He did not charge individuals with espionage — they were merely ‘sympathizers’ who would be hauled out later when the great day came. He would not take his story to the FBI. He would not even stand to it himself — he would not himself verify or stick to the story.

“Further, under some cross-examination, he qualified everything to the point of substantial withdrawal. He also told of having fled the Party, and having been in fear of his life, spending a long time in flight and fearing armed attack, and so on. I thought I was dealing with a man who thought he was telling the truth but was probably afflicted with a neurosis.”

But if Chambers didn’t mention espionage, why did the notes have that heading? The answer as we can finally see is they really didn’t. Looking at the actual notes, it appears that Berle was referring not to Chambers but to the first item on his list: a description of a New York City dentist named Philip Rosenbliett, who Chambers identified as one of the leaders of the underground. If that is the correct interpretation (and there’s no reason to think otherwise, since both Chambers and Berle essentially agreed on this point), it knocks out one of the accusations that have been continually leveled against Hiss: that Chambers’ 1948 allegations about espionage were more credible because he had actually leveled those charges nine years before.

Here is the first page of Berle’s notes. You can also download all six pages of the notes here.


Jun 10

Last week, I wrote about the nastiness down at Washington, D.C. A lot of it came from the Air Force historian Eduard M. Mark, who has written (mostly online) about the Hiss case, generally about the Venona decryptions and his belief that Alger was the spy code-named ALES. Mark’s comments (and scholarship) were criticized by me at the conference, and subsequently Christian Ostermann of the Wilson Center, who was one of the principal organizers of the conference, also expressed his dismay at Mark’s personal attacks.

A few days after the conference, Mark died in his sleep.

I’ll leave it at that.

Jun 02

I realize I should have blogged as this was occurring on May 20-21, but blogging is still new to me, and, frankly, I forgot. I also could have used Twitter, but had I done so, this post would have taken about 5645 tweets to tell the story. So you might want to cancel your dinner plans, brew a pot of coffee and settle in to read a very long (but hugely entertaining) article. I’ve tried to reconstruct the quotes as accurately as I can remember them. It’s possible the transcript may have them differently.

Like many things, my participation in the two-day conference on Alexander Vassiliev’s notebooks at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. began with an email. It came on February 26, from Christian Ostermann, the director of the center’s History and Public Policy Program, inviting me to the conference, which would examine Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, a new book by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr and Vassiliev, published by Yale University Press. The book is based mostly on Vassiliev’s notes of documents he was shown from the intelligence files of the former Soviet Union. The documents Vassiliev saw were carefully selected by Soviet intelligence officers as part of a deal with the Crown publishing company in America and formed the basis of Allen Weinstein’s 1997 book The Haunted Wood (Vassiliev was credited as co-author).

The authors of Spies say that additional information gleaned from Vassiliev’s notebooks offers yet more proof that Alger Hiss was a spy (even though Weinstein saw the same information when he wrote The Haunted Wood). They also claim the notes show that I. F. Stone and Ernest Hemingway, among others, were agents as well. (We will be posting an in-depth review of the book and its claims on our Web site.)

I already knew about the conference when I received the email and had little interest in attending. Clearly, I was being invited as the token opposition to allow the organizers to show their fair-mindedness. I also had images of gray-haired conservative historians singing “Boola, Boola” while carrying Haynes and Klehr around a conference room on their shoulders, or, after announcing to the room that I was the editor of, ducking as dozens of autographed copies of Spies were being flung at my head.

Since I also have a phobia about speaking publicly, this seemed like a good one to sit out. Alas, Victor Navasky of the The Nation, when apprised of my reluctance, insisted  that if I didn’t go, the organizers could say, “Well, we tried to be evenhanded, but people like Jeff Kisseloff turned down our invitation.”

When I was still hesitant, he put me in a headlock, threw me against the wall, and twisted my arm until I cried “Uncle Joe” and agreed to attend.

But still I had my doubts, so I wrote Ostermann back, hoping to learn what my role would be. He replied enthusiastically, saying, “My hope is that you’d be able to contribute to all sessions!” He explained the conference would be set up as a roundtable with the authors giving only summaries of their papers, then “everybody joining in the discussion.”

When around a month later, the conference agenda was posted online, I was surprised to see that despite the personal invitation from Ostermann, my name was nowhere to be found on the list of panelists, who were for the most part promoters of the theory that Hiss was indeed guilty.

As it turned out, we had misread Ostermann’s carefully worded email. The original note actually said nothing about my speaking in Washington, it just requested my attendance. The second note, in hindsight, was just offering to include me among those — basically anyone who happened to show up — who would have the privilege of asking the panelists questions when they were done speaking. There wasn’t even a guarantee that I’d even have a seat or be called upon.

I had a very bad feeling about this.

And I was right.

It was very bad.

I literally spent weeks studying for the conference, deconstructing every single allegation in the book’s chapter on Hiss, compiling my research into a thick looseleaf binder with color-coded dividers, covering every possible discussion point. I also prepared two-page summaries of each of their major allegations with my detailed responses (Ok, so maybe I was a little too prepared.)

looseleafI drove down to DC the day before the conference was set to open, settled into my hotel room (The St. Gregory — nice place!) and pulled out my looseleaf to review my notes. Since the first panel wasn’t set to begin until three p.m. on Wednesday, I’d have time for a morning run, more review and then lunch with three sympathetic colleagues (“the friendlies,” one of them dubbed us) to talk strategy over what — because of the way my heart was pounding — I feared might be my last meal.

After a fitful night’s sleep, I woke up early, put on my running clothes and headed out to the mall. Running on the hard surface wasn’t very beneficial for my tendonitis, but the site of the Washington and Lincoln memorials was beneficial for my nerves. That was until I peeked in on Honest Abe sitting up there in his chair and imagined that in a few hours I’d be greeted in the same way he would have been had he arrived at a picnic held by the Daughters of the Confederacy.

One good thing happened, though. As I was leaving the mall, I heard a someone call out, “Jeff?”

“Yes,” I said, a little hesitant to acknowledge my identity.

The voice belonged to Don Guttenplan, the author of a new biography of I. F. Stone, and one of “the friendlies.” As we jogged together, Don, who with his wireframe glasses looks amazingly like his subject, expressed some wariness about the conference but also seemed confident we would have our say. I remained doubtful, but it was reassuring to know such a pleasant, intelligent fellow was on my side.

We parted after a while, and I headed back to the hotel room for a shower and more studying. Shortly after noon, I donned the suit and tie I generally reserve for funerals and stuffed my notebook and a few other items into my backpack and headed out the door.

Lunch was at the Tabard Inn off of DuPont Circle (nice place!). There were four of us at the table. Sitting there with the two Ph.Ds. and one brilliant author, it was clear I was out of my league, so while they chatted over burgers and salmon, I pawed at my soup and calculated when I should start taking the anti-anxiety pills I had dropped into my pocket. I did consider impressing them with my ability to recite Sandy Koufax’s yearly won-lost records or the presidents in order —  which never fail to wow ’em at parties (call my agent for bookings) —  but I didn’t think it would impress this crowd, so I remained largely quiet. Still, there was something comforting about being in on their casual gossip and confident strategizing for the conference. We agreed that each of us would address a different aspect of Spies. I even tossed in a suggestion or two and was relieved when none of them snorted derisively.

When the bill was paid, we hailed a taxi and headed over to the Wilson Center, which is housed in the Ronald Reagan Building. Inside, security guards checked our drivers licenses and bags (presumably for any evidence of liberalism) and directed us to an elevator. Upstairs, a few dozen people were milling about a narrow hall. Much to my relief, none were overtly armed, although a few perhaps excessively sharpened pencils were in evidence. While “the friendlies” greeted friends, I checked for the exit doors and then searched for a water fountain to swallow a pill. Much to my dismay, I had left my pea shooter back at the hotel.

In a few minutes, we were shoehorned into a surprisingly small conference room. At one end was a table set with about eight microphones. Two long tables lined the adjacent walls. Crammed behind the chairs at those tables were another row of seats where those without legs could sit comfortably. At the opposite wall, were another two rows of seats, also closely grouped. Clearly, the conference had been designed to provide the same comfort as a budget airliner, but at least on planes they have those little air conditioner knobs. After ten minutes in the conference room, I felt like I was sitting in a Lower East Side schvitz.

Christian Ostermann opened the conference with a few brief remarks (“keep it clean,” “no hitting on the break,”). He then handed off the mic to a moderator, who also offered his thoughts on proper behavior (“Kisseloff is seated four seats down on the left. Please be courteous and reserve your fire until after he speaks.”) before he introduced Alexander Vassiliev. That’s when the fun began.

Vassiliev wore a modified pageboy haircut and looked uncomfortable (possibly because he was wearing a modified pageboy haircut). Speaking in a thick Russian accent, he explained how he compiled his notes from documents selected by the intelligence officers (but revealed nothing about the selection process); and then later after emigrating to London, how he succeeded in having the notes sent to him by DHL (I guess he didn’t absolutely, positively have to have them delivered overnight.).

Next came John Earl Haynes, who had a professorial tendency to chew on the ends of his eyeglasses, and who sat before a large screen and commented about the notes using a PowerPoint presentation. While he spoke, I watched Harvey Klehr close his eyes and take repeated deep breaths in anticipation of his turn at the mic. While Haynes’s approach seemed dryer and more business-like, Klehr came swinging, with pointed comments about Hiss, the Rosenbergs, Stone, Hemingway and just about anyone else who ever had contact with the Russians during World War II and the early Cold War period. Surprisingly, my Grandma Sonia, wasn’t on the list for writing letters to Moishe Doskach back in her hometown of Yarmolimnitz. To show their evenhandedness, however, Klehr magnanimously conceded that J. Robert Oppenheimer was not guilty, as if that hadn’t been shown more than fifty years ago and reaffirmed by Marty Sherwin and Kai Bird’s Pulitzer Prize winning book about Oppenheimer in 2006.

If memory serves me correct, next came one of the most bizarre speeches of the entire conference. Like all the speakers, Katherine Sibley (a professor of history at St. Joseph’s University) was given approximately twenty minutes to deliver her remarks (a directive that was pretty much treated like the 55 mph speed limit), but instead of summarizing her paper, she was determined to read the whole thing, so what followed was a speech that sounded like a 33 rpm record played at 45. Worse was the gleeful manner in which way she recounted the story of Hiss’s and the Rosenberg’s alleged betrayal (she simply restated the case made by Haynes and Klehr), like a teenager recounting her exploits at the high school prom. She seemed to forget that two people were put to death while another suffered horribly. Sibley’s cluelessness reminded me of the old joke about the guy on his first day on the job delivering singing telegrams. He knocks on one door and when it opens, he happily belts out, “Boom, boom, buh-boom, t-boom, your sister is Rose is dead.”

Finally, she took a breath, signaling the end of her speech. If I remember correctly, there were one or two more speakers (who, in comparison to Sibley, sounded like Lurch from the Addams Family TV show) before the session was finally thrown open to questions from the audience. Since a number of people had their hands raised, and all wanted to be heard, it was clear that a substantive debate on the laundry list of charges we had just heard about more than a dozen alleged agents, would not and could not take place.

Still, some of us tried. Historian Amy Knight, one of “the friendlies” and the author of How the Cold War Began: The Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt For Soviet Spies, had the dubious honor of being selected to ask the first question, and before she was finished, Alexander Vassiliev’s face looked like Sonny Liston’s after six rounds with Muhammad Ali. First, she pointed out, she had tapes of the testimony of the libel suit trial in London (Vassiliev had unsuccessfully sued a magazine publisher and author John Lowenthal for critical remarks Lowenthal had made about Vassiliev’s research), and the tapes indicated that Vassiliev told a very different story about his note taking at the trial from the one he laid out in his introduction to Spies. She also questioned how he possibly could have used DHL to get his notebooks out of Russia, suggesting that the government’s security forces would never have allowed it.

Poor Vassiliev, you could see him worrying that this conference might not be such a celebration after all. He had no answer for Amy’s first question, and for the second, he insisted he did send them via DHL with the help of a relative, whom he said would remain anonymous. Amy looked skeptical. Her whispered comment to me wasn’t nearly that generous.

My memory of the next few questions is hazy. I do recall that someone asked if the book’s allegations about Ernest Hemingway were more hype than fact, and the authors seemed to back off slightly from one of their more controversial claims. Don Guttenplan wanted to know about some of the financial machinations behind the project and how much Vassiliev was paid for his notebooks. Vassiliev refused to answer the questions, but Don elicit from Klehr an important admission that Smith Richardson (a foundation that backs free-market and anti-Communist research) paid for the translators, and that leftover funds were used to finance the conference.

Finally, the moderator announced that he was taking one more question. I knew if I was going to make myself useful, I had no choice but to raise my hand. I had no idea if I would sound like an idiot with my stammering or even if my hands would be steady enough to hold the microphone, but what the hell, if I was going to make a fool of myself, at least I was going to go down for the cause.

But it turned out okay.

A moment or so before, someone had asked Vassiliev to comment on General Dmitri Volkogonov’s 1992 statement that based on his examination of the Soviet files, Alger Hiss had not been a Soviet agent. Vassiliev responded that Volkogonov was a liar. Tough words.

I began by asking Vassiliev if he knew that Volkgonov had not actually done all of the research himself, but that it was largely the work of Soviet General, Julius Kobyakov, (a former KGB official who famously posted on the H-DIPLO web site that if Alger Hiss was guilty, he would eat his hat.).

Vassiliev again looked surprised. “No, I didn’t know that.”

Moving on, I wanted to touch on something that had no direct relationship to Hiss, but did shed light on Haynes and Klehr’s research. Several times they proudly remarked that they had unearthed a previously unknown espionage agent, a former State Department official named David Salmon, but I knew there was solid information that Haynes and Klehr were wrong about Salmon, and I said so, pointing out that the information was available to them when they were writing Spies. The evidence was laid out in a chapter of a book written by Kobyakov in 2003.

According to Spies, Salmon had been a spy code-named “Willie” and was handled by another agent, Ludwig Lore, an American journalist who ironically had previously been tossed from the Communist Party for being a Trotskyite.

In his book, however, Kobyakov reported that the Soviets knew Lore was lying when he claimed that Salmon was the source of State Department documents he was delivering to the Russians. I pointed out that the Russians actually watched the home where Salmon lived, and he didn’t at all fit the description of Lore’s Willie.  Additionally, Salmon was in his office when Lore said Willie was on leave. Finally, the Russians asked to meet Lore’s Willie and were introduced to a man who was definitely not the person they had seen in Salmon’s home. This Willie was around 40 years old and spoke with a German accent. In contrast, Salmon was born in 1879 in Connecticut.

It seemed to me, I said, that there was a lot of material like this out there that ran counter to Haynes and Klehr’s allegations, not only about Salmon, but about Hiss, too, but they didn’t include any of it in Spies. “Even if you don’t agree with it, don’t you have an obligation to let your readers know that there is contradictory information?” I asked.

Haynes and Klehr looked at each other. Haynes nodded. He would take it. No, he answered, they didn’t. Besides, he added, if they included all the information that ran counter to their conclusions, their book would have been 1600 pages. He went on to say that anyway, Kobyakov was an apologist for the GRU (Russian military intelligence), and therefore his information couldn’t be trusted.

But, I, responded, Kobyakov’s information came directly from Ludwig Lore’s file. Had Mr. Vassiliev seen that file? No, he hadn’t.

That was the end of the first session, and while my opinion hadn’t changed about the unfairness of conference’s format, I was glad that we at least were able to raise questions about the book, making it clear that if not today, in the future, the authors would have to answer for their work.

I should also mention that before we posed our questions, we were asked to identify ourselves. After introducing myself, I said I was the editor of the Web site, At that point, you could hear the snickering around the room. In the theater and concert world, when you fill empty seats with your friends, it’s called “papering the house.” Well, there was more paper in this room than in the storage closet down the street in the Mint.

As people piled out of the session, hardly anyone looked me in the eye. This was not a friendly group, at least not toward me. Amy Knight was so disgusted with the limited discussion, she vowed not to return for the next morning’s panel, which, with Hiss and Stone on tap for discussion, promised to be even more unpleasant than the one just completed.

After dinner, I spent the rest of the evening leafing through my looseleaf binder, with an occasional break to iChat with my wife and shoot Nazis on my iPod touch. Thursday, I woke up early to do a little more studying and then got dressed (no tie today, as I was feeling disrespectful) to meet Don at a Starbucks on Pennsylvania Avenue and 13th Street. Who knew though that Pennsylvania Avenue curves off toward Pennsylvania sometime before you get to 13th Street? I was just about in Virginia when I realized I was lost. Although I missed my appointment with Don, I made it to the conference in time for the singing of the Star Spangled Banner and the tossing out of the first accusation.

This session featured a half dozen panelists, but I expected the fireworks to come from two of them. One of the two commentators was G. Edward White, whose book on the Hiss case we had roundly criticized after it was published three years ago. The other source of tension would be Eduard Mark, a historian with the Department of the Air Force who had aggressive pushed the line that Alger was definitely the spy codenamed ALES in the National Security Agency’s Venona’s decrypts.

The problem with Mark was that the bellicosity of his arguments tended to be in inverse proportion to their credibility. He was also not adverse to making personal attacks. Before the conference, I was given a copy of all the papers delivered by the panelists. In his, Mark, who bore a striking resemblance to Phil Spector, dismissed the Russian historian Svetlana Chervonnaya (who has contributed a great deal to our Web site) as an “apologist for the Soviet Union,” probably because her research kept undermining his. I was especially eager to call him out on this but didn’t know if I’d have the opportunity to do so.

White moderated the session and asked each of the panelists to keep it brief. That suggestion didn’t seem to pertain, however, to his political ally, Mark, whose speech I was sure exceeded 20 minutes, nearly all of which was devoted to a restating of the arguments about Hiss in Spies. He also repeatedly slighted Dr. Chervonnaya by mispronouncing her last name (a curious problem for someone who took pride in his Russian and German linguistic skills), and each time he did so, I corrected him half under my breath to the annoyance of those around me. The other panelists were equally uninspired. When they were finished, White turned to R. Bruce Craig for a commentary, asking him to keep it brief — for good reason, as Bruce in the limited time he had, began to dismantle some of the core allegations that Haynes and Klehr offered the day before.

Then it was White’s turn, and much to my disappointment, he had very little to add before opening up the panel to questions. With that, Don Guttenplan raised his hand and was called upon. He stood and began to address the paper of Max Holland (who for the most part supported the claim in Spies that Stone had been an agent) when two or three minutes into his commentary, White brusquely cut him off.

“I was promised equal time to respond,” said Don, his anger rising visibly, but White dismissed his protests. “You have another minute,” he said contemptuously.

There was immediate tension in the room, but I thought it was great. Don was voicing what several of us felt — that the conference was overwhelmingly one-sided and unfair. Were we about to have a real donnybrook? Alas, historians generally prefer to fight it out using dates and obscure facts as their weapons of choice. The best we could hope for was that Don would attack White to the side of head with an interpretation or slam him with an analogy.

But even that didn’t happen. Don made a brief point and sat, but it was clear that even Christian Ostermann was embarrassed by not only White’s actions but by the tone of the conference. Now, it was out in the open.

A few more questions were taken from the audience, including some very pointed ones from Myra MacPherson, another of Stone’s biographers. Then one participant asked Mark his opinion of an article written in 2007 by Kai Bird and Dr. Chervonnaya, in which they concluded that ALES might have been State Department official Wilder Foote (although they were careful to say that just because he might have been ALES, it didn’t necessarily mean he was an agent).

“I think their paper was a fraud,” Mark responded.

The questioner said the Foote family would be comforted by that, and Mark nodded sagely in agreement.

I think it was at that point that my temper began to boil. I raised my hand, and in a moment was handed the microphone. I glanced around the room, and then looked at my hands. They weren’t shaking. My friend Phil’s suggestion worked!

“Mr. Mark,” I said. “When I went to journalism school, they told us on the first day ‘if your grandmother says she loves you, check it out.’ In your paper, you cite an article on the Web that you said proves Hiss lied about his relationship with Maxim Lieber [a literary agent who was also alleged to have been a Soviet agent]. The article says that Lieber’s children confirmed they had a longstanding relationship with Hiss. Did you check the article out?”

Mark looked a bit alarmed. “No, I didn’t,” he said. “Harvey did.”

I resisted asking him if Harvey Klehr wrote the rest of his paper as well. Instead, I looked over at Klehr, who was sitting on the other side of the room, looking down at the table.

“Mr. Klehr,” I asked, “did you check it out?”

Klehr nodded and muttered that he had.

“That’s funny,” I said, “because I spoke to Lieber’s children two days ago, and they say the story is false. They didn’t have a relationship with Hiss as the story claims. In fact, they said they met him in 1993 at a fundraiser for a summer camp, and that afterward he sent them a copy of his book. That was it.”

I went on to say that this was one of the basic problems with the book — the authors’ apparent refusal to check out any of the internal claims made in the Soviet documents they quote from in the book. In an email to me before the conference, Dr. Chervonnaya mentioned the Russian word pripiski, which means “to add up.” In this context, it refers to the creative reporting of Soviet agents, which was apparently quite common. In her book on the Cold War, Knight also ascribes to Soviet agents in North America a tendency to exaggerate their connections, basically to avoid being recalled.

There are several apparent examples of this in the chapter on Hiss, and I chose to mention two of them. One document that they insisted helped prove Hiss was a spy merely relayed the claims of an agent named Hede Massing, who said she had met and spoke with Alger Hiss about their mutual work in the Communist underground. The document offered no proof that what she said was true. It just indicated what she had allegedly said.

In my comments, I noted that based on their reading of this document, the authors stated that Alger Hiss tried to recruit former State Department official Noel Field as an agent in early 1936. “But,” I pointed out, “even the FBI knew that Field had left the country in November 1935 and hadn’t return by then.” Therefore, I was suggesting the document had to be wrong, and by implication, if that one misstated the facts, then others did as well.

I pointed out that the authors also state as fact (and also based on Vassiliev’s notes) that Massing met with Alger Hiss in the winter of 1935. (This was a key allegation at the second trial, when Massing, a self-confessed former agent, testified that she was introduced to Hiss at Field’s apartment, and the two sparred over who would be the first to successfully recruit Field to their espionage group. Hiss denied that the meeting took place.) I said setting aside questions that the meeting did occur, at the least you would have to acknowledge that the Soviet documents placing the meeting in the winter of 1935 needed to be looked at more closely because Massing told the FBI that the meeting with Hiss took place in the summer of 1935, a week after Field and his wife took her sailing on the Potomac. Even worse for Haynes and Klehr’s statement, I pointed out, “Massing said she remembered that during the trip, Herta (Field’s wife) took a swim while Massing and Field talked, so unless Herta had skin made of iron which allowed her to swim in the Potomac in the middle of winter, you’ve got a problem here.”

There was more to say about the inconsistencies in their material, but clearly I was out of time.

I do remember one other comment that infuriated me, because — and this was the problem with the event in general — there was no way to respond, other than rudely, and my mother taught me too well. What happened was that toward the end of his remarks, Mark blithely announced that there was even more evidence of Hiss’s guilt —  evidence not mentioned in Spies. He said it stemmed from a discovery two years ago that Hiss had been also given the codename “Doctor” as a member of the the Soviet Union’s “Omega” spy group, which apparently operated in America.

Thanks to Dr. Chervonnaya’s research, I knew this to be a completely untrue. There was a “cut-out” (espionage lingo for someone who helps run a spy operation) code-named “Doctor,” but he was a Bessarabian Jew, who was educated in Vienna and got a Ph.D. in medicine. None of those characteristics fit Hiss, a Johns Hopkins/Harvard trained WASP.

Between the ad hominem attacks and White’s actions, the panel had been as nasty as I had feared. There were still two more sessions before the conference would conclude with a half-hour wrap up scheduled for 4 p.m. Don and I headed off to lunch. He would go back for the first afternoon session, but I needed a break. The little bit of good news was that Christian Ostermann told Don would be awarded a few minutes during the half-hour wrap session at four to complete his comments. The bad news was he had to be awarded a few minutes during the wrap session to complete his comments. I gather White had been given a tiny chair and told to sit facing the corner.

I walked in a few minutes after four for the final half-hour session. There was an empty chair in the back of the room, and I took it. A couple of minutes later, Ostermann sat down next to me. I had been frustrated that I hadn’t had the time to defend Dr. Chervonnaya against Mark’s comments, and on a legal pad, I scribbled down a few words I hoped to say if called upon one more time. I mentioned this quietly to Ostermann, and a few minutes later, when it came time for final comments, he waved to moderator Mark Kramer and pointed at me.

Kramer nodded in my direction. “The woman in the back of the room,” he said.

That may have been the first time during the conference that I had to laugh. “I got a haircut last week to avoid just that kind of confusion,” I said without any nervousness. I even heard a few titters around the room.

Again, I introduced myself (pointing out my extreme maleness), and then looking directly at Mark, I said that it in an academic conference there was no place for the kind of McCarthyite attacks like those against Dr. Chervonnaya. I may have added more. I know what I would have liked to have said (for example, it would have been nice to have had a few minutes to defend Alger Hiss.) Mark leaned over to the fellow next to him, and then shouted to me, “Have you read her books in Russian?”

I was about to ask what relevance that had when Kramer quickly changed the subject.

And that was it. Two days of misery was over. For the first time in weeks, I didn’t have chest pains. Don had already left in disgust, so I walked back to my hotel alone. After telling my wife I was still alive, I put on my running clothes and took off on another run to calm my jagged nerves. I looped around the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and then returned the same way, but I couldn’t stop thinking that I had just been a part of a frightful event.

The clear lack of humanity was appalling enough. Katherine Sibley’s laughter as she recounted the story of the Rosenbergs and Hiss was perfectly emblematic of too much of the discussion. Two people were executed, their two young children orphaned. In Hiss’s case, a man’s successful career was terminated and his and his family’s life placed in turmoil, not to mention the 44 months he spent in federal lockup. Some fun stuff.

Even if the evidence was persuasive that some of the people mentioned in the book cooperated with the Soviets, the lack of context was inexcusable. What should have been a somber examination of what must have been very difficult choices for some people, was more like a shooting gallery with the authors trying to pick off as many victims as they could and then reveling in their human trophies. The naming of David Salmon in the face of clear evidence to the contrary was especially reprehensible. That Haynes offered such a poor excuse for not including any exculpatory evidence was especially callous. It was as if calling someone a traitor was as inconsequential as saying he had a smudge of dirt on his tie.

In a subsequent email, Ostermann defended the conference after it came under attack from several people, saying in his opening remarks he had urged participants to avoid notions of “case closed.” He should have known this would have been a difficult thing to do considering that Haynes and Klehr closed their chapter on Hiss with those very two words.

Ostermann also said the purpose of the conference was to stimulate discussion, but if that was the case, why was the discussion so limited, and if I and other experts were invited, why weren’t we given extra time to respond? Instead, we were force-fed Sibley and Mark, whose main contributions to the conference were mockery.

What frightened me even more though, was that this ham-handedness was carried out so unashamedly. The authors make their politics clear in all their books on Communism and Soviet espionage, and while I think it’s equally apparent that it colors their research that’s their business. If they can find a publisher for their work (but Yale? C’mon), more power to them. But that the Wilson Center, a renowned home for scholarship, was perfectly happily to play along and produce what was in effect a coming out party, minus only the ball gowns and curtsies was really a shame.

Even worse, the Center agreed to protect the authors from the likes of me and others, who with a little time could have exposed the holes in their arguments. The fact is, if Haynes and Klehr really thought their research was conclusive, they should have insisted on a more open discussion. Why didn’t they? To me, the answer was obvious. This conference wasn’t about scholarship, it was bullyship.

Apr 02, is a new Cold War Web site compiled by Dr. Svetlana A. Chervonnaya, a prominent Russian researcher well known for her in-depth analysis of Soviet era files.

In an introductory paragraph, Dr. Chervonnaya describes DocumentsTalk this way:

“This website looks beyond the American post-Cold War consensus about controversial early Cold War spy cases. It returns to basics, re-examining the documentary evidence. No definitive proof of guilt or innocence here; what you will find instead is careful documentary cross-checking of all the available evidence, to help you to judge for yourself whether these cases should still be considered ‘closed’ in the face of many discrepancies.”

Those who who visit will find the insights she gained from a meticulous reinvestigation of the Alger Hiss’s handwritten notes – often said to be the “most damning” evidence in the Hiss Case – particularly rewarding.

Apr 02

Yale University Press has published “Alger Hiss and the Battle for History,” by Susan Jacoby. In the book, Jacoby asserts that Hiss was guilty. She also attempts to put the case in its historical context. As part of a two-part look at the book, we have posted my comments on the numerous errors and distortions in the text. A more general review will also be posted in the near future. Here’s the link to my article.

Tagged with:
Mar 20

This week’s mail brought a new batch of FBI documents. These are sometimes called “see references,” documents that contain cross references to people whose files we have requested. Although they are often not complete documents, they still can be fascinating and illuminating. The document I want to talk about here is both, in part because it again demonstrates the selectivity of those historians who have tried to build cases for Alger Hiss’s guilt.

The cross reference document in question is dated October 20, 1949. It reports on an interview the FBI had with journalist Joseph Freeman, a former member of the Communist Party who knew Whittaker Chambers personally during the period. (For more on Freeman, check out his memoir, “An American Testament.”)

To begin with, there’s this fascinating tidbit about how Freeman nearly got into a fight with an inebriated Chambers. Here’s the paragraph:

“[Chambers proposed] to Joseph Freeman that they become friends. Freeman stated he readily agreed to this proposition and offered to shake hands with Chambers but he declined this approach. Chambers stated that it was his habit that when he made friends that he and the other party slash their wrists and mingle their blood as a token of friendship. Freeman said he naturally refused such a move and after an extended discussion the proposal was again made that Freeman and Chambers become friends. Freeman recalled that he again offered his hand to Chambers and this time Chambers clasped Freeman’s fingers with his left hand and at the same time attempted to slash his wrists as previously described. Freeman said that a brief melee followed which was terminated through the intercession of the bartender and several other guests at the saloon they were visiting.”

Sam Tanenhaus has a reference to this interview in his biography of Whittaker Chambers, but curiously only mentions another aspect of it: Chambers’ later refusal to give Freeman a job at Time magazine. The story is more than gossip, however, since Chambers swore during his appearance before the HUAC on August 7, “I was strictly forbidden by the Communist Party to taste liquor at any time.” (Chambers made this statement to support his inaccurate allegation that the Hisses were teetotalers.)

Oddly, the interview also contains the kind of statement that would have gotten Allen Weinstein very excited: Freeman told the FBI that shortly after being made editor of The New Masses, Chambers disappeared, and the rumor was that he was working for OGPU. Weinstein doesn’t report it, however, although he does say in “Perjury” that Freeman was one of those who mentioned Chambers’ apparent instability,

But here’s the statement by Freeman that should have at least been mentioned by Tanenhaus:

“Mr. Freeman stated he had never heard any comments during his affiliation with the Communist Party or since his break in 1939 which would indicate to him that Hiss was ever a member of the Communist Party or even a sympathizer…

“Freeman said that during his period in the Communist Party, he reported numerous affairs and conferences for the “New Masses”, including a detailed report on the hearings before the Nye Committee on Munitions. Freeman was unable to recall Hiss’ affiliation with this group. He pointed out that whenever he was covering meetings of such a nature as the Nye Committee, he was constantly on the alert for ‘available’ sources of information of individuals who were known to be sympathetic with the Communist Party. Freeman said that he positively could not recall Alger Hiss ever being identified to him by any of his Washington contacts as a person who could be approached for information.”

For those who unfamiliar with the facts of the case. Chambers said he was introduced to Hiss during the period when Hiss moved from the Agriculture Department to the Nye Committee because of Hiss’s association with the Communist Party at that time. The Nye Committee’s investigation into profiteering by the munitions industry during World War I was headline news across the country, and Freeman is correct in saying that the Communist Party also followed the story of capitalist malfeasance very closely — as it would have been expected to. Thus, Freeman is offering important insight into one of the key aspects of Chambers’ allegations against Hiss.

Now, one may or may not choose to believe Freeman, but clearly his comments were pertinent both to Tanenhaus’s portrait of Chambers and to his thesis that Hiss was guilty, but you won’t find either one in his book.

Here’s a look at the document:


Tagged with:
Mar 13

Several years ago, I did a series of taped interviews with Bill Reuben going over Allen Weinstein’s “Perjury” allegation by allegation. It makes for fascinating reading, and I hope to post the entire interview one day.

Anyway, toward the end of the interview, Bill leaned over and spoke into the microphone and said, “I’ve always wanted to get something on the record before I died, and it’s this: The only two people connected to the Hiss case with any real typing ability and who could have typed the Baltimore Documents were Pat Nixon and Esther Chambers.”

I thought of that today when I opened the latest packet of information from the FBI. This one contained the FBI’s file on Pat Nixon. As I leafed through the file, I came across this file and burst out laughing. Take a look:


Tagged with:
Feb 26

As a result of the cavalier way the FBI has treated our Freedom of Information requests for documents on the Hiss case, we are suing the Bureau in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The lawsuit, filed on our behalf by veteran FOIA attorney James Lesar, asks that the Court order the FBI to release all of its documents on the case in unredacted form.

In 2006, we were told by the Bureau that its files contained some 500,000 pages of documents related to the case. Thirty years before, when Hiss was pursuing his Writ of Error Coram Nobis to overturn the verdict against him on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct, he was told there were less than 50,000 pages of documents.

As a result of a request filed by me in 2000, we have received less than 10,000 pages, many of them heavily redacted. Thousands of pages have been denied all together, with the Bureau citing, among other things privacy concerns (which we dispute) or a new category for denying documents: “out of scope.” They have even redacted grand jury testimony from the documents even though the minutes of the grand jury investigating Whittaker Chambers’s charges were released in 1999.

A day after he took office, President Obama ordered government departments to follow new guidelines for FOIA requests. These new rules are supposed to put into practice the President’s stated belief that a democratic government is a transparent government. This lawsuit, if not the first test case of his new policy, will certainly be one of the most important, in terms of establishing new guidelines for the release of historically important documents.

I’ll post a pdf of the court documents shortly.

Also, for those who don’t use an RSS feed of this blog or who choose to get a more immediate notice of updates, I will be sending out Twitter tweets when I add a new post (as well as new posts to my blog at To receive them, go to and after signing up (it’s free), click “find people” and then “find people on Twitter.” In the search bar, type my username, jeffisme. It will ask you if you want to follow my tweets. Just confirm to receive them.

preload preload preload