New York Times
Sunday, December 12, 1948
Hiss and Chambers: Strange Story of Two Men
By ROBERT G. WHALEN
This is the story of the two men who have been involved in one of the strangest headline dramas of recent years. It is the story of Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers and of their relationship. It is far from complete because finis is not yet written and more than that, because so much of it is shrouded in mystery and contradiction.
What follows is an attempt to reconstruct, out of the testimony and known facts, what seems definite in the story and to clarify the mysteries so far as possible.
The principal characters in the drama are these two men:
Whittaker Chambers, 47, short and plump. Native of Philadelphia, studied at Columbia. A Quaker, joined the Communist party in 1924, worked as operating editor of The Daily Worker and writer for The New Masses. Quit the Communist party in 1938, joined the staff of Time magazine in 1939. Was a senior editor of Time until his resignation last week. Did most of his writing on his farm at Westminster, Md. His associates at Time describe him as an "intellectual" and they add: "None of us knows him very well."
Alger Hiss, 44, tall and slender. Native of Baltimore, Phi Beta Kappa from Johns Hopkins, graduate of Harvard Law School, protégé of Felix Frankfurter, former secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. An Episcopalian. Entered Government in minor post in 1933. Served as a counsel to Senate Munitions Investigating Committee, joined the State Department in 1936, rose rapidly to become adviser at Yalta, executive secretary of Dumbarton Oaks conference, secretary general of United Nations Charter Conference in San Francisco. In 1946 succeeded the late Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler as president of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The drama falls into two parts: an early period, beginning around 1934 and running to the middle of this year, the events of which are obscure; and the subsequent period when the drama broke into the open. The first period might be called The Prologue, and the second can be divided into these six chapters: (1) The Accusation; (2) The Denial; (3) The Chambers Rebuttal; (4) The Hiss Rebuttal; (5) The Confrontation (6) The New Chapter.
The two men met in Washington about 1934. The atmosphere of the city was one of change and experiment. The capital abounded with "bright young men," eager to take part in building the New Deal. Ideas were freely exchanged. Communists were regarded with a certain tolerance. The Soviet Union, recently recognized by the Roosevelt Administration, was looked upon as a friendly nation.
The relationship of the two men in this setting is a matter of dispute. According to Mr. Chambers, he was at this time a paid "courier" of the Communist "underground" and Mr. Hiss, a Government official, was associated with him in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.
According to Mr. Hiss, they met while he was with the Senate committee; Mr. Chambers—under another name—posed as a free-lance writer and sought material on the investigation; they parted after a brief acquaintance when Mr. Hiss decided Mr. Chambers was a "sponger."
At any rate, it is certain that the two men knew each other in Washington, and eventually broke off their relationship, however close or casual it may have been.
Approach to Berle
In 1939, when the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed, Mr. Chambers—no longer a Communist—decided that the story of the Communist “underground” should be told. He sought an interview at the White House and was referred to Adolf A. Berle Jr., an outspoken anti-Communist, then Assistant Secretary of State. He gave Mr. Berle the impression that Mr. Hiss belonged to a pro-Soviet group, but he refused to make open charges. Mr. Berle made some inquiries but found no grounds for action.
Eight years passed. The atmosphere in the nation was markedly different from that of the Nineteen Thirties. The Soviet Union was regarded as a potential enemy. Communists were widely suspected of being Russian agents.
The Thomas Committee
In April of last year, J. Parnell Thomas, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, demanded that the Department of Justice prosecute Communist leaders. He said that committee hearings on legislation to outlaw the Communist party had proved that there was a “fifth column in our midst.” In June, Attorney General Tom Clark ordered an investigation by a Federal grand jury in New York. The hearings were secret, but it is now known that Mr. Hiss and Mr. Chambers both testified before that grand jury. Last July, the jury indicted twelve Communist party leaders on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the Government. There were reports that the jury had also taken considerable testimony on espionage. The Thomas committee called open hearings to make the espionage and other charges public.
1 -- THE ACCUSATION
The Hiss-Chambers case came before the Un-American Activities Committee on Aug. 3. The scene was a hearing room in the New House Office Building in Washington. Mr. Chambers was in the witness chair. He told how he had quit the Communist party in 1938 and went on:
“For a year I lived in hiding, sleeping by day and watching through the night with a gun or revolver within easy reach. * * * I had sound reason for supposing that the Communists might try to kill me. For a number of years I had myself served in the underground, chiefly in Washington, D.C. * * * I knew it at its top level, a group of seven or so men. * * * A member of this group * * * was Alger Hiss.”
Several times Mr. Chambers emphasized that the aim of the group was “infiltration” of the Government rather than espionage. He said: “I should perhaps make the point that these people were specifically not wanted to act as sources of information.” Mr. Chambers said that the chief effort was to place Communists in positions of influence, that espionage was an “ultimate objective.”
2 -- THE DENIAL
On Aug. 4, in a telegram to the subcommittee, Mr. Hiss asked an opportunity to testify “formally and under oath.” The next day, in the Washington hearing room, he read a statement declaring:
“I am not and have never been a member of the Communist party. I do not and have not adhered to the tenets of the Communist party. * * * I have never followed the Communist party line. * * * To the best of my knowledge I never heard of Whittaker Chambers until 1947, when two representatives 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 have the opportunity to do so.”
There were these exchanges:
Robert Stripling, chief committee investigator: “I have here a picture which was made last Monday. * * * I understand from people who knew Mr. Chambers during 1934 and 1935 that he is much heavier * * * But I show you this picture, Mr. Hiss. * * *”
Hiss: “I would much rather see the individual. * * * If this is a picture of Mr. Chambers he is not particularly unusual looking.”
In view of the flat Chambers accusation and the flat Hiss denial, it was apparent that one of the two had committed perjury. The subcommittee now set about requestioning the two men, seeking circumstantial detail that might tend to corroborate the story of either Mr. Chambers or Mr. Hiss.
3 -- THE CHAMBERS REBUTTAL
On Aug. 7, in the Federal Court House in New York, Mr. Chambers was questioned at an executive (non-public) subcommittee session.
An investigator asked: “By what name did he [Mr. Hiss] know you?”
Chambers: “He knew me by the party name of Carl. * * * To have questioned me [about my last name] would have been a breach of party discipline.”
Mr. Chambers’ circumstantial statements included these: He and Mr. Hiss had been “close friends.” Mr. Chambers collected Mr. Hiss’ Communist party dues for two or three years. He stayed overnight at the Hiss home in Georgetown several times in the mid-Thirties. Mrs. Hiss had a son, “Timmy,” by a previous marriage. She called her husband “Hilly” and he called her “Dilly” and “Pross.” They had a cocker spaniel. They vacationed on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, were amateur ornithologists, went out mornings to watch birds along the Potomac and “once they saw, to their great excitement, a prothonotary warbler.” In 1936 Mr. Hiss gave a car—a “dilapidated” Ford roadster—to the Communist party.
Mr. Chambers agreed to submit to a lie-detector test.
4 -- THE HISS REBUTTAL
On Aug. 16, in Washington, Mr. Hiss was questioned, also at an executive session. He said he knew no such Carl as Mr. Chambers claimed to have been. But he declared he had been trying to think who might have been as familiar with his household as the Chambers testimony indicated. Mr. Hiss said:
“I have written a name on the pad in front of me of a person whom I knew in 1933 and 1934 who not only spent some time in my house but sublet my apartment. * * * The name * * * is * * * George Crosley.”
Mr. Hiss said he knew Crosley as a free-lance writer, “obviously not successful,” and with markedly discolored teeth. He said he sublet his apartment to Crosley, threw in an old Ford roadster as part of the deal, lent him money, and got nothing in return but a rug. He came to the conclusion that “I had been a sucker and he was sort of a deadbeat.”
Among circumstantial statements made by Mr. Hiss were these: His stepson was called “Timmy.” Mr. Hiss called his wife “Prossy,” she called him “Hill” or “Hilly.” They had a cocker spaniel. They vacationed on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and were amateur ornithologists. He had seen a prothonotary warbler along the Potomac.
Mr. Hiss refused to submit to a lie-detector test, on the ground that lie detectors had not been proven reliable.
The big question now was that of “George Crosley.” The subcommittee moved to bring Mr. Hiss and Mr. Chambers face to face.
5 -- THE CONFRONTATION
On the evening of Aug. 17, in Room 1400 of the Commodore Hotel in New York City, Representatives Richard M. Nixon and John McDowell held an executive session. Mr. Hiss appeared first. When Mr. Chambers entered the room, Mr. Hiss was asked whether he had “ever known that man before.”
Hiss: “May I ask him to speak? * * *
Chambers: “My name is Whittaker Chambers.”
Mr. Hiss walked over to Mr. Chambers and said: “Would you mind opening your mouth wider?”
Chambers: “I am senior editor of Time magazine.”
Hiss: “I think this is George Crosley, but I would like to hear him talk a little longer.”
Mr. Chambers said his teeth had been in “very bad shape” in the Thirties but had been treated, whereupon Mr. Hiss positively identified him as George Crosley. After a few moments Mr. Hiss again strode toward Mr. Chambers.
Hiss: “May I say for the record at this point that I would like to invite Mr. Whittaker Chambers to make those same statements out of the presence of this committee without their being privileged for suit for libel? I challenge you to do it, and I hope you will do it damned quickly. (Addressing investigator) I am not going to touch him. You are touching me.”
Investigator: “Please sit down, Mr. Hiss. * * * I want no disturbance.”
Hiss: “I don’t ------.”
McDowell: “Sit down, please.”
Hiss: You know who started this,” After further sessions in Washington, the hearings recessed.
Summarizing the hearings, the committee declared that Mr. Chambers had been a “forthright and emphatic” witness, while Mr. Hiss had been “evasive.” In discussing the events of a dozen years ago, for example, Mr. Hiss prefaced 198 statements with the phrase: “To the best of my knowledge.” The records were turned over to the Department of Justice, to determine which of the two might be prosecuted for perjury. Lacking further evidence, there was little likelihood that either could be indicted.
6 -- THE NEW CHAPTER
Then, on Aug. 30, on a radio broadcast, Mr. Chambers repeated his charge that Mr. Hiss was a Communist. This statement was not protected by Congressional immunity. Mr. Hiss filed a slander suit in Baltimore, demanding $75,000 damages.
The slander suit led to developments which put the mystery in a new and more sinister light.
Three weeks ago in Baltimore, Mr. Chambers was questioned by Mr. Hiss’ attorney as a preliminary to the trial of the slander suit. Asked whether he could corroborate his charges against Mr. Hiss, Mr. Chambers produced a sheaf of documents which he said had been stolen from State Department and other Government files for transmission to Russia.
Mr. Chambers said that in 1937 he introduced Mr. Hiss to a Russian agent named Colonel Bykov, and that thereafter Mr. Hiss “began a fairly consistent flow of such material as we have before us here.” He declared that the routine was for Mr. Hiss to bring the documents home, have Mrs. Hiss type copies, and then return the papers to the files. Where it was difficult to remove papers, Mr. Chambers charged, Mr. Hiss supplied notations in his own handwriting.
There followed the dramatic events of the past nine days—the appearance of Un-American Activities Company investigators at Mr. Chambers’ farm in Maryland, with a subpoena for further evidence; his “surrender” of microfilms secreted in a pumpkin; the reopening of committee hearings and of the investigation by the Federal grand jury in New York.
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