Chapter 35: Forgery by Typewriter

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Manage episode 321150144 series 2943846
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Several people have told me that, of my 38 episodes, this is their favorite. See if you agree. It is all about the question Hiss could never answer: how, if Hiss is innocent, did the 64 Typed Spy Documents get typed on his home typewriter. You may recall that Hiss first told The Grand Jury that Chambers broke into his house in 1938 and typed them on it himself when no one was looking. That didn’t work. Second, Hiss told the jury at the second trial that Hiss gave the Typewriter to the Catlett Kids in late 1937; they put it in the back room where they had their non-stop dance party; then Chambers found it there and typed up The Typed Spy Documents himself on it as the conga line snaked past. That didn’t convince, either. Third — and this is the subject of this Podcast — in a Motion for a New Trial on Grounds of Newly Discovered Evidence, Hiss’ new lawyer speculated that Chambers in 1948 had made a fake typewriter, which typed just like The Hiss Home Typewriter, and had typed up The Spy Documents on it; then Chambers found where the real Hiss Typewriter was (in the nightwatchman’s home, you remember), stole it and planted his fake there, and waited for someone to find the fake and for everyone to assume it was the real Hiss Home Typewriter. Quite a frame-up, if true. But did that really happen? Is it even plausible? Podcast #35 explores this theory, which Hiss stuck to till his dying day (with numerous variations as each old one failed). FURTHER RESEARCH The best dissection of The Forgery by Typewriter Theory is Chapter 2 (titled “Chambers”) in “Ex-Communist Witnesses:Four Studies in Fact Finding” by Professor Herbert L. Packer of Stanford University Law School (Stanford University Press 1962) at 21-51. Others are Cornell/Georgetown/Minnesota Law School Professor Irving Younger’s article “Was Alger Hiss Guilty?” in Commentary Magazine’s August 1975 issue, available at https://www.commentary.org/articles/irving-younger/was-alger-hiss-guilty-2/; and the Appendix to professor Weinstein’s book, titled “‘Forgery by Typewriter’: The Pursuit of Conspiracy, 1948-97,” at pages 624-30, 632-34, 645-47. The version of Alistair Cooke’s book (“A Generation on Trial:U.S.A. v. Alger Hiss”) that was published in 1952 has a few new pages at the end, 347-54, describing Hiss’s Motion for a New Trial and the Court hearing about it. Judge Goddard presided, and Cooke notes (at 348) that the audience included “leisured and unidentified old ladies who appeared at all Hiss hearings with the ritual fatalism of the annual pilgrims to Valentino’s grave.” Cooke writes (at 348) that “several excellent lawyers were dumbfounded by the claims that the defense now put forward.” After describing Judge Goddard’s dismissal of those claims, Cooke ends his book with the following words. “Four years had passed since the names of Hiss and Chambers shook the nation. Now there was another Presidential campaign, and the Democrats were in full fling at their convention in Chicago. Judge Goddard’s word, perhaps the last, about Hiss was lucky to earn a few lines at the bottom of the inside pages of newspapers. In most it earned none. Hiss had passed into shame and into history.” Here is my list of the people who, Hiss defenders have speculated over the decades, masterminded or participated in the framing of Hiss (in most cases involving forgery by typewriter): Whittaker and Esther Chambers, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, Ambassador William C. Bullitt, Jr., Richard and Pat Nixon, the Democratic financier and Presidential advisor Bernard Baruch, President Truman’s Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, the Dulles Brothers, supporters of the Chinese anti-communist dictator Chaing Kai-Shek, a Nazi sympathizer who owned a typewriter store in New York City, the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, and a private detective named Horace Schmahl. If you are interested in the broader question of why people believe highly implausible stories, I recommend Michael Shermer’s book “Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time” (St. Martin’s Griffin 2002); and a delightful article by the Brandeis University Professor Jacob Cohen, “Will We Never Be Free of the Kennedy Assassination?,” published in the December 2013 issue of Commentary Magazine and available at https://www.commentary.org/articles/jacob-cohen/will-we-never-be-free-of-the-kennedy-assassination/. Questions: Here are two questions I have asked myself for years but never answered satisfactorily. Can you help me? (1) In his Motion for a New Trial, Hiss claimed that Chambers did the forgery all by himself, or with the help of Communist friends. This seems plainly ridiculous. Chambers had neither the time, the tools, nor the talents to forge a typewriter and, by 1948, no Communist friends to help him. My question: why was it only years later that Hiss claimed that Hoover and the FBI had committed the forgery? The FBI was obviously the only organization in the US that even arguably had the necessary time, tools, and talents. What prevented Hiss from aiming, from the start, at such an obvious target? (2). Hiss publicized his Forgery by Typewriter theories for decades, and his supporters have carried the torch in the decades after his death. They are articulate people, they have occasionally had generous funding, and they know lots people in the nation’s media who would love another story of an innocent gentleman framed as a Commie the early Cold War years. But if you Google “Famous Conspiracy Theories” or “Top 25 Conspiracy Theories of All Time,” you will not find Hiss’s Forgery by Typewriter Theory. Why? Why has Hiss’s conspiracy theory not achieved the popularity of the theories about the assassinations of JFK and RFK, or of the alleged landings at Roswell and the alleged non-landings on the Moon? Is his theory too implausible or too complicated for a large audience, and/or is Hiss too cold a fish to be sympathetic?

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