Jan 11

In July 2007, Sam Tanenhaus (the author of “Whittaker Chambers: A Biography”) wrote a cover story for The New Republic, arguing that Chambers was a kind of new-age conservative who (like Tanenhaus) would have taken issue with some of the more extreme positions of the Bush administration.

I didn’t happen to agree with that, but what concerned me more was Tanenhaus’s misuse of two alleged quotes by Alger Hiss that made Hiss seem like he was the Communist Chambers claimed he was. What Tanenhaus didn’t say was that the source of both quotes was Whittaker Chambers! Had a New York Times reporter done something similar and had been found out, I daresay it would have been grounds for a severe reprimand, if not a suspension.

It turns out, though, that this wasn’t the first time that Tanenhaus made questionable use of his source material. What’s more, when a journalist asked him about his sources two years ago, Tanenhaus angrily demanded that the interview, which was nearly over anyway, be off the record.

In October 1992, General Dmitri A. Volkogonov issued a statement after searching the Russian files that he found no evidence that Alger Hiss had ever been a member of the Communist Party USA; and, similarly, that researchers had found no evidence that he had ever been an agent for the KGB, for the GRU (Soviet military intelligence), or for any other intelligence agency of the Soviet Union.

Challenged by Richard Nixon and other American conservatives, Volkogonov modified his remarks two months later, telling a New York Times reporter “I was not properly understood. The Ministry of Defense also has an intelligence service, which is totally different, and many documents have been destroyed. I only looked through what the K.G.B. had. All I said was that I saw no evidence.”

In his Chambers biography, Tanenhaus alludes to this second Volkogonov statement and then uses it as a launching pad for a unique theory of his own: “… Volkogonov sheepishly admitted his search had been cursory and many relevant files had been destroyed. He did not offer to check again. Other Russian researchers, diligently combing intelligence files, privately reported that after Volkogonov’s blunder officials had scoured the archives and removed all files pertaining to Chambers and Hiss….”

What were Tanenhaus’s sources for this extraordinary assertion? According to a footnote: “researchers: Sergei Zhuravlev letter to Alan Cullison, n.d., c. January 1993 (in author’s possession).” And what exactly did this letter – from a single Russian researcher – say? After he completed his book, Tanenhaus donated his papers to the Hoover Institution in California, so they are now publicly available. But while there is a Cullison folder in the papers, it contains no such letter.

Was it even written at all? The Soviet historian Svetlana Chervonnaya decided to find out. In 2007, she spoke to both Zhuravlev, now a historian at the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Cullison, now the Moscow correspondent of the Wall Street Journal. It turns out that in the early 1990s, Cullison was in Moscow, in part to do research for Tanenhaus, and Zhuravlev, who was himself researching KGB files from the late 1930s on behalf of the MEMORIAL Society, a Russian group working on behalf of the victims of Stalinist terror, agreed to tell Cullison if he happened across any references to either Hiss or Chambers. But he never saw any, not surprisingly, since, as he told Chervonnaya, he had no access to KGB foreign intelligence files or GRU files.

Nor did he know anything about the destruction of records: “You may quote me,” he told Chervonnaya, “as saying I did not have any information on any destruction of records, and I did not write anything like that to Alan Cullison.”

Cullison, when approached by Chervonnaya, confirmed Zhuravlev’s memory: he dimly remembered that Zhuravlev had written him a letter, but, as to its contents, he maintained that its only reference to the Hiss case was a remark that “I am getting close to Chambers and Hiss records,” and that there was nothing written about the removal of any files.

Journalist Leon Wynter asked Tanenhaus about the whereabouts of the letter in 2007. First Tannenhaus suggested that it was simply inexplicably missing from the files and then said:

I’m gonna tell you something right now, which is that you do not quote a single word I’ve told you in this conversation. Right now all this is off the record, because it is so clear to me where all of this is going. And I really insist that I’m not to be quoted: not in any background, off the record – anything. Don’t mention me in this article. It’s so clear to me what’s going on. O.K.?

Why is this important now? For one thing, Tanenhaus’s statement stands unchallenged in a book that was nominated for the National Book Award, but for another, as I write my own book on the case and continue to look into the Hiss literature of the past thirty years, I am fed up with the misuse of source material that is the hallmark of the books that claim Hiss lied. Victor Navasky caught Allen Weinstein at it back in 1978 when he found that Weinstein misquoted a number of his key sources in “Perjury.” More recently John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr made some highly questionable editorial choices in the chapter on Alger Hiss in their book “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America” (for details see my 2009 review of their book on the Hiss Web site).

Tanenhaus’s convenient explanation about unseen Soviet evidence (that files that might incriminate Hiss can’t be found only because they have been removed from the shelves) is another tried-and-true technique of the kind regularly employed against Hiss, and yet seldom noticed.

Here’s an earlier example: In 2007, some 29 years after Weinstein promised to open his files to researchers, the Hoover Institution finally made them available. I went out there to go through them and see if they supported some of Weinstein’s more sensational claims about Chambers’ story being essentially true.

What I found led me to believe that perhaps there was a reason why the files stayed under wraps for such a long time. In “Perjury,” Weinstein claimed that the so-called head of the Communist underground, J. Peters, offered corroboration of Chambers’ story not in his words, but in the way he smiled mysteriously.

Weinstein had traveled all the way to Hungary to see Peters (Peters left the US in 1949 but was not deported, as Weinstein erroneously reports). But while apparently a genial host, Peters failed to give Weinstein what he had come all that way for, and in fact refuted Chambers’ story. Like Tanenhaus, Weinstein found a way of turning the absence of evidence to his advantage. Here’s how he puts it in the notes that I found at Hoover: “I think it was assumed throughout our conversation that he wasn’t telling me the real story, and that I knew this, and that it didn’t matter.”

It does matter, though. A lot.

There’s also this statement in his notes of the interview: “I also pointed out that ‘I couldn’t give a shit about Hiss’s guilt or innocence’ in terms of my own book. I would simply follow the evidence where it led me.’ ”

The fact that I have to spend so much of my time tracking down the errors and distortions in his book — all designed to build an argument against Hiss — that one made me laugh out loud.

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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:


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