Allen Weinstein’s Docudrama

Allen Weinstein’s Docudrama

Let’s start with the Random House press release, replete with “Praise for Perjury“–a reissue of Allen Weinstein’s book on the Hiss-Chambers case.


Let’s start with the Random House press release, replete with “Praise for Perjury“–a reissue of Allen Weinstein’s book on the Hiss-Chambers case. Here is Alfred Kazin twenty years ago, on the original 1978 Knopf edition: “It is impossible to imagine anything new in the case except an admission by Alger Hiss.” Other hyperbolic kudos follows from an impressive and ideologically motley crew of reviewers: Irving Howe, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Garry Wills, John Kenneth Galbraith, George Will, Walter Goodman, Murray Kempton, Merle Miller, William F. Buckley. The list goes on and on.

It turns out Alfred Kazin’s imagination wasn’t what it used to be, that there is something new to be said about the case after all. Indeed, the press release continues, the “newly revised edition…incorporat[es] recently released critical evidence from the KGB archives opened exclusively to the author,” and Weinstein adds “a new concluding chapter…examining the public controversy over the Hiss-Chambers case” that has erupted since his book was first published. Finally, for those still in doubt, the denouement: “a conclusive, comprehensive and dramatic book that points to one inescapable conclusion: Alger Hiss was guilty.”

The release ends with a bio. The good professor, it seems, is also founder, president and C.E.O. of the Center for Democracy (which recently co-sponsored a conference with the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency on the so-called Venona files) and the author of “forthcoming in 1997 The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America with Alexander Vassiliev.”

True to its genre, the press release omits information that is not, how shall I say it, on message. We are not told that, aside from their enthusiasm, the one thing all the Perjury endorsers have in common is that they were each previously on record as believing in Hiss’s guilt. And, of course, it is not for a press release to reveal that Weinstein has, at long last, come out of the scholar’s closet. If in edition one he portrayed himself as the honest scholar impartially weighing the evidence, with the publication of the “conclusive” edition, he is quite openly in the business of protecting his earlier verdict.

The news that The Haunted Wood is “forthcoming in 1997” is more important than one might suspect. Here’s an example of why. As early as page 4 we’re told that a major player in the old domestic spy wars, Elizabeth (“Red Spy Queen”) Bentley–thought by the late Richard Rovere and by Herbert Packer, author of Ex-Communist Witnesses, to be a witness of dubious reliability–wasn’t so unreliable after all. “Recently released material from the KGB archives,” writes Weinstein, “amply confirm [sic] the substance of Bentley’s testimony.” The proof? A footnote says, “See Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (New York: Random House, forthcoming), passim.”

Bentley, by the way, once claimed that she turned over to the Russians the exact time and date of the D-Day invasion, when in fact (a) because of the weather and logistics the Allies had set a time bracket rather than an exact date, and (b) according to Winston Churchill and the head of our own military mission to Moscow, at the time the Allies kept the Soviets posted on invasion planning day by day.

Never mind that reviewing a book based in significant part on K.G.B. archives is like evaluating the translation of a novel without having read the original. When I saw the “forthcoming” footnote, a part of me wondered if Weinstein was up to his old tricks. Let me explain my preoccupation with Perjury‘s footnotes. As longtime readers of this magazine may recall, almost twenty years ago Professor Weinstein and I had a dispute over the question of his documentation for assertions in the original Perjury [see Navasky, “The Case Not Proved Against Alger Hiss,” April 8, 1978].

Matters of documentation may on the surface seem technical, but the imagery of espionage–“spies,” “traitors,” “betrayers”–is incendiary and in tension with the subtleties of tradecraft. Only by studying the footnotes can one make critical distinctions and track the nether regions of a prose where “underground” overlaps with “secret,” “study group” is transformed into “cell,” witting fades into unwitting. Especially in a world where intelligence is compromised by ideology, agents are double and documents shredded, and where the whole process is further complicated by translation into cable-ese and codes that are decoded across cultures, the need for scholarly precision and a healthy tolerance for ambiguity couldn’t be greater.

Here, in brief, is what happened. When I tried to check citations in the first edition, I found that frequently there would be one footnote at the end of the paragraph listing a half-dozen sources, leaving the reader in a quandary as to which fact or quotation came from which source. Often Whittaker Chambers’s autobiography, Witness, was one of the cited sources. Were we getting Chambers’s version of events, sometimes in his voice, sometimes in Weinstein’s, sometimes imputed to other characters in the drama, without knowing which was which? Psychologically, that ambiguity lent Chambers undeserved credibility. He was being used to corroborate himself.

I decided to conduct a modest source check with seven of Weinstein’s most impressive interview finds. Six of the seven responded–and each of the six claimed he or she was misquoted or quoted out of context. Subjects often do disown even accurate reportage once they see it in cold print, especially if they don’t like or are embarrassed by the uses to which it has been put. In this case all except one freely conceded that part of what Weinstein wrote was accurate, but what each denied saying invariably included the espionage part and invariably came from Chambers.

After I published the results of my mini-survey, Weinstein told the press that if I had contacted him he would have invited me to examine the material in his archive proving he cited all six accurately. He denounced these six sources as “recanters” and said he had three of them on tape to prove it.

The case of Maxim Lieber, Chambers’s literary agent–one whom Weinstein says he has on tape–is representative. Weinstein cited Lieber sixteen times as “confirming,” “corroborating” or “participating in” “underground” work with Chambers. He described Lieber’s role in organizing the American Feature Writers Syndicate, which Weinstein called a “front for Soviet espionage.” He quoted Lieber saying “some things are romanticized in Witness, but most of it–as I know the incidents–is true.”

Lieber, who freely admitted to having been in the Communist Party, took exception. Here is what he told me:

§ “I never read Witness–Weinstein is quoting me out of context.”
§ “I was never a member of any underground and I never worked with Chambers on any underground project.”
§ Weinstein’s “account of the American Feature Writers Syndicate (which was designed to sell the works of my clients such as Erskine Caldwell and Josephine Herbst overseas, and was not an underground project at all) is an amalgam of a little truth and a lot of fiction–I don’t know where Weinstein got that stuff unless it was from Witness–but it did not come from me, which is what he makes it sound like.”

Perhaps Lieber was, indeed, a lying “recanter.” Either way one would think Weinstein owes it to readers of Perjury II to let them know that his subject no longer stood by his story. But only in one case out of the six–that of Sam Krieger–has he made any adjustment, and in Krieger’s case there were, ah, special circumstances.

When I wrote Krieger–who took Chambers to his first Communist Party meeting–and asked whether Perjury‘s pages accurately reflected his conversations with Weinstein, he replied, “No, Weinstein’s account does not correspond to what I told him, nor did I tell Weinstein, in our interview, that I was the Clarence Miller [his party pseudonym] of the Gastonia, N.C., Textile strike, who subsequently fled to the Soviet Union.”

All this was published in The Nation, and not long afterward Weinstein responded in The New Republic (“A scholar has the right to choose his forum,” he explained). Here is Weinstein on Krieger:

He too, is on tape, and his words are also quoted verbatim where they appear in Perjury, from two interviews in 1974. Krieger denies having told me that he posed as Clarence Miller during the Gastonia, North Carolina textile strike and later fled to the Soviet Union. I never say in the book that he told me that. I learned these crucial facts from FBI documents and from conversations with two people who had been contacted by an émigré Russian woman whose mother had lived with “Clarence Miller” in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. In 1975 this woman visited Krieger and identified him as Clarence Miller.

Two things happened as a result of Weinstein’s response. First, because on the Today show and elsewhere he challenged “Navasky and Hiss and anyone else they want to bring along” to hear his tapes and inspect his files, I decided to take him up on his offer. And second, Krieger, who resented being mistaken for a fugitive from a murder rap, sued Weinstein, his publisher and The New Republic.

Krieger won a settlement and in 1979 Weinstein apologized, as did The New Republic, and Knopf inserted an erratum slip in subsequent copies of the book. I didn’t fare as well. The negotiations to see Weinstein’s files, while not as delicate as, say, the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, were no more productive. To prevent what he called “a time-consuming ‘fishing expedition’ in my 50,000-page archive,” he asked for an advance list of the specific items I wished to see. I sent him an inventory of twenty-four items (including the file of Nadya Ulanovskaya, a key Weinstein source on Chambers’s alleged underground life and the only one of the seven who did not respond to my original letters). He finally agreed to set aside three hours on a Sunday morning for a date with me (along with The Nation‘s White House correspondent Robert Sherrill and assistant editor Phil Pochoda) to examine his files; but at the last minute, offended by something I had written, on the Saturday before our Sunday morning meeting, he sent a wire that said “…meeting cancelled. All my files will be deposited later this year at Truman Library. Allen Weinstein.” Because the wire was sent so late and we had spent the night at Sherrill’s Baltimore home, you can imagine the consternation on Mrs. Weinstein’s face when the three of us arrived at the Weinsteins’ door the following morning for the inspection that never took place. But that’s another story.

It is not another story, however, that almost twenty years later those files have yet to appear at the Truman Library, so his critical documentation remains unchecked. The new edition of Perjury contains this “Note on Documentation”: “When Perjury‘s original edition was published in 1978, my intention was to deposit the 60,000 pages of material used in preparing the book at the Harry S Truman Library. A lawsuit apparently encouraged by supporters of Alger Hiss against the author, his publisher, and The New Republic magazine–subsequently settled without trial–made it advisable to maintain the files accumulated through personal research…. Also, various scholars, including Sam Tanenhaus, recent biographer of Whittaker Chambers, have made extensive use of my personal research files with permission.”

It is true that the lawsuit was settled out of court. That was because Weinstein and Co. agreed to corrections and apologies and, according to New York, a payment to Krieger of $17,500. The F.B.I. files Weinstein forwarded to the Truman Library are a non sequitur because they had already been publicly available at the F.B.I. building in Washington. It’s nice to know that unlike those who disagreed with Weinstein’s findings, Tanenhaus had access to his files. But neither Weinstein nor Tanenhaus had the scholarly integrity to deal with the protests of those interviewees who didn’t take him to court. Weinstein has simply reprinted the challenged interviews without indicating that they’ve been challenged.

Why is this important, one may ask? Certainly Lieber, Krieger et al. don’t go to the heart of the case against Hiss. But Perjury is generally considered to be the authoritative statement of the case against Hiss. Since Weinstein found no new witnesses who could directly implicate Hiss, he cites the people and documents he tracked down as validating Chambers’s account. The architecture of his argument: If Chambers was telling the truth about such important matters as his life as a courier, his life in the underground, his role in setting up espionage fronts, his attendance at cell meetings, etc., then he was telling the truth about Hiss.

And so to the new chapter, purporting to deal with the new controversies. I skip over Hiss’s unsuccessful attempt to get his case reopened by filing a voluminous coram nobis petition, other than to observe that Weinstein attempts to refute rather than report and weigh its challenging propositions. And I pass quickly over the matter of Gen. Dmitry Volkogonov, adviser to President Boris Yeltsin and chairman of the military intelligence archives. It was Volkogonov who, in response to a request from Hiss, issued his finding that “not a single document, and a great amount of materials have been studied, substantiates the allegation that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union.” In a conversation on film with Hiss’s representative, lawyer-filmmaker John Lowenthal, Volkogonov called the espionage accusation “completely groundless” and said, “You can tell Alger Hiss that the heavy weight should be lifted from his heart.” Subsequently, under pressure from various Western representatives, Nixon emissaries and Chambers acolytes, all of whom correctly pointed out the impossibility of proving a negative, Volkogonov retracted his gloss, but he never “recanted” his finding. In Perjury Weinstein tries to make much of a Volkogonov comment about having spent only “two days swallowing dust.” In fact he had his staff search the archives thoroughly and asked Yevgeny Primakov, director of the Russian Intelligence Service, to instruct his staff to find all materials on the Hiss case.

The scholar-turned-prosecutor turns warrior as he unloads what he calls “two additional documentary bombshells.” The first concerns Noel Field, who in 1949 had been arrested in Prague and imprisoned in Hungary, where he was subjected to torture and solitary confinement as an American master spy. (They thought he was working for the C.I.A., while the U.S. government seemed to think he was working for the Russians.) In 1993 the Hungarian historian Maria Schmidt–who first leaked her findings to Tanenhaus, who said in Commentary that they “sealed the case” against Hiss–presented a paper summarizing the 1954 interrogations of Field prior to his release from prison. As Weinstein puts it, “If Field told the truth in those interviews–which confirmed, among other points, Hede Massing’s testimony at Hiss’s trial that Field discussed their joint involvement in Soviet espionage with Hiss–then Chambers’s biographer Sam Tanenhaus’s description of the Schmidt findings as an evidentiary ‘smoking gun’ in the Hiss case is valid.”

But Ethan Klingsberg, an attorney and former executive director of the Soros Foundation’s Institute for Constitutionalism and Legislative Policy, also reviewed Noel Field’s 2,500-page dossier, particularly the documents relating to Hiss [see Klingsberg, “Case Closed on Alger Hiss?” November 8, 1993]. According to Gabor Baczoni, director of Hungary’s Interior Ministry archive, Klingsberg “saw everything that Maria Schmidt saw.” But Klingsberg, who takes no position on the Hiss case, came to a very different conclusion. “What I saw turns out to provide a case study in why this new game of using uncritical readings of Communist secret-police files to make definitive historical pronouncements is misguided and does not serve the interests of truth.”

Yes, the Field dossier includes some apparently incriminating materials, but it also includes some apparently exculpatory material. For example, in the fall of 1948, after Hiss wrote Field about

Chambers’s testimony, Field replied, “I need hardly tell you how angered and outraged I was over the irresponsible allegations made against you. Your testimony fully harmonizes with the memory I had of you during our all-too-brief acquaintance in Washington.” And after he was released, Field offered to provide an affidavit attesting to the falsehood of the evidence implicating Hiss (as it related to Field).

Weinstein sees no logical reason why the Hungarians would want to implicate Hiss, but Klingsberg speculates that: (1) “Anybody held in solitary confinement for three years on charges of being an American spy would try to think of any remotely believable stories to relate to his accusers about how he was in fact connected with supporters of Communism.” (2) From 1948 to 1953 there was a reign of terror in Hungary. The Communist Party “executed thousands, imprisoned tens of thousands and purged approximately 200,000.” Baczoni said, “The more names [prisoners] mentioned the better. This rule applied in the Field case for sure.”* (3) Erica Wallach, Field’s foster daughter, also imprisoned (as were Field’s wife and brother), told Klingsberg she would “intentionally create false stories about Communist contacts in the West to appease her interrogators’ demands because she knew that those individuals were safe from the Stalinist terror.”

“All the documents written under noncoercive circumstances,” Klingsberg notes, “assume Hiss’s innocence on their face, while the apparently incriminating statements were made under questionable, indeed brutal, circumstances.” Does this mean these speculations are fact? Not necessarily. But it does suggest the need for further investigation.

The second “bombshell” has to do with the Venona files. In 1996 the C.I.A. and National Security Agency published 2,900 documents said to be decoded and annotated cable traffic from 1939 to 1957 between Moscow and its U.S. agents. One of them, dated March 30, 1945, refers to a person code-named “Ales.” In an unsigned footnote dated twenty-four years after the original cable was sent, we are told that Ales is “probably Alger Hiss.”

Weinstein finds “a convergence of collateral evidence” to support the presumption that Ales is Alger Hiss. Thus, he asks, “How else to account for [K.G.B. defector] Oleg Gordievsky’s identification in 1988, over a half-decade before the decoded VENONA cable was made public, of Hiss’s Soviet alias as ALES?” The answer to Weinstein’s rhetorical question is at hand. As Eric Alterman pointed out in The Nation on April 29 of last year (in time for Weinstein to include a mention in the revised Perjury, but he didn’t), Gordievsky’s cited source was a New York Review of Books essay by Tom Powers, whose source was a counterintelligence agent who had seen the same Venona cable. So here is Weinstein using Venona to confirm Venona.

There is more. The cable says that Ales works “on military information only.” But the Chambers material included mostly nonmilitary intelligence. Weinstein takes this as evidence that Hiss branched out in his espionage activities. Perhaps, or perhaps Weinstein has fingered the wrong guy.

Oh, yes. On the next page Weinstein expresses consternation over media neglect of a second Venona cable that mentions Hiss’s name. This 1943 document is partial and says cryptically “2. The NEIGHBOR [i.e., military intelligence or GRU] has reported that [words unrecovered] from the State Department by the name of HISS…[end of recovered wording].”

But if Hiss is mentioned by name, doesn’t this argue that he isn’t Ales, since under Venona rules agents were not supposed to be referred to by their real names?

My point here is not that Hiss was or wasn’t Ales. To resolve that would require reconciling many other contradictory pieces of the puzzle, not to mention coming to terms with an archive that, if it is taken at face value, also enlists in the espionage brigades such worthy improbables as F.D.R. adviser Harry Hopkins, Monthly Review editor Harry Magdoff and I.F. Stone. Rather it is that unraveling all the mysteries of cold war skulduggery may take as long as the cold war itself, and it is at best a hazardous enterprise to attempt definitive readings of the tea leaves as soon as they are leaked, sold or selectively released by this or that intelligence source.

Yet Allen Weinstein is so intent on finding certainty where the record exudes ambiguity that he even engages in argument-by-index. Look up “Ales” in the index of the new edition and one finds “‘ALES’ (pseud. of Hiss).” The real mystery is why Weinstein is so intent on this quixotic mission. It could, of course, simply be a predilection for what he regards as the winning side. Thus in the early seventies, when campuses across the country were questioning cold war pieties, he represented himself as sympathetic to Hiss and succeeded in getting a grant from the progressive Rabinowitz Foundation, on whose board sat Victor Rabinowitz, who later served as Hiss’s counsel on his coram nobis petition. In the late seventies, as the political pendulum began to swing back to the right, he declared himself reluctantly persuaded by the weight of evidence against Hiss. By the eighties he was on Reagan’s transition team, and in the nineties, with the centrist Democrats back in power, he succeeded in conscripting Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan as the keynote speaker for his Venona Conference. But Weinstein is not alone. Others, such as Eric Breindel, David Horowitz, Harvey Klehr and Hilton Kramer, are equally impassioned, taking every occasion to purge themselves of the last vestiges of leftism. Like crazed lepidopterists with their butterfly nets, they wildly try to capture every fugitive document that flutters into view to pin on their post-cold war specimen boards. Their manic goal: to prove that the forties and fifties red-hunters with whom they now identify were right all along. The cold war may be over, but the symbolic cold war lives on, perhaps fueled by the residual guilt of those who abandoned their Communist and fellow-traveling friends during the days of anti-Communist hysteria. If progressives were accomplices in a worldwide conspiracy on behalf of a foreign power rather than do-gooders out to change the world for the better, perhaps the wholesale suspension of liberties that characterized the cold war years was justifiable after all.

In a new collection of correspondence, Notes From the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers-Ralph de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960, we learn that when he is not trying to manipulate reviews for Witness, musing on a suicide pact with his loyal wife, Esther (and seriously considering the murder of their children rather than letting them fall into the hands of the “enemy world”), or worrying that the election of John Kennedy means the reopening of the Hiss case, Chambers sounds like he might be saying that the facts of the case ought to yield to the deeper currents of history:

I venture to say that, if the Hiss case could be set out realistically, it could not have occurred in the first place. Any attempt to reduce it to realism is self-defeating…. In terms of realism, neither Alger nor I can exist, because in terms of the real world…people do not die for their beliefs. People clip coupons, or try to apply the general line correctly, or pass production norms. Hiss and I are asserting something beyond this reality.

Of the characters in Witness, Chambers writes, “These are not people, these are forces.” Whichever, they are more complicated than Allen Weinstein’s “conclusive” edition would lead us to believe.

* There is other evidence to suggest that Field himself was the target of a complex C.I.A. disinformation campaign–see Stewart Steven’s 1974 book Operation Splinter Factor. (back)

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