Spies Who May or May Not Exist: The 1948 Hiss-Chambers U.S. Spy Trial


Mr. Weisenmiller is a Florida-based reporter for Inter Press Service and a contributor of Florida-based stories to “The Economist.” In October, 2008 his third book, “Chet Huntley: Newscaster From The West  A New Kind Of Book” will be published. For more information about the book, please go to the web site http://www.alkapressinternational.com.

On August 3, 1948 Whittaker Chambers---then a Senior Editor at “Time” Magazine and  a former member of the Communist Party---testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Un-American Action Committee (HUAC) in Washington D.C. that Alger Hiss---then the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former  New Deal-era attorney in the 1930’s---was a Communist. Chambers did not accuse Hiss, at this point, of espionage. “…once Hiss was put on the stand there would be a movement to bring old and young New Dealers to trial, not literally, but to make them justify their past life in the present hysteria,” wrote Alistair Cooke in the 1968 introduction of a reissue of his 1948 book “A Generation on Trial: U.S.A. V. Alger Hiss.” For many Americans this is indeed what happened: when the trial began they were forced to remember their younger days growing up in the social upheaval times of the United States in the 1930’s.

   BACKGROUND OF CHAMBERS: Chambers joined the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) in 1925. Chambers, who was a very talented editor and writer, then began to work in these fields for various Communist publications. Among these periodicals were “The Daily Worker” and “The New Masses.” His rebirth as a Communist writer came at an opportune moment. The Depression, by creating a plausible vision of capitalist ruin, had made prophets of revolutionists dismissed as crackpots only a few years before,” wrote Sam Tannenhaus in his 1997 book “Whittaker Chambers: A Biography.” Among Chambers's literary work during this period was a English translation of, of all things, the 1923 Felix Salten novel “Bambi, A Life in the Woods.”

   In the early 1930’s Chambers drifted into work for the secret Communist spy network operating in the United States and began his work as a spy in New York. He was good and efficient in such work and eventually met Communist spies working in Washington D.C. Transferred to this cell of spies in the nation’s capital, he met numerous Communist spies working in various federal government agencies. One of them was Alger Hiss, who worked at the Department of State. Chambers, now working as a courier who shuttled stolen federal government documents between New York City and Washington D.C., was a Communist spy until 1938.

   What led Chambers to leave the CPUSA ? Two things: he thought that Stalin’s purges during the 1930’s were barbaric and, with that in mind, Chambers began to fear that he was a target for assassination by other Communist spies. So, in 1938, the 37-year old Chambers renounced Communism and went into hiding with his wife Esther (who was one year older than he was) and their family. One year later, in September of 1939, in a secret meeting at the home of then U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle, Chambers confessed to being a spy and also gave Berle the names of almost 20 federal government employees who had previously worked as spies for the CPUSA. Among these names was that of Alger Hiss.

   However as World War Two had just begun, Chambers---who confessed on the basis of immunity---and his accusations fell by the wayside.

   Yet Berle stayed interested, and when a Soviet defector whom Chambers told Berle existed was found dead in a hotel room in Washington D.C. (under very unusual circumstances; the man’s death was ruled a suicide but he was believed by Chambers to have been murdered by Soviet agents) in 1941, Chambers fled back to Berle. Yet again nothing was done by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which interrogated Chambers in 1942 and in 1945.

   By now Chambers had been working at “Time” Magazine as an editor and writer. The fiercely anti-Communist Chambers was a favorite of “Time”’s fiercely anti-Communist publisher Henry Luce. At “Time” Chambers stylish prose was making him famous in the “Time Empire” (i.e., the many magazines that Luce published), so to speak, until HUAC called Chambers to testify on that hot August third of 1948.

   BACKGROUND OF HISS: Born in Baltimore in 1904, Alger Hiss’s career as an American public official seemed to go along swimmingly. He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes during the 1929-30 session. This time period was a busy one for Hiss, as he also married his wife Priscilla. After practicing law in Boston and New York City for three years, he was one of the thousands of people who flocked to Washington D.C. to work for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s so-called New Deal policies and programs.

   Hiss began such duties by going to work for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Washington D.C. was, and still is, a place where attorneys hop-scotch from government agency job to government agency job and such was the case with Alger Hiss. His next job was for the Justice Department, and then he began to work for the Department of State in 1936. Hiss's intelligence and hard work habits were noticed by his superiors and he was given a number of important assignments.

   Among these were being part of the battery of lawyers that accompanied President Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in 1945. His focus here was on the creation of the United Nations. On that pint, Hiss was the Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on International Organization---better known by its informal name of the United Nations Charter Conference---in San Francisco of that same year.

   After a government attorney, such as Hiss, has played such an active part in the organization of the creation of the United Nations, there’s not much one can do to top that feat, so in 1946, he got out of federal government work and got his afore-mentioned job as the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He held this post until 1949.

   TESTIMONY: The summer months of June, July, and August in the U.S. are usually periods when news stories about topics of relevance rarely occur, but when they do, they seem to explode into American society like supernovas. Such was the case with the Chambers-Hiss spy case. Although 1948 was an Presidential election year, the election was for many months superseded by this matter of national espionage.

   Before Chambers testimony, much of the American media and presses attention was galvanized to the subject of spying because of the case of Elizabeth Bentley. Interviewed by the FBI, she reaffirmed most of Chambers tales and later, before a U.S. Senate investigative committee, Bentley confessed to being a courier for a secret Communist spy network in the U.S. Bentley’s testimony before the committee was the grist of numerous magazine, newspaper, news-wire, and radio stories.

   Chambers began telling his story of Communist spy-work---if one considers being a courier a spy---at 11 a.m. E.S.T. on August 3, 1948. Speaking in a low, soft voice, Chambers mentioned Hiss’s name but the Baltimore-born attorney did not immediately come to the attention of those in attendance (the committee room was packed with curious onlookers). It was only when Representative Karl E. Mundt, one of the Congressmen on the committee, asked Chambers a number of questions about Hiss that reporters began to question Hiss’s pleas of innocence. Later on, Hiss would testify, some days after Chambers, and tell HUAC members that he wasn’t a Communist and never met or knew Chambers.

   However the more that Chambers talked, the more it became apparent that he knew numerous details about Hiss’s personal life. Chambers mentioned former addresses where Hiss had lived with Priscilla; described in detail what the interiors of these places looked like; knew the fact that Hiss was a bird watcher, and numerous similar such items. Once investigated, Chambers's testimony about many of these matters proved to be correct.

   In that August third testimony Chambers stated “For a number of years I, myself, served in the [Communist] underground in Washington D.C. I knew it at it’s top level…a member of this group…was Alger Hiss.” The former government official Hiss, when he testified two days later, told HUAC members “I wish I could have seen Mr. Chambers before he testified.” Earlier Hiss testified that “To the best of my knowledge I never heard of Whittaker Chambers until 1947, when two members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation asked me if I knew him…So far as I know, I have never laid eyes on him, and I should like to do so.”

   After it became apparent that Chambers knew much about Hiss (especially after a dramatic meeting of the two men in Room 1400 of the Hotel Commodore in New York City), the latter told HUAC members that he knew Chambers but by the name of George Crossley. As Chambers presented no concrete, finite evidence to validate his claim of Hiss being a Communist, HUAC, at first, believed Hiss’s claim of his innocence.

   NIXON: U.S. Congressional investigative committees which enjoy much media and press coverage will usually showcase one politician on such panels. In the matter of the Hiss-Chambers spy case that person was Richard Nixon (R.-California). Although historians like to record that it was Nixon’s work---almost solely among HUAC members---which led to the revelation that Alger Hiss was a spy, readers may be interested to know that he didn’t immediately come to such a conclusion. In fact compared to some other HUAC members, Nixon was initially one of the most resistant people to believe the theory that Hiss was guilty.

   Nixon knew that Hiss MAY have been guilty of espionage as far back as 1947, when he came in contact with a person who had access to FBI files of investigations of Hiss, but Nixon still wasn’t sure about Hiss’s guilt or innocence. Hiss’s personality could be somewhat frosty and Nixon found this to be so, especially when during the hearings it was noted that Hiss graduated from Harvard Law School and then he told Nixon “I hear your school was Whittier.” (Nixon actually graduated from Duke University's law school; he went to Whittier as an undergraduate.)

   That did it, as far as Robert Stripling, the chief investigator for the committee, was concerned. From that moment, Stripling later said, Nixon was out to get Hiss. It was Richard Nixon who arranged the dramatic meeting between Hiss and Chambers at the Hotel Commodore. The meeting proved that Hiss and Chambers knew each other. Chambers asked to be allowed to ask Hiss questions (the request was granted), but first Hiss asked questions to Chambers. As per the transcript the following occurred:

   HISS: Did you ever sublet an apartment on 29th Street (in Washington D.C.) from me?

   CHAMBERS: No, I did not.

   HISS: You did not


   HISS: Did you ever spend any time with your wife and child in an apartment on 29th Street in Washington when I was not there because I and my family were living on P Street ?

   CHAMBERS: I most certainly did.

   HISS: You did or did not ?

   CHAMBERS: I did.

   HISS: Would you tell me how you reconcile your negative answers with this affirmative answer?

   CHAMBERS: Very easily, Alger. I was a Communist and you were a Communist.

   Later Hiss lost his temper and moved forward toward Chambers as though he was going to strike him. Right before this, Hiss had the presence of mind to say “May I say for the record at this point that I would like to invite Mr. Whittaker Chambers to make these same statements out of the presence of this committee without their being privileged for suit for libel? I challenge you [Chambers] to do it, and I hope you will do it damned quickly.” Other men in the room then stepped forward between Hiss and Chambers so no violence occurred.

   Nixon had made at leas three known trips with Stripling to Chambers rural Maryland farm to discuss the case and each time he left to travel back to his office on Capitol Hill, Nixon became more and more convinced of Hiss’s guilt. What finally convinced Nixon that Hiss had known Chambers in the 1930’s (as Hiss formally testified that he did not) ?

   The answer goes back to the subject of language and the religious belief known as Quakerism. Chambers was a Quaker, as well as Mrs. Hiss, and during one talk, Chambers told Nixon that “Mrs. Hiss usually used the plain speech when she was talking with Alger in the home.” Quaker custom plain speech is the usage of the word “thee” as a substitute for “thou.”

   Raised in a pious Quaker household in southern California, Nixon instantly realized that “Chambers could not have known such intimate details unless he actually knew Hiss,” Nixon told author Victor Lasky and Ralph de Toldedano in their 1950 book “Seeds of Treason: The True Story of the Hiss-Chambers Tragedy.” Apparently it never occurred to Richard Nixon that Chambers could have found out this bit of information in a variety of ways.

   “MEET THE PRESS”: Invited by Hiss to make his charge in a public setting unprotected by immunity, Chambers decided to do so in an August 27, 1948 radio broadcast of “Meet The Press” (then a radio show). One of the journalist/questioners of Chambers on this broadcast was Edward Foillard of “The Washington Post.” At one point during the broadcast Foillard said:

   “Mr. Chambers, in the hearings on Capitol Hill you said over and over again you served in the Communist Party with Alger Hiss. Your remarks down there were privileged. That is to say, you were protected from lawsuits. Hiss has now challenged you to make the same charge publicly. He says if you do, he will test your veracity by filing a suit for slander of libel. Are you willing to say now that Alger Hiss is or ever was a Communist?”

   Chambers replied: “Alger Hiss was a Communist and may be one now.” For this remark Hiss filed a $75,000 libel suit, on October 3, 1948, against Chambers. “Meet The Press” would continue to review the Hiss-Chambers story through the decades, as elements about the case became public.

   THE “PUMPKIN PAPERS”: Attorneys for Hiss now told Chambers that he must produce evidence against Hiss, in connection with Hiss’s libel suit. Chambers then retrieved a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm, and pulled out a manila envelope of alleged evidence which he gave to HUAC.

   In this envelope were: A) five strips of microfilm, one of which was completely blank, and two of which contained photographs of State Department documents, B) 65 copies, typewritten, of more State Department documents, and C) four notes from Alger Hiss, all of which were in his handwriting. Previous to this and while under oath, Chambers had adamantly said that Hiss did not commit any acts of espionage. According to information in the State Department documents, that claim by Chambers was proven to be false. This dichotomy in Chambers's words and actions led pro-Hiss followers of the case to believe in Hiss’s innocence.

   TWO TRIALS: The “Pumpkin Papers” brought allegations of espionage against Hiss, but as he could not be tried for espionage charges due to legal statute-of-limitations laws, Hiss was indicted on two counts of perjury in December, 1948. The first trial, which occurred in 1949, ended in a dead-locked jury. At a second trial, which was held in November of 1949, in New York City, Hiss was found guilty on both perjury charges and sentenced to five years in prison.

   Hiss’s guilty verdicts produced great controversy; many people believed that the FBI had tampered with evidence---specifically a typewriter formerly owned by Hiss, which may or may not have been used to type letters that were later introduced as evidence against him---in order to guarantee a guilty verdict against Hiss. This theory has never been proven as fact.

   Hiss was a exemplary prisoner, often volunteering to do legal work for other inmates. As a result of his good conduct, his prison term was shortened and he was released in November, 1954. Three years later he published a book entitled, “In The Court of Public Opinion” (1957), in which he proclaimed his innocence.

   AFTERWARD: Hiss died in 1996 but one year earlier, English-language transcriptions of previously Top Secret coded Soviet files---commonly known as the Venona Project---provided strong indications of Hiss’s guilt. To investigate the matter, a bipartisan U.S. Commission on Government Secrecy, chaired by Senator Daniel Moyihan (D.-New York) convened. When its work was done, Senator Moyihan said: “The complicity of Alger Hiss of the State Department seems settled.”

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steven johnson - 1/2/2011

When I carved a jack'o'lantern for my kids, I found if I carved the pumpkins too early, the damn things rotted. I have never been able to picture anyone hiding anything in a hollow pumpkin for more than a few days. And it appears that the documents were supposed to be there since 1938? The Hiss allegations sound like a total pack of lies from thoroughly corrupt hacks.

Arnold Shcherban - 11/14/2009

The Soviet espionage in the 40's-50s has not played such a prominent role in developments of their nuclear arsenal, as Mr. Hughes (and others in his interpretation camp) claims.
Also, the great intelligence "job" done by Soviets had little effect on the major political and strategic developments of the Cold War period, at least, much lesser one than the general political, ideological, and military designs of the opposing sides.
May I also remind Mr. Hughes and others that it was the US, not the Soviets that almost invariably would initiate a new coil in the continuous spiral of the armaments (primarily - offensive) race, spending all those enormous sums on the "defense" he so much regret...

All the above-mentioned is clear now not only from the previously known facts and events, but from the numerous declassified archival documents and reminiscences of the participants on the both sides, over the last 20 years.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/12/2008

Weisenmiller's piece is quite straightforward for HNN on this topic, except for the words "Who may or may not exist" in his title. Of course they were spies.

One trouble with Weisenmiller, and his critic, is that they discuss Chambers and Hiss out of context. There were hundreds of communists working in the New Deal under FDR and HST. It was no accident Alger Hiss first got a job at the Agriculture Department--another communist there sponsored him, and another communist sponsored him for the next job, etc. These webs and cells are all exposed and known today. "Clever Girl," a biography of Elizabeth Bently by liberal Prof. Lauren Kessler, is well worth your time... The Soviets did a first class job of stealing every atomic secret of the United States, which played no small part in causing the 40-year Cold War which ensued. Millions died behind the Iron Curtain while that went on, and enormous sums were needed by us for defense. Poor security systems under Roosevelt & Truman caused fault lines which run down to us today-- The Democrats are still believed by many to be soft on communism thanks to the reputation they earned by kicking away the victory of WW II.

Weinstein started out to write a book exculpating Alber Hiss, but found the evidence of his guilt so overwhelming he decided instead to write a book proving it in irrefutable terms, which he did--the definitive work. Tanenhaus concurs, of course, in a more recent effort.

Lorraine Paul - 10/8/2008

Thank you, Mr Hartshorn for your rebuttal to this self-serving and slipshod article by Weisenmiller.

Lewis Hartshorn - 10/6/2008

The Hiss trials occurred in 1949-1950, not 1948. He was tried for perjury, not espionage. The HUAC “spy” hearings were held in 1948. However, Chambers always denied knowledge of espionage in the famous public and private HUAC sessions of August 1948, making it clear he was a former member of the American Communist Party with no connection to the Soviets. Chambers later changed his story – and admitted that he had lied under oath to HUAC and a grand jury.
Alistair Cooke’s “A Generation On Trial” was published after Hiss’s second trial (the jury was hung 8 to 4 for conviction in the first) in 1950, not in 1948. Cooke did not take sides though he noted that “outside pressure to swallow whole the Hiss story or the Chambers story, and to join one or other of the entailed crusades, was almost irresistible.” Yet Cooke was certain that HUAC and the press inflicted “such irreparable damage to Hiss that by the time he came to court an acquittal could be only the first step towards a distant prospect of vindication.”

In the printed record almost all we have to go on for the “background of Chambers” is what Chambers himself wrote. Sam Tanenhaus and Allen Weinstein accept most of what Chambers wrote at face value, and employ Chambers as their major source. But other scholars and investigators, especially the late William A. Reuben who researched the case for more than 50 years, have shown that much of the story Chambers told about himself, particularly his “underground” years as a Communist, is not true. Reuben’s papers can be read at the University of Michigan, and a book on the Hiss-Chambers affair based on his research is in progress.

“in September of 1939, in a secret meeting at the home of then U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle, Chambers confessed to being a spy and also gave Berle the names of almost 20 federal government employees who had previously worked as spies for the CPUSA.”
Chambers wrote very little about the Berle meeting in his autobiography “Witness,” but he did say that the “dirty word espionage” was not mentioned, though Chambers insisted espionage was implied somehow -- a meaningless statement. Isaac Don Levine, conservative writer/editor, was also present at the meeting with Berle. Levine wrote in “Eyewitness to History” (1973): “The general picture drawn by Chambers that night was of two Soviet undercover ‘centers’ or rings which, according to his firsthand knowledge, had operated in Washington for many years.” But Berle’s unvarying account (Berle died two years before Levine’s book was published) in his testimony before HUAC and the grand jury, and to interviewers and in his published diary, denied any question of espionage. In a 1952 diary entry about Chambers’s book “Witness,” Berle wrote: “At no time does he record what he said to me, and thus gives the impression that he told me everything he told many years later in the Hiss case. The fact, of course, was that he did not state anything he told me as personal knowledge – but as something he had heard about while in the Communist Party in New York. He did not even remotely indicate that he personally had been engaged in the operation. He did not charge individuals with espionage – they were merely ‘sympathizers’ who would be hauled out later when the great day came. He would not take his story to the FBI. He would not even stand to it himself – he would not himself verify or stick to the story. Further, under some cross-examination, he qualified everything to the point of substantial withdrawal…. I thought I was dealing with a man who thought he was telling the truth but was probably afflicted with a neurosis.”

Chambers’s “stylish prose was making him famous” at Time magazine. And Chambers was famous at Time for calling anyone a Communist who disagreed with his rightwing view of the world. He often told colleagues “the truth doesn’t matter.” The foreign correspondents at Time so despised his lying ways that they revolted and forced Luce to remove Chambers as foreign editor, a position he held in 1944-45. Ultimately, Time’s executives banished Chambers from the news side of the magazine.

Hiss at Yalta and the United Nations.
Hiss was chosen for the Yalta delegation only at the last minute, as a substitute, and Hiss’s name rarely appears in any of the serious books on Yalta, including “Speaking Frankly” by James Byrnes, a top aide to FDR and Truman’s first Secretary of State. Hiss was temporary secretary-general of the UN’s founding conference at San Francisco. He arranged travel and hotel accommodations and provided the delegations with relevant documents.

“It was only when Representative Karl E. Mundt, one of the Congressmen on the committee, asked Chambers a number of questions about Hiss that reporters began to question Hiss’s pleas of innocence. Later on, Hiss would testify, some days after Chambers … that he wasn’t a Communist and never met or knew Chambers.”
Hiss made no “pleas of innocence” for reporters to question when Chambers testified on August 3. Hiss sent HUAC a telegram, read into the record on August 4, saying Chambers’s accusations were complete fabrications. Hiss appeared voluntarily before HUAC on August 5, and after his testimony most reporters were convinced Hiss was telling the truth.

The HUAC hearings were completely politically motivated, as attested to by J. Parnell Thomas, the committee chairman of the 1948 spy hearings. He told the New York Times in 1954 that the Republican National Committee wanted him to put the heat on Truman before the 1948 election.
Elizabeth Bentley was interrogated and investigated for years by the FBI and grand juries at enormous expense –and no resulting indictments. Bentley and Chambers did not know each other, and Bentley never “reaffirmed” Chambers, certainly not about Hiss. And Bentley “confessed” years before Chambers, not after.

“… the more that Chambers talked, the more it became apparent that he knew numerous details about Hiss’s personal life.”
Chambers should have known some details because Hiss admitted knowing Chambers in the mid-1930s as George Crosley. Hiss claimed it was a professional relationship, Chambers insisted that he and Hiss were best friends. But most of those details were inventions or embellishments. Chambers could not describe the interiors of any places the Hisses had lived in D.C., his only recollection was of a leather cigarette box. The details Chambers got right about Hiss and his family were also listed in Who’s Who or the 1947 Current Biography.

In addition to the word of Chambers there exists corroborating documentary evidence against Hiss, but not independent evidence (required even in 1950 by the Supreme Court for a perjury conviction) because Chambers himself provided it, and the documents appear to have been assembled for the purpose of implicating or framing Hiss. There are four small pieces of paper with Hiss’s handwriting on them which could have been taken from his office or removed from other documents to which they could have been attached. (Why would a spy pass notes in his own hand?) There are 35mm films, some frames show documents with Hiss’s initials on them. (Again, pretty careless tradecraft for a master spy.) And finally there are the typewritten pages, actual copies and summaries of official State Department telegrams and memos. Chambers claimed these were typed on Hiss’s home Woodstock machine. A lone FBI documents examiner compared a dozen or so characters from those typewritten copies with recovered Hiss household letters typed on their Woodstock. He claimed both sets were typed on the same typewriter. But later experts, admittedly hired by Hiss’s lawyer, compellingly disagreed.

“Top Secret coded Soviet files – commonly known as the Venona Project – provided strong indications of Hiss’s guilt.”
The “strong indications” appear in a footnote on a single document, Venona 1822, in which one of the editors suggested that a Soviet agent codenamed ALES, was “probably” Alger Hiss.

Lewis Hartshorn
Houston, Texas