Alger Hiss and the PLDC

By early 1948, Chambers had become one of the best-known writer-editors at Time. First had come his scathing commentary “The Ghosts on the Roof” (March 5, 1945) on the Yalta Conference (in which Hiss partook). Subsequent cover-story essays profiled Marian Anderson, Arnold Toynbee, Rebecca West and Reinhold Niebuhr. The cover story on Marian Anderson (December 30, 1946) proved so popular that the magazine broke its rule of non-attribution in response to readers’ letters:

“Most Time cover stories are written and edited by the regular staffs of the section in which they appear. Certain cover stories, that present special difficulties or call for a special literary skill, are written by Senior Editor Whittaker Chambers.”

Chambers was at the height of his career as a highly regarded professional writer when the Hiss case broke later that year.

On August 3, 1948, Chambers was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Here he gave the names of individuals he said were part of the underground “Ware group” in the late 1930s, including Alger Hiss. He thus once again, as he had in 1939, named Hiss as a member of the Communist Party, but did not yet make any accusations of espionage.

In subsequent HUAC sessions, Hiss testified and initially denied that he knew anyone by the name of Chambers, but on seeing him in person (and after it became clear that Chambers knew details about Hiss’s life), said that he had known Chambers under the name “George Crosley”. Hiss denied that he had ever been a Communist, however.

Since Chambers still presented no evidence, the committee had initially been inclined to take the word of Hiss on the matter. However, committee member Richard Nixon

received secret information from the FBI files on Chambers which had led him to pursue the issue. When it issued its report, HUAC described Hiss’s testimony as “vague and evasive”.

The country quickly became divided over the Hiss – Chambers issue. President Harry S. Truman, not pleased with the allegation that the man who had presided over the United Nations Charter Conference was a Communist, dismissed the case as a “red herring” [pun not intended]. In the atmosphere of increasing anti-communism that would later be termed “McCarthyism”, many conservatives viewed the Hiss case as emblematic of what they saw as Democrats’ laxity towards the danger of communist infiltration and influence in the State Department.

Many liberals, in turn, saw the Hiss case as part of the desperation of the Republican Party to regain the office of president, having been out of power for 16 years. Truman also issued Executive Order 9835, which initiated a program of loyalty reviews for federal employees in 1947.

Hiss filed a $75,000 libel suit against Chambers on October 8, 1948. Under pressure from Hiss’s lawyers, Chambers finally retrieved his envelope of evidence and presented it to the HUAC after they subpoenaed them. It contained four notes in Alger Hiss’s handwriting, sixty-five typewritten copies of State Department documents and five strips of microfilm, some of which contained photographs of State Department documents. The press came to call these the “Pumpkin Papers” referring to the fact that Chambers had briefly hidden the microfilm in a hollowed-out pumpkin.

These documents indicated that Hiss knew Chambers long after mid-1936, when Hiss said he had last seen “Crosley,” and also that Hiss had engaged in espionage with Chambers. Chambers explained his delay in producing this evidence as an effort to spare an old friend from more trouble than necessary. [His altruism earned him no benefits from the progressive/liberals who would brand him as a homosexual liar. My, how times have changed!] His fear of Soviet reprisal may also have played a part in his reticence.

Until October 1948, Chambers had repeatedly stated that Hiss had not engaged in espionage, even when Chambers testified under oath. Chambers was forced to testify at the Hiss trials that he had committed this perjury several times, which reduced his credibility in the eyes of his critics.

The five rolls of 35 mm film known as the “pumpkin papers” were thought until late 1974 to be locked in HUAC files. Independent researcher Stephen W. Salant, an economist at the University of Michigan, sued the U.S. Justice Department in 1975 when his request for access to them under the Freedom of Information Act was denied.

On July 31, 1975, as a result of this lawsuit and follow-on suits filed by Peter Irons and by Alger Hiss and William Reuben, the Justice Department released copies of the “pumpkin papers” that had been used to implicate Hiss. According to The New York Times, one roll of film turned out to be totally blank due to overexposure, two others are faintly legible copies of non-classified Navy Department documents relating to such subjects as life rafts and fire extinguishers, and the remaining two are photographs of the State Department documents introduced by the prosecution at the two Hiss trials, relating to U.S./German relations in the late 1930s.

 This story, however, as reported by The New York Times, contains only a partial truth. The blank roll had been mentioned by Chambers in his autobiography Witness. But in addition to innocuous farm reports, etc., the documents on the other pumpkin patch microfilms also included “confidential memos sent from overseas embassies to diplomatic staff in Washington, D.C.”; worse, those memos had originally been transmitted in code, which, thanks to their (presumably) having both coded originals and the translations forwarded by Hiss, the Soviets now could easily understand and possibly use the code to break other, more damaging, documents.

Hiss could not be tried for espionage by this time, because the evidence indicated the offense had occurred more than ten years prior to that time, and the statute of limitations for espionage was five years. Instead, Hiss was indicted for two counts of perjury relating to testimony he had given before a federal grand jury the previous December. There he had denied giving any documents to Whittaker Chambers, and testified he had not seen Chambers after mid-1936.

Hiss was tried twice for perjury. The first trial, in June 1949, ended with the jury deadlocked eight to four for conviction. In addition to Chambers’s testimony, a government expert testified that other papers typed on a typewriter belonging to the Hiss family matched the secret papers produced by Chambers.

An impressive array of character witnesses appeared on behalf of Hiss: two U.S. Supreme Court justices, Felix Frankfurter and Stanley Reed, former Democratic presidential nominee John W. Davis and future Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. Chambers, on the other hand, was attacked by Hiss’s attorneys as “an enemy of the Republic, a blasphemer of Christ, a disbeliever in God, with no respect for matrimony or motherhood”. In the second trial, Hiss’s defense produced a psychiatrist who characterized Chambers as a “psychopathic personality” and “a pathological liar“.

The second trial ended in January 1950 with Hiss found guilty on both counts of perjury. He was sentenced to five years in prison

In 1952, Chambers’s book Witness was published to widespread acclaim. The book was a combination of autobiography and a warning about the dangers of Communism. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called it “a powerful book”. Ronald Reagan credited the book as the inspiration behind his conversion from a New Deal Democrat to a conservative Republican. Witness was a bestseller for more than a year and helped pay off Chambers’ legal debts, though bills lingered (“as Odysseus was beset by a ghost”).

In 1955, William F. Buckley, Jr. started the magazine National Review, and Chambers worked there as senior editor, publishing articles there for a little over a year and a half. The most widely cited article to date is a scathing review, “Big Sister is Watching You”, of my auntie’s opus.

In 1959, after resigning from National Review, Chambers and his wife visited Europe. That fall, he recommenced studies at Western Maryland College (new McDaniel College) in Westminster, Maryland. Chambers died of a heart attack on July 9, 1961, at his 300-acre farm in Westminster, Maryland. He had suffered from angina since the age of 38 and had had several heart attacks previously.

Cold Friday, his second memoir, was published posthumously in 1964 with the help of Duncan Norton-Taylor. The book priphetically predicted the fall of communism would start in the satellite states surrounding the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. A collection of his correspondence with William F. Buckley, Jr., Odyssey of a Friend, was published in 1968; a collection of his journalism – including several of his Time and National Review writings, was published in 1989 as Ghosts on the Roof: Selected Journalism of Whittaker Chambers.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his contribution to “the century’s epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism”. In 1988, Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel granted national landmark status to the Pipe Creek Farm. In 2001, members of the George W.  Bush Administration held a private ceremony to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of Chambers’s birth. Speakers included William F. Buckley, Jr

 According to authors John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, “For nearly sixty years, Alger Hiss’s defenders have mounted one campaign after another to discredit the mountain of evidence that proves he spied for the Soviet Union. First, they tried to smear Hiss’s main accuser, Whittaker Chambers, as a fantasist, liar, and spurned homosexual. When that fell short, Hiss and his defenders invented any number of Baroque theories to rebut hard evidence, including “forgery by typewriter” to explain away portions of classified documents that had been typed on a Hiss-owned machine.

 Finally, they argued that the case against Hiss was a nefarious conspiracy, a Salem witch trial for the 1940s, orchestrated by such congenital anti-communists as Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover who had only one goal in mind: the destruction of New Deal liberalism, so as to pave the way for the Cold War abroad and domestic repression at home.

 The end of the Cold War brought new primary sources into play, and Hiss’s defenders – being true believers – raced to exploit these opportunities, initially thinking they could only redound to Hiss’s benefit. In 1992, John Lowenthal, Hiss’s long-time lawyer got a Russian general to issue a statement, asserting that Hiss was not registered in KGB documents as a recruited agent. Lowenthal promptly claimed this was tantamount to exoneration for his long-suffering client, except it was only a half-truth – a primary weapon of the propagandist. Within a matter of weeks, the general volunteered that his inquiry had not encompassed the GRU, the intelligence arm of the Soviet Ministry of Defense, and it was the GRU, not the KGB, that ran the spy Hiss.

 The next, unexpected, twist in the case came from U.S. archives. In 1995, the NSA released one of its most closely-held secrets: the VENONA intercepts, the name given to coded messages between the Soviet Union and KGB officers stationed in the United States who ran Moscow’s network of spies. Only a fraction of these messages were intercepted and deciphered by what is now known as the National Security Agency (NSA).

 Yet the VENONA intercepts were sufficient in number and substance to make it clear that Washington had not acted rashly or without reason in internal security investigations, but in response to positive evidence of a vast espionage effort orchestrated from Moscow. And one VENONA intercept, in particular, set Hiss’s shrinking band of defenders back on their heels. Nixon, Hoover and Senator Joe McCarthy had been vindicated in their belief, if not their tactics.

 Intercept Number 1822, dated 30 March 1945, was a partially decoded message from the KGB’s Washington station to Moscow headquarters. The cable referred to a well-placed American agent, code-named ALES (pronounced A’-lis), who had been spying for Moscow continuously since 1935. The details conveyed in the message matched in all particular known or knowable facts about Hiss.

 Most importantly, the message noted that ALES, identified as a GRU agent, had been at the recently concluded Yalta conference and had returned to the United States via Moscow. It turned out that only four State Department officials had gone from Yalta to Moscow for further consultations before coming home. One of them was Alger Hiss.

 In response, some students of the case, including Victor Navasky, then editorial director of The Nation, depicted VENONA as a sinister U.S. government project “to enlarge post-cold war intelligence gathering capability at the expense of civil liberty,” while the prominent radical lawyer and friend of Saul Alinsky, William Kunstler, insisted that the messages were forgeries.

 “One could go on and on enumerating all the evidence in the Hiss case, which proves his guilt as a Soviet spy from 1935 on, beyond any reasonable doubt. But the point ought to be clear that the ALES messages, while important and interesting, are but a few more stones on a large rock pile of evidence. Remove them and little changes in re Alger Hiss.” 

 Hiss died in 1996 at the age of 92 [after an unremarkable life]. The tortured defense of Hiss, the blatant bludgeoning of the truth and the slander of others by his progressive/ liberal defenders goes on to this day. And little has changed for the PLDC since the heady Hiss days, as the irrational and incoherent 21st Century defense of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame convincingly shows.

 Finally, Theodore White, a normally well-respected historian, later created one of the most enduring (and telling) myths of the PLDC.

A week after the death of philandering President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline Kennedy summoned White to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. MA to rescue her husband’s legacy. She proposed that White prepare an article for Life Magazine drawing a parallel between her husband and his administration to King Arthur and the mythical Camelot.

At the time, a musical of that name was being performed on Broadway and Jackie focused on the ending lyrics of an Alan Jay Lerner song, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” White, who had known the Kennedys from his time as a classmate of the late President’s deceased older brother, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., was happy to oblige.

He heeded some of Jackie’s suggestions while writing a 1,000-word essay that he dictated later that evening to his editors at Life. When they complained that the Camelot theme was overdone, Jackie objected to changes. By this telling, Kennedy’s time in office was transformed into a modern-day Camelot that represented, “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.”

Thus, was born one of the nation’s most enduring, and inaccurate, myths. White later described his comparison of JFK to Camelot as the result of kindness to a distraught widow of a just-assassinated leader, and wrote that his essay was a “misreading of history. The magic Camelot of John F. Kennedy never existed.”

 The press, academia, the courts, Democrat politicians and the infotainment industry did not forget the “transgressions” of Richard Nixon. From his first campaign after the Hiss hearings, a run for Senate in California against the popular Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950, the press and entertainment community in Hollywood were openly anti-Nixon, especially after he tried to saddle her with Communist sympathies – not surprising given his experiences during the Hiss hearings and, fair or not, not something unheard of in the entertainment community.

 Thereafter, the reaction of the press to a Nixon story was almost Pavlovian. From the Checkers speech to the Khrushchev “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow to the anti-American riots in South America, the press pummeled him with criticism. Nixon kept score.

 During the watershed election of 1960, the Kennedy/Nixon race transfixed the nation as television first played a defining role in presidential politics. The first presidential debates were televised and Nixon was accidently lighted to look almost sinister while Kennedy looked cool and carried the day, according to the press and media commentators.

 “At his aides’ urging, Nixon had applied … a drugstore pancake makeup he had used in the past to mask his five o’clock shadow. But when the candidate started sweating under the hot studio lights, the powder seemed to melt off his face, giving way to visible beads of perspiration. It didn’t help that Nixon had chosen a light gray suit for the occasion, which faded into the backdrop of the set and seemed to match his ashen skin tone.

 Reacting to the vice president’s on-air appearance, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley reportedly said, “My God, they’ve embalmed him before he even died.” The following day, the Chicago Daily News ran the headline “Was Nixon Sabotaged by TV Makeup Artists?” The vice president cleaned up his act for the next three debates, but the damage had been done.

 Besides, Kennedy had a secret weapon in his quest to dazzle the American media: an equally picture-perfect wife who would soon charm the nation and the world. Six months pregnant with the couple’s second child, Jacqueline Kennedy hosted debate-watching parties at the family’s summer home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The press and media fawned over every last detail, from Jackie’s fashionable maternity wear and distinguished guest list to her living room furnishings and choice of refreshments. When the first debate ended, the future first lady reportedly concluded, “I think my husband was brilliant.” Meanwhile, Nixon’s mother immediately called her son to ask if he was ill.” The “Age of Celebrity”, inaugurated by Roosevelt, had its “coming-out” party during the Camelot years beginning even before he was elected.

Historians have since admitted that while those watching on television thought that Kennedy had won the debate, those listening on radio were equally convinced that Nixon had a far stronger performance than Kennedy. This aspect received almost no press/media coverage when compared to the slobbering coverage of the photogenic Kennedys. Symbolism took the place of substance and, in this case, the eyes had it as Kennedy went on to win. Nixon lost the race for California’s governor in 1962, famously proclaiming to the press that “… you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” He was mistaken.

 Nixon finally won the presidency in 1968 when the anti-war movement forced Lyndon Johnson to retire. He beat a darling of the progressive/liberal establishment, political heir to Robert Lafollette and sitting vice-president, Hubert Humphrey who wore the anti-war faction like an albatross round his neck. He never had a chance.

 So, in 1969, after almost a quarter-century of open warfare with progressives and their allies in the press, and flawed as a person, Nixon set about to get even with his tormentors. He surrounded himself with willing acolytes and systematically abused the Constitution, the law and the American people. His lawless and sometimes sinister behavior, when alluded to in the press and media, was accepted as truth by the majority of the public because it was seen in the context of the long, twilight battle Nixon had been having with the press since he entered the national spotlight in 1950.

 Even though Nixon was complicit with federal government coercion of American’s rights, as in the imposition of wage and price controls during the recession of the early 1970s, the dogged and sometimes maniacal quarter-century long pursuit of Nixon by the progressives/liberals and the press finally brought his illegal transgressions to light after his reelection in 1972, during which his campaign organization, unbeknownst to him, broke into the Washington campaign headquarters of his opponent, the pacifist Senator George McGovern.

 His presidency ended with his rightful resignation, for trying to cover it up, in 1974. When his old competitor, Hubert Humphrey, lay on his deathbed in 1978, the last person he talked with on the phone was Richard Nixon, calling to reminisce with an old friend.

 For all of the truly important accomplishments, especially in foreign policy, his legacy is that modern politicians, the press/media, academics, educators and entertainers have all adopted his penchant to take joy in the politics of personal destruction, a tactic he learned first-hand from apostles of the Progressive Movement.

 According to Professor Daryl A. Carter of our own Tennessee State University, Nixon’s legacy has led to “Our apathy and disinterest, along with our ever-increasing desire for revenge and hatred against those we disapprove of, [and] has created an environment where our social and political fabric is coming apart at the seams.”

 In the end, the enormously complex and defective President told his staff, upon leaving office in disgrace, “Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty, always remember others may hate you, but [they] don’t win unless you hate them and then you destroy yourself.” It doesn’t seem as if his enemies ever cared to really listen to the truth in those final words, or report them in a meaningful way, as things in America have only gotten worse. Their joy in his destruction overshadowed any worthwhile lessons.

Next time: The legacy of  Watergate.

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