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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