Comment on “Declassified Documents Reveal KGB Spies in U.S.” by Alex Kingsbury:

Mr. Kingsbury,

The Hiss Case was a bit more complicated than you say, and the results more conclusive.

During 1948, both Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers lied under oath, but the nature of their lies and how they unraveled helped determined the course of justice.

On August 3, 1948, Chambers testified under subpoena before HUAC about two Soviet underground networks he had run in Washington during the 1930s. Among its members he named Alger Hiss. Immediately, Hiss demanded to attend a HUAC hearing. On August 5, Hiss denied allegations that he was a member of the network or that he had ever known a man named Whittaker Chambers. (Of course, spies operate under assumed names.) Hiss continued this denial until his death in 1996.

During many weeks of further hearings, Chambers denied that espionage had formed part of the activities of his network–then admitted it. In recanting, he explained that his earlier denial came from his aim to expose (thus disable) the network but to avoid punishment for its members. Of Alger Hiss, he said during hearings “We were close friends” (which he detailed during hearings and in his 1952 autobiography, Witness).


[“Alger Hiss” listed in Vassiliev Notebook (Black, p. 77)]

On August 27, 1948, during a radio interview on Meet the Press, a reporter asked Chambers whether Hiss had been a communist: Chambers said yes. Four weeks later, Hiss filed slander suits against Chambers in civil courts. In October 1948, as part of those civil proceedings in Baltimore, Chambers revealed scores of typewritten and even handwritten pages (including the handwriting of Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White). These were the “Baltimore Documents.” Hiss had his lawyers submit those papers to the U.S. Department of Justice, clearly hoping that Justice (as part of the FDR administration in which Hiss had served) would indict Chambers.

In December 1948, HUAC’s Richard Nixon subpoenaed Chambers for any further evidence. This turned up microfilm, misnamed by the press the “Pumpkin Papers.” Nixon paraded their findings before the public to pressure Justice to consider Hiss, too, for indictment. Weighing the recant of Chambers (which furthered investigation) against the unbending denials of Hiss (which led investigators nowhere but indicated otherwise), Justice made its decision: it indicted Hiss on two counts of perjury. Justice prosecuted the case successfully. A jury found Hiss guilty based on Chambers’ testimony and the evidence of the Baltimore Documents.

The “Pumpkin Papers” (microfilm) played no significant role in the judicial proceedings.

As disclaimer, Whittaker Chambers was my grandfather.


[John Haynes points to one of Andrew Vassiliev‘s notebooks]

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