In my post today about Anthony Summers' The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon, I will write about the Alger Hiss case, in which Congressman Richard Nixon played a prominent role. I've summed up the Alger Hiss case more than once on this blog, but I'll do so once more. (I could copy-and-paste from my previous posts, but I'm suddenly in the mood to write about the highlights of the Alger Hiss case.) Whittaker Chambers was an ex-Communist who was accusing Alger Hiss of engaging in espionage for the Soviets back when Hiss was a U.S. State Department official. Hiss initially equivocated about knowing Chambers, but Chambers was claiming to know personal information about Hiss, some of which was accurate, some of which was not. Hiss eventually admitted that he knew Chambers under another name, George Crosley, and Hiss said that he (Hiss) sublet an apartment to Chambers.
Eventually, Chambers would
say that Hiss' wife, Priscilla, copied U.S. Government documents on the
Hiss's Woodstock typewriter, then gave those copies to Chambers so that
he could relay them to the Soviets. Chambers hid those copied
documents, or perhaps it was microfilm copies of the documents (quite
frankly, I don't know, since I vaguely recall reading the latter, yet
Summers seems to suggest that the former was the case), in a pumpkin on
his farm. There was a search for Hiss's Woodstock typewriter, since, if
the type on the copies of the documents matched the type that the
Woodstock typewriter produced, that would supposedly indicate that
Hiss's wife indeed had typed copies of those documents and given them to
Chambers. Nixon himself said that typewriters were like fingerprints:
that each typewriter produced its own unique kind of type. A Woodstock
typewriter was brought forth, and it was said to be Hiss's typewriter.
Hiss was widely believed to be guilty of espionage on account of that.
The thing is, unbeknownst to the public, there were problems with the
typewriter that was said to belong to Hiss: it was manufactured later
than Hiss's typewriter.
Summers speculates that the FBI
(perhaps collaborating with Nixon) may have manufactured the typewriter
that was said to belong to Hiss. Summers states on page 71:
"...typewriters have been expertly forged, and with the government's
blessing, in a very relevant time frame. By 1941, as part of World War
II liaison between American and British intelligence, operatives had
developed machines that, according to one of the British officers
involved, 'could reproduce faultlessly the imprint of any typewriter on
earth.' One successful anti-Nazi operation achieved precisely that by
rebuilding an old Italian typewriter." Summers states on page 73 that
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover "himself had visited the secret
installation in Canada where typewriter fabrication and similar acts of
wizardry were perfected." Summers in the documentation part of the book
refers to Allen Weinstein's Perjury, Morton and Michael Levitt's A Tissue of Lies: Nixon vs. Hiss, Montgomery Hyde's Room 3603, and William Stevenson's A Man Called Intrepid (and
Summers, if I'm reading his note correctly, says that Stevenson's book
has a photograph of an October 30, 1941 letter). One would probably
have to look at those books to see if what they say about typewriter
forgery is solidly supported. Summers also refers to a statement by
Horace Schmahl, who claimed to have been a "consultant" on typewriter
forgery during the Hiss case.
So was Hiss an innocent man, who was deliberately framed by the FBI and Nixon? Summers does not exactly go that far. Summers
contends that the FBI may have sincerely believed that Hiss was a
Communist, on the basis of "Soviet cable intercepts", but that it could
not reveal this. After all, if the Soviet Union learned that the U.S.
could intercept its cables, it would take steps to ensure that the U.S.
couldn't intercept future cables. Summers asks on page 73: "Could there
have been some twisted reasoning along the lines that since Hiss was
now apparently clearly guilty, but the real proof of it had to remain
concealed, it was justifiable to fabricate another sort of 'proof'?"
Summers does not appear to believe that Hiss' guilt was rock-solid, however. Hiss
questions the reliability of some people behind the Iron Curtain and in
the Soviet Union who claimed that Hiss was spying for the Soviets,
while being open to others. Summers also refers to Soviet sources that
denied that Hiss was spying for the U.S.S.R. On the Venona cables,
which have been argued to indicate Hiss's involvement in espionage for
the Soviets, Summers expresses doubt that ALES was Alger Hiss.
Summers states on page 77: "John Lowenthal, a lawyer who has long been a
student of the subject and who maintains Hiss was innocent, has noted
that----unlike the ALES of the 1945 message----Hiss was never accused of
betraying 'military' information." Summers also asks why Hiss
equivocated about knowing Chambers, and he inquires if it could have
been because of a homosexual relationship. Summers states that Nixon
said this to congressmen on a presidential yacht (for this, Summers
cites a November 1975 article in Esquire), and he mentions a
report that the FBI received saying that Chambers had a sexual
relationship with Alger Hiss's stepson, Timothy. Overall,
because many Soviet and House Committee on Un-American Activities
documents have been sealed, Summers states that "Until we have full
access, the Hiss controversy will continue to be debated" (page 77).
think that Summers does well to ask questions, and I found his
discussion of Venona and the foreign Communists who claimed that Hiss
was a spy to be impressive, and comprehensive. I have some questions,
however, about whether the typewriter was manufactured by the FBI. Roger Morris,
in Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician,
does not appear to accept that the typewriter was manufactured by the FBI. On
pages 498-499, Morris refers to the claims of William Sullivan, who
worked with the FBI, that the Bureau's lab was "weakly staffed and
managed" (Morris' words). On page 499, Morris states: "'Had Nixon asked
the FBI to manufacture evidence to prove his case against Hiss, Hoover
would have been only too glad to oblige,' Sullivan believed from his
intimate perspective on the case. But 'even if we had wanted to, we
simply would not have been capable of it.'" Summers on page 74 quotes
the first statement by Sullivan, in arguing that Hoover would have had a
motive to manufacture evidence, but he did not quote Sullivan's
statement that the FBI was incapable of it. In the notes in the back,
on page 491, however, Summers says that Sullivan, in talking to Hiss,
backed away from a former statement he had made and said that the FBI
was not able to fabricate a typewriter. I don't know if Sullivan made
both statements at once, or made the former statement, only to later
back away from it.