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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