Witness for the Prosecution

By Fischel, Jack | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Witness for the Prosecution


Fischel, Jack, The Virginia Quarterly Review


Whittaker Chambers: A Biography. By Sam Tanenhaus. Random House. $35.00. cloth. Modern Library. $16.00 paper.

No event in the post World War II decade more awakened the American people to the realities of the Cold War than did the Hiss-Chambers case. Whittaker Chambers, an editor at Time magazine, and a self-confessed member of the Communist underground and spy-network in the United States, accused Alger Hiss of also being a Soviet spy. At the time, Hiss was president of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace with powerful friends in both political parties. Hiss's credentials included clerking for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes among the references in his impressive resume which also listed such important sponsors as John Foster Dulles, Felix Frankfurter, and Dean Acheson. In short, Hiss was part of the "Establishment," a rising political star with an unlimited future.

The congressional hearings regarding Chambers' charges and Alger Hiss's subsequent trials for perjury, which resulted in his conviction in 1949, divided the American left and right for decades to come. Liberals viewed Chambers as a liar and a psychopath, and believed that Hiss was the victim of a conspiracy which had as its objective the political dismantlement of the New Deal, and, in fact, there was some truth to this belief. For the conservatives, Chambers was a patriot who had revealed the "concealed enemy" within the fabric of American life. Chambers' testimony had corroborated their belief that the Soviet Union had planted agents in key institutions of American life which ranged from the churches to the United States government.

In 1978, one of those liberals set out to document the case for Hiss, but instead, Allen Weinstein, in his book Perjury (1978), concluded that Hiss was indeed guilty of the charges levelled against him by Chambers. Weinstein's book, however, did not prove conclusive because many liberals continued to retain a passionate belief in Hiss's innocence despite the evidence. Weinstein, himself, became something of a pariah in liberal academic circles.

Given recent disclosures which have been made available to the author of Whittaker Chambers, the Hiss-Chambers case should finally be brought to closure. Tanenhaus, an author and journalist, has put together a convincing argument that Alger Hiss was not the victim of an elaborate plot but guilty of the charges levelled against him by Chambers. The author has benefited from the release in 1995 of Soviet cables, which were intercepted by American counterintelligence officers in the 1940's. Referred to as the Venona traffic, the National Security Agency disclosed the contents of more than two thousand cables sent from U.S. based Soviet agents to Moscow. The cables confirmed that there had been a large espionage network centered in Washington D.C., which included Alger Hiss. In one such cable, dated March 30, 1945, Soviet officials pointed to Hiss as someone who had been working for Soviet intelligence, and who was personally thanked by Soviet diplomat Andrey Vyshinsky for his devoted service.

In addition to the Venona cables, Tanenhaus has also relied on the Noel Field dossier which was discovered in 1993 by Maria Schmidt, a Hungarian historian. After his defection from the United States in 1954 Field, a State department official, was debriefed by Communist police and detailed his secret work in the United States, including his close friendship with Alger Hiss, a fellow agent. Together, the documentation presented in both the Tanenhaus and Weinstein books are compelling evidence of Hiss's perjury when he testified that he had not transmitted documents to Chambers.

The Hiss-Chambers case, however, transcended the veracity of either of the protagonists. The case became a cause celebre at the time because it was used as a weapon against liberalism in general, and the New Deal in particular. Both Chambers and his supporters eschewed the view that the New Deal was a pragmatic response to the problems of the depression. …

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