I’m reading Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case.
This post isn’t really just about Hiss and Chambers, but it helps to know the background. If you know about Hiss and Chambers already, skip to What We Knew Then, What We Know Now.
Alger Hiss was a high-ranking member of the State Department during World War II. He was a man of some influence. Quoting (and later paraphrasing) Wikipedia:
In 1944, Hiss was named Director of the Office of Special Political Affairs, a policy-making entity devoted to planning for post-war international organizations, Hiss served as executive secretary of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, which drew up plans for the future United Nations….
He also attended the Yalta Conference, where FDR, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill made plans about the post-war division of Europe. Also discussed were plans for the UN, which had originally been laid at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference. He participated in making the American draft of the “Declaration of Liberated Europe”, which was criticized for making damaging concessions to the Soviets.
Hiss was handsome, charismatic, and well-liked.
Whittaker Chambers seemed the opposite of Hiss: He was homely, spoke in a monotone, and seemed not to have many friends. He was also a Soviet spy for many years, but broke with the party in 1938. In 1939, two days after Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact, he went to the FBI (I believe) to give them information about Communists who had entered the service of the United States Government.
On August 3, 1948, Whittaker Chambers testified to HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, regarding the Communists who had infiltrated the government. (He had become a senior editor at Time by then.) Among the names he named was Alger Hiss.
What We Knew Then, What We Know Now
Weinstein’s book gives extensive details about the Hiss-Chambers case. It was originally published in 1978, and has been updated in a third edition to include information later uncovered through KGB archives, former KGB officer Alexander Vassiliev, and intercepted Soviet cables known through their code name, VENONA.
The merging of old and new material leads to shocking footnotes. One example is this paragraph:
Harry Dexter White, who appeared before HUAC on August 13, had taught international economics at Harvard before joining the Treasury Department during the New Deal. He acknowledged to the committee that he had known [US-based Communist underground leader Nathan Gregory] Silvermaster “pretty well” for the past decade but denied having been a Communist or being “even close to becoming one,” and said he could not recall ever having met either [former Communists turned anti-Communist informer Elizabeth] Bentley or Chambers, “judging from the pictures I have seen in the press.” White called the charge that he had helped obtain “key posts for persons I knew were engaged in espionage work to help in that work… unqualifiedly false.” Press and spectators were sympathetic toward the cheerful, mild-mannered White, and when he finished reading his prepared statement, they broke into a sustained round of applause.
…which had this footnote:
White lied to the committee. his extensive and complex involvement with American and Russian agents for Soviet intelligence emerges plainly from both the VENONA intercepts and from KGB archives [citation omitted].
In fact, if the book Operation Snow: How a Soviet Mole in FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor is to be believed — and the Washington Times seems to think it is — White had a hand in causing the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor, on behalf of the beleaguered Soviets.
While many people think of HUAC, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the whole era as a horrifying example of “Red Scare” witch-hunting, to no good end, the fact is that they were right: There were Communists placed quite high up in the United States Government. They duped or had the willing help of reporters, other government officials, and even Presidents. They helped lay the foundations of today’s government organizations, the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and more.
This is the history. We knew less in 1978, but now there is no excuse to believe otherwise: The Red Scare was on target, and just because we were paranoid doesn’t mean the Soviets weren’t out to get us.