|Whittaker Chambers (Photo: Wikipedia)|
The Alger Hiss case has served as a shibboleth for both the Left and Right, seemingly intractable, fought with religious fervor even 60 years after its advent. After reading Two Foolish Men we believe that Hiss has been decisively vindicated, but at considerable loss to both him and his adversary Whittaker Chambers.
Moore portrays the adversaries as two scorpions locked in a battle which one is destined to lose. He convincingly argues that the conflict was about a friendship gone very bad – about two men who backed the other into corners without face saving exits.
The predicate of the affair was a broken relationship between Chambers and Hiss who met in 1934 when Chambers presented himself to Hiss at the State Department as a reporter named George Crosley. Discovering that they both lost brothers who were in their 20s to suicide, thus sharing a common bond, Hiss invited Chambers and his wife home for dinner. Hiss also discovered that Chambers, a new arrival in Washington, DC and in need of work, offered him lodging and other assistance until he could get back on his feet.
Little did Hiss know that Chambers would become a freeloader for the next two years, and little did he know that Chambers was at the height of his homosexual indulgences. Chambers was attracted to Hiss in a sexual way which prompted him to strike up the friendship in the first place. However, Hiss’ patience grew thin with Chambers’ financial derelictions to the point where he abruptly terminated their friendship and threw him out of his subleased apartment.
While Hiss’ perturbation is quite understandable, he would have served his future better had he handled his rift with Chambers with a bit more tact and delicacy. Chambers would most likely not have nurtured a festering scorn which would erupt in revenge some 10 years later before the House Un American Committee where he called Hiss a Communist.
Hiss had indeed forgotten about the incident even to the point of not recognizing Chambers. When he heard that had been maligned, Hiss demanded that he be given the opportunity to defend himself. This reaction, then, begins Moore’s defense of Hiss. A guilty man would not have risked perjury – certainly not a man of Hiss’ sterling character. If Hiss had been guilty, he simply would need only to maintain silence, and if compelled to testify, plead the Fifth Amendment. There was nothing more than Hiss’ word of accusation against him – not nearly enough to make a case of anything.
Yet the story only begins there. In spite of a bevy of Ivy League lawyers – and Hiss was one – Hiss’ defense failed to make note of the most damning contradiction in the case – a contradiction which would have dismissed the case entirely. In all of the testimony of Hiss and Chambers, it was evident that Hiss only knew George Crosley – an innocuous freelance writer living in and around Washington. Hiss never knew Whitaker Chambers, and certainly not his alter ego Carl who was the Communist Chambers.
Yes, Chambers was quite a raconteur as Moore tells it – a man capable of telling a tall tale with his listeners eating out of his hand. Not only was Chambers known as Whitaker, Carl, and George Crosley, but also as David Breen and Lloyd Cantwell. Sybil would be jealous.
Hiss never knew the subversive Carl who held Marx classes and pilfered documents from the State Department – a task as easy as taking candy from a baby in the early post war State Department. These documents formed the basis of the famous Baltimore documents which Moore demonstrates to have been copied by Mr Chambers himself – after he left the Communist party in 1937.
Moore discusses the famous Woodstock typewriter, showing that the one presented in court was planted evidence found by Hiss himself and produced by the FBI as court evidence. It turned out that this typewriter was not Hiss’ based upon the serial number and other factors of provenance. But it was the typewriter which convicted him.
The crushing blow against Hiss came from Ramos C. Feehan, an FBI laboratory specialist who claimed an expertise in typography. Using this voodoo science, he presented 10 images of 10 letters from the typewriter allegedly used for creating copies of the stolen Baltimore documents, and a comparable set from known copies of letters made on the Hiss Woodstock typewriter, known as the standard documents. By showing the unique characteristics of the letters on the documents, he “proved” that the two sets of documents were created from the same typewriter, thus implicating the typist – Mrs Hiss – in the espionage.
Unfortunately Hiss’ extremely well credentialed but slow of wit lawyers did not challenge these so-called forensic findings. Subsequently many folks did, pointing out that the typewriters are not finger prints and thus more than 1 typewriter can produce similar, if not identical, graphological impressions. In addition, the the chain of custody on the alleged Hiss typewriter was non-existent, meaning that the typewriter could have been altered over time to produce a bogus comparison with the standard documents from the Hisses.
Finally, Moore notes that the FBI withheld key exculpatory information from the court and Hiss’ legal team which explained the origins of the fake typewriter and Chambers’ confession that Hiss knew George Crosley – not Carl or Whitaker Chambers.
In the second trial, Hiss was convicted of perjury and spent close to 4 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Chambers, of course, would write Witness in which he contradicted his court testimony, but would become a best seller, and cult classic for the Right. Unfortunately its sum and substance was a pack of lies.
Hiss failed to overturn his conviction, even with new evidence. The campaign to vindicate him is not finished. The most just result would be a full legal exoneration of Hiss, and a stripping of the Medal of Freedom Medal from Chambers.
We have sampled only a few of the evidences Moore presents in defense of Hiss, and even then only skimmed the arguments. To fully understand the depth of Moore’s vindication, you must read it for yourself. Best of all, it is free and online.
Two Foolish Men, William Howard Moore, 1986 ?
Copyright 2013 Tony Bonn. All rights reserved.