In the wake of the “Great War” and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, American authorities became increasingly alarmed concerning the rise of radical Leftism.
Far-left anarchists mailed no fewer than 36 dynamite bombs to prominent political and business leaders in April 1919, alone. In June, another nine far more powerful bombs destroyed churches, police stations and businesses.
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had one hand delivered to his home by anarchist Carlo Valdinoci, who did something wrong and somehow managed blow himself to bits on the AG’s doorstep. Palmer attempted to suppress these radical organizations in 1919-20, but his searches and seizures were frequently illegal, his arrests and detentions without warrant, and his deportations questionable.
To this day there are those who describe the period as the “First Red Scare”, as a way to ridicule the concerns of the era. The criticism seems unfair. The thing about history, is that we know how their story ends. The participants don’t, any more than we know what the future holds for ourselves.
Looking over the international tableau of the time, the largest nation on the planet had fallen to communism, in 1917. The Red Army offensive of 1920 drove into Poland, almost as far as Warsaw. The “Peace of Riga”, signed in 1921 split off parts of Belarus and Ukraine, making them parts of Soviet Russia. On this day in 1921, Bolshevist Russian forces occupied Tbilisi, capital of the Democratic Republic of Georgia.
In the 1930s, many believed that International Communism was “winning”. The capitalist west was plunged into a Great Depression that it couldn’t seem to get its arms around, while the carefully controlled propaganda of Stalin’s Soviet Union did everything it could to portray itself as a “workers’ paradise”.
Whittaker Chambers was one of those who believed the winning side to be on the political Left, and joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) in 1925. Chambers worked for a time as a writer at the Party’s newspaper “Daily Worker”, before becoming editor of “New Masses”, the Party’s literary magazine.
From the early to mid-thirties, Chambers delivered messages and received documents from Soviet spies in the government, photographing them himself or delivering them for Soviet intelligence agents to photograph. At some point, Chambers’ idealism began to waver, with the realization that he was supporting a murderous regime. By 1939, he joined the staff of Time Magazine, where he pushed a strong anti-communist line.
A series of legislative committees were formed between 1918 and the outbreak of WWII to investigate this series of threats, though these committees sometimes did more to construct the image of a threat than they did to stop one. It was in this context that HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was formed in 1938, becoming a “standing” (permanent) committee in 1945.
Whittaker Chambers warned about communist sympathizers in the Roosevelt administration as early as 1939, the FBI interviewed him in 1942. Government priorities began to change n the wake of WWII, and Chambers was summoned to testify on August 3, 1945, where he named Alger Hiss and others as Communists.
A graduate of Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School who had clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alger Hiss seemed an unlikely communist. He had gone on to practice law in Boston and New York before returning to Washington to work on President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, winding up at the State Department as an aide to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre, former President Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law. By this time Hiss was a high ranking official in the State Department.
Hiss flatly denied Chambers’ charges, filing suit for defamation of character in December. Chambers escalated in his 1948 deposition for the suit, claiming that, not only was Hiss a communist sympathizer, he was also a spy.
Before defecting from the Left, Chambers had secreted documents and microfilms, some of which he hid inside a pumpkin at his Maryland farm. The collection was known as the “Pumpkin Papers”, consisting of incriminating documents, written in what appeared to Hiss’ own hand, or typed on his Woodstock no. 230099 typewriter.
Defending himself, Hiss claimed to have given the typewriter to his maid, Claudia Catlett. When the idiosyncrasies of Hiss’ machine were demonstrated to be consistent with the documents, he then claimed that Chambers’ team including freshman member of Congress Richard M. Nixon, must have modified the typeface on a second typewriter to mimic his own.
Hiss’ theory never explained why Chambers side needed another typewriter, if they’d had the original long enough to mimic its imperfections with a second.
Alger Hiss’ first trial for lying to a Grand Jury ended with a hung jury, 8-4. A second trial began on November 17, found him guilty of perjury on January 21, 1950. Hiss maintained that he was innocent but lost his conviction, and served 44 months in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary before being released in 1954.
What many saw as a devoted civil servant maligned by the anti-communist hysteria of the 1940, others believed to be a liar and enemy agent. Alger Hiss went to his grave in 1996, protesting his innocence.
Soviet-era cables, decrypted through a now-declassified program called the “Venona Project”, seem to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt of being a soviet agent. Venona transcript #1822, sent in March 1945 from the Soviet Washington station chief to Moscow, describes the subject codenamed ALES as having attended the February 4–11, 1945 conference at Yalta, before traveling to Moscow. Hiss attended Yalta on these dates, before going to Moscow with Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.
Historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr report that the Venona transcripts tie approximately 349 Americans to Soviet intelligence, though fewer than half that number were ever identified. The Office of Strategic Services alone, precursor to the CIA, housed between fifteen and twenty Soviet spies.
The CIA’s official conclusion, based on the CIA.gov on-line library is that “Although no specific file on Hiss has been released from the KGB or GRU archives, enough material has been found in other files–in Moscow, Eastern Europe, and Washington–to enable historians to write several new works that leave almost no room for doubt about Hiss’ guilt”.