As if it were not complicated enough in itself, the Hiss-Chambers case had become a legal three-ring circus.
In the first ring was the House Un-American Activities Committee, which opened the case last summer when it subpoenaed Whittaker Chambers, heard him confess his past complicity and charge that Alger Hiss had also been a Communist.
After weeks of examining witnesses, the committee had more or less dropped the case, without having developed sufficient evidence to prove whether Hiss or Chambers was lying. But Alger Hiss did not drop the case. After Chambers repeated his charges over radio's Meet the Press program, Hiss filed a $75,000 libel suit against Chambers in Baltimore's Federal Court. This was the second ring.
In the third ring was a New York federal grand jury, sworn in 18 months ago to investigate spies and subversive activities.* It had paid little attention to the Hiss-Chambers case, although it had heard testimony from both men last summer. After Chambers had produced the stolen State Department documents and after the House committee had obtained the "pumpkin papers," the grand jury moved in rapidly. On orders from Attorney General Tom Clark, U.S. Attorney John F. X. McGohey summoned Chambers and Hiss again, along with Hiss's wife, his brother, and a parade of other witnesses and new suspects.
The Nub of the Matter. The grand jury and the House committee each truculently proclaimed its authority, competed for witnesses. Committeeman Richard Nixon said angrily that a whitewashing was in the making in the grand jury.
But the public had a right to think that the case was getting somewhere, that it was now in appropriate hands. Everyone could hope and expect that the case would be tried and decided by due process of law and the first step in that process was action by the grand jury.
Beyond any shadow of doubt was one fact: that documents* had been systematically stolen from the State Department. By whom? And for how long? Over & above the questions of Chambers' truthfulness and Hiss's innocence or guilt loomed the still dark answers to these larger questions.
"Holy Cow!" At week's end new light had been thrown into some murky corners.
One witness who appeared before the House committee was Nathan Levine, a New York attorney and a nephew of Mrs. Chambers, who said he had been the innocent custodian of the papers for the past ten years. In 1938, he said, Chambers had given him a large manila envelope to keep, instructing him to open it if anything happened to Chambers and his wife. "You are a lawyer, and will know what to do," Chambers had said.
One day last month, Levine continued, he received a telegram from Chambers: "Arriving Sunday at 10 o'clock. Have my things ready." Levine said he was not sure what Chambers meant. When Chambers arrived, he reminded Levine of the envelope. Together they went to Levine's mother's house at 260 Rochester Avenue, Brooklyn, where Levine had hidden the envelope on top of an unused dumbwaiter shaft. Levine testified that Chambers blew the dust off the envelope, opened it, glanced at the contents and exclaimed: "Holy cow! I didn't think this still existed." Chambers then took the envelope back to his Maryland farm.