Seventy years ago this month, a lower Manhattan courtroom provided the stage for a remarkable confrontation – much of which played out in New York – that symbolized the frustration of a nation that had recently won the Second World War but felt more insecure than ever.
The euphoria of victory had been quickly succeeded by a perception of global communism on the march. In Europe, the Soviet Union had only recently ended an 11-month blockade of Berlin and had, since 1945, rung down the Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe. In China, Mao’s communists were winning their civil war against Chiang Kai-Shek’s U.S.-backed Nationalists, who would soon flee the mainland for Taiwan. And the Soviets were about to end the U.S. monopoly on the atom bomb with a successful test explosion.
Against this backdrop, a personal drama was playing out on the 13th floor of the Foley Square federal courthouse overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge. The protagonists were Whittaker Chambers, a 48-year-old editor at Time magazine, and Alger Hiss, 45, until recently president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York and a longtime former State Department official. Chambers was a pudgy, rumpled magazine editor and college dropout with bad teeth and a drinking problem. Hiss was a tall, lean Harvard Law graduate and longtime State Department official with friends at the highest levels of government.
An oft-impoverished writer who grew up on Long Island, Chambers joined the Workers Party of America (later the Communist Party of the United States) in the mid-1920s, even confessing to being part of spy network for five-plus years. Disillusionment with Stalinism he said, later transformed him into a staunch anti-communist. His shocking claim – and the essence of his courtroom confrontation with Hiss – was that Alger Hiss had, in the 1930s, provided Chambers with secret State Department documents to pass along to the Soviet Union.
In contrast to Chambers, Alger Hiss was a classic establishment figure. Phi Beta Kappa at Johns Hopkins, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and joined President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration in 1933, serving successively in the Agriculture, Justice and State departments, attending the Yalta Conference as an adviser to FDR, and later serving as temporary Secretary-General of the United Nations at its inaugural San Francisco conference.
But Chambers insisted that the two men shared a dark history. And his accusations found an eager, receptive audience in a heated national political environment, including a ferocious new Republican majority in Congress, the first in more than a decade – members of a party that hadn’t won the White House since 1928. Among the 55 GOP House freshmen elected in 1946 was a young Richard Milhous Nixon of California, a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which had already begun investigating American communist infiltration of several New Deal agencies.
Elizabeth Bentley, a secretary in New York, lit the fuse on the Hiss-Chambers conflagration in mid-1948. A former communist operative and Federal Bureau of Investigation informant who feared prosecution, Bentley cooperated with two New York World-Telegram reporters on a sensational four-part, front-page exposé of communist infiltration of the U.S. government, starting with a story entitled “Red Ring Bared by Blond Queen.” The ensuing public spectacle would captivate the nation for the next three years.
HUAC immediately subpoenaed Bentley, and during testimony she named more than a score of government officials and employees as supplying wartime information to the Soviets. The spy hunt was now front-page news, with both House and Senate committees hearing sensational testimony on the existence of a red “fifth column” in the Roosevelt Administration. As HUAC hearings continued, Whittaker Chambers took center stage, fingering Hiss on Aug. 3, 1948. The New York Times headline blared, “Red ‘Underground’ in Federal Posts Alleged by Editor/In New Deal Era/Ex-Communist Names Alger Hiss, Then in State Department.” Chambers told the committee he had known Hiss in the 1930s when they were friends and neighbors, and that he had unsuccessfully tried to get Hiss to quit the communist party.
Hiss strictly denied he’d ever been a communist, nor had he known Chambers in the 1930s. “So far as I am aware,” Hiss told HUAC two days later, “I have never laid eyes on him, and I should like to have the opportunity to do so.” He’d soon get the chance.
Thus began a month of dueling testimonies. Nixon, named head of a three-man subcommittee to determine which man was telling the truth, took additional testimony from Chambers on Aug. 7 in Room 109 of the Federal Building back in Foley Square. Chambers offered additional, quite specific details: that Chambers in the 1930s had stayed with Hiss and his wife in Washington for as long as a week; that Hiss had given Chambers his used 1929 Ford Model A; and that Chambers remembered birdwatcher Hiss traveling to Maryland to see a rare warbler.
Hiss, in his second appearance before HUAC on Aug. 16, said yes, he remembered a man he knew as “George Crosley” – not as Whittaker Chambers – who had stayed at his home and accepted his old car. Asked about his hobbies, Hiss, falling into a well-laid trap, described his excitement at seeing the rare warbler.
Nixon turned up the heat. Early the next morning, he left word that the two men were to appear that very afternoon back in New York. The closed-door showdown took place in a steamy room at the Commodore Hotel (now the Grand Hyatt) next to Grand Central Terminal. Hiss acknowledged recognizing Chambers, whom he knew as Crosley – confirming the fact after asking Chambers to open his mouth and show his bad teeth.
The stage was set for a public confrontation Aug. 25 back in Washington. Under oath, the two men stuck to their stories and called each other liars; Hiss challenged Chambers to make his accusations in a forum where he could be sued for libel or slander. Chambers duly did so Aug. 30 on the radio show Meet the Press.
In September, Hiss duly sued Chambers for slander. In November, Hiss’s attorneys began questioning Chambers in pre-trial depositions. Chambers then played a trump card, retrieving a bundle of copied 1938 State Department documents – hidden for a decade in the dumbwaiter shaft of a Baltimore relative’s home – that he said Hiss had given him. The documents were later determined to have been typed on a Woodstock typewriter owned by the Hisses, providing a tangible link between Hiss and information he had purloined and passed along to Chambers.
In December, Chambers took investigators to his farm in rural Maryland and, from a hollowed-out pumpkin, retrieved several cans of 35mm film also allegedly given to him by Hiss, some of which allegedly contained images of State Department documents. These were the famous “Pumpkin Papers.” While the dénouement was dramatic, the films had actually been placed by Chambers only a day earlier, and the 65 pages of “dumbwaiter” documents were actually more meaningful.
On Dec. 15, 1948, a federal grand jury in New York indicted Hiss on two counts of perjury based on his testimony that he never gave any documents to Chambers and that he never saw or spoke with Chambers after January 1, 1937. (The alleged typewriter was found in a garbage-strewn lot in April 1949).
Hiss’s perjury trial began in Courtroom 1306 of Foley Square on June 1, 1949; Chambers’ testimony continued for seven days; with Hiss and his slight, graying wife Priscilla sitting not 25 feet away, Chambers testified that Hiss had given him State Department documents on munitions in 1937-38, a period culminating in Chambers leaving the Communist Party in April 1938. During cross-examination, Hiss’s defense attorney, Lloyd Paul Stryker, went at Chambers full-bore, getting him to admit he had sworn a false oath and lied on an application for a government research job in 1937. Stryker also objected repeatedly to Chambers’ answers under direct examination by prosecutor Thomas F. Murphy, and the former spy ring courier was scolded by Judge Samuel Kaufman for not confining his answers to the topic at hand.
After dozens of witnesses – enough traffic of minor figures that the story moved off of the front pages – Alger Hiss vaulted the trial back onto Page One when he took the stand in his own defense at 3:22 pm on June 23 and proceeded to completely deny Chambers’ assertions. Smiling and affable during four days on the stand, Hiss testified that he had never been a member of the Communist Party, had never passed documents to an unauthorized person, and had never seen Chambers after Jan. 1, 1937. Under cross-examination by prosecutor Thomas F. Murphy declared nine instances where Hiss’s trial testimony conflicted with information he had provided in earlier interrogations.
In a more than four-hour summation across two court days, Stryker cast Chambers as an unprincipled liar. “I would not believe Chambers on a stack of Bibles if the FBI stacked them as high as this building,” he thundered. “He believes in nothing: not God, not man, not the sanctity of marriage or motherhood; not in himself. I can’t think of any decent thing that he has not shown himself against.”
During Murphy’s three-hour summation, the prosecutor termed Hiss a “traitor” and compared him to Judas, Brutus and Benedict Arnold. “Only one inference can be drawn from the uncontradicted facts – and that one – and that is that that defendant that smart, intelligent, American-born man, gave (the documents) to Chambers.”
Finally, at 4:20 pm on Thursday, July 7, 1949, after six weeks and 2,815 pages of testimony totaling 803,750 words, the case went to the jury. The 10 men and 2 women deliberated for 14 hours, but remained deadlocked, with eight votes for conviction, four for acquittal. At 9:01 pm on Friday night, July 8, Judge Kaufman dismissed the jury, setting the stage for a re-trial in the fall. After a second trial that took 10 weeks beginning Nov. 17, Hiss was found guilty on Jan. 21, 1950, and four days later was sentenced to five years in prison.
Hiss entered Lewisburg federal prison in March 1951, serving 44 months until 1954. He spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name. After his release, Hiss returned to his apartment where he had lived since 1946, on East 8th Street and University Place in Greenwich Village, and worked as a stationery salesman in the Puck Building in Soho, less than a mile from the scene of his courthouse trials.
Whittaker Chambers died of a heart attack at his Maryland farm on July 9, 1961. Hiss died on Nov. 15, 1996, at age 92, at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, outliving Chambers, (who received a posthumous Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan in 1984) by 35 years, and Richard Nixon by two.
Hiss went to his grave insisting upon his innocence. The fall of the Soviet Union resulted in the release of voluminous hitherto-secret KGB documents, and historian Allen Weinstein spent years examining them. In his 1999 book, The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America, he drew upon considerable material he said showed that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. Other researchers have said the evidence is inconclusive. Regardless, it’s interesting to remember that the Cold War drama of Alger Hiss was something of a New York story.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that until recently Hiss had been president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York and that some of the”Pumpkin Papers” allegedly contained images of State Department documents.”
Photos, from above: Whittaker Chambers, and Alger Hiss in 1950.