Chapter 24: The Prosecution - Were the two families friends, and for how long?


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There were two disagreements between the Hisses and Chamberses. First was whether Hiss had been a Communist and Soviet spy with Chambers in the mid- and late 1930s. Who was telling the truth could not be proved. Hiss would never confess and, from his point of view, it’s almost impossible to prove that you did not do something years ago. As for proof by external evidence, good luck. When you join the Communist underground you don’t sign a contract and send a copy to the Justice Department. But on the other issue — whether (as the Hisses said) the families had had a short, unpleasant business relationship that was effectively over in 1935 or (as the Chamberses said) they had had a close personal friendship that lasted into 1938 — external evidence might be found. This Podcast takes you through Prosecution evidence that the two families had engaged in significant financial transactions in 1935, 1936, and 1937. The transactions were documented in a small pile of regularly kept business and government records, and concerned two cars and an oriental carpet that Chambers gave Hiss. All these indicated a close personal friendship lasting at least into 1937. Perhaps most convincing was the chief witness about rug, the man who bought it for Chambers and sent it to Washington. (It arrived there, according to the records of the package room at Union Station, in January 1937.). The witness was Chambers’ best friend, college classmate, European traveling companion in 1923, Associate Professor of Art History at Columbia in 1949, and soon-to-be-called the world’s greatest art historian, Dr. Meyer Schapiro. FURTHER RESEARCH: The details about one of the cars, the 1929 Model A Ford with the hand-operated windshield wipers and, according to Hiss, “a sassy little trunk on the back,” came out in the HUAC hearings and were discussed in Podcast #13. (Also discussed in Podcast #13 was another transaction — evidence showing the two families being interested in the same obscure parcel of land miles away from where either of them lived. But that was not introduced at the trials.). Concerning the other car (the one in which Chambers said he and his family fled the Communist underground), see Weinstein at 240-44; concerning the rug, see Weinstein at 230-33. Questions: Does it surprise you that Chambers remembered several of these incidents only after someone else brought them up? Do Chambers’ stories, without the supporting paper, sound plausible? How many document-fakers would it take to create all the pieces of paper supporting Chambers’ stories, and how many invisible document-planters would it take to slip them into the records of numerous banks, businesses, and government Bureaus where they were found in 1948 and 1949? Can you think of a less likely participant in a right-wing frame up than Dr. Meyer Schapiro, a Jewish socialist Art History Professor at Columbia? Do Hiss’s recollections of all these incidents, which are consistent with his innocence, sound plausible to you? Might you be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt if he needed only one rococo exculpatory recollection? But three? Before we get to the Hiss defense, the next podcast explores a ‘sleeper’ issue in the case. But, as of now, at the conclusion of the Prosecution’s case, has the Prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Hiss lied to the grand jury when he denied passing Chambers government documents without authorization after January 1, 1937? If you were on the jury and the Defense put on no evidence and rested on ‘the golden thread’ of Anglo-American criminal law, the presumption of innocence, would you, based on what you have heard so far, vote Hiss guilty or not guilty?

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