Was Alger Hiss a Communist Snake?
As Alger Hiss slowly walked up to the courtroom stand to testify about his connection to the communist party, the true meaning of perjury in the 1940’s was captured. Fred Cook and Susan Jacoby summarize their opinions of Hiss’ guilt in their historical texts. Both Cook and Jacoby develop theories regarding this controversial case that leaves readers unsure of Hiss’ culpability. “What is the truth about Alger Hiss?” , and was he “an American Dreyfus” or “one of the most colossal liars and hypocrites in history?” Both Cook’s The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss and Jacoby’s Alger Hiss and the Battle for History present interesting takes on whether or not Alger Hiss was guilty of espionage.
The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss by Fred J. Cook begins by describing the sentence Hiss received, and the statement Hiss made following his sentencing. Cook writes, “He [Alger Hiss] had just been sentenced to five years in a federal penitentiary for perjury, a charge that, because of the technicalities of the law, had been substituted for the real crime, treason.” Cook goes on to describe the actions of Whittaker Chambers, an admitted former Communist and key witness for the prosecution, and blames his conviction on “forgery by typewriter.” The author explores the methodology and circumstances of the prosecution to try to infer guilt, and examines the words of Alger Hiss. Cook theorizes that the all-important typewriter, an instrument used by the prosecution to construct the guilt of Hiss in the mind of the jury, could have been the wrong typewriter or have been used by a different party altogether. The importance of the typewriter to the Hiss case was critical for the prosecution when argued that the typewriter was used by Alger Hiss knowingly to recreate confidential documents to transmit to the Soviets. Cook illustrates the contrasts between Hiss and star prosecution witness Whittaker Chambers. Hiss had a distinguished academic career; growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, he graduated with Phi Beta Kappa Honors from John Hopkins University. Hiss then subsequently graduated from Harvard Law School, where he had been on the Harvard Law Review. After graduating, Hiss became the law secretary for Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Supreme Court Justice and advanced quickly in government service. By 1946, he was elected president of the Carnegie Endowment for international peace. Cook describes Whittaker Chambers’ career as “checkered,” and presents to his readers the “blasphemous,” play and “pornographic poetry,” that Chambers had composed while at Columbia University. Perhaps most telling, Chambers “admitted that he had frequently committed perjury.” Furthermore, the most inconsistent aspect in Chambers’ behavior was his shift in claims relating to Hiss as explained by Fred Cook: “For the outset, Chambers had contended that Hiss had merely been a communist… repeatedly in statements under oath and again on the air in the ‘Meet the Press’ program, Chambers had denied that Hiss ever had been implicated in espionage.” It was only during the winter 1948 Hiss hearings that Chambers began accusing Hiss of being a spy. Inconsistencies and the amount of blatant errors in Chambers’ statements led Cook to establish Chambers as a untrustworthy witness. Chambers’ testimony pointing to a Communist spy in the State Department proved an excuse for political demagoguery for Richard M. Nixon and other politicians. While some politicians surmised treason, much of the evidence was circumstantial and the public became fascinated with the trivial.
In an effort to show a connection and his detailed knowledge of the inner-workings of the Hiss household, Chambers took to discussing Hiss’ bird-watching habits. An amateur bird watcher, Alger Hiss allegedly told Chambers all about a rare bird known as a prothonotary warbler. When asked to describe it in court, Chambers described the bird in detail. Hiss, when asked about the warbler, also provided the court with a description of the bird, showing that Chambers not only knew that Hiss was a bird watcher, but also that Hiss knew of, and observed, a particular rare bird. Chambers’ logic was to highlight specific knowledge he could only have gained through his close friendship with Hiss and time in the Hiss household to extrapolate the fact that Hiss had been in the Communist Party. Cook wrote of the importance of the seemingly minor connections and events as they were critical to both the prosecution and the defense. Chambers had claimed that he broke from the Communist party in 1937 for several years, but when asked of purported document transfers to Hiss in 1938, Chambers adjusted the date of his break to1938. These documents, the “Pumpkin Papers,” provided their own share of public fascination. Cook writes that “Such switches in the mainstream of Chambers’ testimony were a subterranean current, buried deep in the rushing flood of controversy and alarm over the Pumpkin Papers.” Cook shows it was through seemingly innocuous connections that a path from Chambers to Hiss was presented to the public. Even the slightest implications, inferences, and anecdotes served to connect the Communist Party and espionage to Hiss.
The idea of “guilt by association” was at the heart of the Hiss case. Cook showed that any connection to a Communist was proof of being a communist. In the days of HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) and the Red Scare, fear of Communist infiltration and the spread of Communism gripped America. Hiss made every effort to distance himself from Chambers and escape the growing Communist witch-hunt. Chambers claimed that he was so close to Hiss that he spent weeks living in the Hiss household as a guest. When asked to recall certain details of the Hiss home, Chambers could not remember a piano that prominently covered much of the sitting room. Chambers spoke of spending most of his time in Hiss’ library. However, when asked to name some of the books he had read there, he could not remember any at all. Curiously, Chambers used the presence of a small, red cigarette box as proof of his residency. If Chambers were to spend weeks upon weeks as a guest inside Hiss’ home, he should be able to recognize more than the vague fact that there were books in Hiss’ library and the presence of a small, leather bound red cigarette case. Chambers also mistakes several of Hiss’ relatives in their occupations and health. Whittaker could not recall that Hiss’ son, Timmy, nearly died from a bike and car accident. Chambers didn’t know that Hiss’ sister was the Head of the Department of Physical Education at the University of Texas and lived in Austin. Chambers said that she lived at her home with her mother. Although it is true that Chambers had some details that none but a family friend or guest would know, he also had an interesting penchant for not knowing key things that nearly everyone who know Hiss somewhat well would know. It is more likely, Fred Cook argues, that Chambers picked up these details randomly without ever truly knowing Hiss.
In order to present more evidence, Chambers also testified that Hiss had an old car that had connections with Hiss’ guilt of being a member of the Communist Party. The car in question was an old Ford, and when Hiss sold one of his homes, he allegedly gave the car to a fellow Communist for free. When this allegation was scrutinized, Chambers’ accusation proved to be, overall, factual. The court started to wonder why anyone would give a car away for free, and to provide a reason for this, Chambers explained that it showed how closely tied Alger Hiss was with the Communist Party. Hiss also purportedly received a rug around this time period as a gift from a Communist friend, which Chambers said was a symbol of Hiss’ superior service to the Communist Party. Again, this instance could be considered a case of guilt by association. Hiss, taking a position like that of all of the other accusations, adamantly denies it. In any case, “one finds it hard to believe that the rug represented what Chambers said it represented.” Cook explains that the rug could have represented a number of things: a simple gift from someone who happened to be a Communist or simply just a furnishing bought by the Hiss family. Cook writes that these two instances of the giving of a car and the receiving of a rug may or may not be considered as physical proof that Hiss had been guilty of espionage.
Whether or not Hiss was guilty, Fred Cook’s book focuses on the innocence of Alger Hiss through biased means whereas Susan Jacoby’s book focuses on Hiss’ guilt through analysis of facts. Their opposing views stem from their eras and view of Hiss, but mainly, the amount of subsequent released information and evidence gives Jacoby greater resources against Cook, who wrote his text half a century before her. While Cook has an opinion that is left open ended due to a lack of documents, Jacoby, with her abundance of released documents, both U.S. and Soviet, draws a better picture and offers a more solid opinion on the Hiss trial. Fred Cook claims that “this is the inevitable, ultimate meaning of the issue of Alger Hiss’ guilt or innocence,” expressing his opinion that future opinions and Cook’s theses would be formed as products of their respective eras and the information available at the time.
Fred Cook was a journalist who worked to take advantage of preexisting public attention about the Alger Hiss case, perhaps for self promotion, and to fit his needs, he had a strong bias and maintained that Hiss was innocent throughout the book. Cook, a journalist using speculation and conjecture to sensationalize the case for an audience who craved the “unfinished story of Alger Hiss”, left some room for speculation and conjecture. Unlike Cook, Susan Jacoby wrote for an audience of historians, giving them facts and presenting her case in an unbiased, impartial way. Jacoby delivers her case and information as impartially as Cook delivers his with fervor. The underlying difference in the two author’s books and writing styles is that Cook writes an audience that wants a case of miscarriage of justice, whereas Jacoby writes for the literary and historical community. Jacoby is a known secularist and an atheist, so her neutrality is expressed both in her life and in her unbiased text. Their respective biases/neutrality are both key in their style of presenting the Hiss case.
In 1948, Cook wrote The Unfinished Story of Alger Hiss shortly after Alger Hiss was released from prison. He was trying to expose a “miscarriage of justice”, which showed that Cook was not trying to uncover the truth. Fred Cook was aiming to instead please the public with a case that relied on bringing up shifty points in the trial and extrapolating their meaning to show Hiss’ innocence. Cook is not a criminologist, nor an historian, but a journalist stirring up public opinion about a highly controversial case. Susan Jacoby, however, is a professional historian who developed critiques by analyzing p