FDR's Right-Hand Perjurer?
On August 3, 1948, when Whittaker Chambers, senior editor at Time magazine, and former Communist, in response to a subpoena appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, his testimony fell on the country like a bomb. He corroborated the basic charges of a previous witness and defector from the Communists, Elizabeth Bentley, that the upper echelon of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations was riddled with spies for the Soviet Union. Chambers went beyond Bentley, though, in the spies that he named. The name that stood out was Alger Hiss, who had been a high-ranking member of Roosevelt's delegation to the Yalta conference, had served as the secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on International Organization (the United Nations Charter Conference) in San Francisco later in 1945, and was, in 1948, president of the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Receiving somewhat less attention in the press was the fact that Chambers revealed that he had brought all this information to the attention of the Roosevelt administration just days after the signing of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact in 1939, and nothing had been done. Zeroing in on this information in the committee was the young Congressman from California, Richard Nixon:
Mr. NIXON. Mr. Chambers, you indicated that 9 years ago you came to
Washington and reported to the Government authorities concerning the Communists
who were in the Government.
Mr. CHAMBERS. Yes.
Mr. NIXON. To what Government agency did you make that report?
Mr. CHAMBERS. Isaac Don Levine, who is now the editor of Plain Talk, approached the late Marvin McIntyre, Mr. Roosevelt's secretary, I believe, and asked him what would be the most proper form in which the information I had to give could be brought before President Roosevelt.
Mr. McIntyre told Mr. Levine that Mr. A. A. Berle, the Assistant Secretary of State, was Mr. Roosevelt's man in intelligence matters. I then went to see Mr. Berle and told him much of what I have been telling you..
Mr. MUNDT. That was in 1937?
Mr. CHAMBERS. That was in 1939 about 2 days after the Hitler-Stalin pact..
Mr. NIXON. When you saw Mr. Berle then did you discuss generally the people that were in Government, or did you name specific names?
Mr. CHAMBERS. I named specific names, Mr. Hiss among others...
Mr. NIXON. Mr. Chambers, were you informed of any action that was taken
as a result of your report to the Government that time?
Mr. CHAMBERS. No; I was not. I assumed that action would be taken right away which was, of course, rather naive of me; and it wasn't until a great deal later that I discovered apparently nothing had been done.
Mr. NIXON. It is significant, I think, that the report was made 2 days after the Stalin-Hitler pact at the time, in other words, when we could not say by any stretch of the imagination that the Russians were our allies; and yet, apparently, no action was taken.
Mr. CHAMBERS. Well, we are here in an area of government which I am not qualified to talk about.
Mr. RANKIN. What is that?
Mr. CHAMBERS. We are here in an area of government policies I am not qualified to talk about.
Mr. NIXON. I understand.
Obviously, someone in the Roosevelt government had some answering to do, and that someone was Adolf A. Berle, Jr. The Democrat from Louisiana, F. Edward Hebert, turned the spotlight on Berle:
Mr. HEBERT. What was Mr. Berle's attitude when you turned this
information over to him?
Mr. CHAMBERS. Considerable excitement.
Mr. HEBERT. What did he tell you?
Mr. CHAMBERS. I don't know that he made any very sensational comment, but he said among other things that I absolutely have to have a clean Government service because we are faced with the prospect of war. I am paraphrasing that. That is not an exact quotation.
Mr. HEBERT. In view of the statements of Mr. Chambers at this time may I suggest that this committee invite Mr. Berle to come here so we can get the background and also corroborate this testimony. I think it is most important that every chain be linked with the other chain in this situation.
On August 30, 1948, Berle appeared before a closed session, not of the entire committee, but of a subcommittee of the House Un-American Activities Committee. One would expect that he, as a man of politics, would do everything he could to lessen the embarrassment that the revelations of August 3 had caused the Democratic administration. The best way to do that would be to play down the importance of what had been revealed nine years before. Here, for the reader to judge for himself how well Berle performed his chore, is the report of the "newspaper of record" on the next day:
New York Times, August 31, 1948, p. 4
Berle Testifies in Chambers Case
Tells of '39 Check on Chambers that Hiss Brothers Were Communist Sympathizers
Adolf A. Berle, Jr., former Assistant Secretary of State, told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities yesterday that he had taken every action that seemed warranted in 1939 after Whittaker Chambers had come to him with a story of Communist intrigue in Government circles.
Mr. Berle, who spent 50 minutes behind the closed door of the hearing room in the Federal Building here, told reporters that he had taken all measures available to him to check Mr. Chambers' story and had given it consideration, along with many other factors, in his work in the State Department toward strengthening national security.
The story related in 1939 by the Mr. Chambers, self-described former Communist, was weaker in several respects than the charges Mr. Chambers is unfolding now before the House Committee, Mr. Berle said.
Mr. Chambers' story of nine years ago, said Mr. Berle, did not paint Alger and Donald Hiss, who were at that time State Department employes (sic), as Communist party members, but pictured them as having been Communist "sympathizers" two years earlier. In recent testimony Mr. Chambers has pictured the Hiss brothers, Nathan Witt, former National Labor Relations Board aide, and others, as having been members of a Communist party underground set up for the purpose of infiltrating the Federal Government.
Idea of Menace Decried
"The idea that the two Hiss boys and Nat Witt were going to take over the United States Government was childish," remarked Berle. Mr. Berle, who appeared before the subcommittee as a voluntary witness, was described by Representative John McDowell, Pennsylvania Republican, as "a vigorous anti-Communist." He is now New York State chairman of the Liberal Party.
One thing that made it difficult to bring into the open the conditions alleged by Mr. Chambers in 1939, Mr. Berle said, was the fact that Mr. Chambers was unwilling at that time to make his accusations public or to face the persons he called Communists or Communist sympathizers.
Mr. Berle said there were many things in 1939, among them the Hitler-Stalin pact, that made the State Department press for national security measures, including the foreign agents registration act. He was aware of the existence of and the need to guard against infiltration by foreign ideologies, Mr. Berle said.
"I've been in the New York City Government and I didn't need Chambers to tell me there was such a thing as a Communist apparatus," declared Mr. Berle, who had been City Chamberlain (an office since supplanted by that of City Treasurer) from Jan. 1, 1934 through the end of 1937.
Mr. Berle said that Isaac Don Levine, an anti-Communist writer, had sought to bring Mr. Chambers' early tale to the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and had been referred to Mr. Berle by the late Marvin H. McIntyre, the President's secretary. Mr. Berle said that Mr. Chambers, now a senior editor of Time Magazine, had impressed him then as "a sincere man who had been through a severe emotional experience."
Says Both Had "Good Records"
On the basis of Mr. Chambers' story, said Mr. Berle, he checked on the Hiss brothers and found they had "good records." The check up was not only in the State Department where Alger and Donald Hiss then had "minor jobs," but among Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, where the brothers had worked previously. A check was made also with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which already knew all about Mr. Chambers' allegations, Mr. Berle recalled.
Explaining that no further action on the Hiss brothers was warranted on the basis of what Mr. Chambers offered in 1939, Mr. Berle said:
"In Washington we didn't file charges just because someone said, "Don't mention my name, but ***.' What we did was check the record and we ascertained that this material was in the hands of the FBI."
Answering a question by a reporter, Mr. Berle said he did not report to President Roosevelt on Mr. Chambers' story.
"You didn't go to the President with reports that were relatively so unsubstantiated as that," he said. "There was nothing offered by Mr. Chambers to back up his story."
Mr. Berle said that Dean Acheson, who later became Under-Secretary of State, had known the Hiss brothers from their childhood and gave a good report on them.
"As far as records go, they had as good records as you could get," he said.
Mr. Berle said that only about fifteen minutes of the time he was in the subcommittee's closed session had been spent on discussion of Mr. Chambers' story, and the rest of the time had been devoted to more general discussion. Mr. McDowell said later that Mr. Berle's testimony had been "extremely helpful."
That's a pretty good job of minimizing, wouldn't you say? All Chambers had was an uncorroborated "tale" or "story" about some supposed Communist "sympathizers" in the government. Even though it didn't really amount to anything, the FBI had somehow found it significant enough to know all about it. It was much too trivial to tell the President about it, of course.
You really have to wonder if Berle might have peddled the Brooklyn Bridge to an unsuspecting tourist or two when he had that New York City chamberlain job. What Chambers described in considerable detail that night was nothing less than a Soviet spy ring, if he and the other person who was there that night, Isaac Don Levine, and Berle's own memorandum which later came to light are to be believed.
If what Levine related in his 1973 book, Eyewitness to History, is true--and he has no apparent reason to lie about it--it is also not true that Berle neglected to pass the information on to the President:
When I called on Berle a couple of weeks later, he indicated to me that the President had given him the cold shoulder after hearing his account of the Chambers disclosures. Although I learned later, from two different sources who had social relations with Berle, that Roosevelt, in effect, had told him to "go jump in a lake" upon the suggestion of a probe into the Chambers charges, I do not recall hearing that exact phrase from Berle. To the best of my recollection, the President dismissed the matter rather brusquely with an expletive remark on this order: "Oh, forget it, Adolf." (pp. 197-198)
If the FBI already knew about the spy ring, it was news to Chambers. Had they been following the ring's activities, they would surely have known that Chambers had defected from the Communists and they would have made contact with him, but they had not. The spy ring also apparently continued to operate with impunity for years afterward.
Berle also raised a red herring with his talk of not having been given enough information by Chambers to bring indictments. Of course he wasn't, and it's quite clear that neither Chambers nor Levine expected indictments to come out of that one meeting. What they expected would be that the spying allegations would be addressed in the usual way. That is, the people whom Chambers had named would have been put under surveillance, but probably not before Chambers was questioned further in great detail by trained counter-intelligence agents. The fact that none of this happened gives great credibility to Levine's account that the would-be investigation was strangled in its crib at the very top, that is, by the President, himself.
The fact that the problem was with FDR is further corroborated by the fact that, as we have previously noted, Levine later took Chambers's revelations to a number of other people close to the President, and still nothing happened. At least one of them, the journalist, Walter Winchell, reported getting the same sort of brush-off from Roosevelt that Berle (as recounted by Levine) got.
It may not be too great an exaggeration to say that a direct result of this huge missed opportunity by the President was that Soviet espionage continued apace in the United States and in Britain, the Soviet Union got the atomic bomb perhaps a decade or so earlier than they might have otherwise, and the big winner in World War II was the Soviet Union, while the biggest losers were the people of Eastern Europe, China, Korea, and what was then known as Indo-China. Had the president of the United States taken the appropriate steps to counter the Soviet spying, and had he learned from it what Stalin's Soviet Communism was all about, the history of the world could have been very, very different.
Why he did not do so is really the fundamental question that needs to be asked. Maybe avoiding coming to grips with that question is what HUAC and The New York Times and the rest of the mainstream media and historians in the main to this day were and are all about when Berle's dismissal of those 1939 revelations was allowed to close off that avenue of inquiry. Adolf Berle's "comforting, comfortable lies" were much to be preferred to what might have been discovered from pursuit of the truth. Instead, serving as something of a distraction in much the same way that the Monica Lewinsky matter served as a distraction from more serious scandals in the Bill Clinton administration, the question of whether or not Alger Hiss was a Communist became the big issue of the day.
What would have been uncovered if the proper avenue of inquiry had been pursued in 1948? Might such an investigation also have explained why the United States went so far overboard in aiding the Soviet Union as an ally during World War II, and why we were so generous to them at Yalta?
In a recent article entitled "Red Ghosts Haunt Eastern Europe," the Canadian journalist, Eric Margolis, suggests where the trail might lead:
KGB and Soviet military intelligence, GRU, were everywhere. For example, KGB general Pavel Sudoplatov, who organized Trotsky’s murder, even claimed GRU and KGB had three agents in President Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime White House. The late French Socialist Defense Minister, Charles Hernu, was exposed in 1996 as a longtime KGB agent. So effective was KGB that western intelligence for a time feared that the prime ministers of Britain and Canada, and the chancellor of West Germany, might be enemy sleeper agents.
This sinister stuff is really not the sort of thing that Americans like to contemplate. It's so much more soothing and satisfying to dismiss it all as "conspiracy theory."
David Martin, January 27, 2007
Concerning Adolf Berle's suggestion that he checked forthwith with the FBI and found that they already knew all about the spy ring that Whittaker Chambers had told him about, we have this passage from the 1998 book, Whittaker Chambers, a Biography, by Sam Tanenhaus:
In fact Berle had been looking out for Chambers. As early as March 1940 he had prodded the FBI to follow up on Berle's own interview of September 1939. After [Soviet defector Walter] Krivitsky's [February 1941] death Berle again contacted the bureau and offered to share his copious notes. But the FBI, preoccupied with Nazi spies, was not interested in the Communist underground, and Berle's messages sat unread in the files. It was two years before FBI agents came to Chambers's office to interview him. To his surprise, they seemed unaware of the disclosures he had made to Berle. Chambers phoned Berle on the spot and asked if it was all right for him to speak to the FBI. Berle assured him it was. But Chambers, suspicions aroused, proceeded to give so hedged a confession that the bureau dismissed it all as "history, hypothesis, or deduction." (pp. 169-170)
And, we may conclude, the Soviet spying went on. Just as interesting is the endnote accompanying the passage:
The bureau decided to interview WC after hearing about him from a number of journalists, including Ludwig Lore, American Mercury editor Eugene Lyons, Victor Riesel of the New Leader, and Will Allen of the Washington Daily News." (p. 559)
The references given by Tanenhaus are various FBI files.
January 28, 2007