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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