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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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

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 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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