Aug 25, 2009
(Reviewed from a galley copy provided by the publisher)
To have 50 of the most important top-secret documents in history summarized in one handy reference book is an excellent idea.
As Spy Museum director Peter Earnest states in his introduction, “More than simply listing and describing these fascinating documents, Thomas B. Allen gives us a context, a picture of the world at times in which they were created and in which they were to play a pivotal role.” (p. 11) However, if Mr. Allen’s treatment of the Pumpkin Papers is any indication of the rest of the book, it renders little of its intended service.
Mr. Allen does bring out some important points to remember about the Hiss Case, now 60 years later. For instance:
The Pumpkin Papers also introduced a little-known member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, California Congressman Richard M. Nixon. His face appeared in numerous newspapers as, magnifying glass in hand, he examined the films… [Alger Hiss’] case also boosted Richard Nixon’s career since the latter’s connection with the Pumpkin Papers gave him national publicity.” (pp. 124, 125)
The microfilm contained information that was essentially worthless, even at the time of their collection in the 1930s.
Overall, however, Mr. Allen’s three-page treatment of the Hiss Case misleads more than summarizes succinctly either by short-changing significance or by actually entering error in such short space.
Mr. Allen opens with a reproduction of a State Department letter dated January 11, 1938. This importance of this letter deserves far more discussion than the author gave it. This was not just one of the “Pumpkin Papers.”
First, the date makes this one of the documents supporting the Justice Department’s indictment and conviction of Alger Hiss for perjury–namely, that he had known Whittaker Chambers well after the last year he stated (1936).
Second, the letter comes from U.S. Army Colonel Joseph W. Stilwell, an important figure in the history of America’s foreign relations with Communist governments. Mr. Allen states:
Stilwell …was a military attache, gathering intelligence in China at a crucial time. Chinese Communists, led by Mao Tse-tung, were fighting Japanese invaders while Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek were often on the sidelines of the battle. Stilwell’s observations at that time would be of great interest to Soviet supporters of Mao… (pp. 123-124)
This summary understates the implications of Stilwell’s name on that document. Stilwell’s long-time criticism of U.S. ally Chiang Kai-shek would influence a U.S. State Department white paper (1949) on the Chiang regime, which led Truman to end all economic and military support, followed by the fall of the KMT government, the victory of the People’s Republic of China and Mao Zedong, and Chiang’s flight to the Island of Formosa to found the Republic of China (Taiwan).
While Mr. Allen mentions that Alger Hiss joined the Far Eastern Affairs section of the State Department (p. 124), he does not mention the Republican argument after 1949 that Hiss and fellow Communist spies helped the U.S. to lose China to the Communists.
This section has numerous inaccuracies in little space:
“Hiss filed a $75,000 libel suit against Chambers, who claimed his accusation would be confirmed by hidden documents” (p. 123) — In August 1948 on several occasions Hiss challenged Chambers to allege his Communist Party membership in public. On August 27, 1948, Chambers did just that on Meet the Press. A month followed before Hiss filed a suit in the Federal Court of Baltimore.
“Some of the Chambers documents had been hidden in a dumbwaiter shaft in the Baltimore home of a relative” (p. 123) — Chambers asked his wife’s nephew to hide all the materials (his “life preserver”) in his home in Brooklyn. On November 17, 1948, Chambers’ lawyer presented typed and handwritten pages to Hiss’ lawyers during a pretrial meeting, hence their name “Baltimore Papers.” These were the critical documents of the Hiss Case.
“Chambers’s charges targeted a man [Alger Hiss]” (p. 124) — Chambers did not target Hiss. He received a subpoena to testify before HUAC on August 3, 1948, and he named Hiss among nearly a dozen names of Communists he knew in the Federal Government. In fact, Chambers had named three times that number on September 2, 1939, to Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle (who chose not to pursue the matter).
“Charges of espionage were dropped” (p. 124) — The statute of limitations for espionage was three years at that time. Chambers had testified about events only up to 1938, so the Justice Department after 1941 could take no action for espionage against anyone involved.