70 Years Ago — Did Richard Nixon Frame Alger Hiss? [Dec. 6 1948 – The Pumpkin Papers]

“It has been 50 years since Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury for denying that he had been a Soviet spy, but his case continues to fascinate and stir controversy. The reasons for this are not surprising. The case had all the elements of a fine drama: compelling characters, accusations of treason, unusual evidence, the launching of a presidential career, and enough inconsistencies and ambiguities to leave the issue of guilt or innocence in doubt for decades.”

John Ehrman — The Alger Hiss Case (CIA website)

“Had Nixon asked the FBI to manufacture evidence to prove his case against Hiss, Hoover would actually have been only too glad to oblige.”

Former FBI Assistant Director William Cornelius Sullivan

“As to whether Nixon would actually have gone as far as to frame Hiss, the later record includes disquieting instances of forgery or planting false information.”

Anthony Summers — The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon 

“Until the day I die, I shall wonder how Whittaker Chambers got into my house to use my typewriter.”

Alger Hiss

Richard M. Nixon (L) speaking at the testimony in which Whittaker Chambers accuses Alger Hiss of securing important U. S. documents which were turned over to a Russian agent. (Photo by James Whitmore/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Ever since Alger Hiss’s perjury prosecution in 1949-1950, it has become a virtual consensus that “the Baltimore documents… were evidence of betrayal of U.S. diplomatic information to a foreign power, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” But were these papers really so damning? Were they actually genuine? And is the case really closed as the CIA claims?  One thing is certain. The case remains controversial, important and relevant to current issues. Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_TODAY

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The story begins in August 1948, when Whittaker Chambers, an ex-Communist turned Time-Life editor, charged Alger Hiss, a New Deal lawyer and diplomat and one of the architects of the United Nations, with belonging to the Communist Party in the 1930s. Hiss denied the charges and sued Chambers for libel.

On November 17, 1948, in the course of a pre-trial deposition in Baltimore, Chambers produced a collection of copies or summaries of U.S. government documents, which he said he had secreted away as a “life preserver” from January to mid-April 1938, while planning his defection from the Communist cause.

Most of the Baltimore Documents were typed summaries or verbatim copies of State Department documents, which Chambers claimed he had received from Alger Hiss for the Soviet military intelligence service, commonly known as the GRU.

A week in December (1948)

On December 1, 1948, two newspapers, The Washington Daily News and The Washington Post, published stories about new information in the Hiss Case that the Justice Department had received.

When Richard M. Nixon and Robert Stripling of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) — which had started the Hiss Case in the first place — heard the news, they drove out to Chambers’s farm and confirmed that he had further evidence beyond the Baltimore Documents still in his possession.

On December 6, 1948, press-savvy Nixon and Stripling paraded the microfilm in front of the press.

The Baltimore Documents included papers typed on a Woodstock 1928 No. 5N typewriter, Serial Number 230099.

During the Case, Hiss speculated that Chambers had somehow broken into his house and typed the documents there.

John Dean Memoir

In his 1976 memoir, former White House counsel John Dean states that President Nixon’s chief counsel Charles Colson told him that Nixon had admitted in a conversation that HUAC had fabricated a typewriter, saying, “We built one on the Hiss case.”

According to Anthony Summers, “When Dean’s book was published, Colson protested that he had ‘no recollection of Nixon’s having said the typewriter was phonied.” Richard Nixon himself characterized the claim as ‘totally false.’

Dean, however, insisted that his contemporaneous notes confirmed that Colson had quoted the President as he indicated and seemed serious when he did so. Anthony Summers and others suggest that Dean’s version of events is entirely plausible.

The Magic Typewriter

According to experts on this story,

“The core enduring question in the whole incredibly involved Hiss affair revolves around the fact that the FBI found Woodstock typewriter No 230,099 on December 13, 1948, four months BEFORE Hiss’s defence team uncovered its whereabouts, on April 16, 1949.

In order to frame Hiss, the FBI had planted it on his defence team, having already altered it to ensure its work matched that contained in the Baltimore Documents.

The Hiss Woodstock was made in 1927 and never found; No 230,099 was made in 1929. The font on the Hiss Woodstock was discontinued at the end of 1928.”

Witness on stand, during re-enactment of Hiss trial. (Photo by Al Fenn/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Gil Green (1906–1997, real name Gilbert Greenberg) was a leading figure in the Communist Party of the United States and leader of the Young Communist League, and as such a target for prosecution during the McCarthy era.

He said the FBI had “for many years had the ability to commit forgery by typewriter”.

In late 1959, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the New York Special Agent in Charge (SAC) corresponded about which Communist Party leaders would be most vulnerable to a frame-up.

The SAC asked Hoover for advice ‘as to the capabilities of the [FBI] Laboratory in this matter’.

Hoover’s reply included the line, ‘To alter a typewriter to match a known model would require a large amount of typewriter specimens and weeks of laboratory work’.

In other words, difficult, but POSSIBLE.

Green said Hoover’s “matter-of-fact discussion” suggested forgery by typewriter “was by then an established procedure”.

A review of Green’s article said it showed the FBI “had the ability and the willingness to commit forgery by typewriter”.

A Non Debate?

According to the CIA, the long debate regarding Alger Hiss’s guilt or innocence need never have taken place.

“The single most convincing piece of evidence against Hiss to emerge since 1950 was the ALES cable. The Venona cables could have been released well before the 1990s, it appears in retrospect, without damaging national security.

A Soviet agent within the Army Security Agency, William Weisband, had told Moscow of the Venona decryption program during the late 1940s. The United States learned of Weisband’s activities in 1950, by which time the Soviets had closed down or lost many of their US networks.

Consequently, it is difficult to see what harm releasing the ALES cable–or, for that matter, cables about the Rosenbergs and the other atomic spies–would have done. Moreover, had the cable been released during the 1950s the conspiracy theories of Cook, Smith, and other Hiss defenders would quickly have been exposed or even prevented from emerging.

In this case, at least, success in keeping information secret came at the price of a 40-year debate that contributed to the corrosion of the public’s trust in government and faith in the honesty of its intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

INTEL TODAY is not convinced. The ALES cable hardly proves anything. And many experts would actually argue that it hints to Hiss being innocent.

Post Scriptum

The following is an extract from John Ehrman — The Alger Hiss Case (posted on the CIA website).

The Hiss case is no mere historical curiosity. Even without weighing the arguments among historians, the case provides perspectives on issues that likely will always be of concern to intelligence professionals. These include the relationship between intelligence and domestic politics, and the question of when it is appropriate to release secret information.

Anyone who doubts that the Hiss case continues to effect American politics need only ask Anthony Lake, President Clinton’s former national security adviser.

In November 1996, following the resignation of Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) John Deutch, Clinton nominated Lake to be the new DCI.

On 24 November, Lake appeared on Meet the Press , where he was interviewed by moderator Tim Russert:

Russert: You’re a student of history. Do you believe Alger Hiss was a spy?

Lake: I’ve read a couple of books that have certainly offered a lot of evidence that he may have been. I don’t think it’s conclusive.

Conservative senators and pundits already were skeptical of Lake’s qualifications, largely because they were critical of Clinton’s foreign policies and viewed Lake as one of their key architects, and they quickly claimed that his comment was another indication that he should not be confirmed as DCI.

“The Hiss case hits Lake in his blind spot,” wrote Jacob Heilbrunn in The New Republic . “Lake’s view of the world is rooted in moral ambiguity and ambivalence… [his] career-long penchant has been to evade unpleasant realities.”

Senator Richard Shelby wondered what the comment said about Lake’s fitness: “What is this man’s true philosophy? Where is he coming from?” asked Shelby.

Lake, under attack by Republican senators on several other issues as well, asked in March 1997 that his nomination be withdrawn; while it would be inaccurate to say that his Hiss remark destroyed his chances for confirmation, the reaction demonstrated the case never has been forgotten and that a chance remark about it still may have serious consequences.

REFERENCES

Alger Hiss — Wikipedia

WHITTAKER CHAMBERS

The BALTIMORE DOCUMENTS: A Legal Issue

The Alger Hiss Case — CIA Website

FBI Forgery: Re-Examining the Alger Hiss Case – How Did His 1927 Woodstock Become a 1929 Model? by Typewriter

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70 Years Ago — Did Richard Nixon Frame Alger Hiss? [Dec. 6 1948 – The Pumpkin Papers]

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