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Perjury, History, and Unreliable Witnesses


ISSUE:  Autumn 1978
Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, By Allen Weinstein. Knopf. $15.00.

THE question of motives and allegiance has colored debate on the Hiss-Chambers case ever since Chambers’ accusations were first publicized 30 years ago. Chambers, Hiss, and Richard Nixon all considered themselves on the defensive against a resourceful enemy and a misinformed public, and now Allen Weinstein represents himself as a dispassionate historian who refuses to be deceived by the fictions or intimidated by the slanders of Hiss’s partisan defenders. Weinstein calls the psychoanalyst Meyer Zeligs “a stranger to modesty,” but sees nothing strange in the front-page coverage given by both The New York Times and The Washington Post to the boolc review in which he himself declared two years ago that Hiss was guilty. The press, he says, is unfamiliar with the historical facts and misguided by Watergate, and so it has rehabilitated Hiss.

Some skeptical inquiry into Weinstein’s procedures was therefore probably inevitable. He is not only writing contemporary history about a controversial case. Because of Alger Hiss’s durable campaign for vindication, the writer of contemporary history has also become a participant in his own historical narrative. One reason for the extraordinary publicity accorded to Weinstein’s judgment in 1976 is that he had sued the FBI for release of documents. When another investigator forced the FBI to concede in 1976 that the deleted offense mentioned in one of the censored documents was homosexuality and that Chambers had confessed to it with great revulsion just before Hiss’s first trial began, the reporter to whom the FBI first showed the full text consulted Allen Weinstein. Weinstein was thus able to have his judgment quoted in the very news article that first reported the fact. There, as in Perjury, he reasoned that, far from impeaching Chambers’ testimony against Hiss, the secret confession tended to support Chambers’ veracity, for a married father would not have risked so embarrassing a confession to support a false accusation.

In this case more emphatically than in most factual narratives, then, the historian is a maker of fictions who derives his authority not only from the range and accuracy of his research but also from his appeal to our sense of the way people behave. Why would Chambers accuse Hiss falsely? Why would Hiss, if guilty, give a self-incriminating typewriter to the court? The value of the circumstantial evidence depends chiefly on helping us to ask or (more rarely) to answer such questions. If we accept Chambers’ explicit declaration that he admitted his homosexual behavior because he feared the defense would reveal it to discredit him during the trial, then we may well conclude that this confession does nothing to authenticate Chambers’ truthfulness concerning Hiss.

In the history itself, moreover, Weinstein asks us again and again to draw inferences from the motives that he assigns to a large variety of characters as well as to the principals, Consider his treatment of Malcolm Cowley. Neither in narrating Chambers’ anti-Communist activities of 1940 nor in reporting Cowley’s testimony at the first perjury trial nine years later does Weinstein mention what for me was the most important fact in Cowley’s first meeting with Chambers. Instead he quotes at length Cowley’s unflattering description of Chambers (including dirty linen), and in order to convict Cowley of bias against Chambers, he reports two incidents that did not even occur until two years after the disputed interview. To impeach Cowley’s documented testimony about what Chambers actually told him in 1940, Weinstein also cites Chambers’ recollection in 1949 that Cowley had had “quite a few” drinks during their luncheon interview nine years earlier.

Weinstein does not report that Cowley wrote a sober account of the interview only a few hours after its occurrence, nor does he record Cowley’s most important affirmative declaration: Chambers, Cowley wrote in his journal, described himself as a defector from the Communist Party’s underground who had “learned the technique of the moment” and was now “going to apply that technique to destroy it” (the party).

Besides representing Cowley unjustly, these few pages in Perjury do a large favor to the prosecution’s view of Chambers’ motivation and credibility, Had Weinstein reported here Chambers’ alleged intention to use devious tactics against .lie Left, he would have given the reader a plausible link to other statements Chambers made about “fighting fire with fire” (1938) and (long after Hiss’s conviction) about confronting Alger Hiss in a war of annihilation. Other associates of Chambers during the years between his defection and his appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities have said that in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s Chambers made no distinction between Communists and liberal New Dealers in his efforts to cleanse Time of the pernicious influence, and Weinstein does report those views, But his total neglect of Cowley’s memorandum about Chambers’ tactics does more than leave unfair emphasis on Cowley’s supposed unreliability. It also screens the reader from one of the most important independent documents—written in 1940 about an interview in which Hiss’s name never came up—attributing great ethical latitude to Chambers. Since Weinstein will later deride Hiss’s inability to assign Chambers an adequate motive for false accusation, the omission is all the more regrettable.

The Cowley episode is not unique. Having decided that Hiss was guilty and that Chambers’ central story was true, Weinstein has written what a reviewer for the History Book Club calls a brief for the prosecution. He uses the defense files, which were opened to him, to highlight every nuance that might show Hiss to have been an evasive or opportunistic character before his alleged conversion to Communism, and (in Klaus Fuchs’s words) “a controlled schizophrenic” thereafter. In the circular logic of espionage and counterespionage, exculpatory evidence thus becomes potentially incriminating. Weinstein scorns as “defense by reputation” an attorney’s plan to show Hiss’s actual conduct and opinions that ran counter to Soviet wishes; and when he comes to Hiss’s apparent support of the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War, he remarks that the Soviets too opposed Mao’s Communists at that point.

The historian’s selective skepticism and selective reticence are at work throughout the book. He gives an impressive list of the evidence one must disbelieve in order to believe Hiss’s denial of social intimacy with Whittaker and Esther Chambers, but he ignores some of the anomalies one must believe in order to believe Chambers. Nowhere in this very long book can one learn that in 1948 Chambers at first described his six-foot-tall, allegedly intimate friend as about five feet eight inches tall, but one is told emphatically that Alger and Priscilla Hiss both forgot that Chambers had once worn a moustache, One finds here an elaborate if literal-minded effort to refute alleged similarities between the Hiss case and a novel of betrayal which Chambers had translated, but not one word about the phrase Chambers actually quoted from that novel when he first described Alger Hiss to HUAC. Weinstein never gives a full statement of Chambers’ blatant fiction that Hiss had transferred his stepson to a less costly private school and had diverted to Communist Party dues the money thus saved from the father’s tuition payments. Weinstein reports falsely at the very beginning of his narrative that Chambers told HUAC he had broken with the Communist Party in 1938, whereas Chambers consistently gave the date as 1937 until he recovered the incriminating documents and found that they were all dated between January and April 1938.(Weinstein has an explanation for the discrepancy, but the reader must persevere through more than 300 hundred pages before he even learns that the discrepancy existed.) In narrating Chambers’ recovery of those documents in November 1948, Weinstein says nothing about Richard Nixon’s threateningly urgent demand (reported by Chambers in Witness) that Chambers now bring forth whatever additional evidence he might have, in order to save himself and HUAC. Neither in the narrative nor in an appendix that attacks various theories of the Hiss defense does Weinstein mention the discrepancy between the date on which Hiss’s incriminating typewriter must have been manufactured and the date of the earliest extant letter typed on it in the office of Mrs. Hiss’s father.

Weinstein reports that State Department secretaries swore they never left Hiss’s and Francis Sayre’s office unattended in the months when the documents were removed and copied, but he ignores Judge Charles Wyzanski’s testimony about waiting all alone in Hiss’s office for many minutes during a casual visit there. One cannot tell whether he also ignores, or did not elicit from Judge Wyzanski during his interview, a significant anecdote that Judge Wyzanski told me in 1976, the story of asking Hiss whether their former Harvard Law School classmate Lee Pressman should be appointed to a vacancy in the Justice Department that would virtually leave Pressman in charge of all the Department’s mediation in labor disputes. Wyzanski’s recollection that Hiss firmly advised him against choosing Pressman cannot prove Hiss innocent of a plot to get fellow Communists appointed to sensitive positions, but it certainly tends to argue against Hiss’s guilt, and its absence from Perjury leaves the reader almost no basis for doubting Chambers’ and Weinstein’s sinister interpretation of the relationship betweeen Pressman and Hiss.

Weinstein often uses hearsay, psychological conjecture, and evidence about other people to characterize Alger and Priscilla Hiss. He attributes Mrs. Hiss’s reputed hysteria to the strain of upholding a false account of her relationship with the Chambers family, whereas anxiety about the unfavorable publicity and her husband’s peril might have been a sufficent cause. In characterizing Chambers, however, Weinstein requires firmly positive evidence on questions that might challenge the accusation of Hiss. Chambers’ secretly admitted homosexuality has no bearing on the case, Weinstein concludes—because “no evidence has emerged” to disprove Chambers’ declaration that he never mixed his homosexual liaisons and the Communist Party’s secret work, and because Hiss once told the defense attorneys that he remembered “boastful hints of sexual exploits but no hint of any unnatural sex interests.” Weinstein therefore concludes too readily that Hiss’s later characterization of Chambers as a “spurned homosexual” must be false. Chambers’ complex attitude toward his homosexual past might very well have affected his treatment of men whom he came to portray as his former coconspirators or intimate friends.

In this continuing debate over plausible characterization, the advantage lies with the debater who is asking the questions. Weinstein does not ask in this book why Chambers, whose prodigious memory allowed him to testify at length about an old Ford that he helped Hiss to dispose of, would have forgotten all about a $400 loan from the Hisses a year or two after that transaction—a loan with which Chambers bought his own car, Not even in the growing danger of the slander suit, when urged to find every proof of intimacy with the Hisses, did Chambers remember that alleged loan—not until several days after the FBI found in the Hisses’ bank records for 1937 a $400 withdrawal. Weinstein concentrates on challenging Hiss’s explanation of the withdrawal, and on displaying the FBI records to show that no evidence about the Hisses’ withdrawal of the money was sent from the Washington office to New York before Chambers’ memory of the alleged loan revived. I find it easier to believe that the FBI’s discovery came in some unrecorded way to Chambers than that Chambers remembered Hiss’s old Ford but not Hiss’s relation to his own car. On numerous occasions in Perjury,Weinstein uses similar yet weaker coincidences of amnesia and memory to incriminate Hiss.

The most damaging of these, and the central document in Weinstein’s argument for Hiss’s evasiveness, is a memorandum that he found in the defense files, a report that in the general search for the typewriter owned by the Hisses in 1938 one of the defense investigators in Washington had been told by Hiss to look up the Catletts, the servant’s family to whom (as it later turned out) the Hisses had actually given the machine. Weinstein believes this memo proves that Hiss remembered even before his interrogation by the grand jury exactly how the incriminating typewriter had been disposed of ten years earlier, and he builds a strong argument to show that Hiss denied this knowledge not only to the grand jury but also to his own attorneys. Here as earlier, however, Weinstein fails even to ask questions that occur promptly to a reader less sure of Hiss’s guilt. If Hiss knew all along that the typewriter would help to convict him, why did he voluntarily tell the FBI that it had been given to his wife by her father, a Philadelphia insurance agent, and why did he volunteer the name of the insurance firm—evidence that would surely lead to the type-writer’s serial number? And why did Hiss ever tell one of the defense investigators about the Catlett family, among whom he didn’t want even the defense to inquire? Why, if guilty and only recently reminded of the dates on the papers Chambers had copied, did the Hisses volunteer that they had kept the typewriter until after 1938?

I don’t mean to say that none of these questions can be answered. It is possible that Hiss behaved, in Chambers’ words, not only like a swine but like “a not very intelligent swine.” My objection is that Weinstein doesn’t ask the questions. He is too intent on showing that Hiss deceived the defense attorneys, and he therefore neglects to consider other possible explanations of the memo. He compounds the difficulty by representing Hiss throughout this hectic period as a man perfectly in control, so that the blunders (if blunders they were) are the more difficult to believe. And when he comes to the critical decision of Hiss’s attorneys to introduce the typewriter in court, he offers baffling if not misleading documentation for his reasoning.”Stryker and the other lawyers,” he says, “planned a strategy of candor. They would introduce the Hiss Woodstock as if the defense had nothing to hide in connection with it,” For this damaging inference about Hiss’s attorneys, the only source that Weinstein cites is a letter not from one of the attorneys but from a documentary expert to Hiss’s trial lawyer (pp.397, 633).

Nothing that I have said here settles the tangled question of Chambers’ credibility or Hiss’s guilt. I have deliberately concentrated on flaws in the method and the argument, because the favorable reviewers in the national press—largely by survivors who long ago declared their belief that Hiss was guilty—have praised Weinstein’s impeccable objectivity, and because several of them have announced that his book closes the case. The tone of the book is generally dispassionate, and the evidence voluminous, the narrative organization extraordinarily complex. Few disinterested readers are likely to work their way through the entire narrative while paying close attention to the notes at the back of the book, and those few readers may be fatigued and submissive by the time they reach Weinstein’s treatment of some of the most debatable evidence. A skeptical reading like my own, motivated by previous commitment to doubts of Hiss’s guilt, may help to alert the weary to the historian’s role in assembling and shaping the evidence—whether he is using evidence about Noel Field and Klaus Fuchs to characterize Alger Hiss, or inexplicably reporting as fact in 1978 a statement he publicly called an error in 1976.

Yet the defense and anyone else interested in the mystery of this case ought not merely to dismiss this massive book. I continue to believe that if Hiss was innocent he cannot be expected to solve the mystery of all the evidence marshaled against him, but of course many people cannot be persuaded to exonerate him unless he does explain that evidence. On several questions—especially the content and routing of the documents, and the defense’s treatment of the typewriter— Weinstein’s substantive arguments deserve to be answered on the merits. His unfairness, though a legitimate issue, is not the only issue worthy of careful response.

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