Old documents are suddenly revealed that, given their nature and the timing of their production, they have a "rabbit-from-a-hat" flavor. Technological questions arise about whether the documents can possibly be authentic as dated. A huge national scandal involving prominent government officials and politicians ensues. No, it's not CBS's alleged national guard memos regarding George Bush. It's the Pumpkin Papers controversy of 1948 from the infamous Hiss-Chambers case.
Whittaker Chambers, self-confessed communist spy until 1938, secreted the papers when he defected from the communist cause in that year, hoping they would keep him alive if they could be used as a bargaining tool, the implicit message to Moscow being: "Leave me alone now that I have defected, or I will expose one of your most prominent agents still in Washington." Named in House Un-American Activities Committee testimony as a spy, and called to testify before that committee himself, Chambers listed other spies he had worked with and known in Washington during the 1930s, including State Department official Alger Hiss. Hiss eventually sued Chambers for slander and Hiss's attorney subpoenaed Chambers for "any correspondence, either typewritten or in handwriting, from any member of the Hiss family", not realizing that Chambers would produce the Pumpkin Papers. Surprise!
Hiss's slander case fell apart, and -- worse from his viewpoint -- the federal government filed perjury charges against him based on his testimony before HUAC in which he lied about his relationship with Chambers. (The statute of limitations had run out on espionage charges). At those hearings, Hiss admitted, after an agonizingly long and silly regression (including having Chambers open his mouth wide!) to not at first recognizing Chambers because his teeth had changed, to -- "Oh, yes, I remember him now that I can see his teeth!" -- having known Chambers under the name George Crossley. But Hiss denied giving him any materials or spying with Chambers for Moscow. When Chambers repeated his allegations publicly on the radio program Meet the Press, Hiss filed a slander suit against him. Based on the way the pre-trial discovery process unfolded, Chambers came to believe that Hiss was out to destroy him. At first, Chambers claimed that due to his friendship and respect for Hiss, he had tried to protect Hiss by not revealing the existence of the Pumpkin Papers evidence in his testimony before HUAC. After seeing the way the slander trial was probably headed, and having been delivered a golden opportunity by Hiss's defense team, Chambers unloaded his most damaging weapon.
Not only was the ensuing spectacle a national obsession, but it became one of the most politically polarizing events in American history. The liberal establishment loathed Chambers as much, or even more, than they currently loathe Bush. Republicans, convinced that years of Democratic control in Washington had led to it becoming a hotbed of communist spies, loathed Hiss -- the establishment-created, Harvard-educated State Department functionary and upper class intellectual who, along with untold others, daily sold out American interests. It was spectacular theater, and a watershed trial. Two Supreme Court justices -- Felix Frankfurter and Stanley Reed -- were character witnesses for Hiss, but were unable, ultimately, to save him. He was convicted in a second trial after the first trial jury voted 8-4 to convict, and served 44 months in prison, his career ruined.
And there the matter stood for many years, occasionally rising to be re-debated when books such as Allen Weinstein's Perjury resurrected it. (Weinstein's original feeling was that Hiss was innocent, as Hiss had maintained until the end, but while researching and writing the book, Weinstein changed his mind.) Finally, with the fall of the old Soviet Union and the opening of some of its intelligence files, such as the so-called Venona papers, Hiss's guilt -- and that of many others named by Chambers and other former communists who had testified before HUAC -- appears to be confirmed.
But what is interesting today about this case, in light of the current flap over CBS and Dan Rather, is that as the Hiss case unfolded, liberals displayed a skepticism concerning the authenticity of the evidence that bordered on the irrational. Hiss's own testimony, when confronted with the fact that the duplicated State Department documents in question were definitely typed on his family-owned Woodstock typewriter, was to say that he had no idea how Chambers could have entered his home secretly and typed the documents. Liberals believed this preposterous "explanation," and many still do with a religious fervor that remains amazing.
At first, it appeared that the microfilmed documents retrieved from the hollowed-out pumpkin at Chambers' Maryland farm could not be genuine because Kodak's initial investigation declared that the film they were shot on was not manufactured prior to 1945. That appeared to be a death blow to Chambers' accusation that he received them from Hiss much earlier. Subsequently, Kodak corrected itself and said that the film was available in 1938, and the documents were probably photographed at that time. All the documents were from the office that Hiss worked in during that time period at State.
Both Hiss and Chambers were subjected to unceasing vitriol, Chambers from the liberal establishment, and Hiss from the other side. Indeed, Chambers has the distinction of being one of the few communist sympathizers that liberals have loathed rather than defended or rationalized for. (If he had only remained true to Stalin, they'd today be writing laudatory plays and movies about his life!) Under unrelenting personal assault -- that he was a liar, an alcoholic, and a homosexual obsessed with Hiss -- Chambers was driven to attempt suicide. His story is recounted in his autobiography, Witness, which is still widely available and compelling reading irrespective of one's view of the Hiss case. In 1984, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Hiss remained a liberal icon even after leaving prison, an early victim, some argue, of McCarthyism. (Chambers, an editor for National Review during McCarthy's salad days, was not a supporter and thought the Wisconsin senator's tactics were really hurting the anti-communist cause in America.) A lifelong pessimist, Chambers told NR Editor-in-Chief Bill Buckley that he believed that he had defected to the losing side.
So: once upon a time, liberals were extremely skeptical of serendipitous document revelations, pushing skepticism to the point that even David Hume would probably demur. If Dan Rather had been there at the time, reporting for CBS, how do you think he would have responded to the following claim from Chambers: "Yes, the documents are probably forgeries, but they are very similar to things typed and photographed during that time period, and they are consistent with the treason that I know was in Alger Hiss's mind."
Compelling "evidence" for some rightwing Michael Moore types, no doubt, but is there the slightest doubt what Dan Rather's reaction would have been?
Bob Formaini is CEO of Quantecon, a Dallas, TX-based economic consulting firm and a frequent TCS contributor.