Chapter 21: The Prosecution, the Documents

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Robert Stripling & Richard Nixon

Everyone always asks about the topic of this Podcast #21: “What was in the secret State Department documents?” These are the 126 pages that Chambers introduced as the last documents that Hiss gave him. State Department men authenticated them as copies (or summaries or excerpts) of actual State Department documents, many marked CONFIDENTIAL and all dated between December 31, 1937, and April 1, 1938. The documents concern many subjects, but they generally share two characteristics. First, they had little or nothing to do with Hiss’s job, which was trade between the US and other countries. Second, they had a lot to do with two subjects about which the US knew a lot and about which the Soviet Union knew little through its own efforts but was intensely interested in at that time. Those subjects were what was going on in Germany and Japan, two aggressively expansionist countries bordering the Soviet Union and sworn to its destruction. Get ready for a deep dive into what mattered to the Soviet Union in those years; and into The Robinson-Reubens Affair, an “international incident” between the US and the Soviets in early 1938 that provoked what may be the “smoking gun” document in this Case. FURTHER RESEARCH Episode 21: Chambers says little about the content of the documents. I doubt he had time to read them when he had them — they had to be photographed and returned promptly to their sources. On his way to the photographer, on a street car in Washington or a train to Baltimore, Chambers wouldn’t want to be seen perusing State Department papers marked CONFIDENTIAL. He did read some, however. Of them he wrote (in Witness at 426): “I concluded that political espionage was a magnificent waste of time and effort — not because the sources were holding back; they were pathetically eager to help — but because the secrets of foreign offices are notoriously overrated. There was little about political espionage, it seemed to me, that an intelligent man, who knew the forces, factors, and general direction of history in our time, could not arrive at by using political imagination, backed by a careful study of the available legitimate facts.” Hiss addresses the documents in his first book, In the Court of Public Opinion (at 251-86). He notes (at 252) that one of The Pumpkin Papers — a document on a roll of film Chambers produced, all of whose pictures were taken on one day — was a ‘working’ or (I think) carbon copy. Hiss says that his office received the original, so he cannot have been the source of that paper or any other papers in that roll. This misses the possibility that Hiss could have decided to pass the paper to Chambers after the original had passed from Hiss’s control. It would have been easy for Hiss to pilfer papers from other men’s offices or from central files. The State Department was, by our standards, incredibly lax in security up to our entry into World War II in 1941. The British spy Kim Philby, after he skipped over the Iron Curtain in the 60s, wrote “it is nonsense to suppose that a resolute and experienced operator occupying a senior post in the Foreign Office can have access only to the papers that are placed on his desk in the ordinary course of duty. . . . I gained access to the files of British agents in the Soviet Union when I was supposed to be chivvying Germans in Spain.” Kim Philby, My Silent War (Grove Press 1968) at 214. Other analyses of the documents are in John Chabot Smith’s “Alger Hiss:The True Story” at 331-54 and in the 1952 edition of Alistair Cooke’s ‘Generation on Trial’ book at 161-67. Rebecca West, in her critical review of Cooke’s book at pages 666-67 of the 1950 University of Chicago Law Review, makes some fun of Mr. Cooke’s analysis. The only lengthy analysis of all the documents Chambers produced (those introduced in the trial and those that were not) is in Professor Weinstein’s book (2013 edition) at 255-81. Lloyd Paul Stryker found the documents so boring that, as they were being read word by word to the jury, he was outside in the corridor smoking a cigar. Cooke at 164. I’m sure the jury envied him. Questions: If you were the Prosecution, could you have done more to make the presentation of the documents less narcolepsy-inducing? If you were Mr. Stryker, might you have stayed in the courtroom, yawned and otherwise tried to make them seem trivial? (Maybe that was his point in leaving the courtroom.) If you were on the jury, would you have, despite being bored, been impressed at the volume and seriousness of the documents? If they were not passed to Chambers by Hiss, who else could have passed them to him?98% of them crossed Hiss’s desk in the normal course of business. If there was a conspiracy hatched to frame Hiss in 1948, how much work and talent would it have taken, in that year, to find the originals of all the decade-old documents? And how about the effort of photographing the Pumpkin Papers with an old camera on old film and typing up copies on a 20 year old typewriter on 20 year old paper and with a 20 year old typewriter ribbon?

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