Feb 23

Thanks to the mechanical genius of Bruno Navasky, who took a look under the hood and retuned the engine (and please note the pumpkin-orange highlights), our comments are up and running and we’re good to go. Look for our next post tomorrow.

Feb 23

that are fortunately not totally beyond our control, the comments portion of the blog remains unavailable. The problem should be fixed tomorrow.

Feb 19

Your blogger’s blog had a technical meltdown during an attempt to upgrade it. It now has a new theme, which I like better, but if you’re viewing this post before the previous ones were fixed, you’re probably seeing a lot of missing links and graphics. I’ll get to those as soon as possible. I’m also hoping to restore the comments.

So please stay tuned.

Feb 19

I mentioned the other day that I had seen a remarkable letter from someone who offered a startling account of how poor the State Department’s security system really was in the 1930s. I have since found the letter. I would normally post a jpeg of it, but the difficulty in deciphering the handwriting is too distracting. The letter was written to Tony Hiss in the early 1990s by David Gray. Here’s what he had to say:

“… I can’t remember the author. In his last chapter he was summing up all the evidence to show why Alger was guilty and then concluded by saying, “The only alternative hypothesis is to presume that anyone could walk into his office, sit down at his desk and type out their material on his stationery.” When I read that I went into hysterics for I have done just that.

At that time I was a messenger for Western Union. From 1317 New York Ave. we handled most of the government offices in the downtown area. We had little traffic with White House and State — they had their own printers and were also on the pneu (pneumatic line). We did do letter and parcel traffic. When Sumner Welles moved into State, traffic picked up (1938?) and I soon found myself earning lots of money taking his letters out to Capitol Hill and returning with answers. One of the problems was returning to State during the lunch hour especially during the summer. Most frequently there would be no one there. This was not unusual then especially in government offices. Agriculture was the best — State the worst. So I would go down to Welles’s office (114 on the east side) and finding no one there I would tour the first floor and then back to the lobby to shoot the bull with the guard. I can recall one conversation with him that might be pertinent. I asked how he determined which people he passed on and those he made sign-in (and out). His reply was that his main job was to keep out Jews and screwballs and that anyone who looked legitimate could go right in. The latter would include Whittaker Chambers who also had a press card — guaranteed entry anywhere. I would guess he found out the same thing I did. The place was empty at noon. On one occasion I even went up to the old man’s office (212) but promptly got shooed out of there. About this time I was taking a typing course at night school so when time permitted I would return to Mr. Welles’s office and practice my typing on his stationery. The quick brown fox, etc. etc.

Sure this issue must have arisen during the trials. At that time there would have been a number of people around who knew — particularly the door guards. Why it was never aired is a mystery to me.

There must be a lot of people like me still around who can remember the ambience of that time (I am 72.). There was little security. I would ride my bicycle up to the front door of the White House. They used to keep the butler trays popped on the window sills of the foyer — I considered nipping one as a souvenir once. The West Wing was the press room and there was zero security there. I spent many an hour there waiting for press releases. Of that rather scanty crowd I can remember only Merriman Smith and Kenneth Jackson.

People who write about Washington of the pre-war years tend to project backwards their present concept of the place. But that distorts everything. In those days there was no A/C. People took to the great outdoors at every opportunity. A great example is Joe Kennedy’s first office in the government. I think it was the Bureau of Ships — a dingy old barroom at the southeast corner of 10th and New York Avenue. Coming up on the place I would look for his limo — if it wasn’t there the place was likely to be empty. Washington then was a small Southern town — casual, laid-back, unpretentious (P.V. McNutt was an exception). Security was less than minimal, people left their office unlocked and their windows open — unthinkable today.


N.B. The line about keeping out Jews is not notable in that context. Most of the embassies in town had some protective measures. Jews were regarded as a plague.”

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Feb 19

Maybe “moron” would be more like it. A few years ago, I found a letter from a former messenger who used to deliver documents to the State Department in the 1930s, and in the letter he talked about how after making deliveries, he would regularly slip unnoticed into the file room to practice his typing on an office typewriter.

Anyway, I thought I would post this document, which supports Harrison Salisbury’s recollection about the lack of security at the State Department (see Lewis Hartshorn’s comment in the previous post). This is from the defense files, and I think it’s pretty clear that security at State was, contrary to the prosecution’s assertions at the Hiss trials, rather lax, to say the least, and there’s no question that stealing files would have been a piece of cake for anyone with such intentions.

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Feb 19

One of the many abiding mysteries of the Hiss Case was how Chambers got hold of the State Department documents, if he didn’t get them from Alger Hiss. During the trials, the prosecution had Francis Sayre’s secretary, Eunice Lincoln, testify that security around the office was tight, and that no one could have gone in unnoticed.

The defense countered that with the testimony of Charles Darlington, a State Department official in the Trade Agreements division (where some of the documents originated), who said he happened to see Julian Wadleigh — who admitted stealing documents for Chambers — sitting in his office going through his papers. He also said he had gone to Hiss’s office and hadn’t been prevented from entering by Eunice Lincoln.

But it was Chambers himself who inadvertently provided the best evidence about how documents could easily have been stolen from the Department. The story came via a 1969 conversation that Alger Hiss had with the radical journalist Ella Winter, who had met Chambers in the 1930s. Winter then sat with John Lowenthal for a longer interview, in which she told him about the encounter. The interview raises all sorts of questions about what Chambers was up to, but I’m posting a couple of pages here just to focus on explanation about how easy it was to sneak documents out Foggy Bottom. Here are three pages from Lowenthal’s interview notes:

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Feb 19

A couple of weeks ago, The Nation’s Web site published an article I wrote, detailing my frustrations with the FBI’s highhanded treatment of our FOIA requests. Especially frustrating was their policy regarding deletions. Calling their decisions arbitrary doesn’t even close to describing them. I thought I’d include here one of the most incomprehensible deletions I’ve ever seen in three decades of going through FBI files.

Here’s the document:

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Look at the first deletion on the page. The name blacked out is: Whittaker Chambers! A document recounting an action in the Hiss-Chambers case, an event publicized in every major newspaper in the country, and some dunderhead decides to remove Chambers’ name sixty years later, citing privacy concerns. If you have any examples that are more egregious than that, I’d love to see them.

Oh, there is supposed to be a comments section on this page. Like Janet Jackson’s wardrobe, it occasionally malfunctions. Feel free to email me at jeffismee@yahoo.com if you have a comment but can’t post it.

One final note regarding the deletions, the decision to remove the other names is almost equally outrageous. The first is Mike Catlett, and the second is Donald Hiss.

Feb 19

A few days ago, I had a nice chat with Robert Weinberg, a veteran trial lawyer whose article on the questionable indictment of Alger Hiss is reprinted on our Web site. Weinberg had been going over the HUAC testimony and suggested that one of the turning points in the entire case occurred during the first confrontation between Hiss and Chambers on August 17, 1948 at the Commodore Hotel in New York City. I think Weinberg is correct.

This could get a little complicated, but the point — which has been raised in print elsewhere — is still worth noting.

On August 3, 1948, Chambers identified Hiss and seven others as members of a secret Communist Party group in the 1930s. Upon hearing the charge, Hiss asked to appear before HUAC, and on August 5, he testified that not only had he not been a member of the Party, but that he had never known anyone by the name of Whittaker Chambers. When shown a picture of Chambers, Hiss said it had a certain familiarity, but that he didn’t want to identify someone on the basis of a photograph, and that he would prefer to meet him in person.

In his own way, Chambers confirmed Hiss’s testimony during executive session testimony on August 7, when he admitted that he had used an alias when dealing with Hiss. Still, HUAC’s members, especially the junior Congressman from California, Richard M. Nixon, played up in the press the false notion that Hiss was denying ever knowing Chambers and that this was somehow the core question of the dispute (because, in their logic, if Hiss did know Chambers, he must have also been a Communist) even though that wasn’t the point at all.

On August 16, Hiss again appeared before the committee and testified that Chambers might be the same person he knew in the 1930s as a freelance writer named George Crosley. Crosley had come to his office at the Nye Committee, looking for information in connection with a story he was writing. They subsequently got to know each other. Hiss even sublet an apartment to him, but he broke off the relationship when he realized that Crosley was a deadbeat who was never going to pay back the rent he owed on the apartment or a series of small loans Hiss had made to him.

The next day, Nixon and his staff arranged for another executive session, but with both Hiss and Chambers appearing in the same room of the Commodore Hotel in New York City. It was during this session where the crucial lie occurred. When asked specifically if he was Crosley, Chambers said no. It was a fib, of course, as Samuel Roth showed when he told the defense that Chambers had submitted several poems to his journal using that pseudonym The defense didn’t want to put Roth on the stand because he was a convicted pornographer.

Had Chambers admitted he had used the name Crosley, it would have indicated Hiss was telling the truth, not only about Chambers’s use of an alias but about the circumstances of their meeting and their subsequent relationship. It would also have halted the HUAC campaign against Hiss in its tracks. But with Chambers’s continued stonewalling (he later conceded at trial, knowing that Roth could testify, that it was “possible” that he had used the name), HUAC’s members were now able to batter Hiss in the press and during their subsequent hearings by claiming he was now admitting that he had known Chambers.

“There’s no question that the prosecution used all that bad publicity Hiss got in the summer, and it did so successfully,” Weinberg, an expert in such strategy, said.

This point is taken up by William Howard Moore in his small book on the Hiss Case, “Two Foolish Men.” Moore’s book can be downloaded in its entirety from our site by clicking here.

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Feb 19

There were two fascinating obits in The New York Times today, both with some relation to the Hiss Case. The first was of Irving Feiner, who lost a major free-speech case before the Supreme Court in the early 1950s. The case resulted from an incident in 1949. Feiner was ranting about politics on a street corner in Syracuse, New York, when the police, fearing a riot, asked Feiner to step down. He refused and was arrested. He was eventually convicted of disorderly conduct. The verdict was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision. The dissent by Hugo Black, a powerful defense of free speech, is worth reading.

So what does this all have to do with the Hiss Case? I’m glad you asked. Feiner’s anger had boiled over after the Mayor of Syracuse had canceled a scheduled performance earlier that evening by Pete Seeger and a speech by the noted progressive attorney O. John Rogge. Rogge had been invited to Syracuse to speak about the then ongoing trial of the Trenton Six, which was also known as the North’s Scottsboro case. It involved six black youths from Newark who, based on confessions obtained by the local police, were convicted of murdering a tailor. The youths were all given the death penalty until a series of articles exposed the fraudulent confessions, which were obtained under extreme duress.

Therein lies the connection. The articles were written for The Guardian by a young reporter named William A. Reuben. Bill’s investigation saved their lives. It also engendered in him a lifelong fascination with false confessions. For more than 50 years he investigated the Hiss case and was its leading expert. He was spurred on in large part by his belief that, like the Trenton Six, Whittaker Chambers had made a false confession of guilt.

The other obituary was for Stephen Zetterberg, who became a footnote to the political career of Richard Nixon. In his successful campaign against incumbent Jerry Voorhis in 1946, Nixon employed for the first time (in politics anyway) the questionable tactics that would soon earn him the sobriquet Tricky Dick. According to the obit, he was back at it in 1948 when Zetterberg became a candidate for Nixon’s House seat. Nixon, a Republican, ran against Zetterberg in the Democratic primary (this was legal in California), sending postcards to voters, addressing them as “Fellow Democrats.” The story also says that Nixon had his name listed on the ballot as “Congressman”, leading voters to assume that he was the Democratic incumbent.

Nixon went on to defeat Zetterberg handily and soon resumed his duties as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Within a month of the election that fall, he was photographed  peering at supposedly secret government documents obtained from Whittaker Chambers via a pumpkin on Chambers’ farm. Befitting the name Tricky Dick, the frames Nixon was pictured looking so intently at, were blank.

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Feb 19

Yesterday, I received a nice note from Linda Zises, one of Harold Glasser’s daughters. Glasser, as many of you might know, was a Treasury Department official during the New Deal who was later accused of being a Communist and an espionage agent. The National Security Agency stated in its Venona releases that Glasser was an agent codenamed “Ruble” by the Soviets. Historians such as Allen Weinstein and John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr have echoed those claims. But there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Some of it comes from Glasser himself, who was especially impressive in his testimony before the grand jury in 1949. I’m not going to go into all that here, because a new Web site being launched soon will be investigating these charges in detail. What I did want to pass one was Linda’s note, which I found to be both revealing and touching. Too often historians who level charges don’t bother to investigate the human aspect of those they accuse. It’s a shame, too, because not only do they leave readers with half the story, they also miss important clues that may help reveal the truth. The best example I can give you of a book that explores the subject’s personality to help reveal the truth about the charges is Tony Hiss’s “The View From Alger’s Window.”

Here’s part of what Linda had to say about her father:

“Dad was known as the little kid on the block in South Side of Chicago where he grew up.  In the violent crime ridden streets  he was protected by his five older brothers.  He grew up in the world depicted in the James Farrell novel, “Studs Lonigan.” At the age of 16, he started school at the University of Chicago. He went to the university carrying the kosher lunch packed by his mother until one day, before  class, he threw the lunch in the trash and that ended his identification with the orthodox Jewish community. He became  a lifelong  ‘non believer.’

“He graduated and then went on to do graduate work at Harvard.  He left Harvard before completing his degree to go to work for the federal government.

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“He had an extraordinary sense of humor and he loved to relate stories to his children.  One of his most enjoyable one was the time John Foster Dulles saw him walking back to their hotel from an important meeting.  Dulles asked him if he would like a lift.  And HG answered “No, I prefer to walk”. That was his arrogance coming to the fore. He was arrogant, yet often humble.  He was funny and enjoyed the ironies of life.  At his fiftieth wedding anniversary he announced  “Everything I did, everything I achieved politically in my life time has been undone.”  This was not an angry an speaking, nor a depressed man.  He was amused.

“He died at the age of 88, soon to be 89.  Even in the nursing home, when he was unable to speak or to smile, when it came to his recreation time it took two strong nurses to hold him back when they loosened the restraining straps, because he would run down the hallway to recreation, a nurse on either side trying to hold him back.  He was always rebellious, always the one to set a precedent.  He was never a spy.  He would never risk doing anything that wasn’t legal.

“ ‘Ruble be damned,’ he would have said and laughed.”

Both Linda and her sister said Glasser and his wife associated with radicals and the Party, as did many people during the Depression, but that their father, aside from being arrogant, was extremely independent and would never kowtow to anyone or any one philosophy. Both also said he was never a Party member and never a spy.

Photo: Courtesy LIFE photo archive hosted by Google

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