This is a disturbing book about a very disturbing case. The case is disturbing because it almost inevitably draws us into a reconsideration of some of the most difficult and emotional social and political issues to face the United States in the twentieth century. Logically speaking, the virtue or villainy of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers neither proves nor disproves the value of the causes either supported, but symbolically and emotionally judgments about the two men have become intertwined with judgments about the worth of the New Deal social programs, the causes of the weaknesses in the Yalta accords, the reasons for the fall of China to the Communists, and the degree to which the American government was infiltrated by Communists, as well as the degree to which American policy reflected Communist influences rather than our own national interests in the 1930’s, 1940’s, and even the 1950’s. As a result, the merits of the case have been part of a long and intense series of battles in the public arena which virtually overshadow the original congressional committee hearings and court battles which gave rise to the controversy.
The book is disturbing because, after the author promised to perform the objective scholarly sifting of evidence that was needed to settle this particular case on its merits, regardless of the political and ideological issues which had become entangled with it, he has egregiously failed to realize that promise.
Weinstein has, however, done a good job in tracing the parallel yet distinctive paths followed by Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers in their early lives. Hiss had what can only be described as a distinguished career. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1929, after serving on the Harvard Law Review. He so impressed Professor Felix Frankfurter, later a Supreme Court Justice, that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes invited Hiss to be his personal law clerk. After practicing law in Boston and New York for a while, Hiss returned to Washington to serve in a series of governmental positions. He was on the legal staff of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration; he was counsel for the Nye Committee’s investigation of the munitions industry; and he worked briefly for the Justice Department. Then in 1936 his career took another turn. He joined the State Department, which led eventually to his becoming a member of the American delegation at the Yalta Conference and to his being the presiding officer at the United Nations organizing meeting in San Francisco. When he finally left the State Department in 1947, he added another accomplishment to an already distinguished record: he became President of the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Chambers did not have so distinguished a career, although he had achieved a significant measure of personal success by the time the Hiss-Chambers public drama began. Chambers attended Columbia College, demonstrating considerable literary promise and little self-discipline. In 1924 he dropped out of college for the second time, never to return and never to graduate. In 1925 he joined the Communist Party. By 1929 when he temporarily drifted away from the Party he had risen from being a staff writer to a position as an editor of The Daily Worker. In New York he developed a minor reputation as a poet and as a skilled translator of German books, including Bambi. Weinstein says that Chambers rejoined the Communist Party in 1931 after publishing several short stories in The New Masses. He left The New Masses in 1932 for Communist underground work. Sometime in 1937 or 1938 he broke with the Communist Party and went into hiding. At first he earned an uncertain living through a series of writing and translating projects. Then in 1939 he joined Time magazine. By the time of his public confrontation with Alger Hiss in 1948 he was a controversial anti-Communist crusader and a Senior Editor of Time.
The confrontation and the case began at the August 3, 1948, session of the House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC had wanted to see if Chambers could corroborate the testimony of a previous witness, Elizabeth Bentley, about Soviet espionage and “Communism-in-government.” Chambers asked to read an opening statement which named a series of former governmental officials not yet implicated and changed the entire direction of HUAC’s investigation. Most prominent among the names mentioned by Chambers was that of Alger Hiss. Newspaper headlines and public interest immediately focused on the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Hiss demanded an opportunity to appear before the committee and answer the charges against him. At a public hearing on August 5, 1948, Hiss systematically denied Chambers’ allegations. The challenge had been issued and the challenge had been answered. From that moment on the two were the central figures in an ever more elaborate drama involving committee hearings, FBI interrogations, Chambers’ accusations on Meet the Press, Hiss’s slander suit against Chambers, a Grand Jury investigation, and two trials of Hiss for perjury. In the course of that unfolding drama, Chambers changed his testimony. He had earlier indicated that neither he nor Hiss had engaged in espionage. He had also claimed that he did not possess any documentary evidence to substantiate his story. Under pressure from Hiss’s lawyers in the slander suit and nervously aware that the Justice Department might charge him with perjury, Chambers suddenly produced the famous “Pumpkin Papers”: the handwritten notes, typewritten summaries, and microfilmed documents that put Hiss back on the defensive. The statute of limitations protected Hiss from espionage charges, but his more recent sworn statements led to his indictment for perjury.
The jury at the first trial was unable to reach a verdict. At the second trial they found Hiss guilty of perjury, and his appeals to higher courts failed to overturn the verdict or save him from jail. Nevertheless, almost from the moment of his conviction, books and articles began to appear claiming that at the least the evidence presented left a reasonable doubt and that the verdict was unjustified. They also tended to claim that Hiss was “framed,” that much of the evidence was manufactured, and that Whittaker Chambers was everything from a spurned homosexual lying for revenge to a Communist agent still trying to wreak havoc on the United States. Though not quite as voluminous, the defenses of Chambers over the ensuing decades have also been numerous. Weinstein was quite right when he wrote...
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