Papers of Alger Hiss, Part 1: Alger Hiss Defense Collection …………………………………… 1
In August 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a confessed former Communist, appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and accused Alger Hiss, a former Roosevelt era State Department official, of being a Communist and a spy for the Soviet Union. Hiss denied both allegations. Chambers’ allegation and Hiss’s denial set the stage for what has since become known as the “Hiss-Chambers controversy.” This controversy was a catalytic event that changed the face of post-World War II American politics and for over five decades has generated heated scholarly debate. The central question that has engaged students of “the case” is whether Alger Hiss actually was a spy. For some, the collective evidence mined by several congressional investigations, two perjury trials, and a half dozen appeals by Hiss has not proven definitive enough to establish or refute his guilt.
The Alger Hiss Defense Collection contains the Defense Files and the Subject Files of the Hiss Defense Files collection at Harvard Law School. The Alger Hiss Defense Collection features correspondence, notes, reports, interviews, memos, and investigative work that went into the Hiss defense team’s preparation and strategy, all of which provide a much fuller picture of the case than is available anywhere else. Included are personal and name files that relate to Hiss, his family, friends, work associates, and accusers, supporters and witnesses, as well as members of his legal defense.
Because of their size, breadth, and richness the Alger Hiss Defense Collection is among the most important collections on the controversy existent. The case has interest to historians of espionage, Cold War history, twentieth-century history and politics, and (because of Hiss’s connection to the U.S. State Department and the founding of the United Nations institutions), foreign relations. In addition, the wealth of legal files will have special appeal to legal scholars. Introduction to the Collection
The Hiss-Chambers Case
On August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a forty-seven-year old senior editor at Time magazine and self-professed former Communist Party courier, testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). In the first act of what would become a great drama, Chambers confirmed a curious story advanced a few days earlier by another former espionage agent, Elizabeth Bentley--a woman dubbed by the press as the “Red Spy Queen.” Bentley asserted that a number of high-ranking current and former government officials were Communists or, worse yet, Soviet spies. In his corroborating testimony, Chambers also named names; he listed a number of individuals, including Alger Hiss, a former State Department official who at the time of the HUAC hearing was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In his appearance before HUAC, Hiss emphatically denied that he was a Communist or that he had ever been involved in the Communist underground.
Shortly thereafter, on Lawrence Spivak’s popular radio program Meet the Press, Chambers repeated his charge—this time without the immunity from a possible suit for slander or libel that had been accorded him when he testified before Congress. Nine words uttered by Chambers--“Alger Hiss was a Communist and may be now”--caused Hiss to file a slander suit against Chambers. Hiss’s court filings set in motion a chain of events that made banner headlines for the next three years.
HUAC was not the only entity investigating Communist subversion; a federal grand jury had been empanelled in New York and Hiss had appeared before that body on March 16, 1948, about five months prior to his HUAC appearance. Through December 1948, both Chambers and Hiss repeatedly appeared before the grand jury to give secret testimony. The jurors were unable to reconcile the two men’s contrasting stories, but on December 15, 1948, on the last day of its tenure, the grand jury dispensed with its final investigation and surprised many by indicting Hiss on two counts of perjury.
The Hiss Perjury Trial
The second act of the Hiss-Chambers drama played out in the courts. Today, historians and legal experts consider the Hiss perjury trials to be among the most interesting, and--with the possible exception of the Scopes monkey trial--one of the most significant cases of the twentieth century.
The depositions and statements filed by the prosecution and the Hiss defense team reveal a complex web of intrigue and conflicting stories. Today, when reviewing the historical record, one cannot help but conclude that both Hiss and Chambers, in their statements made in public, in court, and in private, were far from candid about their relationship and their secret lives. For example, it was with reluctance that Chambers secretly confessed to the FBI details about his homosexual proclivities, of which, it turns out, Hiss was aware. Until pressed, Hiss was equally silent about the details of his association with one George Crosley, a pseudonym for Chambers. Lord Jowitt perhaps best characterized the Hiss-Chambers controversy when he asserted that it remains difficult to know just “who was the spider and who the fly.”1 In order to establish their client’s credibility, the members of the Hiss defense team paraded a who’s who of character witnesses--high-ranking government officials who knew Hiss, some of whom had served with him in various capacities in the administrations of presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Evidence introduced by the prosecution included the famed Pumpkin Papers2--microfilms of State Department and other government documents that Chambers alleged Hiss had delivered to him to photograph and pass on to the Soviet spy network.
Evidence that figured more prominently in the trial, however, included typed documents known as the Baltimore Papers. Chambers alleged that these had been copied by Hiss’s wife, Priscilla, on the family’s Woodstock typewriter, and, like the Pumpkin Papers, were to be transmitted to the Soviet underground. Also introduced into evidence was a Woodstock typewriter that the FBI declared had belonged to the Hisses and, more importantly, had been used to type the Baltimore documents. Collectively, the tangled chain of evidence and the witnesses who testified all contributed to making the Hiss perjury trials unique events in American jurisprudence. For example, during Hiss’s second trial, the psychiatrist Carl Binger testified about the mental condition of Chambers. It was a legal first when such testimony about someone other than the defendant was deemed admissible in a federal criminal trial.
The first trial ended in a hung jury on July 9, 1949. Prosecutors reworked their case and by early November, a second trial was underway, this time in a different courtroom and with a different judge. For the most part, the second trial was a repeat performance of the first, but it included a new star witness for the prosecution--Hede Massing, a.k.a Hedda Gumperz, the wife of a leading Soviet underground agent and Comintern representative who claimed she knew Hiss was involved in the Soviet underground. The judge in the first trial did not permit Massing to testify because he felt that her testimony would encourage “the rawest form of prejudice against Hiss.” The judge in the second trial, however, allowed Massing to give critical testimony about her firsthand knowledge of Hiss’s alleged Soviet agent recruitment activities.
On January 21, 1950, Hiss was convicted on two counts of perjury and sentenced to five years in prison, of which he served three and a half years. Hiss was in Lewisburg Prison in Pennsylvania from March 22, 1951 to November 27, 1954.
To many Americans, the verdict was tantamount to a conviction of espionage. However, the defense raised questions relating to the credibility of witnesses, while Hiss and several of his defenders characterized the nature of some of the evidence as questionable (in a famed post-trial assertion, Hiss declared that he was a victim of “forgery by typewriter”). As a result, the conviction set the stage for the third act of the drama that, according to some at least, has yet to take its final curtain call.
The Hiss-Chambers Controversy
The ongoing debate over the Hiss-Chambers controversy has now lasted more than five decades. Until recently, the central question that engaged students was whether Alger Hiss actually was a spy. For members of the Pumpkin Papers Irregulars--a group of conservative anti-communists who, to this day, meet on Halloween night to discuss the latest developments in the case--the collective evidence of Hiss’s guilt is beyond any reasonable doubt. For others though, including those who have a more nuanced view of the nature of espionage, the evidence provided by the findings of several congressional investigations, two perjury trials, and a half-dozen appeals by Hiss is not sufficient to definitively establish his guilt. Hiss’s staunchest supporters do not find persuasive the interpretation of evidence and the conclusion of guilt reached by Allen Weinstein in his landmark study, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, which was originally published in 1978 and revised and updated in 1997.3
Hiss’s supporters also raise questions about the most recent evidence suggestive of Hiss’s complicity with the Soviet underground--a deciphered message relating to a Soviet agent codenamed ALES. It was found among the VENONA decrypts--radio transmissions between the Kremlin and its various stations that were intercepted by American intelligence in the post-World War II era. These were made public in 1996 by the National Security Agency. For the majority of scholars, the critical ALES transmission puts to rest any doubt about Hiss’s complicity in the Soviet underground, yet still, to this day, aspects of the controversy continue to generate scholarly articles and exchanges over the Internet (the H-Net sites of H-HOAC and H-DIPLO periodically become rich sources for monitoring the passion of that ongoing debate) and in intelligence and cold war historical journals.
No matter which side of the debate a researcher may embrace, there is little doubt that the Hiss-Chambers trial and the resulting controversy were catalytic events that changed the face of post-World War II American politics. The case gave rise to the excesses of the McCarthy era, while the controversy provided a philosophical basis as well as an infusion of strength to a conservative movement that, in the 1950s, was much in need of reinvigoration. Both the case and the controversy reflect the passions of cold war America--a time that was perhaps unique in terms of partisan battles and conflicting ideologies. No less than it did in yesteryear, the story of the grand contest between Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers continues to give historians of espionage insight into the secret lives of spies (and accused spies) as well as their methods and techniques. Reading between the lines, the context of the case also gives insight into the mindset and motivations of individuals who possessed multiple loyalties that transcended that of a nation state.4 Today, interest in the case and the controversy is not limited to historians of espionage. Those whose research areas include other dimensions of the American twentieth-century experience--biographers, political scientists, journalists, historians, and lawyers--have much to learn from the Hiss-Chambers case. It touches on the popular front and early cold war history, twentieth-century politics, and legal history. Due to Hiss’s connections to the conduct of wartime policy in the State Department, as well as his role in the founding of United Nations institutions, the interest also extends to American foreign relations.
The case provides an important window into the emerging tensions and the ideological divide that separated the United States from the Soviet incubus in the early cold war era. The American class structure is reflected in the case: Hiss, who represents the upper-crust, Ivy League-educated, liberal New Deal aristocracy, versus Chambers, who represents the working-class Christian conservative aspect of America’s political tradition. Aspects of that social/cultural divide are manifested today in the never ending political rivalry between the two mainstream political parties and persuasions. Historians of American politics know that without the Hiss case, Richard Nixon, the key HUAC figure who pursued the matter, would probably not have been catapulted into the political spotlight. Furthermore, historians of intellectual history know that without the Hiss-Chambers controversy, there would have been less of a philosophical basis for the conservative political revolution that inspired Ronald Reagan and a generation of like-minded activists.
The Hiss Collections Hiss’s life bridged nearly the entire twentieth century (1904-1996) and the span of his career was almost as wide. He was a central figure throughout the New Deal era, a high-ranking government employee with important responsibilities who served in multiple executive and legislative agencies, and he played a key role in the founding of the United Nations. Due to his centrality and because of the espionage allegations against him, records relating to the life, activities, and legacy of Alger Hiss have been preserved to an astonishing degree. One important aspect of that legacy is the vast reservoir of primary-source records that are at a researcher’s fingertips. Among the available records are Hiss’s District Court legal pleadings, which were compiled and published in book form. The Hiss Grand Jury materials that were forced open as a result of a suit I brought against the government in the late 1990s are available in print in various university and National Archives and Records Administration repositories throughout the country.5 Fortunately for scholars, a rich collection of Hiss defense-related records has been donated to the Harvard Law School Library, where it has been retained through the years. More recently, additional materials have been donated to New York University’s Tamiment Library by Hiss’s family and several of his key supporters.
This microfilm collection, The Papers of Alger Hiss, consists of two parts: Part 1, Alger Hiss Defense Collection, is a compilation of Harvard Law School Library’s Special Collections holdings; Part 2, Alger Hiss Papers from the Tamiment Library Collection, includes the Hiss Family Papers, the Agnese Nelms Haury Papers, the William A. Reuben Papers, and the John Lowenthal Papers. Because of its focus on the Hiss defense efforts, the Lowenthal collection will be of value to researchers making use of the Alger Hiss Defense Collection.
Alger Hiss Defense Collection Because of its size and breadth, the Alger Hiss Defense Collection at the Harvard Law School Library is a font of primary-source documents and essential background materials that give insight into the Hiss-Chambers controversy and the legal strategy used in defending Hiss. The collection consists of 115 boxes of materials amassed by Hiss’s lawyers in their many decades of trying to vindicate their client, as well as additional materials related to Hiss’s defense donated to the Harvard Law School Library by Hiss researchers and supporters throughout the years. Serious scholars of the Hiss-Chambers case and controversy consider Hiss Defense Files Series I (21 boxes) and Series II (20 boxes) and Hiss-Chambers Subject Files (30 boxes) to be the heart of the collection. It is these important research materials that have been microfilmed for this edition.
Hiss Defense Files Series I spans the period from 1948 through the mid-1970s. It consists largely of correspondence, legal research, and background information gathered by Hiss’s attorneys in preparing for the defense of their client. The collection includes professional assessments by document experts who examined the Baltimore Papers and materials relating to the controversy surrounding the search for the Hiss family Woodstock typewriter. Also reproduced are files relating to the Woodstock typewriter that are critical to an understanding of this aspect of the Hiss defense. Series I also includes the interview notes compiled by the Hiss defense on both prosecution and defense witnesses, including such luminary character witnesses as U.N. representative Francis Sayre, Illinois governor (and later presidential candidate) Adlai Stevenson, and statesman John Foster Dulles. One also finds the background files compiled on key trial witnesses, including Hiss’s maids, Chambers’s document photographer Felix Inslerman, and Julian Wadleigh, confessed member of the Ware Group, an underground group from the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Of course, also present are the extensive Hiss defense research files relating to Hiss’s principal accuser, Whittaker Chambers.
In this collection, legal researchers will find the notes, draft briefs, and investigations of Hiss’s attorneys Claude B. Cross, John F. Davis, Chester Lane, and William Marbury, as well as those of their assistants and investigators. This series also includes defense files relating to the appearance at the second trial of Dr. Carl Binger, whose detailed testimony on Chambers’s motivations, childhood experiences, homosexuality, and mental state proved so controversial.
For researchers interested in biographical information relating to Hiss’s career in government (i.e., Nye committee, Agriculture and State Departments), this collection provides detailed compilations of residences, bank statements, and work histories as well as summaries of the defense team’s interviews with Hiss’s work associates. Herein one finds personal name files that relate to Hiss and his family members, friends, and co-workers. Finally, Series I includes extensive materials relating to the post-1950 efforts to clear Alger Hiss’s name (Helen Buttenweiser’s correspondence is especially valuable); of particular interest to legal scholars are the files relating to the effort to have Hiss reinstated as a member of the Massachusetts Bar.
Series II consists of legal memoranda, defense motions and appeals, subpoenas, hearing records, and defense exhibits for the two perjury trials (1948-1950), as well as motions for new trials, the Hiss defense petitions for a writ of certiorari (1951-1953), grand jury summaries, and the stenographer’s minutes, which are unique to the collection. The materials from the Grand Jury file also have special research relevance now that nearly the entire record of the Hiss grand jury has been released. Researchers will find it interesting to compare those grand jury witness interviews to which the defense was denied access with the material the Hiss defense team was actually permitted to see. Similarly intriguing are the comparisons between the summaries provided to the Hiss defense and the actual verbatim testimony of witnesses who appeared before the grand jury.
The Hiss-Chambers Subject Files will have broad appeal to scholars whose research interests transcend the Hiss espionage case. For example, researchers interested in the CPUSA and other left-wing radical movements will find the name files relating to the CPUSA leadership particularly useful. The files help document the activities of prominent Communist Party leaders and members during the critical popular front era, including Earl Browder, Max Bedacht, and Louis Budenz.
In these files, researchers also will find a name-file entry for nearly every individual mentioned by Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers (including several not specifically named but subsequently found to be involved in Soviet espionage--Igor Gouzenko, for example). The name and subject files have been intermixed (the publishers have maintained the provenance of the Harvard collection) and are arranged alphabetically. The subject-name file begins with John Abt (Abt was a Hiss acquaintance, a key Ware Group member, and a longtime Communist Party activist attorney) and ends with David Zablodowsky (a CPUSA functionary and a friend of Chambers).
Whittaker Chambers’s voluminous name file (nearly seventy individual file entries) is broken down into useful subject categories, thus allowing the researcher to focus on the materials of greatest interest: (i.e., “FBI interviews”…. “December 8, 1948 Statement”.... “Homosexuality”.... “Maids”.... “Mental Health”.... “Pre-trial Investigation”). Hiss’s name file in this series is equally large (nearly eighty files, including research files relating to the extended Hiss family), and like the Chambers name file, it is organized with equal detail into specific subject categories (i.e., “Agricultural Adjustment Administration”.... “Nye Committee”.... “Pension”…. “Statement (1942)”….“Wiretaps”....“Yalta”).
Special-topic subject files are interspersed alphabetically throughout the general name files, beginning with “Amerasia” and ending with “Woodstock Typewriter Company.” For those whose research interests include such topics as radical groups and so-called Communist-front organizations (i.e., American Feature Writers Syndicate, John Reed Club, Institute of Pacific Relations) and the Congressional investigating committees that looked into their subversive activities (i.e., Dies committee, McCarran committee), this part of the collection has particular relevance.