On today’s date, November 27, in 1954 Alger Hiss, a former official at the U.S. State Department was released from prison after serving 44 months (above). Hiss had been convicted of Perjury in lying to a Federal Grand Jury when he denied having stolen State Department documents and having passed them along to Whittaker Chambers and also when he denied having known Chambers after 1935. All of this was part of a highly-charged and very public scandal in late 1948 – 50. And it all got mixed up with a bunch of stuff involving “Pumpkin Papers” an old typewriter, and a bird called the “Prothonotary Warbler.” WHAT?? And why is any of this important in this day of computers, and a modern global economy? Does the name Edward Snowden ring a bell?
Hiss -vs- Chambers: A Study in Contrasts
In August of 1948. The House Un-American Activities Committee was conducting hearings on possible communist infiltration into the American government. This was a very real threat in the minds of Americans who were for the first time facing a world where one bomb could destroy a city, and where the Soviets stood just a secret away from acquiring such a bomb. Richard M. Nixon, who was then an
ambitious young congressman from California was on the Committee which was hearing testimony from Whittaker Chambers (above), an Editor at Time Magazine, who confessed to having once been a communist. Chambers was about as unlikely a source for important information as one could imagine. Nixon was aghast: “I could hardly believe that this man was our witness. Whittaker Chambers was one of the most disheveled-looking persons I had ever seen. Everything about him seemed wrinkled and unpressed. He was short and pudgy. His shirt collar was curled up over his jacket. He spoke in a rather bored monotone.”
But his information was anything but boring. He named several individuals who had been a part of this cell. One of the men he named was Alger Hiss. Hiss had risen to the highest ranks of the New Deal establishment of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He had
clerked for the legendary Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He had advised FDR at the Yalta Conference. He was friends with Dean Acheson, the former Under Secretary of State. And he was presently the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hiss insisted on rebutting Chambers’ charge and did so on Aug. 5 (above). Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose wrote: “Tall, thin, handsome, smartly dressed, the Carnegie Endowment president (above) carried himself with assurance, making the sharpest possible contrast with Chambers.” “In a firm voice..” Nixon recalled, “…he said ‘I am here at my own request to deny unqualifiedly various statements which were made… by one Whittaker Chambers..” He then went on to deny that he had ever been a communist, and that not only did he not know anyone called Chambers but as far as he could recall, he never had. At the close of his remarks his many friends crowded around him to congratulate him on his superlative performance.
The HUAC and Nixon Question Hiss Further
But Nixon objected to Hiss’ attitude towards the Committee which he considered to be “insulting in the extreme.” So he arranged for the two men to be questioned privately. On August 7, Nixon and HUAC members questioned Chambers who seemed to know quite a bit about Hiss and his home life. This was fine, but they needed something specific. Chambers also recalled their hobbies. “They used to get up early in the morning and go to Glen Echo, out the canal, to observe birds. I recall once they saw, to their great excitement, a
prothonotary warbler.” Armed with this and other info. on Aug. 16, the Committee questioned Hiss who said that he did not recognize Chambers at all. After the morning recess he amended that to say he might have known a man who looked like that named “George Crosley”. When Nixon asked if he had any hobbies he said yes, tennis and ornothology. When Congressman John MacDowell asked if Hiss had ever seen a prothonotary warbler Hiss responded enthusiastically: “I have–right here on the Potomac. Do you know that place?” The HUAC was convinced – Chambers knowledge of Hiss had to be first hand. To their mind he was clearly lying to the HUAC when he said he had never known Chambers.
Chambers and “the Pumpkin Papers”
The HUAC published a report calling the testimony of Hiss “vague and evasive.” Of course by the time the whole matter of a charge of espionage had become a moot point, as the Statute of Limitations had long since passed on any such indictment. But Hiss was open to a charge of lying before a House committee. Chambers produced documents with handwritten notes from Hiss proving that Hiss had in fact known him in the 1930’s. But there was more. Chambers had
hidden some of the film on which he had photographed incriminating documents in an odd place. On December 2, 1948, Chambers lead investigators from the HUAC to a pumpkin patch on his farm in Maryland. There in a hollowed out pumpkin, Chambers produced several strips of film of State and Navy Department documents which he said Hiss had passed to him. The press referred ever after to all of the documents taken form Maryland as “the Pumpkin Papers”, which Nixon and HUAC member Robert Stripling are examining above. These documents containing more hand written notes from Hiss built a case against the man who was now wide open to the perjury charge.
Hiss is Tried for Perjury
Hiss was charged with Perjury in a trial that began on May 31, 1949. There were charges that Chambers had indeed known Hiss, and character witnesses galore testifying to Hiss and his sterling character. There was also a lot of testimony as to the possession of an old typewriter – a “Woodstock” typewriter with keys that would jam up on the writer. Hiss was alleged to have written up some of the secret documents he had passed to Chambers on this machine, and there was testimony that the Hiss family had given the typewriter to a family – the Catlatt’s before Hiss could have written the secret
documents on them. All of this ended with a hung jury on July 6, 1949. The second trial began on Nov. 17, 1949, and had more testimony regarding the typewriters as well as testimony from a witness, one Hede Messing who provided some corroboration for Chamber’s story. Also an expert witness, Dr. Carl A. Binger delivered testimony that Chambers was a (above, Chambers with the “Guilty” verdict announcement) psychopath who was a “a pathological liar.” Claude Cross, the attorney for Hiss said in his closing that the typewriter may have belonged to Hiss, but somehow been used by someone else to type the incriminating documents to frame Hiss. Whatever the case, the second trial returned a verdict of Guilty on Hiss on Jan. 21, and he was sentenced to five years imprisonment on the perjury charge.
The Guilty Verdict on Hiss and Its Legacy
The guilty verdict on Hiss has remained controversial . Hiss maintained his innocence to the end of his life. Richard Nixon, receiving his first national fame as a result of the case, went on with his career, which culminated in his election to the presidency in 1968, and his forced resignation amidst the Watergate Scandal in 1974. Hiss held that his conviction had been a result of cold war paranoia, and that Nixon’s forced departure was proof that he was innocent. But in 1976, Allen Weinstein wrote a book called “Perjury – the Hiss Chambers Case.” Originally intended as the definitive proof that Hiss had been innocent, in reviewing the evidence, Weinstein instead came to the opposite conclusion. Further, documents released since the fall of the Soviet Union have made a strong case that Hiss was in fact a Soviet Spy during the 1930’s. Whittaker Chambers died in 1961. Nixon died in 1994, and Hiss died in 1996. The case has long since faded from current memory. But as has been shown with the case of Edward Snowden (below), the problem of government operatives releasing classified
information for their own reasons, and receiving assistance from Russia for it is still very much with us – even in this age of the world wide web, and shared information. Foreign espionage did not die with the Soviet System.
“RN – the Memoirs of Richard Nixon” by Richard M. Nixon, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1978
“Nixon – the Education of a Politician 1913 – 1962” by Stephen E. Ambrose Simon & Schuster, New York, 1987