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The 'True Story' of Hiss

SEEDS OF TREASON: The True Story of the Hiss-Chambers Tragedy, by Ralph de Toledano and Victor Lasky, Funk & Wagnalls, 270 pp, $3.50.

By John G. Simon

The subtitle of this book is misleading. Messrs. Lasky and do Toledano call their book "The True Story of the Hiss-Chambers Tragedy" and thus imply that they are offering the readers the fruits of a careful and deliberate search for the truth of the highly controversial Alger Hiss case.

But the authors (both veteran newsmen) have failed to meet the minimum standards of a search for the truth. The first half of the book--dealing with the pre-1948 activities of Hiss and Chambers--falls down for the simple reason that the authority for most of the information is one man: Whittaker Chambers. A Federal jury in New York accepted Chambers' testimony in convicting Hiss of perjury; this writer does not challenge the verdict. But the jury's decision does not mean that one must accept on faith every statement that Chambers had made in and out of court.

Consider, for instance, this dramatic scene from "Seeds of Treason," which, the authors say, took place after Chambers' break with Communism:

As they stood at the door (of Hiss's house), this irony must have struck Hiss.

"What kind of Christmas will you have?" he asked, less the self-righteous commissar and more the human being.

"Not too good, I'm afraid," said Chambers.

"Wait a minute," Hiss said, leaving him but returning a few minutes later to hand over a miniature rolling pin. "For your little girl," he said.

Chambers thrust it in his pocket, too shocked by the meanness of the gift to say a word. Good enough for a renegade's daughter? he thought.

"You won't break with the Party, then?"

"No," said Hiss, but there were tears in his eyes. "Good-bye."

"Good-bye," said Chambers walking out of his friend's house for the last time. At home he pulled the little toy out of his pocket and looked at it. Then he threw it in the furnace.

Chambers, and Chambers alone, says this is what happened 12 years ago; the reader must judge its validity by intuition alone. Yet this conversation--and dozens of others like it--are baldly represented as "The True Story." The second half of the book covers the proceedings before the House Un American Activities Committee in 1948 and in the New York trials in 1949-1950. The author's failure here is a different one: in their desire to keep the book to size they have had to omit material, but their omissions have not been judicious. For example, seven pages are allotted to copious quotation of prosecutor Tom Murphy's summation, in the first trial. Defense attorney Lloyd Paul Stryker made some significant point in his summation, too, but one can not tell this from the single page the authors have allotted to Stryker's speech.

The writers criticize both the professional techniques and the politics of Dr. Henry A. Murray, but they fail to report adequately his psychiatric testimony in the second Hiss trial.

In short "Seeds of Treason" is not a satisfactory history; it is rather brief for the prosecution. The authors, like many others, believe Hiss a villain, Chambers a saviour. Other reporters, other spectators believe Hiss is the hero and Chambers is the devil. It is highly unlikely that there is a member of either extremist faction emotionally suited to record the Hiss-Chambers mess in the cool, balanced way that history demands

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