Stephen W. Salant, professor of economics at University of Michigan, is the creator of Successful Strategic Deception: A Case Study, recently published by SPO. The project features a new analysis of the controversial case against Alger Hiss, a U.S. State Department official suspected of spying for the Soviet Union, and ultimately convicted of perjury in 1950. Professor Salant shared with us the history of his work on this case, and his perspective on how his research differs from other publications on this topic.
1. How did you get interested in the Hiss case?
I wrote a term paper on the case in my senior year of high school. Ever since, I have been trying to figure out what must have happened to produce what is known about the case. Others have advanced their own theories. But for every previous theory, there are facts clearly inconsistent with it.
After high school, I went to college and then to graduate school in economics. In a succession of jobs, I published articles in applied microeconomic theory. But there was never pressure to publish my Hiss case research.
I did keep my hand in. During the 1970s I tracked down the “pumpkin microfilms” that Hiss and others thought were locked in Congressional files. I sued successfully under the Freedom of Information Act to get public access to the films. Hiss and other interested parties joined me. I also published an occasional note on other people’s research and taught a course on the Hiss case through our Residential College.
But I did not need to publish my own research on the case to advance professionally and that gave me the luxury of waiting until I had something significant to say.
2. How does your focus differ from other works on the case?
Most books and articles on the Hiss case address the question of his guilt or innocence. To do so, they cover the two trials, the relationship between Hiss and his accuser, Whittaker Chambers, before they parted company in the late 1930s, and recent disclosures that may bear on the Hiss from the Soviet Archives and the Venona transcripts. The most heavily used source is the FBI investigative files on the Hiss case.
My interest is in the pursuit of Hiss by U.S. counterintelligence. I discuss Chambers very little and focus on the years before the trials. My main subject is Horace Schmahl, the person who became Chief Investigator “helping” the Hiss lawyers prepare for trial.
Schmahl’s various assignments led me to suspect he worked for Military Intelligence. When I tracked down his St. Louis personnel records and records from the Military Intelligence Training Center, it became clear that Schmahl was an Army spy-catcher (as they used to call themselves), a Special Agent in the Counter Intelligence Corps. Early in the 1940s, he worked under cover against Adam Kunze, who was suspected of helping the Nazis. Later, he worked under cover against Hiss, who was suspected of helping the Soviets.
Like other students of the Hiss case, I had never even heard of the Counter Intelligence Corps. Books on the Corps (among them, its own massive official history) and the memoirs and work product of surviving agents confirm that during the 1940s the Corps was actively pursuing suspected Nazi and then Soviet spies on the home front. This is surprising for two reasons: under a delimitation agreement, only the FBI was supposed to investigate civilians within the U.S. In addition, the Corps’ excessive zeal in pursuing Communists had led President Roosevelt to expel them from the U.S. Nonetheless, some remained and others resumed surveillance activities the moment Roosevelt died.
I then set out to learn as much as I could about the training and surveillance activities of these agents. It turns out that their training at Camp Ritchie included lectures about forgery techniques, tracing documents to typerwriters, etc. Military Intelligence had vast experience with forgeries during the war since it had to create bogus documentation to support the cover stories of agents behind enemy lines.
My contribution in this research is to show that someone from this very organization, Military Intelligence, was involved surreptitiously in the Hiss case and to point out to students of Cold War espionage cases that the Corps’s activities on the home front merit their attention.
3. Was Hiss guilty?
I don’t know. U.S. counterintelligence was convinced he was and may have been right. But even now we don’t know the basis for their conclusion. The concern seems to have been that Hiss was providing Soviet Military Intelligence with military information as late as 1945, not that he may have given State Department documents to Chambers in the late 1930s. I’m in no position to judge whether these concerns were justified. However, in counterintelligence work, mistakes are common. Take the search at the CIA and FBI for the Soviet mole. At the CIA, James Angleton suspected a succession of innocent CIA agents and ruined their careers without ever finding the mole. Over at the FBI, the search for the Soviet mole was led for a while by Robert Hanssen himself (the actual mole).
4. Allen Weinstein’s Perjury is regarded as the definitive history of the Hiss case. Did he not address the topics you cover or did he reach different conclusions about them?
Weinstein does discuss Schmahl but regards him as a garden-variety private investigator. He never penetrates Schmahl’s cover story, presumably because he never looked beyond the FBI files on the Hiss case. He never found summaries of Schmahl’s St. Louis personnel record or other records identifying him as an elite Army spy-catcher and therefore never double-checked, as I did, that Schmahl had graduated from the Military Intelligence Training Center (Camp Ritchie).
Consequently, he never asks himself why an Army spy-catcher would penetrate Hiss’s legal team even though Chambers had been insisting for nearly a decade that Hiss was not one of his espionage sources and had never given him any documents. Was Schmahl psychic and knew that Chambers was about to remember that he had squirreled away a set of typed spy documents that would incriminate Hiss? Weinstein never ponders how remarkable it is that forensic experts would eventually raise questions about forgery although they were unaware that typed forgery was even possible, unaware that Military Intelligence was proficient at it, and unaware an undercover Army spy-catcher had penetrated Hiss’s legal team even before Chambers first accused him of spying.
Not realizing that Schmahl was a spy-catcher, Weinstein never addresses the larger question about the domestic surveillance conducted by the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps during the 1940s, the forerunner of the massive illegal surveillance activities of this same group during the Vietnam War investigated by Senator Frank Church and his Senate Committee. If Weinstein had, he might have pursued the claim in the Corps’s own official history “that the information acquired by CIC from May 1941 to September 1945 regarding communism and its adherents played a major part in keeping communism under control in the United States ever since.”
A German-American named Adam Kunze was an early counterintelligence target of Schmahl. Weinstein does discuss Kunze but doubts allegations that he and his wife were pro-Nazi–in part because, through two editions of Perjury, Weinstein mixes up Kunze’s wife (the actress Caroline Meade, who likened Adolph Hitler to Jesus Christ) with his sister-in-law (Bessie Meade). Weinstein acts as if his only source of information is the FBI files on the Hiss case. He apparently reviewed neither the popular press nor the investigative files on the Kunzes, who were recommended in January 1943 for exclusion from the Eastern Military area as security threats. Weinstein fails to recognize that U.S. counterintelligence had been monitoring Kunze, which explains Schmahl’s involvement.
The private investigator who warned the Hiss defense in the early 1960s that Schmahl had been working for the government while serving as Hiss’s Chief Investigator is briefly discussed by Weinstein. Harold Bretnall told Hiss’s lawyers that he was helping in the pre-trial investigation but when he realized that his colleague Schmahl was a double agent, he withdrew from the case. Weinstein refers to Bretnall as “an elusive figure” and says “his supposed allegations were unsupported by any documentation.” Bretnall was not elusive; he continued as a private investigator until his death. Successful Strategic Deception: A Case Study contains references to his subsequent investigative work as well as his obituary. Since this information did not come from the FBI’s Hiss case file, Weinstein did not find it. As for the absence of documentation of Bretnall’s “supposed allegations,” Weinstein evidently did not notice the headlines of the New York Times during the spring of 1949 indicating that Bretnall and Schmahl both worked in the same office at the same time, and therefore Bretnall was as well-positioned as anyone to know whether Schmahl was helping the government while being paid by the Hiss defense. And, of course, government files opened a decade or more after Bretnall’s tip support his contention. The FBI files even indicate that Schmahl told the Bureau less than two months after the Hiss defense hired him that he was actually working for Military Intelligence. Is this not documentation of Bretnall’s allegations?
5. Do you agree with Weinstein’s conclusion that the typewriter exhibited at the trials was Hiss’s machine?
No, and I don’t see how anyone does.
The Hiss defense concluded after Hiss went to jail that the typewriter exhibited at the trial was not Hiss’s machine. It turns out that the FBI had reached the same conclusion before the first trial but said nothing.
Both the purchaser and the salesman agreed that the sale occurred before the salesman retired and, according to its serial number, the machine in court was manufactured at least a half year after his retirement. If this was not Hiss’s machine, then one has to ask why experts could not distinguish typing from the two typewriters. This is perhaps the central mystery of the case. Everyone expressing any view about the Hiss case should be asked first thing how he explains this puzzle.
If there were two different typewriters with indistinguishable typing, there must have been foul play. According to the defense expert in Hiss’s motion for a new trial, the trial exhibit had been altered to type like his machine. The evidence? A close examination of the trial exhibit revealed tool markings, excessive soldering, and other signs it had been altered outside the factory—unlike any other typewriter of the same brand and vintage in the inventory assembled by Hiss’s expert for the purpose of comparison. The guy that did this examination, a Harvard Ph.D. who had studied spectroscopy at MIT, was the Director of Chemical Research at a company that had been frequently utilized by the U.S. Armed Forces because of its painstaking forensic analyses. I am impressed that he thought to assemble a “control group” of machines so that he could ask whether the trial exhibit reflected more than normal wear and tear.
Weinstein believes, to the contrary, that the trial exhibit was Hiss’s machine, which would explain why experts could not distinguish their typing. He arrives at this conclusion by hypothesizing that the typewriter salesman (1) retired from his company, (2) stole a machine one half year later from his former employer, and (3) sold the machine to the partner of Hiss’s father-in-law. The salesman insisted to the FBI that he sold no machines after retiring, so under Weinstein’s theory, (4) the salesman is not only a thief and a disloyal ex-employee but also a liar. Weinstein’s evidence? Virtually none—but the salesman was dead and couldn’t sue Weinstein for libel (as others have). Weinstein’s theory is not merely far-fetched. It doesn’t explain all the facts. What explains the tool markings, excessive solder, and extensive signs of alteration outside the factory that Hiss’s expert noted on the trial exhibit but no other machine of the same brand and vintage? Weinstein deals with this point by never mentioning this expert and his conclusions.
Either one believes Weinstein’s far-fetched theory about the lying, stealing, disloyal salesman or one must accept that there were two distinct machines–one with signs of extensive alteration–which produced indistinguishable typewriting. In denying Hiss’s motion for a new trial, the judge noted that it was inconceivable that Chambers had the expertise and resources to have forged trial evidence and furthermore he would not have known where to position it. I wonder if the judge would have ruled differently if he had known that Military Intelligence was proficient at forgery and that one of its elite spy-catchers, masquerading as Chief Investigator for the defense, had been initially responsible for the search for Hiss’s typewriter.
6. What do you hope happens as a result of your research?
First, I hope the Army releases unredacted all files pertaining to Alger Hiss (investigative, operational, etc.) including all of those in which Horace Schmahl was involved, and I hope the CIA does as well. Currently the Army’s IRR file on Alger Hiss at the National Archives consists almost entirely of newspaper clippings, whereas files on lower level suspects contain reams of Army-generated reports. More than half a century has elapsed since these investigations and operations occurred, and the Soviet Union has collapsed. What possible national security justification does our government have for withholding this information from the American public?
Second, I hope some young, energetic researchers with training more appropriate than mine for this project review my preliminary findings critically in light of these additional files, correct my mistakes, extend my insights, and reach their own conclusions. I look forward to reading what they learn.